Expresso Depresso

(I’ve talked about depression before on this blog, but for a while now I’ve thought about writing something a bit more revealing. Thanks to my friend Treiops Treyfid for the illustration and for letting me post some of his paintings to go along with this. This post won’t interest everyone so I won’t be offended if you skip it. I’ll be back to posting about bondage soon.)

“I just wish I could live your life, Sandra.”

I get emails like this from time to time. It’s flattering and I understand where they’re coming from. I can dress up whenever I want to, I go to the TEASE parties and occasional fetish events, I take lots of sexy pictures, I’ve been tied up a lot, and I get to tie up lots of other gurls – it can be pretty great. And there’s also another side to my story. I’m a depressive. Thankfully I’ve never been the kind of depressed person who can’t get out of bed in the morning and carry on. But it’s been an off and on struggle going on close to forty years now. I was always a shy and nervous kid but it really became an issue in my late teens when I spent some time in a hospital at the urging of a therapist. I can’t say that that visit helped one way or the other but the place itself wasn’t nearly as awful as it sounds. But that was long ago. Nowadays they keep an eye on you for a couple days, give you some Prozac, and send you home.

Obviously there’s a big stigma around depression and mental health issues. The subject makes a lot of people uncomfortable and the attitude is often, “Why aren’t you over that already?” or “Hey, just think happy thoughts!” Most people compare depression to the occasional day-to-day blahs that we all feel, but it’s usually darker than that. A therapist I used to see described it as a loss of vitality and pleasure in being alive. So I’m a little nervous about posting this. Although I’ve never kept my challenges with depression a big secret, I’ve also never posted anything this candid before.

Like I say, most of the time my depression is not the severe variety; it’s probably more like a low-level dysthymia, although it may be a little less constant than that condition (though some weeks I wonder). I exercise a lot to keep in shape for when I dress, but also for the emotional lift that it gives me, and I know I would feel much worse if I didn’t do that. It still sucks, though, and I often carry around this empty feeling in my chest, a sense of things, and of me, being not well, sometimes almost a physical ache. I can’t count the number of times I’ll be doing something, even getting ready to go out to a party, and I’ll think, “There it is, right below my heart.” Of course there are times when things are going well and it fades into the background. But it always seems to be hanging around and waiting, especially in times of stress, like a familiar but exhausting friend who just keeps dropping by.

When you’re really down in it, it can make your world very small and very self absorbed. It’s isolating and lonely and yet makes you avoid human contact, which could actually help. Almost all of us have one or two areas in our life that stymie us. It might be alcoholism or drug addiction, or food, or emotional outbursts, or cutting. Although being a crossdresser who is into bondage has come with its challenges, it was never the big challenge. For me it’s always been depression and its closely-related cousins, social anxiety and low self-esteem.

It does beg the question, am I depressed because I’m a crossdresser? When I was young the shame and self-hatred around sex and gender did make me feel very alone and unsure, but over time I became more comfortable with who I am, especially when I came out of the closet in my late thirties. I used to think I was “just” a crossdresser for many years, but as I’ve gotten older I would say I probably do have a mild touch of gender dysphoria too. If being trans occurs on a spectrum, say, from one to ten, then I’m probably a two, with a vague dissatisfaction and sadness about being born male but not so strong as to ever seriously consider transitioning. Still, I suspect any amount of dysphoria probably adds an extra layer of stress to one’s life. How could it not?

So the dressing and the issues around gender may play a part in my depression, but I think there were also other issues – family issues, feelings of loss, loneliness, and a sense of not fitting in. I was a good student but school rarely felt like a safe or fun place. My older brother had an especially hard time of it and was picked on a lot. Seeing what he endured taught me that it was best not to draw too much attention to myself, probably an inherently depressing way too live. My brother, though, turned out to be totally straight and non-kinky. I on the other hand, well, I still have occasional sexual fantasies about Tom Cassidy, one of my childhood tormentors from middle school. I’d love to have rough bondage-flavored sex with him if I had the chance, as either a top or a bottom – it would be so hot! He was a good-looking jock back then, though now he’s probably just a tired-out middle manager with a beer gut.

(Continued below…)

In addition to some challenging early years, which we all have to varying degrees, I probably also had some biological sensitivity to stress that made things hard and may have predisposed me to low moods. I was the kind of kid who once burst out crying and brought a small neighborhood dance recital to a halt because something about the way the girls’ skirts flared out when they spun around freaked me out. Yeah, their skirts. Another time a long flowing scarf draped around a paper-maché sun I saw on the Captain Kangaroo show sent me screaming and crying for my Mommy. Something about flowing fabrics was just really upsetting.

I took Prozac and Wellbutrin for several years but only got moderate relief from them and they gave me typical side effects, excessive sweating and low sex drive. My brother has taken medication for many years with a mostly better response, and my Dad took pills at least once that I know of for anxiety. The whole question of the placebo effect and how these pills really work, though, is controversial, and I’ve since read so much about the drugs that I don’t really have as much faith in them anymore, although that’s not to take away the good they do for a lot of people. But taking the drugs, to paraphrase Dan Savage, is kind of like Tinkerbell – you gotta believe or they’re likely not going to be as effective for you.

I’ve never been actively suicidal but like most depressives I’ve had fleeting thoughts of death hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I even remember having those thoughts one morning as a nine-year-old when life just felt like too much. In a way they’re a perverse reassurance, a kind of “what if?” in case things were to get really bad. But barring illness or a freak accident I hope to stick around for a long time. Robin Williams’ case, though, makes it clear that it could happen to anyone. I think in some cases of painful chronic illness suicide might make sense, but in most cases I see it as a kind of temporary madness, where if you had gotten through the crisis alive you would have carried on till the next one and then the next one after that. In cases of severe clinical depression those crises can be closely spaced together.

So although I’ve never had plans to off myself, I’ll also never own a gun because I know the risks too well. Statistically, about fifteen percent of depressed people finally end up as suicides. My father, who was very sick in his old age, used to love to talk about killing himself the last few years of his life, and he bought a handgun just to have around. Thankfully when he died a few years ago my Mom hid his bullets and he died from natural causes. I do miss him but I remember being so relieved when I got the news, knowing finally that it wasn’t by his own hand. He could be charming and funny, and he could be self-absorbed and exasperating. Would he have gone through with it? I don’t know, but I don’t think he ever understood that it was disturbing for us to hear him talk about how he might “just leave” if things got bad enough.

Some of the worst moments can be waking up at three AM, when my brain likes to tell me that the future will likely be very bleak indeed. I practice some cognitive techniques in order to not get swept up in my thoughts so much, although something about those wee hours can bring out the darkness for anyone. But depression can also have a weird appeal and even pleasure, like slipping under a pile of warm blankets. Victor Hugo famously described melancholy, a mild form of depression, as the pleasure that can be felt in sadness. And from Henry Rollins: “I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.”

Sometimes when I feel desperately low I’ve even tried silly things like Ally McBeal-inspired “smile therapy” or standing in front of the mirror and striking heroic poses. And the embarrassing thing is that sometimes such dumb maneuvers can actually make you feel better. Other times, nothing. But there’s this common belief that we should be able to lift our mood by force of will at any given time. Mild emotions of course can sometimes be influenced by thoughts or actions, but not always. And the stronger and more persistent a mood is, the harder it is to budge. But many people still view depression as weakness or a character flaw. If it is then I’m pretty damn flawed.

I sometimes jokingly call myself a “lifestyle depressive.” Some people don’t really have a depressive personality, and when they go through a bad spell they get through it and bounce back without any long-term effects. Others have a few depressive episodes and over time it colors their personality and makes future episodes more likely. Or maybe looking back they can see gloomy and fearful episodes as a child that in retrospect seem to be a sign of what lay ahead. Statistically, though, once you’ve had three or four major depressive episodes then you’re probably in the club for life (congratulations) and you can expect to be called on to attend future meetings from time to time. At this point it can become a default mental style and they give you the Eeyore sweatshirt.

If you can relate to what I’m saying, well, I’m sorry because depression sucks the joy out of life. Of course I’m still able to have fun, sometimes lots of fun, and there are sweet moments when I see beyond it and the future looks possible. Therapist Richard O’Connor, who wrote one of the most clear-eyed books I’ve read on the subject, compares depression to diabetes or alcoholism, conditions that have to be managed over the course of one’s life. Thankfully, taking bondage pictures is one activity that usually gives me a lift, even though I often get a little touch of nerves beforehand. So I have my good days and my bad days, and I have reminders and things written down to help me, things I do to cope and get by. And I’ll keep my gym membership for life.

Some days I feel hopeful, other days I don’t. But I’m determined not to be defeated by it.

Thanks for letting me share…Sandra