Depression is no joke

In the newspaper this morning was an article/obituary for a local young woman, 19, who died on Friday evening.  She was beautiful. She was a decorated athlete in track and soccer at the local and state levels.  She was in her freshman year at a prestigious university, her whole life ahead of her.  Friday night she jumped off a parking garage, committing suicide.  Her family requested memorial donations be designated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Depression is a big ugly monster – a black hole of despair and self-hatred.  A chemical imbalance so twisted that when you look in a mirror, instead of seeing the beautiful person God created, you see a worthless, hopeless nothing.  It creates mental anguish so deep that it becomes painful to live with – painful for the soul and even painful for the body.  I hate it.  It’s my enemy.  It’s taken too many people I know, and it almost took me.

I’m almost 50 years old.  I have lived with the companion of depression on and off since I was a teenager.   I survived two suicide attempts, cut myself, have been inpatient twice, and been on more kinds of medication than I can remember.  What led me to my initial descent into depression is probably a combination of nature (family history) AND nurture (not going into details, but I know what they are…).

My worst years were my teens through early 20’s.  My best years were after I got married and my kids were born (to this day I’m amazed I didn’t suffer post-partum depression).  In fact, I was doing SO well, I thought depression was a thing of my past.  But I was wrong.

I’ve said before that I’m pretty reserved when it comes to my thoughts and feelings.  One friend calls me stoic, my current psychiatrist says I’m closed up tighter than a drum.  Well, I can see now the build-up of all the things I was “staying strong” through and could’ve seen it coming if I was paying attention.

1. My oldest child was diagnosed with asthma and a nut allergy when she was young, which required super hyper-vigilance about anything that came near her mouth or that she breathed in.  (we’re talking epi-pen allergic here, as in “anaphylactic shock,” like, DEATH – and asthma that required daily meds, an inhaler, and emergency room nebulizer treatments)

2. My second child has severe developmental delays which at one point we thought might involve muscular dystrophy and epilepsy.  Her eventual diagnosis was autism, which while not life-threatening is certainly life-altering and means LONG TERM major STRESS.

3. I had an unplanned pregnancy, (my son, who I love dearly, but still, at the time…)

4 & 5.  Both of my in-laws who I loved deeply died within four years of each other:  my father-in-law’s death coming unexpectedly while my mother-in-law’s took four brutal months of my husband traveling 2 1/2hrs each way to be with her through chemo while I stayed home alone with the kids because obviously we couldn’t subject her to our kids running around her house while she was so sick.

6. After my mother-in-law died my husband’s constant overnight trips back and forth to where she lived to deal with her estate, the lawyers, cleaning out and selling her house etc…

7. Trying to stay strong and be supportive for my husband, who was deeply in grief while trying to cope with all the legal stuff.

A year after my mother-in-law died (which was two years ago) I CRASHED.  Hit the wall.  I didn’t want to die this time – I think I have my kids to thank for that.  I mean, I thought I was a horrible mother, but I never thought they’d be better off without me.  They needed me, even if I was a mess.  And a mess I was.

I cried all day.  I cried over getting them up for school.  Cried making their lunch.  Cried looking at the dishes in the sink.  Cried looking at the ever growing pile of laundry.  Cried picking them up from school.  Cried at the thought of making dinner.  Cried at the thought of homework time.  Cried facing the bedtime rituals.  Cried myself to sleep.

I was functioning, getting through the day because my kids NEEDED me, but I was in a kind of hell.  Then I stopped sleeping, and that was probably what brought everything to a grinding halt.  In the past when I was depressed I would be lethargic, sleepy.  In this depression I was trying SO hard to function for my kids that I got “over-wound.”  Plus the only time I felt any peace was when I was alone, in the quiet of the night, when no one required anything of me.  I didn’t want to let that go, so my body kept me from sleeping.

Finally my husband said, “It’s time.”  I felt like a failure.  I thought I was done with therapy, with medication.  Yet I knew I didn’t just need a therapist, I needed a psychiatrist.  I needed medication.  The stress and grief had taken such a toll on my body chemistry that I was drowning and would need medical help to set it right.

It took some time.  Anti-depressants are not happy pills.  Even the optimal dose will not save you from tears or sadness.  I describe it like this:  the medication raises your threshold for “dealing.”  You are still confronting your issues, but no longer feel like you’re sinking in a black hole.  You have more mental strength to cope.  I also needed anti-anxiety medication because I desperately needed to sleep and was physically shaking with anxiety about getting through the day.

I was lucky to find a good doctor who did more than “just listen.”  I needed someone to be “in my face.”  To tell me point blank when I was full of shit.  I’d been with “listening” therapists before, who wouldn’t offer much input, and that has its place, but this time I needed someone more interactive, someone to push me to recognize my own grief, my own stress, my own needs, which I’m so good at burying.  I’m still with her, still on medication (although my anti-anxiety meds are “as needed” now and I haven’t taken one in months – but I still have them around just in case…), and I’m in no hurry to stop.  The combination of talk and medication is working well, so why mess with a good thing.

Stigma still exists around mental illness.  I haven’t talked about my depression with many people outside my immediate social circle (one of the many reasons I don’t use my last name here).  Many religious people think they can pray it away.  People still think depression is as easy to “get over” as a bad day, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Clinical depression (more than just a bad day) is REAL, and DANGEROUS.  Just ask the family of the young woman who died Friday night.  Ask my friends whose son overdosed on his psych meds at the age of 15 just when things were starting to look better.  Or me, about my uncle who shot himself, or me about myself (who thank goodness is still here to share…).

I share my story because when I write other posts about suffering I’ve been through, and good coming out of it, I’m not talking platitudes.  My struggle with depression and my close calls with death are VERY real.  Yet I choose to USE those experiences to make me  compassionate,  patient, grateful for the life I have now.  I am also sharing because the story of the young woman who jumped off the parking garage is yet another wake-up call that we should all be vigilant in looking out for signs in others, but in also taking care of ourselves.

If you’re struggling, PLEASE get help BEFORE it becomes a crisis.  You may feel like a failure, but in fact you are a super hero – STRONG and BRAVE because you are taking control of your life back, and refusing to let mental illness define you and win.  No matter what anyone else may tell you, no matter what you may be telling yourself, YOU DESERVE IT.  And if you’re receiving treatment, but it’s just not working, speak up.  Tell your therapist you need to try a different “style,” tell your doctor you need to adjust your medication.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not give up.

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