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.


Holly N. said...

Jule Ann, you are very brave. It takes a lot of strength to admit that something is wrong, something as invisible as depression. I also have depression; I have for years, and like you, this past winter was unbearable. I read something that I try telling myself frequently: depression lies. It makes you tell yourself that you are not good enough, that you will never be good enough, and that is simply not true. At least, that's what it does to me, and I don't think I'm alone in that. You have three small children. That alone is way more than a full time job. I don't think anyone with kids ever, ever catches up. I have never thought to myself, "Gee, everything is done. I guess I'll sit and eat bon bons and then take a three hour nap." Never in the 13 years I have had kids.
I am truly not trying to give you the dreaded unsolicited advice; I'm just trying to share what helps me a little bit (besides medication). I learned to tell myself that my efforts ARE good enough, even if there are many things I have not gotten to. My kids are happy and healthy, and right now, that is my number one priority. They won't remember the piles of dirty clothes and dishes I haven't gotten to yet. They are actually thrilled when I make scrambled eggs for dinner, which is one of my go-to cop out meals (yes, I have several). Eventually they get older and can actually be helpful. My 13 year old does the dinner dishes and unloads the dishwasher. He also sometimes weeds the garden and takes out the trash. None of these are big chores, but it feels like a huge help to me. You won't always have three kids who are home with you all day. Some day, they will all be in school, and you will have uninterrupted hours to accomplish things. That's what I tell myself, anyway. You still have a nursing baby, right? That makes everything harder.
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that you're not alone in your struggles with stuff like this.

Anonymous said...

You are a brave lady. a sister in the faith. I admire your many gifts that God has given you. Your gift of music. You did an excellent job at Bible School and That Sunday morning with the children. He has given you the gift of cooking. I remember with awe the Seder meal. Unbelievable what you did. You are God's chosen daughter, a special creation of His. He knows the little sparrow that falls, and He knows your hurts, your needs, your desires. He loves you and your kids and your husband. He Cares. He is Able. He is our Rock. He is my Refuge. He is my Strength. At 82, i feel so weak and so tired, so much of my time and I remind Him that He is my Strength. I know it and believe it and practice it. He is the Source of my Joy. When I give Him all my desires, my needs, my wants, He hears. I go to Him in prayer, sometimes on my knees, on my face on the floor. He Answers. When I do not eat meals, I get weak physically, when I do not spend time with Jesus and in His Word I am weak, spiritually. He is my Wonderful Counsellor. And He is FREE. except my time, it takes time to be with Him and His Holy Powerful, Living Word. That is the Source of POWER for me. I Love you much. I think it must be very hard to move to a new location away from your parents who would love to baby sit for you while you go to the grocer, etc. Hang it there. Keep Looking Up. God is Looking Down. No one is a super mom who can do all things right at all times. I think you are a very good mother. That is the most important job in the whole wide world. You are a missionary without going overseas. Call or come for a visit if you want. Pearl

Anonymous said...

Jule Ann,

You are courageous and brave. I understand the struggle with depression (major and most of my life) and with motherhood (completely overwhelming).

It gets better. You are in the trenches, but it does get better. My load lifts as I drop my children off at school each day. I need an empty house. I need to be alone in my own thoughts. It doesn't solve the depression, but it helps me to cope.

Can someone give you a scheduled time to be alone? Not to clean or catch up. I am speaking from my own experience, but sometimes I just needed to listen to music and cry or to read a book and cry or take a bath and cry or lay in bed and cry.

Only you can decide what is best for you. I changed anti-depressants in January because I was dangerously depressed. Counseling has helped in the past.

I am functional now and crying is no longer a daily occurrence. However, I still am looking forward to dropping my kids off at school in the fall. Because that is me and that is okay.

--A friend from Houghton

Ashley said...

Jule Ann, I want to give you a big hug!

I remember feeling a lot of this, but not all of it. Depression has not been a clinical, always-there for me, but something I deal with situationally. Obviously it manifests it self somewhat differently, with a difference in severity and all that. What I mean to say is that while I don't know what you're experiencing with For Real Depression, I've tasted it enough, and seen it in my loved ones enough that I can sympathize even if I can't empathize.

I have said this so many times to moms in recent years: things got easier for me when my kids got older. Not to discount what depression does to your ability to cope with any situation, but I think the physical and mental exhaustion of parenting young children exacerbates any issues that might already be there. It makes me think of how when a person is hungry or tired, their ability to think clearly, handle stressful situations, manage their emotions and so on becomes diminished. The physical body has a hard time and that impacts the mind.

My only piece of advice would be to look at your friends and family and see if there is anyone you trust enough with your most vulnerable self, that can come over and help you sometimes. Especially with the backlog. I have seen this several times with family members and some friends - depression takes a toll on the housekeeping and other daily life tasks like paying bills on time and all that, and they get in such a hole that they can't climb out of, and are too embarrassed and ashamed to 1) ask for help and 2) accept the type of help they'd need to get to truly get out of the hole. Maybe anti-depressants won't work, maybe therapy won't (or maybe you can't afford it - I know I can't), maybe vitamin D helps a little . . . but maybe if you can get some help with the backlog every once in a while, you'll be able to focus with less guilt and suffocation on the daily stuff.

I remember when my kids were younger - the ages of your kids - I wanted so badly to be at home with them, my heart and mind was focused on being at home, teaching them, cooking healthy meals, having a clean and welcoming home. And it's not that those things don't matter to me anymore but they are less urgent to me. As the kids have gotten older they've been able to really take on some of the housekeeping. It's not about teaching them to do it anymore, now they know and are capable of it. Now it's about having them do it as members of the household and for habit-forming for their adult years. I don't have to use my body to do everything for them anymore. I don't have to explain everything over and over again. Instead of draining me, they stimulate me (ok, mostly).

What I hope for you is that you can give yourself a break. A break on the expectations you set for yourself, a break to have a bad or exhausted day. Or string of days. A break to be human and fallible and NORMAL. Because what you're experiencing is actually normal. It is normal to have a life that is marred by something - maybe depression, maybe a different physical disability, maybe poverty or financial stress, maybe loneliness - whatever - and to have other things in your life just compound that pain and used-up-ness. We all struggle with something and then life comes along and adds to the pile. I don't say this to diminish what you feel or experience but to remind you that you can let go of some of the standards you see because NONE of us are "making it" all the way.

<3 <3 <3

Geoff Harvey said...

Hi Jule Ann, I just thought I'd mention that I identify with this post very strongly myself. This is something I've struggled with a long time too, though I've never sought medication for many different reasons, though I have occasionally considered it. I've no advice to give - I'm still struggling myself.

I've always appreciated the unique perspective and general perceptiveness you've shown in discussion over the years, and remember fondly those times my wife and I hung out with you and your husband back in Ottawa.

deseng said...

Came across your page by accident and I must say you write very well. I feel dirty dishes don’t matter as long as your family is loved and cared for.

deseng said...

Came across your page by accident and I must say you write very well. I feel dirty dishes don’t matter as long as your family is loved and cared for.

Ami said...

Just wanted to say that this was a really helpful read tonight...feeling very stuck in the mud and backlog lately. Like I am stuck pouring most of my time and energy into being mediocre at stupid nonsense (I.e. work) while failing at the things that really matter. Helps a lot to hear I'm not the only one struggling to be Teh Chatelaine, Mistress of All the Things. Hope the slog has improved for you since writing this!