Most people who have been sober longer than a year are asked to give a “lead” — to tell their story. Mine was structurally simple, covering what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Having only drank for three years, my addiction story is pretty straightforward: I stopped guzzling down mood-altering beverages.
My depression story, however, is not.
There are too many circles and uneven ends to fit into any neat, compact narrative. It seems as though the longer you dance with the demon of depression, the more embracing you become of different health philosophies and the more tolerant of unanswered questions.
Is it open-mindedness or desperation?
I don’t know.
I have come to fully appreciate the words of Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron, when she writes:
We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
The truth is, I can’t remember a time growing up when I didn’t think something was terribly wrong with me.
I didn’t know what they were at the time, but I would have panic attacks when my mom tried to leave the house or when I’d be forced into a new situation. I suffered from night terrors, where I’d sit up in my bed with my rosary around my wrist sweating from a racing heart, trying to make sense of an image in my dreams that haunted me, something as benign as a piece of thread moving slowly and methodically, back and forth, as a metronome. I was a scrupulous kid who could never say enough Our Fathers or Hail Marys. I went to Mass every day because I was scared I was going to hell.
I tried to flee from “my feelings” as I described them then, but I couldn’t.
They’d follow me wherever I went.
My mom threatened to take me to the hospital in the fourth grade if I didn’t stop crying, which further confirmed for me the cosmic bond between my aunt and godmother, who spent most of her life in psych wards, diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia. That is, until she ended her life with a turn of the ignition in my grandmother’s garage.
I was sure our souls were somehow connected, and that I would suffer the same fate.
My depression morphed into an eating disorder during my adolescent years. With aspirations of becoming a professional ballerina, I lost so much weight I stopped menstruating. Since I couldn’t control anything going on around me — like my parents’ divorce and the chaos that ensued — I found security in controlling my body and the needle of the scale.
The weight came back on in high school when I discovered beer and screwdrivers. I hid bottles of vodka underneath my bed and was kicked off of my high school drill team for bringing liquor to band camp. Getting drunk was the most effective means of quieting the loud and painful thoughts inside my head; however, I was blacking out all the time, and the list of apologies I owed for obnoxious behavior the next morning was getting rather long.
Two months before high school graduation, I got sober, and shortly after that, landed at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. There, under the care of a skilled and empathetic therapist, I began my recovery from depression. After fighting her for 18 months on taking an antidepressant, I finally tried one, which made me suicidal. I tried another, and I discovered how most people feel the majority of the time.
For the first time in my life, I wasn’t coping.
I was living.
Although my mood continued to be volatile at times — this is me we’re talking about — I experienced a relative stability between the time I graduated from college and the birth of my second child, Katherine. Meeting my husband and sharing a life with someone who accepted me just as I am proved to be a powerful antidepressant. Our love and commitment grounded me like no other relationship in my past had.
But motherhood has been full of jagged edges and painful stretches.
As soon as I began to wean my daughter from breastfeeding, my mood plummeted. It was more complicated than just depression, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had developed a pituitary tumor at some point during breastfeeding, which triggered a cascade of other hormonal issues. I went from one psychiatrist to another (visited six all together), tried 22 medication combinations, and was so doped up on antipsychotic cocktails that I practically passed out in my cereal bowl.
I was finally hospitalized.
After a few months under the care of a top-notch psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and stabilized on an old-fashioned medication combination of Lithium, nortriptyline, and Zoloft. I also worked with an endocrinologist to stabilize my hormone levels and stop the growth of my tumor.
I thought I was fixed.
I dubbed Hopkins the Land of Oz.
My remission lasted two years.
The hard work began in late 2008.
The economy crashed and so did my mood. As an architect in a dead construction market, my husband didn’t have much work. In order to generate enough income for the family, I went from spilling out my guts as a mental health blogger — an occupation that fit me pretty well — to being a sterile government contractor, first consulting on change management (still not sure what it is) and then composing press releases on cloud text analytics.
Death thoughts (“I wish I were dead”) stalked me as I dropped the kids off for school, swam my laps, and went to the office. No matter how hard I tried to distract myself, they plagued me.
I restarted the game of pharmaceutical Russian roulette, and tried another 20 medication combinations in a span of five years.
Ironically, when the market started to recover, I suffered a second breakdown. I was almost hospitalized. I twice put myself on the waiting list for inpatient electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at Johns Hopkins — yes, there is a waiting list to get zapped! — because I had lost the capability to eat, sleep, and work.
For a good while, I simply couldn’t function.