I finished the wall today--a dry masonry wall of Pennsylvania bluestone that would set off a rose trellis my mother wanted. No big deal, really. I have always been handy and tackled countless projects for my mother's house. She has neither the interest nor strength to do such projects, so it has often fallen on me to lug the eight-foot-tall citrus trees into the house in the fall and back out in the spring, install shutters, clean gutters or assemble mind-numbing furniture kits. This time, however, instead of the usual one- or two-hour chore, my task took four months.
I began the wall when I was clinically depressed.
Not surprisingly, it wasn't my idea to start building it last summer. My mother suggested the project in May and I was enthusiastic, but by July I had to take medical leave from work because all I could do was cry. The wall fell nowhere on my priority list. Nothing did, except my obsession to stop the crushing anxiety and depression that had suddenly paralyzed me.
Depression and anxiety had hounded me intermittently throughout much of my 41 years, undoubtedly the genetic legacy of my father, who suffered from manic-depressive illness. My moods, however, only shifted in one direction--downward. But while my depression always made me tired and spawned fears of failure, it had never debilitated me.
When, in 1996, talk therapy seemed to have little effect on the fear and despair that was beginning to strangle me, I begrudgingly consented to see a psychopharmacologist who could prescribe an antidepressant. After a somewhat grueling trial-and-error period, during which I tried out various classes of antidepressants, we settled on Nardil, among those seldom used because of their strict dietary restrictions and potentially harmful side effects. Giving up cheese and risking a stroke, I concluded, was a small price to pay to feel normal.
But this time my anxiety and despair coalesced into a new strain of sheer panic. The pressures and demands I wrestled to control as managing editor of an arts journal became overwhelming. I knew I had to leave immediately.
Once home on medical leave, I tried to stop the feelings of doom that gripped me by thinking things through, but I couldn't think. My mind wasn't operating as it used to. Worries whirled around my brain like a hamster running in a wheel. Same stuff, over and over, with no hope in sight. My fears literally paralyzed me.
I moved back home, to my childhood bedroom. I had to talk about my terror. My mother, my boyfriend and two girlfriends tried in vain to fathom my chronic panic. I withdrew from the rest of the world, convinced I was going mad. I didn't want witnesses to my breakdown.
In a movie I'd seen as a child, "Charlie," Cliff Robertson played a retarded man who bloomed into brilliance after he had been given a drug, only to agonizingly lapse back to his former state once the medication stopped working. I thought that my brain, like Charlie's, was similarly disintegrating and taking my body hostage.
I'd sit frozen for hours at my mother's kitchen table. She would look at me with frightened eyes and talk about everyday events, as though I had the capacity to care. Couldn't she see I was dying before her eyes? I'd try to tell her how terrifying my amorphous fears were, hoping she could exorcise them. But I couldn't think of the right words, and the effort to talk coherently exhausted me. Despite a run of unusually perfect weather, dark thoughts of death preoccupied me. The two-ton pallet of fieldstone sitting in the driveway might as well have been sitting on top of me. The wall clearly wasn't going to be tackled for some time.
Or so I thought. Mom's main agenda was to get me upright and moving. I barely had the energy to get dressed. How did she expect me to carry flat boulders the size of manhole covers across the front yard? But she was unrelenting. "Work on the wall just a little each day. You can do it," she said.
I began seeing a therapist twice a week, but it felt like a waste of time. Surely I was beyond this caring social worker's healing arts. This consuming despair was not your usual problem remedied by a sounding board. What I needed, I was convinced, was something from the arsenal of miracle drugs. But when I met my psychopharmacologist and other psychiatrists, I discovered that the arsenal was limited. No major bullet would make everything all right unless I learned how to mitigate the stressors in my life.
I felt terrifying alone. Talking to those in my little circle never banished the fears that gripped me, but they shrank in size and intensity for a few fleeting moments. That relief, however transitory, kept me going. It made me get dressed and force a few bites of food into my mouth, even though the thought of eating nauseated me.
I was desperate to still my brain. Perhaps my mother was right: Maybe carrying and stacking rocks would hlep. I began to lift tabletop-sized stones out of the chicken-wire pallet on the driveway and drop them on the lawn with a thud. I repeated this procedure again and again like a robot, oblivious to what all that weight was doing to my spine. I was moving and sweating. My muscles were working. My mind was quieting.
I had no idea how to build a masonry wall. I didn't care. My usual perfectionistic compulsions had flattened under the weight of my depression. Nevertheless, a rudimentary wall began to take shape.
I evaded the curious stares of neighbors who watched me work. They were aware, I was certain, that I didn't know what I was doing--that this wall was a joke. Surely they could tell, merely by looking, that my mind had betrayed me by turning into a thick clot of unraveling threads that shut out any rays of hope. I feigned an air of competence. After all, wasn't that what I had done most of my life?
After a few days, what little momentum I had gathered was gone. I abandoned the wall. You couldn't see it from the sidewalk, so what was the use? I returned to my home, where I'd sit motionless for hours at my own kitchen table. My mind had asserted itself over the rest of my body once again. I bought a book on worry but couldn't generate the interest to read it. Instead of talking, I wept in my therapist's office twice a week.
My psychopharmacologist thought I should try a new antidepressant. Yes, anything to feel normal. But first I had to allow my old drug to be rinsed out of my bloodstream. Two weeks of no antidepressant, and then it would take a while for the new one to kick in.
The psychopharmacologist recommended a biofeedback specialist to help ease me through this period. We practiced breathing and progressive relaxation, but even after two visits the panic had not gone away. I struggled to tell her what terrors lay ahead of me at work. I told her I felt too panicked to breathe right.
After almost four weeks, the new antidepressant, Effexor, showed signs of working, and the pain within me seemed to diminish. I washed my kitchen windows. I trimmed an overgrown tree out front. A girlfriend and I met for dinner.
One day the words came back, nicely assembled together. I sounded intelligent, I thought. I stopped feeling guilty for taking my medical leave. This is a legitimate illness, I decided. I have the right to stay home and get well.
And I started making brief visits to my mother's house to work on the wall. I knew it would get finished. I could see it in my mind's eye, and it looked damn good. After four months, the wall, like my depression, was done.
Lisa Siegrist lives in Falls Church.