In June of 2013, we welcomed our second daughter.
Six weeks later, the day before I went back to work from maternity leave, one of my dearest friends passed away.
Six weeks after that, we learned my father had cancer.
Four weeks later, I learned that my boss at work would be leaving the library where we had worked together for the previous six years.
Over the next year, five more of my long-time coworkers and friends would go on to positions at other institutions as well.
As 2014 continued, I had to have my appendix removed. We lost my husband’s grandmother. Another working relationship became toxic. My father-in-law moved to an assisted living facility. And, finally, we said goodbye to my father.
All of this was in the midst of working full-time, writing a dissertation, worrying about ongoing financial difficulties, and parenting “two under two.”
Later that fall, a close friend came to my house and asked how I was doing. I sat across from her at the kitchen table and avoided eye contact as I said, “Well . . . okay . . . I guess. I mean . . . I cry a lot, but that’s normal. I cry on the way to work, on the way home. I sit in my car and cry on my lunch break. Sometimes I have to take a break and go sit in the stairwell and cry . . . but that’s normal.”
She took my hand and stared at me until I looked her in the eye, and she said, “That’s not normal.” She suggested that I might need help from counseling or medication to get me through this season of life.
We all need a friend like that.
Not long after, I went to my doctor for my yearly check-up. When the nurse asked me how I’d been doing, I burst into tears and cried all the way through the appointment. (Awkward.)
The doctor said she believed I was dealing with situational depression. That, in layman’s terms, my brain had been hit with major life stressors over and over in close succession without having a chance to bounce back as it normally would. She recommended a low dose of antidepressant for as long as I felt I needed it.
She wrote me a prescription, and I went home and put it on the counter for a month.
I have several friends who have dealt with depression, and I absolutely support and understand the need for medication. There was (and is) no stigma or judging or self-righteousness in my mind. But, for me, I was afraid. I had no idea what the side effects would be, and I was terrified that things might end up worse than they already were.
But things were getting pretty bad. There were nights I came home from work and went straight to bed, unable to play with my children, read to them, or give them a bath. I was still crying a lot, and there were a lot of lunch hours that I also just spent sitting in a chair and staring out a window. I was functioning, but I wasn’t fully there. Even the smallest tasks — brushing my teeth, cooking a meal — at times felt completely unmanageable.
I felt like I was wearing a weighted coat all the time.
Then there were times when I was really, really, really angry. Angry with the big things like myself, my husband, and our situation and angry with the little things like WHO USED ALL THE TOILET PAPER WITHOUT REPLACING THE ROLL? I knew some of my anger was justified and some was irrational, but knowing that didn’t stop the feelings or make it easier to control my reactions.
I was numb, and I was angry, and, at times, I was even happy. My thoughts were chaotic and out of control. In short, things weren’t right, and I didn’t seem to be able to fix it.
I’m a Christian, so I turned to my faith. I prayed more, I read the Bible more, and I didn’t get better.
I cleaned up my eating, but I didn’t get better.
Things got better at work, but I didn’t get better.
I started to question whether my children were better off with a bad mother or with no mother at all. As we say in the South, I dropped my basket.
It was, without a doubt, the darkest, most complicated period of my life.
Finally, after a really bad night with my daughters, I told my husband, “That’s it. I have to see if the medicine will work because I don’t know that I can get any worse.”
Soon after I started taking the anti-depressant, it felt like a cast went around my brain. I stopped crying, which was a nice break. I was tired, and I still felt detached. But, s-l-o-w-l-y, I started to feel normal again. I started to function more normally. As time went on, I cut the dose in half, then dropped it down to every other day, then went off the medicine completely.
I so wanted to write during all of this. I wanted to tell people what it was like in “the messy middle,” not just reflect on the experience with a nice bow wrapped around it at the end. But I couldn’t think straight and just couldn’t muster the words.
So I’m writing now. This journey is far from over for me. I’m still learning to deal with my grief, feelings, and disappointments on a daily basis. I’m learning how my faith sustains me and how healthy choices in my diet and exercise make a huge difference in my mental state.
Through all of this, my faith actually got stronger, and my health became more important. My trust in God and clean eating habits and exercise help keep me off the medication, but I believe I needed it in the beginning to get to that point.
I wasn’t just sad. I couldn’t just change my attitude or “choose joy.” I could no more have chosen joy in that period than I could have chosen to run a marathon with a broken leg. Because my brain really was broken.
As I start to look back and reflect on this season, I want to teach my daughters that it’s okay to say out loud that I have dealt with depression. I also want them to know that depression does not define me, that it’s okay to let God use medicine to heal us, and, most important, that things will get better.
Maybe you need to hear that today too — that things will get better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, to say out loud what you’re going through and feeling. Things will get better.