Friday, April 11, 2014

Puddles of Depression

*This post originally appeared on I have nothing to write for today, and I've decided I also want to keep this post here, on my personal blog, so that I never lose it. Also, when I originally wrote it, it was like 10 (single spaced) pages long. This is heavily edited. One day I may post the whole story in a series. We'll see.

It's not depression. I don't have depression," I said to my Indian-born psychiatrist as I was curled up in fetal position on a couch. In a white-walled room. On the psych ward. At a hospital. Somewhere in Northern Virginia.

"I'm just stressed. I have anxiety. I haven't slept well for days, and I just have anxiety. If anything it is anxiety." I was a psychology minor in college, so of course I knew what I was talking about.

Then, in his blunt manner he finally spoke, "Anxiety is depression left untreated."

I'm pretty sure I started to sob. Where had things gone wrong? How could I have depression? My life was a dream. I had recently graduated with my teaching degree from one of the nation's top education universities. My husband was attending a Top 15 Law School in the nation's capital. Our opportunities seemed endless. My aspiration of teaching at-risk children was being realized, and despite my students’ lagging reading levels, we were just finishing up the classic African novel, Things Fall Apart.

This adult life of mine seemed so much better than I had ever imagined. I knew I'd made that small town, starry-eyed girl I once was proud. In convincing myself that my life had turned out better than I'd envisioned, I'd failed to face my struggles head on.

Let’s rewrite paragraph #4: I started to sob. I knew he was right. I had depression. My life had fallen apart, completely shattered. I was a fresh college graduate working at a job I hadn't even interviewed for; my principal just gave my resume to the HR department and told them I was one of her six new English teachers, making me ineligible to apply at any other school in the District. My husband's law school was so expensive I refused to look at the bill -- just take out the loan, pile on the debt. Our closest family members were hundreds of miles away, and most were thousands. And I was an inner city high school English teacher.

My students acting out a scene from
"Things Fall Apart," just weeks
before I'd literally fall apart.
My students could hardly read. Few of them showed up to class consistently. The school building looked like a prison from the outside and was even worse on the inside. There were no walls; my classroom had no walls. On top of that I'd foolishly agreed to be the girl's basketball coach. Can you imagine, 12 of the school’s roughest female athletes, waiting in the gym for their 25-year-old-never-played-college-basketball-white-girl-coach to come lead them to a city championship?

Oh, and my computer broke. Cause that's how life works, whenever it seems like you just can't handle one more problem, the technology you depend on dies.

That list of problems only covered life on the surface. I had so many personal battles waging on inside my soul.

Personal problem #1, I needed to make new friends. I'd never had to make new friends from scratch. Never. There were the girls from church, who were very nice and welcoming, but for some reason I didn't feel like I fit in when we went out for ice cream. There were the girls from work, whose personalities seemed to match mine better, but their life stages and styles didn't. Oh well, I told myself, I don't need friends. I've got my own family to think about.

Which leads us to personal problem #2. My husband, whom I love dearly and was a complete rock during this moment of my life, felt ready to start building our own family. I was a little more hesitant, what with the demanding job and all, but I didn't want to be the one to say no. Besides, my birth control prescription was running out at the end of the month and I hadn't found the time to get a new doctor. Word of advice: if your life is too crazy to schedule a quick Dr visit, your life is too crazy to have children. How I ignored that obvious mess is beyond me.

At Mount Vernon with my dad and little brother on 
Thanksgiving Day, about 10 days before I'd be admitted
to the psych ward.
Personal problem #3 aka the moment I knew something inside my soul was wrong. I was homesick. My parents and kid-brother came for a visit during the week of Thanksgiving. I took a day or two off work to show them my favorite sites: Mount Vernon and the monuments on the national mall. For the holiday weekend we all drove up to Pennsylvania to see my brother who was in medical school, and his wife, son and brand new-baby girl. We had a wonderful time. It was the first moment I'd had to relax and just be myself since August. I felt little stress and little pressure for five fabulous days.

On Monday I rode the metro to the end of its line and put my Utah family on their bus to the Baltimore airport. Even all these years later I think of that moment and fight back tears. I was standing tall on the Maryland pavement, but my heart and soul were melting into a yucky puddle beneath me. My brother gave me our traditional bear hug, and now that he was much bigger and stronger than me it nearly broke my ribs. My dad's hug followed and then my mom's. All I remember about those hugs is an overwhelming darkness. I'd said some big goodbyes to my parents before. When I left to serve an LDS mission I’d hardly looked back; I gave them hugs and I had tears in my eyes, but the feelings in my heart were of peace and happiness. On that metro line that cold November day all I felt was pain and emptiness. The feeling was palpable. My parents could literally feel the depression dripping out of me. Until that moment there were no clues, I had mastered looking and acting strong. But that puddle beneath me was going to win.

I was about to drown.

Fast-forward one week, and my Dad was flying back to DC. This time he’d come visit me on the psych ward of that Virginia hospital.

"You're psychiatrist won't tell you this, so I'm going to have to," he said as we sat in the privacy of my room. "They are looking to see if you can take care of yourself. You need to shower every morning. You need to put on clean clothes. You need to eat. They will not let you leave here until you prove you can take care of yourself."

Those simple instructions sounded novel, and I had no desire to do any of them. But if anyone knew how to achieve a healthy release from the psych ward it was my dad. Tucked away somewhere in my hope chest is the dream catcher he made for me during his own stay at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center Psych Ward. I was 16-years-old when I made daily visits, 200 miles round trip, to visit my dad who was recovering from a bi-polar breakdown.

They’ll tell you group therapy is optional. It isn’t optional Alizabeth. You need to make friends and socialize around the ward or they won’t think you are ready for the real world. You need to go to craft time, game nights, and group therapy.”

Aside from the "you need to shower” advice, the best advice my father gave me contradicted everything the counselors were telling me to do.

Your job is too difficult, they'd say. Even I couldn’t do itTeaching doesn't have to be that hard. You shouldn't go back. You could get a teaching job in Virginia. The students on this side of the river are much easier to deal with.

In the privacy of my own room my father sat me down and looked me straight in the eyes, "I know it is your choice, so you do what you want. But I know you. And I know you will regret giving up on those kids for the rest of your life. It will be hard; you already know that. But go back to that school and prove to yourself that your depression doesn’t have to control your life’s direction. Finish the school year and then move on. That's the best recovery I think you could give yourself."

To fight off the depression and the serious weight gain of 
anti-depressants I decided to ask my SIL and teenage 
best friend to train for and compete in a sprint-triathlon 
with me. I nearly took dead last, but 10 months after my 
break I completed something pretty challenging! Hard 
things can be done.
I waited another year and a half before I (involuntarily) moved on. Teaching kids who get shot at on the weekend is no easy task. As with all difficult things, the rewards are as grand as the sacrifices. I saw drug users transform into track stars. I had a straight-A student murdered for a pair of shoes. That job never got easier, and I suppose one who suffers from clinical depression is never fully healed. But I did what my dad told me to do, I proved to myself that my depression didn’t have control over me. It broke me down into a fragile human being, but I had power over it.

This doesn’t mean I can ignore my new label. During the year of counseling and psychiatric treatments that followed I had to identify the signs of my depression. If I ever loose my appetite and fill my time with an impossible list of constructive activities I need an intervention. My mom chuckled when I told her these were my signs of weakness. “I’d be skinny!” she giggled into the phone. I’m sure most people eat more and do less.

Me about 3 months into 
treatments, playing with my nephew
and niece in Pennsylvania.
We all handle our mental health differently. Some never suffer the ills of depression. They have normal highs and lows, but no rock bottom. Some don’t want to discuss their sufferings; they battle them in private. Others stigmatize mental health and will judge me a weak human being.

I’m okay with that. Judge away.

I know one of the most beautiful things about me is my depression.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you need a hug? [Hug, hug, hug]
Love, Pa

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