Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.
Let’s get naked about mental health!
I forget what famous author said it, but they said, “an amateur writer borrows; a professional one steals.”
In this week’s episode, I’m stealing. A friend sent me a link on Instagram to a group about a month ago, Real Depression Project. I am in awe by what they are doing on Instagram. I highly recommend checking them out. There is also a website.
Everything they post hits me in some way, makes me feel better. I know that I am not alone, and not being alone is a message I preach. Real Depression Project are the choir, singing the hymns.
I thought I would share some of the things that have struck me the most. As I said, if you are struggling, or trying to understand someone who is struggling, I highly recommend following them.
Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.
If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. In the United States, there is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.
I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.
Now, let’s get into the episode.
I follow the Real Depression Project on Instagram. It is sometimes hard reading their posts. They are educating me on things I needed to know decades ago. They are also educating loved ones of people struggling and even helping to validate many of the feelings I have inside of me.
As I have mentioned, depression, anxiety and PTSD are not what many people think, the caricatures we come across in everyday life. They can be, but most often are not. It is like how I explained PTSD once.
I took all of the online tests for ADHD and passed with flying colors. Finally, I thought, something I could grab onto and address. I went to see a specialist. After a battery of tests, I was told I did not have ADHD. When telling a friend of mine about it, a psychiatrist and expert on PTSD, he asked me if anybody had ever told me that PTSD can present itself as ADHD.
Mental health struggles can be insidious. From the Real Depression Project and other resources, I am learning that depression and childhood trauma really did have complete control of my life and I just did not know it. I was looking for the caricature, not the reality; I was looking for the dragon to slay instead of looking upon it with soft eyes.
After five decades, it is hard coming to that realization.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for an addict to walk into that meeting for the first time, admit they were powerless over their addiction and that their lives had become unmanageable. But what if they really had no idea their lives were unmanageable and could have been managed? I don’t know enough about addiction but what if they really, truly believed not only were in control but they did not even know they were using? As if someone close to them was slipping something to them when they did not know about it? (That’s an episode of NCIS.)
When my last major depressive episode hit, I was pissed. I was angry at the depression, God, the Universe and everything else. I was doing well! I was taken my meds religiously! My depression was managed!
Only, it wasn’t.
Memes, conversations, and posts by the Real Depression Project are teaching me that according to my Mental Health Triangle, I flatlined a long time ago. Signs of it are scattered throughout my life. It was never a question of if the episode would hit again, but when.
It is so damn hard to come to that realization, and then look back and see the evolution of a life controlled by the depression.
The caricatures can be easy to spot. I learned that a long time ago. The onset of my mother’s manic episodes were marked by music, candles and religion. It was episodic, hence the word episodes. The gentler insanities, as I call them, the less pronounced versions, are much different.
Hints and allegations. I’ve always said I am a man. We don’t do well with hints. We need to be hit with something heavy. Those light brushes, though, have been touching me all my life and I didn’t realize it. I just thought of many things as character flaws. I never put together the pieces that they were all a part of something larger, something looming over my life.
One post by the Real Depression Project last week hit me right between the eyes, with something heavy. Think 5 lb. masonry hammer.
Right before I was about to record the episode, I read their post on “Things Those with Depression Secretly Do Alone.” The first slide after the title got me.
“Rewatching reruns of old TV shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.”
Though not old TV shows, I’ve written about this and spoke about it often. I’ve been writing about it since I first launched my website in 2001. I wanted to be a writer. I know what it takes. I am a voracious reader. I could have read all of the classics by now, the top 1,000 books of all time. Hell, I could have read an entire library by now. A smaller library, but a library.
Throughout my podcast, I write about my addiction to fantasy books. It was not new fantasy books, though. It was the old ones. The ones I have been reading for decades. I first read Tolkien when I was about 8. I have now read the series 20-30 times.
I remember when I went to Scotland for a semester abroad. I was broke. I was beyond broke, counting every penny. Due to various issues, I had to get by for a month and a half with very little money. I went on January 4th and my student loans would not hit until mid-February.
Meals were one piece of meat on two pieces of toasted bread. Sometimes, I would splurge and add a second piece of meat. I had an entire country though! Things that cost nothing! Just explore. Meet people. Be a part of things. Hell, I could have been going to class.
Instead, I found my way to a bookstore. I bought books I owned at home in the States, spending money that I did not have, and sat in my flat and read them.
I never put 2 and 2 together until I read that post, though I switched it around a little bit inside of my head, [Rereading old books you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.]
All of the other slides in the post hit just as hard.
2) Neglecting chores/habits because you have no energy–all of it is used up fighting depression/faking a smile when you’re with others.
3) Spending long periods of times distracting yourself/finding an escape from your inner turmoil.
4) Planning out how you’d explain your struggle to others (and even typing it out via text) but then not following through with it because you fear being a burden (or that you won’t be accepted).
5) Getting lost in / fantasizing about a memory you cherish.
I can hit all of these. Or all of these can hit me. That is just one of many posts by the Real Depression Project. Each one educates me a little more. When I can handle being educated.
Like I said, when my last depressive episode hit, I was pissed. It seemed to come out of left field. It didn’t. It was a pitch right down the middle of the plate and my psyche hit it out of the ballpark. I was primed and ready for my depressive episode, with the exhaustion from two nonexistent partnerships triggering it all.
I have a lot of work to do. A lot of homework. A lot of healing.
This is what this journey is all about though: the work, the homework and, most especially, the healing.
…and this is the part where I get stuck. This is the part where I want to swim out deeper into the posts by the Real Depression Project, but I can feel the demon circling underneath me. It reaches out a claw to my foot and I kick it away. It reaches again.
And I am drug down to the depths, through 51 years. Many things carry me down, helping the demon along. How my friend said that PTSD can present itself as ADHD. Episode 18, where I talk about what childhood trauma looks like in adults. This episode where I am learning these hints and signs of a life controlled by depression. They all combine into answers to the question I have always asked myself, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
It goes back to a rooftop in Chicago in 2019, when my friend Regina asked me why I refer to myself as a person who stutters and yet as a depressive.
The demon drags me down through decades of me writing, pushing at the boundaries of who and what I am, of what was wrong with me. Though I began publishing my Coffee Chronicles online in 2001, I was journaling since I was about 14 in 1985.
In the silence of the depths, the roar is overpowering. I wasn’t writing journal entries. I was writing self-prophecy. I was answering the question of, “what the hell is wrong with me,” but never putting the pieces together.
It brings me to a flat in Scotland where I was rereading The Belgariad by David Eddings. It brings me to Miami in a dorm room where I read and reread Tolkien, Eddings, McCaffrey, and Jordan. It brings me to so many places where I stand with my back revealed and hear the rustling of whips being unrolled, the steel tips scritchity schritching against each other, the could have beens, should have beens and would have beens.
It brings me to the present, where I ask myself a simpler question. “At this point in my life, do I really want to know any more?”
The answer, of course, is, “yes.” But there is the strong undertow, and the demon is carrying me along. Perhaps it is the current depression whispering to me. Aye, you would be depressed as well after 90 days in a chair. There’s a lot going on. The flu is not helping.
It can be overwhelming. So, I’m just going to do what I do and keep talking and see if I can’t make it past that overwhelming feeling. But it is hard. So damn hard. I can’t help but feel as if I have been going through life with one arm tied behind my back. I did not even know it was tied behind my back. But now to see the entire field, see the great expanse of a life lived, a full life…
Even the tiny glimpses in the slide have the ability to both make me feel more comfortable and repel me at the same time.
“Hide, Chris,” my mind screams. “Stop! Halt! Cease! Desist!”
It just all wants to make me find a nice orthodontic lab to get back to the day-to-day work, the satisfaction of seeing a mountain of casts become appliances. Collect a check at the end of each week. Watch my movies, read my books, play with my dog, and really say the hell with this self-actualization bullshit.
The overwhelming feeling is so strong, so terribly powerful.
I also know, through the experience of that long lived and full life, that I can only hide for so long. Weeks. Maybe even months. But then two things will happen.
First, the depression will catch up to me again. Second, the desire, the need, to learn more and push out more will return.
I’ve said it in previous episodes. All my life, I just wanted to be like others, my friends and people that I love. People that I respect. To come home from a day’s work and put on the ball game and open a beer. To be satisfied and comfortable in a smaller world. I’ve tried it. It does not work.
I’ve also said I wish I was like my mother, with explosive and devastating depressive and manic episodes, with huge billboards in my life that scream, “There is something very, very wrong here! I need help!”
But I am me. That means continuing to write, continuing to talk, continuing to learn and explore. It means standing in the face of that overwhelming feeling and waiting for it to pass so I can continue my journey outward and beyond what I am, into what I can be. Even at 51.
But as I have been taught, let’s try things from a different angle. I’m stuck here. So, let’s look at another portion of the Real Depression Project that I love.
Self-doubt can be such a powerful tool we use against ourselves. It can be especially hard when we see or perceive it reflected in those we love. Again, there is the caricature we can recognize for what it is but then there are the subtilities that we may miss.
The caricature is when I wrote about how I texted my wife one night at work. I was slammed by a depressive attack, not even knowing depressive attacks existed at the time. “Do you know what it is like to be a failure in every facet of your life?”
It’s become easier for me to shrug them off, laugh at them even. No matter how bad the attack, the lightning strike of self-doubt, even when my shoes get blown off, it is easy for me to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get my swagger back. Aye, ya know, I’m from Philly. Infantry. And I’ve done a lot with my life. Even helped out an entire profession. The swagger can even push itself into arrogance and all is okay again.
With the depression pushing and nudging me, I begin to doubt the small victories, the everyday ones. I even begin to question if the major victories were victories at all.
And then I come across a post by the Real Depression Project.
“Mental Health Achievements that Deserve More Recognition.”
The first one is the biggie for me: “Not acting on suicidal thoughts.” I think of it as an achievement, a huge achievement, but I get the feeling that not everybody does. I mean, they are happy I did not, but many of the reactions I have received from the people closest to me fall far from the recognition I think it deserves.
It was a battle not to do it. After the battle, the war began. It was like the D-Day Invasion. I got past that day, but there were so many nights afterwards that were just nasty, ugly, street fights. I knew I wasn’t going to do it but sat night after night in my garage wondering if I should start up the car and drift off in the carbon monoxide fumes. Where the pain was so intense I could just rock back and forth and wait for it to pass.
It is so hard to explain to other people, hard to get them to comprehend the scope of what I accomplished. Many never will. I understand that. Some days, though, the understanding is harder than others.
I talked about it previous episodes, about how I felt like I just climbed Mt. Everest or hiked Death Valley in the middle of the summer. Or maybe did both. And family members responded, “yeah, but you were wearing the wrong shoes.”
And then I run across the Real Depression Project. They understand it. They get it.
I question this podcast at times. Am I really doing anything? Am I helping? Or am I just talking to hear myself speak? The depression whispers to me that I am harming myself, wasting time, that nothing really matters. I particularly worry that I post these episodes and advertise on them on LinkedIn, the same place where my unsuccessful job search has been. Then, I come across the second slide in the post of “Mental Health Achievements that Deserve More Recognition.”
2) Opening up about a mental health issue that you may be judged / stigmatized for.
I also receive messages and notes here and there. No, I am not looking for daily outside affirmation, but I do like to hear it once in a while, need to hear it once in a while.
It is the difference between knowing someone loves you and hearing them say it.
Maybe I’ll get to the point where I will just know. Where the results of what I am doing do not matter. Just doing it should be enough. I am a huge proponent of “the means must justify the ends” as opposed to the “the ends justify the means,” but it is nice to hear and read the affirmation once in a while, the support, the held arm to steady my steps.
The other slides were just as meaningful to me:
3) Putting in boundaries because you no longer tolerate toxic behavior.
4) Allowing yourself to be vulnerable after you’ve been hurt (e.g betrayal, abuse, heartbreak.
5) Moving away from what is familiar and towards what you are worthy and deserving of.
They wrap up the post with the slide, “Be proud of yourself–All of these achievements take so much strength, courage, and hard work.”
But I’m still struggling with one. I’m struggling in general. The flu pushed back more than this episode. It pushed back my departure. I’ll be leaving soon to start a new chapter someplace else. Minnesota this time.
My friend is worried about how I will handle winter. I haven’t been in one in a long time, and I have never been in a winter like they have in Minnesota. I am not worried about winter at all. The cold and heat don’t bother me. I have a home waiting for me and my dog. That’s all that matters. It looks…perfect, white stuff on the ground and everything.
I can feel that certain tingling all throughout my body, though, the too-long pause between breaths. I’ve been caught here for a long time.
I did go for a walk today, though. It my first walk in a long time. A long walk to the pharmacy to stock up on meds it is tough to get in the United States. Today, as I write this, marks exactly three months since I broke my ankle. Today was my first long walk. It felt good.
Yeah, I still have a lot of work to do. A lot of homework. It all reminds me of a song by the Grateful Dead, Just a Little Light. It is a song that acknowledges the darkness within while looking for a little light.
It is just a little light that illuminates my path somedays. That’s all I need to know that I am moving forward. The light can come from the oddest of places. The darkness can as well. The interesting blending of the two creates shadows that must be explored to discern their reality.
But that is going to be a wrap for this episode. I need to start packing. Or maybe just lay down for a little bit and acknowledge that I could use a little bit of extra rest today.
Be kind to yourself. Educate yourself. If something feels “off,” look into it. Our mind plays tricks on us–something else that the Real Depression Project reinforces. Our senses can be lying to us. It is the nature of depression. We need to trust our gut and go with it.
I highly recommend the Real Depression Project if you are struggling or someone you know is struggling.
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