Foreword: I wrote this for myself, a bit, but in the writing of it decided it may be useful to others, whether they’re seeking to understand or just want to know someone has felt similar. If you’re part of the latter, please seek professional help: things can get better, and while everything won’t be magically perfect, working with professionals can give you so much more to fight with.
It starts with my tongue deciding to leave the sensor party. That’s how I know I’m in trouble.
I’ve dealt with depression for as long as I remember – unipolar, one-way darkness that’s always there. A cosmic microwave background of crushing lies that my brain whispers to itself. Depression carries self-reinforcing logic and behavior packages so that when it cranks up, it can usually sustain itself or snowball deeper. It’s only in the intermediate stages that the territory becomes clear: I can’t trust my own brain. And for someone who spends a lot of time in his own head, that’s devastating.
I don’t know when depression first set in for real. There are stories from my very early youth that make me wonder if it’s just always been there; age five or six, sitting on the stairs, inexplicably crying because “Even Jesus doesn’t love me.” Other stories. I don’t know how much is accurate and how much is the storytelling that families engage in, sometimes confabulatory or comingling, because I’ve got no memory from before age thirteen. Just, poof, gone. What I do know is that by thirteen depression and anxiety were a deeply set part of my character, my internal monologue, and have been for the twenty four years since.
In addition to that constant dull-but-menacing background, I occasionally slip into much deeper depressive episodes that present more severe symptoms than usual. Haven’t been able to find a pattern, though seasonality as well as financial insecurity can trigger them. A fun wrinkle is that my depression is medication-resistant: having tried twelve different meds in several families, I knew myself well enough to refuse further and make the war a little more personal. SSRIs spiked anxiety about two weeks in, as did tricyclics. Atypicals and benzodiazepines drugged me out and studies pointed to long-term use causing side effects likely worse than me fighting this motherfucker with just my wits. Don’t get me wrong: psychiatric medications can and do work absolute wonders in people every day, and are worth exploring and trying with professional help and concurrent psychotherapy. Meds just didn’t work for me.
So here we are.
The other day brought a new realization about depression, which is another interesting aspect: as dull and monotonous and featureless as a depression landscape becomes, it can provide new twists and turns that you learn without warning. Never a dull moment, except for all of them.
Anyway, as I pondered this newly-observed dimension to my depression (which I’ll talk more about below), I realized that in thirty years of this crap I’ve never actually sat down and written about the onset and general experience of a depressive episode. I’ve talked about it with doctors, therapists, loved ones, and friends, but never sat down and organized my thoughts about this specific progression. And given that I’m in the midst of a depressive episode now decided that it’s time.
It starts, as noted above, with my tongue deciding to leave the sensor party. I’ve been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum previously, which makes a fair amount of sense given some of my social tics and sensory issues. I’ve done a lot of work to regain more typical social functionality and keep stimming to a minimum, but I don’t always shine there. And I’ve always dealt with sensory issues so I’m particularly primed to attend to them. When I start losing my sense of taste I know something’s up and I know it’s likely going to suck.
This first symptom presents as a slow dialing-back of my ability to taste food. I prefer foods with a clearly discernible taste profile – it can be sweet, it can be salty or savory, as long as it’s definable. But deepening depression slowly winnows that away in an almost imperceptible fashion. The first thing I notice isn’t that I can’t fucking taste anything, but that I’m trying to replace taste with portion as a comfort mechanism. “Why the hell am I eating this much?” rolls over into “Oh shit, why can’t I taste this sweet-ass coffee cake that I bought with the fried sandwich and sugary latte?”
My more general depression is marked by anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure. Pain and neutral senses aren’t blunted, as far as I can tell. But it’s difficult to feel pleasure, whether it’s a hug or a footrub or putting on warm clothes just out of the dryer. There are some techniques to break through this; extremely hot showers are one (and now that I’m in a cannabis-friendly area, weed showers have become especially good at this). But as I veer towards a depressive episode I can note by the angle of the shower handle that I’m pushing it hotter and hotter to gain the same sensory activation and relief.
I say “towards a depressive episode” but it’s worth noting: this isn’t linear. There isn’t a lot of logic to it, but if you need a visual, think of it more as an accretion disk, a bunch of diffuse matter orbiting in a spiral pattern around a black hole. It all spirals inward to be consumed and you can see the event horizon, can see what’s coming, but in the meantime you’re also dodging the rest of the detritus being pulled in.
Fatigue sets in. I lose physical energy, I lose mental energy. Everything becomes harder, and the difficulty waxes and wanes randomly. I lose time – I find myself zoning out and consuming more mindless entertainment rather than reading, watching lectures, or something more productive that I just don’t have the cognitive bandwidth for. I start losing the ability to concentrate on complex tasks unless I consciously and often angrily force it. Correct word recall in conversations and in writing becomes more difficult. And I lose patience with everyone, but especially myself.
Here’s the new twist. Here’s the new realization that I had that spurred this blog post, the new bit of myself that I’ve learned I lose in the midst of a depressive episode. Ever since I can remember I’ve encountered synesthesia – defined by wikipedia as “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” The most common form is grapheme-color synesthesia in which letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. The specifics vary, but think about if every time you saw the number 1, it was blue, or every time you saw a 6, it was red, no matter what color it was printed in.
My particular synesthesia is lexical-tactile, in which words both spoken and written trigger tactile sensations. I get immediate sensations of touch, pressure, and/or texture from some words. It can be positive or negative and is much more pronounced when spoken than written, but is probably one of the primary reasons I’m a writer: the immediate sensory feedback I feel during a writing session. Different languages provide a wholly different experience (I found this a few years ago brushing up on my Spanish).
I realized this week that at the onset of a depressive episode I lose all or almost all of my synesthesia. And looking back it’s clear that this has happened in the episodes I can remember.
I keep using the words lose/losing/lost, something you’re not supposed to do in writing unless there’s a particular payoff for the repetition. There’s no alliteration here, there’s no thematic advantage. There’s just loss, and that’s what I’m left with. The onset of a depressive episode is a subtractive and contractive process. A wide and dynamic experience of the universe is winnowed down to a room, a television babbling inconsequentialities, and the absence of sensations that make life so much more deep.
When this hits, at this point, I’m left shallow and raw. The episode moves from sensory issues and immediate experience to the existential undercurrent phase. That “cosmic microwave background” of lying, deceitful self-chatter amps up. A hard, bright flare of imposter syndrome occurs. I feel like life will always be like this (it won’t), and everything is uncontrollable chaos (it isn’t, entropy notwithstanding), and I have almost no sense of agency. My defense mechanism at this point is to view life as a war: I’m in the midst of a scarred, pitted battlefield in a war of attrition that I feel like I’m losing, but still fight.
And I’m still fighting.
Along the way I’ve cultivated some skills and defense mechanisms that I’ll detail in a subsequent post.
To close, there are a few things for me to remember, and they aren’t always easy:
-I’ve fought this battle for thirty-plus years
-I’ve fought this battle while saving lives as a 911 dispatcher
-I’ve fought this battle as an unemployed tech-freelance failure living with his parents
-I’ve fought this battle while kicking ass in a tech job in Congress every day
-I’m fighting this particular battle while kicking ass in a tech job in Silicon Valley
Depression picked a fight that it didn’t expect in me.