Let me tell you right away that I am uncomfortable recounting my experience with depression. Not because it’s painful to talk about (though it is), but because I created this web page about depression to help other people, not to go on and on about myself. However, I can’t forget how illuminating William Styron’s account of his depression in Darkness Visible was to me before I was diagnosed and treated for depression. It really was the book that made me recognize my illness and therefore led me to seek professional help. Since Styron is so much more eloquent than I could ever be, I urge you to read his book. If nothing else, it will help you explain your illness to other people, if you have it, or help you to understand a loved one’s pain if you are close to someone who suffers from the “black dog”, as Churchill called it. If you are interested in my story, read on. You may recognize yourself or someone else in it.
My parents divorced when I was two, and I essentially lost my father. My mother and my sister and I moved across the country to live with my grandparents, and I only saw my father every few years when I was growing up. My mom remarried when I was almost four to the wonderful man I consider my real father, and who has been there for us one hundred percent ever since. However, the loss of my biological father had profound effects on my personality. Many people who suffer depression lose a parent early in life, either to death, divorce or abandonment. I don’t know if I would have suffered from depression without that early loss; perhaps my depression is wholly chemical. I do know that the only picture of me as a child which shows me laughing was taken before my father left. Every picture taken afterward shows a solemn child who smiles only diffidently.
I was a painfully shy child. I had very few friends, was terrified of talking to strangers or a group of people, and was careful never to draw attention to myself. I was afraid that if I was the center of attention, I would look stupid or do something wrong. It’s likely that as a child, I thought my father’s leaving was due to my behaving badly or doing something wrong, so I was always afraid of doing that again, and making my mother leave. I sought refuge in reading, confident that in books I could never say or do the wrong thing. That served to cut me off even more from the rest of the world.
As a teenager I was moody and self-absorbed. Of course, that’s considered to be common for teenagers, so my behavior was written off as normal. Unfortunately, I also had no interest in school, sports, clubs, etc. Part of it was the fog that was beginning to descend over my mind from time to time and part of it was a fear of failing in anything new. The only time I felt good about myself was when a boy was chasing after me. Of course the flip side of that was that a rejection from a boy I was interested in sent me into a black mood, unable to do anything but cry. Occasionally I thought of going to a psychiatrist and saying, “help me” but in that scenario I also saw rejection. I pictured the doctor saying, “There’s nothing wrong with you – why are you wasting my time when I could be seeing people who really have problems?”
My college years for the most part were relatively free of depression. I was much more social, and with the exception of being expelled for one semester due to a lack of interest in my classes, I was more motivated academically. Until what I think of as the “black hole time” – what was probably my first major depression. I was in my last semester of school, worrying about finding a job in time so that I could stay in Boston with my boyfriend, and panicking over the prospect of being entirely on my own. The semester before I had been raped by a male friend, and this may have been a trigger. My moodiness got worse and worse, and I was constantly fighting with my boyfriend, through no fault of his. In my mind, I vividly saw myself teetering on the edge of a bottomless black hole. I felt that if I fell in, I would never stop falling. In desperation I went to the walk-in clinic of a local hospital and told the doctor that I thought I had very bad PMS. I described my symptoms, and he told me to keep a record of my moods. I promised to do so, but I was in no shape to follow through. I could barely get my schoolwork done, and certainly didn’t have the energy to keep a log on top of that. I found out years later that he had made a notation concerning possible depression in my file, and that he would follow up with me. He didn’t get in touch with me again, probably because I graduated a few weeks later.
The next few years I went in and out of major and minor depressive episodes, although I didn’t recognize either for what they were. I remember a few periods of doing nothing but dragging myself to work and, in my free time, reading romance novels. My roommates would try to coax me into going out and bar-hopping (which I normally loved), but I just didn’t feel like it.
In the summer of 1990, as I’ve said, I read Styron’s Darkness Visible. As I read it, I kept saying to myself, “This is me; I’ve been feeling all of this.” However, I still hesitated to see a psychiatrist. Not that I wasn’t seeing a doctor. I was overwhelming my family doctor with visit after visit, sure that I had this disease or that ailment. I think I was in his office every two weeks on average that year. My hypochondria wasn’t the only problem, though. My memory and concentration, which had always been excellent, were completely shot. I couldn’t retain anything I read. I lay in bed every morning trying to think of a reason to get up and go to work. When I wasn’t at work, the only thing I had the energy to do was watch TV.
I had been dating a man for a year who not only was depressed himself, but was an alcoholic. I had been pressuring him to make some sort of commitment to me, without understanding why it was so important to me. Finally, the morning after a particularly nasty argument, as I lay in bed, the sound of his car driving off made me crack. I started screaming and couldn’t stop until I was hoarse. Shaken, I called my family doctor and asked for the name of a good psychiatrist. I saw the head of psychiatry at the local hospital a few days later. I remember sitting in his office twisting my hands together in my lap as he asked me about my family history and my symptoms. At the end of the hour he told me he thought that they could help me (the most beautiful words I could remember ever hearing) and that he would set me up with a therapist and a psychiatrist at the hospital’s mental health clinic. He also mentioned that they might want me to go on medication, an idea which I negated immediately. I had hated taking medication since I was put on tranquilizers for migraines when I was a teenager.
The next few weeks, which were at Christmas time, were horrendous. I went to a dear friend’s wedding, but was only able to endure half an hour of the reception before escaping, crying on the drive home. I kept ahold of myself all Christmas Day, but started crying hysterically as soon as I left my parent’s house, and cried all the way home. Things got slightly better after the holidays, and I was going to therapy once a week. I was gaining insight into what made me tick, which was helping me to a great extent in my relationships. However, it was not alleviating what was steadily growing into a shrieking storm inside my head. In early spring I sat in my bedroom and decided that if this was the kind of pain I was going to live with for the next fifty years, then life would hold absolutely no appeal for me. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t thinking of suicide, but I’m sure it would only have been a matter of time before I sought that relief. I told my psychiatrist that I was ready to try whatever medication they wanted to give me. He put me on Norpramin, which is a type of antidepressant. The side effects (dry mouth, shaking hands, dizziness in the morning) were unpleasant, but I was determined to stick it out for the six weeks they told me it would take for the medicine to take effect. This was my only chance at having my life back.
Not only did I get my life back, I got a new life. At first I noticed only that the noise in my head was fading, and I was beginning to take an interest in things going on around me again. But as the weeks went on, a whole new personality emerged. Instead of the classic clothes in smoky colors I had always worn, I now was gravitating toward flashy clothes in bright colors. Now I wanted to draw attention to myself – I loved it! I, who had always been so shy, was now smiling at strangers and eagerly entering into conversation with them. I was suddenly interested in everything: food, clothes, science, sports, history, etc. Not only did I have a thirst for knowledge, but I also had the energy to follow through on it. I read voraciously, but for the first time I wasn’t trying to escape into a make-believe world; I was fascinated by the one I inhabited.
I felt that for the first time in my life, my “real” personality had emerged. Going on the medication did so much more than I expected. The only thing that marred this rebirth was the thought that I had wasted so many years living in the fog of depression. I mourn all the years lost, all the opportunities missed, and all the friends that I had alienated. If I had understood more about this illness, if there weren’t so many misconceptions about it, I probably would have gone to a doctor years before.
Now, over twenty years later, the only time my depression has come back has been when I’ve gone off my medication or the level of medication in my blood has become too low, or when I’ve taken certain generic antidepressants. I have high and low moods like everyone else, but the low moods are always of short duration, a day or so, and always in reaction to something negative or stressful happening in my life. In other words, my moods are normal.
I’m begging you, if you think you have depression, get help. Although it’s true that not every case is as successful as mine, around 80% of people who have depression can be helped. I’m not advocating medication for everyone. I have a friend whose outlook on life has been changed by psychotherapy as much as mine has been changed by the combination of medication and psychotherapy. Every case is different. Your best bet is to educate yourself as much as possible about this illness in addition to seeking professional help. Depression is a terrible, soul-stealing illness. I don’t know if we will ever be able to eradicate it, but from my own experience I know that the tools to defeat it are there. You owe it to yourself to give those tools the chance to rescue you from the pain and emptiness of depression.