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 were 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 eighty 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.
My former PhD advisor called me a force of nature. 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 ITW. 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. The rescue people kept looking at the car and then looking at me and shaking their heads in disbelief. You be glad of that airbag, one of them 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 pisses other the kind of depressed person. 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 shit these days about people being overmedicated. Maybe that’s true. Maybe doctors are too ready to hand out 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.
I’m glad you recognised your slide. Do whatever it takes to get yourself where you feel that you are properly you again.
That was interesting about the colour. For me it’s music. I didn’t realise I’d stopped singing until I started again. Not in a choir or anything. You know – in the shower, singing along to the radio in the car, hanging out the washing, that sort of thing. And that noise that used to be there somewhere vaguely in the background actually became music again. A joy in life.
So yeah, focus on colour and I hope you find it again soon.
Strange how such smart (and even expert) women as us can find it so hard to put two and two together in this area. Even repetition doesn’t seem to help, at least for me… This last time it still took a friend sitting me down and saying, “this looks bad. what are you going to do about it?” before I registered that the sucked-dry, gray-scale, weepy, desperate overwhelm I’d been struggling with for all those months had been the Big D, and not “just” a normal response to shitty grinding stresses that Must Be Endured.
Good on you for naming the names, and turning yourself in, and especially to talking out loud. Because lots of us need to hear it. And, yeah, the colors have been coming back, here, and I’m noticing that I can *breathe*freely* again. Wishing you that, too.
Robyn — it was kind of a challenge to myself, to see if I could write this and then have the nerve to post it.
Hope I don’t scare too many people away.
You’ve hit on a very sensitive topic and one so prevalent in my family we don’t wonder if, but when. Kudos to you for getting help!
Interesting that you speak of diabetes, for that is the exact way I’ve been taught/told how to deal with my depression. When my brain chemicals are out of wack, I can feel it. I can either do something differently and “fix” it, or if it is too much or gone too far, I can get meds. Either way works, either was I can return to being a mom & wife. Either way, it still sneaks up on me every now and again.
As for colors, I can only remember the time surrounding the birth of my son as being in grays. We moved two states away from all our friends and family one month before he was born. There I was, a new home owner, new mom, and there were so many new wonderful things to do and be a part of, but I couldn’t leave the house, and I wondered why I wasn’t happy with so many wonderful things I was blessed to have.
Hang in there Rosina, and thank you for sharing. That took a lot of guts and I’m sure that someone reading this will see themselves and get help.
You know Rosina…people don’t talk enough. Too often parents don’t talk to their children and spouses don’t communicate with each other enough. We could learn so much from each other if we were willing to talk more and be honest and open. Thanks for showing us how. Thanks for talking.
I found it harder to admit the downslide the second time around than I did the first. I thought that, having been there and done it (the whole medication-and-therapy route) I was ‘cured’ – like depression is akin to measles or mumps: something to get once, and develop an immunity to. I told my doctor that, too, and he just laughed as he wrote out the script (he’s a wonderful man).
Like Robyn, it was a friend who sat me down the first time and pointed out that I couldn’t keep going the way that I was. I went to the doctor and started the medication she suggested. About five weeks later, I woke up suddenly at around two in the morning, looked up at my ceiling and heard myself for the first time in many, many months. It took longer for the colours to come back, but I didn’t release how lost I’d become until that moment.
But eight or nine months ago, when I started sliding for the second time, it took more than a friend to realise that I really needed help. I admire your courage for knowing it inside yourself, Rosina.
You haven’t scared me off. You are certainly more normal to me now than ever. I’ve tried serotonin inhibitors, and I regularly see a therapist. What a saving grace it’s been to have someone to talk to who is not intimately involved in my life. Never been to clinical depression yet, but I’ve spent self-obsessed days in Generalized Anxiety Disorder world. Therapy happens to work for me. So did the drugs, and what a surprise that was. I have an aunt who once told me about her couple of therapy sessions after her husband passed away unexpectedly. She said something like: “Yeah, I went, and I think I said the things they wanted to hear. It’s ok now.” I shuddered and explained how honesty is really the best policy with your therapist, even if it’s not how you manage things in day to day. Thanks for keeping an open line of communication – it’s appreciated! Glad you’re feeling good.
I’ve been lurking about this board considering how to address this topic and apologize in advance for what will surely be a long response. Unfortunately this is a topic close to my heart, I’ve had my own problems with depression. About seven years ago a few things happened to me all at once; the death of a friend, the end of an important relationship, the loss of a job.
I no longer cared about school so I just stopped going. It was rare that I could rouse myself enough to make it in to my evening classes. I let it linger into a second bad semestre but upon the recommendation of the school I went to see a guidance counsellor. They gave me an aptitude test but my scores were so low the reviewer made a comment about me having no interests at all, she told me they were the scores of somebody who was clinically depressed. I could barely work myself into arguing with her but I was mad enough that when I went home I mentioned it to my mother.
My mother was the one who finally talked some sense into me, seeing in me the same symptoms she’d suffered with for years when I was growing up. I was in denial when she first mentioned it, she was the one who got depressed, not me. I wasn’t the one who constantly drank myself into a stupor, I always took care of everybody when she did that, I couldn’t be depressed. Besides I was too young, twenty year olds don’t get depressed. I wasn’t happy to have her diagnosis confirmed by a doctor and rebelled against taking meds but when I finally did everything changed. Not all at once but one day I was eating and it hit me that my meal really tasted good, I hadn’t enjoyed eating in a long time so it was a good sign. Just the fact that I seen something as a good sign was a good sign.
Thank you for sharing your story with us Rosina, its rare to find somebody proactive when it comes to this topic, most let it slide out of control before trying to do anything. Take care of yourself.
Thank you for sharing this with us. Depression is such a personal journay and often such a secret one as well. For me, depression and anxiety is kind of like quicksand. When its got you, you’ve got no control, it pulls you in and before you know it, you’re sinking. But if you can pull yourself up and out, if you can cling onto any kind of rope that’s thrown your way then slowly, you can inch yourself out of it. I’m writing this more as a reminder to myself. Sometimes recovery is so agonisingly slow. I’m glad you’ve recognised the signs early and I hope you are able to pull yourself out of it sooner rather than later.
Thank you Rosina. When you talked about your driving phobia, I understand completely. About 2 years ago I went on meds for anxiety disorder. I don’t think I was ever depressed, but then again sometimes you just don’t realise it until you start feeling better. And that’s what happened to me. One day I just felt better. I was able to drive and not be scared of passing out. I could watch a movie without having a panic attack. Every little pain in my body didn’t make me think I was having a heart attack or brain tumor.
After seeing a doctor, I discovered I had probably been suffering of anxiety/panic attacks since I was a young child.
This whole “people are overmedicated” or “what did people do years ago when there was no meds”, well people died. People committed suicide. Obviously it still happens because this subject still seems taboo for some people. Well thanks so much for being courageous and sharing your story.
Thanks Rosina for sharing that.
I had feared that I couldn’t really share my own personal experience but once I started sharing I found out many close friends and their spouses had gone thru the same thing and from the posts I have read, I am not alone.
I too apologize for the length of my post but also feel amongst friends, so I will continue. My first clue that I ignored was that I cried everyday, I hated my job, my life, slowly stopped doing things like visiting family and friends, exercising, I started eating this ridiculous amount of food at my desk at work like some pacifier. Then I remember one morning that I officially decided that I wasn’t going back to that job ever again, well actually my body decided for me; I literally couldn’t physically leave the house, my body said ENOUGH, this is over. You are not going anywhere and I cried some more.
I didn’t recognize what was happening to me because I consider myself am a happy positive person (but my soul was in pain). I went to my doctor not expecting anything really, but was diagnosed as suffering from extreme anxiety and depression. My anxiety attacks were they not normal, doesn’t everyone feel anxious? Took me awhile to understand, I had the symptoms; I had a fear of driving, couldn’t go on the highway and like you god forbid it should snow. So many other symptoms ignored.
Once I started taking the meds, it took me over one month to start seeing the sunshine, I actually felt like myself again but better, still happy go-lucky but free of the burden called depression and anxiety. I am grateful for the meds; they have helped me help myself.
It’s very kind of all of you to share your experiences. Not only is it important to speak up, but now I don’t feel like I’m standing in the middle of a crowded train station stark nekkid.
Rosina, it’s funny that I came here today to read your weblog. I just posted something on my own “Musings” thread (on my own forum) about feeling blue.
I had a pretty severe case of post-partum depression after my third child was born (she’s now 14). I’ve written about that, too, on my forum (in “Sharing your Expertise”, if you happen to go there) so won’t go into a lot of details here. The main thing I would like for people to understand about depression is that it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s sneaky and insidious. And, though my husband isn’t a psychiatrist, he IS a physician and he didn’t even realize what was going on until I was literally screaming at him that something was wrong. I ended up on Paxil and it “fixed” me — each person has to find the drug that works for them. I’m not a big believer in “drugs for everything” but sometimes it’s just what you need. I have to take a pill for high blood pressure and, just this week, have had to start taking something for hypothyroidism — so why wouldn’t I take something to help heal my mind? Anyway, I was on Paxil for a little over a year, came off of it and have been fine. Sure, I get “blue” sometimes but, so far, I’ve been able to come out of it. However, I am always on guard because I never, ever, want to be back down in that black hole again.
A part of my writing on depression included this because, believe it or not, some people have never had to deal with depression, in themselves or others:
What NOT to say to someone you think might be depressed:
*Get over it.
*What do you have to be depressed about?
*Look at all the wonderful things you have in your life.
*What’s wrong with you?
*Are you crazy?
*I’ve had enough…call me when you are more pleasant to be around.
All I can really add is, though it can be hard, a person who is depressed NEEDS support. So just be there.
I’m glad you posted this, because not that long ago, when I was complaining on the AAR boards that Romance readers too often complain that literary fiction is “too depressing” to read, several posters pointed out that there really are people for whom a depressing book can bring on or exacerbate clinical depression. Although I’m not convinced that’s what most people mean when they use that phrase, it opened my eyes to something I had not thought about before.
I don’t suffer from depression, but I do suffer from chronic pain, which has its own social taboos, especially around opioid painkillers and the bad press they have received over the years. One interesting thing I did learn, though, in the course of the evaluation process I had to go through at the beginning of my chronic pain management program (I have severe arthritis and am bone on bone in both knees, all from too much early surgery, and I am currently too young for knee replacement surgeries) is that certain anti-depressant drugs are also used to treat various forms of nerve pain — something about how they act directly on the central nervous system. Because I didn’t have to go that route I don’t know all the mechanics, but I do believe that as the researching on these drugs continues, they will lose some of the stigma that still attaches to them.
I’m glad to see you’re taking care of yourself; it was very difficult for me to seek pain treatment at first, because I felt like a failure, but now I’m so incredibly grateful for it. You often don’t realize how much of your life you are losing until you get it back.
I don’t suffer from depression, but my husband and my daughter do. Husband’s is bi-polar, with depression being prominent part of it. And, he won’t treat it, even though he tried to commit suicide a few years ago. Doesn’t like the way the meds make him feel, etc, and just is adament about not taking them or going for therapy. He’ll take them for a month or so, then go off for over a year. His is so severe, it’s to the point where he barely functions as a human being. ANd the temper he has? Whew!!!! Screams and yells at everything. He also has diabetes, uncontrolled as he won’t work at it or take meds, and is on high, high, high doses of pain meds for diabetic neuropathy. I’m left running the household, raising the three children still in the house (oldest is married) and the others aren’t little kids – 24, 19, and 15, handling all financial issues to the point of he doesn’t even want to know any of the bills because he ‘can’t deal with it or think about it’, etc. Most of the day he eats and sleeps. Locked in a room, not even with the rest of the family. It’s worse than being a single parent. I work full time along with handling everything, just had unexpected medical problems myself this summer (had to have a pacemaker put in, and I’m only 49), but I’m supposed to be the ‘strong one’, so I can deal with everything, so he says. No, I don’t understand the depression – all I know is that between him and my daughter (who is treating hers, but cannot work and she’s only 19 – so no medical insurance), they’re driving me to the point of no return. Not sure that anyone can offer any advice, but sometimes I feel the depression is worse for the family than for the patient. The patient CAN get treatment if they WANT, but the family? We’re left holding the bag and trying to do everything, with absolutely no appreciation for anything, at all. If not for my two sons still in the house, I’d go bonkers, I tell you. I know there are support groups, but talking with a bunch of people is not going to alleviate what I have to face each day, the responsibilities I have. Sorry for venting, but I didn’t see any replies from spouses of people with depression, and wanted to add my two cents to the discussion.
Karen, I really encourage you to get Kay Jamieson’s book “The Unquiet Mind,” which is available pretty much everywhere. Jamieson is a psychiatrist who also suffers from manic depression, and she talks at length about the illness and her own resistance to treatment over the years. It’s really an incredible book, because she talks about things from the perspective of both the patient and the physician. Great. Book.
What a wonderful post! It took great strength to write this for everyone to read. This just shows that you have the inner strength you need to pull yourself out of the darkness. I am glad that you wrote this so that other people might seek help. Helping professionals, like myself, are notoriously bad at taking care of ourselves. We can easily recognize and help other people in need, but we are oblivious to our own troubles. I wish you well through this healing process and that soon you will find what you need.
Robin, thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll give it a shot – it’s hard for us on the ‘outside’ of the disease to understand it, although we live with the side-effects 24/7. Somedays it’s VERY tempting to get into my car and drive, somewhere, anywhere.
I just have to say that I’m really touched and happy that this post has had such a response. I wish every one of you good health and the support you need to find and keep it.
Karen, for you especially I will be thinking good thoughts. You can look for help and accept it even if your husband won’t.
Thank you Rosina, for the good thoughts, and for the chance to just vent. Once in a while a body has to, or the cork will blow. ;) May you find the help and the hope and the peace that you need………….every day……………
Karen, I agree with Rosina. You can find help for yourself. Sometimes just talking to somebody can help put things in perspective, or like you said just vent. I wish you peace and most of all happiness.
I’m surprised also at all the responses. You know, when you suffer from depression or anxiety, you kinda feel like you’re the only one in that situation. My husband has been supportive, but it’s hard for him to understand. So it’s nice to know that there are other people out there going through similar situations. I’m still embarassed after 2 years to ask the pharmacy tech for a refill of Zoloft. I’ve always thought that anti-depressants were only for “crazy people”. I’m scared sometimes that people still think that way and I know I shouldn’t care what they think of me, but I do.
thank you so much for this post. I suffered from depression untreated for many years, with such responses as “your iron is too low” or “you’re not getting enough sleep” from doctors, until someone finally diagnosed it, just in time I think. It took a while to really clear up, but exactly like you say – the colours came back, food started to taste again, my sense of humour came back, and the glass wall between myself and everyone else disappeared. I am still on medication, years later, as any time I have come off it, I slide backwards. I have done CBT, which was very helpful, and other things such as joining a choir and trying to exercise frequently, but haven’t been able to do without drugs. I have learned to be very thankful that now there are helpful drugs available, as there weren’t for so many years.
Wow, you are a brave and very forward thinking woman. I too suffer from depression with anxiety and it started as post partum after the birth of twins. Five years later I am still on medication but thats ok with me and those who love me. I am not a good mother/wife/sister/friend when I come off the meds….I’ve tried and my life seems to totally overwhelm me. I talk openly about my depression with friends,co-workers etc. and I have even helped some to seek help for something they were feeling but couldnt quite put their finger on. I wish you all the best in your endeavours to overcome this illness. I am sending along a hug(( )) to all of you out there who are suffering or who are trying to get better. Seeking help is the key. Understanding the illness and how it effects people and being open about depression is so important!! I admire your courage and strength Rosina! You just made my day!
Thank you for sharing this. It is good to be reminded/told of an instance where depression didn’t follow the more typical pattern of excessive sleeping and inability to work. It is clearly more difficult to diagnose in a case like yours. But I’m glad that you’ve seen a good doctor who _was_ able to diagnose it and that you are getting help.
I had depression such as yours about 15 years ago. I took medication and, as you say, I saw the world in color for the first time in a long time. Now, again, I am experiencing the same depression. Unfortunately, I can’t take the antidepressant anymore largely due to the fact that it will interfere with my hyperthyroidism. I’m still looking for an alternative and will hopefully, one day, see the colors again.
Thanks for letting me know I am not alone.
wow, this post and responses have swept me away. It has made me pause and think in a way that I often do not – thank you. I grew up in a household where medication and therepy was looked down on and frowned upon. Only recently have I begun to see the error in that, and recognize my own slips and highly irregular activity, I think, in retropsect a lot of confusion and self dissapointment could have been avoided if I looked for help, perhaps in the future I will be able to.
I wish I could find the words to tell you what your post means to me. Words fail. I wish I could just offer you a friendly hug and a mug of tea. I’ve respected you as a writer for quite a long time. The cadence, imagery, characters and what the characters have to say has spoken to me deeply as a reader and as a writer. After reading this post, I feel compassion and empathy for you as a woman who’s experienced this brain chemistry gone awry. I too have experienced depression. I’m also a type-a gal who’s been described as “a tornado in a skirt”. Sometimes depression looks different in a type-a person who can still be productive. I’ve always described it as “my train of thought keeps getting derailed”, weepy, irritable. I know those.
I lead a good life now, on the main a very healthy one, and it’s by the grace of God and the wonderful people I’ve got on retainer. Bright, compassionate big-hearted women who I sit myself in front of periodically. No more stigma. I call it scheduled maintenance. :) My car needs a new oil and filter and transmission fluid on a regular basis. I need the wisdom and perspective of a counselor from time to time and some supplementary brain hormones. I hope we get to a place in our culture where we think of treating depression as scheduled maintenance with no shame or stigma attached. Your post goes a long way toward promoting that. Sending a bunch of attagirls your way, Robin
PS After experiencing the beauty of the work you’ve created in the Wilderness series and learning the pain you’ve overcome just to show up on the page… makes reading your work a deeper richer experience. Sometimes beauty is fragile. But the intricate delicate nature of beauty only makes it more beautiful. I’ve found the things I’ve had to do to stay free from depression have been humbling and added a delicate beauty to my typeA life.