to those who are tired



Real talk: I was in Mexico this weekend, studiously avoiding my phone, but all I could think about was Anthony.

Something about depression, at least as I’ve experienced it, is that it behaves a lot like a weed in a garden. It starts so small that, to the untrained eye, you should be able to just cut it off before it grows. But if you don’t know how to pull it up by the root, it only grows back thicker and tougher than before. Even if you can get it at the root, it takes a lot of effort to do that by yourself, especially since new weeds seem to sprout as soon as you’ve pulled the old ones out. Before you know it, your once-vibrant garden is an overgrown tangle of vines and thorns, and you’re stuck there in the middle with your gloves and your spade, wondering what the heck happened, and feeling embarrassed for being a bad gardener. 

You don’t need someone to come say “hey we see you in there! Dig yourself out!” What you really need is someone to just take charge and come in bushwhacking. 

When you’re in the thick of depression, it doesn’t matter if people say to reach out, because what you’re experiencing makes it nearly impossible to do that. You see all these beautiful, important, well-meaning exhortations to “just reach out” and all you think is “that doesn’t apply to me.” Because depression makes you feel like shit, and also like you’re not allowed to feel like shit, and like no one would care anyway. Like you genuinely don’t matter.

A few years ago I was in a relationship with a malignant narcissist, a man who made me feel like garbage’s garbage. His gaslighting skills were so legendary that he demolished my reality and rebuilt it upside-down within just a few short years, as surely as he could paint a wall or put up shelves. He would smother me with affection, strategically withhold it, and then shame me for being sad. He’d use big gestures to get me to rely on him and then berate me for being too needy. He'd sandwich his cruelty between acts of ostensible kindness, keeping me constantly disoriented, feeling like I owed him something. He cheated on me repeatedly and told me that either 1) it wasn’t real and I was crazy to suspect him, or 2) it was *kinda* true but it was my fault. He undermined my friends, slowly convincing me that they didn’t care about me, so that I wouldn’t reach out. He did a few more things that I still can’t quite bring myself to speak about, except to a close few.

None of this mattered to me at the time, of course, because I loved him too intensely and, in hindsight, insanely. In my mind, whatever I needed to do, not do, accept or change to make him happy, I would – no questions asked. The worse he became, the more I made excuses for him. The harder he held my hands to the flame, the harder I insisted it wasn’t hot. With a fervor that bordered on the religious, I martyred myself, romanticizing the sacrifices that were slowly killing me. I had pitched my tent in a black hole of my own empathy.

My gut hadn't given up on me entirely, though, so I basically spent my life in a perpetual state of acute panic. I was nervous and jumpy, always peering around corners, waiting for the next shoe to drop. I ended up losing almost twenty pounds because I was hardly able to eat (towards the end, he took this as occasion to tell me that he was disappointed I was losing my curves and my "girlfriend stomach" – because I clearly needed another thing to feel inadequate about). But the worst was the constant physical anxiety, the pit in my stomach that just wouldn't lift.

On a particularly bad day, for the first and only time, I took a needle from my sewing kit and scratched my legs, over and over, desperate for some way to ease this iron grip of dread around my ribs. He saw the marks a few days later and asked me what they were. Ashamed, I tried to tell him that I cut myself shaving, which of course didn’t hold up, so I immediately caved and told him the truth. I guess I hoped he would see what was happening to me, take pity, and soften, which he did for few precious, blissful minutes. Then he called me a liar and added it to the list of faults he’d hold over my head to re-exert his control.

Suffice it to say that I was not doing great. But on March 26, 2015, having discovered new evidence of his infidelity, I called him from the lobby of my office, and he called me an asshole. From some secret reservoir, I somehow summoned enough defiance to tell him not to call me names anymore – and then he ghosted me.

And that was that.

By this point, I had completely stopped performing, functioning properly, or really doing much of anything at all. I didn’t call my mom or go visit with my friends. I didn't go to any of the theatres I loved because I was terrified to run into him. I just went to work at my receptionist job and held it together til I had to cry in the bathroom and then I kept working and repeated as necessary. Then I went home and took two Benadryl with a glass of wine so I could fall asleep by 6pm. Every day. On the weekends I slept all day. It didn’t occur to me to reach out. I didn’t go out, I didn’t call anyone. I was a hermit, tight-lipped and eyes averted, only ever one Honda Civic sighting away from the uncontrollable trembling and the nightmares and the wall of tears.

And yet if you looked at me on the surface you would never have known. Because that’s the other half of it – when you’re in the depths like this, chances are you’re ashamed to be there and you don’t want anyone to know. Smaller birds, for example, do this thing when they’re sick, where no matter how sick they are, they pretend to be fine. They’re experts beyond belief at hiding their illness. Even the trained eye may not see any signs of distress until it's already too late. Because they know instinctively that, in the wild, to show weakness is to become prey. 

Some people are a lot like birds.

What really changed this trajectory for me was not a realization that I should reach out to someone. It was when my friend Shanna came over to my desk one morning and told me she was having trouble finding a musical director for a show she was directing. 

Before I knew it, I was that director. No more staying home, isolated, increasingly exhausted by my own exhaustion – I had a whole score to learn and a bazillion rehearsals to attend. I had a mantle and a mission. I had friends again. 

Had Shanna reached out to me in a “gosh Erin, you seem like a fucking mess right now” way, that actually would’ve made me feel even more ashamed for feeling shitty. She didn’t do that though – she just included me. 

Her kindness quite literally changed my life, and I will forever be so grateful to her for it. 

I wish I could say the bad dreams were entirely a thing of the past – but trauma, like depression, is a tricky beast. That said, when you have good people and good work and a good therapist to help you heal, you stop seeing these things as signs of weakness and come to value them instead as evidence of strength, and of lessons learned. You resist numbness and renew the soft places of your heart, even as you resolve to never again let someone use them against you.

This year, three years to the day since the dissolution of my personal nightmare, I sent said nightmare a letter of forgiveness from the backseat of an uber in Manhattan. He never responded, but it doesn't matter, because it wasn't really for him anyway.

Since all of this is well in the past now, and since I'm not exactly the first person to go through a difficult time, I don’t share it now for pity, or to make the wider discussion in any way about me. Only to illustrate the best way I know how that it is so important for those of us who aren’t in the thick of it, to be the ones to reach out to those who are. 

Once in awhile, I comb through my list of Facebook friends, paring down any connections that seem unnecessary, who post too much spam, or who I know never liked me anyway, or who got sadly addicted to InfoWars so now all their posts make me want to barf. 

Next time, though, I think I’ll take a different approach, and look harder instead for the ones I don’t see. 

It could be a good start towards a small kindness that moves the world. The planting of a better seed.

Comments

  1. Erin, you are a gifted blogger!!! I've been thinking of doing the same thing..
    Thank you for speaking on depression. I've had low grade, chronic depression all my life. ❤

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    Replies
    1. Aw thank you Sheri! You absolutely should. It is a little scary to put it all out there, but it's also incredibly cathartic.

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