Death and Life and 2016

I’d been thinking about writing on my depression experience for a long time, but small voices that sit behind my ears would whisper, “People will just think you want attention,” or “Folks will think less of you,” or “You are making this all such a bigger deal than it is.” I am silencing those voices to make room for my own, a voice that is raw and unpolished and a little afraid.

If we had a day for every time someone said 2016 has been a terrible year, we probably could make several new complete years. And in many ways, it has been a spectacularly awful year. The cultural atmosphere the U.S. election produced (or that produced the election) has been poisonous to breathe. We’ve felt helpless in the face of countless injustices: climate change, the war in Syria, systemic racism, etc. Illness has tried to pin down loved ones, and many of my friends have grappled with the death of someone close. I’ve cried about the future of the world during 2016 more than any other time I can remember.

And yet. Without diminishing the devastation and fear and righteous indignation that we feel, I want to note that, for me, personally, 2016 has not been a spectacularly awful year. In fact, it has been a year of miraculous hope and healing.

I’ve been struggling with depression since I was a teenager. It has come and gone over the years, swelling less like a tide and more like a tsunami, creeping up unexpectedly and then suddenly swamping everything, leaving me gasping for air and clutching for something to hold onto.

The summer of 2015 saw my slow decent into the strongest depressive episode I have known. (I touched on my experience briefly in my yogurt post.) At first, I felt numbed to beauty – I couldn’t notice the flickering sunshine on waving leaves anymore. Then, I couldn’t get up the energy to clean, to cook, to eat. I desperately wanted company, but I didn’t have it in me to reach out and connect. Every morning and evening as I lay in bed, it felt like a great weight settled on my chest, a weight that pressed at every loss and pain I’d ever experienced and pushed at the cracks until rivers of tears broke through. I felt like I was viewing the world through a pane of glass, never able to participate, never able to shake the endless fatigue, never able to come fully alive. I saw little hope for the future—for my own life or for the planet as a whole.

At the beginning of 2016, things had gone from bad to worse. Some nights I would be seized by an overwhelming terror. Lying on my bed and staring at the dark ceiling, I would stuff my hands into my mouth to keep from screaming, my body both shaken by silent tears and paralyzed by the gripping fear that, if I moved one inch, I would do something rash about the persistent thought that my life was just not worth living anymore. I felt like a deep pit was sucking the bones from my body, was draining me dry, was emptying me of everything good and beautiful. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to fight it.

But I couldn’t find the words to say anything to those I loved; I didn’t know how to ask for help. I believed those little voices that told me if I spoke up I would be a problem, a burden, an annoyance, an attention-seeking fraud. My worth was tied to my productivity and to my outward positive attitude, and with everything inside myself crumbling down, I worked to keep those outer walls propped up as long as I could.

When I began taking medication, it took off some of the edge, but it brought with it the side-effect of a crippling anxiety, a can’t-catch-my-breath worry that shellacked and veneered the deep existential fear already sitting in my middle. I kept trying everything I knew that was supposed to help. But still the foggy days wore on, and I thought this might be how I would live the rest of my life. I alternately railed at God for letting this disease take control of my life and begged God to release me from its hold.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that brought about the change. Winter ended. That always helps, at least a little. I had my medication changed. I stopped eating sugar for a while. I finished my last full-time graduate school semester, and the unrelenting pace of the previous years slowed. I moved into the neighborhood where my faith community was. All the stars aligned, and the fear that life would always be a battle against the gravity of a black hole slowly receded. Hope grew like a dandelion in a sidewalk crack—not beautiful, not lush or fragrant, but miraculous all the same.

In the past months, I have felt myself come back to life. I have laughed genuinely with friends. I have danced to music across my apartment for no other reason than I wanted to. I have reveled in the beauty of a distant mountain and of a tiny leaf. I’ve made yogurt and cookies. I’ve biked across the city breathing encouraging words to my working muscles. I’ve cried for a while and then felt a little better and lighter when I finished. I’ve made things with my hands and cooked real meals for my body. I’ve imagined a future for myself. Or futures. The paths are wide.

I am ending 2016 miles away from where I began it. I am still afraid, but not of myself. I am still grieving losses, but not without experiences of small joys and celebrations. I am still worried about the future, both personal and global, but (most days) I feel empowered to participate in it and not just let it happen. I still get lonely and homesick and unsure, but I am learning to shatter the walls I’ve built around myself and to recognize that, at the very least, we can all be lonely and homesick and unsure together. I still get angry at God for things that have happened, but every time I yell and rail I am a little more assured that God is open enough to hold whatever I hand Her.

So as 2016 looks to be ending with little hope, I offer this small, personal story of redemption. The change was not instantaneous. It wasn’t something I could entirely control. And it is not complete. Which is, perhaps, the biggest miracle: I am unfinished and growing. I end this year dynamically and vibrantly alive, even in my saddest moments, and where there is life, there is hope. My personal experience certainly doesn’t change the enormity of the challenges we face walking into 2017. But maybe my story can give you strength for the journey ahead—because we are alive. We are a whole garden of dandelions cracking the sidewalk, and we don’t enter this new year alone.