Posted by: Richard Armitage US | July 24, 2011

Of Shifting Sands and Undertows…

You know that singular feeling of standing on the beach as the waves come in, just enough to cover your feet? As the wave goes back out to sea, it creates a sensation of the earth literally shifting beneath your feet. While it can be disconcerting, depending on the pull of the wave, it’s not unpleasant.

Then there’s another kind of wave entirely. The kind of wave looks normal, but when you step into it, it sucks at your feet like death, jerking them out from under you pulling you under with sudden and terrifying power. An undertow is treacherous, unexpected and all too often undetectable… until it has you. As you become more familiar with the shore, the pattern of the waves and the weather, you can sometimes sense an undertow, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid it.

Every day, as I swing my legs over the edge of my bed, I never know whether I’ll step into the softly shifting eddies of a wave, or if I’ll step directly into an undertow, and be pulled in, suffocating beneath the weight of life, and sucked under.

Depression is my undertow. Like 1 out of 10 Americans – and the 80% who show signs of depression, but aren’t treated – I never know when I awaken, what kind of day it will be. It’s never a solid-ground day.

If it’s a gentle shifting sand day, I can usually accomplish a few tasks – grocery shopping, talking with a friend on the phone, maybe even cooking a meal – but I still have to be careful to pace myself.

If it’s a day of the waves that come before a storm, it’s trickier. They come so fast and so frequently that it’s easy to lose my balance. I may begin believing I can survive what could be a relatively normal day for me, but the insistent power of the pull on my ankles and legs can send me scampering for the safety of my bed and oblivion.

If it’s an undertow day – and it is, more often than not – I can know it before I even I swing my legs over the side of the bed and my toes touch the floor. Even as I lie there, prone on my mattress, I can feel the weight of the day, the force of the pull drawing me under. On those days, I do my best to accomplish two things: feed my cats and – eventually – write something on Facebook so my friends who worry about me know I’m still here. Usually I’m able to accomplish the former; not always the latter.

I’m not trudging along this beach alone and unaided. In fact, for the last four years – since my clinical depression was finally diagnosed – I’ve worked with several doctors and countless medications. While my sessions with my doctors make me feel less like a freak, the meds they’ve prescribed have had a negligible impact, or their impact is short-lived. I also have friends – thank you, Diane – who listen and empathize and, ultimately, have helped me keep my head above the deadly waves. And I have had supportive family members – PMK & VSK – who have made a tremendous difference.

Still, it’s a struggle.

just shifting sandsToday is a shifting sand day, so I fed the cats and read for a bit. These thoughts about my depression have been swirling around in my head for a while. So, since it’s a day I can write a little, I’m trying to put them down to share. If you suffer from this illness, maybe knowing that someone else has these thoughts and these struggles will help you feel less alone, or you can share this with a loved one to help them understand.

Today is a day that I might even be able to post bon mots on Facebook, which is where I can pretend to be well. I can log on, keep up with close friends and the interesting people I know, share a couple of interesting news items, make pithy – sometimes even witty or funny – comments, and log off. No emotional energy or capital required. On most shifting sand days, I can be a pretty good pretender… lots of people with depression learn to be skilled actors, and would rather put on a cheerful face- no matter its cost to them later – than see that dreaded “You have so much. What’s wrong with you?” expression in others’ eyes.

On undertow days, I still try to log on. I do this because if I don’t, my phone will be ringing within a day or so from friends who demand a response to ensure that I’m all right. On undertow days, I try to avoid status updates since “Today my depression is overwhelming” isn’t exactly the kind of pretend-positive personality I’m trying to project. Instead, I find something interesting from NPR or the New York Times or the Hollywood Reporter or TIME in case there’s a hot issue to share. My introductory comments don’t require what would be obviously false cheeriness. I can be as dark as I want based on the gravity of the news.

On any day and every day, though, I avoid real people as much as possible. Email and Facebook are my guards. I find that personal interactions require far too much emotional and physical energy, and usually the undertow has me in its paralyzing embrace for days afterward.

This is why my friends and acquaintances learn that I’ll often agree that it would be lovely to get together for lunch or a movie, or a reunion of beloved colleagues, but then I rarely speak of it again, and never show up at the parties. This is a  major change, made solely as a self-protective measure. It’s especially odd to me, considering my career consisted of reporting, media and community relations and managing special events.  I was also very involved in community and neighborhood life. It finally hit me that these activities were doing me more harm than good. With the first whisper of disagreement or conflict, I heard the waves rising and could tell that the undertow was already tugging at my legs. Isolation, I’ve found,  protects me from that particular trigger.

So is this it? Is this how I’ll spend the rest of my life? I truly can’t imagine another 20-30 years of this kind of existence. Instead, on shifting-sand days, I continue to hope that the next medication will be the one that gives me the comfort of daily shifting sands (naturally, I’m realistic enough to not to expect solid ground).  We have found one med that helps with my panic attacks, so I’m hopeful that we’ll find one someday that works with the undertow.

This unpredictable, but daily possibility and frequent presence of that dark, insistent undertow is no way to live. So I will pray that each of us finds the meds that will deliver those gentle eddies, and diminish, perhaps even eliminate, the suffocating darkness.


  1. Well said….

  2. What a beautiful description of a very ugly disease. I’ve had it since childhood — off and on, or rather, up and down. I have found some techniques that sometimes work for staying on top of the wave. Email me if you want to.

  3. What a wonderful piece…very real…

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