I arrived a few minutes early for my doctor’s appointment, looking forward to reading several pages of the book I had brought. But even though I am an established patient there, there was paperwork on a clipboard handed to me. Once seated, I noted that the pages were turned back to page 3. The section I was to apparently fill out was highlighted canary yellow. Because I have an odd fascination with forms and questionnaires, I readied my trusty pen and put on my reading glasses.
1. Are you depressed?
Yes or No. (Please circle)
2. Do you find you have little to no energy or lack interest in your work or hobbies?
Yes or No.
If you have answered “no” to these questions, you may skip the rest of the form. Please hand to the nurse when you are called forward for your appointment.
I had checked “No’ to both initial questions but couldn’t help scanning the remainder. Chronic aches and pains, persistent sleep problems, irritation, moodiness, a drink every night and so on were noted in the group. What did they mean by all this? I pondered them a minute, wondering what I was missing out on.
Taking stock, then.
Sleep: insomnia has been with me since my late forties, more noticeably the last ten years. I have adapted, even come to appreciate the solitary late or interrupted hours that can yield more time for reading, writing, puttering.
Pain: I came to the doctor due to lower back achiness that has dug its heels in recently and sometimes awakens me. And, sure, I have a few aches and long term issues (heart disease, for example) that grab me from time to time, like it or not. I don’t often complain. If it comes to 911 status I can reach out. In the meantime I’m busy livining. Griping alleviates aggravation for a moment, agreed, but fails to resolve things for the long haul.
Alcohol. Anyone who drinks a few times a week for barely three years plus a few more worse times and develops an issue with it should just not drink. Been there; over it.
On to irritation. Well, yes, I am at times prickly, some days much more than others. It seems a part of my general constitution. In the last few weeks there have been some irritants: unfriendly cliques at the gym that take up too much space literally and otherwise, bad manners, overpriced goods, drivers that barely reign in the urge to run me over when I am crossing the street. Wait, there are television commercials that couldn’t possibly appeal to anything that breathes, the way I drop bottles or glasses but catch them at the last second while often spilling the contents, anyway. How about when I get in the car and my purse strap is snagged by the door, yanking me half out of the car? (I am in a hurry and it’s one more thing…) My husband abandoning half-full mugs and candy wrappings on the lamp tables as though this is a hotel and I am the maid. And all the tea towels–where do they go when earlier I placed another fresh one on the oven door? (On the floor, atop the salad bowl…I call out the spouse again, sorry.) And I was surprisingly irritated when I saw myself in the daughter’s wedding pictures. It was as if I had been carefully shoved into the elegant sapphire blue lace dress. Do I really own those hips? Drat! A “mini-muffin top” for all posterity.
That was a long paragraph, I agree. But we all can get irritated. On to that next word: moody. Who came up with that? What does it mean, away? Do I experience moods? Yes, a good variety. Do they change throughout the week or even day? Absolutely.
I was called to the examing room. The nurse scanned my answers. “You’re not depressed?” she asked. “And you don’t drink?” Her incredulity was almost kept at bay.
I smiled amiably to reassure her. “No. Just have some back pain.”
The rest of the visit was easy as that. I apparently have a little arthritis despite hiking, power walking, Zumba-ing and working out at the gym. Or, the doc said, because I am so active. Huh? Such is life.
But do not mistake my light-hearted response to the questionnaire as indifference to depression. I am pleased my medical office is concerned about depression. I hope they really notice when someone is, especially if a patient lies on forms.
It’s just that I have a prejudice against questionnaires that try to determine what is going on with our personhood in two–or ten–easy questions. Human beings are so much more multi-faceted than that a form can begin to ascertain. And when did you last tell the whole truth of your life on a piece of paper? It’s not a quiz about one’s favorite vacation spots.
If I had filled it out three weeks ago I would have had to answer “yes” to the first two questions. It was post-wedding (I know, old news–this is it for a while). The day after company left, I was so exhausted I could not move. I lay on my Lazy Boy chair most of two days in between rudimentary chores. Two more days and I was re-engaging in my life but still felt like a wet noodle. That goes for emotions as well. I was drained, fried, wiped out, discombobulated, and randomly feeling like I was floating outside my body. I also had a worse-than-moderate migraine that lasted a couple of days which suspended my brain function in that weird migraine way. And there was a core sadness that it was all over and everyone was gone, with happiness that A. was married. And I made an ongoing critique of the event, moment by moment. It was a full Technicolor movie of memories entertaining and distracting me way past two in the morning. I got tired of all the fun…
About a half-dozen feelings were layered atop one another. But I just went with it. I figured in another week things would fall into a more balanced state. Things did.
When I was daily counseling mentally ill and addicted persons, this question came up every day: Is the client long-term clinically depressed or is he/she experiencing grief and loss, frustration, anger, exhaustion, loneliness, discouragement, physical ailments, or other trying experiences that he/she wants helps with and can work through with better coping skills? And, equally important, is this client using alcohol and/or other drugs to mute the effects of the difficulty? If so, then symptoms of depression are likely secondary to the substance abuse.
In a way it was that simple for me, even though people who are hurting and flailing are more complicated than either question, just as with that medical form. But I could start there. In time I would come round to a full and clear determination. Make diagnoses and a plan. Help was within reach in any case. As each person began to get honest with themselves (first crucial step) and me, they could begin to notice what emotions were authentic and key and often, why. When they identified the critical issues, they could begin to see a little gleam of light in the murkiness and start to be proactive. To redesign their thinking, behaviors and thus, their lives.
One of my favorite educational topics for my groups was identifying and living with emotions. At the inception of the first group attendees would throw each other looks, oh yay, now we get to talk about our feelings...Yawn. By the end of the session they would be discussing how feelings impact brain chemistry and vice versa, how feelings can be felt, corralled or altered naturally. How drugs and alcohol can manipulate them. How the vast spectrum of feelings are a healthy sign of being alive and how they enable us to be effective people. They would begin exchanging stories about their real lives. Within the next two groups they would have let go of their facades, shared surprising things with others, connected, even cried.
Yes, even the men, even the tough guys–and gals. Not every one, of course. There might be that couple of folks who were simply not interested, i.e., not ready. Or struggling with terminal illness. Mired in the muck of addiction or confounded by their own criminality. But even they came around to their feelings sooner or later, even if grudgingly or stuck in anger (an easier one to identify and feel). We can’t sit on feelings forever. They pop right back up like a balloon bounces up after being forced underwater. It’s too tiring to hold that balloon down forever. The thing is, I said, you don’t have to do battle with feelings. Or be embarrassed by them. You can become friendly with them, get to know them. Then let them go. They are integral to our personalities so may as well be amicable with them.
I was born experiencing emotions intensely and not masking them well. By adolescence they often seemed to grab and lead me around by the nose. I addressed my own hard issues but my basic nature didn’t change that much. My face equals an open book most of the time. What I have learned is that feelings are a gift. They inform me about others and myself. They give me energy, fuel my curiosity so that I get up and get going on slower days. They give me clues about my health. Feelings insure I am a person who responds to this nutty and intriguing world, other people, to my thinking and imagining. Without feelings I could not empathize with others. Or stand up for what I believe in. Or grieve over losses. Protect myself from what is dangerous to my well-being. Take care of myself. Feelings link me to the outside world as well as to an internal one. To my body as well as mind and soul. They are the magic stuff from which we are made, along with the esoteric workings of our brains and all the other systems we need in order to live on earth.
Deep, tenacious depression? That is another thing altogether. It is a despair that alters everything. Becomes numbness, emotions seeping away into nothing. That is when you cannot any longer feel much of anything at all. It is intolerable. As if you are looking into a bottomless void or worse, that void seems to be yourself. It has been called an eternal shadow, the black dog, a hidden beast, the demon on the shoulder. A creeping, strangling thing that takes from people precious reserves of hope. That is the malady the doctor’s office– wants to expose and help. For good reason. If you have been there even for a short time–countless people land there at sometime in life as have I, not too long but quite enough–you do not forget. But there is good, expert help out there, so answer those two questions if you are asked. Or better yet, pick up the phone, call someone you trust and this time, speak the truth.
I am very grateful depression hasn’t ruled my life. I have serious compassion for those who do. Neither do my emotions in general take the upper hand all the time, which may be fortunate for those around me. But I do give them lots of room to move and breathe. Let them out, allow them to speak. I have strong emotions–not every one does, actually, nor all the time–and I delight in them. I am very attached to life; the feelings it offers are one of the pluses. They can be mystifying as well as challenging. I pay attention to them the minute I awaken, as they are a barometer as much as the one outdoors. Usually I am a bit low–I tend to think it is because when I finally do sleep I so love the dream world that I do not want to exit it yet–until I shower and put in my contacts. I come to, check the sky and breezes (for some reason, this seems crucial to awakening–primitive I must be). Put on the tea kettle, toast a bagel. Reach for my meditation books. Pray to be a blessing, not an impediment, pray for those who suffer everywhere. Ask for Love to surround me and clarify my goals for the day.
But if my melancholy lingers awhile I have to tell you, I usually don’t bother to avoid or change it. I give it space and time. Feel it. Feelings are fluid, not indelible. We can just acknowledge them as they come and they go. Most of the time I am good with that. But I do at times have my own questions: What is burbling under that sensation, this emotion? What is the signpost saying, where is it pointing? Or it is just a passing energy, come from who knows where and disappearing like vapor?
As living breathing organisms, we are gifted with feeling the pain and joy, anger and rapture. The dizzying sweetness and alarming sour. I hope you welcome your emotions as esteemed visitors. Sit with each awhile. Learn each one’s ways and lessons, honor their part in your short, valuable life. Let them not mistake you for an enemy when you are, in fact, the good host or hostess who has opened the door to your domain.