This is what a suicidal crisis looks like from the inside.

I spent my junior and senior years of high school in boarding school, and when we got sick, the staff seemed more worried about weeding out fakers than ministering to the stricken. It wasn’t Lowood Institution, but our RAs’ first concern, upon hearing anyone declare herself too sick to go to class, was to ensure that the sufferer did not leave her room for the entire day. (Remember, guys, this was the year 2000: most of us didn’t even have a cell phone. Computers were bulky desktop machines in the computer lab. Facebook and Netflix did not exist.)

But we girls took care of each other.

I remember when the flu really knocked me on my ass that first year away from home. I was so feverish that the first lonely day passed in a haze. That evening, I was vaguely aware of a few of my friends, tiptoeing in and out of the room one after the other.

In the morning, I saw a stack of plastic take-out containers on my dresser. At least three or four different girls on my hall, after eating their own dinners, carried something back for me.

Sometimes it’s easy to know what to do when somebody’s in trouble, and easy to do it, but sometimes it’s hard, depending on what gets to you. I’ve cared for many family members, including one laid low in the hospital with an infection, a broken back, and a serious opiate intolerance. Staying calm and getting someone’s bedpan into place while they’re also splashing you with vomit is quite a feat (the fact that I haven’t actually thrown up since the year 2003 may tell you something about my aversion to puke).

Caring for other people, no matter how much you love them, can be a herculean task, even if it’s a temporary physical illness.

But have you tried coping with someone else’s mental illness?

I haven’t. Not really. That’s because I’m the one who has a mega mood disorder, wondering if there’s anyone out there who can cope with me. I loved the friends who brought me dinner when I had the flu in high school. But that’s not a scary thing to do. What is scary, I have deduced, is watching somebody slip into the clutches of a serious depressive episode.

A few years ago, glum statistics about the recurrence of depression were all the rage, but I recently saw a hopeful headline through the Facebook group Come Out of The Dark, a growing movement to de-stigmatize mental illness (I interviewed founding author Jonathan Rottenberg about depression here, here, and here): apparently, 50 percent of people who suffer one depressive episode never have another one.

Unfortunately, I’m in the other 50 percent. I’ve written a lot about depression over the past year, (including my motion to outlaw the phrase “that’s just the depression talking”). Until quite recently, despite a stay in a Johns Hopkins psych ward (listen to the radio story here), I believed that my depression was a rotten element of my life, but that it was your garden-variety mood disorder. I thought most of my therapist’s depressive clients must have symptoms of the same severity that I experience.

I was wrong. Shit’s getting scary.

Though I’m social, functional, and extremely productive at work, I almost always feel unhappy. But a couple times a year, things get really bad. At first, I can sense them sliding as surely as you can feel the rawness in your throat and the heaviness behind your eyebrows that means you’re getting a cold. I can’t seem to control this any more than I can control a rhinovirus teeming in my mucous membranes.

The first signs of a bad episode can hit several days before the crisis. They include a marked loss of interest in leaving the house and talking to others, and a growing sense that I need to isolate myself. My colleagues and probably my friends will notice nothing wrong because I pretend I feel fine while working. But my family may begin to call or e-mail to ask why I haven’t been in touch. My appetite shrinks, or I don’t have the energy to make meals. I can’t bear the silence when I turn my music off. I can’t sleep. I have trouble taking notes during interviews. I can’t plan the structure of an article before sitting down to it, and struggle through it graf by graf.

Like a person trying to head off a cold with vitamin C fizzers, I fight back. I sit by windows to soak in the sun. I get myself out of the house for some exercise. I bury myself in work or distract myself by reading or cooking or drawing or painting.

If I’m alone and mentally unoccupied for more than a few minutes, I begin to cry.

A writer’s life is measured in deadlines. I published 23 articles in January. About ten days ago, between the 19th and the 20th article, I felt something slip.

On Monday night, I couldn’t sleep until three or four AM.

On Tuesday night, I sat up very late on the couch holding a novel but thinking long and deep about the method and practicalities of my own death. I got into bed but couldn’t sleep until it was almost dawn.

On Wednesday morning I began to cry while I brushed my teeth.

I went to my desk and worked on an article about tax credits for graphene-powered diagnostics research until the pain in my back was so bad I couldn’t sit or stand. I lay down in bed at about 2pm with my laptop. Soaking, crushing sobs began to roll over me. I had a powerful urge to hurt myself and fought off the desperate sense that I should keep others away. I messaged a friend who had supported me in bad times before. My most torturous thoughts poured out. I apologized, but my friend told me not to. I asked if we could get together the next day, and my friend said yes. I felt a little better. An hour or two later, the friend revoked the invitation. I’m not your therapist, the person said. I’m still your friend. But I need a break.

Small words, and valid. But they broke something in me that was bigger than the friendship: the sense that I could get help if I truly needed it. The sense that my life was worth the ask.

“I don’t know what to do,” my then-husband said, over and over again, when he came home from work and found me sitting in bed a few hours later, drenched in tears, rocking and struggling for breath, my face in my hands.

At this age, if the Facebook feed is any indication, I should have kids of my own. Instead, my ex called my mother for help. An hour or two later I calmed down enough to talk to her on the phone. Later I gathered my courage, and texted another friend, who answered with kindness.

Here’s the flip side of the Come Out of the Dark campaign. It’s not just a matter of finding your own mettle to speak up. To come out of the dark, you need someone who can handle it when you stop pretending, and there’s nothing but incoherent crying, panicked, circular irrationalities, and the stark toxic reality of a potential suicide.

The truth is that very few people know what to do.

In those bad stretches, I don’t share my real state of mind with many people. I have found a degree of kindness and support, but sometimes, when I try to explain my worst feelings, I’ve been called selfish, crazy and oversensitive. People have suggested I don’t want to get better. They have withdrawn when I was suffering most.

On Wednesday night, I took a few sleeping pills and waited for unconsciousness. On Thursday morning, I kept waking up and dredging myself back to sleep because I couldn’t face the day. My stomach felt sick but I tried to eat a piece of leftover quiche. I managed about half of it.

I brought my laptop to the couch and stared at my e-mails for an hour or two, tears rolling down my face. I settled on Monday as the definite date for my suicide.

I got through the rest of the day by breaking it into hours and telling myself I had to live only one hour at a time. I reminded myself to breathe. I worked on my assignments, making calls as if nothing was wrong. I spoke to my therapist on the phone.

She said she’d call me every day to check on me.

“I’m sure your practice is full of people just like me,” I said. “You can’t be talking to them all every day. That’s no way to run a business, or your life.”

She replied I was the only one of her patients who is suicidal right now.

On Thursday night, the friend I’d texted called me to see how I was doing. We made plans to get together on Saturday.

On Friday, I came back to myself enough to notice the signs of my slide around the house. A big pile of dirty laundry. An uneaten loaf of my favorite bread. A mug I had filled with tissues while crying at my desk.

My therapist called.

God, I was thirsty. I gulped glass after glass of water but I was still thirsty. When was the last time I had had a glass of water? Tuesday?

On Saturday morning in the shower, I sang a few words of the Weezer song that came on my Pandora station. My voice was weak.

I had two eggs for breakfast.

My therapist called.

My friend drove for an hour to take a walk with me. I was so grateful I almost cried. I suddenly remembered that during a very bad episode from last spring, the same friend had driven three hours each way to visit me. My mind had gone so far underground at the time that I had forgotten the visit.

On Saturday night, after I turned out the light, an essay began to clang in my head. It kept me awake for hours. I realized I might live.

I fell asleep and dreamed I was zipping east in center city Philadelphia on the south side of Market Street on a skateboard, riding it with my left foot and kicking the ground with my right.

On Sunday morning, I decided that before I could write the essay, I had to finish a magazine feature that was due later in the week.

I wrote the feature.

I got hungry and ate some leftovers.

My therapist called.

I was just about to write something about “the week ahead,” but realized all I can do is re-adjust to the fact that next week exists for me.

I dread it. But I won’t prevent myself from living it.

That’s how the crisis winds down. Not in comfort, happiness, or relief. Just life, continued. Tears still come in brief, hot squalls, because I dread the next crisis. Since I’m still alive, I wrote six more articles (not including the magazine feature). Seven, including this piece. I’ll write another tomorrow. I did the laundry.

I got the flu again in my freshman year of college. I lay in my bed in the dorm overnight, baking and shivering. My temperature neared 104 degrees.

A school nurse visited my room for the next few days. She was worried about pneumonia, but she knew what to do, like the friends who brought me meals.

Now, another health practitioner insists on checking on me every day. I had assumed my state of mind was common among her patients. It’s not.  And the people I love don’t know what to do.

It forces me to face the severity of my depression. The realness and risk of it. I’m shaken by an odd sort of grief, beyond the usual tumult and exhaustion of these cycles: I scare people. Even people who care about me. And even when someone does come through for me, my state of mind may temporarily be so altered that I don’t remember it. Great incentive to make an effort, huh folks?

So I don’t blame anyone for wanting distance from my problems, or saying painful things, any more than my relative could’ve blamed me for not being able to heal her broken back, that day in the hospital.

But if more people could see depression as a problem that is as serious, frightening, and tangible as pneumonia or broken bones, maybe facing a virulent death wish on my own wouldn’t be just as terrifying as trying to tell someone else about it. After trying to communicate the depth of my distress, I feel as helpless and ashamed as if I’ve thrown up all over the unfortunate person in my way.

For now, all I can do is wait, and work, keep on top of the laundry, stay in therapy, and hope I can make it through the next slide. Why tell the story? Partly because that’s how I process and survive. And partly because every time I write about depression, I hear from others in the same boat. And we all feel a little less alone, and make it for another day.

To read about the responses to this essay, click here

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  1. Alaina
    That may be the most moving and “well-spoken” thing I have read in my life.
    Your ability to write as if you’re sitting and talking to me in a slow, careful and thoughtful cadence is astounding to me.
    Also…selfishly, this blog gave me a tiny beam at the end of my “ I don’t know what to do” tunnel.

    Keep sharing. Keep working. Keep fighting…..and please keep us in the top shelf your depression-fighting tool box.

    Even though I’m your dad, please count me (and Mom) as friends that will drive any number of hours on the clock…even if to simply sit with you and listen to some Weezer songs.

    Love you.
    Dad.

    • Thanks Dad. Not selfish to gather a beam of light for whatever your tunnel is. It’s part of the reason writers who tackle mental illness are doing it — to help someone else who’s in a dark place.

  2. Love you always ….

  3. I too have an “inside” illness – I don’t have scars or crutches. There are many days that I feel dark and wallow-y, but luckily not dark enough to considered the possibility of not waking up the next day. Thank you for this insight, and I hope you keep finding those threads that bring you back to a lighter place.

  4. Wow… what a moving post. I really appreciate your frankness in articulating the way severe depression feels. Sorry you’re going through that. It’s too bad that most people don’t see severe depression in the same category as pneumonia or broken bones. It is invisible, so it doesn’t seem as real. And so many people seem to think mental illness is one’s own fault, acting as though it can fixed by sheer willpower. I appreciate your attempts to explain what it feels like from the inside. I’m reading “Wild” right now and your journey sounds like an excruciating solo trek down the Pacific Coast Trail with a very heavy pack. Best of luck- you’ve got a rare talent and I’ve enjoyed reading what you write.

    • Thanks Amy. I have experienced the mindset from many people that you can think or will your way out of depression — sometimes I even fall victim to this fallacy myself. It does feel like a trek with a very heavy pack, and not even a pack full of shit you need. It’s just shit. Thanks for your nice comments on the writing.

  5. Eleanor Jean Dillard February 5, 2015 — 4:14 pm

    Alaina, Thank you again for sharing about your depression. In your description I hear the pain my daughter suffers and doesn’t express. You remind me to just be there, because I can’t fix it. I wish you days of light in the midst of the darkness

  6. The next time you say: “Monday is the day”, if you don’t call my ass I’ll be upset. You never lean on me. I know I’m just a dumb-shit brother but I can at least distract your depression away eight ways from Sunday and one time somebody told me I was funny so there’s that, too. I’ll drop what I’m doing and we can do whatever you snobby Philadelphians do. I need an excuse to take my hot rod up to Philly @ 120mph anyway…

    There is no single fix for you. No pill. No single therapist. No doctor. I think you’re past thinking that there is, and that’s going to help you along the way.

    You have to just look at your historic trends/patterns and take some notes. Develop a system that tracks progress. Color code days. If you’re f’king miserable then glance at your big “calendar ‘o feelin’ shitty” and look at those three days in a row last month that you hightlighted because you were mobile, saw two plays, and finished a prominent story that gave you a ton of additional press. The good always outweighs the shit, and it’s the shit that is able to deceive you into thinking otherwise. Block off days you cry, too. A blue X. Count the number of blue X’s each month. Review each month. What did you do that month? What didn’t you do that month? Did anything make a difference? Anything significant happen? I think you should forecast too. Plan your dark days like you plan your deadlines. Flip to March. Plan for 3 days in a row to absolutely f’kin suck. Let them suck. They’ll be gone soon enough. Estimate how many days will be cry days. Maybe plan a barf in there somewhere. A good barf sucks at first, then after the first yelch of hot projectile globs, it’s deeply satisfying.

    Ok, don’t barf.

    But I also want you to look at your prolific writing career as a percentage. When I think about your career and the path you’re on, I see you at about 10% done your story. You have so much more shit to write. So much more research and many ideas to share. You’ve got about umpteen thousand more memories to leave people with, so many more hearts to touch. You check yourself out of here and what does that do for all the other people that are hurting not only for you, but with you? You probably have no idea how many people are deeply tuned into your stories and blog that have a deep, ugly depression just like you. People that you didn’t know existed that have never said a sentence to you, but turn over every single word you ever put in a public forum. How many readers are suffering even more than you? Who knows. You click the power button and you’re turning off their light too.

    You have a damn purpose and a damn use to perform while you’re here. CNTRL/ALT/DLT in your early 30s? Nope.

    Even if you’re not NC, or Catholic, or Hindu, or some other bullshit, you have a job and a role here and offing yourself isn’t in the equation, no matter how dark things get.

    I hate doing feelings. But I need you. And I hereby require you to stick around and get some shit done because people are counting on you.

    • Thanks for the support.

      Unfortunately, depression is not like a fitness tracker or a diet plan. You can pay attention to its rhythms in retrospect, but still get knocked on your ass out of nowhere if something goes wrong and you don’t have the emotional space to cope. You can’t schedule days that are going to be good or bad any more than you control which days you’re going to get a headache. I’m afraid the blue x’s would only remind me that I cry almost every day, for months on end.

      • I think you’re so right about this. When I hit my depressive modes, even though I *know* it’s depression amplifying whatever else is going wrong, it doesn’t help. I still wish I were never born. I still hate everything, want to give up, and fantasize about how great it would be to be dead and how I’d do it. Sometimes I’m even sorry I had a child because his existence prevents me in good conscience from committing suicide. But it always passes– yay for mania!

      • So true that knowing your feelings are stemming from depressive symptoms doesn’t stop you from having those feelings. They’re still real in the moment; you still have to cope with them.

        The depressive episodes I’ve had recently have really affected my thinking about my fitness to be a parent. I always assumed I would have kids; now I’m not so sure. I know lots of people with depression are great parents, perhaps made even more sensitive and empathetic because of their own problems. But when I’m in these bad states it’s all I can do to keep my own self alive. What if a kid was relying on me? I can’t imagine it right now. Thanks for reading and adding your experience.

  7. I love this piece. Boldly written, moving, brave. Thanks for writing it. Wish I could come walk with you. xoxoxo

  8. I don’t know what you are going through but I’m here and I love you!

  9. Alaina, I want to thank you for sharing this. It means a lot to read your words, because in them I see myself.

    Last week I had dinner with a college classmate, and our conversation turned to our ongoing battles with clinical depression and other mood disorders (I am bipolar). I was very grateful I had that moment to connect with someone who completely understood.

    And we press on…

    • You’re welcome, Tieshka. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

      You’re right that it’s so valuable to be able to connect to other people who know the mental health struggle. I don’t have bipolar disorder, but I know and love many people who do, and may understand a bit of their struggle through my own.

      And we do press on…

  10. Nancy Synnestvedt February 5, 2015 — 9:04 pm

    Hi Alaina,
    Thanks so much for your article; I’ve read a lot about depression but never anything quite like this. It’s very illuminating. Can you say more about how best to support someone in the crises? Is it just being there?
    Thanks!
    Nancy

    • Hi Nancy, thanks for reading and for your comment. I’m glad the piece resonated with you. It was very difficult to write, but I’ve been hearing from so many people, both here in the comments, on social media, and privately, that it was worth it.

      I think that there’s probably no hard and fast rule for supporting people in these kinds of crises because every person is different. Speaking solely from my own experience, I would say that someone in a depressive crisis is not looking for advice from people who are not healthcare professionals, and they may not even be in a state of mind to hear, process or apply it. Don’t try to “fix” what they’re going through. Just see them as a human being suffering from a rotten illness. What would you do for a loved one who had the flu? Check in on them, sit quietly with them, bring them a meal if they want it? I think those are all good moves for someone suffering w/ a mood disorder. Be calm and listen. Remember the irrational things that people can say and do in the grip of these states may be beyond their control. And think carefully before you tell someone you’ll help by being with them, because if you can’t keep that promise, the results could be devastating for someone in a vulnerable place.

  11. Hey,
    I know we haven’t spent tons of time together, but for what it’s worth I don’t find this, or you, scary. Feel free to write me any time.
    Love,
    Miriam

  12. Reblogged this on projektkatharsis and commented:
    I would like to share this article with you, because it adresses the every day struggle of myself and too many other people. For too long, I haven’t even noticed I am ill, I just felt permanently unhappy and took it for granted. At this point, I am not suicidal any more for quite a while now, which makes it a good time to raise awareness on this topic.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you’ve gotten to a better place. It is amazing how long we can get mired in unhappy states without even realizing there might be something better.

      • Why, thank you for taking the time and opening yourself up to share your experience… it might be eye-opening to many others. And yes, it took some time to even realise that there might be something better. It seems like we always perceive our feelings in relation to what we are used to, and not as an absolute. It’s hard to express (English is not my first language).

      • Seems like you’re doing just fine in English! Very true about feelings being a relative experience. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  13. Alaina –

    A great, incredibly poignant, candid, moving piece. I can’t say that I know where you are, or where you’ve been but like your loved ones have already said – keep moving and don’t let a pre-determined Monday come.

    I’ve battled depression in the past and more specifically in the past year or so. I’m not going to pretend that mine got as bad as thinking thoughts like you express here but I’ve gone through a divorce in the last 2 years, significant loss of income, significant health issues, and loss of a lot of close friends. There have been many days I didn’t want to get up, I stayed inside working in my shelter, because I was feeling depressed or didn’t want to see anyone, or didn’t feel worthy of smiling and pretending that life was great, or as great as it was supposed to be. It’s easy for people who aren’t there to say – buck up, get after it, I understand – and it’s also easy for us, or at least me, to feel like it’s never going to end no matter how much I buck up. I would say this, most of the problem for me is me making it worse on myself, and not really taking care of myself. It’s not realizing that while some of the tough talk or tough love is just that, and importantly includes love.

    So that’s a long way of me saying, or trying to, you’re not and never alone. You’re talent and vehicle to express your feelings is amazing and incredibly brave. I know it’s not THE solution to have Bisty driving 200 mph to Philly, or your Mom or Dad doing whatever they can, or me or any of your larger family being there but the reality is that any of us are there and that’s at least a step in the battle.

    My dad always says motivational things to me that he steals from somewhere but in high school when I checked out for a few months for panic attacks he said “if it’s going to be it’s up to me” which is still true in everything. But, me and all the others who read your amazing stories and live on the outside looking in, are also there whenever in any way possible.

    Keep plugging, keep writing,

    Love your eldest cooper cousin

    • Hey Mike, thanks for reading and taking the time to add your experience. The longer I’m alive the more I realize that everyone is going through something hard on the inside. We can tell ourselves to tough it out or buck up because other people have it worse or whatever, but you’re still fighting whatever it is you have to fight. I think “tough talk” really can’t accomplish anything without love, at least in a scenario like this. People with depression or anxiety disorders didn’t choose the place they landed and they’re not always in control of their behaviors when the problem flares up, and they need quietness and mercy more than pep talks or tough love.

      I suffered major panic attacks through most of my school days and still get them occasionally. What a wallop. Thanks for reminding me and other readers that we’re not alone.

  14. Alaina: Great article. A few things come to mind …

    1) I love your family. I’m glad you have them.

    2) I wish people were less concerned about teenagers getting away with something, and more concerned about what they need.

    3) People who don’t have these issues can’t empathize and say hurtful things out of ignorance. But people who *do* have these issues … for me, it has felt like I’m struggling hard to keep my own mouth just above the water, and if I let that other struggling person grab onto me, we’ll both go under and drown. And hence I have uttered those words: “I can’t be your therapist!” as a matter of mutual survival.

    4) I’m astounded at how productive you are …

    5) Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure it’s helping a lot of people, and I hope it’s helping you a bit, too.

    • Thanks for your response. I love my family too. I also wish teens could more easily get what they need. I agree a lot of hurtful comments do come out of ignorance, and I also agree that we can’t all be each others’ therapists. A friend can do a lot, but he or she can’t and shouldn’t offer what a trained professional can. And we do need to be able to respect others’ boundaries if they express that they can’t handle being part of our support system.

      The productivity — the secret is really that writing is the only thing that beats back the demons and keeps me alive. You could call it a drug of choice. I don’t write despite the depression, I write to survive it, if that makes any sense.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience.

      • Writing to survive is a great strategy. My busiest times creatively have been the times when I have been least depressed, mostly because I didn’t have time to be depressed and because I got caught up in the good flow of work. Since my last job ended, I’m now looking for that next thing that will give me the flow. I was hoping that being a stay at home mom would be enough, but it doesn’t provide that kind of flow. It leaves me feeling constantly interrupted and never really accomplished.

      • It’s interesting — my busiest times creatively are also often some of my lowest times. In a crisis like this, as I write in this piece, often the turning point is when I begin to want to write about what’s happening to me. That drive to tell the story drags me back from the brink of that death wish. And writing itself is the only thing that reliably keeps my worst demons at bay, at least while I’m focused on it. I’m convinced that the main reason I write so much.

        I hope you find your “flow,” whatever you choose to do, parenting or otherwise. And I think being a parent is a huge accomplishment, however any individual day feels.

      • That makes a lot of sense. Writing a novel helped me a lot last winter … my depression gets much worse with winter … but that predictability allows me to plan my strategy.

      • I’ve heard from a lot of people recently who suffer more with these symptoms in the winter. I tend to get bad cycles in Jan/Feb, for the last ten years at least. But I’ve also had crises in the spring and summer, so who knows. The cold and dark do make it harder.

  15. Wow, Alaina. This piece was so powerful in its matter-of-factness. I’m so sad that you have to endure this kind of episode, and that even the good days aren’t all that great. I think it’s very brave and very kind that you’re willing to share this. Thanks for this and for pressing on!

  16. Thank you Alaina, for sharing so honestly. You have such a gift of expression. I am so sorry for how low and deep your heart and mind go sometimes – low enough to want to hurt yourself – but you have mapped out the underworld for the rest of us in a profound way. I just wanted you to know that I care about you. And that your story was so valuable for me to read.

    • I appreciate the feedback, Sasha. This does feel a little like mapping the underworld — my underworld, anyway. Someone else’s may be different. But it helps us all to talk about it.

  17. Thanks for sharing this – it really helped put things in perspective. I admire your courage to say it and the fact that talking about it IS helpful – both for you and others. My mom has been going through some tough times and I feel that this really helped explain some of what she may be feeling. So thank you.

    • I’m really sorry your mom is struggling — I hope your support can help get her to a better place. As I think I said above, this was very tough to write, but it seems like it’s of value to people on both sides of this: folks who know depression from the inside, and folks trying to understand the people who are in it.

  18. Courageous, riveting, and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this. Your gift with words is truly remarkable. Please don’t stop writing. I know you write for work, but I pray that you never ever stop writing for you.

  19. This is amazing. My pain lifted for a few minutes. Thank you for coming out of the dark.

  20. Dear Alaina — I know we haven’t talked for a while, since I moved away and am horrible at keeping up with people. But I care about you, and I consider you a friend, and I don’t want you to die. Let me know if you need someone else on your call rotation.

  21. Thanks so much for your bravery in posting this. We have been dealing with the loss of 2 friends due to suicide, and my husband and I made a song for #suicideprevention and to help others come #backfromtheshadows. Please listen and share with those who may need the love!

  22. Hi Alaina,

    I understand how these issues would make you question your ability to parent. All I can do is tell you that it is worth considering before becoming a parent. I’ve been dealing with depression since at least 4th grade, and when I was 24 a good therapist told me I would probably deal with it all my life. I married a really loving and supportive husband, and over the years he has gotten used to the depression…what he can and cannot do to help. We waited 12 years to have a child, and I really thought we had so much love to give that we finally chose to have one. Pregnancy went very well (the hormonal changes and excitement seemed to get rid of the depression), but the first few years of her life was awful for me. I had such high expectations and wanted to breastfeed without antidepressants for a year. I made it 9 months,nearly going insane, and felt like a complete failure when I stopped nursing and got on medication. A baby/toddler’s connection to a mama is so complex and CONSTANT and pulling and consuming. The second and third years didn’t get much better for me. But she is 4 now, and I’m on a high enough dose of medication that the constant intrusive “I can’t do this” thoughts have finally decreased. But depression still makes me very volatile and almost disabled. I know the parent I want to be, and often I am simply UNABLE to be that person. I don’t know how to explain it but that I just don’t have enough energy and strength to be constantly “on” for my child, constantly loving, constantly ready to help, to answer questions, to pick her up, to take her anger and whining and frustration and sadness in addition to my own. She is her own person, with her own problems and challenges. They add to mine. They make my life harder. She can also be loving and sweet and wonderful, and my heart is full of love for her even as I feel unable to love her well enough with my actions.

    I write all of this so you will know, no matter what anyone tells you, you are right to question the parenting decision. Now, in addition to the illness in my mind, I carry the responsibility of a little person’s well-being. I know my words and actions affect her development, affect the way she will cope with her life for the rest of her life. I cannot tell you the level of stress that adds when I am feeling hopeless. How many times have I honestly said, “I have made the worst mistake of my life. I shouldn’t be a parent!” Of course, I would never wish her away. I am glad she has a chance at life. But should I be her mom? Will she walk through life with the depressive anxious shadow of her mother’s voice in her head? And even worse – it looks like she may have inherited my tendency for despair. It is so hard for me to think that may be true.

    I’m not saying you can’t be a good mom. But I’m saying it’s a whole new level of life, and if you aren’t ready there are other meaningful things to do until you think you are.

    At 39, the thing I’ve learned about the worst episodes is that for me, they have always come and gone. They are awful and scary, but so far I have always come out on the other side. I can’t say that I enjoy life the way that other people do, because the depression never really goes away. But things do get better. There is a flow to this mind I have. Sometimes it feels like it’s monthly, based on my hormones. Other times it feels like it’s situational. But typically, I’m in a cycle, and that means it might get better tomorrow. That is how I get through.

    And I share your fear that maybe no one wants to hear this. Maybe no one wants to be there for me. And maybe I just shouldn’t be alive. All I can say is that I have passionately loved certain jobs, certain people, and certain experiences. As long as there’s a chance I will stumble upon more days when I am lost in something I enjoy, I will deal with the depression and hope for it to get better. I will try another medication. I will try another round of exercise or meditation or another netflix marathon. Because I’ve also had cancer once, and when that happened and I was heading down the hall for a 8 hour surgery, I found myself screaming, “I don’t want to die.” And I meant it. Suddenly I realized that once around is really all I get, and that I wasn’t ready for it to end. Some things became clear to me, like the fact that love for myself and others is incredibly powerful. I wanted another day of that. So on my worst days, i imagine I’m heading down that hall again, and I try to remember that feeling. I try to remember that maybe tomorrow I will feel that way again, maybe I will want to live tomorrow. The only way to know is to keep living. *hugs*

    • Wow, thanks for this honest and moving look at your life. No parent is perfect, and depression is one of thousands of illnesses that any parent could struggle with. Depression runs big in my family, and I have a wonderful family, so obviously the choice to have kids despite these problems isn’t a bad one. However, I really appreciate your validation of my reticence on the motherhood question. At my age (31), you begin to hear over and over and over again, “when are you having kids?” It’s what everyone expects of you. I wish they’d stop asking and just live with me as me. Best wishes to you and your family.

  23. Thank you for sharing your story. I struggle with depression amongst other things. I can be doing perfectly fine then get stressed out with school and go downhill. I know my boyfriend gets tired of dealing with it and doesn’t know what to do at times. With each relapse it reminds me that my depression is an ongoing battle and I have to fight everyday . Depression only has control over our lives if we let it.keep fighting. The way you write is beautiful.

  24. Dear Alaina, Your words are healing. You give me hope! Some days it’s a moment at a time! I have searched for what seems like forever for an answer to why I act this way! I am 52! And just now have got my meds, my Doc, my job, my finances and most important my family under a little bit of control! Control – now that’s a word! That control slips away so fast! And bam I am on the ground starting over! Thank goodness for my husband and boys (wow – men) who keep loving me no matter what! Aloha Alaina – I wish Peace, love and happiness!

  25. Alaina,
    Please know that you are loved and valued. Others in our family suffer with this terrible depression. You are not alone.
    I know we have not had any deep conversations, but if you need a time out, we have an empty bed and escape from life close by! Please feel free to call on us!
    Love you, Leesa

  26. Love the [word redacted] brother…with gold flakes dusted all over him. What an awesome person to have in your corner! Tell you what, world: when I am feeling low and alone, I am going to be that “brother/sister” to someone in need. Helping helps in all kinds of ways. Also, it truly is amazing how prolific you are! Very inspiring.

  27. I finished all the comments and responses today Love. Wow…..
    You “touched” more people in one blog than most people do in years…or ever.
    Amazing skill you have for writing my dear….I’ll just assume you got some of that from me?
    …your commitment to answering everyone is fab too.

    Mom and I are…… we are…… well, you know. Ready.

    We Love you
    Dad

    • Thanks Dad. I’m sure I have you to thank at least in part for the writing inclination. The response on this blog really has been amazing — for almost every comment, I got a private message from someone with a story to tell about mental illness.

  28. Hello Alaina,

    Your blog was sent to me by a friend who apparently knows you. I know why my friend told me to read this and I have never, in my life, read words that resonated so deeply – and left me thinking that maybe, just maybe, I will live another week after all.

    I’m sitting at my desk at work, where I am in a senior level position for an academic institution and I’m going through yet another box of kleenex, in which I should probably buy stock. I have been in the midst of the worst anxiety/depressive episode of my life (since October) and it continues, unabated. Meds aren’t touching it, yet. I’m told I’m perimenopausal so I’m on HRT as well, and who knows if that’s doing diddly squat. It’s very tough to tease out cause and effect here. All I know is that I feel like I’m being tortured. I’m a very gregarious, social person who currently has extreme social anxiety. I have no appetite and think Great! I’ll lose weight with the Depression Diet! – but my docs are telling me to eat 3 squared and I’m trying to do it. Exercise comes and goes, but I force myself. I dart myself into sleep. I want to see no one, engage in nothing that requires any effort, my bed is my respite and my only safe place, I cry daily, often in long jags following work when I can go home and hide. I change out of my work clothes into comfy clothes and curl up, letting the sobs just come as the day turns to night. I can’t believe I have tears left. Work has been excruciatingly hard but it seems to be the only way I can cease one of the inputs that constantly ring in my brain – You screwed up, you’re failing, you’re going to have to quit your job, you can’t work anymore…

    I have an infinitely patient wife who has experienced depression so she *gets* it. Still, the guilt I feel that I can’t pull out of this is immeasurable. There are weights on my chest and no light in sight. I think of ending it all way too much of the time because really, is THIS all there is? Is this my life now? I can’t imagine that this isn’t taking a toll on my overall health. And then I spin into that ugly place of I’m going to get cancer, I probably already have it. I’m going to die young because I couldn’t live – really, LIVE. If I can’t seize this life for all that it contains, the beauty and the wonder and the gifts, then do I deserve to be here at all?

    Your piece is going to be what I send to my family so they can know what I’m going through. It will most likely scare them, yes. I AM SCARED OF ME. I can’t expect others to be immune to that fear. That which is unknown and unseen threatens to carry us away unless we name the shape and color of the amorphous heavy that’s come to stay like a bad relative. Your words help me name that. I’ve been wanting to write about this but it all feels so daunting, and why invite more tears? What do I have to say other than please, help me, please, understand, this is not me, I don’t know where I went, please, help me come back.

    From the very depths of me, from that place where I still reside, continuing…thank you.

    • Hi Meghan. I really feel everything you’re saying at such a gut level. You sound like a very smart and thoughtful person struggling with a terrible problem that’s not your fault. What can I add? One day at a time. One hour at a time, if necessary. One minute. I’m so glad you have a loving and supportive spouse. I think you’ll live another week. Next week, try handling next week. Not now. All you have to do right now is this week.

      This was a searingly hard piece for me to write, and the responses to it have also been a huge emotional punch, as I absorb so much of what readers have to share, both here in the comments and in private messages. So many people are fighting impossibly hard battles and you’d never have a clue, from the outside. I feel really humbled and honored to have given people who are suffering what I’m suffering a space to tell their stories, too. Stop by again. Tell us how you’re doing. I think every person who’s commented above would be pulling for you if they knew you.

      • Hi Alaina.

        After I posted that reply, I thought Wait, what am I DOING? I meant to thank this person for opening herself up and revealing her own truths, many of which reverberate strongly for those of us stuck in the same windowless room – and then I lay all of my shit on her? Not cool. But then – I know that I’m not alone in that sharing. There is some degree of comfort to be found in relative experience, no matter how intensely painful it is. Here I was, a person out in the world who came across your words and felt a kinship, felt less alone…and there you were, putting words on the page, pushing, pushing out the “searingly hard” language of your experience, not knowing where those words would land or how they might be taken. In the telling the lights come on. You must know that what you shared can save lives. You need to know that. It’s a tremendous responsibility in a way, but it’s real. We are the shadow people too often, the hidden and the shame-filled. The distortion in our thinking leads us far astray. There must be safety somewhere, and it can come in this form, this space. It can and it does.

        I will stop by again, you can be sure of it. I’m just working on this week. And when I stumble, I’m going to remember this: “…all I can do is re-adjust to the fact that next week exists for me. I dread it. But I won’t prevent myself from living it.”

      • Yup. Live on. It ain’t pretty, but live on. You will keep finding those little gems of connection if you’re able to open up.

        To be honest I cried when I read your original comment, just out of empathy for what you’re going through and the wish that I could lift it for either of us. When you put stuff like this out in the world, those feelings are going to come back at you in one way or another, and it’s fine, b/c it’s good to hear each other and know that someone else gets it.

        I’m working on a follow-up post now, incorporating some of the responses that this essay got. I hope you’ll stop by when you can and add whatever you want to the conversation.

  29. Thank you for what you wrote. I felt compelled to share my personal experiences simply for the sake of sharing, not as a matter of unsolicited advice. I can’t help but wonder which is worse… Depression or the guilt/shame/feelings of failure associated with being depressed. I think that the ancillary negative emotions associated with mental illness can be equally if not more damaging than the illness itself. For me, the vaporous and insidious nature/genesis of mental illnesses has been the toughest aspect of it to understand. My challenge has been to identify where self ends and the disease begins. I can live with pain honorably as long as I know it is not within my realm of control to alleviate it. Acceptance of my limitations allows me to objectively separate the source of my discomfort from my soul itself. When I am no longer fighting myself, I fighting a heroic battle with an ‘outside’ invader. Framing it in these terms has allowed me to bypass the guilt and shame phase of the struggle and save my emotional stamina for the real battle. This distinction has even allowed me to build esteem as a result of fighting this invader valiantly.

    I have been especially fortunate to get out of isolation and connect with many like minded peers. It was through these relationships and shared common experiences that I have been able to shed my self imposed stigmas, normalize my conditions, love myself and accept me as I really exist today. This allows me to experience the same emotions and feelings in an entirely different way. I am not ‘cured’. I have a condition that needs constant vigilance. That said, while I can’t control how I feel, I do have some level of control on how I interpret those feelings. For me, that has made all the difference. I wish you the best of luck in your personal journey.

    • Hi Henry, I appreciate reading about your experience. So true that a major challenge of depression is when you lose sight of the illness as a problem outside your native self. Also very important to connect with others who can understand. Wishing you luck as well.

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