When I was sixteen years old, I’d lie on my bed, stare at the rectangle of ceiling framed by the uppermost bars of my iron canopy, and watch the world close in around me. I felt separated from everyone else, set apart, set aside. When I got out of bed, which I did as infrequently as possible, everything appeared hazy and unreal, as if I was still viewing it from behind those semi-sheer curtains. I was a country unto myself, isolated and immune to the pressures and priorities of the rest of the world. I knew the truth: nothing mattered; nothing had value.
Looking back, it is obscenely obvious that I was depressed. Very depressed. At the time, however, I thought I was enlightened.
This is one of the most insidious things about depression; this trick of the mind that has you believing the dark, Coraline-esque version of reality is the true one. Once you think you’ve seen the truth, it’s nearly impossible to convince yourself that you want to go back to being ignorant. Even if it is blissful. Even if it is what everyone else is doing. Consider how many stories have been written (especially in YA fiction) in which the protagonist discovers that everyone else is operating under some happy delusion, when the reality is, the world is much more dangerous. The Mysterious Benedict Society and Divergent, spring immediately to mind. Do the characters in these novels decide to submit and live out the rest of their lives in blissful oblivion? Hell, no. They spend the rest of the book trying to convince everyone else that everything is far more fucked up than it seems. The truth, as we see it, is a difficult thing to let go. Even if what we see is not really the truth.
Weeks before my seventeenth birthday I landed in an adolescent psychiatric ward. No, it’s is not the same thing as a high school, though it’s close. It was a great experience, truly, it was, but it’s a story for another day. The important bit here is that I came out of the hospital medicated. I’ve been medicated, off and on, ever since.
I went several years (all of college, all three times) unmedicated. I began motherhood unmedicated, though I quickly remedied that situation. I’ve been seeing my pharmacist, on again, off again, for ten years, and this is what I’ve learned: Paula Deen would be better off thinking she’s “gotten over” her diabetes, and could stop shooting insulin, than I would be thinking I’ve “gotten over” my depression and should stop popping Cymbalta. After all, they both end badly, but in the first case, there’s only one person going down.
It’s a hard pill to swallow (no pun intended), this idea that there is something fundamentally “off” about the way my brain functions. I don’t want it to be so. I’d much rather be able to handle my “moods” by getting adequate exercise, nutrition, sleep, and the occasional break. And it’s true that these things help tremendously. However, without antidepressants, I can’t work up the energy or ambition to put them in place. It’s taken a long time for me to talk myself out of the idea that medication is somehow cheating – like liposuction of the soul. My truth is that antidepressants (the right ones, and I’ve tried nearly all of them) are a necessary component of a healthy, productive life.
How do I know? Well, let me tell you what happens when I stop taking them.
**I’ve done extensive, if non-standardized, testing on this.
I feel pretty good. Better than good, actually. The side effects are gone. I don’t feel antsy or wired. There are no electrical currents running under my skin. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night just because my dreams are too bizarre to sleep through. I don’t yawn all the time. I realize I’ve been torturing my body for no reason.
I still feel good. I understand that there is no emergency. I don’t have to unload the dishwasher or sort the mail, right this minute. In fact, I don’t need to do it today at all. It can wait. This is good, because all I really want to do is sit in this chair and read a book. Sure, honey, you can sit in my lap, you know I love to cuddle, and I’m not doing anything anyway.
I’m fine. It’s a little messy around here, but whatever. My phone won’t stop ringing; I don’t answer it because I’m convinced it’s someone calling about a credit card I took out in college and promptly forgot about. I keep sending the little girls outside to blow bubbles. When it begins raining, I start episode after episode of Sesame Street on the TV.
I get up an hour later than normal. Everyone is screaming for “hot milk” and breakfast. By 9am, everyone has been in timeout at least once, including me. I wonder how I got myself into this mess. My house is a disaster. I consider cleaning it, but decide burning it down and starting from scratch is the easier option. I recognize that I am somewhat grumpy and decide it’s because I haven’t written anything in two days. I decide to write during nap time. When everyone is finally napping, I push aside the dirty lunch dishes and open my computer. I can’t think of anything to say. I become convinced that everything I’ve ever said is total drivel. I pop over to Pinterest, but immediately bag it because it’s clear that everyone who puts stuff on there is a poser. Instead, I begin researching cheap trips to the Bahamas on Travelzoo. The girls wake up two hours later and I turn on another engaging episode of Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
I wake up because little people are pulling on my hair. “Get off of me!” I yell. I am totally justified in this. After all, they are supposed to stay in their room until I come to get them. So what if it’s 8:30am? I stomp down the stairs issuing vague threats about cancelled birthday parties. I turn on Netflix, grateful that it plays one episode after another without requiring me to even press a button. I look around the kitchen and start cussing. Why do I have to do everything? Who died and made me maid? What happened to personal responsibility? Someone asks for a snack; I glare at them. It’s so unfair. Why do I spend my life waiting on people who don’t even appreciate it? Everything sucks. I’ll never be able to catch up. What’s the point of catching up anyway? Netflix has paused, asking if we are still watching Daniel Tiger. The girls are running circles around the living room dragging the world’s loudest classic phone toy. They keep catching their feet on the edge of the carpet until it’s crumpled up a good ten inches under the ottoman – the ottoman that is filled with toys they are too entitled to enjoy playing with anymore. I’ve already failed them, and they are only three years old.
The toy runs over someone’s toe and she starts wailing.
“FIX THE GODDAMN CARPET AND STOP DRAGGING THAT FUCKING PHONE BEFORE I LOSE MY EVER-LOVING MIND!!!” I scream.
Of course everyone starts crying, including me.
I start taking my medication again.
This is not pretty. It’s not funny. It’s not something I share at cocktail parties. But I suspect it’s a reality I share with a lot of parents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about a quarter of all women in the United States (twelve million, or so) experience clinical depression EACH YEAR. I’m sure that many of these women experience depression as a one time only, situational event. That’s not me. It doesn’t really matter; it sucks just as much whether it’s the first time you’ve endured it, or the hundredth.
Am I ashamed of my behavior when my crazy lady takes over? Of course. Am I ashamed of myself? I try not to be. For years, I’ve been trying to eradicate shame from my own life and the lives of those I love. Shame is the great divider. Shame is what keeps us holed up in ourselves, feeling disconnected and alone. I feel pretty protective of that girl crying on the floor because she cussed at her kids. She’s trying. She’s fighting a hard battle without armor.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I will always need antidepressants. I have a chronic disease, no less real than diabetes or arthritis. I can’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps and get out of this one. What’s more, I shouldn’t have to try. There is no award given for living an unmedicated life. No sticker, no free casket. However, the rewards of accepting those things I cannot change, changing the things I can, and learning to know the difference are vast. Bigger even than I can describe – it’s the reward of knowing that there is no curtain of separation. No one is a country unto herself. No one is isolated and immune, no matter what the chemistry of our brains may tell us.