Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Depression: The Silent Killer

IN MEMORY of my amazing friend...

Depression. The silent killer. Depression is a cancer that slowly eats a person, left untreated. And sometimes, even the most aggressive treatments just aren't enough.

Depression is difficult to define, to explain in words, because depression isn't made up of words. It's made up of swirling emotions that are usually meddled with small bits of truths and bulks of disproportionate falsehoods.

All people have struggled with bouts of depression at some point in their lives, usually associated with a tragic loss or a stressful event. We have all felt sad, all felt overwhelmed, but usually time heals our wounds and we are able to bounce back to a normal routine, our emotions stabilizing.

In the past, depression was considered "the blues," and accepted that one would eventually "snap out of it." Now, after further explorations of the brain, depression is recognized as a medical condition.  Depression is a mental illness. It's not unlike diabetes or heart disease. Diabetes is an imbalance of insulin; depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain (with about a million contributing factors still being explored).

One cannot fathom the depths of depression until personally going through it. I certainly never did.

I observed my close relatives, their behavior often odd and confusing to me. The shifts in mood from warm to ice was an ever occurring phenomenon. As a young child, I often resented the adults in my life who seemed to love me one day and reject me the next. I was often harsh in my judgment of family members.  I wondered why they didn't just try to be happy. After all, happiness is a choice.
It wasn't until I turned nineteen that I began to understand my family. I began to experience shifts in my mood that were unrecognizable to me, as I had never struggled with disabling mood swings as a youth. Despite my exuberant optimism, which most people recognized as my most prevalent characteristic, those closest to me began to see a darker side.

Depression affects all people differently. This is my story.

The only description I can offer is "black hole." It didn't matter that I was an honor student in college, that I was President of the Business Club, that I had a serious boyfriend that I would later marry, that I had a job I loved, that I had amazing friends. Outwardly, my world seemed adequate enough. I felt blessed beyond belief. I laughed. I joked. I was happy. So happy. But like a rogue wave, I would be slammed into a state of utter despair. It was unpredictable. Sometimes trifling issues would proceed it, sometimes nothing at all. As an insanely prayerful person, I was convinced I could pray my way through the turmoil offsetting my world. I married. I finished my college degree (ironically changing my emphasis to psychology). I had three kids. I fostered over a dozen children. Through all of this, I battled a demon, not of flesh and blood, but of thoughts existing in my own head. No one outside of my home had a clue. How could they? I never went out when I was experiencing an "episode," a term my husband and I used to refer to my low points. I was often curled up in a ball wishing the earth would swallow me up, praying God would take me home where I didn't have to feel the desolation engulfing my own mind. Emotions that crashed over me included, but were not limited to, grief, despair, hopelessness, and guilt. The guilt encompassed more of me than anything. How could I be so ungrateful? How could I hate a life so filled with blessings? I was a miserable person. My family would be better off with someone who could uplift them, instead of drag them through the endless roller coaster that was my existence.

My husband was my constant buffer. He cared for the kids, no matter how many filled our home at the time. He was always loving and encouraging. He was my rock. After a day, sometimes two, it passed. And then I was happy again. Like it never even happened. I loved my family, I resumed my role as a bouncy trouncy mom and wife.

Along the way, I'd visited doctor after doctor, all of which deciding I was the most upbeat, happy person on earth and of course I was stressed out and overwhelmed. I constantly had between 5 and 6 kids under the age of 7 living in my house. Nothing was wrong with me. I just needed to take more time for myself. Take a happy pill.

I'd researched and implemented behavioral therapy methods, my first choice of dealing with communication and behavioral problems with my biological and foster children.  Despite my 100% anti-medicine mind, I finally gave up on controlling my mood. I finally realized there was no controlling a tornado. So I tried several different antidepressants. Some made me groggy out of my mind. I would ask my doctor, "Isn't there something else I can take? I'd like to load my dishwasher without pausing to take a nap."

I'd try something else. It would send me spiraling into raging mood swings worse than the ones I was already experiencing. Once I went ballistic and threw tomatoes at Starling's head. Why? Because I was making BLT's and he ate a piece of bacon that was not yet on a sandwich.

Finally, I talked to a psychiatrist, taking Starling with me. (This proved to be the turning point in someone believing that I was bonkers). When I jovially described my colorful episodes, I could never quite divulge the fullness of my lows. As it is sometimes with blissfully happy people, when we aren't sad, it's almost difficult to recreate a description of a low episode. We almost block it out, because we no longer associate with those ragged emotions. At least, not until they fester again. Even with the psychiatrist, I found myself laughing at the ridiculousness of my actions and the insane beliefs I held during my ugly moments. Not because I found any of it funny. Trust me. I didn't. Humor and sarcasm is how many people cope with depression. It's our own little defense mechanism.  

It was only when Starling spoke, that the psychiatrist stopped grinning. It was terribly uncomfortable for me, to be vulnerable with my illogical thinking and embarrassing behaviors filleted on the psychiatrist's desk. He diagnosed me with bipolar. But, I thought, the "black hole" wasn't me and it wasn't anything I wanted to be associated with. I wasn't like the people we'd studied in my psychology classes. They took crazy to a whole new level.

The doctor said the spectrum for mental illness is huge and while I was low on the spectrum in severity, (I wasn't blowing money, drinking, abusing drugs, having sex with random people, etc), he thought I would benefit from a mood stabilizer- anti depressant combo. After eight looong years, I got on the right medication. Wow. What a difference. Now I can reserve my crazy for my children's behavior instead of plunging into moments of imaginary problems. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Many people don't find the right medication. Many people are misdiagnosed. Many medications have terrible side effects, some leading to suicide. Even with the right medication, depression is still a life-long battle.

When depression takes a life, as it did one of my dearly beloved friends, it breaks my heart. It also makes my mind churn. I don't ask "Why?" I know why. It's the black hole of depression. Though I have never blogged about my diagnosis, I haven't been silent about it, either. You may have noticed, if you've read my blog, I'm not a secretive person. I've learned that owning my weaknesses gives me power over them. It also empowers others.

When my friend left this world, she left a multitude of loved ones, people she loves, people who love her. People I haven't talked to in 10 years have reached out to me, and vice-versa. And I notice a trend. Nearly everyone I talked to said the same thing, "I know what depression is like. I struggle with it, too."  Most of them keep it a secret, scared of the little black box hidden in their sock drawer. It could happen to any of us. A predisposition to depression significantly increases the risk of suicide.
Depression singles out our insecurities, magnifying them. It convinces us that we are alone in our sorrows, the only one fighting a losing battle. Well. We aren't alone. There are millions of us. It's time to stop hiding in the shadows. It's time to own it and beat it. You are not alone. You are never alone. It helps to talk to others who walk in your shoes. My door is always open. Well. I live in Mexico. My fb messenger is always open. And those of you who live with a person suffering with depression, there is a special place in Heaven for you next to my husband.

I love you, Mary Ellen Ray. We made a great team winning those debate trophies. I don't know if anyone could make up "facts" like the two of us. (And leave our opponents' mouths agape). Thanks for the memories. I'll always smile when I think of you. You left this world too early. Your life has touched more people than you know. I only wish you could have seen the out pouring of love from your friends and family before you left this earth. Maybe you do see it. I hope so. I know your heart is no longer troubled. I have a testimony that families are forever, that our Savior has welcomed you into His loving arms. You'll always have a special place in my heart. 

Love one of your many friends,