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Treading water: living life with depression

The Fish Ladder has become a symbol for me of my family's struggle with depression. Depression can affect people differently, and the ways we fight against it vary as well- just like the fish fighting to get up the Fish Ladder.
The Fish Ladder

The Fish Ladder /Kendra Vanderlip

About Depression/ How to Get Help

Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. It affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn't a weakness, nor is it something that you can simply "snap out" of. 

If you think you may be suffering from depression, anxiety or just need someone to talk to, Cherry Street Health Services is a great local resource.

Creating moments of joy in my life

Creating moments of joy in my life /Kendra Vanderlip

The contemplative fish at the bottom of the ladder

The contemplative fish at the bottom of the ladder /Kendra Vanderlip

When I was younger, my father and I would go watch fish climb the Fish Ladder.

While it may seem like a strange activity for a father and his young daughter, we were the family odd couple. We were the loners, the articulately artistic and the socially awkward.

We would climb to the highest vantage point of the Fish Ladder, and watch the Grand River beat mercilessly on the fish who toiled up its arduous path of stony steps. We’d root for the fish who made it quickly up the stair-step pools, tails beating ferociously against the stream, achieving a momentum akin to flying up the river. We’d also try to cheer on the defeated fish that took too many tries to climb to the next plateau, and lament their disappearance when they sank to the bottom of the ladder to recover from their taxing efforts. But our favorite was when fish would win over the brutal river and, in elation, zip out the narrow opening into the wider, calmer expanse of the Grand River.

But these are just fish, and we were just people. A child and her overgrown man child father braced on wooden structures yelling at an architecturally structured waterfall and its aquatic habitants. No wonder people avoided us.

Years passed, and I stopped visiting the Fish Ladder with Dad, who was dealing with his own demons. A veteran with a head injury, my father combats daily with PTSD, anxiety and chronic depression. Living life became harder for my father after he took a two story fall at his job. Unemployed and losing cognitive skills sent him into a major depressive slump. He now bunkers himself in the depths of security of his home. Every now and then he will venture out to the real world, but life is too loud, too abrasive and too busy for my father to deal with constantly. 

I choose a different way of life. Instead of hiding from the busyness of life, I run into it full tilt.

I also suffer from depression and anxiety. My father raised me to be an intelligent, artistic loner, and his genetics dictated that I should do so with the handicap of severe chronic depression and anxiety. I’ve had it my entire life.  As a child, I was so quiet and serious. My teachers at school would comment about how I’d never smile.

Depression is constant. I’ve never known a time in my life where I haven’t been at least a little bit sad.  Not even on my wedding day.

Depression hinders. It binds you down like the currents of the Grand River. Every day I fight a battle to just get out of bed. To bury myself deeper in the blankets, to stop fighting, to be swept into the black kind darkness of the oblivion of sleep. It is so much easier to hide, and there are days I do not win. There are days I hide from life, in the safety of my quilt covered bed and surrounded by animals who do not judge me.

But most days, I make myself get up. I make myself go to work, go to school, go to my internship and go home and spend time with my husband. Admittedly, that last part is the easiest: I married a man who loves me even though he's seen me at my worst. He is my partner in the truest sense of the word. He is supportive of me when I want to be active, cook dinner and go for walks. He is just as supportive of me when I tell him to order a pizza and amuse himself while I hide in the bedroom to Netflix myself into a peaceful oblivion.

Depression is unpredictable. Some days you are just sadder than others. Some days I am upset at the smallest of things, and every rational bone in my body is as frustrated as the people around me when I am crying over, literally, spilled milk. Some days an earthquake could happen, and I will be the most rational and calm person present. A slump or depression spell can happen without warning, triggered by something I might have no control of. Control is taken away with a tug of the current, and emotions are swept up in the quickness of the rapids.

Depression is manageable. There are things I do to make my life easier. I exercise, I rely on animal therapy and I control my problems before they overrun me. I make time for the things that make me happy. I go out of my way to make other people happy. Sometimes I self medicate with a bottle of Moscato or marathons of Doctor Who and sometimes I lose myself in a good book. Sometimes I write. Sometimes, I just need to be sad, and knowing I need to be sad is enough.

Depression is personal.

When I compare myself to my father, I do not judge. I look at two lives lived with the same handicap and what works for that life at that particular time. At my worst, I failed every class I was enrolled in because I couldn’t get out of bed. My father is fighting his battle with depression the best way he knows how, by keeping himself in a safe environment. I fight the battle the best way I know how, by surrounding myself with things and people I love and by keeping myself busy. We both tread water to keep ourselves afloat. We both refuse to sink to the bottom in defeat.

The other night, I took my father out to dinner and after dinner asked him if he’d like to go back to the Fish Ladder. He lit right up at the suggestion and was genuinely excited to go. We arrived and were both saddened by how the structure had been worn down over time. The wooden guardrails were rotting, and spider webs wrapped themselves around a good portion of the structure. There were fish at the bottom of the ladder, occasionally testing the water flow, but no real jumpers. I was underwhelmed, but my father was amused by this one fish who kept throwing himself up against a wall.

“But look at him go,” he said, watching the fish beat himself bloody on the wall. The fish had an idea of how it was supposed to work, he just hadn’t figured out that he was supposed to go up the ladder and not up the wall.

“He doesn’t really know what he’d doing though, Dad.”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s just not giving up.”

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