I was bound to give myself an ulcer one of these days. I just never imagined it would spring up on the surface of my eyeball.
I’m sorry to have forced that image on you, but I cannot tell a lie. I’ve spent the past four weeks peering out from behind horn-rimmed hipster specs, and while I’d like to pretend that my scholarly countenance was a stylistic choice, I was acting on doctor’s orders. After a recurring case of “pinkeye” moved beyond WebMD’s expertise, I called in a professional. A quick exam revealed that I was sporting a first-rate corneal ulcer. The cause? A chronically dry eye.
I’ve been pretty transparent about my issues with weight and body image. What I haven’t copped to is my clinical depression. I’ve dealt with it in varying degrees of intensity, from unexplained glum patches to severe, debilitating “fogs” that lasted several weeks. For me, a depressive episode manifests like a long-form panic attack, complete with physical symptoms. I’m exhausted, no matter how much I sleep. I’m starving, no matter how much I eat. I tingle all over. Every one of my senses processes on a two-second delay—like I’m watching my life unfold on a movie screen. My mind is eerily quiet. My sense of humor is nonexistent. After a seemingly endless stretch of wondering whether Me As I Know Her is gone forever, I awake one morning feeling as though I’ve dropped back into my body, and I can barely remember what it was like to feel that way at all.
Those episodes are few and far between. Most days, well-managed depression is no more sinister than your average Type A personality—an unpleasant, unremitting prickling of the mind. I’m a high-functioning depressive, and I’ve employed various coping mechanisms over the years. For a long time, I ate whatever crossed my path. Then I drank myself into oblivion. Then I restricted my food intake until my body and mind rebelled, crashing between opposite ends of hunger on a treacherous shuttle run. More recently, I discovered exercise—my most positive outlet to date, though it cycles in and out of obsessive extremes, as does my preoccupation with food. Even my ongoing battle with time deals at least in part with suppressing sadness. Perhaps Keane said it best: “If I stop for a minute, I think about things I don’t want to know.”
Now or then, you’d sooner find me elbow-deep in Cheez-Its than in Kleenex. I was a regular crybaby growing up, but I steeled myself when I entered college, and that’s when the real trouble began. The more depressed I felt, the more I threw myself into temporary distractions, and the less often I allowed my feelings to turn into tears. After a while, I fell out of touch with them at all.
When I entered ED treatment, I bawled my eyes out in therapy every week. All that raw emotion horrified me. Who knew I had such a capacity for anguish? God forbid it leak out into my everyday life! But there it was, and there it is still—substantial, but not unmanageable, and comfortingly human, in its way. It requires care. It deserves attention. Depression is a cloudy, chronically dry eye, and escapism is treating it with over-the-counter drops (CVS brand, no less).
We ought to seek pleasure in things outside ourselves. Relationships, hobbies, experiences—they enrich, even define, our lives. Our challenge is to recognize when we are using pleasure to hide from our emotions rather than to heighten them. I love cake, but when I’m craving cake itself, I want a small slice. I want a few perfect mouthfuls – a sensory explosion that engages me entirely – and then I want to go about my day, seeking fulfillment down other avenues. When, on the other hand, I want to lie in bed and methodically eat an entire cake while watching bad television – and that specific impulse arises from time to time – it’s because I want to feel nothing whatsoever. Slice of cake equals feeling pleasure. Entire cake equals not feeling anything. The ability to recognize and reject the latter impulse distinguishes positive pleasure from numbing comfort.
Flight is easier. We are born with an inclination to bolt, emotionally as well as physically—that’s how we’ve survived all these years. But the more we blink back our emotions, the higher the likelihood becomes that constant friction will cause serious problems for us in the long run.
This week, my chronically dry eye and I are going to spend some quality time together. We’re going to resist the urge to lubricate (yeah, I heard it, stay with me), and instead try to muster up a little moisture of our own. I want to learn to cry again. I am giving myself permission to feel what I am feeling. And I hope you’ll do the same.
How often do you cry?