Sometimes when I give advice to younger people, usually when I am asked about relationships and choices and forks in the road, I will say that life is short, so go and do all of the those things you want to do before it’s too late. Other times I say that life is long and winding, with lots of starts and missteps and dead ends, and you will very likely have another chance to revisit people and opportunities that fell by the wayside and to correct your mistakes, or to make amends. So far I have gotten away with being so outlandishly inconsistent because I am convinced that no one really listens that closely to me anyway. They’re just looking for answers and they figure ‘hey, she’s old, I bet she knows things.’
The truth is that I am always surprised and honored when someone asks me for advice, but I don’t know what the hell I am talking about. You can lay out elaborate plans and goals, but life will eventually toss all of them into a blender, pulse it a few times, and spit out something that tastes a lot like one of those healthy green smoothies; filled with things that are probably what you need, but not exactly what you ordered. And if that’s true of people who planned ahead and set concrete goals, just imagine what you end up with when, like me, you never set goals, you never had a plan to begin with. You just bumped down the road making little adjustments along the way, doing what you needed to do to make it to the end of the day. And then getting up and doing the same thing the next day. And the next.
It’s embarrassing to be as old as I am and so tenuously moored. I feel like the slightest breeze will unravel the final thread that holds me to something that feels like security, and I will just float away.
Ever since I decided to start a blog I’ve struggled with what my message should be and who my audience is. My interests are pretty varied and I have a healthy curiosity about the world, but there are several issues that really hold my attention and feel important to me. Politics. Women’s issues. Photography. Writing. I read a great deal about these subjects and feel passionately about them. It seems, though, that a subject has chosen me: depression.
You never want depression to choose you. It’s not like in middle school gym class when the captain picks you for her volleyball team, sparing you the embarrassment of being left alone against the cinderblock wall when the teams are complete. Depression isn’t a team sport. It’s a solitary and somber marathon that you have to run alone. There are points along the route where you’re dying of thirst or you have soiled your pants or your knees are buckling and people try to come to your aid, but their assistance, while appreciated, feels puny in comparison to what you have ahead of you. You plod along, feet encased in lead, toward a finish line that is constantly being moved further ahead. It feels like that. People are telling you that you have to keep going and you tell yourself you have to keep going but all you want to do is sit on the grass and let everyone pass you by.
In writing about something as intensely personal as my own mental health I always battle myself over how much to say, how descriptive to get, and to what end. I am always cognizant that I have children and that admitting to my darkest thoughts means that I am turning the parent/child dynamic on its head. I become the one who needs to be looked after and that is a profoundly painful, humiliating situation to find myself in, especially when my role as a mother is the most important aspect of my life. On the other hand I believe that writing the truth about my depression is the only way that I can allow people to see me without the mask of silliness or sarcasm and self-deprecation that I habitually wear. If you don’t meet my depression you haven’t really met me.
Depression is my oldest friend and my worst enemy. Depression has stuck with me through all the stages of my life and after awhile I had to admit that I have a weird relationship with it. I blame it for so many of my failures, but part of me loves the continuity of it and the way it never lets me down. Depression is a shape-shifter, adjusting itself to thwart me regardless of how my circumstances change. When I was a young wife and mother it was lethargy and impatience, anxiety, isolation and self-doubt. Now that my children are gone and I am alone and struggling to support myself, it is indecision, self-loathing, weariness, shame, and tears. So, so many tears. Without the sense of purpose that caring for children provided, my thoughts are in many ways the darkest they’ve ever been. My deceitful brain convinces me I’m useless and pathetic and people would be better off without me. It tells me that the best parts of my life are behind me and there is really no reason to stick around. My old companion has never really told me that before, so this is new. Oh, depression. I thought I knew everything about you and there you go surprising me.
And here we come full circle because writing that sounds a lot scarier to the reader than it does to me. “Me” knows that I will indeed stick around. I’m too curious to see how things work out to ever intentionally take myself out of the picture. So writing about it feels self-indulgent, but at the same time I feel like I owe it to everyone else who suffers from depression to do my best to describe it. Depression is not a team sport, but having a tribe definitely helps.
It is widely stated that being a parent means forever walking around with your heart outside of your body. No matter how cool you are, how reserved, how close to the vest you hold your cards, when you have a child there is a piece of you out in the world, innocent and naked, vulnerable to a seemingly endless collection of dangers and evils that you never once thought about before. If you’re a parent you know the list. If you’re not a parent, trust me, you will never again see an unattended bucket of water or an electrical outlet as benign objects.
I always assumed that being a grandparent would relieve all of that fear and pressure but apparently it only adds another level of concern. You are somewhat removed from the daily stress and worry, but you’re acutely aware of how the stress and worry is affecting your grown child. And you feel it too. It’s kind of like wearing your heart and your stomach on your sleeve.
Witnessing my child, along with his wife who feels like my child, standing watch in the NICU over their critically ill, fragile newborn is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is quite literally heart-wrenching. I feel their fear, and I feel my own, and together it dwarfs anything that I have experienced in this not-easy life of mine. Every small bit of good news makes me feel a sense of cautious euphoria; a feeling I never would have guessed was possible. Every setback plunges me into darkness. So many hopes and dreams and plans, so much love, so much fear, rests on the beating of that tiny heart. I am glad that he does not know that.
And yet the world continues to turn, day turns to night, people on Facebook complain about small inconveniences and I admit I want to slap them. And I know it’s not their fault. We all go on blissfully ignorant of people in crisis. It’s what we do. The world necessarily goes on without us, oblivious to our suffering.
This is such a huge thing and yet I don’t want to talk about it with people. They ask how he’s doing and if it’s not a good day I just can’t bring myself to say it. It’s too big.
For me, the world spins on a heart the size of a strawberry.
“In a variety of Stockholm syndrome, we the self-imprisoned sometimes start to see our restrictions as freedom— saving us from the danger of chance and choice, shielding us from our fear of fucking up—from our gut-busting, brain-burning, apocalyptic terror of ourselves. We start to see our self-constructed prisons as acts of compassion, built for our own good. ” http://spiritualityhealth.com/blog/anneli-rufus/are-you-your-own-prisoner
I feel flat.
In an attempt to head off the growing feelings of hopelessness, the deepening of the depression I am always aware is lurking out there, I increased the dosage of my antidepressant. I was on a small maintenance dose anyway – kind of a safety net to catch me if I started to fall without being aware of it, which is often the case when chronic low-level depression (dysthymia) morphs into a monster so slowly, so comfortably, that you don’t notice it until it’s looming menacingly behind you in the bathroom mirror some Tuesday at 11:00 AM when you’ve finally gotten the energy to brush your teeth.
So feeling flat isn’t entirely a bad thing, considering the alternative. Which in my case is a weepy, hopeless lump of blah that will intermittently explode with anger at the slightest frustration or dissolve into messy, boogery tears of self-loathing.
I am my own jailer. I am so intimately connected to me that I know all of the most effective ways to sabotage my own feeble attempts to free myself. You’re not good at that. It’s too hard. It won’t work. You’re too old. No one respects you or takes you seriously. You had your chances and you blew them, one by one. What makes you think that’ll ever change? You don’t have what it takes. Everyone else does, but not you. How pathetic. Don’t you feel silly? Stay here and be safe. Here, have a brownie.
No fooling, that’s the bullshit your head tells you when you have depression. And even though you know your head is lying to you, you buy it. Every damn time. So I take some admittedly real challenges and I turn them into obstacles so insurmountable that it doesn’t make sense to even try. And if I don’t try I don’t fail. And not failing is good, right?
The circumstances of my life are such that I need to sink or swim and I am barely keeping my head above the surface. And drowning isn’t the dramatic, splashy spectacle you see in movies. It’s quiet and it’s lonely and you don’t have the energy to yell for help. But in drowning, other people can save you. In depression, in a jail made up of your own limitations, the only one who can help you is the one with the key.
And that’s you.
A week from today I’ll be on a plane to Arizona to spend a lot of time with total strangers, doing something completely out of my comfort zone. By that I mean the trip will combine several experiences that I would normally rank below getting a tooth yanked out with no anesthetic: meeting new people, flying, and forced togetherness with no method of escaping the sensory overload this routinely causes introverts like me.
You may ask yourself why – and how – an unemployed woman in pretty, let’s be honest, crappy life circumstances could take time out from what should be a frantic job search to fly to the desert southwest and chill for a couple of weeks. I asked myself those same questions, believe me. And the answer turned out to be – to experience the lives of people in even crappier circumstances and maybe, just maybe, to get the hell over myself.
I’ll be working at a church based (yeah, I know) food bank that also has a group of volunteers who assist migrants in need. People who are trying to come to America for a better life, but who often get sent directly back to the dire circumstances they left, or who perish in the desert simply trying to find a way to provide for their families.
Click here to read a little bit about what the Sahuarita Samaritans do.
While I’m there I hope to write a bit about these people. Both the ones who find themselves in need and the ones who volunteer to show them some basic kindness and humanitarian aid. The ones who actually live “give me your tired, your poor…” instead of wrapping themselves in the flag and forgetting what this country is all about. But the selfish reasons I am going are what I want to address here. I need a kick in the ass. I need to feel a sense of purpose at a time in my life when I truly believe I have outlived my usefulness. My kids are adventurous spirits who have gone skydiving and travelled to exotic places, have lived on the other side of the planet, while their mother has sat at home in cement shoes, envious and timid. I talk a good game about taking chances and living your best life and being fearless, but it’s completely fraudulent. It’s wishful thinking.
So when Facebook acquaintance Curt Ackley proposed this trip to me I blew him off at first, thinking he couldn’t be serious, that he felt sorry for me and invented an excuse to make me feel like I wasn’t accepting a free trip out of pity. He persisted and I continued to put him off, nicely.
And then I thought…why the hell not? I don’t have anything else going on right now, aside from a demoralizing job search and a lot of feeling sorry for myself and wondering what to do with the rest of my life. I opened up my mind a little bit and wondered why this opportunity fell into my lap when it did. When I literally had nothing else to get out of bed for.
And I kept coming back to this idea: this is something the person I want to be would do.
Curt won’t mind if I tell you that I did a background check on him and also the more serious and reliable “friend of a friend of Connie Schultz” test and when he passed both I said yes.
So, screw that job search. Screw the deepening depression and feelings of worthlessness. Screw the self pity and the anxiety.
There are mountains and sunshine and vast expanses of starry skies to gaze at.
And if I learn a little something about myself along the way, even better.
“To draw for a moment from an entirely different corner of my life, that part of me still attached to the biological sciences, there is ample evidence that animals — rats and monkeys, for example — that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming ‘depressed’ in humanlike ways. Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter boosted by some antidepressants) declines in their brains. And — what is especially relevant here — they avoid fighting even in self-defense … My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.”
― Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By inAmerica
I haven’t read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Enrenreich, mostly because I know it would depress the hell out of me in that way I get when something troubles me but I can’t do a damned thing about it. It makes me feel impotent and small, like shaking my fists at a traffic jam. But from the long excerpts I’ve read along the way I know she is telling my story and that she is not lying when she says you start to believe you are only worth what you are paid.
I am worth $7.75 an hour right now and even that seems too generous at times. I am selling bits of my life for under eight bucks an hour and there is no way I can reword that in my head to make it sound less demoralizing, especially at this stage of my life. Most people my age are settled in, paying off their houses, looking forward to retirement, and going on vacations. They’re helping their kids pay for college and I’m sponging gas money off of mine. I just can’t make that sound okay, even to myself. Even though I know I would give my last nickel to someone if they needed it, when it’s me asking for that nickel it somehow becomes fraught with humiliation, like I’ve been caught with my hands down my pants.
I took my “emergency job”. I had to because it was, well, an emergency. At 54 and only sporadically employed over the years no one was taking me seriously on the job market, in part because I can’t adequately describe my worth to anyone. I can write with good grammar! I have a good eye for photography. I am relatively comfortable on a computer. I learn fast. I can feed six people on $100 a week. I can charm a baby to sleep in under five minutes. I have changed probably 20,000 diapers in my life. I can break up a fight between two 180 lb. men with intellectual disabilities who are going after each other with forks over the chicken cacciatore I have cooked for them. I know how to delay the electric company turning off the power by writing a check and “forgetting” to sign it. I am clever and adaptable. I am kind. But I am old and inexperienced at things that translate to real job skills and I am competing with 16 year old kids who are way cuter than I am and who still have the energy and idealism inside of them to believe their best years are yet to come.
In the past few weeks I have had two drug tests, one saliva and one aborted attempt at a urine test. I have been patted down. I have had my credit checked. I have had two criminal background checks run on me. I have gone on a cattle call with other potential employees who could have been my grandchildren. I have watched more than 10 hours of onboarding videos about stealing and productivity and where the security cameras are and how many times my till will be checked by someone who makes more money than I do. I understand this is the training that new hires now go through and I accept that, but the flip side is that I feel like a criminal who is somehow scamming the system by even having a job, as worthless and untrustworthy as I am. I am worth no more than the minimum amount someone is forced by law to pay me, and before that I have to prove I’m not a thief and a drug user and a deadbeat.
Is this only to whine and inveigh against the unfairness of life and minimum wage and capitalism? I have no idea. It’s just what’s in my head right now and I try not to let it get me down but it absolutely does. I have a pretty minimalistic attitude toward life. I live frugally. My clothes are from Goodwill. I drank out of mason jars before it was cool. All of my furniture is second hand. I have basic cable and drive a fourteen year old car. So it’s not like I have this lavish, entitled lifestyle I need to uphold. But I would like to maintain my psychological place as the matriarch of a family and not be the fuck-up child who never amounted to anything and who keeps asking for loans. It’s just not the way things are supposed to go in life. Yeah, expectations, assumptions…they bite you in the ass every time.
Is it too much to hope for that I can find work that is somewhat meaningful and that pays me a livable wage?
Yes. It seems to be. Right now it definitely does. And it sucks big time.
Dear Major Retailer :
I assume you have already received, or will soon receive, the news that one of your prospective employees said a bad word today and kind of freaked out at the drug testing facility when she couldn’t provide enough urine for you to test.
You see, Major Retailer, although the people who interviewed me for the job were very nice, every step of your automated hiring process since then has been dehumanizing and humiliating and it sort of reminds me of that “What would you do for a Klondike bar” commercial, except instead of ice cream you get to work really hard for $7.00 an hour with no benefits, or as I like to think of it, two gallons of unleaded gas.
The background check is a good idea and I readily agreed to that because I think it’s important for a store not to hire a murderer or armed robber. So go ahead and look into my criminal background. And check my employment history too because that’s relevant. But can you tell me why exactly my credit history is important to you unless you are going to be loaning me some money? If someone’s background looks like they’ve occasionally struggled to make ends meet does that reflect some character flaws that would make them unfit to fold sweaters?
And the drug testing. I understand that this can be done by a simple saliva test, but you, you darling Major Retailer, went the more dehumanizing route of the supervised urine test. So, knowing that I have a pesky shy bladder (look it up, it’s a real thing) I drank tons and tons of water before driving to a third-party testing facility so that I might possibly be able to give you that inch of pee you so desperately need. I showed the lady my ID and my confirmation number (maybe you should tattoo it on my arm next time? Just a thought) and emptied my pockets of wallet, phone, coins, a shopping list and the extra hair clip I was carrying. Apparently satisfied that I was not hiding something that could alter my pee, she led me into the bathroom, which was two steps away from her desk, told me to wash my hands, handed me the cup and gave me instructions not to turn on the water or flush the toilet until she came back into the room. Okay, right there she took away the only trick I have ever used to successfully produce a urine sample away from home; turning on the water, closing my eyes and pretending I’m sitting by a babbling brook. The other thing that sometimes helps is if there is loud music or lots of activity going on but it was silent as a church and my pee-starter was just not cooperating. I could hear her tell the next person that the bathroom was occupied and she’d have to wait her turn. That pretty much killed my pee-starting muscles and I knew it was a no go. She came in and saw the four drops of urine I had produced and told me to go into the office and drink some more water, but since I know myself and my history of not being able to pee on demand I knew it wouldn’t work and I declined the opportunity to do so. She said if I didn’t do it now I could never come back. It was a hard choice but I opted for trying to keep some of my dignity intact.
So, Dear Major Retailer, I notice that you’re perpetually on the verge of going out of business and I wonder what would happen if you paid your employees better and treated them like assets instead of potential perpetrators. Maybe it would inspire some employee loyalty and your luck would turn around. Just a thought.
So, I’m not sorry about saying I felt like a criminal, but I am kind of sorry that I said “For a minimum wage job? Fuck it.” I think I scared all the teenagers in the waiting area. I probably scared the piss right out of them.