The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

My Secret Weapon Against Depression

One sentence that will safeguard your mental health.

I'm a fighter – or so people tell me.  I have to be.  I was born with a mind that's not always at my own beck and call.  Bipolar disorder may have its benefits, but on days like today it's very hard to see them.  Depression is calling, and it takes all the fight in me not to answer.  I pretend to ignore its summons.  It scoffs.  It knows that it's bigger than I am.

When I'm teetering on the edge of a depression, the world become a dark and frightening place, full of invisible terrors and unforeseeable threats.  Like last night:  I was driving through an unfamiliar alley when a man brandishing a pitchfork suddenly appeared to my left.  I stomped on the gas and bang! I fell straight into an enormous pothole, dinging my bumper.  I looked back in my rear view mirror and the man was still standing there, pitchfork still poised at the exact same angle.  

I looked a little harder.  Damn.  You know you're in a fragile state when a mural scares the bejeezus out of you. 

On days like these, I startle at the slightest sound.  I shiver when the wind barely touches my skin.  I'm afraid of all sorts of nameless things – and some things that have very definite names.  Aging.  Financial insecurity.  Dying alone in a windowless room.  I could go on and on, but what's the point?  We all know the night.  Only some of us carry it with us into the daytime, allowing it to poison the light. 

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Sometimes, of course, it's completely reasonable to be anxious.  You just have to watch the six o'clock news to realize that these are perilous times, worthy of a fair dollop of worry.  But there's no fear like the fear of depression.  It's completely irrational.  What am I afraid of, after all?  It's weightless, disembodied, intangible.  Quite literally, it's all in my mind.  But if you asked me which I'd rather face:  a broken arm or an extended bout of depression, I'd choose the broken arm every time.  At least friends would send me flowers.

So how do I fight this irrational fear, this thing that's bigger than I am? 

After years of therapy, I've learned an invaluable lesson:  know your enemy.  When I can't move, when it hurts to blink, when my body protests against every breath, I know who's come to visit.  When I get global – nothing is good, everything is awful, the whole world is against me – I know what's going on.  The smartest thing I can say to myself is, "It's depression talking."

It's amazing what a difference it can make simply to name your opponent.  My father, the wisest man I ever met, knew this instinctively.  I had night terrors as a child, as many bipolar children do.  I was sure there was a beast living under my bed, just waiting for the dark so he could tear me apart, limb by limb, and devour me for his dinner.  For many months I woke my poor parents in the middle of the night, sobbing and unable to be comforted.  Until one night my father got down on his knees, looked under my bed and said, "Is that who you're afraid of?  Why, that's Ernie."

Ernie, it seemed, was a jolly old monster who wanted nothing more than to watch over my dreams.  It was awfully hard to be afraid of a monster who has your best interests at heart.  And nothing named Ernie can really be scary.  I slept through the night after that.

I haven't quite evolved to the point where I can call my depression "Ernie."  But I can call it by its rightful name, and recognize it when it comes too close.  Then I can do what needs to be done:  call my therapist; tell my psychopharmacologist; reduce the stress in my life as best I can; take great pains to eat and sleep well; alert my closest friends.  I can arm myself for battle.

"It's depression talking."  That little phrase – and the world of knowledge that lies behind it – is the most powerful weapon I own.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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