They say that these are not the best of times
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Now I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes
And I can only stand apart and sympathize
For we are always what our situations hand us
It’s either sadness or euphoria
I was a sophomore in college when I first experienced depression with a capital “D.” Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me that that was what was going on. I just knew that the “spark” I had once associated with myself was gone. I didn’t see any value in myself, I didn’t find any pleasure in anything, and I couldn’t stop eating. I was exhausted all the time. Classes that should have been easy, were overwhelming. I struggled to show up for them. I failed yoga. Yoga.
Looking back, it was a perfect storm. First of all, mental illness runs on both sides of my family. Growing up I had heard stories of psychiatric hospitalizations, and great great grandmothers who alternated between lying in a room all day with curtains drawn and then suddenly, bursting with energy, writing manic letters to celebrities. These are the tales that are whispered about throughout generations. Maybe it didn’t have a name at the time, it was just known that uncle so-and-so had “dark periods” that he couldn’t seem to pull himself out of, and cousin what’s-her-name went on uncontrollable shopping binges. It never felt like it had anything to do with me, or what might happen in my life. It was just the way things were.
In reality, I was lucky to have made it to 19 before getting hit. But that’s when it got me. I was in a new relationship (with a wonderful man I would eventually marry) and trying to get to know myself, as you do in your early 20’s. I went to a good school, and I had a loving family. I should have been happy.
But try as I did, I just couldn’t make myself. Each day felt like an eternity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I knew that I had a guy who loved me and believed that I was worthy, told me that I was funny, and kind, and smart, and sexy. I looked at him blankly. I had no idea who he was talking about.
It was my mother who first suggested that I see someone about medication. “I think you might be depressed,” she said. Depressed. I hadn’t ever really even heard of it. For the most part, my life up to this point had been a happy one. I was well-liked—not popular, really, but I had a good set of friends who I loved and who loved me. I had performed in the high school shows and gotten a thrill from being on stage. I was close with my parents, an only child. I was a relatively good student. From the looks of it, things were moving in the right direction, and I was Going Places. So why now?
Maybe we’ll never know. It’s not uncommon for people to experience their first episode in their mid-twenties, and depression is more common in women than men. It can sometimes correlate with a stressful life event or transition.
I have my own theory, though. I think that first episodes of Major Depression often occur in college students because it coincides with an identity shift. Who we knew ourselves to be as children—the middle child, the good student, the athlete, the popular one—is often shaken up and turned on its head when we leave home. In my case, the girl that I knew so well and in whom I had put years of effort, no longer fit into my world. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d had the lead in the high school musicals, or handled a difficult breakup with grace, or been a good friend to my closest confidantes. It was time to grow up. Time to think about how I wanted to make my living, what kind of relationship I wanted to have, where I wanted to live, what I was passionate about. I watched as other kids my age selected their majors and landed internships; organized field studies and created/led student groups. They talked about what they planned to do “after college.” After college? It seemed that they had embraced this idea of being a grown up, and more importantly, they could see themselves as grown ups.
It appeared that my “vision” of who I was going to be stopped after 12th grade. I had never really looked past that point. Sure, I was a part of selecting the school I went to, and choosing what clubs to be a part of, and thinking about what field of work I might be interested in. But I didn’t really think I was talking about my life. Maybe it was because I relied so heavily on my parents’ opinions in determining who I was to be, or because deep down, I didn’t really see myself as capable of handling life as an adult—but when I was told that yes, this really was it, and it really was up to me to decide the direction my life would go in, I panicked.
And with the panicking came disappearing. Poof. Almost the minute I got to college, I got a boyfriend (not the person I married) whom I allowed to take over my life. He monitored my every move, controlled everything that I did. He made up a name for me that wasn’t my name. Which made sense, because I wasn’t me anymore. Everything about the relationship was wrong. But by the time I figured that out, it was too late. I would try again and again to end it, and every time, he would convince me to stay.
I was with him my entire freshman year, and to this day, I don’t remember one thing that we talked about. Not one thing. I just remember a lot of begging, on my part, to leave; and a lot of manipulating, on his part, for me to stay. His words were like a drug to me. He would talk (lecture) through the night, wearing me down so that by 6 am I would have no fight left in me. “Okay,” I’d say with bleary eyes, “we can try again.”
The reason that my recollection of this time is mostly blank is that I wasn’t really there. Because I’d never really trusted that I could be an actual adult, and I no longer had someone telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, I bowed out. This can be done in a myriad of different ways—through drugs, alcohol, sex, or other compulsions. I chose a relationship. It made sense because one thing that abusive people do when they’re not abusing you is tell you how special you are. How you are the only one that can help them. You get to have a secret language and even though you don’t make up the language or really understand it, you like the way it feels because no one else speaks it. It is unique to only you and the other person. This is appealing when you are feeling lost and without an identity. Yes, I thought. This is what I need.
It was only when I resurfaced afterward that I realized I had lost an entire year. A whole year spent sleeping in someone’s bed only to find that I had nothing to show for it, except a cardboard box of my ex’s belongings (a t-shirt, old trophies, newspaper clippings.) I still don’t understand why he sent these things to me. A last attempt at reminding me of what I was losing?
In any case, I began my sophomore year free again. A friend commented when she saw me in the cafeteria in the early fall,“You’re back!” I knew what she meant. It wasn’t just that I was back for the new semester; I was back. With my behavior no longer controlled by someone else, I was free to do what I wanted.
Naturally, this felt entirely too scary. As I had never allowed myself to see past the age of 18, when I found myself alone, I panicked. Again. And disappeared—again.
This time, it was into a sorority. I told myself that I would pledge so that I could establish a group of friends (I already had friends) and form a bond with women that I’d never had, especially because I’d never had any real siblings. Yes, I thought. This is what I need.
I knew in my heart that it felt wrong. This is not to say that Greek life isn’t fantastic for many many people. And the truth is, I did meet great people that I continue to stay in touch with today. But at the time, for someone who was struggling to remember who she really was and what she really believed in, it only confused things. When you pledge a sorority, you are asked to embrace your letters as part of who you are. Spirit-breaking techniques are used to test your loyalty and strengthen bonds with your fellow sisters. You are intentionally put on edge, made to fear certain leaders in the group. This is fine for someone who already has an established identity and loves herself, feels she is worthy. But if this is at all shaky, the process of rushing a sorority, let alone pledging, can be devastating.
I arose from the aftermath of this experience worse off than I’d been before. Everyone else seemed to have gotten the memo; the mind games we endured were just that—mind games. A rite of passage. I remained in a state of shock; no one had told me what to expect.
The only good thing I had going for me was a new relationship, this time with someone who was genuine, kind, loving, fun, and who had no interest in calling me by someone else’s name. I knew he was the right one the second I saw him. It was the first time in a while that my inner voice had spoken up, and I actually listened to it. Like an anchor helping to keep me from drifting, he reminded me, time and time again, of who I was and what I believed in. He told me what I was capable of, what I deserved.
Which was good, because I was going to need it for what followed.
There were two psychiatrists on staff at my college. Both of them men, who looked to me very much alike and had identical names, except one started with a “C” and one started with an “F.” This is almost like a cruel joke for a depressed person, whose brain is already fuzzy and unreliable. I couldn’t tell them apart, and often got confused about who I was meeting with, and which one I’d seen the last time. I also met with a campus psychologist, with whom I suppose I talked about…stress? Fears? Worries? I have no recollection.
What I do remember are the drugs. The many medications that were tried and failed, one after the other, to lift the heavy blanket of depression that was weighing me down. White pills, blue pills, purple pills, capsules, ones I had to cut in half, some I took in the morning, some I took before bed. One medication caused my feet to itch, another my heart to race. Many of them made me thirstier, or hungrier. Some of them kept me awake, others made me groggy.
None of them worked.
Or, they would work for a short time, then stop. We would increase the dose, and wait.
What a relief it would be if we could sleep through the waiting. Close our eyes to the anguish until it disappeared, like being knocked out during a stomach bug. Wake me up when it’s over.
But that’s not an option with depression. Every day, we have to brush our teeth, bathe, eat. Day after day, the things that should bring us pleasure—a favorite song, a delicious dessert, a jog outside—they mean nothing. The cruelty of this disease is that you are unable to even fantasize about feeling better. There is no escape. Hence the allure of suicide. In the darkest moments, it stands as a viable option, a welcome relief to the hell you are enduring.
In the end, it was my husband (although he was just a boyfriend at the time) who suggested I try a particular medication that finally gave me relief for the first time. Although he was just a medical student, he had read about the way that this particular drug affected multiple chemicals in the brain. For the first time in years, my world was in color again.
Coming back from depression is like waking up the morning after a raging party at your house. Spilled beer making your feet stick to the floor, underwear flung onto lampshades, vomit in the toilets. You look around and wonder what happened. For this reason, much of my college experience is gone. Not because I was drunk (although I did my share of drinking) but because I was not present in my own life. This memory loss is disconcerting. Friends tell me about places we went, things I said. I simply don’t remember.
Author Glennon Doyle talks about how she has learned to write down what makes her happy, and details about who she is, when she is well; because when she is depressed, she forgets. She is only a shell of herself, a ghost watching from above.
Through the miracle of medication, I did not disappear again for several years. I got married, started working and began a masters program in social work, which I loved and in which I performed well (my grades a stark contrast to those I earned in undergrad.) I worked carefully with my doctor to slowly taper off of my antidepressant when my husband and I were ready to start a family, as the drug I was on wasn’t safe to the fetus during pregnancy. This scared the shit out of me, as I knew what darkness felt like, and the thought of going back to it terrified me. I told myself that I would look into other safe medications, should I need to.
Shockingly, I stayed afloat. While I had some difficult days during pregnancy, the black cloud never overcame me and I made it through. When my daughter was about 6 months old, I began to feel the familiar emptiness I had come to know well. I found myself sleeping more, eating uncontrollably, like some kind of machine, hand to mouth, robotically. It was almost as if I was searching for some kind of feeling, anything, to remind me that I was alive.
I returned to the same medication I had been on before getting pregnant, and like a faithful friend, it worked, and I reappeared again. When I began trying to conceive again four years later, I repeated the process: tapered off, waited to see if I needed anything during pregnancy, stayed afloat. When I felt myself disappearing after my son was born, I returned to that loyal medication again. And it continued to serve me well. Until it didn’t.
One day, it just…stopped working. Actually, it came on slowly, and before I knew it, I was gone again. This time, I had a fast-paced job, two young children, a husband who needed me, and no life raft. School permission slips went unsigned, text messages from friends unchecked. I slogged through dinner and bath time, struggling to make conversation with my kids. The effort it took to pretend to laugh was immense; the pain excruciating.
One morning that summer, I lay napping on top of my comforter on my bed (I tried to make it every day although sometimes it took all of my energy.) In my sleepy haze, I thought I had heard the doorbell ring. I made my way to the door slowly. When I opened it, one of my daughter’s friends and her mom stood there, smiling. I looked at them groggily. The girl’s hair was freshly washed and braided, and the mom was dressed impeccably. “Hi!” She said, “Are you still having the little get together?”
I stared at her, clueless. Then, a jolt of shame.
Weeks earlier, in a moment of spontaneous hope, I had texted a slew of fellow parents about having their kids over to play on certain days during the summer. Each day would have a different theme: sprinkler play! Arts and crafts! Cupcake decorating! Charades!
“Oh…that….” I responded, trailing off. “I”m actually kind of going through a hard time right now, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to do it.”
I will never forget the other mom’s expression. One of confusion, maybe a little annoyance. Who could blame her? What kind of parent suggests a series of themed playdates, and then forgets she suggested the themed playdates and you wake her up when you come to the house for said themed playdates?
Me. I’m that kind of mom.
Depression isn’t just one experience like this—it’s many. Commitments you made, broken. Appointments you set up—forgotten. Late for work, again. As if proving its point, depression eagerly demonstrates, again and again, that you are a loser. You are unreliable. Uninteresting. Unloveable.
It was beginning to dawn on me that this disease had a hold on me and was taking me down. And although in my darkest moments, I believed with all of my heart that my precious children would be better off with a different mom—one whose brain wasn’t so royally screwed up—I could not bring myself to give up (as much as I wanted to.). With everything I had, I summoned the energy to call my family doctor. I explained my history, told him my symptoms. By now, there was no question what it was, although I drove myself crazy trying to come up with other explanations—there must be some “physical” reason for this fatigue; low iron? Lyme disease? Thyroid issue? When they all came up negative, I felt like a failure. Nope, it’s just my mind again. Nothing, like…real.
The doctor’s suggestion, although well-meaning, resulted in disaster. Advising that I come off of the medication that was no longer working, he suggested that I gradually try something else; a new drug on the market.
My gut told me that this was a bad idea. I had been on this particular medication for years now, and although I wasn’t thinking particularly straight, I had the feeling that it would not be as easy as simply stopping it. I was right.
Within a day of lowering the dose, I began experiencing bizarre withdrawal effects, including a kind of “zapping” sensation in my head, like an electrical jolt into my brain, and intense agitation, making me feel like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I frantically looked online for the phone number of a psychiatrist who could help me. Unfortunately, we historically had a poor cell phone signal in our own house, and my calls to the doctor kept getting dropped. In desperation, I stepped outside, pacing on my front lawn as the phone rang. When I finally got a hold of her, she was kind and patient. But the connection was still spotty. I could only hear every other word that she was saying, and she said she could only hear part of what I was saying too.
“I’m having a ZAPPING FEELING in my BRAIN,” I shouted from my front porch. “It feels like my EYES are MISALIGNED. Like they’re CROOKED,” I relayed.
I realize now how insane this must have sounded, and the fact that I was yelling it throughout the neighborhood probably wasn’t doing much for my reputation.
But depression doesn’t care.
This is an illness that will take every ounce of your pride. Think you’re a good friend? Think again. You won’t return anyone’s calls or remember any details about what they’re saying to you. What’s that, you’re a hard worker? No you’re not. You’re lazy and unoriginal. Simple tasks like making a sandwich for your kids or scheduling a grooming appointment for your dog are too hard. You struggle to form sentences. Making a choice is impossible. You will find yourself frozen, staring at laundry, or the recycling can, or a jar of spaghetti sauce. What am I supposed to do with this again? Oh, right. But which line do I fill the detergent up to? There’s more than one. And what’s the deal with the recycling again? I know I’m supposed to separate it. But how? Do I heat this sauce up in a pan, or in the microwave? But what kind of bowl?
The last time I disappeared was over a year ago. By then, I had formed a team of people, including a psychiatrist who knew my history well, a smart, experienced therapist, and a handful of family members and friends to catch me when I fell. And I fell hard.
Each episode of depression that I have experienced has, terrifyingly, been worse than the last. This was the first time I had ever seen fear in my husband’s eyes. A helplessness. He wanted to fix it so badly, but he also needed me to be okay. To figure this out. “For better or worse” took on new meaning. How far will you go, depression asks, if she slips further and further away from you? What if you hardly recognize her? What if she hardly recognizes herself?
This is some dark shit.
I will say this: if you are in a relationship with someone with depression with a capital “D,” you have known agony, and you have known fear. Because as hard as it is for the person experiencing it to keep going day after day, you hold the key to their hope. You are the only thing between them and the belief that they are not worth it. That this is not worth it. And if, just for a moment, you were to show doubt, or hesitate even slightly, wondering if this is what you signed up for, whether you can stand to see them suffer, and watch them unravel, day after day—that is all it takes. Depression can smell doubt a mile away, and it will leap on to it triumphantly.
I speak for all who have been taken down when I say:
Please don’t give up on us.
This is a tall order, I know. Especially when the person you have come to love appears to have disappeared, yet again, and the one standing in front of you bears no resemblance to her. But it is your faith, along with the rest of the team, that will pull her through.
Over time, I have learned how to stay with myself, despite the urge to disappear. I have learned to trust that inner voice that was only a whisper when I was a young college student. When I hear, “not a good idea,” I listen. When I hear, “take some time for yourself,” I listen. As it turns out, there was life after age 18, if I was willing to believe in it.
Today, I am feeling good. Because of my history, I am truly grateful (not the kind we hear about a lot—“I am truly grateful!”) but genuinely, actually, fully grateful for each moment that I am here, in the flesh, experiencing the world around me. The good stuff—smell of freshly shampooed child’s head, knowing glance shared with husband, puppy stretching out hind legs, bite of hot, crunchy French fry; but also the not-so-good stuff: backing into pole with car, blistering sunburn on shoulders, belly hanging over pants, sour milk in cereal.
Some of it is better than others. But for now, I am here for all of it.