Clawing Out of a Deep Well of Sad

The sad that lives in my body waxes and wanes, but it's never left me. Even when I'm at my most happy, calm and clear, sad is just beyond the edge of the horizon, out of view and still as much a part of me as anything else. When others learn this, it tends to come as a surprise. The way I present and the role I play is most often the cheerful, bright light. It's a large part of the story, but of course it's not the whole story. No one is just one way.

The picture on the left was taken at the end of the year, at the point of deepest pain I recall ever feeling. I had been crying everyday for awhile, and I would stand on the train platform fantasizing about leaping. I used to volunteer on a suicide crisis hotline and I still remember my training. I told people close to me how I was struggling, and made promises not to hurt myself. I knew the intent wasn't really there, but I was aching so badly that it was impossible not to desire its alleviation. I was at the bottom of a well and didn't see any way out.

It's taken a couple months to claw my way out of this one, to begin to feel like the radiant woman on the right again. I'm not seeking sympathy here, but to highlight that, yes, it is important to check on your happy friends. The people with the largest capacity for joy are often capable of a depth of sorrow to match. I live with the vibrancy and gusto I do because of, not in spite of, the times I've spent in the inky black at the bottom of a well of sad. It's also important for us to talk about and normalize depression largely because the fuel that feeds that burn is isolation. My crisis training taught me that my chances for survival would increase if caring people knew how I was feeling and I was accountable to them not to self-harm. If making that agreement with my callers on the line could save their life, it could work for me, too.

When this most recent moment of acute crisis passed, I felt so much better it was easy to forget that I was still sick. Depression, particularly significant dips like the one I just experienced, is not something you "snap out of." A rousing No Thanks for that brutally dismissive platitude. There is no snapping, there is only the slow slog through daily life that often feels frustratingly, exhaustingly impossible. Even simple things overwhelm, so I've found it useful to just focus on accomplishing those simple things and let those successes mean something.

A handful of years back I was introduced to Mama Gena's concept of Pleasure Research, and began to closely study what added to or subtracted from my overall sense of well being. I compiled a list of habits I check off everyday which individually and collectively help me feel good. Those things range from very modest and basic to more ambitious, and I think about it in terms of adding layers. We begin our recovery with small, light layers- we brush our teeth, we properly feed, water, rest and bathe our bodies. With these consistent acts of care, perhaps we find the juice to add heavier layers- exercise, having a friend over for tea, a daily meditation practice- which contribute to increased energy, connectedness and clarity.

There is no single prescription that suits everyone, and it's wise to continually revise our routines, for what serves us well now may not always. I encourage you to experiment, and find the habits and tools that help you move from surviving to thriving through the day to day. The one thing I will say for anyone with depression is don't try to do it alone. I know I know, reaching out can be excruciating. But when your head becomes a hornet's nest, the last thing you need is to sit in the middle of it unattended. There is no shame in needing each other, and the more normal we make these conversations, the easier it'll be for people to give and receive good support. We can begin to reframe conditions of the mind as any other illness instead of character flaws.

You are not alone in your sadness, anxiety, shame or confusion. Your pain is a very ordinary thing. Most of us have spent time in deep, dark wells of varying kinds, at a total loss as to what comes next. The way forward begins with simple acts of care and modest expectations. It is small, consistent acts of care that began to build in me a sense of worth for greater love and joy. Make an actual list, check it off everyday and don't use lapses in your care as evidence of what an undeserving piece of shit you are. Do not weaponize the very thing that would heal you. I know that story sounds convincing as hell in your head, but it is both dull and untrue.

No matter who you are and what you've done, good love and care are basic human needs and our birthright. You're certainly not going to claw your way out of the well by berating yourself for your failings. Drink a glass of water (no, really, go do it right now). Call or message a friend. Go for a walk around the block. Eat something you love. Try to find delight today, even and especially in something small and simple. The Roman poet, Ovid, said that "Dripping water hollows out a stone, not through force but through persistence," and so goes our healing.

Drip by drip and day by day, we move slowly and steadily forward, relentless in our desire to live.
I love you. I'm with you. Keep going.


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