By: Ariel Fixler
Most of my life the ups and downs I encountered felt manageable. The career changes, my father’s illness, the deaths, being let go from my job, moving, my eating disorder in the 9th grade, my drug addiction in my sophomore year of college, the relationship breakups and makes ups, being cheated on and lied to and any drama within my ever-evolving social circle. I dealt with them “in my own way”. I sometimes briefly sought out a therapist but it was never a long-term cure-all.
I was also the most social person probably too much for my own good. I got teased till no end about how social I was (in the mid 2000s I was definitely a party girl and made sure I never missed out on anything). I feared missing great stories from a night out or event and “I like couldn’t deal if I missed a gathering”. I feel badly for people I know who still abide by that missing out mantra.
I attended everybody’s weddings, birthdays, engagements what have you. I went to the party, the after party and the hang out at someone’s house or apartment thereafter. I also had a job that made me social. It entailed me attending movie events, premieres, press junkets and film festivals. Even after I stopped working in film industry I still was lucky to attend those events in conjunction with a social schedule (which was absurd looking back at it). I spent more nights being social than relaxing on my own and being one with myself. Now that speaks a lot to how insecure I probably was at that time. It also spoke to how much I wanted again to be “liked by many” instead of “loved by a few”. I tried to please everyone with my social outings and bringing people together. Being alone to me was a time I went to sleep and once I woke up and started my day I was a social butterfly. Once I became ill it slowly started to change. Going out became more and more of a stretch and eventually it just didn’t happen (circa late 2013 till now). I just couldn’t do anything that seemed “normal” my body shut down and wouldn’t allow me those pleasures everyone takes for granted socially and physically. In turn, my emotional well-being shut down, because being a shut in (not by choice) was one of the worst side effects of my illness. Being “Fixler” meant being social and “ON” and being “shut down and OFF” was more off-putting than anything.
The depression I underwent was limited, brief and easy to recover from. The depression I felt when I faced Cancer and then my terminal diagnosis was something I had never experienced before. During treatment there were highs and lows. The highs made me think life, even if it was limited and insulated could be lived and managed. I had so many friends and visitors I was blessed so life would be ok right? WRONG. The lows, were so low and made me think I did not want to live life at half-mast.
I knew deep down it was the depression. However, when the depression and anger overtook me I forgot and became an ANGER MONSTER. I spewed fire and rage and masked it in not so subtle ways.
I woke up every day feeling sick. Imagine having the flu or a viral infection every single day. You have a fever, bouts of nausea, the shakes, you can’t swallow and can’t move for the life of you. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a day sitting around the porcelain god (aka the toilet). I can’t remember the time last time I wasn’t debating whether my IV meds and nutrition weren’t about to come up. What hurt me most some days is I would watch TV or films and realized I lived in a city I wasn’t actively experiencing. So was I really living in New York? I had only been out in the streets of my hometown to get in and out of an ambulette for doctors appointments, hospital stays or emergency visits to the ER. I hadn’t had a meal at a restaurant in over 2 years. I hadn’t been able to swallow or chew my food in a 9 months plus. I hadn’t had any cardio or physical activity in over a year. The ascites (stomach distention) made it impossible to look at myself in the mirror of feel any source of comfort. I was in so much pain all the time. I would have these amazing dreams sometimes I was still living my life the way I was before my illness and would wake up and remember it was a dream. I was suddenly made aware I was taking a detour in fantasy land and that detour was over when I woke up.
During most of my treatments I was unable to take antidepressants. They did not mix well with the drugs I was taking. Additionally, the side effects of these drug interactions didn’t seem worth it. I also resented when I told people I was in a deep depression their first action wasn’t to be a listening ear, but to question why I was not taking antidepressants. We are a society that actively overmedicates. When things were really bad and I was losing hope, I did ask for sedatives in the hospital. Those just took me out of my head and body for a small period of time. They didn’t address the real and deeper issue.
So for the first time in my life I decided to not deal with things in a “Fixler Way”. I became proactive inviting support in and letting the sadness and anger out. I joined support groups. I spoke with a therapist twice a week. I underwent alternative therapies that placed my mind and body at ease like Reiki Healing, Acupuncture, and Acupressure and made soothing music mixes. I made sure I had a Netflix watchlist that raised my spirits, YouTube Channels that were massive distractions and let my friends in on what I needed. I was blunt and vocal to a fault. I no longer cared about protecting feelings and sensitivities. I let them know what were my trigger words and that I needed them to be listeners. I remember a lot of people said “get better already or get healthy already”. Other people said, “fight harder” and that made me feel small and puny. I felt like I was fighting my visible disease and my invisible disease (aka depression) harder than I could possibly imagine.
Deep depression is a topic talked about at length in Cancer support groups or with any chronic or terminal illnesses sufferers. We mask it in our bubbly personalities, humor and talking about anything else but our fate in life. BUT, we do need to talk about it. So if someone tells you they are depressed, whether they are terminal or living their life after illness, LISTEN, FOCUS and BE PRESENT. IT’S EXTREMELY HARD TO ADMIT BEING DEPRESSED. You don’t have to be a licensed therapist or psychiatrist to sit with us and listen for an hour. Therapy does not have the same social stigma as in the past. However being a downer, crying, having irrational and rational bouts of anger is so paralyzing . These feelings can feel so foreign to most people, especially when they led their life being so jovial, social and extroverted.
Depression causes people to insulate, isolate and want to block out the world. It causes people to go, become unresponsive and enter into quiet mode. “It’s not you, it’s me” is a real and valid excuse during bouts of depression. They don’t want to unload on anyone. They cognitively spare friends and family their overload of “an unload”. So what do they do instead? They tend to keep to themselves. This causes their support system to think they did something wrong, take the quiet time personally and start to slowly move away from their roles as direct supporters and communicators.
I became missing in action. I retreated and isolated in my own anger and pain. I didn’t have it in me to respond so I isolated and insulated. I didn’t want to respond the “HOW ARE YOU FEELING” question that I hated so much. I didn’t want to have a back and forth about topical issues, set ups, shit-talking friends, giving advice, my opinion what have you. I don’t want to talk about pop culture, television and film. I wanted to sleep my pain away and escape. People thought I wanted to hear about their dating lives and BS in their relationships and I didn’t at all. That was ignorance masked in fear, mixed in with their inability to cope. I didn’t want to have to be responsive and make people understand why I didn’t want to be responsive and have back and forth conversations.
I was in so much pain emotionally and it physically overtook me. It crippled me in a way that I could never describe properly. Explaining said pain was even more painful because no one knew how to respond. I decided to take A CAREGIVER APPROACH. I wanted friends to visit my dad and support my mom. My dad never had visitors and despite his lack of clarity and cognizance and hazy state, trust me he knew no one came to visit. I was wrecked by knowing this. I asked all my friends to help and go up to see my dad and my mom (who live in the same building but in different units as my dad has a live in nurse). Most people reached out to support my mom, but I was sad that only ONE friend visited with my mom and dad and sat with them within the last year. I didn’t press the issue with them, but it hurt a lot. But I tried to re-direct the outpouring of support for me towards my mom and my dad. I was really sad that approach didn’t work and worse I had to remind people why it was important to see my dad and why visitors weren’t helpful at this time for me personally. Escaping in binge-watching where I didn’t have to touch a remote and everything streamed into one another was seamless. It was an escape I could rely on not to leave me disheartened and missing out on life.
So become more aware of the prevalent signs of depression mentioned here. Look beyond the passive response saying, “I’m fine”. The more aware you become, the less you will take it personally. You can learn how to be an effective support system. I remember once I had to put in all CAPS over text to a friend “BECAUSE I AM DEPRESSED”. It was an A-DUH and “AHA” moment. I could see she couldn’t tell I needed her and the conversation was a moment of realization for her. Her one-word answers and unresponsiveness to my cold demeanor were only causing more trouble and vagueness. I was upset by some rational and irrational actions of friends from the past and present. My friend was playing neutral Switzerland while listening, not really getting my anger and placating me. I finally realized she didn’t understand what it was deeply rooted in. So I explained and she realized it. Though the conversation never delved much deeper that night, she did say she wanted to be front and center for me in the future and I was happy she knew. This episode DID NOT make her less intuitive. Sometimes you need to spell it out, put yourself and your emotions out there, to get the real support and listening ear NEEDED and DESERVED.