We all have been depressed.
Heck, it’s one of the five stages of grief, right after bargaining with the devil for your soul, or something like that. It’s a place none of us enjoy, but it is necessary to move through it on our journey. Can you imagine being trapped there? Yes, you have days, sometimes weeks, where you escape it for a shining moment, but it is always there, dragging you back down. It is a destructive force like a black hole. Drugs and therapy help keep you above water sometimes, but not always, and there is no cure. Just a constant distorted rollercoaster.
Metaphors notwithstanding, depression is an illness. It differs from epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, cancer, and every other illness and disease only in that far too many people do not recognize it as a an illness. But, it wreaks the same havoc on the person and on their friends and family.
I am in love with an amazing woman who has depression.
Before I met the Gardening Beauty, she had attempted suicide. Twice. For some men, that would be a signal to turn and run away. Even today, when her depression is really challenging her, she reminds me I don’t have to stay. But I do, because I am in love with her.
Why didn’t it scare me? Well, it did, a bit. But, I have a caretaker personality, and she is an amazing cook, so my personality and stomach made the decision. No. That’s not completely true. Seriously, I can’t answer why it didn’t scare me off. It just didn’t.
Since meeting her, I have learned and experienced so much about depression. Have you ever heard some of the various tips people give for getting over depression (as if that were even a possibility)? They include: “Just watch a funny movie”, “Think happy thoughts”, “Snap out of it”, “Think of all the good things you have”, “Stop thinking about everything and just enjoy”. [In fairness, one or two of those may or may not have been uttered by me.] Some of these are well-meaning, but they are meaningless. COMPLETELY. MEANINGLESS. You might as well tell someone having a seizure, “Just hold yourself still!” Or declare that all one needs to do to be cured of cancer is “Think the tumor away!” Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet, these suggestions are heard over and over and over by those who deal with clinically diagnosed depression.
One thing she says to me is, “I know that’s what you meant, but this is how I feel.” I never really understood that until the light went on today. While intention is important, sometimes, perception overrules it. It’s not that her perception is wrong or invalid, it’s just very important in how she reacts to something. She admits that the intention of someone can make a difference, but often, it relies more on how she perceives it. And when her mind starts working against her, it can end up in a very ugly place. That doesn’t mean people who know her need to walk on eggshells around her. It means that she needs them to understand what she feels, to accept that her perception is a valid as their intent, that her feelings are as valid as their feelings. That must be one of the most infuriating, most hopeless challenges of depression – lack of understanding.
You can’t see the damage. You have to listen close to hear the calls for help. You have to make an effort to understand something so debilitating that it will literally keep someone in bed all day. There is no telethon for it, no one holds bake sales to help someone pay for their therapy or drugs, hell, you are lucky if someone just takes the time to ask you what they can do to help.
Every single person who is diagnosed with depression experiences it differently. You may have a relative or friend with depression, and something may have worked for them, may have helped them manage their illness, but there is no guarantee it will work for someone else. Every person has their own triggers. One of the most insidious triggers for the Gardening Beauty is the implied “but”. You can tell her the most amazing thing about herself, give her the most incredible and well-deserved compliment, but she may hear an implied “but”. She says it stems from her childhood and the overwhelming feeling that she had to be perfect. She remembers going two weeks without a spanking at one point, but what stays with her is the sense of failure when she could not avoid it longer. Rather than blaming her father for his ignorant and damaging use of corporal punishment, she blames herself for not being perfect enough. That feeling and fear of being less than perfect permeates her response to everything. When she takes over a project, sooner or later her drive for perfection and her fear of failure take hold. Then, she feels unworthy, unmotivated, insignificant. People interpret that as her giving up, and it is, but not in the manner they suspect. She gives up on herself.
It is a challenge for her to accept criticism without taking it personally, especially when she has invested herself in something, because experience has taught her that way. For example, she obviously adores gardening, and she is incredibly knowledgeable. She is willing to admit when she doesn’t know something or when she is wrong, but that does not happen too often. It is her passion, and she comes alive when discussing it and doing it. This summer, she had a rotator cuff injury. It limited what she was able to do, and the garden took a little step back. For someone who does not experience depression, you do what you can and pick up and move forward. For her, she lost her motivation. Then, as the vegetables began to over-ripen on the vine, it overwhelmed her to even look at them, because she felt she had failed. The flowers she had lovingly planted no longer gave her joy. “What’s the use? I screwed up.” Her mind did its damndest to work against her. The only thing I can do is try to offer coping strategies. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The one I have stumbled upon that seems to give some relief is asking her to make a list that we both can tackle. Small things, small steps to offer some light, to lift the haze.
It is challenging for me, and I love her. It must be doubly challenging for people who are not closely invested in her well-being. But it does not hurt any less when they lose patience with her, or when they dismiss her out of frustration or ignorance. What I dread is when someone makes assumptions about her, believes that because she has never been formally trained that her opinion holds little weight, or that even though she has dared to take the lead in a project, slowly and surreptitiously remove her responsibility because some days are challenging for her. Being with her, loving her, working with her, takes patience, boat loads of patience sometimes. Some days, my patience admittedly runs damn near empty. We struggle together on those days. Together. We sometimes yell at each other, cry, get frustrated, but we work together. It pains me to watch others abandon her, turn on her, or refuse to take the time to understand her. Sadly, that happens to everyone who faces a debilitating illness. Some people are not equipped to deal with it.
“Why are you with her?”
It’s a question no one has asked me outright, but I am sure has crossed the minds of those who know us. I love her. She adds more to my life than I do to hers. Her kindness, generosity, love for nature, open and giving heart, and her wickedly twisted sense of humor all give me reason to get up and do what I do every day. She is a talented cook, has a fantastic eye for design, she’s opinionated, honest, infuriating, flawed, clever, and full of more confidence than you might expect. Some days I like her, some days I don’t, but I love her everyday. She just happens to be diagnosed with depression. It is not who she is, it does not define her, but it is a part of her that needs to be understood. I hope that I understand more days than I don’t.