I vividly remember the first time I was diagnosed with depression. I was 21 and spending the summer at Ohio University working as a waitress at a diner and taking summer classes. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me, but I knew something was off. I had been an overachiever my entire life and suddenly I wasn’t able to handle as much as I had been. I had to drop one of the classes from my schedule because I couldn’t keep up with everything. I started choosing to stay home alone in my room rather than going out and I spent a lot of time crying behind closed doors. When one of the school therapists diagnosed me with depression, I was relieved and terrified at the same time. At least I knew what was wrong with me, but now I had this beast to battle. It took going through three or four medications to find the right one, which made me feel more stable but not numb.
I stayed on the medication for about a year and half and decided that I could get off of it. I was newly in love and I think the natural endorphins helped. Weaning off of the medication was horrible. You actually have withdrawal symptoms. It felt like I had the flu for two or three weeks.
I didn’t need medication again until about five years later when I was getting married and buying a new home. I was familiar with the symptoms so I caught it faster and I knew what worked so I was quickly able to move on with my life. I had to wean off of the medication again a couple years later when we started thinking about kids.
About a year after Evelyn was born the symptoms came back. It might have been well before that, but I was just learning how to balance a baby with a career and made the critical mistake of putting myself on the backburner. The symptoms were stronger this time and it took more than medication to make them better. I was having trouble sleeping because I would lay awake at night with racing thoughts. I was crying often and for no reason. I was irritable and my mood changed in a flash. Obviously I wasn’t the easiest person to live with, which meant this disease was affecting more than just me for the first time. In addition to getting back on my medication, I also found a therapist and started kickboxing. It took longer to feel “normal” again, but eventually I did.
After feeling stable for a couple years, I weaned off of my medicine again as we thought about our second child. It is amazing that while pregnancy can do a lot of strange things to your body, it actually can do amazing things to your brain. Although I dealt with horrible “morning” sickness at the beginning of both pregnancies, I felt more like myself in the second and third trimesters than I did when I wasn’t pregnant. After I had Wes, I almost immediately felt the symptoms coming back. I went back on my medication just six weeks after having him. I nursed exclusively at that time, so I was concerned about the effects on Wes. The doctor explained that it was safe and that having a healthy mom was extremely important for a newborn.
Wes turned two in April and I haven’t been off of my medication since he was six weeks old, but the depression worsened drastically when I started a new job about a year after he was born. I was working for what was more or less a startup and it required a lot of my time (60+ hours per week). Balancing that with two kids took its toll on my mental health. I started having anxiety attacks about three months after I started.
The first time I experienced an anxiety attack was in my car on my way home from work and I had to pull over. I eventually discovered that this is where and when they were most likely to happen, which was dangerous. Those twenty minutes in my car on my way to and from work were usually my thinking time. Where I ponder the world’s problems or think about my to-do list or fantasize about a perfect life. How dare these anxiety attacks rear their ugly head during that sacred time? Luckily, I recognized the symptoms of an anxiety attack when it happened and knew that it would pass even though in the midst of it, it feels like it never will. It feels like your brain is throwing a thousand thoughts through your mind at once and you can’t think straight and you forgot how to breathe and the whole world is crashing down in your lap.
I knew I needed to take action immediately. I scheduled an appointment with my doctor and started seeing a therapist again. I tripled the dosage of my anti-depressant over a few months and I also tried a number of anti-anxiety medications and sleep aids. Unfortunately the number and length of my anxiety attacks continued to increase. Just seven days short of a year, I left my job at the startup. And I haven’t had one anxiety attack since the day I walked out of there three months ago.
Unfortunately, my depression worsened after I left. I didn’t have the distraction of work. And I felt like a failure because I couldn’t stick it out. And then I received the news that I hadn’t been chosen for a job that I was pursuing.
Depression is a confusing disease for those who are dealing with it as well as for those who live with them. Sometimes nothing triggers a bad day, it’s just a bad day for no reason. And it’s hard to stop crying or get out of bed. And sometimes your mood can change instantly for no reason and you can have a burst of unexpected energy. But most of the time you’re exhausted because you are constantly fighting a battle within your own head. You know that this battle makes no sense, but you can’t stop your thoughts, you can’t tell your brain to shut up, so it’s hard to resist the urge to hide under the covers. And just like with anxiety attacks, it feels like it’s never going to end. Rationally, you know it will end, that you have survived this before and will do it again. But in the moment it feels like there is no hope for feeling better. I have never been suicidal, but I understand how people who struggle with this disease can be, they just want freedom. They just want to crawl out of the dark hole within their head and find a hiding place away from their own thoughts.
After struggling for over a year, I finally feel like things are on the upswing. In some ways, I am grateful that this disease has made me stronger and sometimes I am grateful because I believe those who feel pain more deeply also feel joy more deeply. I haven’t been very vocal about this struggle in the past, but I have found writing and talking about it have been instrumental in moving past it. I plan on writing a post soon about what to say and more importantly what not to say to someone struggling with depression. Hopefully that will help anyone who has a loved one who is struggling with this beast. And to my close friends who might have been wondering where I have been for the past year, I’ve been lost in my mind.