Some people only consider physical disorders and disabilities to be real problems. I hate the mental/physical dichotomy. I hate the way we deal with “mental” disorders. My problems arise when my brain seriously malfunctions. Isn’t the brain physical? Don’t brain malfunctions deserve to be taken seriously?
***May be triggering for people with depression.***
I am writing this for all the people who think or say “Well, everybody gets depressed” when they learn you are suffering from depression. Everyone feels down in the dumps sometimes. Clinical depression is a different beast.
When I get sick, it’s as bad as it can be. My brain only does severe depression, it doesn’t mess around with mild or moderate depression. The cognitive impact is huge. I lose the ability to read. Intelligent and challenging books are taken from me, but so are short essays, and low-level magazines. I can’t get through a paragraph. As I read, I forget what I’ve just read, so by the end of the paragraph, I don’t know what’s going on. I try to watch TV, but I can’t follow what’s happening. TV shows are beyond my grasp. It hurts to write that I can’t process stupid TV shows.
Therapy, when I need it most, is useless. I try to hang on my therapist’s words, but after a few seconds, I’ve forgotten what she was saying. So she has to repeat it, again. I try to convey what I’m feeling or thinking, but the same thing happens. Mid-sentence, I have no idea what I was saying. This happens every time I try to talk, I think. My husband, my psychologist, and my psychiatrist are used to both my terror and my rage. “I don’t know what I just said!” “What did you just say? Maybe it would have helped!” Everything is spoken in desperation.
I tend toward hyperactivity when I’m well. I’m the one who can’t sit still, who plays with any object within reach, who fidgets, who has to get up and move. When I get sick, that energy vanishes. I sit still for hours. People who know me can’t believe I could hold still that long. I hold still, very still, and stare glassy-eyed at the floor. I have a minor problem with drooling, but I don’t care. Everything hurts, and I sleep for 16 hours a day. People comment that they’d give anything to sleep 16 hours a day. No you wouldn’t, not when it’s out of your control, and happens every day for months. When my psychiatrist came to call me back to her office, she said later that she instantly knew. Each time, she took one look at me and knew I was no better.
I look at stacks of books I’d really wanted to read, and I feel nothing. I watch the seedlings in my indoor herb garden shrivel and die from neglect, and feel nothing. I am dragged, against my will, to places I used to love. I feel nothing. My husband is a wonderful man, and I love him so much it’s disgusting. When I get sick, I look at him and feel nothing. People die, and I feel nothing. I was sick on September 11, 2001. All I could feel was rage that all those people-people who were truly alive-were murdered while I, a corpse that everyone perceived as alive, was still “living”.
Doing my homework from therapy, I force myself to go places. Anything to get me out in the world and imitating a living person. I was raised to NEVER cry. In Office Depot, I cry in front of the staplers. In the grocery store, I stand in front of the green peppers and I cry. I can’t even feel embarrassed. Strangers voice concern, I feel a gentle touch on my shoulder. “No, I’m fine, thank you.” Why can’t they see that I’m already dead?
I know the location of every gun shop in town, even though I’ve never touched a gun in my life. I want a gun, I need a gun. This will be no suicide attempt, I will complete the act. Suicide isn’t always a cry for help. Sometimes it’s a last desperate act to end the unbearable. I am in a persistent vegetative state. I am long gone, but this stupid body continues living. I need a gun to end the charade, but I can’t inflict that pain on my husband.
I hate him for that.
My psychiatrist brings up shock treatment, and I resist, but not for the reason she thinks. Shock therapy fails for 20% of the people who experience it. Every damn drug they’ve given me has failed, so why would shock treatment work? Knowing that shock therapy is a possibility is my “out”. It’s an extreme option that might save me. If I try it and fail, I don’t think anything will keep me from killing myself. So I have to keep it as my safety net. If suicide is imminent, then shock therapy will (likely not) save me.
During all of this, I am in graduate school, pursuing a degree in biological psychology. My academic adviser, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, makes constant remarks at me. “You should be able to get your emotional problems under control.” “You should realize how lucky you are that you only have an emotional problem. What if you had a real physical problem!” “Why is it taking so long for you to recover?” (This depressive episode lasted from March, 2001 to May, 2002.) I go to another faculty member in the psychology department for help. Her area of expertise is clinical depression. I tell her I can’t function. She tells me to try harder.
Summer, 2001, I take a leave of absence from graduate school because I cannot function. My adviser has never paid 1 cent of my stipend. I am just free labor for him. There are no students who have come in after me, so the lab is not pressed for space. In spite of this, he gives me an ultimatum in January 2002: either recover by June 1st and be prepared to come back and work 100 hours a week, or leave. He also gives me life advice: “Depressives aren’t suited for research” and “You could never run a big research lab like I do. You couldn’t handle it”. The psychology department sends me a threatening letter: I’m not making satisfactory progress in my training. How can one make progress while on a leave of absence?
Finally, in May, I am prescribed lithium. Lithium is toxic, so I start on a baby dose.
Something is different.
The dose is increased, my blood levels are monitored, and suddenly, I am me again. I believe that I’m manic, because the difference between where I was and where I am are so extreme. “No” they tell me, with smiles beaming. “You’ve always been hyper. This is normal for you!” I leave graduate school with lasting bitterness and a compensatory master’s degree.
Please think about this essay the next time you hear people make light of depression. It doesn’t happen to everyone. You don’t just pull yourself out of it. It is not a character flaw.