I don’t know much about the physiology or even psychology of Depression and Anxiety. I don’t have any facts or figures about the probability of heredity or the chemical warning signs that can prepare you for DEPRESSION. What I can tell you is that in my particular case, it finally manifested itself while I was at IKEA.
Lord, I love IKEA. For someone like me who loves to decorate and redecorate and nest and re-nest without taking out a third mortgage, it’s a dream come true. Yes the dresser falls apart three months later, but man did my bedroom look streamlined that one time. My mother and sister live out of state and aren’t near an IKEA, so I suggested that while they were visiting Chicago we would all go, make a day of it arm in arm and furnish my little sister with all she needed for her first apartment. It was a sunny July Saturday and we chatted and sang and joked our way out to Schaumburg and I felt content.
I’ve always been the content one in the family, really. Ever since childhood I’ve been the one to smooth out conflict by making a joke, avoiding fights by acquiescing and finding great joy in the blessings of having a wonderful family, an active creative streak and a beautiful marriage to my best friend. I took the role of “Happy Funny Jessica” very seriously, regarding it almost as an assignation rather than outsider observation, forcing myself to hide anything ugly like sudden pervasive sadness, inexplicable loneliness or the vice grip of anxiety that robbed me of sleep, sometimes for days on end. If I wasn’t happy, who would make other people happy? If I wasn’t there to cheer someone up, who would do it? If I wasn’t happy, I was letting someone else down. When I was younger, my happiness meant so much less to me than the happiness of everyone else. For years I believed that my feelings towards me were inconsequential, as long as I gave everything I could to the people I loved. I was like a sponge wringing and wringing and wringing myself out but never dipping back into the bucket.
But on that day at IKEA I was with the people I loved and who unconditionally loved me, at a place I loved, fulfilling a promise I’d made for fun and fellowship on a gorgeous summer day - and it didn’t matter. About an hour into our trip I sat down in a $29.00 kitchen chair and was absolutely sure that I would never get up. The world seemed to speed up around me, people living, existing faster, at a higher pitch, with more vibrant color than I was. I watched my sister and mother discuss the merits of two pillows and without warning began to cry as they seemed to zoom away from me down a tunnel of darkness. A few weeks later, my mother would tell me that I looked like I was in a coma. My face was ashen, my eyes glazed over, mouth set in a frown. A voice inside me whispered that I was breaking, I was dying, we were all dying, everything around us was crumbling, and I couldn’t stop the spiral from becoming more and more catastrophic. I wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep, to escape this misery that had just appeared out of nowhere. I fooled myself into believing that I could turn sadness on and off.
I say out of nowhere, but really, it was like bread mold. Once you see that green fuzzy horror show on your Wonder loaf, that mold has already been there for days…you’ve been EATING IT FOR DAYS without knowing it. For a few weeks B.I.*, my husband had been concerned about my mood. He noted that all I did was go to work, come home and eat dinner, take a hot bath and go to bed. We didn’t go anywhere, do anything, we didn’t even talk. An avid writer all my life, I ignored it completely. I didn’t read books, I didn’t lose myself in music. While I soaked in the tub I listened to the news on the radio. If was as if someone had flipped the “miserable adulthood” switch and my future was to be nothing but fluorescent light tubes and running to catch the subway. It wasn’t until that day at IKEA that I wondered aloud if I could be…you know…depressed. But how could that be? I wasn’t slumping around like Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, writing goth poetry and finding beauty in the pose of a decaying possum. I hadn’t been abused or abandoned, I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t grieving, there was no reason for my suffering.
And so even after I was diagnosed and put on proper medication and given a referral for therapy I resisted the "role." I still did everything I could to pretend that I was the same. When people asked me how I was feeling I dutifully replied FINE even when I wanted nothing more than to crawl into someone’s lap and be rocked to sleep. No one wants to hear that you’re not fine. No one needs one more thing to worry about. So although I was only feeling some relief I assured everyone that I was downright cured, back to being funny, back to loving life, back to being the one you can count on to make the party fun. The pills were magic and there’s nothing more to see.
But you don’t get back to fine by lying to yourself. You don’t cure depression by thinking happy thoughts. You don’t break yourself out of the funk by being “STRONG.” Chances are you can’t do it alone. I needed to accept the diagnosis and open the bottle of emotion. I had to tell people I couldn’t join them this weekend because I needed some time to myself. I had to ask for a hand to hold, or a hug, or a few minutes to rant.
But I STILL didn’t feel ok with it until I watched “The Simpsons” one night and saw the episode “Moaning Lisa.” After telling Lisa to bury her feelings of sadness and put on a happy face, Marge changes her mind and calls Lisa back to the car and says:
“Lisa, I apologize to you, I was wrong, I take it all back. Always be yourself. If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there. From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.”To this day, I still catch hell for crying at “The Simpsons.” To this day, it’s one of my favorite quotes. It was all I wanted to hear from anyone. “Catching” Depression didn’t make me a failure. It didn’t mean that I didn’t have the bootstraps or the willpower or the self worth to make myself better. And I didn’t have to hide it or feel shame as I filled my prescription. Ten years later, I still don’t. When I feel happy, I show happiness. When I’m sad, I’m sad. But ever since I’ve accepted that diagnosis, I find that the happiness returns a little more often than I expected. And the sadness is like dark clouds sailing across the sky, momentarily dimming the sunlight. Just knowing that they’re moving makes it easier to bear.
Jessica McCartney is a freelance writer and occasional actress in Chicago. When not expressing herself creatively, she and her husband are cleaning up the creativity of her daughter and wrangling her "challenged" chihuahua Todd. She has worked with Depression and Anxiety since 2001 and hopes to help others in their quest for contentment.