Reflections on ‘Getting Better’

“I’m so glad you’re better.”

A year ago I found myself in the midst of a severe depression. It wasn’t until September 2013, about seven months ago, that I showed signs of improvement. It took leaving graduate school, moving two time zones away, and incredible gestures of friendship and empathy to get me to this point.

Emotionally, where am I now? I’m “better.” That’s what I tell people—because it’s true.
Sort of.

In the last couple months, I’ve reconnected with old friends in person, by phone, through Facebook, and in other ways. I went back to the east coast in early February to see people. I was pretty public about my depression (not that I could have hid it anyway—I’ve got a pretty bad poker face) and people wanted to know, understandably, whether things were better for me out west.
Better—there’s that word again.

Depression, at least in my experience, isn’t like a sprained ankle. Generally speaking, things have improved a great deal. A year ago I barely functioned. Eight months ago my deepest desire was to disappear. Two days ago I went to a Denver Nuggets game and laughed and cheered with my best friend.

But am I “better”? It depends on the day. Last week I spent three days barely able to get out of bed. Shame of past ‘failures’—grad school troubles, falling short of my best in friendships and other relationships, not being the family member I know I can be—sent me on a rapid spiral downward.

The spiral felt worse because of how often I’ve said that I’m “better.” That inner dialogue went something like this:

How much have people done for you? You have this job you like with fun people and this week you can’t even get everything done. People go out of their way to help you and you still fail. You have so many gifts and you screw them up, time and time again.

You’re a failure. These five months in Denver were a fluke. You’re going back to the person you really are—and that person is useless.
Just give up.

The Harry Potter book scene that stuck most with me seemed, at first glance, to be a throwaway. Harry and his classmates learn about the Imperius curse, a spell that allows the caster to control the recipient’s mind and body. A person under the Imperius curse will do whatever the caster wants—unless she/he learns to throw off the spell.
The first time Harry experiences the spell, in the classroom, he feels that blissful urge to submit—but his mind has other ideas:

“And then he heard [the] voice, echoing in some chamber of his brain: Jump onto the desk . . . jump onto the desk…

Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring.

Jump onto the desk…  

Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain.

Stupid thing to do, really, said the voice.

Jump onto the desk…

No, I don’t think I will, thanks, said the other voice, a little more firmly . . . no, I don’t really want to . ..

Jump!  NOW!

The next thing Harry felt was considerable pain. He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping—the result was that he’d smashed headlong into the desk, knocking it over.

“He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping.” 

That feeling of conflict, of inner turmoil—that’s what it feels like to battle depression, and that’s what it feels like to stand up to that hateful inner dialogue.

I’m not sure I will ever defeat depression. Some days the inner voice seems to come out on top. Even now, with a job I enjoy in a city I love, despair still has its day, or its hour, or its week.

But as long as I keep going, I stay in the fight. Getting out of bed is a win, however small. Brushing my teeth is a win. Reading that email I’m terrified to open is a win.

Fighting off that voice means experiencing considerable pain—but as long as I’m fighting, it means I’m feeling, and I’m living. Last week was rough. This week has been great. Both weeks are part of this long, grueling process.

Mostly I want to give myself permission, and give anyone reading this permission (or the permission to give yourself permission) to have days that don’t feel like better. Have moments and hours and weeks that don’t feel like better. As I continue this struggle through depression and grief, I am coming to learn that getting better means the presence,and not the absence, of pain.

Keep battling that voice, even if you knock some desks over. Keep hurting and keep struggling. Know that I’m right there with you, getting better—thanks to the bad days, and the good ones.

 

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on ‘Getting Better’”

  1. Kenny, I am sorry to hear about what you are going through but I am glad you have this outlet that hopefully helps you to cope with everything. I began reading and did not stop until the end. I like how you said “I am coming to learn that getting better means the presence, and not the absence, of pain.” That is amazing that you have discovered that because I think that is very important. Though I know nothing of depression and the pain you are going through, I would think facing it and feeling the pain is the only way to hopefully get through it. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. I found your blog through the UU subreddit on reddit, and I haven’t been able to stop reading. Everything you’ve posted has been like a breath of fresh air, in terms of writing style, struggles with race (I’m mixed, raised in a mostly white environment), and especially this post. I’m currently living and working in a developing country (Peace Corps) with not a lot of other Americans around me, and have been struggling with depression. Hard to get out of bed, hard to get the energy to get through the day, and even when good things happen, I’m always thinking about when the bad feelings and thoughts will come back. This post was right on point, and I hope you continue writing, about Ferguson, about UU, about depression, about whatever. You are a great writer and seem to be a great person, as well. Thanks.

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    1. Emily, I’ve been trying to leave a comment on your blog but it wasn’t working for me. However you found my posts, I’m so glad. Thank you so much for writing me, and for what you’ve shared on your own blog. Telling a stranger you struggle with depression can be both harder and easier than telling a friend.

      I especially connected with your post about “ceding control.” It’s something I am working HARD on–in my personal life and in newfound activist work. Are you familiar with the serenity prayer? I picked it up a few years ago and if you aren’t, you might find it valuable.

      Question for you: have you been reading the stuff around Charles Barkley’s comments on “unintelligent blacks”? Since it sounds like we had similar upbringings (I am not mixed but I did grow up in mostly white spaces, church included) I suspect we’d have a lot to talk about there. Ta-Nehisi Coates published a response to the ‘politics of respectability’ today at the online Atlantic site that I found helpful.

      We can keep talking here, or you can feel free to email me at KWiley@prairieUU.org. I am curious to keep reading your blog and learning more. Even more so, I am hopeful that your depression isn’t too overwhelming. My heart is with you. I can relate to this struggle and its pain–and I am glad my writing helped in some small way. Your writing helped me this evening.

      Thanks for reaching out! Hope to talk again.
      Kenny

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