the “d” word, and all the stigma.

at long last, i’m tackling the depression and family post. i had wanted to write this up a while ago, but really felt like i needed to be in the right frame of mind – aka: not distracted, and able to fully elucidate my thoughts.

i’ve been doing some independent study of depression, its effects on families and some of the indicators associated with the condition. mostly because i’ve spent my adult life depressed, and had absolutely no idea. sure, i might have suspected that other people had an easier time emotionally, but my normal was normal. because it was mine. after 6 months on prozac, and 5 months on the right dosage for me, i cannot imagine life the way it was. and i mean that literally – the thought patterns, fears, and habits have largely become faded memories. which is why i was journaling my thoughts and feelings as the prozac took effect. it’s not pretty to reread them. i was hysterically afraid, convinced i was a complete failure and worthless, and absolutely sure that everyone felt the same way about me. i also mean the hysterical part literally. i can remember phone conversations this summer that had me sobbing so hard i could barely breathe, hysterical with the absolute conviction that i had utterly failed those i loved.

my circle of caring got smaller and smaller successively though – it was insidious that way. after i left for college in my senior year, i lost track with friends from high school (which is a normal thing to do, but i literally walked away and never looked back. with no real reason). after getting married, i closed out my friends from YWAM, and other friends i had made. this was after having pulled away from the bulk of my extended family. i never talked to any relatives any more, and it was a struggle to call my parents. and then that stopped. by then, i had zoë, and i was holding onto a small circle of friends – albeit poorly. i attempted blogging as a way to numb the feelings of failure, convinced that i could at least say over the internet what i was incapable of saying on the phone. then, the loss of the house, and the downward spiral of the last 4 years. by this summer, i was an island. feeling like a widow, an orphan, an outcast. with no reason other than what my brain was telling me. i’m terrible, i’m a failure, i can’t be helped, it’s all useless because i am.

even typing this is hard. because it’s so sad. so sad that i lived for over a decade convinced i was worthless. that those thoughts that had me contemplating suicide at 16 never were eradicated – that i couldn’t pray enough, couldn’t go to church enough, couldn’t read my bible enough. i’m trying to not second guess the choices of my entire adult life,  as it’s tough to know what was prompted by messed up serotonin receptors, and was prompted by genuine desire. i’ll tell you this much, i will never go back there. if i’m on anti-depressants the rest of my life, if i’m going to therapy until i’m using a walker, if i’m having to constantly catch my thought patterns spiraling in moments of stress and learn to step back, it’s worth it.

so in part, this post is to bring light to one of those messy things that people, women, christians, conservatives, anti-medication folks, americans, etc. don’t really like to talk about. scientific studies are showing a genetic link in families to occurrences of chronic or major depression, and that worries me some. sure, i was diagnosed with dysthymia, which is a long term low grade depression, but it’s not all that different. less likely to be manic, or maybe commit suicide, but depression is depression is depression. which means one day, i will have to really explain to zoë what my medicine is. right now, she knows i have to take my medicine so i don’t sleep all the time. so i don’t cry for no reason, so i don’t compulsively eat (i have had moments that frightened me – i could eat and never feel full. ever. i was a black hole.), so that i can be her momma fully, and not feel sad all the time. because i’m hoping and praying she will be one of the lucky ones that don’t inherit all the messy parts of these genes. the genes that see her unable to face the daylight. the genes that have her spending her childhood convinced if she were better, perfect, more studious, less of a failure that her life would be okay. a three generational study pointed out some interesting things. i’m posting a bit from an article on webmd (though i’ve read through the abstract of this original study, and webmd sums it up in laymen’s terms), because i think it’s important.

“Doctors recognize that depression can weave a long thread of despair. “Depression is highly familial,” says Myrna Weissman, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University. She began studying depression in families in 1982 and has now tracked three generations of family members with the disorder.

When a parent has depression, a child faces three times the risk of becoming depressed, compared to a child without a depressed parent, Weissman says. If the parent developed the mental illness before age 20, the child’s risk rises four- to fivefold.”

that quote scares me. it’s an easy jump into the stress and fear and spiral that my thoughts go down, and then it’s 5 am, i’m still awake and i’m afraid in the darkness.

i can’t pretend i’m okay all the time. i am so much better than i ever was. but there’s this pressure to get it right, to be perfect. to be an achiever. my dad is brilliant, nearly has his doctorate, handles incredibly complex shipping issues, and here i am, a stay at home mom who can’t seem to stop staying up too late. my brother works for one of the top tech companies in the world, and i just graduated college with a degree in the humanities. my friends have homes, furniture, savings accounts, and i am woefully inadequate in all of those places. moms, and i would venture, women in general feel the pressure to get it right. to have it all, all at once. i was talking about this with a friend this week, and felt so encouraged that i’m not alone. that i’m not the only swimming in laundry, the only one who can’t seem to get thank you notes sent. that i’m not the only one who feels mommy/wife/feminine guilt. it’s too pervasive in our culture, and while there’s something to be said for “american exceptionalism” (though i sincerely doubt it exists), we have bought into a lie as a culture that we either get it right, or we pay the price. there’s no room for mistakes here, so keep on bumping down the road, son. i was raised in a high achieving family, with extended family doing all sorts of incredible feats of intelligence. they are engineers, medical professionals, telecom geniuses, artists, and some where around 19, i realized that my path wouldn’t be the same. and it hurt. that even though i was making the choices i wanted to in my life, it wasn’t good enough. i wasn’t good enough.

and as a believer, it gets even more convoluted. is Jesus enough when you’re depressed? shouldn’t you be able to pray your way into healing, wholeness and all those things promised by joining the Kingdom of Heaven? i don’t think so. is that a lack of faith? some people might say so. some denominations think so. i’m lucky enough to be part of a church that recognizes we are broken and bruised, even after meeting a Savior. but i’ve been part of others that believe faith is enough. i’m not saying if God decided to, He couldn’t heal the serotonin receptors that are so screwed up in my head, but He hasn’t. or at least not without months of SSRI drugs. and that is enough for me. is my faith diminished because i am fully availing myself of the pharmaceuticals available to me? no way. i could have been born 150 years ago, where i would likely have been locked up for hysteria or being insane. i’m not even joking – i believe i was fortunate enough to be born in this time and place, where people like me can get help for the sads. for the days that are overcast, and the sun never returns.

to bring this back to my own studies of medical literature on depression, i wanted to point out something fairly unifying throughout the articles i’ve been reading. family and friends see it loooooong before you do. my mom and sister were begging me to seek help 4 years ago, and my friends have said that if i hadn’t gotten help, they were bringing it up as soon as they were able. i had no idea. because like i said earlier, it was my normal. i thought i was fine. reading about depression in women suggests a link to dominant partners, lack of independence, and coersion/power struggles. which is nothing like my relationship with spencer. i’m thankful he stuck around, through the sobbing, the screaming, the not coming home before 3 am with no thought to tell him where i was, the darkness. all of this was before zoë. i was combative before she came, and withdrawn afterwards… glorious post-partum, i would guess. he has become a rock for me, before in a completely co-dependent way, and now in a more relational way. he’s stable when i’ve been so unsteady – shakespeare said it best in sonnet 116, speaking of love –

“…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,”

but depression stole that. he was focused on keeping me functional, as best as possible. love became caretaking, affection became parenting two children rather than one. he knew something was wrong, but not what to do. at first, he thought it was his fault. that somehow, if he could make me happy again, we’d be fine. i got credit cards, and racked them up. i spent money we didn’t have, on things we didn’t need. he blamed himself, i blamed him, and i blamed myself. it’s ugly. and true. truer than the polite lies we tell when people ask us if we’re okay.

and if you suspect someone you know or love is battling depression, be prepared to get the polite lies. because it’s an ugly truth to face, and there’s so much stigma associated with it. that might just be me, but i don’t think i’m alone in that. it’s easy to convince yourself that depressed people can’t get out of bed, and look! you’re out of bed, and you just had 40 people over for a graduation party that you cooked for. there’s no way you can be depressed. you make your own bread, you make your own laundry soap, you shop at the farmer’s market. you graduated college with honors, you’ve been married for 12 years, there’s no way you’re depressed. and you are, and everyone but you can see it.

so if anything – don’t stop reaching out. even when you get rebuffed with polite answers and even politer untruths. we’re dying on the inside, and so scared that the whole world sees us the way we see ourselves. and if they knew how terrible, awful, unlovable we really were, they wouldn’t stick around. don’t give up on us. we’re worth it, even if we decided we weren’t.

further reading:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/MH00016

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1300/J287v03n03_04

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200303/depression-family-matter

http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/depression-when-its-all-in-the-family

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060911120342.htm

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112339412

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15630070

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10 thoughts on “the “d” word, and all the stigma.

  1. ❤ you, Cat. I wish I could give you a hug. I wish I could tell you that I get it, I understand, I feel it, too. But I don't think there's any words that could do that for me very well.

    Debated sending you a funny picture of a cat, but this doesn't feel like a funny cat situation.

  2. Catherine I am sooooooooo proud of you for facing down this destructive giant.What amazing insight and brutal heart exposure!I know that your future has a renewed hope and I am so blessed for you.You are loved more than mere words can express.What victory to allow yourself such transparency and not allow depression to shroud you in shame any longer.Love,love,love you girl!!!!!!!! Mom

  3. Such a great post, Catherine!

    There is bravery in your transparency that will help others be set free as well. You and Spencer have such a wonderful story of love and perseverance and grace that will only grow richer each step of your journey together. Statistically, even if Zoe has a greater risk of inheriting the same struggles, she has a 100% chance of having seen those struggles confronted, talked about and managed in your life, and that’s a pretty great advantage to have.

    And fwiw, staying up too late and swimming in laundry both rank pretty high on my “Things I Routinely Accomplish as a SAH Mom” List. (And sending thank-you cards will probably never.)

    • leah, thank you for the encouragement. it is really scary to let the truth come out, but i’m hoping it will encourage people to either seek help or talk about depression more openly. it’s too painful to hide.

      and yeah, i don’t think i will ever conquer the laundry. one day.

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