My tumor was growing again — and I had a few thyroid nodules to complement it, plus a heart condition — producing dangerous levels of prolactin, a hormone that makes you aggressive, anxious, or both.
Around the time I was approaching medication combination no. 50, it occurred to me that I might be beating a very dead horse … with a toilet plunger, that I might be truly treatment-resistant and not respond to any medications.
In January 2014, I decided to stay on the medications I was on (Lithium, nortriptyline, and Zoloft) and stop trying new ones or making any changes.
I was done.
Although I had always treated my illness holistically — I eat healthy, take fish oil capsules, exercise every day, go to therapy, and pray like a saint — I was ready to take it to the next level: to investigate the connection between the brain and the gut (since the nerve cells in our intestines manufacture 80 to 90 percent of our body’s serotonin), concentrate on my pituitary and thyroid issues, start loading up on necessary vitamins and supplements, and learn how to meditate.
First I eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet and started drinking green smoothies every morning for breakfast. In fact, I eat a massive bowl of green leafy vegetables with every meal. I read book after book about how adjusting your diet can rid you of your mood disorder in six weeks. That wasn’t the case with me, although I did feel a definite difference when I said goodbye to grain, stopped drinking caffeine, and tried my best to resist sweets. I realized my blood sugar levels have an immediate impact not only on my mood, but also on my thyroid, which determines more than you think in our delicate and intricate bodies.
I started taking a very expensive probiotic, which was one of the more helpful things I have done in this holistic experiment because your brain is only as healthy as your gut. The nervous system of your intestines includes an estimated 500 neurons, which is why neuroscientists often refer to the gut as the second brain. I also loaded up on the right kind of Omega 3’s, with a 7:1 EPA to DHA ratio, and took Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, magnesium, SAM-e, turmeric, iron, and a good multivitamin.
I ended up spending more than $7,500 on a holistic doctor and the 26 different supplements she recommended, which were too many to fit into the granny-size pill holder I bought at Rite-Aid. I did every test imaginable — sending away my urine, stool, blood, and saliva — to determine the underlying cause for my death thoughts. The closest thing I got to an answer had to do with my thyroid — my very low T3 and T4 levels — causing much of my fatigue and listlessness. I was glad to further identify the pituitary-thyroid piece of my mood puzzle, but I didn’t have any more money to invest into the experiment.
So I tried meditation.
I enrolled in the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program offered at our local hospital. I had been trying to meditate unsuccessfully for six years and was determined it was going to happen. The research published about meditation on every health website, magazine, and blog for the last ten years has promised so much — 20 minutes a day and your brain suddenly chills out like the Tibetan monks — that I guess I was expecting a miracle. However, after eight weeks of participating in the program and meditating daily for 20 minutes or longer, I still had death thoughts.
One morning, not so shortly after I graduated from meditation school, I sat uncomfortably with this question: What if I wake up every morning for the rest of my life with a profound desire to die? What if I can never make the death thoughts go away?
I drank my kale smoothie and took all of my vitamins and supplements.
I meditated three times.
The desire to die was so intense I had to fight off tears, especially in front of my daughter. I had to fake extra hard that I was a functioning mother.
I ran around the beautiful campus of the Naval Academy, and when I got to Hospital Point, my favorite part of the run that borders the Severn River, I let out my anguish and I cried to God, a different kind of prayer:
“It’s not about me anymore,” I said. “I’m giving you the desire to enjoy life. Take my longing for joy. Do whatever you want with it. If you can just use my life to lessen someone’s pain. That’s all.”
It was like the Prayer of St. Francis that I prayed every day — “Make me an instrument of your peace …” — or Tara Brach’s Buddhist aspiration: “May my life be of benefit to all beings.”
But it was more.
It was the purest, most heartfelt prayer I’ve ever prayed.
From a place of deep pain within me, I was offering to God my entire life — every anxious breath, every distorted thought, every word and every action, every minute of every day, as fodder for someone else’s healing, as some sort of blessing for another, because that is the only way I knew how to live with the thoughts. The way I saw it, my only purpose here was to relieve someone else of the kind of pain I feel on a regular basis.
“Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain,” said Helen Keller.
Or, as Nietzsche said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
I knew my why: to help other people who suffer from the same kind of death thoughts, the same sort of treatment-resistant depression.
In that moment, I felt immense relief.
From the pressure to feel joy.
From the pursuit of happiness.
From the chase of perfect health.
A few weeks later I pulled from my bookshelf Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I figured that a man who survived the Holocaust could teach me how to live, possibly even thrive, in the midst of death thoughts. There was my answer: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him amble opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
What Frankl calls logotherapy — identifying and attaching yourself to a deeper meaning or purpose — has provided me with a peace that is larger than the death thoughts, bigger than the most severe panic attack or afternoon within a psych ward.
It allows room for both misery and joy.
Most days still feel like a 4.4 mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay, and for that reason, I look forward to finally resting with God. As I’ve said in other places, the hardest thing for me to do in this life will always be to resist the urge to take my life. I am no longer ashamed to express that publicly. However, I have found a peace that sustains me through both misery and joy, an equanimity that makes room for misery and makes room for joy.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.