The following is a guest post by my daughter, Lia, whose own blog has a horsey focus.
I was whacking the weeds that grow so high on our property every year. It was a perfect spring day – warm, but with a cooling breeze. The birds were active, tending to their new families. All about me was green and teeming with life. My hearing protection doubled as entertainment, as it streamed my favorite songs. I was singing along, thinking of nothing in particular, when “Boston” by Augustana began to play.
“When flowers gaze at you
They’re not the only ones
Who cry when they see you
You don’t know me, and you don’t even care
Oh yeah, you said
You don’t know me, and you don’t wear my chains
As I sang the words, I suddenly had a vision of another me, in another time, singing those same words. That person was sitting in her car, in the office parking lot, crying and wishing she could just “get out of California … to leave this all behind.” It was in that flash of memory that I suddenly realized just how long it has been since I had been ‘me’.
I am, naturally, a reserved person. I am not prone to showing happiness as most would expect it to look – bubbly, with smiles and giggling. I have been that way since our landlady told my mother she felt sorry for me, as a three year old, because I seemed too adult for my age. I am a ‘perfect score’ introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale (or any other personality test, for that matter). Yet, I am a joyful person. I find joy in the nature all around me, in my activities with the horses, and in spending time with good friends. I once had a job that brought me joy on a daily basis.
But on that day in 2006, when “Boston” brought me to tears, office politics was tearing apart that joyful job. I wasn’t long off of my first, only, and failed, love. That year also saw an injury that took six months recovery, the theft of heirlooms that cannot be replaced, and the death of a horse who had been an integral part of my life for over twenty eight years. The attacks at work were just shit icing on a garbage cake.
What I realized, as the weeds were falling in front of me on this spring afternoon, was that I have been under a dark cloud since that day in the parking lot. The intervening years held more significant losses, more significant injuries (including a fractured vertebrae that still reminds me of its presence), and more crap job situations. I’d lost my best job, stagnated in the next job, worked myself sick over a major project, then was subjected to bullying and humiliation for nearly two years.
For those of you who have been through depression, you will recognize the description of a weighty dark cloud that shrouds everything you do. Sure, there are moments of happiness. In the midst of the more recent struggles with the job, I brought into my life a joyful fuzzy fellow who I credit with keeping me ‘off the ledge’ in recent years. He never fails to bring a smile to my face. But until the last few months, that smile was always under a shroud and short lived.
If you have never been truly depressed, it may seem hard to relate to what I’m saying. My mother’s favorite admonition has always been “Just stop feeling that way!” Wouldn’t it be lovely if it were that easy? Certainly there are few of us who would choose that feeling as a way to be. But when every day feels as though it will bring a new blow, and every brief moment of joy comes with the feeling that it only means something bad will follow, it is virtually impossible to will yourself out of it.
It would be putting it mildly to say that depression is a complicated state. A recent article in The Atlantic addressed just how little science is actually sound about the causes and treatments for depression. Many who try medication may have some short term success; but it often wanes over time. I found that counseling gave me some solace, in validating what I was experiencing. But it only allowed me to peek out of the cloud – it never made the cloud disappear.
I cannot pretend to have an answer to a problem that science has yet to crack; but I will offer one insight from my own experience. Change something about your life! It is easier said than done – but I believe it is the critical step in the process. Look at the elements in your life – place, job, relationships, activities – try to find at least one that is causing you anguish, and get out!
For me that change has been a new job. Nine months ago, the bullying at work was reaching a fever pitch. I was very lucky to have a friend who just happened to be in a position to offer me a temporary out. The day that came to pass, it literally felt like someone had lifted a fifty pound sack off of my back. However, the path back from over a decade of depression is not that short, nor that straight forward. The bullies were not out of my life entirely, and for each moment of sunshine that peeked through, they were there to bring the cloud back. It would not be an ideal change – better to be completely away. But we can’t always just “leave this all behind” so easily.
As time went on, the bullies became a smaller element in my life. With them in the background, I slowly found my footing as the problem solver I once was. I found I was back where I’d been in that dream job I’d once had – working with a team of like minded folks, helping others solve problems, and having people truly appreciate my contributions. I became, again, that person who let problems roll away, like water off of a duck’s back – rather than struggling to keep from snapping as the problems seemed to mount at every turn.
If you have ever come out of a long period of depression, perhaps you will recognize what I am about to describe. The cloud began to break apart before I was ever aware of it. Good moments were countered with bad ones, but at a pace that decreased without my really registering any difference. After all, the last decade plus had it’s brief bright moments, too. But one morning I woke up, and everything was different. I cannot tell you why or how – but everything that morning just felt brighter and lighter.
A few dark clouds occasionally floated by, after that – the bullies are still around – but they had no more power over me. They just made small shadows as they passed through the sunlight.
That morning was remarkable, and still crystal clear in my memory. To this day it puzzles me, as I cannot point to a specific event that preceded it. But it was not until that afternoon of weed whacking that I realized how long that dark cloud had covered me. It was not until that moment that I could look at the person of the past five months and realize that I had not known her for more than a decade.
My hope in writing this is that it may resonate with others who are stuck under their own cloud. Or perhaps with someone who loves a person they know is under a cloud of depression. First, I hope you take from this the fact that the cloud can be lifted – even if it takes more than a decade. I am hear to attest that once it lifts, your whole outlook can change dramatically.
How that cloud lifts will vary with each person, and their situation. But I strongly feel that it will not lift if your life does not change. I have seen many ‘self-help’ gurus suggest that you have to change your outlook, and that will change your life. I am here to attest that this advice can actually make things much worse. It places the burden upon a person who is struggling with their outlook – it makes it their fault, without taking into account anything that might have led to their outlook. Instead, I say, “Change your life, and it will change your outlook.” Find something to do that feels productive and making a difference, no matter how small it may seem to you. It is likely the impact is more than you realize.
Most importantly, find people who feel that you are valuable, and make you feel valued. It is far too easy to stay where you are, in the usual group of people. I had many good and supportive friends in my previous situation, so that hardly seemed the problem. But if you are all swimming in the same toxic soup, those friends only compound the very burdens you are struggling with. I have not shed those friends – I balanced them out by adding people to my life who are, themselves, living in the sunshine. They are not bubbly people – that can sometimes add to the burden of the cloud, rather than removing it. However, they are collaborative, supportive, and share common goals. They gave me the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. I had to find my own way out, but after too long navigating the curves in that dark space, I finally saw the direction out.
It is a strange feeling standing outside of that long tunnel, and looking back at my time within it. The person I was, for over a decade, seems like someone quite aside from the person I was before, and am once again. In over a half-century of life, I have certainly been through bad times, and had periods of depression. But no other period lasted so long, nor made such a fundamental change in the person I am every day. I can only hope that I have learned the lessons I am trying to share – that there will always be a light at the end of that tunnel, but when you are seeking it, you must first make a fundamental change in your life. Oh, and that change I made – it recently became permanent. Here’s hoping the effect of it is, too!