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what gets me through

There have been times in my life when the only things I was living for were my little dog Annie and the Monday night episodes of Dancing With The Stars.  This is no exaggeration and I am very fortunate indeed that the dance show's seasons coincide with the depths of my fall and winter depressions.  Only the flashes of color and light, movement and music, are able to cut through the fog that permeates my being.   After all, what could be more joyful than dancing?  

Even when I am at my most sluggish, thick-headed, and exhausted-in-that-weird-kind-of-way, Dancing With The Stars manages to stimulate me.  They always have some sort of handicapped competitor (deaf or blind or prosthetic legs) that might give me a feeling of hope and make me believe in the good in people and that the world isn’t just a dangerous, evil, total crap place to be.  Of course, it’s not always rainbows and unicorns.  Sometimes a contestant I’m really attached to is sent home (AKA “voted off the island”) but I do my best to move on, and by next season I’ll probably have forgotten all about it.  With depression you’ve really got to be careful of too much negative thinking, you know.

So when inconsequential things start to make me unbearably sad (burnt toast, little kids riding their bikes home from school, my mom getting ready for bed without rubbing in her face cream on all the way) I know that the depression is trying to force its way in. And when it is in, when it is there, I can barely remain upright.  My body is extremely heavy and I have to do everything from a reclining position.  It feels like I am wearing five of those old-fashioned lead capes they put on you at the dentist’s when they take the X-rays.  I don’t have the energy, or strength, or even the care to sit up like a normal person.  Needless to say, I watch Dancing With The Stars from a horizontal position.  But I imagine I am dancing out there under the lights and sometimes when the show is over I actually feel like I exercised.  My endorphins have been engaged and I just know I am a few pounds lighter.

I'm not one of those depressives who doesn’t eat and becomes waifishly thin.  I am a plentiful eater at the best of times but when I'm depressed I shovel it in:  ice cream, cookies, and potato chips. I put on the pounds. I am relentlessly hungry, or at least my need for comfort food is what’s relentless.  The only time I am not found snacking away is when I am planted in front of the tv from 8-10 pm watching channel 7 on Monday nights.  Then I am riveted.  And that’s why Cheryl Burke is my favorite dancing pro because despite all the thousands of calories she burns each day, she has actual human-dimension hips and thighs.  Plus she is totally adorable and completely endearing.  Once there was a horrible season when the critics slammed her for being overweight.  All I could think was “what assholes, she’s an insanely talented athlete!”  And “I would kill to be that ‘overweight’!”. 

Dancing with the Stars is what keeps me going.  It shows me that people are out there enjoying life, setting goals, achieving goals, and aiming for happiness.  For a blissful two hours, I can believe that I too am slender, graceful, physically fit, and festooned with feathers and sparkles.  I even record the episodes to re-watch all week long.  Sometimes I'll need to play back an episode to induce myself to take a shower, or wash my face and brush my teeth — tasks that often feel insurmountable. Even when I feel fine I hate getting wet and hate getting naked but when I am depressed I really can’t stand being that exposed and unprotected.  And of course, soaked.  My emotions are raw enough as it is, I can’t take on any more vulnerability.  Showering feels like a threat,  and the need to avoid it overcomes the need to be smelling fresh in front of other people.  The self-respect of looking groomed loses all importance.  I lack the courage to care.  So I try to latch onto the upbeat energy of it the show.  Because what many of you may not know is that despite being a competition, Dancing... is all about love.   

The guest celebrities bond with their professional dancing partners in intensive daily rehearsals where they receive tough love mixed with a little light-hearted playfulness.  Sometimes a romance results (Kym and Robert got married!), but almost always a profound mutual respect and an in-it-together-ness ensues.  The first time I watched the show I was struck by how the professional dancers were so touchy-feely and affectionate with their celebrity partners.  There are kisses and hugs aplenty, and someone always has an arm around someone else.  I ache for such wonderful support because it can be hard to receive such support when you are depressed.  Few people really understand what its like and frankly it’s a real drag to be palling around with a depressive person.   

Friendships even from among the competing contestants which range from country musicians to prizefighters, to politician’s daughters.  There are men and women and sometimes teens.  And as viewers we come to know them through highly personal video montages and interviews.  

The host and hostess are kindness itself.  And the judges!  The judges provide the comic relief.  They bicker and banter with each other, in turns stern and encouraging with the dancers, always maintaining their authoritative, almost parental role. It's like a big happy, functioning family! These reality-show relationships mean the world to me because when I am depressed I am most likely isolating.   For all of 2016, I pretty much only left the house to go to the doctor’s, or therapist’s, or my mom’s.  I walked Annie up and down the block, but I had my groceries delivered.  And God forbid I had to go to the drugstore to pick up my meds and navigate the hectic CVS parking lot. 

I bet you are wondering if I ever wanted to kill myself, and the answer is ‘sort of’.  I can’t stand feeling despair and of course want it to stop, and sometimes the only way that seems possible is to end my life.   But bottom line, even more than a depressive I am a people-pleaser.  I don’t feel I could do that to my loved ones.  I’d hate to make them as grief-stricken as I often am.  My grief seems unaccountable but their grief would be my fault.  And equally important, who would take care of Annie?  So I always end up riding it out.  I have a possibly zen, but possibly harmful acceptance of my depression.  And most likely just enough Prozac in my system to string me along.

The good news is that my depression is not with me all the time.   I can go months without it.  But every so often - rarely in fact - there is something worse than my depression.  On occasion, I go crazy-in-the-head.  The crazy-in-the-head business is when I inexplicably come unhinged. And even though as a teenager women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Edie Sedgwick seemed fascinating and even romantic in a dark sort of way, it's not nearly so glamorous when it's  happening to me.  While helpful to have those role models to relate to when younger, these days I find it more beneficial to focus on the bright and the beautiful:  a fringed and swirling sequined dancing dress, a flowing Ginger Rodgers style ball gown lighter than air, or even Derek Hough’s shirtless torso and six-pack abs gleaming in the spotlight.

My crazy-in-the-head is mostly all internal and I feel powerless to control it, fix it, or crawl my way out from it.  When it hits I feel a loosening and unraveling inside me.  I am unbearably fragile and brittle like my every nerve ending is frayed and exposed. Everything seems surreal as if I am an alien from another planet taking a tour of Earth and all its strange inhabitants.  Gravity fails me and my footsteps can't find purchase on the ground.  I am light-headed.  It is as if I can actually feel the world moving on its axis and I might go spinning off into the atmosphere at any second.  Because of this feeling, I am always clenching my jaw and gritting my teeth in order to hang on. This makes the bridge of my nose and my frontal lobe go numb, and I walk around unable to focus on the world around me.  Everything and everyone pass by in a blur.  Maybe that’s what the dancers experience when they are spinning across the floor in a world of their own, the outside audience barely a blip in their consciousness?  It’s a reassuring idea anyway.

When crazy-in-the-head it is hard to get a grip on my perceptions.   My limbic brain is locked in the fight or flight response round the clock.  A whiny toddler in the check out line in front of me, an irritant to most people, actually threatens to shatter me into flying fragments and bits. This is also where Dancing... comes in to save the day.  I can go home (blissful home!) and let the show ground me and comfort me. It is my talisman. My blankie.  The splendor and showmanship remind me of when I was a little girl, tucked inside the family room watching back-to-back 1950s Technicolor musicals on tv.  They aired Singing In The Rain, Oklahoma, and my favorite, Guys and Dolls.  Every Saturday I lived in a dream world for a few precious hours.  God, if only we really could go through life singing and dancing and wearing colorful costumes.  But it’s Ironic that Dancing... is considered a reality TV show.  It is, after all, choreographed, rehearsed, and edited to give the utmost pleasure, thrill, and fantasy.  Because for me it is not just about the dancing — the spare beauty of Martha Graham or perky bounce of Paula Abdul is not enough.  I need the whole shebang:  the entertainment, glitz, glamour, and the colors.  And lots and lots of hugging whether winning or losing.

If this confession of craziness makes you feel reluctant to befriend me, let me assure you I never become violent, or have outbursts, nor can be found muttering to myself under my breath.  Instead, I am very very quiet, trying to run away inside myself.  But to be honest, when I really need to stop it all my true salvation comes not from spray tans and mirror balls but from Dr. Smith my psychopharmacologist.  He’s kind and concerned, impeccably tidy, and good-looking in a petite kind of way.  He’s safe.  And his office has a somber but cool 1940s style decor.  In a good year, I'll end up seeing him two or three times for quick check-ups.  But in a fit of crazy-in-the-head or a bout of deeper depression, he ushers me right in to reevaluate the cocktail of medications I am currently on.  It takes me an awfully long time to find the right medicine to work for me, with a lot of stressful trial and error. I’ll lose fifteen pounds or gain twenty-five.  And nine times out of ten the stuff we try makes me as jittery and racy as if I did a line or two of crank.   Also, I am always scared I'll develop one of those life-threatening rashes that some of the pills cause.  But when Dr. Smith gets it right it is sweet relief.  Sweet sweet sweet relief!  I am in awe of Modern Medicine’s power to both heal and harm.  Yet my life depends upon it so I am forever grateful — not just for my Prozac/Zyprexa/Buspar cocktail which pulls me out from under, but for Dancing With the Stars which keeps me going until then.


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