I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself today. Outside, it’s gray and rainy, and it’s pretty much the same way inside my head as well. All I want is to curl up in bed and shut out the world. But when I try that, the world still sneaks in anyhow. Doing simple things takes monumental effort. Answer the phone? I don’t even recognize there’s a call until the phone rings a second time.
Other people might experience this as a bad day, and surely it is one. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that the demon inside me named depression is lurking just beneath the skin and looking for the slightest scratch to the surface that will let it escape.
I’ve been fighting this battle since I was 11.
Of course, at 11, I didn’t know the word for it. All I knew was that life suddenly became this awful, unbearable thing. A part of it can be attributed to the natural cattiness of girls at that age. They truly are, as a group, monsters. I was already a bit on the outside, being a year younger than most of the others in 6th grade, so I didn’t yet share many of the common interests – like pop culture and this new activity of flirting. At the start of the year I had two solid friends, but sometime in the middle of that year, a third friend convinced them they couldn’t be friends with she and I at the same time. And then there was just me. At the same time, a 7th grade boy chose to make sport of tormenting me on the bus rides home, throwing things at me, pushing me on the floor. Even if no one else was as awful about it as he was, there was no one rushing in to help me, either.
Sometime in that dreadful year, another student in the school committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in a cemetery. It was announced on the intercom system before class began one morning. So many of the students were talking about it wide-eyed and laughing. I was horrified. And now, years later, I’m grateful that it never occurred to me that I could do the same, because I’m sure I would have tried.
It was more than just a sadness that I felt. At home I cried all the time. I went from this confident kid who loved to read poems in front of class to a shadow of a person who was afraid of even being in school. I faked sicknesses so that I wouldn’t have to go. And when I was in school, without fail, my stomach started churning as the day crept closer to that bus ride home. Looking back, I can recognize this as a normal reaction to ongoing and intense anxiety. But when my mother took me to a doctor, he said there was nothing wrong with me.
I climbed out of that hole with the help of time and a teacher who unwittingly saved my life. Summer vacation gave me a much needed respite from the trauma of middle school. And when I returned in the fall, I was blessed to have Mrs. Shaprio for an English teacher. Some of her methods may have been unorthodox, but there’s no denying what she did for me. One day, she went around our classroom from one student to the next, telling them if she thought they were a leader or follower. When she got to me, she paused. “You…” She tipped her head to the side. “You go to the beat of your own drummer. You do your own thing.” And I’m telling you, that changed everything that very instant. Suddenly the burden of trying to fit in lifted, and I took pride in being the strange kid. And never again would anyone be able to bully me like that.
The next bout with depression was milder but paradoxically more dangerous. I didn’t experience the same depths when I was 15 and 16, but I reacted to it in disturbing ways. I didn’t know what self harm was at the time, but I engaged in my own form of it. I started sticking my arms with pins and needles. Unlike many others who self injure, I didn’t hide it. In fact, I often did it right out in the open in front of people. I wanted them to notice, I suppose. That came to an end the day I hit some major vein or artery, and blood sprayed into the air. Everyone sure noticed. It looked much worse than it was, but that scared me into stopping. But worse, I also experienced my first brush with suicidal thinking (or “ideation,” for those in the know). I went so far as to break open a safety razor and hold the blade to my skin. Then I got another great idea and stole one of my grandmother’s Valium instead. True, I avoided hurting myself. But avoiding suicide by abusing substances wasn’t the greatest strategy, either.
This time the fog lifted for no reason I could discern at the time, and by the time I reached my senior year of high school, I was fine again.
Until my second year of college, anyway. Things had been going great. I loved being a student. I had a deep feeling that I was exactly where I needed to be. And then suddenly, nosedive. I quit going to many of my classes. I quit trying. I drank – a lot. The haze lifted temporarily toward the end of that year, only to come crashing back down again harder than ever that summer.
That was the summer I met Matt, tall and handsome. Matt, artistic and passionate. Matt, who would eventually throw me down a flight of stairs and urge me to off myself. There’s a strange interplay between depression and abuse. I know for certain that abuse can cause depression. There’s nothing like being told you’re worthless to make you feel, well, worthless. But I think it works the other way as well. Abusers have a sixth sense that lets them sniff out the most vulnerable people. And as anyone who has been depressed knows, you’re incredibly vulnerable when you’re in a depressed state. At that point, your mind is geared up and eager to grab onto any negative message that comes along. Those messages confirm what the depressed brain has already been telling you: You’re nothing. You’re useless. You’ll never get better than what you are right now, and what you are right now is pathetic.
Clawing my way out of that one was no small feat. It involved stubborn love from my parents, therapy, and a complete start-over of my life. I left college, came home, worked for a while at a shopping mall and tried to get my head back together. There were a lot of tears. A lot of bad, bad poetry. It took the better part of a year to become myself again. I learned a lot, but the price of education was huge.
The storm clouds cleared. I transferred to a school in Georgia, twelve hours away, and finished without a problem. I was busy. I had squandered my first two years of school, filling up my credits with electives. Now it was time to get busy.
The first job I found after graduation took me to a weekly newspaper Miami. I knew right away I didn’t want the job. When the publisher offered it to me, I sat in his office digging my fingernails into my arm to keep from crying. But I took it because after the expense of getting a college degree, I felt obliged to.
Miami just wasn’t for me. It seemed superficial. People really cared a lot about their clothes and make up. That’s great if you like clothes and make up, but I don’t. Once again, I started sinking. It was a mild sink, though. A passing flirtation with darkness this time. But I knew enough now about how I work, and that worried me. When all was said and done, though, I navigated my way through it handily.
And then – peace. For nearly eight years, my mood was pretty stable. Even when things went wrong, as things sometimes do, I didn’t find myself falling into despair. The demon had gone into remission. If only it had stayed that way.
But no. By 2003 my marriage was falling apart and so was I. It was another two-parter. One deep fall into depression, a break, and then another crash. I attributed it to the time to the ups and downs of a troubled marriage, as we separated, reconciled, separated again and once again came together. But now I understand there was more at play. And that’s a subject for another entry.
Suffice it to say, I had to concede that I hadn’t beat depression. It was still there, still looking for any opportunity to take over.
It would get its next chance in the fall of 2005 when a perfect storm of disappointments and disasters nearly drowned me. My dad was in danger of dying, suffering from a bout of sarcoidosis that went undiagnosed until it was nearly too late. At the same time, I didn’t get the promotion to business editor that had been all but promised to me. And then came the news that my husband had a 95 percent blockage in his heart and needed an emergency surgery to stave off a massive heart attack. All this would have been enough to stress out anyone.
But what really did me in was infertility. I had wanted nothing but to become a mother. I had planned my life around it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew it would involve the help of a specialist, as my husband had a vasectomy years before we met. I hadn’t expected to be told I was broken, too.
I had, as my doctor put it, poopy ovulation. The egg was supposed to pop and make its journey down the road to my uterus. Instead of popping, it just poked its nose out of the shell. I don’t even know if it did that much. Maybe the thing lollygagged around the ol’ fallopians a while. Either way, my body wasn’t making progesterone, that miracle chemical that makes it possible to sustain another life within a woman for nine months.
There are drugs to treat that, of course, and I took them. Three rounds later, no dice. But by then I was truly a mess. I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. I cried all the time. I remember being on assignment at a General Motors factory and just sitting in my car, sobbing, unable to stop long enough to get out and do my job. I was tormented by children. I was destroyed when I met an old college roommate and her son and twin daughters. I wept all the way home.
I could describe for pages how bad it was, and I still wouldn’t give you an accurate idea. As an only child, I was overcome with the guilt of knowing that my childlessness would mean my parents would never get to be grandparents. I was terrified for my future, and imagined myself dying alone in a nursing home, with no one left who cared about me. Worst of all, I couldn’t imagine what I might do with the next 40 years or so of my life until that time came. I mean, I literally couldn’t imagine anything. There was just a void. Just darkness.
I gave in on October 16, a date I’ve promised myself to remember. I took a plastic bag and put it over my head. I taped it in place and waited. Do you know how annoying that feels? Each breath in drew the plastic to my nostrils. Each exhale filled the bag with steamy heat. You don’t go quickly this way. You wait. You think. If you’re lucky, you have second thoughts. For me, these came in the form of knowing how it would destroy my parents. I knew they would never recover. And so, I stopped trying to die.
Trying to live, that was another matter. I give my ex credit. The next day, he raised hell with enough people until he could find a therapist who would see me that very evening. The psychologist gave me a choice: promise not to try suicide again or be committed. I was horrified of other people knowing what I had tried to do. I made the promise. I was started on an antidepressant. And again, it was hard, hard work to get back to some semblance of normal.
Each year when October 16 rolls around, I give myself a quiet celebration. Made it another year. Another year I almost cheated myself out of living. And I promise myself, again and again, that I will not go to that place again.
People who have been through depression know exactly what it feels like. I’m not sure that people who don’t have any idea what it’s about. When you’re depressed, you hear the same things over and over: Pull yourself out of it. It’s not that bad. It’ll get better. It’s all in your head. Whether or not any of these things are true is beside the point. The fact is, they don’t help. If you could simply decide not to be depressed anymore, it would be so easy. But when you’re there in it, you can’t even imagine not being depressed ever again. To steal from JK Rowling, it truly is like every bit of happiness has been sucked out of the world, and you can’t imagine ever getting it back.
Yep. I know depression. I’m on guard against it always. I’m scared that it’s creeping up on me again now.