THE BIG D hit me after my father's death didn't occur when he died, but a full year later.
Mine was a deep, existential depression which I thought never would end. My thinking was Sartre-like: "Why bother? We're all going to die anyway."
I was plagued by questions for which there are no answers. The inevitability of death was always present. Was life an exercise in futility? Was death perhaps the ultimate adventure? Perhaps it was nothing at all.
For nearly a year I lived in despair, hurting desperately and terrified by what was happening to me. I wouldn't talk to anyone about my feelings because I was afraid they'd think I was "crazy." Consequently, depression with all its insidious aspects overwhelmed me.
I didn't relate to other people. I couldn't sleep because my mind was always racing. My appetite was abolutely rotten. I had no interest in anything outside of overpowering feelings an anxiety and unhappiness.
I isolated myself most of the time, the worst thing I could have done. It gave my depression much time to feed on itself and become a monster.
Most of our problems occur outside ourselves. We can call on our inner resources of mental and physical strength to overcome them. But depression, coming from within, saps out inner strength, paralyzes us as human beings.
Most of us don't feel free to share our depressed feelings with friends and relatives. That awful fear that people will think we're "crazy" overrides any conideration. This is a strong cornerstone for depression to build upon.
My depression was accompanied by unexplainable waves of severe anxiety. My own body and mind were being victimized by my own body and mind. You can't run away from that.
I wanted an easy out. I found out there isn't any. I found out there isn't any. Symptomatic relief is available in anti-depressant drugs. These can be a life line if you're severely depressed, although you have to realize it takes about three weeks to feel any effect. But I believe that you have to come to terms with the cause of the problem.
Frustration and resentment, I now realize, contributed greatly to my depression. I've always put excessive demands on myself, setting goals that were unattainable at that time. I believed that I ought to be able to write the great American novel, be the perfect mother to three growing children and have the house in meticulous order. At the same time, I should be able to handle any emotional upsets which came my way -- alone. That adds up to lot of frustration.
Giving up the resentments of the past is the most difficult area for me to tackle. These emotions have become so much a part of who I am today. I resent both of my parents bitterly for the miserably unhappy childhood I had. But I've come to understand that the longer I hold onto that resentment, the more I'll be held back in my development as a person. If I let those same negative emotions fester I'll be victimized by depression over and over.
The depression was a time to dig deep, a time to learn and grow in self-knowledge. I wouldn't have believed that my father's death and the unresolved conflicts between us could precipitate this sort of depression. I thought I'd handled everthing very well.
Daddy was buried the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I flew to New York, attended the funeral, visited friends and flew home to entertain 10 people for Thanksgiving dinner. Another example of excessive demands.
I went about the business of living my life which amounted to never doing what I wanted to do and always doing what I thought I had to do. And I thought was terific. Then came the "Crash of '78." The ironic thing is that I didn't realize why.
Now I know that I never allowed myself a time to adjust, a time to mourn and a time to sort out the complicated feelings I had about our relationship. Death always seems to interrupt life just when people are getting their priorities and relationships in order. That was the hardest thing to accept.
Daddy and I didn't have a good relationship when I was growing up. He was a workaholic, a driven man whose life revolved around business achievements and his golf score. He had worked his way through college at night and pulled As in his courses during the day. This set the pace for his life. He started with nothing and did very well. He was also an unhappy man who never learned to love or share.
I idolized this towering dynamo of a man as girls are prone to do with fathers. But I never knew him then. He was a perfectionist who demanded perfection. Sadly, I was a late bloomer, a fat confused teenager who didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. He was a person who had been goal-oriented from the time he came out of the womb. It took a long time for us to meet.
After I was married for a while, a relationship based on honesty and respect began to grow. Just when we were able to enjoy each other as two adults, he was gone. It's not an unusual story; It's the background of my illness.
I ran the gamut of emotions in reaction to his death. I was angry at him for leaving me. I was bitter and frustrated. He comparavely young. His death became the undeniable statement of my own mortality.
Then came the day I couldn't put off getting help. I was on the edge of hysteria, crying all day, unable to stop. My energy level was low. I'd fallen into a black hole and there seemed to be no way back.
I'd never learned to ask for help. Bearing my soul or crying on someone's shoulder was always alien to me. But I realized that I'd reached the point of needing professional help. I'd worked with a psychologist on several writing projects and knew he was good. I was certain that the word "crazy" would appear on my chest in scarlet letters as soon as I called. But I made the call. Now I know that you don't have to be crazy to need a little help along the way.
I think it's pretty smart to get it from someone trained to give the type of help you need whether it's accounting or psychology. But as dedicated as I am to removing the social stigma attached to seeking professional help, I admit I felt the same stigma applied when I became the patient. But it all came down to the same thing: People who were friends were supportive; those who weren't, criticized. But they'd find something to criticize anyway.
Superpsych gave me an appointment the next day. Five minutes in Superpsych's office and I knew I'd done the right thing. Conversation was easy and low key. Questions related to how I was feeling. No miracles were given out. This was the beginning of a slow, routine process.
During the second week we discussed my father's death. Then I realized that this depression had very deep roots there an in my entire family background.
In ensuing weeks, for one 50-minute hour a week, we talked about my reactions to my parents, to myself and to my own life. I understood that, although I had received nothing but negtive feedback from my mother and had not seen her in many years, I hadn't given up that relationship.
I understood that I wasn't being honest with myself. For years I'd tried to be the perfect housewife, a fanatic about a clean floor. The truth is I hate housework and most things domestic. I need to work and write and be creative. Now I'm learning to put some of my needs first and I like myself a lot better.
I was always down on myself, a real throwback to childhood. That's a hard habit to break. But I'm working at giving myself credit for the things I do well. I pat myself on the back from time to time. I read that studies indicate that exercise, and specifically jogging, is a real help in fighting depression. So I began jogging. It does seem to clear out the cobwebs.
Therapy is an adventure into the self that is exciting, terrifying, painful and wonderful, all at once. It's led me to a far deeper understanding of myself. At times it's made me angry to get to know myself so well. Things surfaced I didn't want to admit because it hurt so when they came out. It's so much easier to blame others for your problems. Emotional reactions are so intermingled that it seems you can't sort out one without stirring up a few others. It's like trying to take off nine layers of paint one at a time. It can't be done.
Some days the process is a real high of relief and discovery. Then, some days it's a real low. Those days come when you can't hid from yourself any longer. Not that I didn't try.
When I hit a low, I hit an emotional hell of turnoil and pain. I was hysterical, sobbing all day. And that was to be a very significant day for me.
Superpsych sent me to a physician for a checkup. Minutes after I was in his office, redeyed and shaking, he told me that he thought I was addicted to alcohol. I was devasted. Addiction to alcohol is a slow process. I never drank nearly as much as many people I've known. The difference is the way it affected me and the reasons I was drinking, that is, primarily to bury my feelings.
Alcohol appears to give you a lift right after you take it. But it then becomes a depressant. It was half the cause of my problem. If you're depressed you can't drink. I never drink now and I've never felt so good.
"Take yourself seriously" -- if Superpsych has said that to me once it's been a hundred times. It took a long time for him to get it through my head that I had to decide what I needed and take charge of those things. Then I can better take care of my family and make them happy.
Therapy can be a frightening and threatening process for your family. In the beginning I was very jealous of my own thoughts and discoveries. I wanted to work things through alone. I'm sure my husband felt threatened. Later, of course, I was able to share my insights. It's also difficult for the entire family to adjust to someone who isn't just an extension of their wants any longer but a growing individual.
When I began reading up on drug therapy it was immediately clear that this was an area of controversy. Some doctors say that druy therapy is the answer. Others say psychotherpy.
Anti-depressant drugs can be enormously beneficial. But working out feelings of frustration, anger, bitterness, loneliness, helplessness seem paramount. Although I didn't choose drug therapy this time, most of the people I've talked with elected both drug and psychotherapy. I'd like to share two cases with you because they're good examples.
Marcy (a name I've made up for obvious reasons) is an attractive, soft-spoken lady in her late 40s. The wife of a corporate executive, she gives the impression of being able to handle anything. Her husband is a workaholic and out of town often. Marcy is lonely and tired of raising a family alone. She realizes she has nothing of her own. a
We talked about this article, her husband's job and her children. We both learned a lot in our two-hour talk. We had both had the same feelings, thoughts and fears. It was good to talk about it openly and honestly, refusing to feel ashamed about something over which we had no control.
Marcy had begun to have a serious problem when she was in her early 30s. She felt that she was so odd that if she told anyone about it, "the man in the white coats would come get me."
March fell into the same trip I did -- because she wasn't up to being with people. She didn't do anything about getting help because she was embarrarssed. Naturally, her problem got worse.
Then a good friend of hers became a statistic by closing the garage doors and turning on the ignition. March decided to get help; she sought out an expert in depressive illness. He decided that March needed drug therapy for chemical imbalance in combination with psychotherapy. This seems to be the more recommended course of threatment.
Although drug therapy can be very helpful, these medications must be given to conscientious docotrs who are expert in their fields. Some people react badly to different medications. Many medications are very potent. The "cure" could be worse than the illness.
That's why I avoided drugs. I've had bad reactions to medicatins. I didn't want another one. In retrospect, I suffered more anguish than was necessary. Most depressions seem to be self-limiting so I decided to ride it out. If it happended again I would choose differently.
Depression is the oldest and most often described of man's mental disorders and is mentioned as early as 1500 B.C. And yet we still believe we're uniquen when it hits us, even though millions of Americans are treated every year for depression-related illness.
My friend, Jane M., is a good example of irresponsible drug therapy. Jane is intelligent, attractive and efficient. In her early 30s, she works and cares for a family of four.
Jane had endured several long depressions in her adult life. When the last one came on she was desperate for relief. She's quick to point out that when she went to Dr. J., she knew his reputation was shaky. "But," she says, "all I knew was that I needed to feel better."
Jane's desperation nearly caused her death. Dr. J. prescribed a potent drug which has been highly successful in the treatment of many patients. However, it must be judiciously prescribed and monitored. It wasn't. He prescribed twice the amount that Jane could tolerate. She nearly died.
Jane's experience probably is rare. But it's a warning. She's now seeing a psychoterapist and taking a mild anti-depressant. She's also working out the cause of her depressive episodes. She has a long way to go but realizes she has to make major changes in her lifestyle. Jan'e relationship with her husband has always been a source of frustration and anger for her. She now realizes that she must discuss this with him and either change or discard the relationship. "At last I realize I do have choices," Jane says. So often we forget that and allow ourselves to feel trapped.
And we do have coices about depression. There is no need to live in quiet desperation. But only you can get help. If you've had thoughts of suicide, get help right away. Be honest with your doctor. Most physicans have time set aside in their schedules for emergencies.
Depression, in varying degrees, is part of the human condition. To be depressed at certain times in our lives doesn't make us "crazy."
It's my belief that if everyone who suffered depressive episodes could communcate openly we might be able to help each other just a bit. If any of what has helped me helps you that there was purpose in my having to deal with it.