A matter of survival

A matter of survival

‘I don’t talk much about depression and rarely write about it, but it exists as a shadow presence in my life, a current below the bright surface’

BRATTLEBORO — Stunned at the news of Robin Williams' suicide, I drove to teach yoga last week through leafy late-summer mist, half numb with sadness, amazed at my own survival.

In 2002 and 2003, I, too, was suicidal, caught in a downward spiral of severe depression, anxiety, and chronic pain that would not relent.

I'd struggled with brief cyclical depression since high school, but this was something different.

The symptoms were acutely physical, not just ambient melancholy, self-doubt, or negativity. This time, I could not eat, could not sleep, could not stop crying. Tortured by insomnia and crippled by racing, anxious thoughts, I longed to be free of my existence.

* * *

In hindsight, the depression could be viewed as an aspect of my Saturn Returns, that dark, heavy planet crossing my chart in my late 20s.

In hindsight, it became clear that I shouldn't have left my home, my dog, my friends, my job in northern Vermont and followed my beautiful new boyfriend to Long Beach, Calif. I probably shouldn't have taken a leave of absence from the poetry MFA program that had shaped my creative life for two years and given me a community of writing mentors and friends.

One day in late August, a week before our California move, I'd woken up with what felt like a bladder infection. Five months later, the debilitating symptoms had not gone away, and I could not stop crying. I couldn't say what was worse: the chronic pressure and burning pain, or the fear that it would continue forever.

I flew from Los Angeles back to New England and moved into my parents' house, where they received me with loving concern. It was a gray, snowless December, and I lay on their kitchen floor, sobbing uncontrollably, shameless and feral with despair.

I couldn't remember who I used to be. I was nothing but a puddle of pain, helpless in the face of it, unmoored from whatever had given my life meaning.

Depression was not a fog or a mental disorder; it was a living virus infecting every cell of my body.

* * *

By that point, I'd seen a series of doctors: urologists, naturopaths, homeopaths, acupuncturists, and a patronizing, bearded psychiatrist who prescribed me Ativan for acute anxiety and insomnia and tried me on a variety of antidepressants. I couldn't bear the nightmarish side effects of Zoloft, Paxil, or Wellbutrin, but eventually I managed to tolerate Celexa.

But I'd lost all faith that I'd ever get better.

In order to keep living, I relied on my parents and my boyfriend (astonishingly, he was still there despite my illness, full of love) to believe for me. Every day, they repeated the mantra: You will be better, I know you'll get better. The words entered my brain, although they did not register as truth.

I hadn't wanted to take an anti-depressant. A yoga teacher and lifelong athlete, I'd thought I should be strong enough to push through holistically, without medication. I'd always emerged from my depressions before. Taking the meds felt like profound failure, a rejection of the natural, healthy life I believed in. I worried the “drugs” would change who I was, cut me off from creativity, mute the highs as well as the lows.

But I also knew this time it was a matter of survival.

Alone in my adolescent bedroom, I had crafted a suicide plan. I imagined a romantic freedom, a poet's death, one that also freed my loved ones from the burden of attending to my helplessness. This is part of the depressive's illness: the belief that she is no longer of any worth to the world.

When my doctor asked if I had a plan, I sobbed and admitted yes.

Cue the Celexa, which made me feel inexplicably weird and jittery at first, skewed my depth perception so the floors and corners came out to meet me. But within weeks, it also blunted the edge of my desperation. I found a fingernail of hope in the darkness.

Don't get me wrong: the anti-depressant wasn't a miracle cure or a happy pill. It was more an invisible cushion to my raw nerves, supporting me while I did the harder, longer work of healing.

Given my family history, I'd inherited a dark tendency towards depression that had first surfaced in Junior High, when I sometimes cut my wrists with my father's razor. At 13, the self-mutilation was a cry for help rather than a desire to die.

At 29, my body was sick and my brain chemistry hopelessly out of balance. I needed the medication, along with psychotherapy, exercise, yoga, relaxation, prayer, and a bevy of other treatments, to help me slowly heal.

* * *

Fast-forward a year, and I was better, though still fragile. Living in Vermont again, I was engaged to wed the man who'd stayed by my side and loved me steadily through the abyss. I was teaching a little, going cross-country skiing, even writing some poems.

I had switched from Celexa to Lexapro, a 10-mg dose. I always planned to go off the Lexapro eventually, but here I am now, 12 years later, still taking my daily pill.

I think it's fair to say I will always be on it, or on some other antidepressant. Now that I'm a mother, I need to protect myself and my children from the risk of another severe depressive episode, knowing full well one could come again even with the supposed “safety net” of medication.

Once you have made a plan, you never forget what could have happened.

* * *

I don't talk much about depression and rarely write about it, but it exists as a shadow presence in my life, a current below the bright surface.

It's time to come out of the happy closet and open up about the illness. Our culture is obsessed with self-help books and the trendy goal of “happiness,” but those who have suffered from depression know that no book or self-improvement project can touch the psychic pain.

Writers like Andrew Solomon and David Blistein have come forward with great courage and eloquence to tell their own stories. How else can we lessen the stigma that surrounds mental health, even in the 21st century?

I grieve the recent loss of brilliant Robin Williams, and of Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, a mother of two and a Vermont Public Radio commentator, who died several weeks ago. Both deaths were suicides.

My heart goes out to their loved ones. I give thanks for my good fortune, for my family, and for the therapists and medicines that have supported me, that kept the bottom from dropping out.

I could not have done it alone.

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