I am overcome by ordinary contentment

What it feels like to re-emerge from depression or pandemic or both

As those who have been reading my writing (including Double Time) for a while know, I’ve got a fun condition called bipolar II—though you probably wouldn’t notice, since I’m able to keep it at bay with medication.

Bipolar II doesn’t come with mania, but with mini-highs called hypomania, which may or may not be perceptible to anyone, including the person having them. Hypomania can just feel like being extra positive, productive and generally jazzed up about life. Frankly, it’s fucking awesome. One time I had it, I remember feeling pretty sure I’d achieved enlightenment. So, you know.

Mostly, though, bipolar II is characterized by recurrent periods of really bad depression. (Which is why it’s often misdiagnosed as just monopolar depression.) For me, this means feeling like my brain is not functioning properly. (‘Cuz it’s not!) Pleasure, enjoyment, focus, motivation, a sense of the future—gone, replaced instead by a sensation of palpable, inexplicable dread. Dread of what? Who knows! Ask my chemically imbalanced brain! I can’t move at full speed, my eyes itch, and I feel generally exhausted. Meanwhile, any real-life stress or disappointment or self-doubt feels magnified by a million. And even though you know it’s a lie, you can’t think (or exercise or meditate) your way out of it.

Recently, I’ve had to switch up some meds due to new side effects—I blame perimenopause, as I like to for anything vexsome these days—and this super fun chemistry experiment led to a depressive episode in late February and another in April. And, damn, I’d forgotten how miserable and debilitating it is to feel that way for days in a row.

Also: how freaking boring it is.

I have a new psychopharm doc, and the first question she asks to evaluate mood is: “Are you able to look forward to things?”

It’s the perfect question. When I’m in a state of depression, the answer is no, I do not look forward to anything. Not even dinner. (OK, no, wait: there is one thing. Sleep. I look forward to sleep.) Life is monotonous beyond belief.

If you’ve lived through the last year and a half—which clearly you have; congrats—you’ve gotten a teensy taste of what it’s like. Not in nearly as painful and bleak a way as the major depression version, and not because of neurological lack of ability, but because, well, there’s been nothing much to look forward to. (Except dinner. Definitely dinner. Amiright?)

It’s been a year and a half of feeling futureless, stuck in a strange, static reality where time didn’t move the way it normally did, and long-term plans were impossible, and the usual ways to break up the sameness of everyday life—going to the movies or out for a meal; visiting with friends; traveling, etc.—were off the table. A year and a half of not knowing when we’d be able to lose the masks, or when restrictions would lift or when we’d get to a point where we’d be able to stop, look back and say, “Man, that sucked.”

But, people: It’s happening!

The pandemic is far from over yet, but in the US, covid is officially in retreat. America is reopening and here in Massachusetts, we are seeing people’s whole faces—top and bottom halves—when we walk around in public. Restaurants are filling and vacation plans are being made and event tickets are being sold. People are hugging their family and friends again. Yesterday I was inside another fully vaccinated friend’s house, maskless, like it was just an ordinary day in 2019.

And all of this is against the metaphorically appropriate backdrop of a particularly stunning spring, busting out all over with its blossoms and leaves and sunshine.

All of it feels so lovely. So normal. But a version of normal that feels new and gleaming and gorgeous because it’s been gone for so long.

What a gift.

In many ways it reminds me of what I experience when coming out of a depressive episode, as I did recently. After days or weeks of feeing like my brain is jammed with damp rags, the clarity of the ordinary is almost blinding. The painless ease of everyday life (Trotting up the stairs! Replying to emails! Dinner!) feels like an elixir. Even if there is sadness or stress or annoyance in the mix, it feels bearable; it feels real.

The poet Jane Kenyon, who struggled with debilitating depression throughout her life, captures the sensation beautifully in her poem Having it Out With Melancholya poem I turn to again and again because it is such an accurate depiction of what major depression feels like—and what the end of a bout of it feels like, too. Here is the final stanza, “Wood Thrush.”

High on Nardil and June light

I wake at four,

waiting greedily for the first

note of the wood thrush. Easeful air

presses through the screen

with the wild, complex song

of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.

What hurt me so terribly

all my life until this moment?

How I love the small, swiftly

beating heart of the bird

singing in the great maples;

its bright, unequivocal eye.

I’m not on Nardil, and I don’t know if there are any wood thrushes nearby. But I am definitely feeling overcome by ordinary contentment right now, for more reasons than one.

I hope you’re feeling the same.

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