#21

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

I am on a blanket, near an oak tree, in the middle of a field of wild grasses and violet and pink flowers. I stare up at the blue sky, making animal shapes out of clouds. I see an elephant leading a cat in a parade. I see a horse sliding down a water slide.

A warm breeze ruffles the ends of my hair, lifts the edges of my clothes, it tickles my naked toes.

Then, a chill raises the hairs on my arms and at the back of my neck. My eyes are closed. I open them.

The sky above me is black. The wind drags the elephant, the cat, and the horse across the blackness and blends them. They move in a circle, on an invisible track, churning, churning, churning, until there is nothing left.

The center of the sky moves faster than its edges, and it points and begins to fall towards me, drawing the rest of the clouds with it. A funnel forms, gathering wind, plucking leaves off the oak tree in the field, tearing at roots, ripping up grasses. I try to stand. I try to run. I throw my fists into the wind, but I can’t escape it.

The funnel picks me up, wraps me within its chaos and violence.

I can’t see inside. I can’t see out. I can’t smell or taste. I can’t hear anything but the howl and roar of the storm. I can’t feel anything but the pressure of the wind, squeezing me, suffocating me, trying to crush me.

I don’t know where I’m going or how long I’ll be held captive within the storm. I can’t think, I can only absorb, I can only hope to survive it—this time.

I should have seen it coming. Wasn’t I watching the sky? Hadn’t I been monitoring the clouds? Hadn’t I felt the wind in my hair, on my toes? Why hadn’t I known a tornado was coming?

I should know the warning signs. I’ve been through this storm before, thousands of times, millions of times! I know the signs, don’t I?

In the center of the storm, there is nothing to hold on to—no safety bar, a railing, or a rope to grasp. The storm binds me and spins, and I am unable to do anything but remain held.

After a while, I never know how long or how short, the funnel begins to slow. The winds die down. It uncurls, unravels, piece by piece, spinning away from me, loosening its grasp, first from my arms and then from my feet.

I am falling back to the ground—turning upside down and then right-side up. I’m back on my blanket in the middle of the field, in the middle of my regular life once again. My eyes are open, and my brain is aware, although a little dazed. I am here. I am alive. I survived.

*

To me, the aftermath of depression looks like Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World.” I see Christian clawing her way back home, to her regular life, after having survived a stint of deep depression.

The scene I’ve written above is a depiction of what depression feels like to me while experiencing a bout.  In the name of May’s National Mental Health Month, I decided to write about my depression. It is what it is, and I’m learning how to use it.

It’s hard to describe depression. The real experts, anyone who experiences depression firsthand, can explain it differently from each other and even differently from attack to attack.

I have had profound sadness my entire life. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned the term for it was depression. Everything about depression seems hopeless, even its name! Depression—a lacking, a lagging, it is melancholy, an emotional deficit disorder.

I used to be terrified of depression, seeing it as menacing and coming out of nowhere, like an all-encompassing threat. I have done everything I can think of to rid myself of this terrible thing. I’ve taken every class of pill, I’ve had twenty-plus years of therapy, I’ve spent time in a facility, I’ve even had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but I still have depression, and I probably always will.

It used to be that I would wait for depression to ascend on me. I was afraid of it and was always ready to fight it off. However, the more I fought it, the worse it got. It wasn’t until I decided to give in, to accept that this darkness inside me is here to stay, that I began to see it differently.

I learned the triggers that map out when it might hit me next and discovered ways to navigate around them the best I can. It’s not foolproof, but it has helped.

And then, a few years ago, I had a radical thought. Depression is a natural part of me (if I’ve always had it, then it must be, right?)

I decided to look at my depression as something about me that, for some reason, I had, and that for some reason, I needed.  Here’s what I came up with:

On any regular day, I am going a million miles an hour. Thoughts inside my brain (thanks to my diagnosed ADHD–attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), sprint from point to point, running, running, running without stop.

This creates high anxiety because if you’re always on the run, it’s going to stress you out! However, when a bout of depression hits me, I stop. I cannot continue going. I have to sleep. I have to sit and breathe and do nothing else.  I can’t do anything else.

So, could my depression be mechanical, a natural circuit breaker to prevent a power overload–stopping me before I run myself over the edge? I’ve decided that it could be! I’ve decided to use it as such.

Instead of identifying what might have triggered me senseless (because I usually know what it was in hindsight), I put my energy into focusing on what positive thing my depression could give me once it passes. Instead of fighting it, I let it fall over me, and I let it take over.  I wait. It always passes. I always, always come back around.

Another thing I’ve discovered with using depression as a benefit rather than a scourge is that when I’m terribly sad, I feel everything—my heart breaks. I cry. On any other day, I’m moving forward so quickly that I don’t feel anything. I am numb, almost completely, trying to get the next task done and moving on to another. Emotionally, I’m lost. Emotionally, I’m a robot!

With depression, I get a reset button—my perspective changes. I see things differently in the dark than I do in the bright light of day. And I discovered that some beautiful things grow in the dark.

Once upon a time, about eighty years ago, I think my depression would have landed me in a State Hospital with “inmate” or “insane” next to my name on file. Despite all the negative things associated with depression, I wonder if I was wrong to try and eradicate it from my DNA?  Perhaps there is something helpful about this thing that is seen as destructive and holding little value?

Think about it! Once upon a time, natural forest fires were misunderstood, doused out as soon as possible. Nobody thought of fire as being a natural way for something better to grow out of its ashes.

I wonder if a new label or a new set of characteristics associated with depression is all people who have it need? What if people stopped feeling ashamed about having depression and accepted it? What if you were to embrace your darkness?

I’m not saying that one with depression should accept it one hundred percent and get off their medications. I don’t advocate firing your shrink or escaping the mental care facility (if that’s where you are now) to embrace your sadness fully.

What I’m saying is, maybe there is something that could be gained from your depression, something positive, something less scary? What if you decided to look at what having depression means to you? What can depression help you understand about the world? What can you learn and how can you use depression to better yourself?

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