I remember an acquaintance once told me they’d given up alcohol and had started attending AA meetings. I’d jokingly said at the time, “I think I need to do that because I drink too much sometimes!” The person looked at me and said patiently, “Lots of people say that. But being an alcoholic is very different...”
I wince now at my naivety. She went on to recount how her body reacted to the smell of mineral turpentine, triggering the crave response for alcohol. In the nicest way possible, she had held a mirror to my ignorance. The image she’d created of her struggle was shocking. I felt ashamed of my earlier response, but enlightened about the disease of addiction.
I was reminded of this when, during a discussion about medications and weight loss with my personal trainer, I revealed that I was on anti-depressants. As soon as the words left my lips, I wanted to suck them back in. “Why are you on them?” the trainer asked. After two years of being on Lexapro, I struggled to give any sort of acceptable response to that question.
“It wasn’t any particular event,” I started. “I just felt really….” My words trailed off and my eyes stung at the memory of how woeful I had felt back then. “It’s NORMAL to be down,” the trainer with the Good Intentions continued. “I have ups and downs too – everyone does.” And then I remembered why those words sounded so familiar, and why they made me wince.
Clinical depression is not part of the rhythmic cycle of moods, anymore than it is normal for someone who likes a drink to have a biochemical reaction to a whiff of nail polish remover. I’ve been surrounded by depression for much of my life. My father suffered from it so severely that he was often confined to bed. He was on heavy doses of ‘old school’ medication, which no doubt impacted his energy levels. Watching him and other people close to me under the influence of anti-depressant drugs made me determined never to use them myself. Give me emotions, true affect and life unblunted by chemical suppression, I’d vowed.
I battled through periods of darkness and loss, heroically refusing offers of medication from my GP. I saw psychologists, had acupuncture and desperately tried to haul myself out of a hole that was becoming deeper and deeper with every struggle.
There was no One Big Thing. But one day I was dealt a relatively minor blow and I just fell in a metaphorical heap and couldn’t get back up again. I was floating alone in a cold, dark and silent ocean, watching life on the shore go on like it always had. I felt remote, removed. The early days of anguish and crying gave way to a feeling of utter emptiness, where everything but the sound of my own thoughts was muted. Every awful thing I’d thought about myself, or thought others had thought about me, played on a Greatest Hits CD in my head that I couldn’t turn off. There’s a reason why people instinctively turn the radio down when they’re driving and looking for an address. I found it impossible to focus – on work, relationships. I became incapable of making the simplest decisions. I’d wake at the same time each night, my thoughts churning endlessly.
I watched TV stories about people who took their own lives and I remember thinking, did they feel as bad as me right now when they did it? I wasn’t suicidal, but I spent a lot of time thinking about death and the meaning of my existence.
My capitulation came on my next visit to my GP. I was sent off with a prescription for the little pills I’d sworn would not pass my lips. After a few days, they kicked in. Friends, unaware of my ‘little helpers’, remarked how good I looked. I was sparkling – back to a state I hadn’t felt in years. I started dreaming again. The incessant internal dialogue of negative thoughts was silenced, the CD of bad thoughts, shelved.
I made decisions. I got on with things and slowly the crinkles in my battered self esteem started to iron out. I’d feared that my creativity would be stifled without the raw intensity of my emotion, but with a clear head, I more productive than ever.
Where once I was afraid to take the pills, I became scared to go off them, worried that my world would crumble again. But I decided the time was right. I tapered off the medication over a month and kept up the therapy sessions. The sky didn’t fall and I feel at ease again.
It’s not easy to understand depression. But it helps that we’re having more of these conversations in our society, even if ignorance is the first response as it was mine, with my flippant remark about alcoholism. Not everyone will understand, but most people will try.