Oh, You Again: Accepting My Cyclical Depression

Rachel Maddow says she can feel it when a depression is coming in, like the prelude to a migraine. She has to make allowances for it, rework her schedule, make sure she isn’t interviewing authors because she can't read a book a day like normal.
Publish date:
October 10, 2012

A while back Ellen, my almost sister-in-law, tells me about a “Fresh Air” interview she heard with Rachel Maddow in which she talks about her history as a depressive. Maddow says she can feel it when a depression is coming in, like the prelude to a migraine. She’s easily distracted, can’t focus. She has to make allowances for it, re-work her schedule, make sure she isn’t interviewing authors, that she isn’t able to read a book a day like normal.

She says she isn’t ashamed of being a depressive. It’s something she accepts as a cycle in her life. She says talk therapy has never worked for her, but she has learned how to cope with depression in her own ways, that it's real, that it's manageable, that everyone can find their own specific ways of dealing with it.

I’m leaning against the wall as she tells me this, swaddled barelegged in a massive grey zip-up sweatshirt that hits mid thigh. I had planned to run this morning, never put pants on. It’s 2 pm. I’m balancing a plate that holds 3 honey buttered English Muffins. I nod at her, taking a bite.

“Yeah?" I say, turning to go, "Interesting.” I shuffle upstairs, lie down again.

It’s spring and in North Carolina, with spring comes pollen, covering everything with a chalky dust dark yellow the color of melancholy. With my head propped on a pillow pile, I watch breezes and mid-afternoon light move the shadows of leaves on pavement through shut windows and partial blinds. I notice that pollen covers my station wagon so completely you can hardly tell its true paint shade.

I have something to give,” I think, returning to lame looping thoughts I’ve had all day, “just no way to give it. I could do things but I don’t. I should exercise, I should write, I should start some Tolstoy and instead I’m trapped in a hell of my own making, ancient at 24 and letting myself decay. I turn over, catch my reflection in the mirror on my bureau, continue lying there. Am I balding? Looks like it. My teeth are getting weaker, too.

Looking long in that mirror, one I’ve had since birth it seems, I see a face that has returned to this sadness many times, even after long absences. As a kid when it came, straw-headed girl, pale pink cheeks and a hanging heart, I’d be transfixed and paralyzed by disconnect, have dark cyclical waking dreams. Teen years brought mood swings, couldn’t hold food down, itching insomnia some nights or hot popping furious anger others, emotional fatigue I’d parlay into skipping school.

I had no idea where to put those feelings, no way to see it pulled heavy too hard and should really be dealt with somehow; so feelings sat and frenzied themselves in acidic heat like a belly full of sick. College brought me alcohol, violent dreaming, bad habits, similar and brilliant friends who went to edges also, let their eyes sink back too far.

I wonder, yeah, where does it come from, why does it seem to stick to me, me to it? Is it genetics, chemicals, nature or nurture or an un-moveable spiritual malady old as age? Is it catching and keeping like a cold some negative vibration in the air? Is it the simple psychological residue of lying next to a Dad drinking beer after hand-warmed beer at 3:30 on a Friday, watching Rosemary's Baby, Howard the Duck, Silence of the Lambs?

Is it something I ate?

I think about what Ellen told me about Maddow, how it's slightly different than what I’ve heard before, the way she accepts its cycles, makes allowances for herself when she feels it coming, has learned her own variations of coping.

I can feel my depressions coming too, like weather patterns. But before rain, when wind rustles low and clouds roll in grey and pregnant, I go indoors. When a depression rolls in, rumblin' hot in my body just like that, making me thirsty and tired, I try to resist it, flip it the bird, race from it until I collapse to dig it deeper. It’s familiarity I acknowledge, but somewhere I must still see it as a branded burning flaw of mine, a darkness too insurmountable. Not a cycle I can ride through, part of my makeup I can daily learn to manage.

When I'm depressed, if I can't function at the top of my game, if can't read long books, finish big projects, or so it seems today, shimmy on some pants; if I can’t concentrate, or remember things well, have trouble being present, why can't I give myself a break? Try something slightly different?

I get the urge to open the window just then, which I do. I think to bring a warm washcloth to my car to clean the maize pollen off its windows and doors, even in knowing it will lurk in the cracks. I won’t though; I’ll wait for the wind.Lying back down, I get the thought, fatigued as my muscles feel, that it's not too late to run.

Slow, I put on shorts, go downstairs, go outside, and surrounded by this pollen lifting itself oddly with the breeze, I take a walk.