"This is such a happy time for you! Enjoy it," cooed one of my mother's most elegant friends. We ran into each other at a grocery store near my parents' house. She recently found out I will be getting married on October 1st, and she is absolutely thrilled for me.
"Thanks!" I replied automatically, attempting a smile.
The truth is, I'm not happy at all. I'm severely, clinically depressed.
My fiancé and I got engaged in August of last year. About six and a half months later, I was diagnosed with depression for the first time.
On paper, 2016 is supposed to be the best year of my life. My first novel will be released in September, and three days later, I will be marrying my favourite person. But as a writer, I know what's written on paper does not always reflect reality.
As I write these words, I am lying on my bed, surrounded by unopened wedding presents. They keep coming, more and more, practically every day. These are gifts my fiancé and I carefully picked out on our registry prior to the diagnosis of my depression. I know they are thoughtful and useful items, such as cutlery, perhaps a new duvet to replace our raggedy old one, or even a brand new floral teapot. These are things anyone would be lucky to receive, I cannot face opening them, so my wedding presents are still in the boxes they came in, encroaching on more and more of our floor space, to the point where I can barely open the bedroom door. How did I become a hoarder of unopened wedding presents?
I used to love receiving gifts. Like many children, I awoke extra early on Christmas morning to see if Santa had brought me the new doll I wanted. I can remember the heady excitement I felt when I received my first pair of high-heeled "grown-up" boots for my 16th birthday, feeling like a fashionista worthy of the pages of Harper's Bazaar. But today, as I imagine opening the various things my fiancé and I registered for, I feel overwhelmed.
I have had two bridal showers that my friends and family generously threw, and I dutifully opened items at both. I did so while wearing a tiara with a matching sash that read, "I'm the bride." As I opened the gorgeous mugs and cheese plates, I was struck by the fact that I felt nothing. It terrified me. At the end of my last shower, which took place a few weeks ago, I left all the gifts loved ones bestowed upon me at my mother's house. I claimed I would pick them up later, but I never did. I was desperate to escape these objects I knew I should have appreciated, but couldn't.
As luck would have it, though, the majority of the gifts people bought for my fiancé and me were delivered directly to our home. While I feigned enthusiasm on social media when the first parcels arrived in the mail, I was unable to rip into them. To this day, I have yet to open a single one. I cannot face the numbness I know I will feel when I unwrap the packages. You see, these gifts are beautiful tokens of affection from people I love, but my depression blunts my emotions. When I should feel overjoyed by the generosity of people who love us, at best I feel nothing, and at worst, I feel shame; I am ashamed of my inability to be the proverbial blushing bride.
When I got engaged, everyone told me they were ecstatic for me. One friend was even moved to tears upon hearing about my engagement.
"I am so pleased. What joyful news!" She declared between sniffles.
The fact that everyone is supportive and enthusiastic about my upcoming wedding just makes it harder, because I myself cannot feel the extraordinary measure of happiness I want to feel. Sure, I am happy about the idea of getting married, and there is no one I'd rather spend my life with than my fiancé. But there is a difference between being happy about something and being happy in general. The latter is what I'm struggling with, thanks to the lack of serotonin in my brain.
What's worse is that my depression is certainly not caused by a lack of desire to marry my fiancé. My depression could have been triggered by the PTSD I developed after walking in on a loved one trying to hang themselves last winter. My most recent blood work has also revealed I suffer from a massive B12 deficiency, another factor that science suggests could be related to my depression. My depression, like most things in life, is complicated and its causes could be multiple. My depression also causes a variety of complications. One such complication is my inability to savour what should be one of the most enjoyable times of my life.
While my cousins and aunts sweetly inquire about whether I've started counting down the days to our wedding, what they don't know is that I often struggle to get out of bed. There are days that pass in a fugue state so all-consuming I can barely read. And so all those cards expressing well wishes for my future go unopened, unread. When they arrive in the mail, they are automatically added to a mound of unopened envelopes on my dresser. Of course, my fiancé could open them on his own, but we always envisioned performing this task together. He doesn't feel right diving in without me, and he knows I don't feel ready.
My secret hoarding of unopened wedding gifts leads to awkwardness when I see a family friends or relatives. Invariably, they ask after the gift they had delivered from our registry: "Did you get that mixer I sent you?"
"Um, it hasn't arrived yet!" I lie. In reality, it's probably crammed under my bed in the box it came in.
"That's strange; I ordered it over a month ago," they invariably reply, leaving me to feel like an asshole. Of course, I berate myself for the rest of the day, demanding, what kind of ungrateful person cannot open a present someone spent their hard-earned money on? I hate myself more than words can express, but it doesn't change anything. All it does is make me more depressed. The fact that I derive no joy from my wedding gifts has become the ultimate symbol of my mental illness.
Depression, I'm learning, is not like a common cold. At first, I thought I could cure it myself with bed rest and Netflix. I just need a little break, I told myself, but weeks passed, and my depression didn't. I officially reached my lowest point one day when I couldn't stop imagining my lifeless body lying in the street. I was sitting on my couch watching bad TV about rich teenage boys who are angry that pretty girls won't date them, but no amount of cheesy drama could distract me from the morbid thoughts in my imagination. My ruminations on death were involuntary. I do not actually want to die. In fact, I am so terrified of death I refuse to even jaywalk, and yet, I could not stop envisioning myself as a corpse.
I didn't want to die, and I still do not. But I could not live in my own depressed head any longer. It was too disturbing a place for me to survive there. And so, with my fiancé's urging, I finally got up the nerve to call the doctor. It was time to accept that I needed help, and I had piles upon piles of unopened packages to prove it.
When I walked into my doctor's office, the first thing she asked was, "Hi, Sarah, how are you?"
"I'm great!" I chimed in without thinking, in the fake cheerful voice that had sustained me throughout my depression.
"OK, so what brings you here?" my physician replied, somewhat puzzled. I assume people rarely see her between annual checkups for no reason.
"I feel really depressed and I can barely get out of bed," I managed to blurt out.
My doctor looked at me quizzically. Not 30 seconds before, I'd said I was doing "great," and now I was confessing to depression. I was so used to feigning being fine that even when I was at my physician's office with the express purpose of getting treatment, part of me still wanted to deny my illness.
My doctor proceeded to ask me a series of questions from that ominous questionnaire used to diagnose people in depressed states. The questions ranged from whether my appetite had changed, to how much sleep I was getting.
At the end of her laundry list came the last and most serious query. "Sarah," my doctor said in a concerned tone, "have you tried to hurt yourself?"
"Um, no. I don't have enough energy to do that. I can barely get off the couch," I joked. Humour has always been my go-to defense mechanism in uncomfortable situations. This time, however, my one-liner fell flat. She did not find it as funny at all.
By the end of our 15-minute appointment, my doctor had put me on SSRIs, referred me for therapy, and instructed me to return for a follow-up in two weeks. When she prescribed me the Cipralex, my first and only question was, "Will I gain weight?" I had already purchased my wedding gown, and I knew if I put on a single pound, it probably wouldn't fit. The fact that my first thought after being prescribed anti-depressants was about my figure should have been alarming to me. But I was so weak I could barely make a fist and my memory was so cloudy I routinely forgot my colleagues' names. I wasn't in a place to be self-reflexive.
I imagine most people do not believe they will grow up to be depressed brides. I certainly didn't. Weddings are characterized by superlatives. When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me "a woman always looks her most beautiful on her wedding day." At the time, I wondered, what about women who don't want to get married? Nonetheless, I took away the idea that weddings were meant to be the zenith of one's happiness. For the rest of my youth, even when I was wrestling with the question of whether I believed in marriage at all, a part of me still saw it as the fastest route to happiness.
Watching Disney movies and romantic comedies did little to disabuse me of the notion that proper brides were always joyful. Happy endings for women in popular culture in the '80s and early '90s were practically synonymous with women tying the knot, so I grew up immersed in the notion that all brides were supposed to be beautiful and blissful. What I have learned, however, is that weddings are not a magical love elixir. Depression can happen to anyone at any time, even to a woman who has found the love of her life. Getting engaged did not cause my depression, but it couldn't inoculate me against it either. My awful truth is that all of this pressure for brides-to-be to be the happiest they've ever been takes a toll. I wish there were more room for reality, for depressed fiancées who are just trying to make it through the day. I wish I didn't have to feel like such a freak.
I'm still stuck here, surrounded by presents from people who mean well. The stacks of packages stand there, reminding me I am not yet better, even though I'd hoped to be by now. My therapist assures me I will open the boxes one day, when I'm ready. I hope I'll be ready soon. I am doing everything in my power to make sure I will be.