Warning: This post is long and discusses depression, shame, body image, and other related topics that may be triggering to some. I’m very honest about my feelings, particularly about my body, but I’m not looking for confidence boosts or compliments. I appreciate everything that you guys do to lift me up when I’m feeling frustrated and stuck, and I do understand that there are some of you who take inspiration from hearing about my struggles and my refusal to quit. As I’m sure you’ve all experienced, however, a person’s personal struggle and their feelings may not exactly reflect those of the people around them. This post was something I needed to expunge from my thoughts. I feel lighter for writing it, though that doesn’t erase those thoughts and feelings. I process my grief and struggles through writing, though, so I’ve decided to publish this despite it being such a negative post. Please don’t worry about me, I’m okay. I just needed to write a few things.
I’ve suffered from depression since I was ten years old. When I look back over my adult life, from the time I left for college until now, I see very few spots of bright light and happiness. They are so few that I can name them off and make a photo collage. The summer of 1999 when I went on a study abroad program to France. The summers of 2006 and 2007 when I was in contact with my favorite band (and got to meet them in person). January 2011 through June 2013, while I was losing weight (more on this later). January through April 2014, after my abdominal surgery helped me regain my body’s true figure. Two weeks in the summer of 2016 while on vacation, which hardly count since it was vacation. That’s it. The sum of happiness in my adult life. About 3.5 years of the last twenty-one.
Roughly twelve years ago – I forget the exact time – I experienced a traumatic shock when I discovered that so much I believed about my past was untrue, and I had to piece my memories back together with the new information. A few sleepless nights after the discovery, I lay in bed unable to sleep, trying to talk things through with Jason, and I was so exhausted that I experienced an out-of-body moment. Suddenly I was floating over my body, and it felt like all my memories were someone else’s, that my children were someone else’s, that I hadn’t really lived my life. And I knew I could just float away, out my open window, into the dark, and cease to exist. I had one thought that reverberated throughout me: Once, I had happiness, and it had slipped away. It had been years since I’d felt it. And what if that was it? What if each human being had a finite amount of happiness to experience in their lives, and I’d reached the end of mine? Was I doomed, in my mid-20s, to spend the rest of my life without happiness? And if so, what was to stop me from just slipping through that window and fading into the night? In my vision, I snuggled into a hollow made by the roots of a willow tree. I could feel myself being grafted into the tree, and it felt like peace. Like rest.
It was an out of body experience born purely of insomnia, trauma, and my brain’s attempt to distance myself from raw grief. Nevertheless, the experience remains painfully vivid to this day. I was wrong, of course – I’ve had happiness since then – but sometimes there are these years-long periods of misery and I start to question if it’s possible to ever be happy again. It’s not just depression. Depression doesn’t help, but my adult life has been filled with sudden and jolting traumas that tear apart my feeling of personal safety and often take years to overcome. It’s difficult to experience happiness when you’re trying to simultaneously grieve and take care of the people around you, and it’s not as if you can just take six months off of life to sort yourself out. You muddle through as best you can and let the healing take a long, long time.
In the last twenty years, I’ve noticed patterns. I couldn’t say which causes which, but those rare moments of happiness have often centered on or been paired with a couple things. They’re often times of social expansion in my life. They often happen when I’m writing. I couldn’t say whether the writing/social expansion causes happiness or is caused by happiness, or both. They’re just often wrapped up with each other. Ditto weight loss.
I want to discuss this one in particular, because the longest period of happiness I’ve had since I was a kid was that 2.5 years between Jan 2011 and June 2013. During this time, I lost a massive amount of weight and hit my goal. I had all sorts of fitness improvements and achievements. I met tons of new people along the journey, and began to write again nine months after deciding I was going to quit writing altogether. It was the first time I felt good about myself in years. Again, I have no idea how much of the happy was due to losing weight, or how much of the losing weight was due to happiness, but I do know something very, very definite: They claim that losing weight won’t help you to overcome your psychological body issues. If you’re unhappy with yourself at 250 lbs, you’ll be unhappy with yourself at 150 lbs. They say you have to work on your unhappiness separately from losing weight. In my experience, while there’s a smidgeon of truth to that, the greater truth for me is that I was happier with myself at 150 lbs. I felt like a real person again. I’d accomplished goals. I recognized myself in the mirror. Did I have depression during these years? Hell yes! A lot of depression, and a lot of body image issues. But depression while accomplishing goals and visibly improving myself is a completely different thing than depression while feeling like a failure and being unable to recognize myself in the mirror.
It has been over four years since my life fell apart in a thousand different ways. I’m not even close to recovered. I’m back to that same spot I was in twelve years ago, unable to imagine what happiness might feel like. The best I can do is look back at photos of those happy moments and try to imagine getting there again. And I worry, because I know that I won’t get there until I can pull myself out of my current situation. It sounds trite to say that I’m not going to be happy until I can lose weight again, but there’s truth to this. I don’t feel or act or look like myself right now. I don’t exist as myself, but instead exist inside a cocoon to protect myself from my own shame and hate and despair. I don’t write on my manuscripts, I don’t meet new people, I rarely leave my house, I dress up to prove to myself that I’m okay all the while feeling like a fraud, and I’m just uncomfortable in mind-body-soul all the time. I’ve spent years working to not feel this way, but it makes no difference. It’s not about losing weight, not really. It’s not about being thin or pretty or whatever. It’s about looking and feeling like myself, and being able to choose how visible I am to the outside world, and accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. And every day that I continue to be not-all-those-things, the further I am from happiness, which pushes me further away from achieving those things, and the cycle spirals on and on. I’m chasing happiness, but it’s elusive, and I have no practice at catching it.