depression

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Memoir

At one point in my life I was a full time faculty member at a high powered Big Ten school, with administrative, teaching and research expectations. I had graduate students writing doctoral theses under my direction, and others who I advised. I attended conferences and gave papers two or three times a year, I wrote articles, I edited volumes of articles, I published two full length books. All of this between the years 1987 and 1997.

During that same period I had a baby, and two years later, I went into treatment for secondary infertility. After four losses over a two year period, we decided to stop trying. We had a healthy, bright kid, and we counted ourselves lucky to have her.

When the Girlchild was about three, I started writing fiction more seriously. I joined a group of writers, we met every other week and I worked hard on a series of short stories that eventually became Homestead. At one time I was writing Homestead, Into the Wilderness, and English with and Accent simultaneously. I was up for tenure that year. At that point the turn down rate in the humanities (at UM/Ann Arbor) was more than 70 percent, so I also went on the job market in anticipation of not getting tenure. My first short stories were published. I got an agent. I got tenure.

In graduate school my PhD advisor called me a force of nature. At UM, my colleagues nodded in approval. Normal people asked in all seriousness how I got so much done. I would crack wise in response. I don’t do windows. Sleep is highly overrated. In fact both of those things were true. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we did have household help once a week for a few hours. And I got very little sleep. Insomnia was my self diagnosis. I went back to the reproductive endocrinologist who had treated me for secondary infertility and he checked me over. I was thirty seven at that point. He mentioned some possibilities: early onset menopause. Sleep apnea.

On winter break we drove from Ann Arbor to Lake Placid, so the Mathematician and the Girlchild could ski (or better said, he could ski and she could take ski lessons). I was going to use that time to do research for one of the historical novels. I had an appointment to meet with the archivist at the Schuyler mansion. There was a huge amount of snow, and it was very icy. Driving south on the North Road near Glens Falls, I hit a patch of black ice and drove into a cliff face at about fifty miles an hour. The car (three months old) was totaled. I walked away with a sprained wrist and a lot of colorful bruises from the airbag and safety belt. You be glad of that airbag, one of the rescue people told me. Or we’d be scraping you off that cliff face. We had to rent a car to get home. The Mathematician drove the whole way. I kept falling asleep and jerking awake in a sweat.

Shortly after that, I began to develop a driving phobia. If there was any snow, if the road was wet, it was almost impossible for me to get on a highway or freeway. Once I got on, I would be tense to the point of lockjaw until I got off. Many times I took an exit and then realized that I was nowhere near where I needed to go, but in my panic I had convinced myself that it was the right exit to take.

We left Ann Arbor and moved to the Pacific Northwest. I had a new faculty position, the Girlchild had a new school. The Mathematician brought his job with him. My driving phobia got worse. It got so bad that more than once I almost caused an accident. I found it hard to concentrate, I was forgetful, I lost things constantly.

I went to the doctor. He asked me to fill out a depression evaluation. Which I flunked. I can’t be depressed, I told him. I’m running as fast as I can, all the time. He suggested a therapist. I went home and wept for a day. Then I went to see a therapist. It took a couple months for me to see what was going on.

The first big revelation: You can be depressed and be productive. A-type personalities may slide deeper and deeper into depression going a hundred miles an hour and leaping buildings in a single bound. Which makes you harder to diagnose, my therapist told me, and it also makes other the kind of depressed person really mad. The guy who crawls under the covers and is immobilized.

Insomnia, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, weepiness, these are signs of depression.

But I wrote three books, I told her. I wrote dozens of articles and reviews. I got tenure. My daughter is healthy and well adjusted. My marriage is solid.

You lost four pregnancies and went through two years of medical hell, she told me. You went up for tenure in a Big Ten crucible. You had a near fatal car accident. You started sliding into depression during infertility treatment and down you went.

Looking back now it’s obvious, but back then it wasn’t. Back then it would have felt like whining or self indulgence.

One clinical definition of depression is anger turned inward. Sometimes there’s no logical place to put your anger. Sometimes directing your anger where it belongs is something you can’t let yourself do. It took a long time and a lot of therapy before some of that began to shift for me. After six months or so I went on medication as well.

You hear a lot of talk about people being overmedicated. Maybe that’s true. Maybe doctors are too ready to hand out SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) but then there’s no blood test to tell them exactly what’s out of whack with your brain chemistry, and so they err on the side of caution. Because when depression hits bottom and the bottom gives way, it’s much harder to pull off a save. A doctor doesn’t hesitate to give insulin, doesn’t worry about the next big expose article and fad controversy. But depression meds — that’s fair game. It’s an easy target. Rise up in outrage, all ye who have never missed an hour’s sleep, or lost a loved one to suicide.

I started medication on a Monday. They told me it would take a couple weeks to kick in. I wasn’t really expecting any change because at that point I still didn’t really credit the idea that I was depressed. I was a preoccupied insomniac with a work ethic. Everybody had an acronym in those days. I was a PIWE, as were so many other academics.

And then about ten days after I started taking meds, I was walking down the street on a warmish morning in late January. Thinking about dinner or the parent-teacher meeting coming up or whether or not to give a pop quiz — really, I don’t remember. But I do know that I looked up and it struck me very suddenly that the world was in color.

Sometime over the last seven or eight years, all the colors had leeched out of the world, and I hadn’t even noticed. Now suddenly it was all there again. How was such a thing possible? And where were my sunglasses? It occurred to me that the person who wrote the Wizard of Oz screenplay understood something about depression. Dorothy leaves gray-scale Kansas and opens the door into Technicolor Oz.

Within six weeks my driving phobia had pretty much disappeared, and I could merge onto the highway without breaking into a sweat. I started sleeping normally. I stopped getting weepy for no reason.

Why am I telling this story today, you’re wondering.

I’m telling this story because today I realized that at some point or another I started down that old depression slide again, and I’m picking up speed. Insomnia, inability to concentrate, irritability, anxiety. Time to go back to the therapist, back to the doctor, fill a prescription, start talking. Time to turn up the color.

A few months ago I heard that the husband of a former student had committed suicide. I don’t know what was up with him, if had been clinically depressed, if he had been diagnosed and treated, or if he had never found his way to the person who asked him the right questions. So this is also something of a public service announcement. Some things you may not know, from All About Depression:

  • Major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States
  • Depression affects almost 10% of the population, or 19 million Americans, in a given year
  • During their lifetime, 10%-25% of women and 5%-12% of men will become clinically depressed
  • Women are affected by depression almost twice as often as men
  • The economic cost of depression is estimated to be over $30 billion each year
  • Two-thirds of those who are depressed never seek treatment and suffer needlessly
  • 80%-90% of those who seek treatment for depression can feel better within just a few weeks
  • Research on twins suggests that there is a genetic component to the risk of developing depression
  • Research has also shown that the stress of a loss, especially the death of a loved one, may lead to depression in some people
  • Up to 15% of those who are clinically depressed die by suicide.

If you need help, get it.

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