Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Surviving despite depression

I always thought blogging was the ultimate in narcissism unless you really had something to say. I didn't think that my life qualified as unique or interesting enough.

That changed a little over a week ago, when a beautiful, vibrant young woman from our community took her life. I was luckier than she was -- when I overdosed on the medication I take for manic depression, I was in a coma for a week but ultimately survived. That's why I feel I have to share my experience now. Because she didn't need to die.

For more than 10 years, I've been struggling with this illness. My symptoms have included profound sadness and despair; drastic weight loss and gain; inability to concentrate; impulsive and erratic behavior; irritability; and an inability to read people and situations.

At its most severe, the disease has prevented me from keeping a job, interacting with others in a positive way, and enjoying a decent quality of life. I've lost friends who couldn't understand that my bizarre behavior was a symptom of manic depression, something beyond my control.

A month before I turned 30, my illness almost killed me.

For months, I'd been plummeting into a depression ever more profound. I hated my job and feared I would never find my true calling. I was exhausted of dating, became convinced I would never meet someone to love and respect. I stopped eating. I slept 18 hours a day. I didn't go to work.

I needed help desperately, but my psychologist had convinced my mother not to hospitalize me: If I spent time on the psych ward, said this psychologist, I'd never get another job. I'd never get married. My life would be ruined.

The night I overdosed, I couldn't fall asleep. Schizophrenia is hearing voices that don't exist. Depression is hearing your own voice in a relentless wave of criticism -- "I'm a failure. I'm lazy. I'm almost 30 and still not married. I'll never get married. I'll never have children. I'll never have a normal life. I haven't achieved anything worthwhile.

"I don't deserve to be alive."

That last sentence was implicit in everything I was telling myself. I didn't express it directly, but it underlay my whole miserable outlook.

I was sick to death of listening to my wretched thoughts, but I couldn't turn them off. Reading usually helped, but I was in too frantic a mental state to concentrate. I decided to take a tranquilizer. Anxiety and depression are closely linked, and while I was on a daily course of antidepressants and mood stabilizers, my psychiatrist had also prescribed Ativan for me to take as needed. I had just refilled my prescription.

I picked up the bottle and shook a handful of tiny white pills into my hand. They were scored so that the dose could be easily halved, but I didn't even consider splitting one. I debated how many to take. One might not be enough. Two would help me sleep, but slowly. Three would make me fall asleep quickly-it was the highest dose I'd ever taken.

I looked at the pills in my hand and then shook the rest out of the bottle. I swallowed them with one gulp of water.

I'd also just refilled my prescription for the mood stabilizer Depakote. They were medium-sized orange caplets. I took five a day; there were about 150 in the bottle. I swallowed that bottle in two handfuls.

I was taking 60 milligrams of Prozac every day. There were close to 60 green-and-yellow capsules in that bottle. I swallowed them too.

Then I lay down and waited to fall asleep.

I woke up a week later, tied to a hospital bed, breathing through a ventilator, but happy. I knew that I would finally get the help I needed. My depression had rendered me unable to ask for it. As clich├ęd as it sounds, the overdose was a cry for help, and it was heard and answered.

During months of recovery, both physical and mental, I lost my job but I gained self-respect, stability and hope. After I woke up and my physical condition was stabilized, I signed myself into an inpatient psychiatric treatment unit.

It was one of the best experiences of my life: I learned to say "I have manic depression," rather than "I'm a manic-depressive"; I commiserated with dozens of other people who were grappling with illnesses like mine and getting better; and I learned new ways of thinking about my illness and my life.

Going to the hospital didn't ruin my life. It saved my life. Today, thanks to a competent psychologist and psychiatrist, I'm thriving. I got another job, earned a master's degree while working full-time, and got on with my life. Soon I'll start a doctoral program in clinical psychology; I want to use what I've suffered through and learned to help others.

I'm still single, and still hope to marry and have children-but even if I never do, I will always have the love of my family and friends, especially my siblings' children, to whom I am a very devoted aunt. Even though I struggle with my moods every day, and I'm reminded of my illness each night when I swallow my medication, I am very much happy to be alive. I feel incredibly lucky.

And I feel tremendously sad when I read about others who weren't as lucky as I was, who didn't get the help they needed, and whose lives were needlessly lost.

Sometimes good can come out of tragedy. It can bring awareness to an unspoken problem, or bring a community closer together. I hope that this recent loss will motivate us all to take greater care of each other. If you have a friend who seems depressed, please urge them to seek help. If you are depressed, don't hesitate to contact a therapist yourself.

It is hard to know where the tipping point is for someone who is just suffering through normal emotional swings and someone who is severely depressed and at risk. San Francisco Suicide Prevention has put together an excellent list of warning signs.

I am blessed with good friends who go the extra mile when they worry about me. People who are depressed tend to isolate themselves; when I say I want to be alone because I'm feeling depressed, my friends won't let me. They gently coerce me to open up or spend time with them, because they know that ultimately it will make me feel better, or they urge me to tell my psychiatrist about the downturn in my mood.

If you have a friend about whom you are concerned, please don't wait for them to say they want to see you. Call, visit, reach out, encourage them to seek professional help.

There should be no more shame in going to a psychiatrist for depression than in visiting an internist when you have bronchitis; illnesses are not character flaws. And if one psychiatrist or therapist doesn't help, seek another -- in New York City, they're not exactly in short supply. I've gone through five psychiatrists and numerous therapists, but now I'm confident that my doctor and I are managing my illness as best as it can be handled.

I wish I could speak openly about my illness, but unfortunately psychiatric disorders carry a huge stigma, especially for a person still on the shidduch market. However, I can be reached at helpfordepression@gmail.com. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you need help, for yourself or for a friend or loved one.
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I have a mild case of bipolar disorder and even then the suffering and anguish can be profound. Thanks.

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  2. Thank you for writing, I hope that your courage will really help others who are suffering, while educating the community to understand and help.

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  3. I've heard it said, "Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem"

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  4. Unfortunately the problem never seems temporary. The depressed mind can't reason or think clearly; it's not just sadness but impaired cognitive functioning. So your decision-making isn't at its best, nor can you envision your life ever improving.

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  5. It's nice to hear a happy ending every once in a while.

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