Valentine’s Day Depression

I do not hate Valentine’s Day for the standard reasons. I’ve had a few great Valentine’s Days in my life; except for a few lapses in judgment, I haven’t been too unlucky in love. And as a former Hallmark employee and a lifelong Midwesterner, I have a taste for kitschy irony and half-fake, half-real sentimentality. I’ve never spent V-Day sobbing alone over a pint of ice cream while You’ve Got Mail played in the background, nor have I ever spent it scrolling despondently through Ok Cupid or Tinder.

Because of all that, I have no normal reason to resent the holiday. But every February, I feel this self-hatred and desperately low mood creeping in, and staying in just long enough to get frightening. It starts with a dearth of motivation, followed by a damning comparison with everyone else. I begin to notice how much better everyone is than me, how much harder they work, how much more talented they are. My eyes get puffy and crusty and everything starts to move at a creep. This progresses apace for weeks, until I loathe my life, loathe myself for living that life so poorly, and loathe my mind and personality for noticing it.

— — -

Every year I nearly forget how typical this is for me. Then I read through old emails and blog posts, or think about the coming holiday, and I remember that this awful feeling is part of who I am, which does provide some solace.

The subject or focal point of my depression differs from year to year — last February, it was all about how I was never gonna graduate; this February, it’s all about how I’m a creative failure, a lame hack, a pretender who ought to just give up. But in either case depression is the real and only problem. It’s a game of neurosis whack-a-mole. One problem goes away, another pops up. (Am I the hammer in this metaphor? Or am I the moles? Both of course.)

— — –

My friend P has anxiety problems that match or rival my depression. We graduated at about the same time last year. After he got his PhD, I asked P’s fiance if managing P’s anxiety was difficult. I expected her to brush it off. She answered with candor instead. They had a plan and a system. He was on a good medication and she never tried to tell him what to do; she just provided hugs and sympathy, and let it run its course.

Now that grad school is over, I asked, what will he worry about?

We don’t know, they both said. We’re both kind of waiting to see where his anxiety goes.

And I really understood that and appreciated hearing it, because I knew I was fated to go through the exact same thing.

— — –

Last year at about this time, I was finishing up my dissertation and going through my regular bout of invasive, persistent self-loathing. It was a depression that ran white hot and active rather than molasses slow. Nasty thoughts about how much I sucked and was lame and a fraud and didn’t work hard enough just kept coming at me, battering against the hull of my being. It went past a turgid desire to just sleep and sulk, and made the act of conscious existing painful. Crying came way, way too easily. There were fractures and fissures all over my psyche and sense of self; every pressure broke me open, letting the most runny, goopy, and needy childish parts come running out.

As the Big Fucking Day of my dissertation defense came closer, I had trouble sleeping; I started panicking. What if I fucked it up. What if they realized I was a fraud. If I failed, I would have to die! I would have to wither and die, or else become a volunteer at a soup kitchen who tapped danced for children and worked at a battered dog shelter and ran AA meetings out of my nonexistent basement; such were the lengths I would have to go, to justify my life if I failed at this task. There was nothing to look forward to, no triumph; just a bar to clear that would allow me to live with myself.

Then I defended and got my PhD and felt relief. Another wave of panic came two days later. What if someone changed their mind and decided I was a sham and should be kicked out? Insane stuff preoccupied me. Crazy fears that I alluded to jokingly with other people, but felt nonetheless. People started congratulating me and I wanted to hide.

— — –

Around this time, I went to Austin with Nick, and everywhere new people were learning Nick’s Girlfriend Erika Just Became A Doctor. I kept smiling and looking at my lap and saying no, no no, just a fake doctor, just a silly PhD in psychology, no I’m not a shrink, it’s really not a big deal okay thanks yeah okay thank you. I didn’t tell anyone, when it happened. Someone posted on my facebook wall and then everybody knew. Nick told his dad and aunt, who told everybody else, even strangers at a party, even Nick’s cousin’s shitty husband’s shitty rich racist parents. Everybody was congratulating me and I felt guilty for that attention, guilty for being a fraud, and guilty for existing so loudly and undeniably.

Every thought kept returning to how useless and pathetic I was. For weeks, with occasional respites, that was the pattern. I didn’t work hard. I didn’t know Spanish and I ought to. I hadn’t played my cello in ages, I could barely toot from the ocarina my sister Staci had bought me two years prior, I couldn’t cook or explain myself half as well as the fucking nine year olds on Masterchef Junior. Everything seemed to cast aspersions on my right to live. Literally everyone was better than me. I just could not stop thinking of everything I sucked at. Which was, is, everything.

— — –

And then Valentine’s Day arrived. We were still in Austin, and went to an expensive French restaurant. I have pathological fear and guilt associated with spending money, so I tried to order an appetizer as a meal and was scolded by the waitstaff for what a glaring faux pas this was. So instead I selected the cheapest real entree I could find, which was still more than my monthy wi-fi. On the side I had a fizzy, lemony libation that I couldn’t even finish because it was 11:30 pm and we’d been drinking and waiting for our table for hours.

Sometimes booze chases away my doubts and makes me effervescent and obnoxious, but this time it just filled me up and made me a soggy filthy sponge of self-loathing. I looked across the table at Nick and began to cry. Because he was too good to me. Because I was a pathetic fuck-up who didn’t deserve having anything good in my life. And then, because I was crying. I cried because I sucked so much I’d ruined Valentine’s Day with my crying. Once it started, self-hatred was an auto-catalytic process that I could not stop.

Nick paid and we went out into the street. The neighborhood was barren and dark, and no cabs were in the finding. It was past midnight by this point, and Nick had a flight at 5 in the morning. We walked along the street because there were no sidewalks, over pot holes and puddles and around parked cars, and the entire time I was sobbing big, ugly tears, my body and face pinched up into a rictus of immature sadness, unable to stop, unable to be consoled. I couldn’t even really tell Nick why. “I hate myself” seemed pointless to say, and frightening. So I clung to him and shook with sputtering ridiculous drunken sadness, and he reassured me that it was alright and I didn’t need to be sorry.

It went on like that for the entire three mile walk back to our hotel room. An hour, it must have been, a full hour of insane-seeming crying and consoling and walking through empty streets, over railroad tracks and bridges to our hotel. Then I crawled like a disgusting swamp creature into the overstuffed hotel bed, and Nick gave me a back rub. I could feel the day-long headache on its way to my temples and eyes, fit punishment for the hysterics.

At 5 am Nick left for the airport and I belly-crawled to the floor, naked, and soberly ate the dozens of chocolate armadillos Nick’s dad had bought for us. Then I wiped myself off with a damp washcloth, pulled on something stretchy and business casual, and went off to the conference I was there to attend.

Of course, Nick never minded. He didn’t even bring it up. I told my mom and sister about the whole thing, and my sister thought it was weird, but nobody thought it made me the monster I thought I was. And after a week or so, I felt better. The depression cleared. Everything returned to a manageable normal.

— — -

A few weeks ago it started up again, like clockwork. As usual it took a few nights of violently and randomly crying to figure it out. I hope I don’t have a meltdown tomorrow at the same time as last year, because if I do it will be in the audience while Nick performs in a show. But who knows. Everything else has tracked, uncannily, with prior years.

— — –

On Valentine’s Day 2007, I went on my first real romantic date with my first boyfriend. We got dinner in a French place at the Easton Mall, in Columbus; we played for hours in an amazingly huge state-of-the-art arcade with two-story tall screens and massive hot air balloon apparatuses that moved up and down on gigantic metal tracks. He left a trail of construction paper hearts leading down the hall of my dorm to my bedroom; inside he’d placed a gigantic stuffed gorilla, holding a heart, chocolates, and champagne.

I’d never been treated like that before, and never loved anyone, so I was smitten. I let my jaded 18-year-old self bask in the adoration and infatuation. When we left for the date, I half-decided to leave my phone behind. I wasn’t going to need it, I figured, and I didn’t want our date to be interrupted.

When we got back at the end of the night my phone had several missed calls and a crucial, life-changing voice mail. My dad had been unreachable to anyone for several days; that evening the cops had gone to his house and discovered his body.

My dad and I were estranged so I didn’t know how to feel. My boyfriend suggested popping the champagne and drinking it anyway. We sat on the edge of his bed drinking until I couldn’t sit up anymore, then I curled into him, sobbing silently, where I remained for the rest of the night. I got up at 8 and went to work, where I sifted through graduate school applications for Ohio State’s clinical psych program. I focused on other people’s CVs, letters of recommendation and personal statements, pinned my attention to their goals, which were so much like mine. I didn’t take a day off. I didn’t tell anyone.

— — –

These days, I don’t get depressed around Valentine’s Day because I am mourning a loss. My dad has been gone so long I can barely remember his presence, aside from a few details like the cadence of his voice and the explosiveness of his emotions. I have processed his death enough to realize that I am better off without him.

Instead, I mourn each year for a future, hypothetical self that is far too much like him. I remember his cadence because I recognize it in approximately half of what I say. I see his anxious, paranoid, self-hating outbursts too often in myself. I snap like he did, I cry too easily and for too long, like he did; I pull away from people to soothe my self-created psychic wounds. It works for me about as well as it did for him.

I don’t miss him because he’s gone; I just fear that I’ll become the same person he was, and meet the same fate. Each year I’ll get crazier and crazier, like he did, more sad and isolated, until one day I drop dead without anyone really noticing. I worry that I’ll leave this earth on bad terms, as he did; and worse, that when I’m gone the people who loved me will be better for it. That’s what this depression is about. That’s what it’s always, really, about.

— — –

Already the annual, ritual depression is abating; I have named it and recognized its etiology, so I can see now that it’s not true. I am not like him, really; not too much, not yet. And if a yearly despondency, a low period of quiet reflection, is the price I have to pay to keep the bad parts of me in check, then I’ll gladly pay it. Hopefully by mourning the death of my worse self in advance of any dying, I can in essence kill her and live as someone else. Myself.

Originally published at

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