What is it? I see it in the eyes of those battling mental health issues. I see it as a wet, dim band of light cutting through the blues, browns, and greens of those impacted by autism. Sometimes it reflects a struggle against depression or PTSD. It is often a scoreboard worn on the face tracking the unverbalized tournament of physical pain. Whatever it is, and whatever the reason for its creation, it often makes a home inside of many of us.
We all recognize it when it rears its head interrupting our joy of living. Sometimes it sneaks in the back door just when we’ve seen the last of it. Why does it come around? Why won’t it leave when we want it to do so? Does it serve any purpose at all other than to make our lives miserable?
Today started off as a good day: I woke up after a pleasant sleep, I enjoyed a bit of time gardening, and I managed a healthy social interaction. And then IT showed up.
It wore a heavy blanket and descended from the cloudless sky like an invisible plague. Without even an invitation to lunch, it showed up toting pages of critical reviews against my accomplishments of the day. Then it attacked the work I completed earlier in the week. It informed me that everything I did was pointless. It laughed at my efforts to encourage others through sharing my experiences. It was mean and nasty. It had a name that I knew far too well. It was depression.
Come on in! Sit down. Cup of tea?
I went to the mirror and confirmed its arrival. There it was. Ok. Now what?
Years of therapy are finally starting to pay off: identifying it, welcoming it without judgment, and sitting with it. My therapist would be thrilled. Me? Not so much. After all, it was still depression.
Depression, PTSD, sensory overload, and nerve pain, are all symptoms of something bigger that is happening inside the body. In autism, the sensory overload is just one of the many “fun” expressions of a uniquely wired brain.
Depression, in my situation, is caused by a combination of chemical imbalance (the pharmacy in my brain is just a little too tight-fisted when it comes to dispensing the good-stuff like serotonin), and mental health issues stemming from childhood abuse such as being bullied for being different. Even though the meds and therapy help, depression may always be an acquaintance. I do not like it, but I am learning how to live with it without letting it ruin my life.
In therapy, one of the most important things we learn is how to accept our emotions for the service they provide. For example, stubbing a toe hurts. It makes us hop around like a mad person as the nerves of the foot scream at that stupid, little toe. Little Piggy is squealing at the foot for running into the dresser. And everyone in the house demands an explanation for the 1:30 AM ruckus.
Even though the pain is, well, painful, it provides us with valuable feedback. The pharmacy in most brains immediately opens for business dispensing an appropriate amount of natural narcotic. One hand reaches for a light-switch, while the other grabs a knee for reasons that can only be assumed to be moral support. Our eyes examine the wounded soldier. And our housemate will drive us to the ER if needed. After it is all over with, the pain has written a memory memo advising us to either move the furniture out of the way or purchase a nightlight.
It is a little easier to understand the purpose of pain than it is to figure out the motive of certain other emotions such as depression. However, the investigation is just as important if we want to understand what is behind “IT” showing up.
So there we are, my depression and me, sitting on a couch, the tea growing colder by the minute. Depression is giving me the same silent treatment I give my therapist from time to time.
“So, what would you like to talk about today?”
It takes a while to break the ice, but my therapist has taught by example. I ease back into a more comfortable position giving it some space.
“Did anything happened that has left you feeling this way?” I ask. Perhaps if I got out a pen and notepad and doodled a little something that would ease the tension?
An image from earlier that day comes forward. There I am sitting at my home computer catching up with emails. And while that can be difficult, I did not recall experiencing any abnormal stress. Suddenly, the scene morphs into a memory from years-gone-by.
The laughter of co-workers pleasantly annoys my ears. One of the guys is caddying something yummy his wife baked for the team. A divine waft teases my nose as it is escorted past my desk. I do not dare look up and risk ruining my day with accidental eye contact.
Autism makes it very difficult for me to carry on small talk; so although my stomach protests our hesitance, I allow the procession to pass and the festivities to calm down before entering the break-room. Fear of social isolation (combined with an unhealthy dose of self-hatred at my being unable to comfortably engage even people I had worked with over 15 years), causes my face to grimace. If anyone were to wander into the room about that time, they would have seen IT.
My eye spies the bright red plastic keeper. Eagerly grabbing a paper plate, I hustle over and peer inside. Huge bits of chocolate crumble line the dish… but that is all that remains. Putting the plate back on the stack, I once again choke down the defeat I had served myself.
Deciding to give myself a reward (after all I did get out of my seat under the threat of conversation), I purchase a cookie from the vending machine. If anyone does ask me about the baked goody, I will lie and tell them how yummy it was. Missing out is bad enough. I do not deserve the embarrassment over why I failed to acquire a piece when my desk was so close to the treasure.
It sits with me on the couch silently awaiting my analysis.
Earlier this morning I had eaten a cupcake from my favorite bakery. It is a rare treat I sometimes use to reward myself for things like answering social emails. (Doodle note to self: Is this a topic for future therapy sessions?) Anyway, because I was so eager to get my tasks completed, I had decided to eat it while I worked. Little did I realize that this innocent action had triggered my depression. I may as well have sent a party-invite.
That is why it was there.
Like my therapist does with me, I listened to it… my depression. I did not tell it that it needed to get over itself. Instead, I sat with it. I allowed it to be what it was. And when it spoke to me, I listened.
I have not yet decided what to do with the information it presented. Perhaps I will just add a note to its file; because sometimes, it just needs to be heard.
After it was done talking, it got up and showed itself out.
Going back to look in the mirror I confirmed what I already knew, it was gone.
You know, I don’t even think it said “Goodbye.”
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.