Winston Churchill famously described depression as “a black dog” that followed him wherever he went. Sarah Silverman, a public figure more my speed, likened the feeling to constant homesickness, “but I’m home.” I — a non-famous neurotic —never felt similarly compelled to search for a cinematic sentiment to capture the blistering, tamped-down anxiety I felt more often than not, going back to first grade. I never hoarded whole chickens under my bed like Brittany Murphy in Girl, Interrupted. I wasn’t some cute, Annie Hall–style caricature of a headcase. My parents love me; I don’t hear voices. My particular brand of anxiety, banal by comparison, didn’t feel worth talking about.
And then, I found myself in the ER, convulsing in a small, windowless room. I was there because I wanted to die. I thought about writing that another way — of sanitizing it or couching it in an oblique metaphor about existential pain. But there are few feelings less subtle than the sensation that you can no longer imitate a person who is “fine,” or one who likes herself and imagines a future.
The antecedents to my nervous breakdown aren’t novel or exciting: a family history of depression, anxiety and divorce, a stubborn people-pleasing streak, a romantic youth chasing probable psychopaths and a healthy dose of good ol’ English repression. But one day, the full weight of all that baggage landed, washing over me like a white-hot dread.
I was at work, but I knew I couldn’t go home. I was bone-tired and I no longer trusted myself. I phoned my best friend. She met me in the beige hospital corridor and held my hand, until my turn came. She set me up on her couch when — after shocking myself with a command performance as a functioning adult — the attending doctor cleared me for release.
I stayed on that couch for a while. It’s almost impossible to recall the minutiae of the ensuing weeks, given how broken-open I felt: I do remember that I couldn’t watch crime shows (too dark), I couldn’t swallow coffee (too hot) and that, at some point, I realized that I needed help, and that I needed someone with serious credentials on my payroll.
I located my future spirit guide’s bio on a Toronto-based therapist database. Sure, she used the word “journey” too many times for my liking, and threatened to wield “creative art” exercises to access the “instincts” at the core of her patients’ “beings.” But narrowly evading suicide had left me too exhausted to nitpick.
On the morning of Oct. 13, 2013, I had my first hour-long session with Anne, a sweet-voiced pixie-woman hybrid armed with a giant traveller of herbal tea and an even larger scarf. Right out of a sitcom, she asked me to draw (with freshly sharpened Laurentians) my immediate family, then scrutinized the relative distance between Cartoon Me and my Cartoon Dad. Suddenly, my doubt found new energy. To me, our partnership was the therapeutic version of David v. Goliath. How was she — a vegan! — going to shoulder my significant psychic burden when she appeared to be drowning in her very own knitwear?
It’s one of the fundamental misunderstandings of therapy—that a perfect stranger is going to somehow Rubik’s Cube your life into something worth living. I learned, painstakingly, that it’s the patient who does the heavy lifting: For two years, I parked my skepticism and heave-cried my way through repeated, simulated conversations with my inner child. I offloaded my grievances, big and small, into what Anne called the “Magic Box.” I army-crawled my way through my deepest, murkiest shit, rewarded by the rare but awesome moments when I could feel my cognition shift toward something resembling stability.
“What is the feeling?” Anne would often ask in-session, on the not-so-rare occasion I got a little glassy-eyed. Initially, my go-to was a half-assed “I don’t know.” But by month six, I was surprised by my ability to articulate the doubts I had been shouldering for years: I don’t know how I should I feel. I don’t know how to let myself be loved. I don’t know how to let myself be at all. In those brutal hours, the pain began to lift. Slowly, I released the dread that first led to me to Anne via Sad-Person’s Google. Life began to look more and more like something I’d be interested in trying again.
I can’t overstate how ill-equipped for happiness, even survival, I felt just three years ago. I thought that because my problems weren’t interesting or uncommon, it somehow disqualified me from appealing for help. Now, I’m better — but I’m not cured. “Cured,” I feel, is not a thing, so long as you have a beating human heart.
Even now, after all of my psychological ditch-digging, I sometimes feel that familiar twinge — the onset of panic; the worry that I’m not enough; and the worry that worrying will outwit me once again. It seems only fitting that while I was writing this, my wellbeing took a slide. The difference is that, now, I am comfortable with the knowledge that “being okay” is the work of my life. So, as ever, tonight I will email Anne. I will throw $125 into the ether. I will ready my itemized list of issues to place in the Magic Box. I will ask for a 7:30 time slot.