My Life As A Tree

14 Jan

Have you ever seen a kudzu vine? They’re all over the south, their bright green leaves waving gently in the hot, humid air. At first you’ll think that they’re kind of pretty, but once you realize that they’re capable of, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

They’re an invasive species, the kudzu vines; native to Japan and China, they were introduced to America to help prevent roadside erosion. They spread quickly – statistics show that they’re taking over the American South East at a rate of 150,000 acres annually. Kudzu will grow nearly anywhere, on anything, and its advance seems impossible to stop.

Once kudzu starts to take over a field or a forest, it slowly but surely replaces all existing vegetation. It starves the trees and undergrowth by cutting them off from sunlight; once the kudzu has done its work, all that remains is a swath of green, leafy vines, still in the shape of the things they have killed.


Sometimes I think that kudzu is the most accurate metaphor for depression that I can come up with. Not just because, at times, it feels like I’m overwhelmed with depression, suffocated and blinded  by it, but also because sometimes I wonder how much of my actual self has been choked off, starved to death. I wonder how much of the me under there is already dead.

Like a tree that’s been covered by kudzu, I don’t look very different from the person I was. I maintain the same shape, the same colour. Outwardly, I’m indistinguishable from someone who isn’t living with depression. And if there are subtle signs that something is wrong – a funny look in my eyes, or a slump to my shoulders – well, those things are easily written off or ignored. With enough effort, I can pass as a person who doesn’t long to spend her days sprawled out on the couch watching re-runs of M*A*S*H, eating chocolate and sobbing.

I am a person who used to be happy. I am a person who used to look forward to things. I am a person who used to laugh, frequently.

It’s not hard to see how much being depressed has altered my life.

What I really wonder, though, is how much of the self I used to be is still intact. When depression first claimed me, I thought that it would be a matter of a few pills and then I would be back to my old self. Now, after years of fighting what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog”, years of thinking of it a disease, a medical condition, something that I could recover from, I wonder if it’s possible that the depression is me.

Certainly my life, my choices and my very self have been warped and shaped by depression. At this point, it seems impossible to separate who I really am from all the grinding misery, sadness and negative self-talk that my brain has put me through. When I think about the bad decisions that I’ve made, the not-so-great life choices and the hurtful things that I’ve said, I wonder who or what I’m supposed to blame for them. It seems ridiculous to say that depression didn’t play a part in the fact that I chose to lie in bed, crying and reading trashy novels, instead of doing any homework for basically all of 11th and 12th grade. But it seems just as ridiculous to say that I, myself, the non-depressed, rationally-thinking person who lives somewhere inside of me had absolutely no control over the situation. Surely, at some point, that part must have lacked the will-power or the desire to do what it knew was right.

On especially bad days I begin to believe that I let myself become depressed. I believe that I didn’t fight hard enough or long enough or well enough and, through laziness or lack of discipline, allowed depression to consume me.

Blaming yourself for feeling bad is a slippery slope that never leads anywhere good.

I often think about getting well. Most days it’s the only thing I think about. The truth is, though, that I don’t even know what well is, or what it looks like, let alone how to get there. If I’m being honest with myself, the way that I’m living now feels normal, because it’s the same way that I’ve been living for over half my life. I don’t remember who I was before all this started, and I don’t remember what it was like not to feel like this. I don’t remember what it’s like to get up in the morning and not dread every single thing that has to happen to me before I can finally make it back to bed again.

Someone said to me recently, accusingly, that my problem is that I don’t want to put the necessary work into getting better. The funny thing is, they’re right. I don’t. I’m too tired to do any kind of work. It’s bad enough that I have to get up every day and drag myself through yoga and parenting and writing; I don’t want to have to do any extra work on top of that. Thinking about having to work in order to get well makes me feel exhausted before I’ve even started. Of course I want to get better, but maybe the truth is that I don’t have the energy to do that right now.

It doesn’t help that I don’t really know what people mean by work. Do they mean endless doctor’s appointments? If so, check. Therapy? Check. Medication? Check. Buying self-help books that I’ll never read? Double-check. And, I mean, it’s not like these things are totally useless (except maybe the books), but they’re not really fixing anything, either; mostly they just keep me afloat until the real help arrives. Except that I’m not sure what the real help is, or if it even exists.

The other night, as I was reading through decade-old journal entries, I was struck by how little I’ve changed. I mean, my circumstances have changed, certainly, but the sadness and fear and naked self-loathing I found scrawled on those pages haven’t. Not really. I might be better at hiding those things, better at handling myself in social situations, but truth is that I’m still just as miserable now as I was when I was twenty.

Ten years is a long time to be that miserable.

I also found a quote that I’d copied from Margaret Atwood’s short story, The Sin Eater, which seems just as fitting now as it did then. It’s part of a conversation between the narrator and her therapist, discussing coping skills for her emotional problems:

‘Think of it as a desert island,’ he said. ‘You’re stuck on it, now you have to decide how best to cope.’

‘Until rescued?’ I said.

‘Forget about the rescue,’ he said.

‘I can’t,’ I said.

I can’t forget about the rescue, either.

Because it’s not a nice desert island that I’m stuck on, not one of those tropical ones where you befriend the wild animals and make bras out of coconuts. My desert island is some craggy mass in the North Atlantic, maybe off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s grey and miserable and wet here, and everything edible tastes like cardboard. It’s always cold, even in the middle of summer. The wild animals are mean, ugly and prone to biting.

The worst part, though, is that the mainland is so close that I can see everyone I used to know going about their daily business. I can even hear them as they talk about all the things that I used to care about. And I’ve tried to get back there. I’ve built boats, dozens of them, to try to cross that narrow strip of water; you can see them there, lined up on the shore of my island, with names like Zoloft and Psychiatry and Therapy painted on their prows.

Nobody ever taught me how to build a boat, though. My crafts are hopeful, but never seaworthy.

Can somebody please send me instructions on how to build a boat?

6 Responses to “My Life As A Tree”

  1. trophos January 14, 2013 at 4:15 am #

    The kudzu is a terrifying and, you’re right, disturbingly accurate metaphor. I tend to think of depression as a parasite inside me – the idea of the withered tree underneath is much scarier. No suggestions or advice, of course – just a… shrug of solidarity? Fist bump of empathy in any case: –oo– (it looks like eyeglasses, I know, but trust me: fist bump of empathy)

  2. ktmade January 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    It takes a lot of courage to put words to what’s happening, to admit the sense of defeat, the frustration. The fact of the matter is that, for people who’ve never struggled with it, depression doesn’t make sense. Some are more empathetic than others, but there are always those who are going to say you’re not trying hard enough. And I think you hit the nail on the head – try what exactly? And what if that doesn’t work? Then what? And how do you motivate yourself to try all that?

    I can’t tell you how to build a boat either. I’m moving in the direction of trying to exercise more and modify my eating habits a bit because I’m starting to feel like talking about it and reading about it is never going to be the answer – maybe I need to readjust my seratonin levels as best I can otherwise.

    I wish for a respite for you.

  3. nadinethornhill January 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I also suffer from depression. You’ve managed to articulate so much of what I’ve been experiencing. I can’t tell you how much it helps knowing you know what this feels like.

    Getting to the mainland. That’s the worst part for me too. I want so badly to get better. I know exactly where I want to go but I can’t find my way there. If I ever figure it out, I promise I’ll let you know.


  4. nyingjegarma January 14, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    I would suggest that although it may seem impossible to forget about rescue, one really helpful move I made was to work to stop fighting the present circumstances. To stop blaming myself for not being well. If we can inch toward self-compassion by risking, bit by bit, letting go of the story-line of hopelessness, and to entertain the possibility that maybe there is nothing “wrong” with those of us who suffer, then we may slowly be able to release the patterns of self-loathing from the grips of our fingers. I find one fault of the mental health system is the assumption that a person has something wrong with them if they suffer. What if this suffering is an important part of the journey toward waking up? For me, I still have my can’t-get-out-of-bed days here and there, but I try to no longer blame myself for them. I see them as a natural part of ebb and flow for me – one end of the stress-vulnerability model. I found that mindfulness meditation, and a complete immersion in Buddhist philosophy (which I did take years to inch into, as I was so afraid of letting go of my solid attachment to the concept of “me” and who I thought I knew “me” to be) was the thing that finally started the shift. That, and coming to accept that our culture and its constant comparisons and crazy-making expectations are a recipe towards suffering, have been important steps for me. When I realize that there is no relative set of standards by which I must live, it frees me up a bit, and I have some room to deviate from the rigid definitions of mental wellness and perfection. When we can co-exist with our suffering without trying to push it away or label it as bad, then it dissolves on it’s own a lot more quickly than if we try to push it away, or sink into a shame spiral about how we “shouldn’t” be feeling the way we do. All in all, it’s a painful shift. I often still have to do self-compassion contemplations for at least 10 minutes before I can even sit down to meditate without jumping out of my skin. But I see it as a process, and my self-loathing is a habit that I learned so early on that it is only realistic that it still has some influence. Yet, if I can come to see the transparency in all thoughts – to see that they are all just patterns and projections, and if by sitting with them and watching them arise, and dissolve again and again, I then can at least create some breathing room. I don’t know if this babbling has been helpful, but if you would care to connect, feel free to e-mail me. Your blog continually inspires me, and your capacity to accept others tells me that accepting yourself is a very possible next step. Take care. Warmly, Laura

  5. shannon January 17, 2013 at 3:06 am #

    Just one more person saying, I get it, but I don’t know what to do either. And I still think your writing is the most beautiful thing ever. And articulate.

    I feel all of this. Still. Even after all of the things I’ve tried. Except now I have a litte more shame for feeling like I wasted my family’s resources on something unfixable.

  6. Michael Sharpe April 1, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Thank you for this. I often forget this, but one of the worst aspects of depression is the isolation it causes. I just don’t want to see anyone when I’m really low, and that is self-reinforcing. I’m afraid that one day I will wake up to find I have forgotten how to be with people. Curiously, I always seem to have time and even enthusiasm for children at those times (though I don’t have any of my own). Why is that?

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