Saturday, March 3, 2018

Submerged in quicksand (depression)

When I was a little kid my brothers and I were really fascinated by science. We devoured old copies of National Geographic magazine and various documentaries on the Discovery Channel. We pestered our mother to identify the organs and bones that were visible in the food (i.e. chicken, beef, fish) she was preparing. We examined our urine and feces before flushing the toilet and tried to predict what they might look like the following day(s) (i.e. shade, consistency) based upon what we had consumed. Yes, we were weird kids. No, none of us are neurotypical. (And yes, 2 out of the 3 of us got degrees in a science-related discipline.)

Science wasn’t my first love, though. Literature was...I loved reading and writing. Science was very interesting, but given the choice between a book on science and some newly released fiction, the fiction would win out every time. However, to this day I am still intrigued by science and technology even though at the core I’m more of a liberal arts/social sciences kinda gal.


In early elementary school I recall one of my teachers talking to my class about quicksand. Most of us had observed some movie and/or video game where the lead character found themselves stuck in quicksand. The person would struggle viciously to wriggle free only to find themselves sinking faster and faster...often up to their chin. However, just when all hope seemed lost and the person seemed destined to perish, they would spot a vine or a branch nearby, grab hold of it, and swing themselves free in what seemed like a Herculean effort.

Lies, our teacher said.


Image of the palm of a hand sticking out from quicksand. Credit: National Geographic


She told us such dramatic rescue scenes might capture the audience’s attention, but it was not realistic. The best thing to do, she informed us, if you ever find yourself in quicksand is to remain mostly still. Should you have to move, make very small, slow, deliberate movements. Your goal is get yourself to the point where you have freed yourself enough to where you’re no longer as stuck. Once you can move a little and you feel like you’re at or near the surface, then stop, lean against it, and wait. Be still and calm, she said, because with time you will rise above it completely and will be safe.


I’ve never forgotten her words. At the time I thought that perhaps this advice would be useful for me if I ever found myself in peril while camping or something. (Fortunately, that never happened.) In recent months, though, I have realized that it is a perfect analogy to describe life with major depression from a neurodiversity perspective (albeit an emerging/still developing perspective in that regard, not a strong one as I have not as easily come to terms with depression in the way I have autism, ADHD, giftedness, or my other diagnoses).

I was diagnosed with depression for the first time at 12 years old. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared that fact publicly before; most likely I have not. In recent years I have been open about trying to navigate my life as a person with various diagnoses, including this one, but I have not shared about the length of time I have lived this way. Essentially, it has been the majority of my life.

Technically, I got the “label” at age 12, but most likely depression had been present long before that. However, at that point my parents sought psychiatric help for me for the first time - after they found the suicide journal I had been keeping for nearly a year (hidden inside a yellow two pocket folder that I’d secretly nicknamed “Celie” after the protagonist from the Color Purple which was my favorite book at the time). A few depression screenings and appointments later, we received my formal diagnosis. Over the years (in adulthood) others would be added. But that day, years ago, I learned the name of the element that I seemed submerged, that I had been submerged in, movements restricted, for as long as I could remember while others around me appeared to ambulate freely.

Depression.

There’s so much I could write about this. I have written about it some here and there before, mostly on social media. It’s not an easy thing to talk about. Black women are expected to be strong. To be the pillar of our families and our communities; to have it together. In fact, as I write this, my heart is bursting with pride that the March for Black Women, coordinated by local leaders from Houston Rising, Black Lives Matter Houston, Pantsuit Republic, Women and Allies and other grassroots advocacy groups in my city, is underway. There is SUCH a need for something like this in our city, and it had been my intention, as a Black disabled woman, to be there. But today, like many other days, I cannot break free of the quicksand. I cannot will myself to get out of bed, to bathe, to dress, to get in the car and drive, to be around people. I am devoid of "spoons" today. So instead of attending, I march in spirit with my Black sisters and with our allies, and I send my love from within the walls of my home. Today, like many other days, I want to do more, but I cannot. Today I must lie still in the quicksand that threatens to envelope me or else I risk my life.

That stereotype, which in many ways I have imposed upon myself, can be harmful. Can be deadly. Do Black women tend to survive, even thrive, and make things happen even in the face of complex, systemic obstacles, injustice, trauma, discrimination, and disregard? Yes, we do. Are such conditions healthy for us? No, they are not.

To me, it isn’t contradictory for me to state that we need to be both celebrated for our successes and provided support and resources to mitigate our barriers.

To me, it isn’t contradictory for me to state in one breath how grateful I am for Nisha, for Kandice, and the other Black queens who are involved - and in the next breath to say that I cannot join them. That I need a mental health day and am going to spend the majority of today, and maybe tomorrow, in my bed.

To me, it isn’t contradictory for me to state that yes, Black women are strong, but at the same time the pressure that our families, that our own expectations, that ableism, that society in general places upon us erodes that strength, minimizes and sometimes altogether ignores our legitimate need for help, and fosters a mindset and behaviors that are counterproductive to our individual and collective emotional health.

(Please note these ^ remarks [about ableism, society, etc.] are NOT at all about this march, as I am unequivocally in support of this march [#TrustBlackWomen] and encourage you to read more about it here. My remarks are not really about any other specific group or event in particular; just society/life in an ableist world overall.)

I am both strong and weak. I have accomplished and I have failed. I am a living duality. I can only be me. Even what I want to be, who I want to be, I’m not her yet. I might never be her, but God as my witness I’m going to keep striving...and to get there requires honesty, authenticity, transparency. I share a lot about my life because I hope it can help someone. Though I reveal a great deal, I do hold some things close, keep them inside. This is something I’m letting go of, opening up about. Peeling back another layer. It is raw, unplanned, unrehearsed, unedited. Like much of my writing is. I wake up and I feel like God is prompting me, “Write. Get it out. Let it out.” And I do. I just go with it. Maybe it will come out like an unfiltered, disjointed, hard to follow word salad you find unpalatable. I don’t know, and I can’t care. I just hope that whoever this is for (aside from me) will be able to follow. Will be able to understand…

In the last few years, my family has faced enormous challenges. A costly, lengthy legal battle that threatened to destabilize our family. A cancer scare. A miscarriage and subsequent health challenges that followed it. Not that my life has ever been easy (is anyone’s?), but these last few years stretched me and pushed me and tested me nearly to the breaking point. Only God knows why I didn’t lose it, or why anyone, when facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties and seeing no way out, doesn’t just fall apart. It’s no secret that I have struggled in recent years. Have felt depressed, even suicidal, have sought therapy and medication to manage symptoms of depression, both of which I still utilize. I’ve written about all of this. And one thing that has made it easier is that when life gives you lemons, few will judge you for grimacing at the sour taste while you gulp down your lemonade. People understand. People care. People don’t look down on you for not having it all together when they know you’re in the middle of an emotional tsunami. They get it.

But what about when that tsunami passes? That situation gets cleared up? A reasonable amount of time has gone by, enough to expect most people to have come to terms with their circumstances, whatever they might be. What about when you still aren’t okay? You still can’t really function optimally (according to societal expectations)? What then?

Depression for me isn’t situational. It isn’t solely because of bad things that have happened to me (though it is worsened by those things). And it isn't something that is recent. It is lifelong. Like my beating heart, my ever-racing brain, my ebony skin, it is always there. I don’t know me without it, I don’t know life without it. I often don’t understand it. And truthfully, in the interest of being real, I usually don’t like it, not one bit, other than the lessons it has taught me. But the truth is, my truth is, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, it’s always been around. It’s always been there. And I’m beginning to think maybe it will always be there. Maybe I’ll never “beat it, overcome it, conquer it” or whatever curebie-esque term is the flavor of the month. I might be like this, living with this, all my life. It doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to go away. So what am I going to do? Am I willing to accept it?

When I think about the quicksand scenario, it boggles my mind. Because seemingly the most effective thing to do is the thing that seems to be the absolutely least natural thing to do. To me it would seem that when you find yourself sinking lower and lower, losing control and unable to regain solid footing, that instinctively I would flail around, try to force myself free, try to find a solution to get me out of this mess. To pull and pull and pull and pull; to fight; to yank; to kick. I would want to to try to DO something. And if that proved impossible I would panic. But to just be still? For a long time? Waiting? Goodness, no. I can’t even imagine doing that. How anxious it would make me to resort to doing so. To feel like I wasn’t doing enough to free myself from this situation.

But all my efforts would be in vain. I would be expending all of this energy on actions that are ineffective and in the end I wouldn’t be any closer to being free. In fact, I’d be worse off that I started. I would be causing myself to sink lower and lower. And I would be exponentially increasing my risk of drowning in that quicksand. Being overcome and defeated by my circumstances as a result of the manner I chose to try to address/rectify them. I would be endangering my own life. Panic = perish.

Contrasted with if I took the approach that isn’t glamorous, isn’t the obvious choice, isn’t swift. Which would require me to try to be intentional and strategic. To be calm even when everything inside of me felt panicked. To resist the urge to do what has worked for many other scenarios I’ve gotten myself into.

To rely NOT upon inaction, but upon unconventional action. To move slowly, carefully, and cautiously through something scary that had me trapped despite not seeing a way out. To wait, to watch. And when I feel some progress, finally, rather than to muster all my strength and try to break free, to let go and lay back, trusting that I will float above what has had me bound and that in doing so I will hopefully find myself freed, or if not freed, at least floating high up enough to be less restricted and able to breathe and move more freely...enough to manage, to cope.

It’s hard when the solution seems to be to do something that feels like you’re not doing anything. Even though you are.

But the fact of the matter is that not only is most quicksand pretty shallow and unlikely to be found in depths likely to endanger a person, also the density of the human body is lower than that of quicksand. Quicksand’s density is nearly two times greater than ours. So even though it’s frightening and it is something that is very real, statistically it is unlike to kill us. Trap us? Yes. Inconvenience us? Yes. Cause distress and pain? Yes. Delay us? Yes. Cause problems for us? Yes. Lead to scenarios where if we are not able to obtain meaningful help and supports that we are at a much higher risk of finding ourselves in scenarios where we are in danger of being harmed or killed? Yes. Increase our risk of contemplating and potentially attempting suicide? Sadly, yes. But outright kill us itself? No. Not likely...unless we increase our own risk through the way we choose to handle things, including the things we cannot control. (Note: this analogy is not in ANY way a judgment or observation on suicidal ideation nor suicide nor is it intended to be taken as such. As someone who has struggled with that myself, I would NEVER belittle nor shame anyone for that. Though I'm speaking colloquially, I perceive that as a related, but separate matter.)

But even as I type this, I can feel the urge to struggle. To fight. I can hear the internal voices telling me I’m not doing enough. That I need to get myself together.  That surely I have to do SOMETHING, not just remain still.

I’m submerged, and have been for years. And whether I will sink farther inside it or I am able to slowly rise to the top, above it, depends upon the movements I make now and that I make next. The same goes for you. Will you thrash about in vain or will you rise? Today, I choose to rise. Tomorrow I hope I choose the same.


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