It’s a perfect, sunny day in Los Angeles, and I don’t want to do anything. Friends are texting with plans, family is checking in, my cat is scratching at my door, and I don’t want to do anything. I’m young — 29 — filled with big dreams and big potential, and ... I don’t want to do anything.
Actually, I feel like I can’t do anything.
This is how depression feels — to me, anyway. Depression also creeps into my life masquerading itself as weepiness, irritability, and an overwhelming urge to overeat McDonalds alone in my car. When I accomplish anything, it’s only because I am forcing myself to. I feel like a squishy, grubby snail who wants to curl up into its shell.
My long-term boyfriend, let’s call him Jordan, knows this snail mode well. He makes sure I eat and encourages me to exercise because it feels good and reminds me that, despite what my off-balance neuro-transmitters insist, my depression won’t drive all my loved ones away. Sometimes, I wonder if my mental illness is who I am or how I am; does my boyfriend love me with my depression, or in spite of it?
Depression is, excuse my French, a major boner-killer. Lady boners included.
During a particularly strong depressive episode, I will simultaneously experience desperate cravings for intimacy at the same time as experiencing deep, bubbling revulsion for myself and anyone who touches me. Sounds sexy, right? More like terrifying and confusing.
Being in a relationship for so long (is seven years long? Or am I giving us too much credit?) has allowed me time to examine how depression affects my sex life. In past relationships, I either quietly suffered, taking space for myself with no explanation, or let my desperation to be loved lead me to having sex when I didn’t emotionally want to. My current boyfriend and I live together. He knows me better than anyone. I can’t just ghost him if I’m not feeling well. So I’ve pieced together some ways to help him (and myself, honestly) understand what’s going on inside this unpredictable, slightly off-kilter body of mine.
Talking about it helps the most.
Actually, talking about it before being in the middle of foreplay helps the most. “Sometimes my brain tricks me into wanting to kill myself,” isn’t the best thing to admit as you’re taking your bra off, I’ve found. Instead, trying to communicate how gross depression makes me feel is definitely better dinner table conversation. It works to talk about it when I’m not in the throes of it. I can tell how hurtful it can be to cozy up to Jordan and make it seem like sexy sparks are about to fly when in reality my depression won’t let me stomach it. Feeling horrible is hard to explain, especially when you are feeling horrible. So, we discuss when my brain is fine.
Having a clear head doesn’t necessarily make the conversation easier. Telling my favorite person ever that, sometimes, my depression is such a full-body experience that even my vagina gets sad … sucks. It sucks! I usually cry, because I’m frustrated that I’m not a sexy cool girl who wants to have sexy cool sex whenever and wherever. Not sure when I started thinking that’s who I’m supposed to be (maybe around freshman year of high school when I started sneakily reading sexy cool sex stories about women who were in a constant state of panting in the back of Cosmo), but sharing that frustration with Jordan has helped me see what a stupidly unrealistic expectation that is for myself.
On the bright side, having conversations about what we don’t want in our sex life – like crying during foreplay or whatever – often leads to more exciting conversations about what we DO want in bed. Jordan didn’t choose to date some sexy cool girl from the back of Cosmo—he chose to date me. Yes, sometimes depression bulldozes the life force out of me, but also, I give great blow jobs. I’m a human being. I contain multitudes!
I heard someone describing depression as a “brain flu” once, and that really changed my perspective on mental illness.
Even though I used to attribute my weeks of foggy grogginess to my “dramatic” personality, now it’s a hell of a lot easier to take care of myself when I think of it as literally taking care of myself. I don’t feel guilty for my body’s lack of sexual desire when I have a flipping cold, so why do I spiral into self-loathing when I’m not down for shower sex during a depressive episode? Depression turns me inside out, so I’m my most vulnerable and sensitive. Understanding it’s an illness has allowed me to prioritize feeling better instead of soldiering through.
And honestly, this realization has helped me to better communicate with Jordan, too. When I wake up with a depression elephant curled up on my chest, I say, “I’m not feeling well.” Yeah, I know that doesn’t sound super descriptive, but it’s way better than relying on Jordan to read my mind. Even in my own home, I almost involuntarily hide how crummy I’m feeling, not as some kind of trick, but as a coping mechanism. So letting my boyfriend in on my sad status helps to avoid any misunderstandings.
Avoiding the bed helps me, too.
When I’ve climbed out of a depressive slump, but the badness still lingers, I have to make a very conscious decision not to crawl back into the safety of my bed. So, I make out with my boyfriend in a park. Or I touch myself on the living room couch. If being that sexual still overwhelms me, I try to find sensual joy in simpler things: fresh air, familiar music, or a delicious meal that I don’t eat out of a bag in my car.
Taking responsibility for my health has been empowering but weird, mostly because I’ve figured out how many factors affect how I feel. I had to unfollow a bunch of “well-being” Instagram accounts that promote the idea that mental health has a finality to it, that it’s a destination. Woah no, buddy. It’s definitely a never-ending journey. Some days, just getting out of bed and brushing my teeth is a huge victory. Other days, I have the energy and emotional balance to get out of bed, brush my teeth, floss, answer seven hundred emails, call my mom, sweat through a pilates class, have sex with my boyfriend, orgasm, then cook dinner with actual vegetables and watch two hours of The Office. It’s hard to accept that I can’t be the best version of myself every single day, but honestly, who the hell can be?
Don’t you dare say those women from the old Cosmo stories, because I know that’s not true. Even they had days where they never got up to brush their teeth. I’m sure of it.