I’ve had recurring bouts of major depression for many years now. I’ve been looking back at old journals, going back years, reading about what I said about my very bad days when I was in the midst of them. I’m trying to learn what really lies beneath my bad days. (This may, of course, be a lost cause if there are also random biochemical forces at work.) Here are some patterns I’ve observed.
When I’m about to make a big change to improve my life. I become afraid of breaking free of a situation or routine that is familiar, if not healthy. Then I become very depressed, lethargic, and so consumed by internal emotional drama that it’s difficult to move forward. Since I am not moving forward to make the change for the better, I feel worse, and disgusted with myself for not doing what I know I should do. I’ve seen this play out a number of times, but the worst was when I needed to leave my husband. I spent months burning myself and considering different options for suicide rather than confront the logistical challenges of leaving him and starting life as a single mother with two small children.
When I read a book or attend a play that provokes a painful reaction. Anyone with even a little familiarity with the long-term impact of sexual abuse knows about triggers. Thinking about the books that have sent me into the sinkhole, these include a trashy novel in which a woman is blackmailed into having sex with someone she hates and demeaning herself in very painful ways. A thriller in which a woman is kidnapped and held for months in a cabin and raped repeatedly–the part that hit me though was when she started to cooperate with her own rape in order to avoid being beaten. She felt humiliated by her cooperation, and I knew exactly what that felt like. A novel about a marriage gone very wrong, in which you come to realize that the wife’s reactions are all filtered through the lens of her history of incest.
Every book with a rape in it is not a trigger. I can’t predict that these triggers are waiting for me in a book before I read it. It will be a particular way of writing about an experience, about complicity, about repression or even intentional denial.
When I’m not busy every minute of the day. I’m not necessarily happy when my days are packed from 6am to 11pm, getting children off to school, rushing to my job, working through lunch, rushing home, making dinner, helping with homework. I might be able to do this with a low-grade depression. But my big, dark, self-destructive depressions come at the points in my life when I have a little space. That’s when I give myself room to think about what I want in my life and whether I want to make changes. It’s when I start to remember painful events in my past. Sometimes I wonder if that means I should keep myself insanely busy in order to avoid severe depressions. But it’s not really true. What is true is that I need to heal, but I have only occasionally had the space to start to make progress on healing. The rest of the time I repress things as much as possible or cover them up if I can’t fully repress them.
When I am single. I haven’t been single all that much of my adult life. I married young. I had two children, then got divorced. I was single for several years before I married a second time (to a much kinder man). But in those years before I married and between marriages, I had no idea how to navigate sexual relationships. I would sleep with anyone who acted like he wanted to sleep with me. Whether or not I wanted to or liked him had nothing to do with it. If I felt cheap, well, that was just the embodied truth of who I was. No surprise then that sex often left me depressed. I often dissociated during sex. I still do, even with a man I love. But when I’m married, I never have sex with anyone but my husband. I’m able to use the marriage as a boundary that I otherwise never learned to set for myself.