The first time that I ever felt depression I was eight or nine years old. I was sitting in the back of my mom’s car and I distinctly remember that I was looking down at my brand new pair of ADIDAS sambas. These were shoes that I coveted and begged my parents for-shoes that were absolutely necessary for someone my age to own. My parents weren’t the type to purchase new things for us, they believed deeply in a non-material life, so getting these shoes was monumental. And as I sat in the back seat, I remember that the sun was shining and that we were on the way to pick up my friend for a sleepover. And out of nowhere I was hit with a feeling-one that began very subtly, but that increased by the second. The feeling was gross. It was heavy. It felt like a terrible taste in my mouth or a foul smell in the air. It felt like nothing and everything at the same time. And within a few minutes, it was gone.
I was diagnosed with type one diabetes when I was eleven. Most people attribute my struggles with depression to the fact that I have a chronic illness. In other words, I am sad that I am sick. Well, yes that’s true. But true chemical depression is very different. It’s deceiving. It comes for you in your happiest moments. It waits for you after a promotion at work or a really great night out with friends. And it digs its fingernails into your flesh and drags you unwillingly into its grip. And it keeps you, no matter how hard you struggle, no matter how much you scream or punch or claw or thrash. It doesn’t waver.
I spent most of my late teens and early twenties on Prozac or Paxil or Lexapro or Effexor. And I think it helped. Who knows how well. Because that’s the thing about mental illness. When it clutches you for so long, you forget what feeling good feels like. What your baseline is if you will. And so just as you begin to feel “better” you also begin to feel “nothing” and you wonder if nothing is better than awful? Is there a place where you, the you you’ve forgotten, can exist again? So you switch medications and continue with the same song and dance for a couple more months-always always searching for yourself. The yourself that you just know is in there somewhere, deep in the stomach, down in the toenails of the toes. Somewhere.
I got pregnant with my twins in 2012. My acupuncturist instructed me to go off Zoloft before getting pregnant. So I did. Cold turkey. And it was fucking terrible. I was dizzy and nauseous and irritated and sad. I spent my pregnancy crying and feeling mad. And when they were finally born-two months early-I battled postpartum depression like a soldier at war. I was told to go back on Zoloft. And then Ativan. But the Zoloft made me sick and I couldn’t eat and because I couldn’t eat I couldn’t produce milk and because I couldn’t produce milk I felt that I had failed. I hated myself for it. And then the babies stayed at the hospital and I visited, clutching my tender c-section wound with one hand and a tiny bottle of desperately pumped breast milk in the other. I limped my way into the NICU day in and day out, and when I got back in the car after seeing them, I folded into myself and cried until bedtime. At some point, a friend’s father saved me. He threw every pill bottle I had away and told me to eat. He drove in the night to CVS and bought those ensure protein drinks and made me drink one. And then another, until I began to get strength and my head cleared a little. The last night of my battle, I dialed the number of a depression helpline and hung up thirty times. And then the next morning, for whatever reason, my head cleared and the darkness lifted and I fell so profoundly in love with my two tiny, beautiful, miracle babies.
For four years I went without antidepressants. Thinking back I was ok-I must have been ok. I can remember feeling really, genuinely happy.
And then the summer of 2016, my whole world crumbled and I broke into pieces.
In the spring time I realized that I hated my job. That the Master’s degree that I had worked hard for after the babies were born, was not what I wanted. Was not what my career would be about. And that I was at a depressing job that covered a depressing subject and that I had nowhere to go. I hated myself. The person that I dreamed I would become was non-existent. I had been lying to myself all along. All that I was was a mother and for me that didn’t feel good enough. The voice inside my head reminded me every morning and every night that I was a failure, a loser, a poser, a disappointment.
So I stopped sleeping. No really, I stopped. The first few weeks and months I would wake up around 4am or 5am and never fall back asleep. I trudged back and forth to work like a zombie, I saw my kids and yelled at them when they didn’t deserve it-all of it going by like a blurry slow motion movie. The nights got worse. I would fall asleep and wake in a panic at 2am, staring wildly into the darkness like a madwoman. I begged my brain to turn off. I stood in the bathroom, looking at my pale and frightening face and pleaded for God to calm my body and quiet my mind. I paced the house and told myself if I just washed my hands, or just went to the bathroom, or just turned off the fan, or just turned on the fan, or just rearranged the pillow, or just changed pajamas, if I just, if I just, if I just…I would fall asleep. But I didn’t.
On September 19th I went to the doctor and was prescribed Ambien.I took one pill before bed and slept for a total of thirty minutes. On September 20th, I called the doctor sobbing and was prescribed Lunesta. That night I took two and never went to sleep. Around 4am I called my mother after pacing the house with a flashlight, trying to save myself from myself. She drove over and got in bed with me in our guest room. When her words failed, she just held me as tightly as she could. She’s a very small person and I can remember the way her frail arms felt around my shaking, screaming body. We left for the emergency room soon after. She scribbled a note on a scrap piece of paper telling my husband “Anna is not ok. We are at the ER”. All the while my two little babies slept soundly in the next room. When we got to the ER I put my head on my mother’s lap the way I had when I was a little girl-a little girl at a grownup dinner party, just too tired to stay up any longer. She stroked my hair and I cried.
The Doctor that saw me was handsome. He had longish hair and a quiet, very zen demeanor. He told me that he had six kids and that his wife had bi-polar disorder. “I can’t fail anyone else.” I said again and again. “The weight of the world is on my shoulders”. He gave me an injection of Ativan and almost immediately after my heart began to slow and the never ending thumping in my chest subsided. My brain felt soft and velvety. He asked someone to come in the room-an English woman who seemed a little old for the job. She told me about a nice place that “I could go” to get the help that I needed, and she reminded me that it was “completely my choice” and I could come and go as I pleased. It was almost 6am. I could see the sun beginning to rise and I thought about what my kids were going to have for breakfast, what clothes they would pick out to wear to school. I thought about my husband making coffee. I thought about his face when he read my mother’s note.
I turned to the woman and said “ok”.
This next part is hard to write. It’s been almost three years and I’ve written about this incident and erased it a dozen times. I’ve never talked to a single person about what happened, about what it was really like. And the reason that I am writing about it here is because I need it out of my body. I need to declare, to believe that it is not something to be ashamed of. When it happened, a family member suggested I not write about it, or put it on Facebook (as I am an over sharer by nature). I agreed thinking, what if I want to run for office one day? I would ruin my chances by admitting this secret. This shameful event. And as time has gone by, I have thought so much about how lonely I felt in those days. How I would have given both my arms and legs to have another person tell me they were sad too. That I would be ok. But I had no one. So the reason I am finally, finally telling this fucking story is also because I know in my heart I am not alone. There are incredibly brave people out there, one in particular, who have inspired me to be bold and brave and to share my experience.
Around 6:30 am on September 21st, the day before my sister’s birthday, two male nurses wheeled me on a stretcher into the back of an ambulance. My mother went home. The nurse sat in the back with me but we didn’t talk. I could see the morning traffic begin to go by through the back windows. People headed off to jobs at the CDC, carpool lines to drop off kids, sunlight streaming in. I wondered how this could be. How the real world was just on the other side of the metal door. While everything that had just happened and was clearly about to happen felt surreal. And like that, the ambulance pulled into the parking lot of Wesley Woods.
A mental hospital. Three words that I’ve wanted to type or write or scream or even just whisper for two years. Three words that make my cheeks burn. Three words that make me so sad.
They wheeled me in and began the check-in process. The Ativan was beginning to wear off and I had a deep, dark feeling that I had made a terrible mistake. Like a horror movie where the stark reality of the moment comes into focus. The girl wakes up only to realize she has been brought back to the same horror scene she tried to flee. A man came in and took out everything in my purse and wrote it down. Six pill bottles in total. He told me to remove my laces from my running shoes. Before I could say “why”, I figured it out. They said they were taking my cell phone next. I sent a text message to my husband and to my family saying this: “I’m so sorry for all that I have caused today. I am en route to the looney bin now. I’m sad about all this but I think it’s time to bite the bullet and get this right. Everyone deserves to be the best version of themselves.”
That’s all I am going to say about what happened inside. I didn’t stay long at all. The food was terrible. There were a lot of coloring books and people that frightened me. There were some extremely dark moments-moments that break my heart to think about-but what happened when I came out is what matters. For the first time really in my life, I made my mental health a priority not just for me but for my family. I began seeing a psychiatrist who to this day manages my medication every couple of months. I began weekly therapy and started to address and tackle things in my life that were deeply buried. I guess more than anything, I carved out space in my life to talk about my life. And I took the medication. And you’ll never guess, at some point after many days and many weeks, I fell asleep.
I’m not sure even as I type this that I will have the guts to post it. I wonder if I will erase the whole thing. Maybe no one will read it anyway. But I want to put it out there. Because even though I “recovered” from that experience, I deal with major depression and anxiety every day. To be honest, as I sit here typing this I am smack dab in the middle of a depressive episode. A chemical shift that requires new or more medication.
But this time I handled it differently. The moment I identified what was happening, I called my therapist and my psychiatrist. And we began altering my medication. The effects of those modifications are hard-exhaustion being the worst. But I have a team now. A team that I never had or thought I needed or deserved before. And I guess that’s exactly what I want to say. I’ve dealt with a lot in my life medically speaking. I have managed a lifelong disease for twenty-five years. I’ve pricked my finger and injected a needle into my arm hundreds of thousands of times. I’ve been hospitalized more than a dozen times. I’ve had two major surgeries to deliver my babies and at one point I had a jaw infection that required drains be implanted into my cheeks.
But depression remains my toughest competitor.
My hardest fight.
So if you are reading this, know that where you are, I am there too.