It took a pack of Crayola oil pastels to get me to see how severe my depression really was. There’s a tale that comes with that, but I’ll start with some backstory so you have a general idea of who I am and how I got here.
I’m 33 years old and I can finally admit that I have chronic depression. Along with that comes a slew of other medical maladies: panic attacks, a heap of generalized anxiety, chronic migraines that disabled me at twenty five years of age, leukocytic colitis that was a mystery disease for longer than I care to remember and led to a period of my life I fondly call the Depends period, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia, which basically means I can potentially become one of those cute fainting goats you all have witnessed on Youtube whenever I go from horizontal to vertical(trust me, it’s cuter when the goats do it), and some funky thing where the left side of my body feels like the Devil has set up his own personal spa in my nerves. All in all, not super pleasant.
So, it may seem natural that I have depression and anxiety, yes? It took me a long time, and a very in depth partial in patient program — think Girl Interrupted, without the padded rooms… or the straight jackets… or the needles… okay, so I guess all we had were the coffee and the talk therapy— to admit that my depression was a true problem, and had been lurking in my life long before the chronic health issues started. The health issues were just my first legit excuse to feel okay about having depression.
In case anyone missed that, I shall shout it out, loud for all to hear: DEPRESSION IS A DISEASE! It does not discriminate. It does not care who you are, what you have in your life, how much money you make… depression gives zero flying fecksickles about anything except eating its way through your neural pathways, until it rules as the dark overlord of your brain and it can vanquish any happy thought that dares to try and knight-in-shining-armor your butt out of the tower the monster is keeping you in. Whew. That was a journey of an analogy. But we all get it now? Depression is nasty and literally changes our brain’s neural pathways. So, if you are someone feeling guilt over having depression, I am giving you permission to stop. If you are someone making someone feel guilty over having depression… I am telling you to stop. You’re not dealing with the dark overlord… you get less nice language from me.
Anyways, intermission over, on with the tale…
When you’re sick and young, people are more okay with you having depression. You SHOULD be sad. Your body has betrayed you. You’re disabled and not working and not having a family. You’ve lost your sense of identity and you contribute nothing to society… what do you even do all day? Because depression isn’t an illness, in and of itself, I was now entitled to feel it due to the low quality my life had sunken to.
I cannot tell you how many people have told me they wish they were me. How they would love to be so lucky as to be able to sit on their couch all day and watch the Gilmore Girls or football. To catch up on their reading. To garden. Unfortunately, some of us have to work, they’d tell me, and then go back out into the real world, leaving me behind, shattered, unaware of the damage of their thoughtless words.
But when you have depression, you aren’t enjoying your favorite shows, or gardening, or reading. Even if you are going through the motions of doing these things, someone else is doing them with your hands. You are detached and you would do anything to feel again. To feel the sun on your face. You know it’s there, you can see it… and yet, you’re in a grey fog. You can see your plants growing, and yet you feel nothing, no sense of happiness or accomplishment. You read the words of a new book, and yet they slide right down your cheeks, along with the tears, if you are lucky enough to still be able to summon those. If you aren’t too numb to cry that day.
But I don’t write these words for you, my brothers and sisters, who fight alongside me. You’ve been where I have been, and though my story is not yours, just as yours in not mine, we can see one another reflected in each other’s words. We can, unfortunately, empathize..
I write these for people who have never had the sun stolen from their cheeks. Who have never had their purpose snatched in such a way. What it’s like to feel so utterly gutted and worthless that you can’t think of a single positive thing about yourself, and the terror that accompanies that. I write this for the people who haven’t sat in a chair, with a paper on a notebook before them, asking them to list three positive attributes about themselves, and had that launch them into a panic attack, because they realize they can’t come up with one.
That was how I was when I entered the partial in patient program. Actually, how I entered was I went to my primary and she saw the state I was in and sent me to the emergency room, where I spent a fun night impressing the night ER doc with my ability to have panic attacks through the sedating power of benzos. It just might be my superpower. But that ER visit changed my life and landed me with a social worker that night who sent me to this program.
On the first day, I had a panic attack in the first session I walked into and ended up on the floor outside of the room, trying to breathe. I thought there was no way I would ever get through it and no way I would ever find anything good about myself ever again. I’m crying as I write this to you all, because I’m ashamed that I feel this way, and yet I know now, that so many others feel this way too, and it breaks my heart for you… for us.
While I was there, we had an art therapy class. And the first thing I did was get some oil pastels. I hadn’t touched any art supplies in so long. I’d never been good at art, but it had always been a fun activity for me, and I needed to do something soothing at that moment, because everything felt so raw and horrid.
I began to smear the pigments, working them into the paper, and I began to feel better. I put on some Zoe Keating and let myself get lost in what I was feeling. While I was working, people began to comment on how beautiful my artwork was.
I felt ashamed, because I knew that nothing I could make could be beautiful, and other people could do it better. And then I just sat there for awhile and looked at it, and I began to feel proud of it. I had created something beautiful. I had done something worthwhile. And people were being honest with me.
It felt good to feel like I had created something to be proud of, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way about myself, but I know it had been years.
And so I began creating art. I bought watercolors. Then oil pastels. Then artist grade watercolors. And watercolor brushes. And pencils for sketching. And pads to put all of this down upon.
Now, on days where I feel down or worthless or am having a high pain day and am stuck in bed, I try and create art. I try and do something to remember that I am worth something. It is worth me being here.
And so, to now.
I was thinking, I know I am not alone in this. I can’t be the only one who struggles with depression and having had it snatch away my sense of worth. Art has helped so many in this struggle with mental illness. Why not have a place where we can show off our artwork and feel proud? Proud for fighting and being here another day. Proud for creating. We deserve to let go of our shame and step into the light.
I drew an angler fish the other day, and he has become my mascot, because I like the idea of being my own light, even when I’m surrounded by darkness. No matter how dark it may seem around me, I can always see my way, for I bring my light with me.