I’m in a longterm relationship with anxiety. But it took me many years before I realised there was depression underneath the anxiety – that they are the flipside of the same coin. I never identified as depressed, despite the fact that, all along, there was an ocean of sadness, disappointment, hopelessness and nothingness inside me. I think the anxiety was a coping mechanism – its heightened sensations, as terrifying as they are, were in some way preferable to me than the depression underneath.
As a child, I had nightmarish visions of my family’s house catching fire, and a second Holocaust coming to America. In my teens, I channelled the feelings into an eating disorder and, later, used drugs and alcohol to control the symptoms of my panic attacks. If I could have stayed drunk and high 24 hours a day, I wouldn’t have had to get sober. But, unfortunately, the morning always came and, with it, the panic attacks.
After I got sober, I stopped going into withdrawal every morning. But I’m still very scared of my feelings and never wholly convinced that they are not going to kill me. While the panic attacks are no longer daily occurrences, they still come in cycles. I’ll be OK for a number of months and think that I will never have one again. Then I’ll have a really bad one and get scared of having more, becoming overly sensitised to every shift in my body – thus triggering a cycle.
In the autumn of 2012, I went through a particularly harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn't abate for months. The symptoms included suffocating sensations, tightness in my throat and chest, dizziness, adrenaline surges, rapid heartbeat and, the worst, a feeling of hyperreality, where people looked like plastic versions of themselves. I would say to myself, “You felt like you were dying yesterday. But you didn't die. So, even though you feel like you are dying today, you probably won't die.” But rationality couldn't refute the panic attacks.
Panic attacks are a very lonely, isolating thing, as each one feels like a little death. Also, there is such a painful dichotomy between the mask that one wears to function and the dissolution one is feeling. As a perfectionist, I’m afraid that, if I show any signs of weakness, I will be discarded. I didn't feel like I could function at work. I would sit there, literally vibrating, and none of my usual fixes (a panic-attack ebook, therapy, a change in psych meds) were working. I even went to a shaman, who was the first person to point out there was actually depression underneath the anxiety – not my therapist.
The shaman asked me some questions about how I'd been feeling, physically. I told her that, right at that moment, I felt like the area from my ribcage to my neck was going to explode. It wasn’t a heart attack-type sensation. More like a balloon full of mourning. I could not say what I was mourning.
The shaman said, “That doesn't sound like anxiety to me. It sounds like depression.”
As I mined my feelings for the account, I felt like the opposite of a loser. I felt popular based on my truth. I began to celebrate this sensitive part of me
One day, I was at my desk at work, feeling like I was definitely dying. I thought the words, "So sad today." I created a Twitter account and just started tweeting what I was feeling.
But there was something about the visceral impact of sending what I was feeling out into the universe that felt different than just writing in a journal. It gave me relief. Maybe it was the dopamine of hitting send, but I felt like things were starting to move and clear out of me. Then people started following, at first slowly and then in rapid numbers. I remained anonymous but, in a way, I was taking off the mask of “OK-ness” that we all wear in the world. I think people felt relieved to know that someone else was not OK. The account grew and grew.
Then a really weird thing happened. I began to come out of my all-consuming anxiety and depression. But what I found was that there were always daily sadnesses to tweet about. I had never acknowledged this before – how sad things were. I guess I had always felt that to admit to myself that I was sad meant it was real. It made me feel like a loser. Who wants to be sad? But all of those sadnesses, unacknowledged over time, were pushing up against the plasters I put over them. As anxiety and depression, they were screaming to get out.
As I mined my feelings for the account, I felt like the opposite of a loser. I felt popular based on my truth. I began to celebrate this sensitive part of me – the things that I thought were most despicable: my need for constant validation, disappointments. Also, the questions that plagued me – questions existential and mystic that I had been discouraged from thinking about too hard, such as: why am I here? What is all of this? Am I going to die? Am I going to die right now? If I die right now, is that all there is? If I don't die right now, is this all there is?
The experience of being alive – its “is-ness”, maybe in relation to the future “isn’t-ness” of death – can hurt so much sometimes. Sometimes, it still hurts so much to be alive that I want to die. I am scared of dying and sad about dying, and that is part of the hurt.
Why aren't we all walking around and acknowledging this all the time? Maybe we can't afford to. Maybe, when we're not in the fear and sadness, we run from it. We don't want to think about it.
I know I have an ocean of sadness inside me and I have been damming it my entire life. I always imagined that something was supposed to rescue me from the ocean. But maybe the ocean is its own, ultimate rescue – a reprieve from the linear mind and into the world of feeling. Shouldn’t someone have told me this at birth? Shouldn’t someone have said, “Enjoy your ocean of sadness – there is nothing to fear in it”, so I didn’t have to build all those dams? I think some of us are less equipped to deal with our oceans; or maybe we are just more terrified, because we see and feel a little extra. So we build our shitty dams. But, inevitably, the dam always breaks again. It breaks again and the ocean speaks to me. It says, “I'm alive and it's real.” It says, “I'm going to die and it's real.”
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder is published by Scribe Publications