Is depression the new leprosy?
I have suffered from migraines since adolescence, and I remember my mother telling me that she had no idea what it felt like, as she had never had a headache – migraine or otherwise. She took care of me even though she had no frame of headache reference, holding a cold washcloth to my forehead and making sure I saw a doctor to diagnose my condition. She couldn’t be empathetic, but she was sympathetic to my pain.
During a bout of major depression in the past year – a battle that I am winning – I have experienced empathy, sympathy and compassion. I have friends and family, both near and afar, who have given me shoulder after shoulder to lean on and much encouragement and unconditional love. Some have been empathetic, having suffered from mood disorders themselves. Others have been sympathetic – like my mother’s response to my headaches – wanting to know more about what major depression feels like and how my treatment is going. I once had difficulty accepting that I was lovable. Excruciating difficulty. Now I know I am lovable even in my ugliest, lowest moments and when, at times, I’ve been incapable of being a good friend or sibling or aunt or adult child in return.
One of the most profound experiences happened two weeks ago. It made me cry. I went for a walk with a friend, whom I had not seen since last year. She had no idea what had happened to me in the last 12 months. I told her my story, and when I got to the part about the mental hospital, she stopped walking, gave me hug in the middle of the walking path and said “I had no idea, you are so brave to have done that.” No one had ever told me that I was courageous for seeking help, except my counselors and psychiatrist. Later on in the week, we went rollerblading together. As we were blading down the East Bay bike path, she said “I know you don’t feel like your old, athletic self, but I still see the spark and energy and soul you had when we used to run together. It’s still there. And I promise you, one day in the future, I’m going to be telling you to slow down because I won’t be able to keep up.” Pass me a Kleenex, please.
Conversely, I have been treated like a leper by uninformed fools who think that this is my fault or just a pathetic excuse for not being social or, better yet, that I just need to “snap out of it” or “be happy” or “change my mood.” How simplistic, how fucking easy. Duh, why didn’t I think of those easy fixes before I “chose” to be depressed?
Do you think I choose to “be” this way, much like people choose to suffer from, say, diabetes or heart disease? Do you think my wildest dream was to sit in a mental hospital for six days last November because it was fun and spa-like, shelling out $1,300 of my own money – money I was saving for a trip to Ireland – to get better? No and no. I saw and heard things in the hospital that I still can’t talk about to this day. People are really, legitimately ill, and thank God we have places where we can go to get help as well as the strength to admit we need help. Hopefully the patients who sat beside me in treatment have informed, non-fools at home to support them through recovery.
When I was hospitalized, I was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, which is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:
A combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally. Some people may experience only a single episode within their lifetime, but more often a person may have multiple episodes.
I fall into the “multiple episodes” category, unfortunately. I have gone into very deep, dark places on and off for almost 30 year, places that I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to see, including starting to cut myself at age 11 and having suicidal ideations in my late 20s. I would look out the window of the equity research firm at which I worked and fantasize about jumping out the window, wondering if a seven-story fall would be enough to kill me. Thankfully, I sought help after having this recurring thought for a week straight.
Right before I entered the hospital in November 2011 and right after a completely unexpected, heart-shattering breakup with a long-term boyfriend, I was drinking heavily and taking way too much Xanax, a potentially deadly combination. I had yet to come to terms with the fact that my depression had come back with a wrathful vengeance and that my drinking had gotten way out of control. I didn’t want to be around my friends, I didn’t want to exercise, I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to get out of bed and deal with life. I wasn’t nice to people, and my behavior had consequences.
A couple of days before I checked myself in, I destroyed a friendship after sending a nasty email to a person who I realized – once I got out of the early and most dangerous phases of my depressive episode – probably had it coming to her. She always had been a bit high-maintenance and self-absorbed, acting like a sun around which her friends and boyfriends orbited. What I once thought was quirky and only slightly annoying yet tolerable behavior turned into a series of really shitty and passive-aggressive stunts in the months prior to the break-up as well as in the days and weeks following the break-up, like canceling lunch plans with me on my birthday in October, getting angry and jealous because I was spending a lot of time with a friend who needed my assistance after a major surgery, and telling me what a horrible friend she and another close friend thought I was – a mere 14 hours after my boyfriend unexpectedly broke up with me. (So much for giving me time to sit Shiva.)
I was in such a terrifying, sad place – and her bad behavior eventually sent me over the edge. (In treatment, I learned the concept of being “stuffed” – you have so much tough stuff stuffed into a big glass and then – BOOM – someone or something or the universe throws a big flaming piece of crap on top of it all and it won’t fit because the glass is filled to capacity. So the glass shatters, as does the owner of said glass. Her initial – and insensitive – email, to which I rudely responded, was the glass-breaking point for me.) Could I have counted to 10 and written a nicer email? Perhaps. Am I proud of what I did? No. But she, as a close friend, should’ve been there to hold my hand, even though I couldn’t hold my tongue at the time. I asked for forgiveness. She refused to give it to me. I’m not sad she’s gone from my life, I haven’t missed her.
Another wise person told me that since I had dated my boyfriend for three-and-half-years, that it should take me exactly 3.5 months to get over him and put a stop to my depression. Huh. If the world really worked that way, how many great break-up/love lost songs would NOT have been written? (No “Love Hurts”? Now that makes me depressed.) My college boyfriend – who was perhaps my one great love – would be zapped away in a mere 2 months. Should I break up with my Gay Boyfriend (which will never happen), the hurt would magically disappear in 7 months. Such shabby “You’ll get over it in X time” logic not only insults my intelligence, it wounds my heart. I still grieve the death of the relationship with my ex-boyfriend, 10 months after it happened. I think I may still even grieve the loss of the ex-friend I mentioned above; we had five good years together. Honest love knows no bounds – even if someone has broken your heart – and the time-frame of grief has no sell-by date. Yeah, I learned that in treatment, while warding off all the “crazies” with my Swiss Army knife.
Speaking of…another person, after confiding to him that I was going into treatment, told me in a condescending tone: “Oh Audrey, I hope the crazies don’t get to you and make you crazy like them.” Um, yeah, hold the phone while I take my leprosy medication and you, my friend, put down the holier-than-fucking-thou crack-pipe. No one in treatment made me any more crazy than I already was. If anything, the bipolar and schizophrenic and anxiety disorder folks made me realize I wasn’t alone in my fragile state of mind. I was one of them, not better or saner than them.
There is no “cure” or magic pill for depression. It’s like being a dry drunk – I’m a dry, and sometimes soggy, depressed person. I can be an ass. I can be undependable. My need to isolate – which is, in reality, an unhealthy coping mechanism – rears its ugly head sometimes. It’s an exhausting, soul-sucking struggle to get out of bed some days. I have insomnia that can last anywhere from one night to three weeks. I will probably have to be on meds and/or be in talk therapy for the rest of my life so I don’t relapse. These are not excuses, these are the facts of my disorder. I am painfully aware of them and want to do better – but at times I simply cannot control my muddled mind no matter how hard I try.
What has made me most discouraged, though, during years of popping in and out of depressive episodes are the douche-canoes who take it personally, as if my symptoms – such as the inability to work, sleep, eat and enjoy pleasurable activities – are all about THEM and me failing to meet THEIR needs and me not liking THEM, when it has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but ME. Or those who pointedly avoid me, as if depression is contagious like a cold or chicken pox. I am not surprised: these are the same people who scurried away like cockroaches when the kitchen lights of my depression were flipped on. I tried to tell them “I can’t stand being around my own self – so I certainly can’t stand being around anyone else,” but they didn’t hear my plea; they had already run into the cabinets and under the floorboards.
On a positive note, I have great days, where I’m full of energy (like today, when writing is giving me the most calming, focused feeling). I’ve come out of my anxious shell and met new people and had the most enlightening conversations with strangers I meet on the street, who don’t treat me like a leper. I have managed to maintain healthy relationships, especially with my sister who has suffered from major depression as well. I’ve made peace with my mommy issues. (While my mom cared about my headaches, she ruled the roost with an iron fist – which was sometimes clutching a bottle of Wild Turkey to fuel her physical and mental abuse – until I was 20 years old. I have learned to love her for who she is and forgive her, after many years of hard work with a therapist.) I am volunteering with Meals on Wheels – one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’m exercising and getting stronger every day (I can finally do pikes on the Pilates chair). And I may be doing a couple of pro bono grant-writing projects, which is a win-win: good for my resume, good for the world. Sometimes these things exhaust the hell out of me, as I trudge up a steep hill in search of inner peace. However, when I remind myself that I could not have accomplished any of the aforementioned activities a year ago, I feel proud.
So to those who have been supportive of my flawed, complicated, beautiful self these past months and years, thank you. I know it hasn’t been easy to stick by me.
For those who haven’t been supportive and who have accused me of using my depression as an excuse for everything under the sun yet have done nothing to better understand mood disorders, do your homework before you zip up your judgy pants and slide that ignoramus t-shirt over your head.
For those suffering from any mood disorder/mental illness, I send you an intention of peace and love.
And finally, dear readers of my blog and my friends who want to know more about depression, I urge you to read the National Institute of Mental Health’s overview of depression. And please, if you know anyone who is exhibiting these signs and symptoms, endeavor to be either empathetic or sympathetic, help them seek treatment, and most importantly, please don’t take their behavior personally. You never know, some day you may need that person to return the favor.