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.
I’m back 2 yrs later to comment once again on my story as Donna-1. Change cannot be denied. Change is how our universe has unfolded, how we have evolved, and eventually how all will end. I am no longer on the lower wavelengths of depression. I now have episodes of depression lasting from a few hours to a couple of days. Not years when it never lifts. I still believe my mood set point is lower than average. My average, in other words, still retains some qualities of low mood, e.g., lack of joy, flat affect, lack of motivation.
Faith in a god or any system of religion are not part of my life. I feel certain this is permanent. I was raised in a family and tradition of strong faith and strict adherence to religious practices. It met a need. Now, contentment comes from nature and friendships and faith is not something I need to defend in myself or question in others.
I take care of myself as best I can. But most of all I stay away from the pitfalls of self-debate and self-doubt. I say “no” much more often to everything stressful. I don’t need to explain my choices or my moods and allow others to do the same. I don’t deny myself the dreams that will never come true, I engage in creativity whenever possible, and I keep returning the past to the past.
Hi Donna and John,
My name is Denise and I’m starting a mental health blog, particularly about PTSD but I’ve made it more general. To help those suffering from depression, anxiety, etc. Donna, I would love to include your story in one of my blog postings. Please let me know if you would like that. Absolutely no pressure at all.
Hi, Denise. I just ran across your request. I give you full permission to use my story in your blog.
As author of this personal story, I must add that over the years my perspective shifts and my memories grow more vague. What I thought I was sure about then is affected by additional experience and observation. Even what I wrote above a few years ago now seems affected and superficial and not at all what I would like to say if given another chance.
If you want to tell your own story, the best advice I can give is to make sure it is entirely yours. Stay true to your gut feelings, refuse to tailor the essence to fit the mold of a particular website or philosophy or critic. If you are unsure of what happened or why you chose a certain treatment option, don’t be afraid to say so. Your story may be experienced, recognized, put into words and even reformulated as your distance from and and understanding of it increase. Every event in history is rewritten over time, including the events in your own life. This is part of what it means to be alive.
Jim L says
Like others I’ve related to your story, even some of the medications. The ECT is something that haven’t experienced and don’t desire it. The side effect of memory loss scares me since it is already bad.
I’ve written a booklet called “Pocket Your Anxiety” that tells my story of depression and anxiety and how I’ve been coping with it. I just had some new author friends review it and go through an editing process. Wow, it was tough receiving positive and negative criticism about such a sensitive part of my life. Most of the team had gone through some flavor of depression, so that helped, those that didn’t were not so compassionate.
I encourage you to keep writing, painting and being creative.
Here’s to your many ripples of blessing others you touch… Jim L
Donna, thanks for telling your story here. I found a few similarities between your story and my own. Depression has dogged me for a long time and it’s hard to pinpoint just when it began when you grow up in an unhappy and dysfunctional family; I always felt “normal”, but there was a side of me that made me think I was “different”. In fact, as time and life taught me, I wasn’t so different at all. It turned out that my best friends had their own struggles but in those days we didn’t share our secrets. Of all my high school friends, two had an alcoholic parent, one’s mother was divorced and was hardly ever home with Brenda my pal, another friend was abused by her stepfather, and another friend had an abusive mother. Another friend had memories of abuse and began cutting herself in her 40’s after a divorce and her mom’s death. In the days when I was a teen, we didn’t dare talk about our own or a family member’s mental illness. I had a very domineering mother and a schizophrenic older brother. Both physically and emotionally abused me. But I have survived all the bad memories, and am able to see the good times, the joy, and the happiness. All in all, I’ve had a good life. Even tho’ I’m not in the best circumstances at the moment, I know things will get better as they always do, and there will always be brighter days ahead. Sending positive thoughts to you.
Thank you for sharing your story. I was frightened to speak of my depression and suicidal thoughts. Then I met people like yourself with the unselfish gift of sharing. Suddenly my cloistered life became extremely public and freeing.
Donna, thanks for sharing your story with us. Everything you say is right on – you have to keep on trying. Love the artwork, too! Your pictures are beautiful.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Judy –
Thanks for dropping by. I look forward to any comments you’d like to contribute. They’re always helpful.