“Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”Stephen Fry
Late in my teenage years, I started experiencing symptoms associated with Major Depressive Disorder, also known as clinical depression. I was diagnosed officially in college and formally introduced to the elaborate, mysterious, and frustrating relationship between the two rival factions in my head: my brain and my mind.
My mind knows that, no matter how bleak it all may seem at the time, I am not alone and things will get better. Its counterpart, my brain, is under no such pretenses. My brain spins like a hard drive, refusing to wind down, constantly grinding away. My brain betrays my mind, sapping my energy. Replacing passion with nothingness, leaving a state of numbness and paralysis. When my brain wins, I cannot get out of bed. My entire body feels heavy and I cannot muster the strength to break free of the invisible force surrounding me. Exhaustion, even after 12 hours of sleep, envelopes me.
I have been very lucky over the last twenty years in that, with a combination of therapy, medication, and personal lifestyle choices, I have remained highly functional. I am truly fortunate to have the ability to access quality mental health care and to have my symptoms taken seriously. For many people, the same is not true.
In September 2018, seemingly overnight, I entered a major depressive episode. Having been in this position before, I knew what I needed to do—see my doctor and find my way back to an even keel. The answer, at the time, was to increase my medication. For a few weeks, it worked. But, at the end of October, I found myself again unable to get out of bed. Adding another medication, I appeared to come out of it. Unfortunately, that too was temporary. My cycle of decline and slight rebound continued until, in June, a medication mixup sent me into a tailspin. Over the course of this past summer, I clawed my way back, but even this period of calm was short lived. My brain kept sliding back four steps for every one step gained.
The side effects of my significantly increased medication fully manifested themselves and couldn’t be hidden, try as I might. A dear colleague, seeing my shaking hands, was so concerned that she lovingly reached out to ask if I had seen a neurologist for my tremors. Other side effects were easier to conceal, but troubled me far more. The dense fog surrounding my mind kept even my most commonly used words and phrases just out of reach and hid my short-term memories, just far enough away that I couldn’t grasp them. I felt my mind, the place where I find joy and fulfillment in thought and reflection, slipping away. In early November, I had a moment of extreme clarity where I felt myself, literally, losing my mind. My brain told me that I was trapped and would never be able to escape. I started to think, very systematically and pragmatically, about how I would end my life, just to make it stop. One afternoon, about two weeks before Thanksgiving, I took out a notepad and started writing my own obituary. I’m struck by how ludicrous it all seems to me now, but it wasn’t then.
In that moment, something clicked and my mind pulled me back from the brink. I called my husband and asked him to come home. He knew I was feeling down, but I had kept the extent of my depressive episode from him, just like I’d kept it from everyone else. In our current work culture, if I’m not in the office, people might notice they haven’t seen me around lately but, thanks to technology, they generally aren’t concerned about it as long as emails and calls get returned, and deliverables show up.
This moment wasn’t about realizing that I need help—twenty years of living with depression has taught me that—but rather that I needed more help. Together, my doctor and I agreed that I must address whatever is at the center of my brain’s inability to function in its current environment.
So, I’m taking a leave of absence from my job, as a consultant in professional services, to focus on my mental health. Experience tells me to look for improvement, not a cure. Managing my own expectations is important, because it helps to keep the feelings of being fatally flawed or irrevocably broken at bay. My brain wants to convince me that I’m a failure, because I have depression. Societal pressures and stereotypes around mental health do not help either.
Even as I write this piece, I’m apprehensive about the reaction of others. This feeling reinforces for me why I spent so much time minimizing and hiding, gaslighting myself, my brain convincing my mind that it’s my imagination, that everything is fine. The talk track in my brain goes something like this, “If I just keep going, things will get better. My depression is a character flaw and, if I just tried harder or was somehow enough, this wouldn’t be happening.” My brain lies. My brain is a jerk.
What am I doing during this time away from my regular job? I’m seeing my doctor, reengaging in talk therapy, living healthfully, and doing a lot of reading, writing, and reflecting. An academic paper that I wrote, my first, was accepted for presentation at a conference next month and I’m going to go give it. I’ll be spending time reconnecting with my husband, my children, and my friends and family. My new job is a tough one; I’m working on myself. As Ani DiFranco so eloquently put it, “Self preservation is a full-time occupation.”
I could go on hiding, but I am choosing not to. Acknowledging the stigma associated with mental health challenges, I am telling my story in the hope that perhaps someone will read this essay and feel that they too can ask for more help. I am telling my story so that others can learn how to compassionately reach out with kindness and respect. I am telling my story so that those who are afraid to speak up because they don’t know what to say, can learn the words. I am telling my story to call attention to the fact that I am privileged to have the care and support I need to get well, but many, many more don’t, and we have to fix that. Most of all, I’m telling my story for me. Telling my story reinforces that I am not alone and that things will get better.
For the next little while, I’m going to use this blog as a journal of my experience. I’ll share whatever is going on with me periodically. The topics will vary. If you would like to come along, please feel free to subscribe or just check back when the mood strikes.
I’m including a Contact page, as well as opening up the posts to comments. My level of responsiveness will be a factor of how I am feeling and my capacity to do emotional labor at that time. I will read everything, although I may not answer. If you feel moved to reach out or comment, I welcome your engagement. I ask that you please not offer medical advice, invalidate my lived experiences, or relitigate my personal medical choices. I recognize that what has (or has not) worked for me may (or may not) work for you or anyone else.
Most importantly, if you, or someone that you know, is at risk of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at http://SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
For those outside of the United States, a list of International Suicide Hotlines is available at the International Bipolar Foundation website: https://ibpf.org/resource/list-international-suicide-hotlines/.