The reason I’m writing about my depression is because, since being diagnosed with severe clinical depression (probably post-partum, still figuring out the details), it’s been alarming how many women I know who are limping along with similarly serious problems but who do not know what’s happening to them. Or they do know, but think they are alone.
I saw a thing on HBO called “My Depression: The Up and Down of it”. She describes her depression as if it has personality all its own. I’m going to use that method here, because the descriptions of what is going on are so personal, so customized to my brain and life, that it would be a mistake for anyone to look at this as a comprehensive diagnosis chart for what depression looks like. It’s simply the shape mine takes.
In college, I studied behavioral science which covers psychology as the central science. I could list the symptoms of depression off the top of my head. In another way during college, I studied depression by living with a dear family friend of my mom’s who had suffered from the disease for much of her adult life.
And yet, the signs escaped me when they were mine.
The trickiness of My Depression is that my symptoms didn’t align with what I had memorized or heard on Zoloft commercials. I was not tired, beyond the fatigue that any mother of two under two, including a newborn not sleeping through the night, would have. I actually marveled most days at just how energetic I felt on such little sleep. I thought “depressed people” were desirous to sleep all the time.
On days I went to the gym and spent time with friends, I could feel pretty good. I thought clinical depression meant you were down many days in a row and could not get up. Sometimes, I could even push through and write something for my blog, despite feeling like it was suddenly so much harder than ever before to put a coherent sentence together– either in speaking or writing.
I didn’t feel sad. I felt nothing.
The thing about being depressed while married with children is that it’s as if there is a mirror on you at all times. While single and working in an office, if I woke up feeling like I simply could not face the world, I didn’t. I called in sick, called in food, and detached. In a family dynamic, you actually have to speak to people, every single day.
This can put those living in a house with you in a tenuous position. Every encounter with them, they are holding a mirror up to you (especially children as they are so innocent) and if you pay attention, you may see that something is not right.
Thus, it began to be clear to me that I had a real problem; I wasn’t just needing a “day off”.
I did need a day off, I did need more sleep. I did need to put some things and some people on the back burner, and I did need to spend more time with friends and family no matter the effort it took to get out the door. I did need to pay close attention to how much physical activity I got, what I ate, and how frequently. But, none of those things, or even the combination of those things, would resolve the issue of My Depression.
And now I will reveal to you the biggest barrier to my writing about this until now:
People compare themselves to other people, and weirdly, I felt I didn’t have room to say any of this because I knew people with worse depression than I had/have. Even mental illness doesn’t escape the”not enough” myth.
How ridiculous! My broken arm isn’t as broken as that person’s two arms, so therefore I need to keep my mouth shut about the pain in my arm.
What if a person with real depression accuses me of having it easy, or an expert reading this says my diagnosis is wrong, or someone who has never dealt with any of it says I am just a normal person like anyone else and I don’t need treatment, just a better attitude?
It doesn’t matter, because my arm broke and it was painful. Thinking it wasn’t painful enough is what kept me from seeking the treatment I so desperately needed. I certainly benefitted from someone speaking openly about their symptoms and their solutions in a way to which I could relate.
It matters to me that my voice is added to the growing company of those being honest, practical, and unashamed of an illness that is as real and physiological as chicken pox.
Here are some nuts and bolts to the person who is wondering if they might be experiencing what I was/am.** As previously noted, this doesn’t cover even a fraction of the issues that are out there. Don’t use this to diagnose yourself.
**If you are even wondering if you are depressed or overly anxious, you would most likely benefit from getting checked out. You have nothing to lose, and it is an easier process than you think. Maybe nothing is diagnosably wrong, and a weekend away and exercise might be the answer. But having someone to share your concerns with, who is trained to help, is heartening either way. They will help you find a healthy way out, regardless the severity of your situation. Be sure to see an actual psychologist or psychiatrist. They will not be as quick to prescribe medication as a family doctor or gynecologist.
I had zero appetite. Literally, zero. If I didn’t have kids, I probably would not have eaten. I did it for them because I knew logically that food is necessary to live.
I was awake between 2-4am often, even though my baby was waking up often in the night and I was really tired. I still struggled to sleep through the night. I had no problem falling asleep, but staying asleep during those hours was hard. This was key to my diagnosis, say my doctors. Even after the baby was sleeping all night, all of these symptoms remained.
I looked forward to nothing. I didn’t necessarily dread things though. My description of days would have alternated between “decent” and “hell”.
To add to the confusion, I enjoyed my time with my kids, and I could have upbeat and fun conversation with friends. I didn’t really feel anti-social, and I often had a decent amount of energy. There were “good” days mixed in throughout.
I had scatterbrain. I did not know this was a depression thing. This was worse than “Mom Brain” or whatever people call it when pregnancy messes with the blood flow in your brain so you forget things. It wasn’t until I started to compare what I used to do versus what I do now, that I realized that it wasn’t my imagination that something was off. I would have been non-functional at my job if I felt the way I did during the worst of my depression.
Not to be…whatever about my professional life, but I think it’s necessary for the comparison: I was pretty hardcore at work. I could take on a lot at one time, and I rarely had the feeling of being “stressed out” or overwhelmed.
I could focus for hours, keep track of every minor detail of a highly complex task, switch gears quickly and often as-needed, interact with dozens of people each day, and maintain this for hours on end. At my last job I did the work of three people and most of the time succeeded at it.
Compare that with a typical day of 2015: If I parked half a block away from the house, and I had somehow cajoled my toddler to follow me home while I carried the baby, and both kids were hungry, tired, and crying, then by time we got in, I was seeing stars. It was like a movie where everything is moving so fast around you, it feels like you’re underwater and on a merry-go-round.
It feels like the next thing that happens is going to make you lose your mind- even if it’s just your husband asking how your day was. My heart would beat out of my chest, I felt fight-or-flighty, I felt like the only solution was to disappear into thin air.
If this is sounding anxiety-esque to you, you would be right. Classic anxiety. But it didn’t make sense to me, because it was not consistent (although frequent), and I did not “worry” how I defined worry at the time. I didn’t lie awake at night and have repetitive thoughts. I was fine to let my kids run around and spill things, or leave the house looking like orphans. Other moms described me as “flexible”, “cool under pressure”, “calm”. And in many ways, I was.
I could not relate to women who tried to do everything, and I kept my expectations relatively low compared to other parents I knew. I thought I did a good job of setting boundaries and saying ‘No’ when something was too much for me. I didn’t feel pressure to do everything perfectly within my church, or within my mothering. There was no way I had anxiety.
However, I have since learned that since Depression and Anxiety are so closely linked, depression can manifest itself as anxious behaviors and physiological responses. This is why seeing a professional is a good idea.
The number of things I Googled or read on Facebook, or even learned in college, were nowhere near the same as having a personalized discussion with someone who has seen hundreds of people just like me and has been able to help them with varying levels of intervention.
One of the uglier aspects was the blow-ups. Spawning from spiraling negative thoughts about things I typically don’t care about, my husband was usually the recipient of their bubbling over. For me to get as angry as I was, say, three years ago, he would have had to punch me in the face.
This time around, the smallest (perceived) slight could send me up a wall. Afterward I was left with the thought, “Who was that?” I didn’t recognize the thoughts, feelings, or concerns of the angry person as being mine. It’s a surreal experience, in a most unpleasant way. Since treatment, I haven’t come close to feeling that level of anger even once.
Then, there’s the issue of hormones. In any given week, a female can say it could be hormones. Why go get it checked out, I just had a baby! Of course my body is out of whack. I just stopped nursing, of course my body is out of whack. I just started a cycle again…I just started birth control…I just, I just.
There is always something going on in a lady’s body, that’s what’s so miraculous about it. But, if it’s messing with her brain, let’s go to a professional. Hormones are not an excuse for behavior, and when it became clear that I was feeling something so severe that I felt the need to blame it on something, anything, because I just knew it wasn’t “me”, I knew it really must not be me.
I guess having a 50lb weight on my chest while trying to go to sleep didn’t tip me off. *smh*
Some of you who have gone through this are saying, “Duh, Kate. This is so obviously a problem”. You’re right. But hey, I’ve laid it out for you in a somewhat neat, chronological order.
As Mike Birbiglia would say, “I’m in the future also”.
But at the time, these issues were so random, the major ones somewhat rare, that everything seemed unrelated. Which, come to think of it, might be a way for one to get a grip on what they are going through. Write down each problem as you think of it, anything that has been weird about you in the past month. Maybe there will be a pattern.
It’s been said before, but I’ll add my voice to the cause since someone out there needs to hear it:
No amount of attitude adjustments, counting blessings, or even prayer was curing my problem. No amount of exercise or diet changes could have cured me. No combination of essential oils or acupuncture could have done it, no MLM vitamin, meditation, or massage. I needed modern, Western, medicine.
This, is My Depression.
I saw three different doctors from vastly different backgrounds and philosophies. Each told me I could not even begin talk therapy until I started a low dose of medication to balance out the chemicals in my brain. Try going to talk therapy when you can’t hold the same thought for three seconds, or come up with words to describe basic events from your day. Cutting out gluten or rubbing oil on my wrist wasn’t fixing that.
For me, the effect of medication was almost instantaneous. The second day on it, I had a raging appetite–a feeling I hadn’t had in months. I slept through the night right away. When normal challenges arose, both kids were crying and five things needed to happen at once, my heart rate remained steady.
For the first few weeks, I simply felt a lack of feeling horrible. A few weeks after that, I was laughing again. I could feel the lovely feeling I used to have when looking at a sunset or hearing a baby laugh. I felt the motivation I had so long thought was my job alone to bring back. I just need more willpower, I thought. I just need to be more consistent with my exercise/gospel study/routines/diet…
I finally felt peace during prayer that I could always count on to center me throughout my life, but that had escaped me for a long time. Unfortunately, I had decided it was a lack of righteousness keeping God’s peace at bay.
That was one of the more dangerous lies My Depression told me.
The shame of not being able to get yourself to be happy when you are doing what you think you should, is so much worse than the stigma of getting actual help. You can drive yourself crazy thinking you’re doing something wrong and futily trying to fix it.
Medication for me is definitely not a magic pill, or even a “happy” pill. I see it as a Resetter. It gave me a reasonable baseline from which to deal with life. I wake up neutral, instead of stuck in the well already. Then, I have to use tools just like everyone else to improve my life: willpower, discipline, gratitude, prayer, kindness, healthy lifestyle, etc.
Before, I didn’t have access to the happiness that is supposed to come through living a life filled with those things. Now, if I do them, I can feel great and that feeling can last. I get the momentum I used to have when I was working so hard at life.
And, therapy. To deal with anything underlying, or the contribution I did make to getting into a depressive state, I see a couple of different therapists. We work on understanding my expectations, my history, and my ideas of how much I should ask of myself and others. We deal with my “stuff”, and it’s a helpful supplement to my medicinal treatment. They work in tandem.
All of this is ongoing. My goal, and the goal my doctors say is feasible, is to get to a place where I am not taking medication or seeing a therapist as often. It can be a treatment like anything else, as long as I am doing my part to maintain the progress I’ve made so far.
Contrary to popular myth, once you start medication it does not mean you will forever be dependent on it for your well-being. I’m looking at about a year, they say. Some people struggle to find the correct dosage, the least amount of side effects, and it’s a life long thing. Same with therapy. I don’t have any expectations, I’m just paying close attention to how things are going on a daily basis and will adjust as-needed.
If my own satisfaction with life wasn’t motivation enough to figure out the problem, my kids are. My view is that each parent has a responsibility to model appropriate self-care. Whether we want them to or not, kids pick up on unspoken coping mechanisms, beliefs about self-worth, anxieties we think we’re hiding, and relationship management skills (or lack thereof).
Telling a child they are loved and showing them affection regularly is great, but it won’t have the impact it could if the parent is neglecting their own mental or physical health. I believe it is every parent’s moral obligation to make sure they have all of their stuff worked out so as to pass the fewest unhealthy habits onto their kids.
There are those who will say that my Western Medicine Approach was wrong, and that with the right combination of some other form of treatment, I would have achieved the same positive results.
There are also those who, from a religious perspective or natural health perspective, believe that this is my thorn in the flesh and that medication is not the way to eliminate it from my life. Every person is entitled to any belief they wish to have.
But I would like to submit that no matter what you have experienced personally, it is a dangerous thing to criticize, shame, or ignorantly speak out against another’s choice of treatment for their problem. That only contributes to the stigma of mental illness and a person delaying seeking treatment when they need it.
For me, this is not a literal matter of life and death. It is for many people, so I am lucky it didn’t reach that point. But in very real ways, it is a matter of a life I can enjoy, or death of potentially countless years of my life spent dragging a cinder block behind me.
For years I’ve had a half-baked idea floating around in my mind. It’s based on the premise that it is normal for a person to visit a medical doctor once a year to get checked out and make sure all is well. Regardless if there is any illness, we do this to ensure nothing creeps up on us and strikes out of the blue.
There is sadly such a stigma about therapy, still, even though more of your friends are in it than you think. There is a problem with marital therapy in that people often only seek it once their marriage is past the point of no return.
I think it would be great if the social attitude shifted to where it became normal for every person and every couple to go into a therapist a couple of times a year, just to get checked out. Everyone has something they could work on, and often it’s something you cannot see in yourself.
I may never see this day come. But my hope in writing this is that someone can take courage in my somewhat nonchalant way of expressing my own problems. It doesn’t have to be scary, it doesn’t have to be a BIG DEAL. Likely, it’s not your fault in the least.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I shared my situation in varying amounts to friends and family as it would come up. Not once did someone responded negatively, judgmentally, or even with pity. And more than half the time, the conversations were filled with “Me Too’s”. The bonds that come from exercising your trust in a person are unlike any other. People want to help, they want you to trust them. Find people you trust, and exercise that trust by opening up to them. Your relationship will be better for it.
I can honestly say that although this past year has been the most difficult of my life, it has been filled to the brim with supportive relationships both new and old. Hardship can expose the truest parts of a relationship, the most precious and lasting gems. In the same breath I can say it’s been one of the most fulfilling years of my life, as I’ve seen sides of my friends and family that have opened up brand new avenues of my love for them.
I know this is because I shared my real story, not the Instagram version, let people see my weakness, and they treated it with care. At times their best caring is done by treating me exactly the same, but allowing me reference “it” at any time without receiving gasps or sorry eyes in return.
It also helps that I have a husband who legitimately does not care whether or not the house is clean, the kids are quiet, or food on the table or even in the fridge. He doesn’t put pressure on me to be any certain thing or look any certain way; he values peace and love in the home above any practical matter. That has been an enormous relief.
As anyone who has gone through this knows, one of the best things a spouse can do is to not take it personally when you don’t feel or act happy. From Day 1, Jon has come at this with an understanding that it isn’t within my power to just ‘snap out of it’. He has encouraged all of my efforts to find the treatment that is best for me, regardless of effort or cost on his part.
Spouses: do not underestimate the impact your approach has on whether or not your partner feels supported, not judged, in seeking treatment–or even just admitting something is wrong.
If you have any questions about any of this, please contact me. I am not a doctor or a therapist, but I will be honest and empathetic. This is an epidemic only because people are not feeling safe to talk about it. You’re safe with me, and you deserve to feel better than you do.
Depression doesn’t care how “great your life is”, and you’re not doing anyone any favors by thinking you already have more than you deserve. For awhile I actually felt guilty taking the time of my (paid) therapists away from people who have “real” issues. Ha ha. Joke’s on me.
Depression does not discriminate; it will come after anyone in any situation, and manifest itself differently in each one.
There’s a documentary about Nora Ephron, the mastermind behind basically all great RomCom’s. Her motto in life was, “Everything is Copy”. Her son mused that what she meant was that, when something bad happens to you and you make the choice to write about it (speak it), you gain control over your story rather than remain a victim of it. That has always been true for me.
Hiding something inside keeps you dark inside. Shining a light on it makes it visible, and therefore, manageable.
This is My Recovery.