And Words Are All I Have

“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything,
as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious,
compounding daily, that it’s impossible
to ever see the end.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

Melancholia, Without the Romance

depression 7
Dear Reader -

I continue to write candidly in my poems and stories about my lifelong struggle with depression. Exploring it in this way, unfiltered and unashamed, has helped me through some of my darkest days. I always hope it encourages others to share their stories too.

Depression feeds on isolation and guilt. Silence only lends it more power. I dream of a world where we discuss our mental health problems as freely and matter of factly as we do our physical maladies, without fear of judgment or reprisal. Only then will we fully dismantle the cruel stigma that surrounds the subject, a stigma that inflicts more pain on the already afflicted.

Mental illness is largely treatable today, with astonishing advancements in a variety of therapies. Talk to someone. Reach out if you haven't. There are so many people, both laypersons and highly skilled professionals, who are ready to listen.



That antiquated term for depression conjures an impeccably tailored woman draped languidly along a velvet chaise lounge, the back of her hand splayed against her forehead. Her hair is perfection, piled high. A lace curtain flutters from the window behind her. Dappled light pours in. Almost certainly beautiful music is playing.

Join me back in the real world now: When I'm in depression's grip I haven’t the energy or the inclination to run a comb through my hair, let alone present myself respectably.
Focus becomes a thing of the past: An entire afternoon can go by while I have sat in the same spot staring out the window at absolutely nothing. I marvel at the energy I once had, the plans I made, the delight I was able to extract from the smallest of things. Who was she, I wonder, mystified? Where is that person who I once was?

Depression is sometimes called unhappiness. But that is something else entirely. Depression is much more than simply being sad. More complex and far more punishing. Left untreated, it takes no prisoners. It is a formidable enemy and one we underestimate and ignore at our peril. It shatters dreams, destroys potential, eradicates joy, ruins lives and, in the most tragic of cases, ends them.

It's impossible to overdramatize the wreckage depression causes. Stories of its destruction can be unearthed in so many families. It is estimated that 350 million of us suffer worldwide. And I will always find this shocking: It stands alone as the leading cause of disability in the world. According to the World Health Organization's current Fact Sheet, astonishingly, more than 700,000 die due to suicide every year. For every suicide there are many more people who attempt it and do not succeed.

How to describe depression to someone who has never been gripped by it? It is a prodigious task indeed, much like trying to describe the sensation of bitter cold to someone who has always lived in the tropics. It is an almost impenetrable, unfathomable condition to those untouched by it. It's been characterized through the ages by both the famous and infamous. Sylvia Plath said it felt like being trapped in a bell jar. Country singers croon about their plain old blues. Black dogs is attributed to Winston Churchill, but I don't find it mean enough: The dogs would have to be rabid, loose, starved. The slough of despond from John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress sounds almost like a poetic interlude. The mean reds was how the character Holly Golightly differentiated it from garden variety sadness in Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's. From the writer William Styron came Darkness Visible, also the title of his brilliant, harrowing memoir of madness.

The writer and talk show host Dick Cavett may have described depression's desolation best, calling it "the worst agony devised for man." He has candidly shared his personal, relentless battle with it, narrative often fueled by his classic wit. In his New York Times opinion piece "Smiling Through," he said: "When you're downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up."

For me depression is a thief, the shrewdest kind. It steals my wit, my smile, my every trace of ease, my very heart. It's wilier than me, and stronger. And it turns out my lights before it leaves.

Symptoms vary but there are constants. First, the physical senses diminish. Everything in the world seems to go a bit blurry at the edges. Your hearing and sight may not actually diminish but it seems that way. Your interest and enthusiasm in all things wanes and inevitably becomes non-existent. All efforts seem geared to escape contact with others, because it demands vigor you simply cannot muster. Phone calls and emails are disturbances to be avoided. World news is of no consequence to you. Favorite songs become simply too painful to listen to as they only remind you of happy times that now seem utterly unimaginable.

Making a piece of toast is an achievement. Focus is a thing of the past. I remember driving through a car wash during a particularly wicked bout. (I have no idea what prompted the initiative or where the surprising energy came from, although there is satisfaction while in the thick of it by completing the simplest of daily duties.) The huge rotating brushes slapped against the car wildly, whirring at a crescendo, the car windows fogged. It struck me then as a good metaphor of the cocoon like feeling depression creates and with it the vague awareness that there are people out there actually enjoying life, capable of action and experiencing pleasure, while you are removed, remote, wrapped in a shroud not of your own making.

I have witnessed depression's toll close hand. When he was well, my father's youngest brother Bill was a vibrant man, a brilliant, self-educated entrepreneur who traveled the world and came to know its workings. But manic depression consumed him for much of his life and he self-medicated with alcohol in an attempt to quieten his demons. He died of alcoholism in England in his 50's, struggling, alone.

My Uncle Alec lived most of his life as a solitary figure. My aunt told me that strolling a beach with him once in Scotland he told her straightforwardly that "if it ever got too much" for him he would simply "walk into the sea." This is undoubtedly what he did not long afterwards. A letter in his script was found in his carpentry shop in Brighton, leaving his business and everything he owned to his young apprentice. No one ever saw Alec again, nor was any sign of him ever discovered. There have been, sadly, other family suicides.

What I describe here is both untreated and untreatable depression. The good news is that modern drugs are extraordinarily effective at treating the illness with inventive approaches and solutions surfacing continuously. Researchers at McLean Hospital in Boston reported recently in an issue of Biological Psychiatry that individuals with major depressive disorders and bipolar disorder who received low-field magnetic stimulation (LFMS) showed immediate and substantial mood improvement, with no side effects reported.

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Being in my company you might never know I suffer from depression. I am generally buoyant, curious, ok, a titch hyper, and I absolutely love to make people laugh. But those of us afflicted become exceedingly adept at obfuscation. We must, after all, function in the world; earn a living, buy gas, pay rent. We learn to hide in plain sight, masking our desolation until, well, we simply can't. Imagine trying to lasso a freight train with a bungee cord. Knowing how good we become at subterfuge I never assume to know what someone else is coping with. The poet Longfellow addressed this to perfection:

"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad."

As an SSRI devotee I have gone up and down in dosage over the years but resist going off my meds entirely. When I'm feeling well I stay on a low dosage and monitor things closely. I will do whatever is in my power to never descend into that abyss again, to not bequeath to it one day more of my life than I must. Even on meds the illness breaks through; often inexplicably. But not with the same ferocity or staying power as when untreated.

My blues will continue to come and go as it ever has. My depression is DNA-deep, easily traceable in my family history. I realize how exceedingly fortunate I am in that mine is largely treatable. I have my dark days, an underlying pervasive sadness that it seems no medicine can eradicate. But this is an integral part of who I am, as much as my being left-handed or redheaded or vintage clothing obsessed. My melancholy is where my poetry resides, my empathy. It has made me a person who tends to look beyond the surface of things, one who is curious about others' lives and stories, how they make sense of things and find ways through, and one who burrows passionately into books and literature, finding within them steadfast companions on dark days.

On those days when my despair is palpable it seems depression exacts too high a price. But on my good days, oh, on those glorious, delicious, exuberant days, of which there are many, I can quite often be heard singing.

At the very top of my lungs.

If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call Canada's Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566. In the U.S. call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For a database of international resources consult the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

A “good day” means such widely different things for everyone, doesn’t it? Never
more clearly rendered than in this poem. Within it I found such stark resonant
truths about the state of depression, its toll, as well as a celebration of those small yet triumphant victories against it.

A Good Day
-- by Kait Rokowski

Well done, Kait. Fight on. And strength as you go forward.
Yesterday, I spent 60 dollars on groceries,
took the bus home,
carried both bags with two good arms back to my studio apartment
and cooked myself dinner.
You and I may have different definitions of a good day.
This week, I paid my rent and my credit card bill,
worked 60 hours between my two jobs,
only saw the sun on my cigarette breaks
and slept like a rock.
Flossed in the morning,
locked my door,
and remembered to buy eggs.
My mother is proud of me.
It is not the kind of pride she brags about at the golf course.
She doesn’t combat topics like, ”My daughter got into Yale”
with, ”Oh yeah, my daughter remembered to buy eggs,”
But she is proud.
See, she remembers what came before this.
The weeks where I forgot how to use my muscles,
how I would stay as silent as a thick fog for weeks.
She thought each phone call from an unknown number
was the notice of my suicide.
These were the bad days.
My life was a gift that I wanted to return.
My head was a house of leaking faucets and burnt-out lightbulbs.
Depression is a good lover.
So attentive; has this innate way of making everything about you.
And it is easy to forget that your bedroom is not the world,
That the dark shadows your pain casts is not mood-lighting.
It is easier to stay in this abusive relationship than fix the problems it has created.
Today, I slept in until 10,
cleaned every dish I own,
fought with the bank,
took care of paperwork.
You and I might have different definitions of adulthood.
I don’t work for salary, I didn’t graduate from college,
but I don’t speak for others anymore,
and I don’t regret anything I can’t genuinely apologize for.
And my mother is proud of me.
I burned down a house of depression,
I painted over murals of greyscale,
and it was hard to rewrite my life into one I wanted to live
But today, I want to live.
I didn’t salivate over sharp knives,
or envy the boy who tossed himself off the Brooklyn bridge.
I just cleaned my bathroom,
did the laundry,
called my brother.
Told him, “It was a good day.”

I am here, listening. Share your own stories with me, gentle reader.
pencil drawing red heart
"If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do."

― Stephen Fry

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Simply too good not to share.. Bioluminescence There’s a dark so deep beneath the sea the creatures beget their own light. This feat, this fact of adaptation, I could say, is beautiful though the creatures are hideous. Lanternfish. Hatchetfish. Viperfish. I, not unlike them, forfeited beauty to glimpse the world hidden by eternal darkness. I subsisted on falling matter, unaware …
Jello 🌊

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