Depression became my constant companion early, about age 8. I suppose I had as dysfunctional a family as most, although children are often not aware of the level of dysfunction till much later. Then they realize much of what goes on in life is predicated by their childhood. I’m not seeking to place blame on anyone. Depression happens.
By age 12, I knew something was wrong and thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough to get Daddy’s approval. He was a difficult man to please. But trying harder only led to more disappointments and those binding elements of worthlessness and hopelessness that set depression in cement shoes and throw you overboard. I was on my way down and had no idea what to do.
At 16, I took an antidepressant (Tofranil) for the first time. It helped for the few months I took it, but I didn’t know how to convey to my doctor or others the real despair that had submerged my life. Suicidal thoughts became the norm. During these early and teenage years, did I do anything to combat these horrible low times? I wrote poetry but rarely let anyone read it. I painted grotesque masks that no one else realized were really self-portraits. While these exercises in self-expression helped to a degree, they of course did little to solve the problem. My mother kept saying, “But you can write such beautiful poetry — why write something like this? And, “Honey, you do such lovely artwork — why these horrid things that no one would ever want hanging in her house?” Much art is not meant to merely hang on the living room wall. It is a picture of the artist’s soul and must be appreciated as such. I went on to get a degree in art. And met my husband in college.
As it turned out, Tim was beset by stranger demons than my own — cross-dressing, pornography, and all the characteristics of a mastermind control freak. I hit an all time low after 13 years of putting up with his problems. I was suicidal again…and homicidal. I ended up in the hospital many times and finally lost my marriage (with ensuing loneliness), my job, my house, my car, and my independence.
For several years, I lived with my parents and tried one low-wage job after another, failing time after time. Depression almost dragged me all the way under . But my psychiatrist helped me apply and get approval for Social Security Disability Income. A chance at last to regain my independence. My own apartment.
I must say at this point that I was not idle. Yes, stymied at times, sleeping in my clothes, neglecting basic hygiene, gaining weight, unsuccessful at finding an antidepressant or mood stabilizer that worked. But I decided to start doing something. Once again, I turned to writing. This time, it was a journal that kept me occupied and focused. A key for me in journal writing was to simply go with whatever was on my mind that day — childhood memories, adult experiences of sexual abuse, aspirations, feelings of the moment, etc. Cataloging all these things helped me learn to separate the positive from the negative. Depression had lumped everything together. I began to see there were good moments among the bad.
Of course, I had a personal therapist, was on meds prescribed by a psychiatrist, tried ECT, attended inpatient and outpatient mood disorder group therapies and tried all the usual courses of action. But to ever get beyond the immediate mood, I had to step forward and do difficult things. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to be with people. But I had been raised to believe that helping others is necessary to achieving any happiness in life. So volunteer work 4-5 times a month was added to my routine. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to be around anyone, especially those who were needy in any way. But their neediness made evident the things I had to be thankful for. I had a bed, a warm coat, a loved one who was still healthy, food, family, money, and a spiritual foundation.
Now, before I say anything else, let me add that each person must find his own path to recovery. Volunteer work may not do it for you, medication may not do it for you, mindfulness may seem like malarky. But you have to try all the options in order to know what does work for you.
So along with volunteering, medication, therapy and keeping a journal, I added exercise for just 15 minutes every morning. Something calculated to help my foggy brain and body wake up. I started saying “no” to things that made me uncomfortable (a key element to my recovery) like social events/parties. It was okay for me to have recuperation time. I began to help my mother with housework. I did things for fun, like watching my favorite TV shows and reading true crime novels. I stopped trying so hard to please everyone else. I began instead to appreciate myself for who I was and what I did for others.
One other strategy I advise — educate yourself about depression without becoming infatuated with it. Read about the medications so you can make informed decisions. Read blogs by those who have recovered so that you can chart your own path. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you when it comes to making commitments. Be willing to employ Tai Chi, mindfulness, hypnosis, nature hikes, running half-marathons, hospitalization when necessary, dancing, music, whatever helps you. And do something on a daily basis that might move you toward recovery.
It is almost never easy to recover. But I have had a pleasant after-effect: I’m a better person for having gone through it. I have plumbed the depths of my soul and found strength and much courage. I have traveled to the edge of suicide more than once only to return with more compassion. I have lost friends to the battle and have learned to cherish my time on earth. That may sound trite but is the honest truth.
One last caveat. For me, ECT did not work. I had to try many different mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics before finding the right mix for me: Saphris, Trazodone, Wellbutrin, Zoloft and Klonopin. And I may (with gratitude) take them the rest of my life. For me, finding God was also a key component. Helping others has lifted my own spirits and increased my sense of self-worth. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, grounding, and progressive muscle relaxation allow me to get a good night’s sleep. I try to eat a healthy diet. All the things you think might work. Some will and some won’t. But I will say that on “the other side” of depression is a life worth working towards.
About the Author: Donna-1 is a frequent contributor and active community member at My Depression Connection. In addition to her own blogging there, much of her writing can be found in the form of moving and insightful comments on dozens of posts, including many of my own. Also a gifted painter, she has provided the image attached to this post. She spends a lot of time encouraging people who have mental illness, and pursues her interests in writing poetry, painting and drawing, reading the Bible, and watching TV.