It’s 6 am; I just woke up in a bed that was probably first built by Swedish children and was later masterfully assembled by two adults with limited experience in engineering. And I fed my cat. I haven’t showered yet, but the morning stuff is mostly done, so I guess it’s time to talk about depression.
I have this strange affliction in which, wherever I live, it seems that books just sort of appear around me. I don’t know if it’s because they’re attracted to me in the masochistic way a cow might love a McDonald’s-sponsored rancher, or if it’s because someone is playing an elaborate joke on me involving replacing all available space around me with books so I can never leave home, or if it’s because I keep buying them all the time. It’s a mystery.
Regardless of how they come to me, I have a lot of books. For the last few years, that has also meant I’ve needed a lot of bookshelves. For a little while, I dabbled in Walmart and Target for my book hosting needs, but the shards of wood pulp and dismal, sagging bookcases never quite tickled my fancy. After a while, I finally got a job and moved up from lower lower class to middle lower class, so I could afford to order stuff online from Ikea. I had one bookshelf from Ikea, and I remember putting it together was kind of like doing complex math while on a heavy dose of cold medicine and having lit matches flicked at me. The directions were written in some esoteric Swedish hieroglyphs, and I didn’t feel as smart as I usually do, and fucking hell I felt like I was either seconds from exploding or cool as a cucumber with sunglasses.
I’ve put together a lot of stuff from Ikea. I also used to take pills to keep me from wanting to die. Anyone who has put together something from Ikea anything more complex than a shower curtain will see the relationship between these two seemingly-disparate ideas.
I had a shitty childhood. I don’t have my therapist in my desk drawer so I’m not going to go into much detail beyond saying the first 18 years of my life weren’t ok, living in a tent is boring, motel hopping every few days does not inspire a sense of security or whimsy in a frightened child, and sleeping outside a church involves exactly as much chanting and red windows as you would expect. Shitty childhood, but then I went to college where I promptly started dealing with the fact that I had forgotten to develop much of an identity beyond being sad and liking dorky books.
So I spent a few years frowning at fantasy novels and slowly realizing I could be a person, but throughout that time I would go through long periods of absolute mental deflation. There would be days or weeks in which getting out of bed was difficult, not because my bed was particularly comfy or because I was just too overcome by grief at my own tragic youth, but because everything that normally motivated me to get up–going to class, reading, homework, outdated video games, shitty university pizza–suddenly had absolutely no value to me. It’s not that I was too sad to like anything anymore, and it’s not even that everything I liked was suddenly worthless. I logically still knew I liked most of those things and needed to do the others to stay afloat, but when I tried to do them or even thought about doing them, it was kind of like trying to rip a piece of fruit out of a tied up grocery bag: there was a film over everything that made it hard to process what I should be feeling, and when I’d finally latch onto something, I couldn’t really predict how I’d feel when I had ripped it out. I’d want a plum, rip the bag expecting an apple, come up with a peach, and seeing the mismatch of what I wanted, expected, and got would keep me from eating it, even though peaches are little fuzzy butts of juicy love.
Ikea represents a level of variable effort, motivation, payoff, and fragility that matches depression pretty well. I have been inside an Ikea once. I left with a box of chair. It’s the chair seemingly everyone either owns or has slept in at a friend’s house. It’s called the Svirfneblin… or something like that.
This chair is now largely claimed by a pile of coats or a small-but-large puppy that isn’t technically a puppy anymore but all dogs are puppies so she is, but when I got it, it belonged to me and some cats. I bought it before I had an apartment. I was living on my brother’s couch for a while, but I knew I’d have an apartment soon. I also knew that apartment would have no furniture, so I bought myself a chair. I aspired to a desk, but sometimes we have to stand on a phonebook to reach the stars, and nobody delivers phonebooks to people who live on sofas.
I wanted furniture, bought a chair because I could, built it as soon as we returned to a home that wasn’t mine, and I sat on it with some cats for a month until I moved into the shitty apartment that probably ruined the security deposit on my lungs. I remember being so motivated. I wanted something, and building that chair was easy because of that motivation to have something good and finished and with a rational and appropriate emotional payoff at the end.
And then I moved into that apartment, and it went mostly unfurnished for a few months. We found my bed next to a dumpster. I ordered a desk online. It took a long, long time to build that desk. I had wanted it more than the chair, been so excited for it to arrive, and then it did, and I couldn’t find the excitement anymore. Nobody told me much about depression until I was actively paying someone to sit me down on a couch and define it for me, so I didn’t know that it’s not just about being sad, and it’s not a constant. I felt fantastic when I bought my comfy cat chair. I felt the same when I put it together, and I felt the same when I ordered my desk. By the time the desk got to me, I couldn’t find any of the excitement I had for it, so I just slept on my dumpster bed and watched Futurama all day every day.
Putting the desk together without any motivation or expected emotional gratification was not easy. The weird directions were infuriating because I felt like I was thinking about them with half of myself while the other half was still facedown in bed. I remember I fucked up screwing in some integral portion of the desk, and I had to tear it out which made a damning plume of wood particles like confetti announcing that this desk would die like everything else. I coated the screw in glue and shoved it back in. I used a black marker to cover up the shredded wood surrounding the hole. Then the desk was done, and I thought “neat,” and I went back to watching the same 4 shows on the internet.
I spent about 5 months in a low wave of apathy. I remember looking up what food I needed to keep myself mostly alive, so I started eating boiled beans, rice, and peas. I called it “Nutrient meal 1” because I’m snarky even when I aspire to becoming overeducated fertilizer. My grades were good only because I logically knew they needed to be. I didn’t care that about what the grades represented. I latched onto the external representation of accomplishment that I remembered having some importance to me beyond just being what I was expected to do. I would still go through little waves of being happy and motivated and normal, but I’d always come back to my damp apartment and begin trying to feel feelings through a plastic bag.
And then I started going to therapy. Because I wanted drugs. But I didn’t want drugs for depression. I wanted something to cure me of my anxiety over talking to crowds, and I was firmly in denial that this anxiety extended anywhere beyond having to run writing workshops. I went to therapy for the first time. I sat down, and she said something like “tell me about what’s on your mind,” and I said “I get nervous when I’m around people. One drugs please?”
She prescribed something to lower my blood pressure while I was anxious, and I thought it was a good day. But then she started asking me about my life, and she pinpointed the desperately obvious fact that I was depressed. Then she gave me more drugs and said something like “eat these to frown less,” and then I ate them. And frowned less.
There are a lot of different antidepressants, and a lot of them work very well and help many people pull through their fog and have normal, healthy lives. I was certain I was one of those people. For six months, I was on antidepressants, and for six months it was like all the things that used to pull me down just didn’t exist anymore. Before the pills, I used to entertain thoughts like “I’ll eat tomorrow” or “Hey, wouldn’t it be neato if I could sleep for a few years until all this blows over?”
Antidepressants worked for me like putting a pink silk sack over the trash bag I used to have to process everything through. I was happy, but I absolutely wasn’t dealing with anything. I think of that time in my life like building an Ikea bed with only a memory of the instructions: I’d remember this was what I was supposed to do, so I’d shove two pieces together using hair ties and bubblegum and I’d know in my synthetically optimistic heart that they would stay together forever.
I stopped taking antidepressants because I thought I had been healed, that all my mopiness was done, that I was a fresh, new person with a hot outlook on life. And then everything I’d been chemically walling off broke through, and six months of pent-up despondency took over. The pills hadn’t cured anything. They’d just kept me from needing to deal with it. I sat on the bed, and the hair ties ripped and the gum sagged. Everything fell apart, and I went back to eating beans and rice and staying up until 5 hoping someone would break into my apartment and steal whatever I had left.
I never expected that I could get good at depression. For a while, a lot of my life was just rolling with the waves of motivated and cloudy. I’d enjoy myself while I was feeling alright, sometimes I’d even take on new projects or sign up for extra classes, and then the rough wave would come, and everything I had started would feel so overwhelming, but I’d find some new way to get through it. I couldn’t finish classes because I loved them, but I could finish them because I knew good grades could lead to a job I think I wanted, and I figured if I just stuck with the recipes I wrote when I was feeling decent, then eventually those feelings would be the majority. I became a depression artisan. I didn’t care about my body, so I drank coffee constantly to keep myself awake so I could keep working. I didn’t care about my social life, so I stopped trying to have a schedule that would allow for it. There was a period of a few months when time lost its meaning and waking up to start the day at 2 am felt as normal as waking up at noon, and I rotated between both constantly. I didn’t care about what I ate, so I ate whatever I needed to keep myself functional, but I barely cooked, so I got to know the pizza delivery people really well. I think they worried about me, but I was doing alright. I either knew what I wanted to do, or I knew logically that I should continue what I used to want to do. I could inflict myself upon my plans with passionless devotion, and I would get everything done because no cost really mattered anymore. I was depression weaponized.
I kept moving along the plans I’d make when I was feeling up to making plans, and I also just let my future be decided by whoever seemed to have a good idea of what was best for me.
I imitated being alive until it almost felt like I was. I was still depressed, but things grew in my life around me that kept me busy and sometimes happy. I started grad school, and I loved it. I started teaching, and that was a new interesting challenge. I escaped from my cold apartment and moved into a little room in a big house. My partner and I met, and things there genuinely felt amazing. I had been simulating being alive for so long that I accidentally grew a better life.
My partner and I moved in together, and a few months later we made our bed. It was difficult, and the directions were still depicted in a way that could somehow precisely depict exactly what we had to do using some of the most confusingly contrived images to ever escape an engineer’s dream journal. The directions were difficult, and my hand is red and sore from doing something other than petting cats and writing, but it got done. There were definitely times when we were both tired and were working just because we knew we wanted it to be over, but a lot of it felt like real, intrinsic motivation in which the thing we were making was exciting, even if it was difficult. And now we have a comically giant bed, and a cat seems intent on living under it.