Check it out. We aren’t ending 2021 on that last post I wrote.
I didn’t mean to leave us there for so long, but, to be frank, my blog was the last of my concerns. It isn’t that I didn’t care, or don’t care, it’s that my life was stripped to the bare minimum. Stay alive. Don’t drink. Get through the day. Sorta.
And I had nothing to say. I said it all on the day I said I couldn’t seem to will my legs to move.
And because I was empty. I write from the inside, you know? Interests, curiosity, concern, joy, rage. What do you pull from when there’s nothing but blank space?
How do you weave a string of words into meaning when you can’t find any?
It all sounds rather dramatic unless you’ve been there. I felt I had been entirely hollowed out. It will be a long, long time before I understand what happened in this depression.
I have been writing. I’ve been writing long, wandering essays that may take shape someday, and I’ve been writing non-essays that probably have more hope. I’ve been writing in my journal, in notes on my phone. I’ve been reading. I’ve been praying. I’ve been wondering how it was that I felt like myself again though I know exactly when it was.
See? This is good news. I AM SO MUCH BETTER. Do you know how long that depression lasted? Almost two years. From September 2019 to July 2021. I know this because I keep a journal. And yes, because the end was really that clear. Really that defined.
I’m sharing this part because I seem to hear less about depression that lasts for a long time but does, eventually, go away, or shift into something new. Something tolerable. It’s almost like it becomes integrated. I am not talking about resigning oneself to meaninglessness and pain, but rather that the pain and meaninglessness seem to have done their job, and they leave.
There is an appropriate, enlightened way to talk about depression and what I just said is not it.
The idea that pain may have a purpose, that it’s doing something vital and unique to itself—as in, no other source could teach me what that pain taught me–that I may have, as a person, needed it—I can already hear the internet telling me I’m dangerous and toxic and misinformed.
Whoever decides the parameters of these conversations seems to have made clear that the only story we are supposed to tell is “Depression is a chemical illness and we need medication.” And it ends there.
The thing is, I agree with this statement. I knew it was true then and I know it now. And it didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that there didn’t seem to be anything past that.
The idea seems to be that we are supposed to accept the endless pursuit of new and better pills as the correct and awakened method for treating depression and expressed deviation from that is dangerous.
My problem was that the pills didn’t do much for me.
That’s not true. The medicine brought me from non-functional to Vaguely Functioning—and that, if you think about it, is a fucking big deal.
But those pills were my last frontier and last hope, so when my mood stayed as dark as a Dutch January I almost felt—worse? As in, final hope gone. Because where do you go after you’ve played your last hand?
Have I used enough cliches or shall I press on?
Yes, I could change pills. And we were talking about that. But the last time I had an intense clinical depression (when sober enough to differentiate that from regular old alcoholism), I got on Zoloft and was a new human. I went from just on the edge of “postpartum psychosis” to a job, regular exercise, moving houses, and a new life that felt satisfying and real.
The pills this time made me able to get dressed before noon sometimes and stop thinking that if I killed myself my children would be happier.
That’s a damn low bar.
The idea that my sole job in that condition was to find new and different and better pills, many of which I have already taken, many of which have already given me the worst withdrawals I’ve ever had—harder than cocaine, opiates, or alcohol (I’m looking at you, Effexor!)—with some of the most awful side effects including, but not limited to: hallucinations (my favorite was when snake scales slowly crawled up my boobs), gaining 70 pounds in 3 months, cold sweats, insomnia, memory loss, and the total inability to have sex—well, perhaps you can forgive me if LET’S LAUNCH DOWN A PSYCH MED ROAD was not my singular, most joyful approach.
Plus, my life’s circumstances were new and intense. I couldn’t imagine the depression wasn’t at least in part circumstantial: new country, pandemic, first time away from my home, family, friends. I knew I needed help. I knew it had passed the point of “I’ll just take more walks and eat better.” But I also never felt comfortable with “my brain just needs chemical balancing” as a solution.
While trying to figure out what to do with all of this, I started seeing an acupuncturist who is, now stay with me here, a healer. Yes, I said healer. An actual healer. Not one of these assholes who enjoys the sound of her own voice so much she’s convinced she’s a shaman–but like, one of those people who has an indescribable energy of seeing.
Welcome to the new Janelle. She says things like “healer” and “indescribable energy of seeing.” Whatever. I ate my encapsulated placenta. I’ve always been like this. You’ve probably just been in denial.
Anywho, he began telling me things I did not enjoy hearing but that resonated with me on a level that’s hard to describe. I would lie face down with needles in my butt while he said words, and tears would fall out of my eyes and drip through the little face hole.
Bit of an awkward awakening.
I’d tell you all the things he said but that’s a longer story and longer piece of writing because it’s very personal, and delicate, and because I don’t want you to think I am declaring that a person can be healed from clinical depression with well-placed needles and words. Or maybe they can? I don’t fucking know and I ain’t giving medical advice and I’m not your life coach. I am merely recounting my life here.
I will tell you that one of the things we found together was that I was standing between two worlds, unwilling to accept a new way of being, a new relationship to home, work, family, friends—and unwilling to let go of the old one. I was liminal as fuck.
Fighting. Resisting. Clinging. Very, very confused.
We talked about the soul needing to learn some shit as we move through life. I SAID SOUL AND I MEANT IT.
At the same time he’s doing his thing my therapist starts hitting me with “Janelle, if you want to get through this you have to actually feel things,” if you can imagine that shit.
You think you know a person then one day they’re telling you to stop numbing yourself with a cell phone addiction.
I like to write true things as jokes to avoid real emotion. Wait.
Let’s change the subject. GODDAMNIT.
So between needle guy talking about how some egos die harder than others, the Dutch therapist telling me to “actually feel things,” and my own restlessness, I was beginning to suspect that I, in fact, was going through some sort of bullshit growth I never asked for.
Then the therapist is giving me assignments like “The next time you’re feeling vulnerable and sad try to let Mac hug you for fifteen seconds without stiffening like a board.”
Have we rounded the fucking bend here?
The thing to do when feeling vulnerable is to signal to all loved ones in the vicinity that if they come any closer you’ll eat their face off with your bare hands.
I’m good at feelings.
Look, if I’m really fucked, I put my forehead against my dog’s forehead and cry, or tell him about it. This action was, in fact, what made me realize I have never in my life been able to accept comfort from a human being.
What kind of bullshit news is that? I regularly go to my dog for comfort, even physical comfort, and the thought of doing that with a human is incomprehensible. Apparently, though, some people accept hugs when they’re sad, or kind words, or back-patting, or some other weird demonstration of “support.”
I started wondering if this was the part of me that needed to die. (Ya fuckin think?)
Alright enough therapy hour. The point is I started searching with my whole self, as if my life depended on it, for what all this pain was about. I started asking a simple question, and I don’t even know who I was asking: What do you want me to learn from this?
I developed a rabid obsession with reading about depression and melancholy through the ages and through religions and histories: St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul, Jung’s alchemic processes of internal transformation, beginning with nigredo, the Greek mythology’s descent into the underworld. Shit, I even hit up Keats’s melancholy.
I wanted to learn what I needed to learn. I felt the world or universe or god was trying to teach me something and I could not find it. There’s a line in my book that says “I didn’t want the pain gone. I wanted it to mean something.”
What kind of new bottom is quoting yourself?
Whatever. Between that and soul growth there’s nothing left anyway.
I guess what I’m saying is I know that sometimes I have to suffer a whole lot before I can get someplace new. I’ve lived that once. Why did I think it wouldn’t happen in sobriety? Why did I think my Self wouldn’t need some serious changing? And why, perhaps most importantly, would I ever think that losing everything that made me feel connected, human, and safe (new country, hi), then finding myself cut off from the ability to create new connections, friends, home, delusions of safety (pandemic)—why did I not suspect this might take me down to the bones?
“I have a feeling you think this is going to pass on its own.” Damn that needle guy.
Check it out, once again: I don’t know what you need to do for your depression. What I knew, or at least suspected, what I felt deep in my blood, was that something was happening to me and I couldn’t just pill it away. I absolutely needed that medication. I am grateful for it and I think there’s a decent chance it saved my life. It definitely saved my sobriety (I was about five minutes from drinking, because it’s a slightly slower way for me to kill myself and everything I love).
But I KNEW this wasn’t going to pass without me doing something. I could feel myself stripped of everything that gave meaning to my life, and I couldn’t create new shit, and I couldn’t find anything in myself. To survive, I had to believe that what I was going through had some meaning, that if I could face it, and face it squarely, and integrate whatever truth existed deep in it, that I would find what I needed.
And the truth is, folks, the process I’m describing up there is in fact a very, very old process, but we sure as hell don’t talk about it. Someday I will talk about it. Someday when we have more time.
I don’t think I was off the plane in San Francisco for ten minutes before I felt that sprawling gray lift out of my body.
Maybe it was the warmth (read: Satan’s armpit) of California summer. Maybe it was my beloved state’s trees and mountains and crystal blue of the lakes. Maybe it was the smell of Tahoe pines. Maybe it was Bodega Bay fog.
Maybe it was seeing friends I love with whom nothing is forced. Who I’ve known for years. Who tell it to me straight. Who know it all, already.
Maybe it was being around my own culture and people even though I low-key hate them both. Americans don’t exactly, as a whole, make me swell with pride, as we ban books we don’t like and abortions we don’t like and sing our bullshit country songs of sequin patriotism while waving flags in the faces of hungry kids and wondering what the problem is.
But we are more, of course we are, and for better or worse, I am American.
Maybe it was the fact that people understood me and I didn’t have to work at it and I had a sense of humor again because there was no language barrier blocking sarcasm and understatement comprehension.
Maybe it was going home.
It was definitely going home.
I don’t think we’re aware of how many tiny moments of human connection are created through language and shared culture. Until they’re gone. I don’t think we understand what it feels like to sit effortlessly with a friend over coffee, until it’s mostly gone.
I am misunderstood in my daily life as often as I worry about being misunderstood. I find myself purposely refusing to have real conversations with people around me because it’s just too hard. It’s too much effort for too little return. We still aren’t going to know each other. We still aren’t going to connect. I will leave this conversation wondering how many times my humor didn’t translate.
And over my time here, compounded by lockdown after lockdown, my world got smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier until it was just me, on the couch, wondering if there was ever a person in the meat sack of my body, writing to you about depression.
But I see now that it had to get small, to get me down to the bones. To get me relying on nothing because nothing is there. To get me stripped down to the person who can’t receive a single hug when she’s afraid and heartbroken. To get me to let go of the lifetime of defense, rage, and self-delusion that had me convinced I could go it alone.
It doesn’t work, ya know. It doesn’t work.
I’m not fixed. But I’m closer to a freer, truer self than I’ve ever been.I don’t know why the depression lifted out of my body when I went to California. It felt like I suddenly remembered who I was. “Oh, right,” my whole self seemed to say, “I’m a person. I have a home and friends and a sense of humor and roots way down into the ground.”
I felt a lightness for the first time in years. An energy. A silliness. And a looming dread that the second I went back to the Netherlands it would all go away again.
But it didn’t. By the end of my month in California, I wanted to return. I missed it. I missed our little life here. My kids started saying, “I want to go home,” which was really something.
I remember riding my bike in the sun after returning and noticing that the same lightness existed. I remember a sense of gratitude so deep it gave me chills. I remember feeling like I will never understand how it feels that some things are one day removed from me, not beaten to death, not talked away with a therapist, not diluted with a pill.
I needed it all to get well. I needed the pills and I needed the needles and needle-guy truth and I needed the therapist’s terrible ideas about normal human connection and goddamn I definitely needed the miracle that is my dog.
In a way, I came back to California and felt the arms of old friends and family and the trees and ground give me that fucking hug my therapist insisted I learn to accept.
I didn’t see it coming. I’m not sure what will come next. But I see again, I get what I need, and I am just happy to be here. DAMNIT.
Happy fucking New Year, friends. Here we are. Here we are.