Once my kids pulled me with them up to a water slide. I don’t like sliding through winding tubes and hadn’t done it before. But I couldn’t back out of it once I was standing in a dense line at the top of a 50-foot high platform. Nowhere to go but down. So off I went, speeding into a panic of flailing arms as I desperately tried to keep myself from crashing against the green translucent walls.
Then the 12-year old boy behind me leaned toward my ear and calmly commanded: Keep your arms down. Crazy, counter-intuitive move, I thought, and glanced back at him. Then you’ll hold still, he explained. So I forced my arms down, pressed them against my legs and, sure enough, my body righted itself and slid down smoothly to be dumped in a sloshing pool.
I don’t move fast when I’m depressed. In fact, even when I’m well I don’t like to slide, roll, glide, ski down mountains, toboggan or luge. In panic I freeze or fall.
But depression is different. I slow down in every way, as if my mind can’t process a changing scene even at the rate of walking. Thought pushes one word at a time into speech like boulders uphill. Then each sound rolls slowly across tongue and teeth. My jaw’s like lead.
The worst nightmares are dreams of a long free fall. They remind me of the animated sequence that opens Mad Men. The clean order of the corner office starts to break, pictures slide away, furniture slips downward, the walls are gone, then the panicked figure of a man is falling free from skyscraper heights.
The contained frenzy of tense life finally breaks out. The straight lines of control collapse, and all the firm structures designed to ensure stability are gone. The high pressure life enclosed in measured space implodes, and I’m falling fast, oh fast. It’s the terror of limitless loss, not one firm surface to grab at.
Depression is distrust of motion. The warmth of live feelings slips away into a cold-sink. Slow steps and many pauses make living safer, bearable. Seeing people is fast, nerve-racking, unpredictable. I need one thing at a time, feet on the ground, maybe one person in the picture but not too near.
Even my vision slows down. Rapid movement is a blur. My mind can only process a still photo, not a movie. I want to catch one frame at a time, like old-fashioned film editing. You crank the film one frame at a time through a small viewer, stop, back up, cut several frames, splice the ends together. Edit out the confusion.
I want to piece the world together in visual patterns that stay put, like fitting words into sentences that don’t change until you rearrange and edit them.
Everyday living is the shove into that free fall. Anxiety, fear, exhausting action that’s too much to take in and react to. People need responses, feelings, words, smiles, laughter, sympathy, time. They need you, all of you, and I’m in retreat to slow motion solitude.
Spontaneous feeling, fleeting impressions, a shared story, moments of unconscious closeness – everything demands the energy of motion, and all motion is too fast, too tiring.
I get nervous, look at the negative, the annoyances, the things I need to slow down. All I can do is guard the perimeter, keep the inner domain safe, stay on the lookout for the sudden shift, the threat of a shaking earth or a high crashing surf.
Colors confuse, pulling my eyes and mind in too many directions at once. Shadowy sight is less demanding, less shrill.
But night has its own demands of total dark, a stillness too still. Depression pushes me farther in distrust of living toward no living at all.
That’s the thing you never stop fearing, that you’ll stop altogether. That you will end your life. Everything will be not dark, not unfeeling, not colorless, not slow, but simply not. Nothingness.
You can’t stop distrusting yourself, fearing you could take a final turn into the oncoming wall. I know wouldn’t do such a thing. I’ve never even come close to a sudden ending. There are other ways I’m more afraid of because I’ve done them in the past.
More likely, I’d return to slow self-defeat and gradual undoing of everything with value in life. Then I would be able to say: See, I knew nothing would ever work out. I must be cursed. I’m going to disappear. No loss, no gain. Let everything else go on, but I won’t have anything left.
So I try to manage in a slowed down way, not too quick in living, not too dead in emptiness. There’s too much fear in both directions. Little feeling, little motion is the field of survival.
In a way, it’s both a symptom of depression and the first stepping back from it. Finding that middle ground between full day and empty night is the last instinct of life that is left to you. That slow motion state suspends you in fluid amber for a while, preserved, trying to restore. Somehow life flickers back.
Trying to keep that middle path is high-wire stress. Tip to one side, and the speed of living breaks you. Tip to the other, and the deadness makes you disappear. I’m in retreat from both, looking for quiet and the space to find a bit of resilience.
Recovery is relaxing the frozen frame, going with motion, not trying to stop it. Suddenly, things speed up, colors brighten, words flow. I can look into your eyes and see you again, not just a glassy distorted reflection of my face.
Life in full motion feels good again.