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The Unexpected Solace of COVID-19

What this pandemic is teaching me about living with depression

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A view of the blue ocean is framed by a dark tunnel
Photo: Mari Sheibley

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, my peers and I were taught we can do and be anything we want to be, if only we want it enough, hope enough, strive enough — if only we dream enough. And we believed it, this sugar-coated American Dream packaged into posters that hung in our classrooms, broadcast in after-school specials in our living rooms, and published on the back of cereal boxes we read over breakfast.

It’s one of the many reasons this pandemic is so emotionally distressing for millennials, even those among us who are lucky enough to still hold onto our health and work in our own homes. Whoever hoped for this?

But for the depressed among us, there is an unexpected solace in this worldwide grief. 

For decades I did dream, hope, strive, and even at my very darkest agnostic hour, pray. But it wasn’t for the career and wedding and children and house of my dreams. I wanted only that one day I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. That one day I would have a reprieve from a depression that stripped everything from me that makes me human – desire, pleasure, creativity, connection, the very will to continue to exist. That one day one of my antidepressant tactics would sink in and I would simply “get over” being depressed, as the few unfortunate enough to hear my complaints had advised.

And one day, in my early thirties, it worked. It actually worked. After two and a half decades of failed attempts with half a dozen antidepressant prescription drugs, self-medicating with alcohol, talk therapy, acupuncture, diet, exercise, journaling, self-exploration, sobriety, and years and years of hard work; one day, on a walk to the grocery store, I realized that it had been weeks since I was last in pain. Which was longer than I’d ever gone without feeling depressed since it first came to settle within my tiny, eight-year-old body.

A colosseum of cream and yogurt bore witness to my tears of joy and gratitude, to my sheer disbelief at having survived depression. I felt the way cancer patients describe beating cancer. 

But then, a few months later, just like cancer can, my depression came back. 

My depression recurrence after the grocery store aisle cry was the lowest I had ever been. Not only was I depressed, but now I knew what it felt like to go a solid 20-some days without losing the will to live. I knew what it was like on the other side, and I mourned that new life I thought was mine for keeps, the one I had worked so hard for all those years, the one that I thought I had earned and therefore deserved, a life without the frequent slips into depression.

After I once again managed to climb out of Hell’s Canyon, I gave up hope that I would ever live a life without depression. 

I will always – from time to unexpected time – feel numb and lose the desire to do anything that at other times might bring me joy. I will think I deserve to be punished and point to a loss of sleep and appetite as proof, and if we talk during that time, I will feel completely exhausted because I am running a marathon in my mind simply trying to pass as normal, lest you suspect anything is off. Because being outed as depressed feels like a social and career death sentence. When someone who doesn’t experience clinical and chronic depression discovers your invisible illness, the best outcome is that they will feel uncomfortable. And it’s not their fault. Supporting our depressed friends, family, and colleagues is not part of our shared education. They might say, “Oh no! It’s ok….. Try going for a run, exercise always makes me feel better.” And what they mean is: “I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me slightly uncomfortable. I’d like to be able to fix this so it goes away.” And what I understand is that they cannot even see how our realities are fundamentally different.

But now I also understand that there is a joy to surrender.

In a capitalist society built on the premise that we need to buy the fix to whatever’s wrong with us, that our value is measured by our productivity, and where we, therefore, teach our young that they can have anything they want, as long as it’s a career that contributes to being a productive member of society, it is an act of rebellion, and love, in accepting who and where we are in our journeys today. Right now. Even when where we are is the same damn place we’ve been for who-knows-how-many days now.

I found some relief in giving up that I would ever see my last bout of depression. It wasn’t the relief that I had dreamed and hoped and strived for. But by accepting that I will always find myself at some point down into the hot sticky tar pits of depression, I can also accept that I will always find my way out again. That the cycle of valley and mountain, valley and mountain, is forever my path, and each phase is temporary. In the same way that it is true – both – that suffering will always exist, and this too shall pass.

Countless days into lockdown, I hear my friends say things like: “The lows are extra low and the highs are what normal used to feel like.” And “Today is really hard, can we reschedule our Zoom?” I see them share memes about using alcohol to achieve the heroic act of merely getting through the day, and wonder about the utility of changing out of whatever they managed to put on before surrendering to bed.  

I see them struggle with thoughts and feelings I’ve struggled with for the last two decades.

And I want to say: I see you. I see you because you show yourself to me and for that, thank you. Thank you for not hiding behind an armor of “I’m fine,” because by saying all these things, it makes it easier for me to speak my truth on the days when the best I can do is to get through the day.

I would like to think that maybe this is the one thing we can carry into the new world we’re creating together: A little more compassion, a little more patience for each other’s invisible sufferings, a shift from the rigidity of our striving for a different, more perfect tomorrow that may never come, and towards surrender and acceptance to who we are today in our flawed, sweatpants-clad truths. 

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