The gift of melancholy.

light in August

Here’s something important: getting up.

Get. Up. That’s how I say it to myself, sometimes. Actually, that’s almost always how I say it to myself, sometimes aloud, especially during the school year. Get. Up. Jennifer. Do it now. I say this to myself when it is still dark outside and the alarm has gone off, when I have to leave the cloud of warm covers and the snoring man, have to plant my feet on the ground and see what the day will offer, after coffee and a shower and some breakfast.

I’ll come back to this, but later.

Back in August, I had a birthday.  And as I wrote to the friends who were kind enough to send good wishes, the actual day of my birthday was neither spectacular nor terrible.

This is how days are, for the most part, somewhere between spectacular and terrible. Having had the privilege of both extremes, I know to appreciate that most days will fall somewhere in the middle.

That’s the thought I had in my mind, the glorious, chaotic beauty of the middle, as I was celebrating reaching the half-century mark, sitting elbow-to-elbow with my sister and a small group of dear friends, our noses tickling from champagne, enjoying creamy cucumber soup (see, I didn’t give up cooking entirely).

I started writing about these things – turning 50, dinner parties, glorious chaos – not too long after my actual birthday but before my favorite dog died, and before we had some big changes in my work, and around the time my dinner book project fell apart, and right at the tippy-top beginning of a wave of mild depression, all of which sent me, and my writing, on a temporary but noticeable detour. Today is the day we should talk about that.

When I was in my 20s, like most people in their 20s, I was absolutely certain of almost everything and had questions only here and there. I am a very different person now from who I was then. Or, perhaps, I am now a different version of the same person, now with many questions and only spotty moments of absolute certainty.

One thing I was clever enough to question in my 20s was a recurring, intermittent, unpredictable pattern of feeling blue, of having days when it was all I could do to get out of bed. I was certain it was situational, the product of foolish choices, standard growing pains of being 20-something.

At the time I was working for a telecommunications company, full of engineers and analytical types. Since I worked in marketing  I was often asked to help with employee communications projects like the internal newsletter. It was in that capacity, newsletter writer, that I helped announce our roll-out of the Employee Assistance Program, which was actually a brand new thing back then, even though it is now something many people take for granted.

Initially, as I recall, the EAP pamphlets focused on issues like drugs and alcohol, anger management and domestic trouble – serious problems at home that could be causing serious problems at work, that was the idea. Then came the brochure featuring these questions:

  • Do you sometimes feel tired or sad for no reason?
  • Do you suddenly lack interest in things you typically enjoy?
  • Do you have unexplained changes in patterns of sleep or eating?

I’d like to tell you that I picked up the phone right away, that minute; but it was at least a week or two and probably a month or more later. I did call, though, because even though I was almost certain that my intermittent funks were situational, I did question whether talking to someone I didn’t know, someone with appropriate skill and training, could help me solve the puzzle, help me get out of the situations causing all the trouble.

There will be no play-by-play here, no recounting of unnecessary detail. We’ll stick to the essentials: my phone consult led to a session with a real, live counselor, followed by a frank discussion with my real, live, medical doctor about depression and treatment strategies and warning signs. In the end, we were all in agreement. I suffered from occasional bouts of mild depression that came on like a cold, sometimes triggered by life events and sometimes not. Eventually, also like a cold, the fog that seeped in unbidden would clear on its own. Considering a variety of different factors, we agreed that the episodes were not severe enough to warrant medication, that the medical risks of drugs, for me, outweighed the potential benefits. They still do. For emphasis: this was – is – true for me. It is not true for everyone.

The agreed treatment approach, again specific to me, was (is) to self-monitor, to learn to recognize signs and symptoms and then take appropriate steps.  So now, when I feel drift into feeling achy and tired and out of sorts, when normal things like responding to emails or making plans for lunch seem, unexpectedly, overwhelming, I understand what is happening. And I follow the protocol, the same one I’ve followed for years. I have a list of what to do and what to watch for. If the protocol is working, then I proceed as usual; if not, then it’s time to reevaluate. So far, the protocol still works.  Again, this is true for me; it is not true for everyone. Depression is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it a contest.

You are wondering, perhaps, what to do, what to do, what to do. If you are wondering this wonder because sometimes you feel exactly the same way I’ve described feeling, but you’ve never actually talked to anyone about it, then I hope you might now feel brave enough to reach out and have a conversation with a real, live, trained professional. Really, do this; it matters. You matter.

If you are wondering what to do because you want to do something to help me, to fix things, to make me better or happier, then you must stop, now. Really, please stop. Try instead to understand that depression, for me, is simply a bout of concentrated sadness, one during which I pare away, retreat, ponder. But I am not unhappy when I am depressed, because sad is not the opposite of happy.

In fact, all my life I have loved melancholy. I have always preferred The Little Match Girl over Cinderella, always King Lear over As You Like It, always Sophie’s Choice over Tootsie. This has always, always been true. Sure, I’ll kick back and guffaw through Spaceballs and The Hangover and This is 40; you bet I will. And I will truly, wholeheartedly, enjoy every minute. Given a choice, though, what I will want to watch by myself, sitting in my room, will always be serious instead of silly.

If you know me in real life but have never known this particular truth, it is only because I have sometimes worked hard to keep it secret. As I mentioned, I am now a different version of my younger self. Then, I saw my melancholy thread as a flaw to be concealed, if not erased. No one wanted a somber girl at the party, even a somber extrovert. Especially a somber extrovert.

Somber it is, nonetheless. There is in me an innate undercurrent of wistfulness, a warp in either my lens or filter. Occasionally this undercurrent swells into a sea that was long ago named mild depression, something I have avoided owning publicly, have avoided learning how to enjoy.

With turning 50 comes certain permissions, however, even if in truth they were there all along: permission to be flawed, to be vulnerable, to be human. To be sad and happy at the same time. To be real. At 50 there is no point being otherwise.

As Laren Stover suggested recently in “The Case for Melancholy,” I have reached a point of accepting, even embracing, the truth that some days I will feel like throwing a festive dinner party and other days I will feel like lying in bed to watch Gallipoli. I have given up fighting the way this feels; I no longer look at it as a defect, strange and malformed. Even when it settles in for a few days, like a cold. This is my normal. It is my glorious chaos. It is who I am.

Every morning I leave the warm covers and the snoring man to plant my feet on the ground and face a day that will likely be somewhere in between spectacular and terrible. Get up, Jennifer. Let’s see what happens today.

16 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve said all along that we are sisters… separated, only by distance. I’d share in return, but I honor your current place and only add that I truly understand. Oh, and love Gallipoli! ((Hugs)) just because, not to change anything, and gratitude for your exquisite words… which always resonate for me. xox

  2. gibett says:

    You are honest… you are brave… you are intelligent… You Are Loved ❤

  3. Jobeth says:

    “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

  4. jgroeber says:

    Words fail, as usual. Alas. (But can’t post a silent supportive presence, so-)
    Such beauty here. Thank you for this. You find the sweet nostalgic essence and always make me feel a deep sort of something (despite the fact that I will always choose the romantic comedy to jazz hands myself through wherever I am even if it never moves me forward, oh the shame.)
    Signed,
    Hope Floats (a moniker given to me by my husband although I dislike that movie and occasionally feel like a little black rain cloud myself)

  5. Lacy says:

    Lovely in every way. Sad is not the opposite of happy…this is an important lesson for us all, including our children.

  6. Anne Ferguson says:

    Jennifer. I. Love. Your. Blog.

  7. I got up when I read this post!

  8. “This is how days are, for the most part, somewhere between spectacular and terrible.”– I especially love this line. Thank you for sharing this piece with such honesty.

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