I love my husband but not in a common way. This love is an earth shattering, jigsaw puzzle fit, Hallelujah Chorus kind of love. I look at him and just reel with the awe of our having found each other. We complement each other. We are best friends and confidantes. We have a mutual respect that sees us through conflict and a collective sense of humor that keeps us laughing. And yet, I have a disease that, at its worst, made me want to turn away – not from him, but from his need of me, from my role in his life. My emotional reserve was so shallow that by afternoon, anything but solitude felt like an assault. I was obligated and determined to meet the needs of my daughters, and after doing my best with that, I had nothing left for him.
I love my kids. My highest ambition had always been to be a wife and a mom. We waited 6 long years to have our two girls and they are more than I ever could have designed, so much more. Yet this vicious, lying thief of a disease left me walking the other way when I heard their sweet footsteps. “Please don’t need me. Please don’t need me.” played on repeat in my unwell mind.
I love my parents and my sister. They love and support me unconditionally and have never wavered in showing me. Never. But I hid my disease from them. The energy it would take to explain and reassure alluded me, leaving me in a selfish lie of omission which would, were the tables turned, hurt me deeply.
I love my God. Since the age of 3 I have had an abiding, life-giving faith in my Creator. Yet this disease flattened my resolve and dulled my hope. I never lost faith, yet I didn’t seek God for help.
I love my friends and yet I withdrew from almost all of them. I felt I had nothing to give, most times feeling already scraped clean, turned inside out and shaken empty by just the basic responsibilities of daily living.
Every depression has its unique beginning, progression, path. Mine has been with me off and on since about age 20. I was in college in Seattle and began feeling spent, worn thin part way through the day. This was uncharacteristic for my typically high energy, determined self. I didn’t know what it was then. I kept thinking that if I could just get more sleep I’d be fine. I limped by, graduated and moved back to our huge, bright Reno skies, and the challenge of medical school and I returned to myself. Medical school and residency brought their own built-in anxieties, but that dark cloud and inexplicable worn-thin feeling didn’t return until after I had my first baby at age 31. With the sleep deprivation and new-found responsibility, it seemed expected. I wasn’t as happy as I had envisioned being, but I was exhausted from 60-minute sleep intervals and all that comes with being a new parent.
The storm cloud didn’t take up residence again until around 40. With no warning or reason, the skies went gray and the bottom fell out of my heart despite all the love I had in my life. Premature ovarian failure, or early onset menopause, confused the picture. I had hot flashes, a brain full of cobwebs, an inability to multitask and a short anger fuse. I couldn’t find my cheerful, high-functioning, energized self anywhere. Prescription hormones helped some. I thought they should fix everything so I waited to feel normal again. I waited for 2 years, telling no one. The feeling was one of inexplicable, deep, all-encompassing defeat.
A turning point for me was reading an article by Joanna Goddard entitled “The Hardest Two Months of My Life.” In the telling of the author’s own self-realization, she says, “The funny thing about depression is that you don’t know that it’s depression – like, chemical imbalance in your brain, or a hormonal crash. You just think it’s your actual life – that your career really IS ending, that you really ARE a terrible mother, that your husband really WILL stop loving you, that friends DO think you’re boring… When you’re depressed, you don’t realize that your life actually is fine – you’re simply sad because you’re depressed. The depression is the reason for the depression.” I began thinking about how I have a significant family history of clinical depression and about how no matter what I fixed, I never felt better. Her description of the experience, the feeling, the mind-set rang so true to me that I felt I was reading words I myself had written.
When I finally decided to confide in a friend and in my husband, they were both blind-sided. I am a great pretender. How could I have looked so normal to those closest to me when inside, my cup was emptying faster than it could be filled and springing new leaks every day? It was as if the appearance of being OK was all I could control, all I had left of my former self.
I resisted medication because I was afraid I’d lose my “edge.” This was a lingering fear from the residency days when I was convinced that one of the reasons I was a good doctor was because of the fault line my anxiety kept me straddling. I thought my anxious perfectionism was my super power. But in truth, depression blunted my edge. I had no energy and was so quick to think, “I just don’t care.” I never contemplated suicide but I did sometimes wonder how having me around in this state was irreparably, if subtly, harming my kids. I often thought that it would be a relief to just be done.
Waves of despair hit me at the oddest times. I’d often find myself carting through Walmart, willing myself not to cry while calmly consulting my shopping list. At every point in my past, if something was scary or hard, I would simply approach it with the requisite level of vigor, determination, focus and then presto! Mind-over-matter would prevail. I prided myself on my mental heartiness, my ability to avoid shrinking in the face of fear. But “mind-over-matter” could not fix this. Love could not fix this. It was a first, and it was a blow. Grit and strength of will had failed me, and love, rather than being a savior, felt like another way to fail.
I eventually found a combination of exercise, adequate sleep and medication which has me back at center. There is no such thing as a happy pill or quick fix. Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m sad, but with medication and good self-care I can reach happy. And when I’m sad, it’s about something sad, not about something trivial or for no reason at all.
This story has no tidy conclusion. My life is an ongoing, messy combination of joy, love, faith, disappointment, struggle and striving just like yours. I’m telling it so that you or someone you love might feel less alone, a little more understood, armed with the language to describe their invisible battle. I write it so that those who have the gift of sound mental health might remember that a person who looks completely together may be drowning.