Monday, September 12, 2011

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I’m depressed. Not as in I’ve-gained-five-pounds-depressed or my-favorite-TV-show-got-cancelled-depressed but depressed as in there’s-not-enough-dopamine-or-serotonin-or-whatver-goddamned-chemical-my-brain-is-lacking-depressed.

I come from a long line of depressed people, grim French Catholics on my father’s side and sad destitute Romanians on my mother’s. My father, it seems, had his issues with depression. He died when I was barely an adult so I can only put the pieces together and come up with a theory. My mother was no mystery. She was depressed her whole life, more and more as she aged. By the time my father fell ill, she was having breakdowns. When he died she was catatonic. Ironically, as the Alzheimers has progressed, the depression has waned. She has forgotten to worry. There’s a clinical connection between depression and Alzheimers, however. I think of it as the depression wearing grooves in the brain, sad obsessive thoughts forging pathways and burning them out. Not such a cheery future to imagine for myself. More reason, in fact, to be depressed.

I’ve struggled with low-grade depression my entire life. I’ve been on an antidepressant for the last few years. I went on it when my mother was diagnosed and I could barely leave the house I was so overwhelmed. The medication helped. A lot. Within a week I was waking up every morning optimistic. I no longer had to massage my mood with caffeine, chocolate and exercise. I was just even. I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to have a normal brain.”

For the last year or maybe even two, the medication hasn’t been very effective. I haven’t been deeply depressed but I haven’t been reliably even-keeled either. Instead of increasing my dosage, I decided to come off the medication. For the last three months, I’ve been on a slow and careful wean. This medication particularly can have nasty withdrawal symptoms. Like, ha ha, depression.

The summer was fine but the last couple weeks have gotten rough. Environmental factors have tested me – the stress of the kids starting school, the change of season (my father fell terminally ill in autumn), Ben leaving for ten days, even the anniversary of 9/11. My chemicals have shifted. I move in a fog. My brain isn’t sharp, decisions are difficult. I’m forgetful. I’m filled with dread. It is like a perpetually overcast day in my head.

This depression probably isn’t my own depression. It’s probably the drug leaving my system. Over the next couple months, I will probably bounce back. But that doesn’t mean this doesn’t suck. When I’m depressed I have no perspective. It seems that I will always feel this way.

I’ve told an awful lot of people about my current dilemma. Hell, I’m writing about it here. I spent years pleading with my suicidal mother to get treatment, trying to reason with her that if she had heart disease or cancer she’d seek a doctor’s help, that just because this disease of depression is mental, emotional, doesn’t mean it’s not real. I refused to be ashamed. Sometimes when I joke with new friends that I can’t drink hard alcohol because it disagrees with my antidepressant, I feel their discomfort. But damn it, my depression is a part of me. This struggle is life-long. I’m going to talk about it. Because to do otherwise is to deny a part of myself, to hide, to cower. If I do that, I’m afraid, it’ll eat me alive.

I’ve been drinking green juice, eating raw cacao, sweating it out on runs and in yoga classes. At some point in the class, this particular teacher always says, now is when you can leave something on the mat, something you’ve been carrying with you. I want to lie there and sob. Because I’m not certain I can leave this sadness behind. It’s part of my biology, it’s entwined in my DNA.

I’m parenting alone right now. Here again, I’m treading carefully. I know what it’s like to have a mother who’s depressed. I don’t want that for my kids. But, in fact, at the moment they have a mother who’s depressed. In my hours away from them, I do everything I can to fill my tank. In the hours I’m with them, I try to schedule group activities, mother’s helpers. Yesterday I got desperate and took them to “The Smurfs”. Anything’s better than trapping us all alone in the house with my despondency.

I’m putting one foot in front of the other, walking myself and these kids out of this valley and back to the hilltop. At least I hope that’s where we’re going.


  1. Liz, thank you for this. As that yoga teacher—who is trying to leave a LOT on the mat these days—I should clarify. Owning all of ourselves, even our fallible, human, dark, weak, less-than-effin-perfect parts, is essential to healing. Or so I've read of late. Perhaps we are invited to leave on the mat, through our practice, the suffering caused thereby (whether from within or without) ... if only for 75 - 90 minutes. Because as his Holiness the DL tells us, suffering is here to stay. It's how we hold each other together that counts. I'm so proud of you for this post. You are a gift. All of you! And brave. I hope you feel supported and unconditionally loved while—as one friend recently said to me—you walk backwards in the snow, in very heavy boots. You're not alone. With gratitude, xoxo

  2. Thank you for posting this, it's very courageous to talk about any form of mental illness. As I've always said, the more we talk about it and own it, the less stigma will be associated with it and the more healing that can happen. I hope you feel better soon!

  3. Fall is always really tough for me. The daylight receding like a spent wave -- leaving a beautiful smooth stillness that echoes with loss. This without even any actual loss to be reminded of. I love the season more than any other -- particularly the crisp clean of the Bay Area -- but it is also my most dangerous time. So, perhaps you are not alone. In my eyes the season itself is sufficient reason for what you describe (of course compounded by everything else). As ineluctable as the fog. By the same token -- it seems like you've figured it out. In action lies some salvation. "Show it, feel it" -- keeping up appearances is more than just that. There's no dishonesty or shame in it. Fill the tank. Focus outwardly. Become shallow for a while. This, too, shall pass...