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The One Thing I’ve Avoided My Entire Life

And hope to continue to avoid.

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illustration of woman walking towards open door releasing different shapes and colors
Changyu Zou
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Anxiety wakes me up in the morning.

In early March, Anxiety’s sometime companion, Depression, tagged along. You’re a hack, Depression said. You teach more than you write. Everyone you know who started out when you did is more successful than you. There was truth to Depression’s taunts. I had gone to high school with a woman who became a best-selling author and podcaster, and a man who edited Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. I knew two people who had won Pulitzer Prizes. Depression reminded me I hadn’t come close.

Depression followed me around, hurling catcalls, accusing me of all sorts of inadequacies and failures. Depression was angry and punitive; it looked like Carabosse, the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty — wheeling around in a black cape, shaking its fists, cackling and cruel. Depression posted a clip of me as an old woman, standing alone at my father’s grave, staring at the trees. Depression sent a free-floating headache into my skull and made my ankles, shins and lower back ache.

Depression retreated while I taught and meditated, and disappeared when I ran around the Central Park Reservoir, but it returned as soon as I got into the shower, then it whispered in my ear for the rest of the day. In the past I had been able to keep Depression at bay with a homemade concoction of cold-brew coffee, almond milk, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and artificial sweetener. But in early March the combination of running, meditating, teaching and cold brew stopped working. I tried to soothe Depression by eating sugar, which I had mostly eliminated from my diet 10 years earlier. I started eating handfuls of chocolate-covered almonds from the freezer during the day, and then bowlfuls of Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding at night. The banana pudding gave me gas. The chocolate-covered almonds made me break out. Still, I craved the sugar high and started to chase it, like the sugar addict I had once been.

Sugar tried to negotiate with Depression, but Depression wasn’t having it. Just one more scoop of banana pudding — then we’ll feel better! Sugar begged. Do what you want, Depression said. I’m still coming. Depression hissed in my ear: You are not enough, and you don’t do enough, and you don’t write enough, and you don’t make enough, and you’re flabby.

Maybe I finally need antidepressants, I thought, a decision I had been avoiding for decades. I never wanted to be the middle-aged woman with a medicine cabinet full of meds, but Depression runs wide and deep in my family, and I knew its arrival was a possibility. In addition to family history, Depression had a new reason to visit. I had just come off a few months of trying, and failing, to fill writing retreats I was planning to lead in Italy and Portugal, and doing virtual Q&As with various people. I was constantly on social media, promoting everything. In an alternative universe, social media might be nicknamed SM, a.k.a. sadomasochism. Social media can be great for promoting events and sharing stories; it can build community and connection. It can also make you crazy.

Plus, there was this: Though I teach writing workshops, I wasn’t writing much. The best days, I woke up, drank coffee, sat in a leather chair in our bedroom, set a timer and wrote for 45 minutes, typing furiously and losing track of time. But toward the end of February, I had stopped writing, even though it sustained me and made me high in the healthiest possible way. Many writers call writing their medicine. I wasn’t taking my meds.

I told my therapist how I was feeling. She said that as long as I was meditating and exercising, I would probably be OK. “But let’s give it two or three weeks and see what happens,” she said. Meanwhile, I worried I was starting to become my father, who had attempted suicide for the second time when he was almost 58. I had recently turned 58.

My father struggled mightily with depression. He was a fierce tennis player, and I suspect he used exercise to help stabilize his moods. He was also bipolar and took (or didn’t take) anti-depressants and mood stabilizers (among them: Zoloft, Elavil, Wellbutrin and lithium), depending on his mood. When he attempted suicide for the second time, he was supposedly taking Zoloft. He survived, but I got spooked and decided that antidepressants couldn’t be relied upon to stave off depression, at least not for me. I decided to battle depression with vigorous exercise, meditation, writing and food. I meditated and journaled every day and practically committed to memory certain chapters of This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More by Uma Naidoo. M.D. I highlighted so many sentences that my e-book reader wouldn’t let me highlight any more. Two favorites: “… depression is associated with waning levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin” and “Certain species of gut bacteria have the ability to boost levels of brain chemicals such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, which may speed relief from depression and other mental health conditions.”

Chapters 2 and 3 of Naidoo’s book address eating to manage anxiety and depression. There’s a list of “good food for good moods,” specifically foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin B12, folate (B9), vitamin C, prebiotics, probiotics, the spices turmeric and saffron, and the herbs oregano, lavender and chamomile. Naidoo recommends eating citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, garlic, onions, brown rice, quinoa, beans, oats, steel-cut oatmeal, leafy green and cruciferous vegetables (including cauliflower, kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts), sweet potatoes, carrots, asparagus, spinach, black-eyed peas, yogurt with active cultures, kimchi and olive oil. She also suggests eating almonds, cashews and avocados, which contain monounsaturated fatty acids and are supposed to help fight depression.

I exercised outside almost every day, alternating between running in Central Park and walking around the reservoir with friends. The combination of sunshine, fresh air and cardio was a guaranteed mood lifter.

Still, Depression stalked me. My curiosity and energy waned. I had no desire to make love with my husband. One Sunday afternoon we spent the day at home.

“You seem sad,” my husband said. I was embarrassed because I had every reason not to be. We had recently returned from a trip to Jamaica, where we’d celebrated our 30th anniversary, and I was ecstatic that he’d returned in one piece. One morning we’d gone for a run down to the beach via stone steps. I am shorter than he is and hadn’t noticed a tree limb overhanging the steps. I heard him yell, turned around and watched, terrified. The branch had rammed him in the forehead and knocked him backward onto the steps, where he hit the back of his head. His shoulder and back absorbed most of the fall and left him bruised and bloody. The hotel sent a doctor who said he had no concussion or broken bones. His internist at home confirmed that. For days, I was so grateful that he was OK. Then Depression kicked Gratitude and Relief aside. My husband knew I had cycled through mood swings before. “I love you,” he said. “I love you too,” I said.

I reread Naidoo’s book. Maybe I had missed something. In fact, I had missed several sentences about artificial sweeteners. “Even worse, several studies have demonstrated that artificial sweeteners can be toxic to the brain, altering brain concentrations of mood-regulating neurotransmitters,” Naidoo writes.

I stopped putting artificial sweetener in my cold brew. But Depression persisted. One morning, I ran to the reservoir, circled the shimmering water and waited for the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin to wash the sadness away. I knew it would take roughly 15 minutes to shift from feeling crappy and inadequate to feeling happy (enough). In the past, that benevolent feeling lasted all day, but Depression was scooping up the good feelings and spitting them out. As soon as I stopped running, my mood plummeted. The challenge was to feel better without spending all day running. I had no idea how to do that, except to ask my therapist for a prescription for antidepressants.

The next afternoon my older son arrived home for a two-week break. He walked in the door and there he was with his beautiful face and infectious laugh. Together we went to see an old friend who was a writer. This friend had Alzheimer’s disease, and I hadn’t seen them since before the pandemic. My son and I settled down with them in the care facility where they lived.

“Are we at some kind of hotel?” they asked, and expressed shock at how old and tall my son was. They couldn’t believe he was 26. “He used to be a baby!” they exclaimed. Then they took my hand. “Now, let’s get the big subject out of the way,” they said. “Are you writing?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised they remembered I did this.

“What are you writing?”

I said I had recently sold an essay about wearing leather pants for the first time. “Ooh, I want to read that,” they said, laughing. “And what else?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m also writing an essay about my father’s letters to my mother at the end of their marriage.” It was true I had pitched that story, but I hadn’t actually written it. They nodded, then looked at me.

“But,” they said, “I want to ask this question: You’re writing. But are you getting published?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good,” they said.

“Are you writing?” I asked.

“Yes,” they said. “But it’s hard.”

I was blown away. This writer, whom I had known for so long and who had forgotten so much — they could not remember the names of their children or grandchildren — still knew they were a writer and still knew enough to ask relevant questions of another writer. “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity,” Franz Kafka once wrote. My conversation with my friend jolted me to work. I went home and pitched this story.

For the two weeks my older son was home, we spent a lot of time together, eating kimchi and feta cheese with oregano. By the time he left, I felt better. I don’t know exactly what caused Depression to recede. Maybe it was a combination of factors: The forsythia, crocuses, cherry blossoms, daffodils and azaleas had begun to bloom in Central Park. I saw family I hadn't seen in a while. I consciously ate more sweet potatoes with olive oil, and (finally, again) stopped eating processed sugar. I told my older son that I was writing this story and gave him credit for making me feel better. He said he felt honored. “Only connect!” E.M. Forster wrote. We had.

I think this visit from Depression, which lasted a few weeks, may have been the universe reminding me of the pain my father experienced — the surges of grief and disappointment that can’t be outrun. I suspect that Depression will come knocking on my door again. I hope I have the tools to keep the door shut.

While antidepressants don't work for everyone, they can be an effective option for some. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, please discuss your questions and concerns with your medical providers.

 Any of you suffer from depression and/or anxiety? How do you manage it? Let us know in the comments below.

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