I used to gain a sense of self-worth from how much I could accomplish in a day. But over the last year, my brain stopped creating the amount of serotonin it used to. I no longer have the energy or emotional fortitude to complete as much as I used to. To sustain, I’ve had to drastically simplify what “success” means to me. Below is a recounting of a recent week wherein I put that recalibration to heavy use and, ultimately, achieved a measure of success I’d failed to meet for a full year prior.
I wake and start cussing at myself. I overslept by about two hours.
I exhale and roll out of bed onto the floor. I spy an energy drink and a bag of peanut M&Ms I left on my nightstand. Good job, past Joe.
I mentally scroll through the evening before — nope — no dinner. And now I’m too late for breakfast. I put a handful of peanut M&Ms in my mouth. I eat some of each color to get all the necessary vitamins and minerals.
I crack the energy drink and use it to take my meds. Two antidepressants, a Truvada (HIV preventative), and a pill that’s supposed to slow the retreat of my hairline. The “vanity and sanity” pack.
I go into work and throw back two coffees and most of a bowl of cereal that turns to mush beside me. I don’t get up from my desk for four hours. (I’m punishing myself for being late.)
I get work done, scroll through a respectable portion of the internet, and, at some point, book a conference room on another floor to sit in silence. I don’t cry at work as much anymore, but I still need this moment to unclench — a letting-go of vague, excess emotion.
I’ve been depressed for about a year. These are the things I need to do. Managing depression is all about the “choices” (my therapist Wendi’s emphasis) I make along the way. The trick is to have more good or neutral choices than self-destructive ones. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
I decide to drink another coffee and write a to-do list for the week. Important work tasks are there, of course, but I also include “finish laundry,” “clean room,” and “deal with the mail.” These items have slipped onto and off of my list for the past year. I haven’t managed to complete them to satisfaction yet. Today, I decide to not feel terrible about that.
I work until 6:45. No one else is in the office. I did not notice them leave.
On Monday evenings, I usually go to a Vogue class. Dancing reminds me being in my body can be fun and the class is very queer and comfy. Like me!
Today, I do not want to go. This is normal. I tell myself that “it doesn’t fucking matter what I want! I have to go anyway.” I say that out loud like I’m a parent who has snapped at their teen. I roll my eyes. I am also the teen.
Vogue class turns out to be incredible, of course, and gets out late enough that I can easily take a shower and slip into sleep. I forget dinner, chomp a melatonin and get ready for bed. Ten minutes later it hasn’t kicked in. At night, my depression spikes. If I lie awake much longer, I’ll start spiraling. I get out of bed and take another melatonin. My mind starts to wander. Wasn’t I supposed to do something at home? I realize that I’ve left laundry in the dryer since Saturday. I run and get it and throw it on my bed. I pass out in it. Choices.
Two melatonins was too much. I slept nine hours. I usually set 15-20 alarms on my phone, going off every three minutes for an hour. It appears that I deactivated all of them and my phone is somewhere in my sheets. I tell myself I am an idiot. I tell myself not to talk to myself that way.
There is no energy drink on the nightstand. Peanut M&Ms, wash my face, all the meds, and I add an Ibuprofen because Vogue class has my knees feeling very 30.
About my cocktail: I’m on two antidepressants; a medium dose of Lexapro and a small dose of Wellbutrin. Lexapro does the heavy lifting of my depression but can cause night sweats, plummeting sex drive and, for me, appetite suppression. I use M&Ms to fill in the caloric gaps. The Wellbutrin is a stimulant. I used to be very energetic and it gives me some of that back, it’s also cut down my getting-out-of-bed-time by like 45 minutes. Wellbutrin can also cause insomnia. I love my cocktail. It keeps me alive. It makes starting and participating in my day possible, but I have to actively counter it at night so that I don’t lay in bed and mentally prod the bottom of the ocean.
I drink a cup of coffee as soon as I get to the office. I sit at my desk and try not to get up. I almost miss lunch. But it is taco day and I prevail. Good choice.
Tuesdays are usually good for me mentally. I go to a yoga class in the evening. I’m a jittery person. I pace when I need to think. I shake my leg when I write. Yoga gives me the space to be moving while I’m trying to calm down. Today it works.
I read on the subway home (good choice) and continue reading when I walk through my neighborhood. I get home, flop on my bed and keep reading. It’s only 6 o’clock. In my ideal world, I keep reading the book, finish the book. But, no, I open Grindr. Bad choice.
Grindr could bring me sex, dates, messages, anxiety, disappointment — a grab bag. But I’m just there to distract myself from myself. I also open Panda Pop — my 2nd favorite pointless phone game. I switch between the two for 45 minutes, then 90 minutes. I consider meeting up with someone from Grindr. I consider paying $3 for extra lives on Panda Pop. I weigh these with equal measure. Finally, my phone dies and I realize two and a half hours have passed. I haven’t even taken my coat off.
My brain decides this is a Big Deal. I am an idiot, a time-waster. I don’t make good choices.
I pull out all the classics: I’m alone in the world AND I have a messy room. I’m behind all of my friends AND I’m bad with money, blah, blah, blah. Depressive thoughts are not creative; the same ones cycle and sharpen and cycle. I’m crushing myself with them but I’m also supremely bored. I will not sleep tonight.
I grab my leather jacket, headphones, the M&Ms bag and a joint and walk outside. My tactic is that I can’t go home until I am so high that I think Joni Mitchell songs are funny. I spark the joint and start down my sidewalk. It’s dark. The street is quiet. I am the lone spectre.
I don’t know how many times I’ve taken this vigil of my neighborhood. Less and less nowadays, luckily. Weed is legal in California but you’re not supposed to walk down the block mainlining it like I am. I catch Pokemon, I munch, I haunt.
Halfway through my sad ladies playlist (“The Black Caftan Revue”), I’m feeling a little silly so I check on Joni. She sings about ice cream castles in the air and I lose it. That’s not where castles are, Joni! I’m cleared to head home.
I drink some water and try to brush my teeth but no longer have the agility. I try to clean my room but only get a few shirts hung up before I lose interest. I can’t stop giggling. I put on cologne and climb into bed. If I’d fallen asleep right then it would have all been worth it, but I don’t. I decide to check Grindr again, “just to clear the notification bubbles.” Then I want to re-listen to the new Ariana album and it’s a stupid spiral from there.
I should sleep and now I actually could. But I’m having an enjoyable, giggly time. I haven’t giggled in a long time. I want to stretch it out. I can hear the mean thoughts gathering, like mice in the walls. But the creepy scratches don’t bother me now. I just laugh and put on another album.
I’m made of fog. I feel okay, but it’ll be some time before I’m clear. Was the weed a bad choice? I’m not sure.
No energy drink to be found. I fell asleep in the laundry. It is everywhere now. I chug a glass of water. Two handfuls of peanut M&Ms, pills. I get out of the house like I’m mad at it. I’m earlier than the other two days but I still haven’t gotten to work before 10 this week. It’s not looking good.
I work. I feel sorry for myself. Then I feel grateful for how mundane and straightforward work can be. Then I forget all of it and feel completely normal for an hour or so. Rinse, repeat.
My writing group meets on Wednesday nights. I squeeze most of the required reading in an hour beforehand and decide that is a BAD thing to do. I text one of the women in the group. I just want to go home. The last thing I want to do is meet. I want to skip. I feel like shit. She’s says no.
Group ends up being pleasant and easy. I have too much wine, which may work against me when I walk into my dark apartment later but I’m also so, so tired from the night before. I’m in a good mood. I head home. My therapist recommends only thinking mundane things at night. I try that.
I climb into bed and push all of the laundry between the bed and the wall. I just can’t take care of it tonight. I fold the things on top of the pile as an apology. My blindfold is on. I start my breathing exercises. I slip under the covers and name sea creatures A-Z. Anemone. Barracuda. Crab. Dolphin. Eel. I think I make it to puffer fish.
I get into work at 9:45 a.m.. I eat a quick, late breakfast. Victory abounds!
At lunch, I slip away to Therapist Wendi, who is perfect and who I’ve been seeing for a year.
We start with the ups and downs of the week. I tell her everything about Tuesday. We talk about Grindr. Maybe I could only open it on weekends when I have a less vulnerable schedule. That seems reasonable and helpful. We make a contract.
She starts in on the peanut M&Ms thing — which she doesn’t get. I explain my theory about the lost calories. She explains that they’re made of sugar. We’re at a standstill.
She remarks that “I seem to be doing much better.” She is right and it’s important for me to hear but I can’t take my eyes off how far left I have to go.
I tell her about my new theory: I’ve been lonely and wanting a boyfriend. But I feel the same way about this ideal boyfriend as I do about going to grad school or moving to New York. I realize that it’s not about romance specifically, but about wanting something drastic and external to redirect my entire life. Old me would never have begged for something external to take control.
Wendi explains that a large part of depression is wanting something else to take over. It’s valid but won’t solve the problem. She’s gently hinting that I have to do this on my own. I call it out. She asks, “And what would that mean?” Yikes. She gives me a minute with that one.
Later that night, I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race at a gay bar. I’m not hungry but I get two slices of greasy pizza and eat it outside. Good choice. I am sluggish and exhausted. I don’t want to talk or entertain. I just want to watch drag queens be mean to each other and then wear fashions.
I call a three drink limit at the beginning and stick to it. I drink waters in between. We did it! I take a cab home. During the ride, my finger is twitching to let Grindr distract me. I catch Pokemon instead.
When I get home, I put my phone under a bowl in the kitchen. I throw back one melatoni’ and some M&Ms. (Baby steps, Wendi.) I drink another water, brush my teeth and get in bed, all in 15 minutes. I see the laundry and decide to put it off another night. It doesn’t matter, there’s been clean, unfolded laundry in that spot for months.
Then I remember where my phone is, retrieve it, set the alarms and hide it in my bookcase so that I’ll have to be awake enough to find it tomorrow morning.
I put a pillow between my legs and another between my arms and another behind me, packing my body like glassware during a move. I breathe. I blindfold. I don’t think about how much effort I have to put in just to sleep.
I think about birds and name them A-Z. Albatross. Bluebird. Crow. Duck. Egret. Finch. The last thing I remember is ibis.
The bookcase trick was annoying but worked. And I slept well. I get to the office at 9:15 a.m. — an entirely respectable Friday time. There are even people who come in after me. It’s tough to be a role model.
I eat. Water happens. The day goes by quickly and there isn’t much to do. I’m texting around and all my friends are gone or canceling. Maybe a night in would be nice? I go to the gym after work and leave when I start to think that I’m not doing “enough.”
I don’t go through my mail or throw any out, but I do stack it and order it by importance. I’ll get to the bills when I’m feeling better and my stacking and organizing has helped that future person out. I will be grateful to me.
I have a glass of wine. I eat a rice cake, a Clif Bar and an apple — I forgot that I bought apples last week. I make a little plate of a few olives and a hunk of cheese to go with my wine. It feels nice. I eat a Moonpie.
I pile the dirty laundry into the machine. Luckily, it all fits into one load. I pull out half the clean laundry from beside my bed. I put on episode 5 of season 9 of Drag Race and begin to fold. After the episode, I wander to the bathroom and realize the laundry is done, so I switch it to the dryer. I put what is folded into drawers. I lay down for a bit to rest in the pile of unfolded laundry. I don’t really think about anything, just listen to my roommates come home and change and leave.
I go into the kitchen for another glass of wine but forget it when I see that the dryer is done. I empty it and throw the laundry on my bed. I think, Ah, these are the clothes I’ll be sleeping beside for the next week or so.
I finishing folding that load while it is warm. I get the shirts hung before they go to wrinkle in the pile, which feels good. I think about if I want to continue. It’s starting to get late. This streak of energy has ruined my plan to go to bed early. But I’ve organized a few other things. I emptied out my backpack and gym bag and hung them up. I’ve pushed my shoes into rows or under the bed. It’s not neat, but they’re out of eyesight.
I lean into the gap and pull up the clean towel that’s covering the next layer of laundry. But under it is just a stack of magazines. I lean over and look under the bed. No laundry — just shoes. I fold the towel, realizing that it is the last thing in the pile. I put it where the towels go.
I stare at the bare wood floor where laundry has been for a year. I try to trace back how I got here. What thing did I change or do better to finally finish the task that I didn’t finish on 50 other Friday nights?
There are only tiny steps and choices, so small as to be invisible, stacked on top of each other by a mixture of luck and, sometimes, my own grit.
But tonight, after a year, the laundry is done. Maybe tomorrow I can move on to something else. Maybe I really am getting better. The thought seems too fragile to dwell on. Instead, I slip on my blindfold and name trees, A-Z.
I sleep like a king.
If you are grappling with depression, you aren’t alone, even if your brain tells you that you are. There are a lot of resources to help you out. My favorite is the therapist search engine on PsychologyToday.com. You can filter by your insurance type and specialty. You can also call 1-866-306-8458, a free and anonymous depression hotline, and talk to stranger whom you never, ever have to speak to again. I would also personally recommend reading young adult novels, selecting one stupid phone game to fall in love with (I hear Two Dots is very good), and taking some kind of weekly yoga or dance class that’s close to your house and makes you move a little. But those are just things that help me and a few of my friends along — we are all different. Take care of yourself. We need you.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.