Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What’s Wrong With My Bootstraps?

We, as a society, have come a long way in accepting depression as a “real” illness. I think most of us are willing to admit that depressed people can’t just “snap out of it”. At least in theory, anyhow. But I think most of us still see depression as something like a stomach virus: Yeah, it sucks for a little while, but once you puke it all out, you’ll feel better, and then you’ll be normal again. But it’s really more like diabetes: It’s always there, and you can keep it in check by treating the symptoms and watching your diet, but you don’t just get diabetes out of your system.

This winter was long and dreary. It finally pushed me to the point where I was willing to go to a psychiatrist. I was expecting a diagnosis of postpartum depression, but the doctor’s questions led him to believe that my depression was much more deep-rooted than that, and I ended up with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The drugs took a long time to have any effect at all, and once they did finally start to do something, it didn’t seem like much. It was kinda like I was used to functioning at 4, and the winter funk dropped me down to a 2, and the drugs bumped me back up to a 4 again, where I was hoping for a 10. Or at least a 5 or 6. Maybe I could have changed drugs or tried something else. But one day, the pharmacy was back-ordered on my medication, and by the time they filled my prescription, I had already missed enough doses that I just said, “Screw it,” and went off the meds entirely. In the meantime, I had been diagnosed (by a different doctor) with a vitamin D deficiency, and the D had made more of a difference in my mood than the anti-depressants ever had. I guess I always thought anti-depressants were some kind of cure for depression, but they aren't. They just make you a bit less likely to curl up in a ball instead of getting out of bed in the morning. They don't fix anything - at least, they didn't for me.

I still struggle every day. Not like I used to, but it’s still a struggle. And I am discovering, more and more, that nothing I do is ever enough. Nothing. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself be the person I want to be. One day, I might succeed in the cooking department, and fail in the dishes. Succeed in the deep cleaning, but fail at the surface cleaning. Do something fun or educational with the kids, but lose my temper and yell at them. Make a cool craft, then overdraw the bank account trying to get groceries. Get everyone to regular doctor’s appointments, but forget about the dentist.

I try not to compare myself to others, but I can’t help it. I look around and see other moms who are capable of making a nice dinner without running out of steam and leaving all of the dishes until the next morning (or the next week). And I try a little bit harder, and push myself a little bit more, but I still always fall short. And I have realized that, while I might be willing to admit that other people with depression have a real illness, when it comes to ME, all I see is failure. I tug and tug and become convinced that my bootstraps are broken.

But maybe my boots are just stuck in the mud.

Well-meaning people give me advice all the time about what I need to do to keep up with things.
“If you just do the dishes right away, they won’t pile up like that.”
“Make the kids put their own toys away.”
“If you just wake up before everyone else, you’ll have plenty of time to get things done.”

I have a disproportionate, visceral reaction to unsolicited advice. It’s like a punch in the gut to me. I try not to say anything, because I know it’s an unfair reaction to well-meaning suggestions. I know people love me and are just trying to help. But what people don’t realize is that I am already telling myself these things NON-STOP. Literally. I don’t think an hour of my life goes by without me beating myself up about something that I should be doing better at least twice. Usually more. I’m a smart cookie. I know what I should be doing. I have clever tricks for almost everything. But none of my clever tricks can make me not-depressed. And even my cleverest tricks get bogged down in the mud.

The mud is the bit no one seems to talk about. Let’s just imagine, for the sake of argument, that my depression magically disappeared as soon as my vitamin D levels improved. (Hey, maybe it will! My numbers are still on the low side, let’s pretend that’s possible.) Let’s say I woke up this morning completely not-depressed. Here’s the problem: I’m still stuck in the mud.

Okay, so what’s the mud?

1. Backlog

Okay, so I’m magically not-depressed. And I have enough energy to cook three meals a day, entertain three children, wash all the dishes and the dirty clothes, weed the garden, go grocery shopping, and do whatever else I need to do. But the fact is that the dirty dishes are already piled up. The living floor is already cluttered. We’re not looking at just daily maintenance. There is so much catch-up to do, it would make even the most not-depressed person waver in their determination (and we have already established that this is not me). And, let’s say I do catch up on all the visible, daily stuff like dishes and laundry and vacuuming. There is still the deep backlog to deal with. Outgrown clothes that need to be sorted/purged. A fix-it box full of damaged clothes and toys. At least 20 boxes of miscellaneous papers that are probably 99% trash, but need to be sorted through just in case they happen to contain something like a college diploma. Years of photos that need to be sorted and put into albums. And, let’s not forget, I am expected to deal with all of this backlog AND the daily upkeep stuff, too.

2. Bad Habits

I’ve been a functional depressed person for some indeterminate percentage of my life. Probably more than half of it. I have survived most of that time with clever coping mechanisms. Ways of tricking my depressed self into getting out of bed in the morning. Washing a couple dishes, because some is better than none. Moving clutter to boxes because out of sight is out of mind. Stacking the older dirty dishes on the floor so I can at least wash this meal’s dishes. Getting out of the house and doing fun things to forget about the mess at home. I can’t begrudge the coping mechanisms the gift they have given me: The gift of getting through one more day. But many of them have become ingrained habits. And habits are hard to break. And all of those coping mechanisms have ultimately just piled more backlog into the mud pit.

3. Precedent

I do tell my kids to pick up their own toys. But where do the toys go? First I need to organize the toys and give them storage spaces. Then I need to demonstrate putting the toys away, at least a few times, so that they learn how to do it. Then I need to be consistent about requiring them to be put away after every use, so that my kids don’t get bogged down in the backlog themselves. If you’re a kid who has spent your entire life stepping over scattered toys, and cleaning up only when company is coming, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you should put your toys away right away, every time.

It’s not just the kids, either. My husband leaves his socks lying on the floor. Because he always has, and I always just gather them up and wash them whenever I get around to cleaning the living room. And, the other day, he piled the dirty dishes on the floor so he could clear the table, because he has seen me pile the dirty dishes on the floor. But the next day, as my very-mobile baby was crawling around the kitchen knocking over piles of dirty dishes, I cursed the precedent I had set. Yes, I put the dishes on the floor myself sometimes. But not because I want them there. I put them there as a coping mechanism, so that I can see a clean table and feel like we have a nice place to eat dinner, or so that I can access the sink to drain spaghetti. But when I put the dishes on the floor, I am fully aware that I am screwing over my future self in favor of surviving the present. That’s what coping mechanisms do. But the next thing you know, not only have you made more work for yourself in the future, but you have somehow set a precedent that the floor is an acceptable place to stack dirty dishes.

4. The Edge of Depression

As if all this wasn’t enough, you’re still not totally better. You’re still teetering on the edge of depression. Some days you wake up with tons of energy, and you can actually do it! You can do all the daily upkeep stuff, and pick away at some of the backlog to boot! You’re on top of the world! But some days you’re not. Some days you only have energy for one or the other, so the backlog grows in one room even while it’s shrinking in another. Or maybe you don’t even have that much energy. Maybe you fall back into your coping mechanisms by necessity rather than habit. Maybe you get sick, or overdo it at the beach, and need some downtime. Maybe you say something on Facebook, which you meant to be playful, but it had a bit too much truth in it, and now you are sitting in a heap, sucker-punched by all the helpful advice flying your way, feeling worthless and useless all over again. It doesn’t take much, when you’re walking the edge, to slip in. And sometimes, it’s easier to just sink into the mud again rather than to keep fighting your way out.

Even as I write this, I want to slap myself for making excuses. That’s how deeply ingrained the whole bootstrap mentality is for me. Even as I try to explain to the world how real my depression is, and how much it affects my daily life, I am mentally discounting all of it, and scolding myself for taking the time to write this instead of getting off my butt and washing some dishes. Because some days, refusing to admit that I’m depressed is one of my coping mechanisms, and some days it actually works. Some days I can trick myself into being a normal, functional mom. But that just makes the hard days that much harder.