There are days when I feel almost normal. Good and bad things happen, I handle them appropriately. I get some chores done, I cook, I read. I smile, I laugh, I frown. Then there are the normal days – my normal, at least, with my depression. And those days…they’re more frequent and they’re significantly harder. I may still get chores done, but each one feels significantly harder than I know it actually is. I read, but I feel lazy and unproductive the entire time. I smile, and it hurts to move my face like that. And something goes wrong – and by wrong, I mean not perfect – and it feels like I’m a complete failure.
It’s Mental Health Month, and I wanted to share my experience with depression. The goal is twofold – one, so that others with depression or mental illness are reminded they’re not alone, and two, to maybe provide a bit of insight to those who don’t have mental illness. Too often, I hear someone say “Just get over it”, “Think happy thoughts”, “Change your diet”, “Exercise” without understanding that depression is not so easily solved. While these suggestions may help sometimes, they don’t work for everyone and they don’t solve the issue.
My First Depression Diagnosis
The first memory I have that seems like an episode of depression is from when I was seven. We had just moved, I was in the kitchen while dinner was being made, I dropped a dish, and the family member who was cooking said “useless bitch” under his breath. I thought he was talking to me – twenty-four years later, it still crosses my mind that he was talking to me, but apparently he was angry at the dog who was underfoot. I fought back the tears through dinner, and then went up to my room under the pretense that I was going to read. Instead, I cried myself to sleep. For a week. Finally, my mother noticed that I was acting weird and pried the story out of me. Immediately, she confronted the family member, who explained about the dog.
I felt relief when he said he wasn’t saying it about me, that he would never say it about me. I felt relief down to my bones…for about ten minutes. And then the intrusive thoughts began again – he was lying to spare my feelings, he spent a lot of time with me so it was likely I annoyed him, he only came to clear things up because my mother yelled at him. I never said another word about it but twenty-four years later, I still think about it.
I was twelve when I was diagnosed. I’d tried to commit suicide a year earlier, and never really come out of the depression that had instigated it. My mother noticed I was depressed, I was crying a lot, and I was very unforgiving to myself when I made mistakes. My grades had dropped significantly. She took me to my first therapist, and it was quickly determined I had chronic severe clinical depression. I attended cognitive behavioral therapy for a few months, but I never did well because I wasn’t good at actually talking to the therapist. I was 12, and it felt like I was lying or being wimpy by talking about problems that shouldn’t even be problems. I was in denial about my depression, because it made me feel like a freak, so I started finding reasons to skip appointments, and therapy faded away.
When I was 13, my mother’s cat died. I took it surprisingly well (I’d grown up with this cat)…for a few weeks until this song my mother always sang to him came on the radio. We were cleaning and suddenly I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t stop crying. My mother thought I was faking it to get out of cleaning, and I felt terrible, like I was just the worst person, lazy and useless, for being so upset. About a month after that, I skipped school and took every pill in the house I could find. Advil, Tylenol, prescription pain meds…even St. John’s Wort. There was a lot of vomiting, and I passed out sometime in the middle…on my side. I woke up about an hour before my mother was getting home from work. I felt like crap – from taking the pills, but more, because I couldn’t even commit suicide properly. What kind of idiot can’t even kill herself?
My mother noticed that I was badly depressed again and brought me to a psychologist. They added anxiety to my diagnosis, and recommended medication. I was put on Wellbutrin in the mornings and some pill I don’t remember at night. I didn’t like taking them. Partly that was because I didn’t feel better on them, and partly because I was 14 and felt like a freak for needing “crazy pills”. My mother had to watch me take them because I’d hide them or lie about it, and after a while, I learned to pocket them under my tongue until I was out of sight. Finally, I was able to explain to my mother that the pills were making my depression worse.
Let me elaborate on this point. I’m a big believer that if medicine works, you should take it. Now, I understand my depression, and made some level of peace with it, and if medication worked to handle it, I would gladly take it, so if medication works for you, you should take it proudly. For me, however, I’ve been on a number of different pills (which I will be circling back to later in this post), and the meds generally lock me in my head more. Publicly, I seem happier and more relaxed, but in my head, I feel fuzzy sometimes, and the intrusive thoughts are so much worse. It’s like the pills add the filter between my brain and my mouth, or my brain and my facial expressions, but don’t actually help the depression. And the depression is so much worse when I can’t even express it.
Around this point, we moved and I finished freshman year at a new high school. I think high school is rough for most people, and I had a better experience than many, but it was by no means perfect. Regardless, every set-back, every mistake, felt like the end of the world, like proof that I wasn’t good enough. Every time someone pointed out something wrong with me, it felt like they were telling me I was worthless.
I was moody as anything. I could be happy one second, and then the intrusive thoughts would sneak in, and my mood would drop. There were plenty of days when it was hard to go out with my friends and be a teenager. I’d date, but I was never willing to discuss the depression or really anything with someone I was seeing, and I’d end the relationship because they didn’t know me. It felt like if I told them anything real about me, I was giving them this inner look at just how screwed up I was.
The Last Attempt
When I was 19, I was driving to visit family for Christmas and was run off the road by another driver. I overcompensated and my car spun out, and by the time I’d come to a stop, my head had slammed into the driver side window. When I reached my destination, we went to urgent care and I had whiplash and a concussion. By the time we got back to the house, I was exhausted with a raging headache, and my family wanted me to go to Midnight Mass. Considering I was no longer Catholic and in pain, I refused, even when they said I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Christmas. I didn’t care. The next morning, they tried to get me to go to Mass again, and in a fit of fury, I exploded and left, planning to drive home. I stopped in town to get a drink for the drive and picked up a bottle of Tylenol for the headache. When I got back to the car, I took two. Then two more. Then the whole giant bottle. By the end, my mouth was so dry and cottony, I could barely swallow. I was hoping it would kill my liver or whatever, so I laid down and took a nap.
I woke up however long later, feeling like, well, death, and just wanting to be somewhere comfortable, so I went back to my relative’s house. Apparently, I was grey and my eyes were glassy, and when they asked why, in my drugged stupor, I told the truth. They called a doctor friend who told them to give me saltwater to induce vomiting and to call the ambulance. As I was drinking the saltwater, some of the words made it through, and I couldn’t stand the thought of being hospitalized and put on a psych hold. So I shoved family out of my way, ran out to my car, and drove away. I ended up sleeping everything off in the car and woke up the next day, feeling like crap, but alive again. So I drove home. When I got there, my roommate was shocked – it turns out my family had had the police out looking for me and had called my roommate wondering if I’d made it home.
I never did go to the hospital for that and I haven’t celebrated Christmas since.
Suicide isn’t rock bottom. It sounds like it is, but when you’re suicidal, you still feel, even if you feel bad. You still do things, even if that thing is take your own life. I was 21 when I hit rock bottom. There had been a lot of changes in my life that year, and I thought every decision I made, every move I made was the wrong one, so I didn’t trust myself to make decisions, which led to more poor decisions. Honestly, looking back, things weren’t bad, for the most part. I made one poor decision that year, one that i remember debating, one that I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t been hating myself. But that one poor decision led to other events, and I was already in the throes of depression. Afterwards, I sunk deeper than I’d ever been. I was nearly catatonic. I drank heavily, and didn’t eat unless someone literally fed me. I didn’t really move – I didn’t leave the apartment at all. I didn’t shower, didn’t clean, didn’t talk. I cried constantly, all day, for no reason whatsoever. Not sobbing, heavy crying, just tears continuously rolling down my face. I wasn’t watching tv or reading, I was just staring at the wall and thinking about how I was a failure. I wasn’t suicidal, because I had no interest in killing myself – that was too much effort. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to not exist. I stayed like that for two months until my mother called. I don’t entirely remember the call but by the end of it, we’d decided I should move. That weekend, I left with anything I could easily move, leaving behind most of my furniture and such because I couldn’t bear to take it apart to put in the van.
In NC, I was still depressed – I was still drinking, I was still crying, moving wasn’t a cure-all. What it did do though, was put me by other people. My mother developed shingles about a month later and needed help. That got me up and moving a little bit. I used that tiny bit of energy to get a new job. I made some (superficial) friends at work, which actually increased my drinking but it was at least social drinking. And a few months passed. Then I got a promotion, and I was proud, so I drank a little less, cried a little less.
About six months after I moved, I had a shot at a job I really, really wanted. So I went to the hair salon for a cut, I got my nails done, I dressed up. I nailed the interview and landed the position. I was happy – or at least happier than I’d been for a long time. About a month after I started the job, I went shopping and learned my happiness was a fragile thing – shopping exhausted me and every piece of clothing I tried on that didn’t fit felt like a personal failure. I was in tears in the dressing room.
When I came out of that lowest point, it scared me. I had reached a level that I never knew was possible – complete hopelessness. People think suicide is hopelessness and it’s not. You still have hope that suicide will free you.
When I realized I was still depressed at random, over small things, I decided I needed to do something so I never hit rock bottom again. I started to really learn about depression. I tried to identify and squash the intrusive thoughts. I tried anger management techniques. And I found a psychologist, this time of my own free will.
I don’t do well in therapy – that hasn’t changed. What has changed is I can admit it, that therapy just isn’t something that works for me. It’s not a failing to need help, that took a long time for me to admit, and it’s not a failing to not benefit from something that works for other people. We tried medication but I paid more attention to how I felt on pills, and I didn’t like them either. I have found two pills that were acceptable, and I only take them periodically when I need to. The most important thing I got out of therapy was knowledge. I learned to watch my episodes of depression and see if there was a pattern. I learned ways to tamp down the intrusive thoughts. I learned that I can walk away from a task if it’s too much to deal with.
That knowledge showed me that I’m significantly more likely to slip into depression at certain times, following a general pattern. Those times of year, I’m much more likely to over-react, I’m more likely to cry for no reason. I can’t always manage the emotions, but I try to find a release that doesn’t hurt anyone, including myself, or anything. If I’m having a bad day, or a bad week, I’m better at telling someone that the depression is acting up, and I need space or attention or help. I still have the intrusive thoughts, like I could be free if I just don’t turn the steering wheel and instead drive right off this bridge (that’s a really common one), but I’m much better at refocusing. Every mistake (real or percieved) I make still feels like a huge failure, but I can tell myself to let things play out before I beat myself up over it.
My current diagnosis is severe clinical treatment-resistant depression. That means I’m prone to suicidal ideation and intrusive thoughts, and that medication does not work well on me, even at high doses. It’s not my only diagnosis, I have a few side conditions that play into the picture, but this is the big one, this is the one that causes trouble.
I’m never going to be healed, depression isn’t something that goes away. I know that I could wake up tomorrow feeling like my whole life sucks, like my family would be better off without me, for no reason whatsoever. Every day is a struggle, a fight to survive. I do better when other people or animals are depending on me, so I will always have pets. I’ve learned how to manage my disease. I’m lucky in that, and that mine isn’t as bad as other people’s.
It’s Mental Health Month, and I hope that other people do whatever they need to find their own level of peace. See a therapist, try the meds, talk to friends, talk to other people with depression. If you don’t have depression, but know someone who does, the best things you can do are to believe them when they think the world is falling, because to us, it is; and to ask what they need. They might need space, they might need contact, they might need you to do the dishes. If the person says they cannot clean the bathroom – they’re not being lazy, they literally do not have the energy or the…spoons to clean the bathroom. They may not want to go out, or eat, or whatever. It’s okay.
If you have depression, talk to a professional. It’s not an all-around solution, it may not help you manage the condition at all, but having a clear and accurate diagnosis can give you the sense of control over the disease. Try medication. Try lifestyle changes. Pay attention to what’s working and what’s not and remember that you are the one who can decide that. It’s hard and scary, and it’s never going to go away, but it can be handled.
Depression is real and it sucks and it doesn’t stop. Even the good days have a cloud hanging over them. But it is a disease, it is out of your control, and all you can do is try to make the ride a little smoother.