The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality . . . – Andrew Solomon
This past summer my husband, Dave, who’s a horticulturalist with a passion for public gardens, was offered a really cool job at a really cool public garden outside of Atlanta, GA. It was an opportunity too good to refuse. So, we decided to pack up and move. A few weeks later, while in the midst of acquiring packing boxes from liquor stores, researching the ins and outs of putting our house on the market, trying to figure out our temporary living situation in Georgia, and researching schools for our 5-year-old, I found out I was pregnant. Holy freaking surprise, Batman!
After my initial shock wore off, I decided to have a little fun at Dave’s expense. So, I placed the positive pregnancy test in a bakery bag that had once held a jumbo cookie. When Dave got home later that day, I nonchalantly handed it to him all, Look! I got you a cookie, because I’m awesome like that. He eagerly opened the bag, peeked in, closed it and said, “This. Is not. A cookie.” An excellent observation on his part. Nope. It was not a cookie. And thus we began, not one big life transition, but two.
Here’s the thing about life transitions: No matter how great they are, they can still totally screw with your mental health, especially if you are me. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I stopped taking my mental health meds — one medication for ADD and one for depression — because that’s what doctors tell you to do when you get pregnant. That’s what I did during my first pregnancy, and thanks to all the crazy hormones, I made it through just fine. But this time my brain went, “LOL! You thought you could go off meds and completely uproot your life while undergoing the physical and emotional changes of being pregnant? You thought you could do this without some kind of mental health comeuppance? Oh, and by the way, aren’t you still grieving your mother’s death? Bless. Your. Heart.”
I’m fairly good at reading my own mental health temperature, and long about September, I could feel it coming on — the depression. Ugh! But I still had seven months of pregnancy to go, and I really wanted to muscle through it without medication. I tried to accomplish this with exercise. I did lots of walking and hiking, which helps, but has never been a mental health cure-all for me. The depression refused to be muscled out, and by October it was in full swing.
As I talk about depression here, I’m going to use a lot of “I statements” to describe my personal experience, because I think each person who suffers from depression experiences it differently. We are all individuals after all, each with different life circumstances.
When I talk to people who have never experienced depression, they seem to think it is something akin to deep sadness. However, that’s not how I would describe it. The Andrew Solomon quotation above really resonates with me: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.” To me, depression feels like a cold, wet blanket has been thrown over my brain. There’s a heaviness and a slowness to everything, as if my mind is mired waist-deep in mud while trying to run a race. The simplest tasks feel like climbing Mt. Everest. I will look at something like a pile of laundry and not know how to proceed with it. My brain literally won’t tell me where or how to begin the task. This kind of thing usually starts me down the path of mental self-flagellation. After all, everybody else in the world can perform simple tasks like folding laundry. It’s not rocket science. Ergo, I must be the dumbest most worthless person in the world.
When I’m depressed I can’t write. I can barely string a coherent thought together. When I’m depressed it’s extremely hard to return phone calls and emails. Heck, I can barely feed myself because figuring out how to make a meal is too complicated. You can imagine how all of this plays into the crucible of guilt that is already part and parcel of parenthood. “Mommy can’t do anything for you right now, sweetheart, because her brain is broken.”
When I’m depressed I don’t feel enthusiastic or excited about anything, which leads to a feeling of hopelessness and a warped sense of time. That dark tunnel feels eternal. It has no beginning and no end. Time stops. No other reality exists. Depression is all there is in my world, and depression is hell.
I’m really fortunate, however, because in my family and circle of friends mental illness and depression are not taboo. I have a history of mental illness on both sides of my family. So, growing up, I was taught that having a psychiatrist or a therapist was like having a general practitioner — just a smart, practical way of being proactive about your health. In my family, if you need medicine for something like strep-throat, you take medicine. If you need medicine for something like ADD or depression, you take medicine. You do this under the care and supervision of a doctor, of course. Thank you Jesus for modern medicine!
A phrase I hear and see a lot in the media is this one: America is over-medicated. It’s often thrown around with the implication that people should be able to grin and bear it when it comes to mental illness. Get out there and exercise! Try changing your diet! Meditate! Go to church! Have more faith! Concentrate on your blessings! Think about starving people in the third world, and quit your whining. Again, I acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different, and maybe those things work for some people. However, it’s a phrase that irks me, because it carries a certain weight of shame for those of us whose quality of life is dependent on medication. I’ve tried at various points in my life to go off medication only to slip right back into the living hell of depression, which is completely debilitating. With medication, I get to be Neely and do all the great things that entails. I will probably always need medication to control my depression, and that’s okay.
The other thing I hear floating around in conversations about mental illness is that my generation is the most depressed, mentally ill generation there has ever been. This statistic is often delivered with a smidgeon of condescension, as if our devil music, crazy new technology, and postmodern morals are to blame. Personally, I don’t think my generation is any more depressed or mentally ill than past generations. I think what’s happening is that mental illness is finally becoming less taboo. So more people are being open about it. Medication and treatment are better than they’ve ever been, which doesn’t mean the mental heath care system isn’t a terrible mess. It is, and it needs to get better and better and better. But these days, more people come forward to get treatment than ever before, while past generations of people with mental illness suffered in silence because one simply didn’t speak of such things. Many a family, including mine, has a story about Great Aunt So-and-so who quietly hanged herself in the barn, or “accidentally” took too much laudanum. No one quite knows why she did it, but it’s shameful to speak of. So, let’s pack that skeleton away in the closet and keep it quiet, okay? Okay.
I am extremely fortunate to have a supportive spouse who can tell when I’m getting depressed and say, “Hey, I think you’re slipping into depression. Time to check in with your psychiatrist and see if you need to adjust your medication or something.” And, “What have you eaten today?” And, “We’re a team, remember? Right now I can take extra good care of our child and things around the house until you are better.” Talk about Grace and glimpsing God! Dave Simpson, for the win!
So in November I finally had a conversation with my OB about getting back on medication for depression even though I’d hoped to make it through this pregnancy without it. With my doctor’s guidance, I was able to safely do so. He gave me a little speech about how brave I was to ask for help when I needed it. At the time, I thought the speech was weird. After all, I would talk to him about medication or treatment for any other ailment I was experiencing. I’m the mother of an extremely active 5-year-old, and I was trying to settle my family in a new place. I needed to function. I wasn’t being brave, just practical. Thinking back on it, however, I realize his speech is evidence of just how taboo mental illness still is. For another woman it might have been a very brave thing about which to come forward. Especially a pregnant woman who, according to society, is supposed to be glowing and euphoric.
I am exceedingly aware of how lucky I am. Not everyone has such supportive family and friends. Not everyone has a flexible work schedule that will allow them to take care of themselves when they need to. Not everyone has access to good mental health care. I wish I could wave a magic wand and change all that. The best I can do for now is to be open and say, “You have a mental illness? Hey, me too. And it doesn’t mean that you are lazy or don’t have enough faith or gratitude or strength or smarts or whatever. It’s an illness not a depravity.”
And about my surprise pregnancy: We’re really excited about it. We’re good at welcoming the unexpected, and in about six weeks we will welcome our second daughter to the world.
“You know it’s very likely that your daughters will also suffer from some kind of mental illness,” my OB said during our conversation.
“Yes, I know,” I said, “but in our family mental illness isn’t taboo. My daughters will be taught to take care of their mental health without shame and to do so just as diligently as they take care of their physical health.” With love and support, we will meet the challenges that lie ahead, together.
Further notes on depression:
Because I’m pretty open about my depression, I’ve had friends call me to say, “I think I’m depressed. I need help now, but I called all of my local psychiatrists and therapists, and they all have waiting lists. I can’t get an appointment for another two months. What do I do?”
Set up an appointment with your general practitioner (primary healthcare provider). That can be your first step. They can get you the help you need until you can come under the care of a psychiatrist. If you don’t have a general practitioner, go to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room. Use Google to find out if there’s a community mental health center near you. In an emergency call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
Check out http://www.nami.org (National Alliance on Mental Illness). They can be a great place to find local resources.