I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I have had experience with both anxiety and depression, and I wanted to share some of those experiences so my readers can understand what it’s like – at least for me. It may be different for others, but if this helps increase understanding and strikes a chord with anyone, it will have been worth it.
Anxiety and depression can go together, or not. Either one be triggered by a specific event, but it’s important to realize that they don’t have to be. There may be no specific external cause at all. It may just have to do with being physically tired, or it may be a response to an accumulation of things that have happened over months or years or even decades.
I don’t always know why I start hyperventilating and my heart starts racing when I lie down to take a nap – or why I don’t. I can’t always pinpoint why I’m feeling unmotivated or down.
If there is a trigger, it can be helpful to identify and remove it. But if there isn’t one, going around and around in your own head – or in conversation with someone else – can only heighten the feeling. At least, that’s how it feels to me, because I’ve always been a highly solution-driven person. I want to figure things out and move on. I want to control my own destiny. I don’t like to feel “stuck.”
Yet for 15 years, even when I had a traditional job, I was spending more money than I was taking in, either because of expenses beyond my control or because I worked in an area where the cost of living outpaced my income. Usually both.
Then my favorite cat died, and I was “stuck” dealing with the grief of that. A few months later, I was stuck dealing with the death of my father, the only living blood member of my immediate family. Not too long after that, I lost the job that was providing me with not enough money to live on in the first place. The same company had laid me off once before. In neither case did it have anything to do with my job performance, which had earned me a number of raises and promotions. But that didn’t matter. And it left me feeling even more “stuck.”
Cause and effect
In fact, the feeling of being “stuck” is one of my biggest phobias: specifically, claustrophobia and a fear of being physically suffocated. I describe my experience of anxiety as being stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. This feeling can be exhausting, especially if it lasts for a long time, and that feeling of exhaustion can morph into depression pretty easily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say my feeling of depression is emotional exhaustion.
When I was in middle school, like a lot of kids, I felt alienated and was the target of teasing and bullying. I retreated into a shell of introversion until I figured out that, lo and behold, there was a way out: school. I realized that, because I was pretty smart, I could parlay that into classroom success. It was simple cause and effect. If I learned the material and figured out what the teacher wanted, I could provide it and (voila!) I could ace the class.
This came very easily to me. After nearly flunking out during my freshman year of high school, I got mostly A’s and B’s as a sophomore. By the time I hit my senior year, I was a straight-A student, and I kept right on going into college, graduating summa cum laude. This might seem like a good thing, and in many respects, it was. But it also created an unrealistic expectation: If I did the work and performed well, I would be rewarded.
Reality check: As often as not, it doesn’t always work that way. A lot of things are subjective, and a lot of others are simply beyond your control. I’ve never been fired for cause, but I have lost two jobs despite solid-to-glowing reviews because of market forces and bad timing. This might not seem like a big deal. People get laid off every day. They figure it out.
But picture yourself as a depressed, bullied teenager who discovered his only ticket out of that lonely place was success. Now imagine that, in middle age, that ticket is ripped to shreds in front of his face, not once, but twice. Do you think that person might feel just a little like that ostracized, ridiculed teen all over again?
Maybe school wasn’t your ticket. Maybe you were good at something else: sports, music, acting. It doesn’t matter what it was. It gave you a sense of self-worth, a feeling that the jerks who’d belittled you in sixth grade about your acne or your hair or anything else they could find to poke fun at – that they’d been wrong. That you were worth something after all.
But you learned to rely on it and then, one day, the rug was pulled out from under you. Suddenly, people either started pulling away from you or tried to encourage you by saying they love you “for who you are” rather than what you can do. Some of them are probably sincere. Still, that doesn’t provide the kind of security you’re seeking. It can even be confusing because you’ve gone so “all in” on the cause-and-effect model that anything else feels phony ... even if it isn’t.
The model falls apart
For years, I received a regular paycheck for what I wrote. I felt valued, and the paycheck was proof of that. I felt like I was, to some degree, in control of my own destiny. Now, I don’t. Now, when I write, I never know what’s going to happen. Some people might buy my book, a lot of people won’t, and there’s no way of knowing whether the results are based on something I’ve done or sheer, blind luck (good or bad).
I’ve written a number of books, each of which involves months of work, but I hate sending out query letters and applying for jobs, even though I could do several of those in a day.
Here’s why: I know I can write a book. I can find my way to the end of the story and feel good about having told it – about having accomplished something. That cause-and-effect relationship is intact. But every time I send out a query letter, there’s a very good possibility I’ll be rejected. My fear of failure isn’t just an ego thing. It’s a feeling of having wasted my time; of being stuck. It’s also further confirmation that my old cause-and-effect model doesn’t seem to work. People can try to reassure me that it’s all “part of a process,” not an end in itself ... and that might make sense to me rationally, but my emotions don’t give a damn.
One of two things will happen:
“Dammit, I’m going to make this happen, come hell or high water!” or
“This is never going to happen. Why should I bother?”
I don’t know how many times one side of my brain has told me, “Persistence pays off!” while the other side is reminding me of that “the definition of insanity is (supposedly) doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” I know it’s not exactly the same thing if I’m sending out requests to different people, but it feels that way – especially if the results are the same.
There’s a myth that people who experience anxiety and depression can’t accomplish anything. That’s not true. It may be true for some, but it’s a broad-brush statement that doesn’t fit with everyone. For me, staying busy can be an expression of my anxiety and a coping mechanism to keep myself from falling too deep into depression.
Because I’m afraid of being stuck, or paralyzed, that fear keeps me busy. But when that busyness fails to produce much in the way of concrete results (income, book sales, etc.), I start to feel anxious – like I’m stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. I want to get somewhere, but I can’t, so I rev the engine even harder and wear myself out in the process.
Then I crash and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m stuck in the state of depression I was trying to avoid in the first place. And here’s what makes it even worse: The more often it happens, the more difficult it is, each time, to claw your way out of it. Because each repeated “failure” reinforces the idea that you’re no good, that things will never get any better, and that being “stuck” is just a fact of life you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your days.
I’m not writing any of this in search of advice on one hand or pity on the other. Please don’t tell me to “get over it” or “buck up” or “shrug it off.” And please don’t suggest that I “get professional help,” either. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but it’s something people suggest as a stock answer because they feel like they need to provide some kind of answer and can’t think of anything else to say. Trust me: A person who’s dealing with depression or anxiety has already thought of it – and decided to pursue it or not – long before you mentioned it.
Others may fight depression and anxiety for entirely different reasons than those I’ve mentioned here, but I suspect at least some of you reading this know where I’m coming from. Maybe, like me, you’re not interested in pity or advice; maybe you just want people to understand, even if they can’t relate.
I know that’s all I’m asking.