Panic is spontaneous. It's not like you plan for panic or even anticipate it. Panic, by its nature, swamps. It's the downpour of unwelcome adrenaline that floods the bloodstream, overwhelming the system like swirling, pulsing waters from a drowning gutter that spill into traffic. The traffic is your life, and suddenly you're barely dog paddling in the rapids, too fast to navigate.
I've been told by numerous friends that when they hit that stretch of deep water, the ordinary stuff of life feels impossible. Usually in the wake of panic, depression sets in. Imagine nearly drowning and then being asked to get back in the water and swim a mile, with a rip tide. That's how it appears to a depressed person—who's lost the life vest and is clinging to a palm tree for stability.
Depression isn't merely a psychological condition, nor is it mostly about the emotions. Apparently biology can trip the wire as easily as stress. When the body gets involved (where food becomes poison, where sleep happens during the day but rarely at night, where shivers and shortness of breath are the new conditions of regular living), depression takes on a very different character than mere sadness, grief, or disappointment. Depression, particularly led by panic, quickly and effectively strips the individual of ordinary tools for living.
I've been emotionally depressed during a few seasons of my life—not ever medically diagnosed, and I've never called the ER myself. Still, I can think back to specific occasions where I let the TV drone all day while I barely supervised my toddler because I couldn't make myself stand up. I've had moments where anxiety spilled from my nerve-endings and it seemed I could send electrical shocks if I touched anyone or anything.
I've had an incredibly challenging pair of years, and it occurred to me recently that it would not have been surprising at all had I had a full scale breakdown at some point. The pressures have been enormous and new, complemented by the kind of pain I never imagined. Yet even with some of the symptoms of depression, I didn't wind up clinically depressed.
I've reflected on why and have become so grateful for my mental fitness, I wanted to list (and pay due gratitude to) the resources that have kept me from drowning:
- California: I do think there is something to be said for growing up in the navel-gazing capital of the world. I grew up knowing it was important to pay attention to me.
- Therapy: Similarly, therapy is not stigmatized in my world. It's a given, and it's not a "once-for-all" proposition. Therapeutic tune-ups are part of my mental hygiene.
- Nutrition: My mom was one of the original health nuts of the 1970's. I grew up reading labels, not trusting additives and preservatives, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. I have no appetite for junk food or fast food. It's not even a struggle. It doesn't appeal.
- Running: Even though I haven't run every year of my life, I've returned to it again and again, particularly during stressful seasons. I know running will be there for me when I need it.
- Ocean: Which is not in Ohio and has had consequences unpleasant! The ocean sustained me when I felt like the world was falling away from under me. Now I look to the big, open expanse of sky above me. It works too.
- Friends: Of all textures—the ones I call just about every day who live out of town; the ones I only talk to on chat or email; the ones who fly me places if I need them to; the ones who knew me way back then and validate my today perceptions; the brand new ones who like me as I am now and don't need to care about my past; the local ones who've brought me into their lives; the virtual ones I've never met in person who respect me and share my ideals... Friends are the difference between sanity and losing touch. They have literally preserved my mind, given me saving ideas, and shouldered half the load.
- Writing: Who knew how important it was to write? I only do it because I can't not. It's how I know what I think. Turns out writing is a chief way to process our internal stuff, and endless processing has saved me from the specter of overpowering phantom-like anxiety. I know the measure of my pain... in lines on a page.
- Spirituality: Whatever version, whether by the Bible or poetry, through church or grad school, by the intimacy of prayer or the quiet emptying of yoga, a spiritual life has undergirded me as long as I can remember.
- Fun: I have it, I like it, I go back for more.
- Mother: And if you go back over the list (1-9), my mom is the Ur-text for all of it. She's 72, hikes, camps, knits, goes to her regular support group meetings, is active in her faith, works out at the gym, eats healthy foods, doesn't have physical complaints, is writing her 74th book (yes, that is seventy-four!), supports her family through acts of kindness and phone calls, gives money, keeps old friends and makes new ones, is optimistic and positive, and looks for the good in people and life. How lucky, blessed, lottery-winning am I to have such a mother!
We've heard it said so many times, we almost stop listening: Take care of yourself.
I'm realizing today that every age carries with it the stresses of that stage of life (whether you're learning to navigate a high school and open a locker; figuring out how to get a job and repay school loans; adjusting to a new marriage and baby; hanging in there with a partner who is disappointing or challenged; or leaving a long term marriage and making a new life alone). It's easy to take ourselves for granted, believing we can face new challenges without re-upping the supplies we need to survive.
If you don't put oil in the car and it's leaking, eventually you'll burn out the engine and have to rebuild it from scratch.
1-10 is my oil change check list.
Thank you friends, family and online community for being a part of my sanity package. May I be a part of yours too.