Nancy Foster, First Lady of Long Beach, Shares Her Story.

By Nancy Foster, Special to the Press-Telegram

Image: Simplon Pass: Reading by John Singer Sargent
Reading by John Singer Sargent

Being married to the mayor offers a marvelous opportunity to be the voice for mental illness in Long Beach, the 5th biggest city in California! Our city has embraced my story since I came out in November of 2006.

One person can make a difference and others are sharing their stories as well and getting help. It’s important for people to realize that a public figure is being open…it made a huge difference in our city…amazing response and still people are thanking me today 2010.

There is hope.

My depression actually started taking hold with a chemical imbalance. It was about two months after our second son, James, was born that my body started playing tricks on me.

First, my over-active thyroid was treated, but the anxiety continued and I would have spells of severe depression and feeling as if I were in a fog.

My mind would always give me a warning to be on the alert as I would start getting negative thoughts and bad feelings. This would gradually get worse until the depression set in. I would wake up in the morning with this horrible feeling. I wouldn’t want to open my eyes because I knew what was waiting for me: depression.

Depression is the ugly duckling. I have had spells in my life when the physical and mental pain of depression has consumed me. That’s what makes it so horrible. As hard as you try to get it out of your mind, it hangs inside of you and suffocates your life.

It also suffocates the lives of those around you, the people you love.

During my spells of depression, I would hide in my home. Some days would seem to go on forever. Daily chores became tremendous tasks. Easy decisions became monumental and impossible to make. Luckily, as the years have passed, I have lost touch of the oppressive feelings of depression.

Still, I have felt the hurt of the world inside of me. I hurt for people who are suffering because their lives are so difficult. Is it me hurting for them, or me realizing their hurt because of the awful depression that had been laid on my life for so many years?

The gift that depression has given me is to feel a genuine compassion for others. I have to look at the positive side of depression. I have to open up to people about my depression and bipolar disorder.

I vividly remember watching Jane Pauley on the “Today” show and wishing I could be normal, smart and enjoying life as she was doing. Years later, Jane came out with a book talking about her struggles with depression.

I realized that I had admired a lady who also had the same problem as I. Saying this, I hope, will also be of help to others.

Now, I haven’t read Jane’s book, but I can imagine what she has written. She has known the horror of depression, the mental anguish.

Depression makes you look at yourself with a keen eye. It’s a destructive eye that doesn’t do a person any favors or give one any hint of being of more value. With depression, my mind magnified each moment and endorsed my negative thoughts and feelings. I was locked in by depression at times and it was a struggle. I never showed this ugliness to others in the world, but it was shown to my family.

I was trying to take care of daily duties of caring for my family and at the same time dealing with feeling horrible and looking for a solution. At times, it was just too overwhelming.

I remember one day when my mental pain was so horrendous and I questioned if I could live a lifetime feeling like this. I really had to think about it long and hard. The idea of how I would end my life occurred to me. I realized my two boys, Kenny and James, needed me to be there for them. Days that were so difficult, the voice of their needing me always rang in my ears.

They saved my life and I knew it would be wrong to leave them.

Panic, anxiety

Panic disorder usually comes into play with depression. Wow! What a combination. Depression comes when you feel physically miserable, and makes you feel worthless. Then panic disorder comes in for the final blow and makes you feel frightened, as if you were dying.

It’s not a nice combination. I lived with severe anxiety, and it was frightening. I remember being at a grocery store and leaving a half-full cart of food as I couldn’t handle being in the store any longer. This type of anxiety can take over your life.

A couple of times, I drove my children to the store and gave them money so they could shop for groceries while I waited safely in the car. Both my sons remember this clearly and have mentioned it to me from time to time.

I remember also when I did shop for groceries and was standing in line. I would panic because I was now sandwiched. What would I do if it got so difficult that I needed to bolt and get out of the store. I was stuck.

There are times that people with panic disorder have to really manage their minds and try to distract themselves to make the time pass. With each occasion, however, comes the reinforcement of anxiety, and that’s a battle to overcome.

When I did shop for groceries, I would shop with the intention of loading up with food just in case times became tough again and it would be difficult to venture out to the market. What a great feeling to come home with lots of food and be prepared just in case.

It was always just in case, and what if I am feeling horrible or anxious and how will I manage my home or how will it be when I am with people. Somehow, I did manage, although it was difficult.

There is one day that has stayed with me. When the children were very young and I had to take my younger son, James, for his first pair of prescription shoes that needed special sizing. I made the appointment. It was important to his health and had to be done. I had cancelled it once so I had to go forward with the appointment.

I remember driving and having a feeling of being off balance, along with severe anxiety. It was hard getting the kids to the doctor that day, but I got it done and it was a huge relief. This day enters my mind time and time again.

Psychiatric help

Doctors would ask, “Are you depressed?” I would always reply, “No, I am not depressed. I just don’t feel well.”

Years later, I realized that I didn’t feel well because I was depressed. I remember the doctors and nurses telling me, “You look great.” My response always was to just put (an imaginary) bag over my head and forget how I looked.

Somehow, I always made sure that I put on my makeup and looked my best. It was my way of hiding my depression and the fact that I had a problem. My thinking was that only weak people have depression.

Pity is the last thing I wanted, and I didn’t wish to open myself up to pity in any form. I was good at hiding when I was struggling with depression.

When depression was severe, however, I wouldn’t see a doctor. It was hard to even be with myself, let alone venture out to see a doctor. I didn’t feel well and my mental state was painful. I was ashamed of the way that I felt and I knew others didn’t feel this way.

No doctor ever said to me, “Nancy, I believe you are suffering with depression.” In the late 1970s, there were articles in magazines on depression, and I started seeing the similarities in myself. I ended up diagnosing myself and saw a psychiatrist.

He was a nice, gentle doctor and he suggested I read a think book, “From Sad to Glad” by Nathan Kline, M.A. He told me I would see the same similarities in this book, and that I would be able to recognize if I had the problem of depression.

It was true. The book gave me hope. It became my friend and I read parts of it over many times.

Calm at last

I remember it was a Sunday, after being on medication for three weeks, a feeling of leveling out had come over me, a feeling of peacefulness.

This was an emotional day, one I will never forget. The tears flowed uncontrollably as if all the years of pain were flooding out of my body. It hurt badly, but at the same time was extremely cathartic.

My depression had started at age 24, and on that special Sunday, I was 35 years old. Slowly my many years of hurting and playing the game of being “normal” became a thing of the past. Gradually, I was feeling better. I was able to cope and enjoy life without the severe bouts of depression, anxiety and spells of extreme energy, the manic phases of bipolar disorder.

Luckily for me, the manic phases have not been too destructive as is the case with some people. What makes an extreme energetic time hazardous is when it falls quickly into a spell of depression. What goes up must come down. Basically, that is what bipolar disorder is all about, and that is why medication is so important. It keeps the disorder in balance.

As time passed, I came to realize that I married a wonderful man, and that it was challenging for him not knowing if I was having a good day. This can be like walking on eggshells.

My children also had a mom who was not reliable at times and made promises she could not keep. I know they understand it was not for lack of love that these promises were broken. And I can enjoy my grandchildren, Taylor, 8, Bobby, 6, and Ryan, 3.

As you can see, bipolar and depression not only affect the person, but the entire family.

It’s important for those who have mental illness to realize, too, that they must stay on their medication. Absence of depression doesn’t signal that it’s time to stop with the meds.

One needs to keep taking their medicine to keep their mind in harmony and their life in harmony as well. It’s the same with a diabetic who takes his/her daily insulin to keep blood sugar in balance.

I end my day with a prayer: Thank God, for today. It was a good day.

With all the ups and downs of life, I can say that I am feeling life as it should be felt, and for this I am grateful.

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