Most people who have been sober longer than a year are asked to give a “lead”—to tell their story. Mine was structurally simple, covering what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Having only drank for three years, my addiction story is pretty straightforward: I stopped guzzling down mood-altering beverages.
My depression story, however, is not.
There are too many circles and uneven ends to fit into any neat, compact narrative. It seems as though the longer you dance with the demon of depression, the more embracing you become of different health philosophies and the more tolerant of unanswered questions.
Is it open-mindedness or desperation?
I don’t know.
I have come to fully appreciate the words of Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron, when she writes:
We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
The truth is I can’t remember a time growing up when I didn’t think something was terribly wrong with me.
I didn’t know what they were at the time, but I would have panic attacks when my mom tried to leave the house or when I’d be forced into a new situation. I suffered from night terrors, where I’d sit up in my bed with my rosary around my wrist sweating from a racing heart, trying to make sense of an image in my dreams that haunted me, something as benign as a piece of thread moving slowly and methodically, back and forth, as a metronome. I was a scrupulous kid who could never say enough Our Fathers or Hail Marys. I went to Mass every day because I was scared I was going to hell.
I tried to flee from “my feelings” as I described them then, but I couldn’t.
They’d follow me wherever I went.
My mom threatened to take me to the hospital in the fourth grade if I didn’t stop crying, which further confirmed for me the cosmic bond between my aunt and godmother, who spent most of her life in psych wards, diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia. That is, until she ended her life with a turn of the ignition in my grandmother’s garage.
I was sure our souls were somehow connected, and that I would suffer the same fate.
My depression morphed into an eating disorder during my adolescent years. With aspirations of becoming a professional ballerina, I lost so much weight I stopped menstruating. Since I couldn’t control anything going on around me—like my parents’ divorce and the chaos that ensued—I found security in controlling my body and the needle of the scale.
The weight came back on in high school when I discovered beer and screwdrivers. I hid bottles of vodka underneath my bed and was kicked off of my high school drill team for bringing liquor to band camp. Getting drunk was the most effective means of quieting the loud and painful thoughts inside my head; however, I was blacking out all the time, and the list of apologies I owed for obnoxious behavior the next morning was getting rather long.
Two months before high school graduation, I got sober, and shortly after that, landed at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. There, under the care of skilled and empathetic therapist, I began my recovery from depression. After fighting her for 18 months on taking an antidepressant, I finally tried one, which made me suicidal. I tried another, and I discovered how most people feel the majority of the time.
For the first time in my life, I wasn’t coping.
I was living.
Although my mood continued to be volatile at times—this is me we’re talking about –I experienced a relative stability between the time I graduated from college and the birth of my second child, Katherine. Meeting my husband and sharing a life with someone who accepted me just as I am proved to be a powerful antidepressant. Our love and commitment grounded me like no other relationship in my past had.
But motherhood has been full of jagged edges and painful stretches.
As soon as I began to wean my daughter from breastfeeding, my mood plummeted. It was more complicated than just depression, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had developed a pituitary tumor at some point breastfeeding, which triggered a cascade of other hormonal issues. I went from one psychiatrist to another (visited six all together), tried 22 medication combinations, and was so doped up on antipsychotic cocktails that I practically passed out in my cereal bowl.
I was finally hospitalized.
After a few months under the care of a top-notch psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and stabilized on an old-fashioned medication combination of Lithium, Nortriptyline, and Zoloft. I also worked with an endocrinologist to stabilize my hormone levels and stop the growth of my tumor.
I thought I was fixed.
I dubbed Hopkins the Land of Oz.
My remission lasted two years.
The hard work began in late 2008.
The economy crashed and so did my mood. As an architect in a dead construction market, my husband didn’t have much work. In order to generate enough income for the family, I went from spilling out my guts as a mental health blogger—an occupation that fit me pretty well–to being a sterile government contractor, first consulting on change management (still not sure what it is) and then composing press releases on cloud text analytics.
Death thoughts (“I wish I were dead”) stalked me as I dropped the kids off for school, swam my laps, and went to the office. No matter how hard I tried to distract myself, they plagued me.
I tried another dozen medication combinations in a span of five years.
Ironically, when the market started to recover, I suffered a second breakdown. I was almost hospitalized. I twice put myself on the waiting list for inpatient electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at Johns Hopkins because I had lost the capability to eat, sleep, and work.
For a good while, I simply couldn’t function.
My tumor was growing again—and I had a few thyroid nodules to complement it, plus a heart condition—producing dangerous levels of prolactin, a hormone that makes you aggressive, anxious, or both.
In January of 2014, I decided to stay on the medications I was on (Lithium, Nortriptyline, and Zoloft) and stop trying new ones or making any changes.
I was done.
Although I had always treated my illness holistically— I eat healthy, take fish-oil capsules, exercise every day, go to therapy, and pray like a saint–I was ready to take it to the next level: to investigate the connection between the brain and the gut (since the nerve cells in our intestines manufacture 80 to 90 percent of our body’s serotonin), concentrate on my pituitary and thyroid issues, start loading up on necessary vitamins and supplements, and learn how to meditate.
First I eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet and started drinking green smoothies every morning for breakfast. In fact, I eat a massive bowl of green leafy vegetables with every meal. I read book after book about how adjusting your diet can rid you of your mood disorder in six weeks. That wasn’t the case with me, although I did feel a definite difference when I said good-bye to grain, stopped drinking caffeine, and tried my best to resist sweets. I realized my blood sugar levels have an immediate impact not only on my mood, but also on my thyroid, which determines more than you think in our delicate and intricate bodies.
I started taking a very expensive probiotic, which was one of the more helpful things I have done in this holistic experiment because your brain is only as healthy as your gut. The nervous system of your intestines includes an estimated 500 neurons, which is why neuroscientists often refer to the gut as the second brain. I also loaded up on the right kind of Omega 3’s, with a 7:1 EPA to DHA ratio, and took Vitamin D, Vitamin B 12, magnesium, SAM-e, Turmeric, iron, and a good multi-vitamin.
I ended up spending a third of my writing salary on a holistic doctor and the 26 different supplements she recommended, which were too many to fit into the granny-size pill holder I bought at Rite-Aid. I did every test imaginable—sending away my urine, stole, blood, and saliva—to determine the underlying cause for my death thoughts. The closest thing I got to an answer had to do with my thyroid—my very low T3 and T4 levels–causing much of my fatigue and listlessness. I was glad to further identify the pituitary-thyroid piece of my mood puzzle, but I didn’t have any more money to invest into the experiment.
So I tried meditation.
I enrolled in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program offered at our local hospital. I had been trying to meditate unsuccessfully for six years and was determined it was going to happen. The research published about meditation on every health website, magazine, and blog for the last ten years has promised so much—20 minutes a day and your brain suddenly chills out like the Tibetan monks—that I guess I was expecting a miracle. However, after eight weeks of participating in the program and meditating daily for 20 minutes or longer, I still had death thoughts.
One morning, not so shortly after I graduated from meditation school, I sat uncomfortably with this question: What if I wake up every morning for the rest of my life with a profound desire to die? What if I can never make the death thoughts go away?
I drank my kale smoothie and took all of my vitamins and supplements.
I meditate three times.
The desire to die was so intense I had to fight off tears, especially in front of my daughter. I had to fake extra hard that I was functioning mother.
I ran around the beautiful campus of the Naval Academy, and when I got to Hospital Point, my favorite part of the run that borders the Severn River, I let out my anguish and I cried to God, a different kind of prayer:
“It’s not about me anymore,” I said. “I’m giving you the desire to enjoy life. Take my longing for joy. Do whatever you want with it. If you can just use my life to lessen someone’s pain. That’s all.”
It was like the Prayer of St. Francis that I prayed every day—“Make me an instrument of your peace …”—or Tara Brach’s Buddhist aspiration: “May my life be of benefit to all beings.”
But it was more.
It was the purest, most heart-felt prayer I’ve ever prayed.
From a place of deep pain within me, I was offering to God my entire life—every anxious breath, every distorted thought, every word and every action, every minute of every day, as fodder for someone else’s healing, as some sort of blessing for another, because that is the only way I knew how to live with the thoughts. The way I saw it, my only purpose here was to relieve someone else of the kind of pain I feel on a regular basis.
“Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain,” said Helen Keller.
Or, as Nietzsche said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
I knew my why: to help other people who suffer from the same kind of death thoughts, the same sort of treatment-resistant depression.
In that moment, I felt immense relief.
From the pressure to feel joy.
From the pursuit of happiness.
From the chase of perfect health.
A few weeks later I pulled from my book shelf Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I figured that a man who survived the holocaust could teach me how to live, possibly even thrive, in the midst of death thoughts. There was my answer: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him amble opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
What Frankl calls logotherapy—identifying and attaching yourself to a deeper meaning or purpose—has provided me with a peace that is larger than the death thoughts, bigger than the most severe panic attack or afternoon within a psych ward.
It allows room for both misery and joy.
Having come full circle and finally finding a medication combination that works, I do believe antidepressants and mood stabilizers hold an important place in the healing process of depression or bipolar disorder. Working with a teaching institution like Johns Hopkins is key. Having tried recently to go off all my medication, I learned that I can’t treat my mood disorder alone with green smoothies, meditation, and yoga.
However, I suppose I am saved today by the realization that no one thing will fix me.
Sanity lies in a combination of everything–medication, therapy, smoothies, diet, mindfulness, exercise, and attaching yourself to a greater purpose.
Some days still feel like a 4.4 mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay. However, I have found a peace that sustains me through both misery and joy, an equanimity that makes room for misery and makes room for joy.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.