I have to tell you that my early years were great. I had a lot of fun—cruising on my banana-seat chopper from one Kick the Can game to another, trolling forests with the neighborhood gang, being president of a shoplifting club. (Sorry, reader, but the adrenaline rush of pocketing a Hello Kitty eraser is a high I don’t regret.) I sketched improbable inventions or practiced magic or read or watched The Muppet Show with dozens of Jeno’s pizza rolls pyramided on my TV tray. My family spent summers at our lake cabin, and I filled my days tooling around in my sailboat dinghy, poking crawdads with sticks, and trying to slalom.
I seemed headed for an entire lifetime of adventures and escapades and sunshine and hope. But, that’s not exactly what happened.
Decades later, even though I objectively had the prerequisites for a stable, blessed life—a great husband, two awesome sons, my dream home, girlfriends aplenty (the list goes on and on)—I experienced a full-blown breakdown (Disclaimer: I don’t really know what a nervous breakdown is; I just know that I was desperately sick for nearly 900 days and that doesn’t sound NOT like a breakdown.)
I guess, to some extent, I should have seen it coming. The carefree middle school explorer was only part of me—and my inner reality was more complex. I was a perfectionist who once broke a chair because I got an A minus in Latin; I was a worrier scared of elevators and night sounds and displeasing my parents; I was a loner in my own home, but an extrovert in public, which means my private and public selves were undeniably at odds with each other. And these less-transparent parts of me never wholly vanished as I traveled into adulthood.
Major depression is very, very complicated. I know unhealthy coping strategies and self-imposed standards and unresolved fears made me a prime candidate. Throw in a suspected family history and wonky brain wiring and/or chemical imbalances, perimenopause, and unchecked stress.
Then top all of that off with the quickly-regretted fact that I trashed my antidepressants (which were working marvelously), and I was more or less ripe for the pickin’.
Why did I wean off my medication, this integral requirement for my stability? That is the question to end all questions. Looking back, I imagine I thought I could harness and tame my sick brain with diet and yoga and therapy and journaling and St. John’s Wort. Turns out I couldn’t.
I also didn’t remember how malfunctioning my brain had been in the past. I had forgotten about that mercurial and not-quite-tethered Susie who reigned before I agreed to fill that first prescription. In my mind, the following 17 years of genuine serenity had proven my moxie and strength —and I overlooked that treating my illness was what gave me that moxie and strength. Hubris, pure hubris.
The people around me, my posse, methodically crooned that someone “strong” like me certainly didn’t need “a crutch”—and their sparkling diagnosis enchanted me. So I gobbled it up. Turns out they were closer to Mary Kay consultants than medical professionals. They didn’t bully me into submission; they flattered me into submission. I was a chump.
Soon, without anything to buttress my mental health, I became über-jittery and started to stammer (an omen foreboding not-good-things). My medicinal experiment was a bust and I would have to titrate back up to a therapeutic dose. I felt a little silly that I had been so impulsive and easily manipulated, and more than a little irritated that I was going to have to wait about 14 days for the drug to kick back in.
That didn’t happen.
Within a few more days, I slipped into a greasy blackness that I have never known. And that projected two weeks of illness? Oh, that stretched closer to about 125 weeks.
My standby antidepressant no longer worked and the next one made me cry inconsolably and the next one made me dip deeper and the next one had no effect (but helped me gain 42 lbs.) and the next one gave me tics and the next one caused confusion and the next one made me wish for death. These are just the highlights.
But, here’s what finally happened, the triumphant climax: I got better. And it was not out of nowhere. I kept going, I half-existed, day after blank day. I listened to my doctors. I took every chalky tablet and went to every appointment. I promised myself I would hang on. Eventually, I tried the millionth pill. And it worked.
This is a cautionary tale. No idyllic childhood, J.Crew existence, or hefty liposuction budget is a match for clinical depression. All those are lovely, lovely gifts, but they can’t possibly fully protect you—and they can’t make you well either. And, unfortunately, natural approaches and standbys aren’t always enough.
On the other hand, the right medication might be.
Pharmaceuticals, of course, are not a universal one-size-fits-all answer. You don’t need to glug some drug cocktail just because I do. Some people hate taking any pills, some are plagued by horrible side effects, some think popping an ibuprofen makes them a junkie, and, sadly, some don’t reap any benefit. But, there is another group who snubs their noses at any psychiatric prescription because the world tells them to—and that is a rotten, stinking tragedy.
Now, when someone comments, “You don’t seem like you need ‘happy pills’,” I remind myself not to fall for Satan’s trickery. I just say, “Really? You seem like you do!” and go “Ho Ho Ho” and we share a quick, insincere belly laugh. I keep thinking, though, what is the right retort that will make them shut their traps and stop preying, unwittingly or not, on other impressionable listeners? The anti-med brigade is everywhere, and their “Just Say No” message is seductive.
I’ve said my piece, so I will end here and leave you with the moral of the story: DO consider my words, DO educate yourself, DO trust yourself. DON’T take your emotional well-being for granted and DON’T, under any circumstances, trust well-meaning, clueless buttinskis.