the abyss that is depression

I began this post multiple times over the last couple of months.  The most progress I made on it prior to this weekend was a late night writing session following three vodka tonics, which sufficiently braced me to put letters to screen about a subject I find particularly painful and shameful.  I know this post is lengthy, but I believe this issue is deserving of the time and space, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

Much of this year has found me facing a daily struggle within myself.  I was unable to write.  Unable to play my guitar.  Unable to enjoy many of the things that I used to enjoy.

Because I was severely depressed.

Those of you who have experienced depression are already nodding along sympathetically.  You know the heaviness of it, the hopelessness of it, the monotony of it.  You know how it robs you of any optimism or happiness.  You know how it makes you irritable, critical, and jealous of the good fortune of others.  You know the tears that appear out of nowhere and the endless sense of grinding through day after day.

Those of you who have not been intimately acquainted with this particular demon are likely wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it — go do something fun!  Go dancing or to yoga or on a date!  Watch a bunch of funny movies, take a bubble bath, bake some banana bread!

But that’s the problem, and that’s why I decided to finally write this.  In the hope that someone would find an understanding they hadn’t had before… and that someone who might be suffering would realize they are not alone in their silent pain.

Let’s be very clear:  Depression is not sadness.  Oh no.  I wish that it were.  Sadness is painful and acute and sharp.  It is felt and experienced and then overcome.  It can be addressed with fun times and laughter with friends.  It can be overcome with sunshine and delicious food and lots of hugs.   Sadness is usually the result of something happening: a break-up, a death, a terrible day at work.  It can be cognitively processed and massaged away with good feelings and good times.  Sometimes it lasts moments, other times weeks, occasionally even months.  But it has a quality that tells you that it’s temporary.  And, more than anything, sadness makes sense.

Depression is not sadness.  It is dull and slow and heavy.  It feels like it will never go away; indeed, hopelessness is one of the keystones of depression.  Being depressed, even if you’re “functional” as I have always been, is like slogging through quicksand.  All day, every day.  Merely going about the most basic functions of a day until it’s time to sleep like the dead for as many hours as possible leaves a depressed person physically and emotionally exhausted.  The body feels achy and stiff and sore; the brain fuzzy and distracted; the soul empty and dead.

Depression is like an emotional cancer — it eats the very parts of you that could best defeat it.  There is no energy to do the things that might help you feel better.  And like an anorexic who looks in the mirror and truly sees a fat person, clinically depressed people are fundamentally unable to envision a better time, a time when the depression has lifted.  The underlying, cold fear is that life will always be this way, that you will succumb to the depression and dissipate over time, until you are a lonely, isolated shell of your former self.

I am well-acquainted with depression.  I first experienced depression as a teenager.  Like many young women, the onset of puberty ushered in an unsteady emotional time, and my life circumstances during my teens and early 20’s worsened the depressive episodes.  But they were still relatively short-lived.  The birth of my second daughter was followed by a vicious case of postpartum depression that necessitated, for the first time, the use of medication in order to defeat my demons.  But worst of all was an episode  toward the end of my marriage that was so long and dark that my doctor actually evaluated me for hospitalization.

Yes, depression is  a familiar enemy.  I can see it coming… creeping up on me like a figure emerging from the shadows.  Over the years, I have come to recognize the cocktail that is most dangerous for me:   one difficult, sad event (a break-up, a death, some enormous, temporary stressor) that I could otherwise manage as well as anyone else, coupled with an underlying emotional struggle of some magnitude that is already sapping my energy (ongoing difficulties at work, trouble in a relationship, health issues, etc).  The one-two punch, so to speak, knocks me far enough off-balance that the nasty ephemeral figure of depression is able to get a firm grasp on me.  With my depleted emotional reserves, I cannot fight him off, and I succumb.  And I can literally feel vertigo as I tumble into the black hole of the depression.

I have been more fortunate than many people, however, in that my depression has never been debilitating.  I have never not been able to get out of bed, or go to work, or care for my children.  I have never lost friends, or boyfriends, or jobs because of my depression.  I have always managed to function well enough to conceal — oftentimes from even my closest friends — the depths of my despair.

And I have also been fortunate to have had the kinds of friends and family who have propped me up and encouraged me and held me when I cried senselessly.  I suspect that those who lose their battle with depression to suicide feel so isolated by the disease infecting their soul that their friends and family cannot break through to reach them.  I have never gone that far into the dark, and I pray that I never will.

Due to its classification as a mental illness, depression still carries some stigma, and I will admit that I am even guilty of stigmatizing myself.  When I get depressed, I am ashamed of myself.  Ashamed that I didn’t see the monster coming, didn’t fight off his grasping, icy hands as they dragged me down.  Terrified that my friends and family will cease to regard me as a strong, accomplished woman.

But I also wholeheartedly believe that depression IS a mental illness, although perhaps a temporary one for most people.  It is irrational and sometimes disabling.  It alters your sense of what’s real and true and possible, and, if left untreated over time, it can destroy the best and brightest parts of even the most amazing person.

My exit from a depressive episode is typically prompted by some triggering event that serves as an emotional course adjustment.  Such an event, along with the help of therapy, medication, friends, and some proactive personal choices, enabled me to emerge from the black pit I was in for so much of this year.  But each visit to that place takes its toll.  I am tired and a little unsteady and still recovering, as you might be if recovering from a lengthy and debilitating physical illness.  But I am also peaceful and secure and genuinely feeling hopeful and empowered again.

Many mental illnesses have an upside (yes, you read that correctly).  Some of history’s greatest minds and artists likely suffered from bi-polar disorder and, during their manic phases, created some of the most original work and art known to man.  Similarly, I have discovered the silver lining of my depressive episodes:  I emerge from them with increased clarity.  It is like someone has wiped clean my third eye, allowing me to see perfectly clearly the people and situations before me so that I can chart a considered and thoughtful path based on rational reasoning and authentic intuition.  I am not sure that I can say that the benefit of this clarity is worth the suffering of depression, nor do I have any idea if others experience this after a depressive episode.  But I do, and I am grateful for it.

I fully recognize that I am not forced to write any of this.  I get to choose what of my life remains private and which persona I chose to share or create for my blog readers. And certainly, for those who do not know me personally, it could be fun to be the blogger with the answers — the easy, breezy, confident woman who saunters through life and work and relationships with nary a misstep or hesitation.  But that is not me.  And I don’t actually have any desire to be that woman because I suspect that that woman would neither relate to nor provide any real value to the wonderful souls who read the words I share.   Easy and perfect are not useful or instructive; it is only through our shared struggles and accomplishments that we experience our true humanity.

And so, if I have shared too much here… if I have alienated or disappointed some of you with this revelation, I am sorry that you have experienced this post in that manner, but I am not sorry for having shared.  Because I sincerely suspect that for every person who doesn’t understand, there is another who does and finds solace in being understood and acknowledged here.  And to those souls I say this:

If you are depressed right now, you are not alone.  Your current situation will not always be so.  Life will change, eventually and with certainty.  Hopelessness is a symptom of the disease, not a part of who you are.  Just do your best each day, in whatever small way feels like a victory, and be gentle with your struggling soul.  Seek help — tell friends, call your doctor, call a therapist.  Don’t allow the isolation to swallow you whole.  Don’t allow the depression to rob you of your life.  You are beautiful and you are loved and you have a future in front of you that you cannot imagine right now.

Please try your best to remember that the sun will come out again.  I promise it will.  It always does, if only we hang on long enough.

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40 Comments

Filed under healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

40 responses to “the abyss that is depression

  1. This was difficult to read because depression is a long time foe of mine. I’m coming out of a very dark time and used blogging to support me. I’m glad you are not alone! Hang in there, the sunshine times make it worth while.

  2. TPG…thank you for writing this so eloquently. I remember describing to someone after X had made the deicision to choose her affair partner over our marriage, that I was sad, but not depressed. It was like I was on a fence and could see depression, but was keeping my feet out of that water. And then I fell off the fence and into that black pool. Life got heavier…and it still pulls at me almost two years later.
    Bravo to you for the abiility to see the silver linings and gain renewed clarity after the deluge.

    • Isn’t it funny the visual metaphors we use to imagine the depression? Your fence metaphor is a good one. Feeling that tumble from your relatively safe place into something cold and dark is positively horrible. I hope you manage to resist the tug. Hang in there, my friend!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’ve been there as well in my late teens. It is always comforting to know that others have been through those depths and found the other side. You have provided hope for many.

  4. I wish you well on this sunny day:)

  5. S.

    Darling,
    I feel everything you have described including the shame that comes when I find myself at the bottom of the slippery slope that is depression. My heart goes out to you. When you say that someone might lose respect or be alienated I wanted to scream. While I often feel this way, it makes me so angry to think that someone else feels this way.
    This took courage and only serves to further my vision of you as a ridiculously strong woman.
    Best,
    – S.

  6. S.

    Reblogged this on The Secret World of S. and commented:
    “… if I have shared too much here… if I have alienated or disappointed some of you with this revelation, I am sorry that you have experienced this post in that manner, but I am not sorry for having shared. Because I sincerely suspect that for every person who doesn’t understand, there is another who does and finds solace in being understood and acknowledged here.” This is a wonderful post that discusses the aspects of depression that are rarely brought to light. How many of you feel shamed when you find yourself in a depression? How many of us keep our suffering and anguish inside for fear of upsetting others?

  7. Hi TPG,

    It’s sad that depression might be considered “shameful” as it’s something that affects most of us at one point or another in our lives. I think that shining a bright light on depression and revealing it as “normal” may not cure anyone directly but helps others understand the nature of depression, the signs, and how to fight back against this severe and dangerous problem.

    For most of us, depression is a temporary thing: an extension of sadness or the result of a shoter-term biochemical problem. For some people — and one or more of my daughters might be included in this list — it can be a lifelong struggle (sometimes with a tragic ending).

    I’ve been depressed a few times in my life. My normal relentless energy was sapped; my zest for life waned; and, as you said, I felt that every day was a struggle from start to finish. With depression came poorer sleep, less interest in friends and conversation, a tendency to view minor setbacks through a different lens. Depression compounds on itself. The vortex of despair can be very difficult to climb out of. I too am fortunate that I’ve never been completely disabled by depression. There have been always been too many people completely dependent on me for me to let depression completely take over.

    The first time it struck me badly, I had too many obligations and spent two years working past it. I didn’t even realize what I had endured and what my problem had been until it was over and I was back to ‘me’ again. I’ll never forget the psychiatrist that I saw exactly once. I explained how I had been feeling in the past, and how I now felt (at that time I saw him). He explained that I had been depressed and told me about depression. He finished our appointment with the certainty, a challenge even, that I would be back. He thought I could not be recovered after so long without more help. His certainty that I wasn’t better haunted me for two or three years. He did more harm with his disappointment that I didn’t need more help than any other single factor around that time.

    Switching to my girls, I’ve talked at some length in my blog about the problems they’ve had since the latter part of last year. But I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s unfinished posts I don’t think I will ever publish about the first half of this year, about the problems they’ve had; the impact to them, their sisters and my girlfriend Lisette, their relationships with their friends, and the impact to me personally and professionally (I’ve had to switch jobs to survive this). Fortunately, we seem to be on an upswing with all of my girls.

    I agree wholeheartedly that if you’re feeling depressed, seeking help of some kind is the most sensible path to eventual recovery. It won’t be overnight, but it might be life-saving assistance you get.

    Cheers, SD

    • Thanks for the support, SD. As you know and observed, I have not been “myself” for quite some time. It is so good to begin to feel “normal” again. My heart aches for the people for whom depression becomes a constant cage.

      As for your girls, just remember to keep an eye out. If they are prone to depression (beyond just an episode or two during the difficult, post-separation period), your analytical mind will likely spot the patterns very quickly. I think it took me longer because I was the only one paying attention, and after each episode, I optimistically and naively thought it would never happen again. I still hope wistfully for that, but I have accepted its unlikelihood.

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  9. I’m so glad you wrote all of this – and you’ve been on my mind since I opened this email over the weekend. There are many many people i’ve met through the blog – which, by the way is in the midst of a redesign and revamping and rebirth of sorts, stay tuned – but a very few I consider to be people whom I would consider friends, you among them. Your wisdom and insight and experience has informed and soothed me again and again. I’m sorry for what you struggle with now. Should you need an ear to listen, send a note. Hugs to you as you pull through this,
    C.

    • Thanks, Cate, for the never-ending support. And I’m sure you know I feel the same way about your friendship. 🙂

      I noticed that your blog is changing — saw the new url just now and visited — definitely a new direction for you! One of the things I love about blogs (unlike traditional books or articles) is that they are constantly evolving. Like the living, breathing creatures who produce them, their content, appearance, and tone change over time. It’s kind of thrilling, I think. 🙂

      I have some good news blogs coming, too, so stay posted…..

      xo

  10. PG –
    I can’t wait to hear your good news! 🙂 Any chance to celebrate is a good thing! As to my blog – it was just time. I’m sure eventually the two will morph together in some way, but I need to put my own drama aside for a while, stop analyzing and start living a bit 🙂
    Be well and hope to hear from you soon,
    C.

  11. I think another thing that is very, very often overlooked is that clinical depression (NOT just feeling sad and overwhelmed, but where it’s a struggle moment by moment not to end it) is very often a symptom of other diseases, especially autoimmune diseases. As in, it’s not just the disease making one feel worthless, etc.

    This is the stuff where it’s a struggle to stay alive. I think that’s something that many don’t get it- it’s not just like wanting to lay around in bed all day and cry. It’s WAY darker; way deeper.

    Even when you know it’s chemical/hormonal (like PPD), that knowledge doesn’t DO anything to stop the voice in your head. {and I do wish that more mothers had the information that breastfeeding can actually help combat PPD because you’ve got oxytocin and prolactin on board to help}

    Btdt; I have the t-shirt. 🙂 It is so NOT surprising that so many artists, including writers {aka bloggers}, fall into the category of those who have dealt with and/or struggle with depression. This isn’t something a pat on the head and “buck up, old buddy” can fix.

    Glad you’ve put it out there. If people can’t deal with it, I’m pretty sure you don’t really need those people in your life.

    • I hadn’t realized that about autoimmune disorders, Tikk, but it certainly makes sense. In fact, I can easily see how any chronic pain or illness that greatly affects quality of life could feed the depression monster.

      I also hadn’t known about the benefits of breast-feeding wrt PPD, but you can add me to the list of folks who had that experience. When I stopped breast-feeding my second, it was like I fell off an emotional cliff. At that time, I put it down to the emotional recognition that this was likely my last baby and my last chance to breast-feed, but now I realize that it was much, much more….

      • Some people have long thought that the autoimmune conditions result in depression; in that the depression is the result of the physical condition. Newer studies are showing this to be patently false- it’s the inflammation causing not only the pain, but also depression. Depression is actually on the list of diagnosing symptoms of nearly ALL the autoimmune disorders. I think this is a fundamental shift; this from ‘result’ to ‘symptom’.

        And, that subtle change is HUGE. It’s taken a depressive state from solely a mental health issue (in that, there’s ‘something wrong with your head’ and not your actual body, even though we know the chemicals released during depression outside of autoimmune disease make depression something much more than just ‘something wrong upstairs,’ if that makes sense)– it’s taken this from a strictly psychiatric condition (needing therapy and meds to ‘correct’ the problem thinking, essentially) to a biomedical/biochemical physical illness; like kidney or liver disease.

        And then you have all the other causes, like thyroid issues, bacterial infection, etc.

        One newer link that is being studied extensively and that is also connected to autoimmune diseases is food in relation to the enteric system (digestive system, which has nearly as many neurons as the nervous system). When you start seeing the link between food intolerance/allergies and autoimmune disease/disorders, we absolutely cannot discount that what we eat may be contributing hugely to depression (because they can cause it).

        One of the best articles I’ve read explaining this is :The Depression-Inflammation Connection
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-weil-md/depression-and-inflammation_b_1071714.html

        I especially like the anti-inflammatory food pyramid: http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/PAG00361/anti-inflammatory-food-pyramid.html

        When Foods Cause You Pain: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/20/health/food-cause-pain-daniluk/index.html

        Depression: An Inflammatory Illness? http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/83/5/495

        The Brain on Fire: Inflammation and Depression
        http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-breakthrough-depression-solution/201111/the-brain-fire-inflammation-and-depression

        New Theory Links Depression to Chronic Brain Inflammation http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101020091857.htm

        Activation of the inflammatory response system:
        A new look at the etiopathogenesis of major depression
        http://www.biopsychiatry.com/inflamdepres.htm (the section “An overactive immune system and depression is particularly interesting, I thought)

        My stuff hit me particularly hard after the youngest was done nursing, too. I am positive that the serious onset was delayed because of being pregnant (which suppresses your immune system) and breastfeeding for allllllll those years.

        Obviously, there is a lot out there. 🙂 I think the food link is particularly compelling because it’s something we can really pay attention to and have huge impact on, in a short amount of time………………

        Anyhow. That’s my ramble for the morning. 🙂

        • I hadn’t thought much about the food connection, outside of sugar, simple carbs, and processed foods, all of which I try to avoid when I’m depressed. But I’ll have to do some more reading now… 🙂 Thanks, Tikk.

  12. I’m sorry I didn’t read this sooner. I don’t admit this as a rule, but I suffer from depression too, have my whole life. It’s something one learns to cope with. I know so many people who battle these demons with meds and long rests. I run everyday to try to outrun them? I think it was very brave of you to write about something that so many of us combat every day.

    Well written, candid, heartfelt.

    • Thanks, Susannah. I wrestled with whether to post it for a long time, which now seems silly to me. Too many wonderful people struggle with various mental illnesses and disorders to not take a bold stance, I think.

  13. I really like this post, TPG, and I am so glad to hear you’re on the other side of this episode of your life.
    I don’t know why anyone should feel aleniated or disappointed reading your post, unless they have a problem themselves. Depression is a part of life, it affects many, many people and in fact it’s so banal it’s wonder how there can still be any stigma attached to it.
    I wonder if this permanently positive, happy and buoyant is almost considered bad manners…
    Ho-hum… Anyway, you describe it all so well, and I’m sure it will help lots of people feel less alone. x

    • Ghaaa, for some reason, my reply got truncated, and what I meant is that I get a sense that not being permanently happy seems almost to be considered bad manner in the USA. This is not so much the case in Europe, where I feel there is less pressure to always put on a happy face…

      • I actually understood what you meant and agree that it is nice that Europeans aren’t wed to the idea of constant happiness or “up-ness” or whatever it is. It’s not authentic and it creates unreasonable pressure. I suspect it’s a version of American optimism gone wild. 🙂 I think it’s lovely when people can just be honest about how they’re feeling — not to overwhelm you with their negativity, nor force you to feel inferior to their happiness, but just BE. 🙂

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  15. edith

    Finally someone who has the courage to help people understand that you just cant snap out of it!I got a formal diagnosis 5 yrs ago of depression.I am classified as high functioning but believe me the darkness and the struggle are all the same.Meds and therapy for awhile saved me from myself.I have had 2 suicide attempts(one in 08 and one in 09).A lot of my struggle was being in a marriage i was miserable in so i divorced him last year.People going through depression can appear ok on outside but believe me on the inside they are falling apart.Find a good doctor good therapist and develop a good support system to go through with help.Dont isolate yourself it only makes it worse and your thoughts will become very dark.Something that also helped me save me from myself and i hope this does not offend anyone is getting back to my personal relationship with Christ!

    • Depression is such a cruel, brutal enemy. I think people who haven’t experienced it truly can’t imagine the weight and depth of the darkness. This post was fortunately written many months ago, right after I’d come out of that bout of depression. I have a good support system, relied on medication to help pull me out, and I STILL struggled. My particular type of depression is always situational — a warning alarm that I need to make a course correction in my life in one direction or another. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear which area of my life is causing the problem or how I am supposed to correct it, but, FORTUNATELY, once I figure it out, the depression lifts. I am glad that you have found a connection with God that enables you to hold on to this life. That is the most important thing, and I have no criticism or offense for how anyone goes about it. 🙂 Good luck to you.

  16. edith

    Situational depression can be so awful.It is like the straw that breaks the camel’s back for someone suffering from depression already.I’ve had many situations drive me to my knees just crying out”why?”Please please take care of yourself and try to do something special for yourself everyday like drinking a cup of hot tea or whatever lifts your spirits.Healthy distractions and thought stopping have helped me so much.Just know that you are not in this alone.

  17. Kate

    This was very helpful.A compassionate essay that gives me hope.I will bookmark this as a stepping stone to take me from darkness to the light.Thank you for sharing.

    • I’m sorry that you’re struggling through that darkness. 😦 Please do bookmark it as a reminder that we can find our way through and out of it, even when it feels as if it will not possibly ever end or get better. Every single thing in life is temporary, and depression is no exception. We are so fortunate to have a better understanding of depression now and so many options to try to treat it. Avail yourself of anything and everything you need to get better. It is absolutely worth it.

      Hang in there!

  18. Kate

    This was helpful to read.It gave me a sign post & hope of where to go,next.It is comforting to read, in your article,to take it one day at a time,& “be gentle with your struggling soul”,because it puts it in a language that your body/mind can understand.Just garden variety depression,the blues,can be trying,but when the” real deal”,,shows up,it is helI.I think depression has its chemical component,..but also maybe,anger plays a role.Depression is anger turned inward at oneself ,maybe?Underneath anger lies pain.Possibly by confessing to oneself or a trusted other,or verbalizing the hurt ,you can dismantle the tight web of repressed pain,…some of the anger lifts,& possibly, ..so off goes some of the heavy blanket of depression.A body and heart can take only so much.And sometimes the soul,(which it seems is not usually addressed or recognized in American culture as much,no language for it),just needs to be seen,& given a hand up.Compassion towards oneself.Thank you for the guide post.Your article helped,& now bookmarked. 🙂 “When you still the mind,the soul knows what it needs to do to heal itself”- (Carolyn Myss)

    • Kate,

      I have long agreed that depression is anger turned inward. As soon as I heard those words spoken, I knew that they were true for me. My biggest struggle with it is determining whom or what I am angry with; I bury my anger so deeply and don’t allow myself to feel it, so it emerges as depression and then I struggle to locate the true source of my discontent.

      But being gentle with ourselves is so very vital, I believe. Just as we shouldn’t push ourselves when recovering from a difficult physical illness or injury; so must we go gently when moving out of a depression. Compassion is a huge part of learning to love oneself, I think. Huge. 🙂

      Good luck to you!

  19. Carolyn

    I just told my husband earlier that I was in the abyss. It was met with great sarcasm and derision. After our “discussion”, I came into the den, and through my sobbing, I googled “abyss depression”. This popped up. It helps to know I am not alone, and that maybe I won’t always feel this way. I was told earlier that I “didn’t have it bad”. I realize that, but depression is not about having it bad. You can be a princess in a palace and still be depressed. I am not in a situation currently where it would be easy for me to seek help for this, and I have taken the depression meds in the past with little improvement and lots of side effects. So I guess I will just have to feel this way till I don’t feel this way anymore, but it is awful. Thanks for listening.

    • Oh, Carolyn. How well do I know your suffering! My former husband was first annoyed and then confused by my depression. By his count, I had nothing to be sad about, and I was the first to agree with him! But depression is not sadness. It is unacknowledged emotion that is like an emotional cancer. No one would tell a cancer patient and they were imagining it and were actually physically healthy, but we say that to depressed people all the time.

      I am so sorry that therapy isn’t a possibility for you. I would encourage to find comfort and understanding and support where you can — that could be on the internet (lots of support groups), within your spiritual practice, with your doctor (mine was surpassingly supportive), or by reading more and more to realize how very common those feelings are. There are amazing people who suffer from depression and still create and produce incredible things. Take a look at the Broken Light Collective for some folks using photography to capture the feelings we’re talking about. But whatever you do, please don’t give up. There are options and help out there.

      And please don’t disregard all anti-depressants as being the same. I have a friend with has battled crippling depression ever since the birth of her first child 6 years ago. She tried 4 different anti-depressants and played with them at various levels before they finally got the dosage right. She is now a normally happy and productive person again. So, please, don’t stop trying. Keep exploring.

      I wish that I could say more… That I could somehow lead you back into the light and the air. But I think we both know that there are not any simple answers I can give and make it all go away. But you will be in my thoughts and prayers. Good luck to you, and keep swimming for the surface.

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