European paintings are on the second floor of the Met, but I don’t care much if I get there. I’m sitting on a bench beneath a glass ceiling, wiping the January sweat and snot from beneath my mask after walking toward Central Park in a harsh wind. I take out my phone and search for the motivation to walk upstairs.
There is a superpower I crave whenever I’m in a museum: I wish I could teleport into the scenes I’m looking at in frames, wish I could dive deep into another world. This wish stems not from a desire to escape my own life, but from being so taken by the richness of being alive that I want to experience it all. Moonlight on a cypress tree, a group of children on the beach. If I could, I would pop into ancient Rome and ask the women in white what their lives are really like. How would I feel in another place and time? What would I struggle with? Who would I sleep with? What would I make for dinner tonight?
But today on the bench, I feel none of this. The paintings feel painfully two-dimensional, the sculptures too. I’m in the midst of the worst bout of depression I have ever experienced, and getting to the second floor feels monumental. I think of Sisyphus and that boulder, feel the metaphor on my shoulders.
When I tell my mother I am depressed, she lists the logical reasons why. A global pandemic and my two-year-long struggle to find full-time work are easy to blame. But these are sadnesses I can map and trace: the stress of financial insecurity, the rejections from hundreds and hundreds of jobs. I think of the word proportionate, feel normal for a minute.
But when I hang up the phone and get ready for bed I find myself tossing and turning until two, three, four in the morning. Falling asleep requires vulnerability, and I can’t let my guard down enough to sleep. I am afraid of my own sadness, afraid of my silent, empty bed, lacking distractions from my physiological symptoms of depression. It isn’t sad and hopeless thoughts that keep me awake, but the feelings of sadness and hopelessness. This distinction is pivotal for me when distinguishing between a bad mood and a depressive episode. Of course thoughts and feelings are connected, but when I am clinically depressed, they feel miles apart from each other. Moonlight on a cypress tree illuminates what I’ve always suspected: there is something fundamentally wrong with me.
Because my thoughts tell me to wake up at a reasonable hour and go to a museum, but my body takes hours to get out of bed. You love museums, and you can walk to the Met from your apartment on a weekday, and you are wildly lucky to be able to do so, I think, I always think. But my feelings leave me numb at best, futile at worst. What’s the point of walking to the Met just to sit on a bench in the lobby?
We use terms like anxious and depressed liberally — myself included — and I’d be a massive hypocrite if I criticized anyone for speaking with a dramatic flair. To distinguish between manageable reactions to hardship and a mental health disorder, I think it’s important to know what depression looks like when it arrives. And I think it’s more helpful to know your own patterns and behaviors than to read a generic definition saying that depression is two or more weeks of low mood. I remember reading this definition in a Safari tab on my iPod Touch in eighth grade and thinking I couldn’t have it because at some point in the last two weeks I must have smiled or laughed. I’ve rarely ever been the stigma-ridden zombie that WebMD describes.
Now, in my mid-twenties, my depression often shows up disguised as heartbreak. While I beg for sleep, I feel a guttural longing for my ex-boyfriend, despite being broken up for nearly a year, and despite my being the one who chose to end our relationship. I count the months since I last touched him, the weeks since we last spoke, as if I’m tallying the beads of a rosary, my thumb dragging along each white ball. Before I acquired this particular ex-boyfriend, I chose wistful crushes indiscriminately, and I convinced myself that my sadness must be coming from my longing for them — even when the crush was someone I only went out with once, even when I fabricated our entire connection in my imagination, even when I was 21 and hadn’t seen him since high school. I struggle now to distinguish between my genuine feelings of heartbreak and my search for something — or someone — to blame for my otherwise inexplicable sadness. This is not pessimism or negative thinking or an inability to be single but a relentless search for reason inside a cave of existential dread.
When I am depressed, one drink turns into drinking everything I can get my hands on. The initial buzz provides a temporary reprieve from my sadness, and holy fuck do I want more of that. Then I set rules for myself, like I cannot drink alone, or I cannot drink during the week, or I cannot drink at home, or in any other circumstance where I’ll have to limit my own intake because I know that I won’t, maybe I can’t, and I don’t want to have to give it up forever.
In the depths of these depressive episodes, I do not have the energy or optimism to find a new therapist, and I cancel on any therapist I’m currently seeing. Why haven’t you had an appointment with Camille all month? My mom asked me in the summer of 2019. Because I’m depressed, I said back, and she knew what I meant. I spend hours on Google and Reddit reading about antidepressants, wondering if I should be more afraid of brain zaps as a side-effect or of big pharma using me as a pawn. I chastise myself for changing my antidepressant prescription from Zoloft to Prozac over something as superficial as 30 pounds of weight gain (plus an uncontrollable appetite and an inability to take a shit).
Two years of under-employment — lacking both health insurance and a stable paycheck — inhibited my ability to find care to help me deal with the stress of the under-employment itself. The privatization of healthcare in the US implies that if you are not working, then you do not deserve to be healthy (nevermind happy). It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be addressed structurally. But this January, my mother insists I return to therapy — even offering to pay for it because she is concerned about me. I see a new woman, ironically named Joy. I begin our fourth session by revealing my fear that I will feel this depressed forever. I have tears in my eyes immediately — a vulnerability it took me eight months to reach with Camille. So what if your depression does last forever? she asks me. Puzzled, I reply, I don’t think my life would be worth sticking around for if that’s the case. It’s the first time in my life I’ve admitted this out loud, and a part of me expects men in lab coats to storm the room with butterfly nets. Instead, Joy says, You’re looking for instant gratification from me. You’re not willing to do the work to make yourself feel better. I insist that I am willing to do the work, but I also am seeking hope that the work will pay off, because that’s difficult to believe at the moment, and I could use some encouragement to keep trying. It doesn’t feel like instant gratification to me, I argue, when I have been struggling with this for thirteen years. I never return to Joy’s office.
I try to remind myself of a lesson that Camille taught me: nothing lasts forever, all things must come to an end eventually, both good and bad, and yet my sadness has been following me around since I was thirteen years old, since the day a guidance counselor who mispronounced my name came into my English class and told me to start thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I went home and told my mom that I felt lost and purposeless, and I lay face-down on my twin bed with my headphones in, and I cried and cried and cried, and sometimes it feels like I haven’t stopped crying since that day, like nothing has changed and I’m irreparably broken and everything bad will last forever.
I recognize my mom’s unconditional presence in these episodes, how she takes on my sadness like only a mother can. On my worst days, my most intimate relationships suffer, because no one has the power to make me feel okay again, and amelioration is all I’m looking for from anyone and anything. I convince myself that no one should ever choose to marry me because my sadness comes and goes violently, it always has, and it seems like it always will. I’ve spent my whole life trying to opt out of this ricocheting — who would opt in?
As a result, I run in social extremes: I hide away from phone calls and visitors half the time, all my sentences feeling too heavy and hard to say, and the other half, I put on a show, faking all the necessary smiles and laughter when I am forced to emerge. Sometimes the faking helps, sometimes it’s salt in the wound, and it’s impossible to predict which it will be. Socializing becomes a gamble each time. Other times, like when I am at my parents’ house on New Year’s Eve, I simply slink away to their gray couch with their yellow Labrador and sleep all afternoon.
When I hide away, I start to judge the people I love and the people I hate — harshly, ruthlessly, silently. I recognize the resentment I feel toward moderately happy people is an ugly trait — normal me, the real me, teleporting-around-a-museum me, she doesn’t endorse the judgment. Then suddenly I’m down on my knees with the ceramic tiles of the Roman Catholic Church I was raised in pulling at my reconciliation tights, and I am begging everyone I know for forgiveness, if only in my own mind: I’m sorry, I’m really, truly sorry, these are my feelings, not my conscious thoughts, I swear I don’t believe the way I feel about you. I ask myself: are you pushing them away or are they avoiding you? If they are, can you blame them? You cannot. You’d do the same if given the chance. Maybe they are feeling the door for warmth with the backs of their hands, afraid of the flames behind it. I think of Pliny and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the disintegration of Pompeii outside his window, how all he did was sit and write, and I finally feel like an ancient Roman woman in white.
Despite all of this, I have experienced more imposter syndrome in psychiatrists’ offices than I have in any corporate cubicle or university lecture hall. When I have appointments to ask for an antidepressant, I am terrified that the doctor will think I’m either not depressed enough or that I’m exaggerating my symptoms. I’m acutely aware of the sexist stereotypes that I dodge left and right: don’t be a drama queen, don’t be a spoiled little girl. Show some gratitude and look on the bright side. Don’t be lazy and stop looking for a quick fix. Don’t try to pass off normal PMS symptoms as a serious mental health disorder. All women have mood swings. Everyone has bad days. Don’t try to manipulate people into feeling bad for you. Stop seeking so much attention. You’re not special. The subtext of all of these messages is that I should not trust my own feelings, should not believe that my own lived experience is valid or true.
I have always described my symptoms with a disclaimer to make others more comfortable, to prevent anyone from thinking I’m just being dramatic, and to give credit to people who have attempted or died by suicide. I will always recognize that I am wildly privileged to walk around the greatest museums in the world and dream about living in the art on their walls. I admonish myself once more as a man outside the Met asks me to drop spare change in his Styrofoam cup. When I first went on medication, I believed I had dysthymia, or minor depressive disorder. I identified with this diagnosis until an afternoon last fall when my sister sat on my pink couch and gave me the validation I have always sought: Jac, there’s never been anything minor about your sadness.
My sister sees a truer version of me than anyone else in the world, so I trust her word more than my own. Because on most days, my depression isn’t an ocean of tears. Sometimes I wish it were — something about that blatant, undeniable vulnerability, that indisputable sign of mental illness, I think, would be validating. It’d be harder to deny if everyone could see it. It’d be easier to get help if you didn’t have to ask for it.
Sometimes, in the midst of a depressive episode or as one starts to fade, I catch a glimpse of hope and it scares the shit out of me. Feeling hope triggers a fear response, as I immediately begin my anticipation of the next downswing in my mood. In these moments, it feels logical and protective to do so, given the cyclical nature of these episodes. Having depression is traumatic in and of itself. During an upswing, I am still processing the damage that was done when things were bad. I mourn the experiences that were tarnished by this illness, I grieve what my teenage self deserved to enjoy but couldn’t. All reprieves become tentative. When I book a trip or plan my future, I don’t know who I’ll be once I get there. Which of the two versions of me will board the plane? Will she be able to get off the bench? She comes and goes, she gives and takes. I think of Icarus and the too-close flight, feel the hot, melted wax gluing my shoes to the ground.
There is a quote hanging on my living room wall, a lyric by singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus printed on a canvas: “You don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing.” This is my reminder that it’s a myth that sadness leads to good art. I couldn’t write this essay until I started to feel better, and it was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. (And one of only two essays I’ve completed in the last year — my personal worst.) Depression is a high price to pay for being creative, and from a logistical standpoint, a bad investment — see aforementioned under-employment and social isolation.
If I had a choice, no, of course I wouldn’t choose to cycle through these episodes. I’d rather be less artistic, less deep, less empathetic, less appreciative of music and lyrics if it meant I would be happier. Appreciating the sweetness of the upswings does not outweigh the pain of the downswings, at least not for me, not right now. But this doesn’t matter, not really, because it’s not an option I did or can choose. I don’t want to be the manic pixie dream girl, the dark girl, the sad girl. I’m not willingly paying this price for attention or sympathy, not making strategic branding choices to seem more intriguing or be welcomed by caring souls with open arms. And even if I were — it doesn’t work.
Music like Lucy Dacus’ always sounds better when I’m not allowed to listen to it — when I’m editing a boring business textbook for freelance money, I try to focus on the page, but every song that comes on shuffle sounds like the greatest, most important song I have ever heard. Verse-chorus-bridge becomes a complex and beautiful kaleidoscope representing the human experience. It becomes an opportunity to teleport into a painting at the Met. The difference between being depressed and not is kind of like this: while depressed, I am skipping every song, bored by them all, numb to them all. When I am happy, I feel so much relief that I want to lean into every day of being a human woman. I want to feel everything so deeply, whether good or bad, knowing that nothing lasts forever, not feelings or relationships or even life itself, and God is it beautiful out. I can feel the sun on my skin through the window of the train and I want to pause time in this moment and sing a song of gratitude and think this is it, this is all worth it, oh yes. There you are again, welcome back, old self. I missed you desperately. How long will you be staying with us this time?