When your choices come down to interring yourself in a psychiatric hospital and traveling to Costa Rica, you are in the simultaneous position of being very lucky and getting a raw deal. And yet this was the choice that confronted me two weeks ago, as I endured my worst-ever meltdown days before a long-planned trip with my Dad. I was either pulling myself out of my nearly year-long funk, I told myself, or I was going to find rock-bottom in a psychiatric ward.
I chose the former, which on reflection probably means that the latter was unnecessary. Still, in the days before I left, everything about the trip seemed terrifying. Anxious about spending ten hours on a plane alone, I pumped myself with enough valium for the flight that I was almost too comatose to make the connection in Miami. Upon arrival, I approached Costa Rica with just the kind of insightful thinking you would expect from a depressed person: “I wonder if howler monkeys get depressed?” or “I wonder if macaws get depressed?” or, in particularly reflective moments, “I wonder if leaf-cutter ants get depressed?”
And then, on the third day of the trip, something clicked. I woke up one morning, and I felt as someone should when eating gallo pinto at an eco-lodge at the base of a beautiful volcano: grateful. I waited with trepidation for the usual afternoon “dip” in my mood, and it didn’t come. Instead, I spent the time usually reserved for wallowing in self-pity watching Agouti and thinking of how snuggly they looked. Almost overnight, I fell back in love with Latin America—and perhaps more importantly, with being alive. I loved the food, the mountains, the people, the air, the sun, the sky.
It was pure ecstasy. Choose your metaphor. I felt as if the dark clouds that had been hovering above me for months had finally broken and the sun was shining through. On the drive back home from the airport, I rolled down the window and shouted to the desert night, “I have my life back!” And had I written this post last Friday, that’s where it would have ended—with a Hollywood climax to my cataclysmic final battle with inner demons, one in which, obviously, I triumphed.
If only. It only took 24 hours for the sadness to return: first a twinge, then a deluge. And why wouldn’t it? I still live at home; I still don’t have a dissertation topic; I’m still lonely and lost and scared. But, on reflection, all is not lost; in fact, I’ve had an important revelation. I can be a depressed person and still find joy and beauty in joyful and beautiful things. And I can come back from a wonderful vacation and find the real world disappointing—and have that be a normal response, not a pathological one.
In Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon—required reading for anyone who suffers from depression—he describes depression as like a vine strangling a tree (which seems appropriate, having just come from the rainforest). Medication, friends, family, vacations—all of these can hack away at the vine. But even when the vine disappears, you find that the tree itself, in the intervening time, has rotted. Costa Rica freed me from the vine—at least for a moment. But what I saw—what I have become—was scary. There’s a lot of re-growing to do.