I have cyclic depression — it occurs off and on throughout the year, and has for over twenty years. I am not alone. “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 400 million people, of all ages, suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide.” Think about it. That means depression potentially disrupts 400 million families and businesses as well.
Depression is hard to describe. I visualize its tentacles snaking through my brain, interrupting cranial synapses with misfires and misalignments. The ensuing electrical chaos causes unconscious behaviors and destructive thoughts. Without treatment, suffers like me spiral into despair.
It’s also hard to spot. Depression often begins with an “off day.” Nothing to worry about. Until there’s another and another. Patterns change. Behavior alters. The new dynamic challenges relationships, putting a tremendous strain on loved ones.
I didn’t know what was happening. I had no strategies to fall back on, no words to describe what’s happening, and no answers to justify my emotional push-pull.
My depression started after my marriage to Michael. I was twenty-one and had my first child at twenty-two. He recognized my periodic storms as depression and rode them out without telling me. He felt he was taking care of me — the perfect loving enabler. He had no idea what I was going through. If he had known, he would have told me, and I would have gotten help that much sooner.
When I entered my cycle, Michael couldn’t count on me to do or finish my daily chores. I had great difficulty focusing on any one thing for any length of time. I’m sure it caused my OCD-like organized husband unimaginable frustration. Every day he’d come home and ask me what I’d done. My answer, “Nothing.” One day, he made me promise to complete one task every day. That worked, to my surprise, and it’s a trick I still use.
If he asked me to make a decision, I was lost. I’d offer an “I don’t know” shrug and say, “I don’t care.”. Michael would smile and choose. He never countered with, “Why not? Don’t you care about me?” Today, without him, decisions get made when they get made, so no problem.
At my lowest point, I’d lose all my energy and could hardly move. Michael would make plans and I’d tag along, walking through he motions. I’d rise to the occasion to interact with family and friends — an act to cover my real feelings.
As I write this, I am struck that, as far as I remember, my husband never once took it personally or blamed me. Although there were difficult moments born of frustration, both his and mine, we shared an unconditional love, a commitment to each other, and a devotion to our three children. In fact, the children kept me from a complete retreat into myself. Their demands kept me moving and provided a pattern to my life, our lives, for many years.
Then in November 1983, my husband found three lumps on the back of his neck. Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s large-cell lymphoma — cancer. A year after that, we found out his mother was dying — throat cancer. We had one heartfelt tear-filled conversation with each revelation and that was it. Michael never talked about his illness or his mother’s. Concerned he’d bottle up his emotions until he exploded, and with his permission, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist for the two of us.
At our sessions, we dealt with our current issues and opened a healthy line of communication. In the process, our doctor identified my depression. That’s when Michael revealed that he’d known about it for a long time. I couldn’t hide my surprise and hurt that he hadn’t told me. The doctor gave me a prescription and helped us navigate this rough patch.
The medication normally needs about three weeks to take effect. My reaction happened in one day. For the first time in recent memory, my brain went quiet. The jumble of thoughts and the endless parsing of every hurt, failure, problem, and disappointment stopped. Gone. The depression lifted.
By trying to help Michael, I got help. I found the right doctor, who prescribed the right medication to repair my synapses and oversaw my therapy to restructure my thought patterns. The combination worked.
My release from the clutches of this disease made me more aware of the symptoms, for which I developed a “sixth sense.” Within the space of three weeks, I found out two of my consulting clients, both women, also had depression. One on one, we shared our stories. Laughed. Cried. Cared for each other.
When Michael found out, he asked if I’d talk to his friend’s wife. I agreed. As the realization hit me that I’d be on the phone every day with three different women, I had to do something. So, I suggested we all meet for dinner.
Our first meeting was at a Chinese restaurant. We arrived at six and left at ten, not because we were done but the venue turned out the lights. During our conversation, we offered each other support and understanding. At one point, after a particularly disastrous story, someone said, “Snap out of it!” After a stunned pause, we all burst into laughter. It became our catch phrase since we all knew it wasn’t possible. At the same time, we wished it could be true.
These evenings of sharing and humor were as important as our medications and therapy. We met monthly for the next several years until Michael died in May 1988.
BOOM. Loss and depression. Deadly combination.
My synapses went crazy, my doctor left town, and my medication ran out. Misinformation flooded my thoughts. Misfires sent my emotions into the dumper. I felt unloved, abandoned, despondent, useless, irrelevant, and insignificant. In short, no good to anybody or myself. I’d get out of bed only to return. Nothing and nobody interested me. Life as I knew it was over, forever. Suicide began looking like a viable option.
Desperate, I had to get my thoughts out of my head. With Michael gone and no confidante available, I decided to write them down in a bound journal. I didn’t censor a thing. I cursed. I railed at God for taking Michael, at Michael for leaving me, and at my meaningless life. Each morning the demons came and each night I’d purge.
During this hellish time, one friend emerged who made it his mission not to let me vegetate. Rafe, a flamboyant radio personality and entertainer, knew all about depression. He’d struggled with it before, and unknown to me, he struggled with it now. He had stomach cancer.
Rafe would call me after his mid-day talk show and insist I meet him for lunch. I’d sit and listen while he talked of everything and anything. When he found out I had no medication, he insisted I go back into therapy and get some…immediately. He waited while I called one of the women from the Chinese dinners for the name of her psychiatrist. He sipped his coffee while I called the doctor to make an appointment. Rafe died in November 1988.
My new doctor changed my meds, hoping one of the newer drugs would do the trick. I had terrible reactions. In the end, she put me back on Parnate, and I’ve been taking it ever since.
Depression is a disease that robs victims of their lives. In short, depression sucks. I’m one of the lucky ones. I didn’t hide, wasn’t ashamed, and never thought of it as a weakness. Why? It wasn’t my fault, so I never felt guilty. If someone caught me on a down day and said, “Snap out of it,” I’d nod and smile. They had no idea and that was a good thing.
Does depression still creep into my life? Yes. Do I always know right away? No. Eventually? Yes, and I take immediate steps to fight back. I’ve been to the bottom of depression’s dark chasm, and I never want to go there again.
To help me, I adopted two rescued Schnoodle pups. They insist I look outside myself, pay attention to them, and give them several long walks at least twice a day. It works.
Please, if you recognize my story or any of the symptoms below either for yourself or someone you love, don’t wait. It won’t pass on its own. And, you can’t “fix” it. Depression is a treatable disease, not a weakness. Look for a doctor who understands. Therapy can help. Medication can help. It’s more than worth it. I know.
Signs of Major or Clinical Depression (from Mayo Clinic, health.com, and other sources.) People may experience one or more items on this compiled list::
MOOD: anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, stress, sadness
SLEEP: early awakening, excess sleepiness, too much or too little sleep, insomnia, or restless sleep
WHOLE BODY: excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, or restlessness, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, pain, stomach or backache
BEHAVIORAL: agitation, excessive crying/tearfulness, anger or hostility, irritability, short fuse, or social isolation
COGNITIVE: inability to concentration, indecision, slowness during activity, lack of feeling, thoughts of suicide
WEIGHT: weight gain or weight loss
ALSO COMMON: repeatedly going over thoughts, evening cocktail is now three, glued to Facebook, head is in the clouds, can’t make up your mind, stopped combing your hair
OTHER: loss of control, binging, not getting dressed, no interest in personal hygiene, withdrawal/isolation (no person to person contact either in person or on the phone.)
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