Some of you may remember that about two years ago, I wrote a series of password-protected posts. I suspect most of you reading this post read the others, but today I am going to write about what was going on in my life at that time. I have wanted to write about these issues for a while, but it took me a long time to feel emotionally ready to do it; I also didn’t want to write about this until I had tenure.
I used a password on those posts to protect the secret I hid from almost all of my family, colleagues, and friends: I was suicidal.
It is difficult for me to remember a time when I did not struggle with depression. I suspect my problems started in the aftermath of the sexual assault I experienced when I was seven. I don’t know that I was the happiest child before, but I vividly remember how my world turned very dark afterwards. I had to deal with the aftermath alone, with no adults to talk to or to help me understand and process what had happened to me, and that is an extremely heavy burden for anyone, let alone a child who had just finished first grade. I felt very sad and very alone for many, many years.
In fifth and sixth grade–but particularly sixth–I slid from sadness to clinical depression. I was struggling with what had happened to me, and I was bullied by a girl who came to my school in fifth grade; she turned every single kid in our class (and in most other classes) against me. The hurt and isolation of that experience was enough to push me over the edge. My depression went undiagnosed and untreated, given the dynamics of my family, but in retrospect, I know what I was experiencing. Even at the time, I knew, because at eleven I was old enough to understand that wanting to kill myself wasn’t normal or healthy. This went on for months. Things started to get better between the summer of sixth and seventh grade–namely, I made some friends–and the suicidal thinking gradually stopped.
I stayed somewhat healthy for several years; I knew I struggled, but because I didn’t want to kill myself and functioned pretty well, I thought I was just “weird.” Five years later, at the end of my junior year of high school, I went through a terrible break-up with my first love. A particularly nasty aftermath left me heartbroken, and the depression returned; it lingered until I went away to college. Fortunately, I wasn’t suicidal during this episode; the thought of finally getting away from my horrible school and going to college is what sustained me. There was no way I was going to even think about killing myself when I was right on the cusp of everything I had ever wanted: going away to college, where I would receive a real education and have more freedom than I had ever known. I also had made some really good friends at my summer job, and they helped me enormously. I would “joke” with them that they kept me from losing my mind and we’d laugh about it, but in truth, that was a serious statement on my part. They helped prevent that awful sense of isolation that pushed me over the edge before.
Once I was in college, I had the freedom to seek therapy, which I did. Rosalie (my therapist) helped me work through so many issues and gain some peace with my molestation and its aftermath, and I think working with her helped prevent any more recurrences of depression during my college years. But after college, I struggled. My grandmother, who was like a mother to me in many ways and who lived with my family the last eight years of her life, experienced a steep decline in her health; she began having TIAs (mini strokes). I couldn’t get a job; I had trained to be a high school English teacher, and everyone I knew assured me I would have no trouble securing a position: I was so bright, I was a hard worker, I was good with students, I was enthusiastic, etc. But I didn’t get a job, and I felt like a failure–me, the girl who had never really failed at anything academic. That led to me working in human resources for over a year before I started tutoring in the basic writing program at the University of Cincinnati; the professors there told me I had a gift for working with basic writers and that I needed to go to grad school so I could become a professor.
So, like the good student I had always been, I listened to the teacher and applied to grad school. Around this same time, we learned my grandma’s cancer had returned and that she would probably be dead within six months. In December of that year, she had a major stroke, and she died six weeks later. Then, about six weeks after her death, I learned I did not get into graduate school.
I was devastated. My grandma’s death was enough to throw me into another major depressive episode, but the rejection gutted me. It called into question who I was. I was the girl who never failed at anything, yet I couldn’t get a teaching job, and now I couldn’t even continue to be a student. I was a failure. I so badly wanted to see my grandmother again, and after I hung up from the rejection phone call, all I could think was that if I died, I could be with her forever. There would be no more rejection or pain, because I would be with her.
Somehow, I had just enough sanity left in me that I called my husband at work and told him what I was thinking about doing. I told him that he needed to come home, because I didn’t know if I could stop myself. I had to pick him up, because he had gotten a ride to work that day, and I remember how I seriously considered driving my car off the roads and overpasses I was traveling on. But I forced myself to think about other people who could be hurt if I caused such an accident. I forced myself to think about G and my parents–did I want G to have to identify me? Did I want my parents, who had just lost my grandma, to then lose their youngest child? These were the thoughts that kept me safe until I could reach G, who promptly took me home, held me for hours, and got me on the phone with a friend of ours who was a therapist. She then put me in touch with Maureen, who became my therapist for the next three years and whose care saved my life.
It took a year for me to emerge from that episode; once I made it through the all of the first holidays without Grandma and the first anniversary of her death–as well as coping with the deaths of a good friend and G’s 18-year-old cousin, both of which were from cancer–I started healing. The excitement of being accepted to grad school also helped in my recovery; once again, I had something to look forward to.
I certainly struggled for many years after this episode, but I didn’t think I was depressed. To me, depression was barely being able to get out of bed every single day and wanting to kill myself. Sure, I had days when I was so upset that I couldn’t face the world. I felt horrible sadness at times, I was pessimistic, I was filled with self-doubt and self-criticism, and I was prone to epic freak-outs. But I was a graduate student, and frankly, all of that seemed pretty normal for a grad student. In comparison to some of my peers, I was a relatively well-adjusted student, especially since very few people in my program ever saw that side of me (only my very closest friends and my dissertation director). I saw a therapist on campus, and she kept me functional.
I took a lot of pride in my ability to hide my mental state from those around me; I always had. For example, no one at U.C. had any idea how depressed I was after my grandma’s death; when I confided in two professors the following year, they were stunned: “But you always seemed so happy!” I did the same thing in grad school. I was very invested in looking capable and confident. I wanted people to think that I had my shit together, and for the most part, they did. Of course, I was also pretty vulnerable as a grad student: I needed professors to work with me, I needed awards and grants, etc. It’s no wonder I was so invested in portraying a certain type of image to others–there were very real consequences if I didn’t. That is also why I turned to blogging in grad school: I needed a place where I could get out all of my secret feelings and fears. I needed a place where I could share all of my insecurities, where I could have my melt-downs, and no one would think less of me for it, because no one would know who I was. That is why I loved pseudonymous blogging so much–it gave me the freedom to be flawed.
All of the above continued throughout my first several years on the tenure track, for all of the same reasons. I was still trying to hide my emotional issues while projecting an aura of cool competence to my colleagues, but now the stakes were higher: tenure and promotion. For the first several years, I managed fairly well; I didn’t even find a new therapist when I moved here. But eventually, things started to unravel. I think it started after my son’s heart condition was diagnosed when he was nine months old; I resumed therapy at that point. Other issues in my personal life–things which I cannot write about publicly, since they involve other people–had a very detrimental effect on my mental state as well, and pretty soon I was in trouble. Fortunately, by this point I had some colleagues who I trusted enough to let see behind the curtain, so to speak, and they began advocating for me.
This is the real reason why I stopped the clock in late 2010. I have maintained publicly that it was because of P’s birth, but the reality is that it was because of depression. The colleague who I’ve identified as Mentor Prof played a pivotal role in the process. She knew much (though not all) of what I was struggling with at the time, and she flat-out told me that there was no way I was in any shape to go up for tenure the following fall. She was right–I cannot imagine prepping my case at that time, given where my health was at that point–but I fought her on it, because I didn’t want to look “weak.” She pushed me and pushed me to seek the help of another mentor who had influence with the dean, as well as my chair, and eventually I did so. The two of them advocated on my behalf, not only to the dean, but also in concert with the dean, who appealed to the vice-chancellor. This is one reason why I speak so highly of my mentors, my chair, and my dean–they have all gone to bat for me in ways that I know aren’t common at many universities. They looked out for my interests when I wasn’t capable of doing so. That is rare, and I will always be grateful for it.
I think Mentor Prof hoped that delaying tenure would give me some breathing room and help my mental state, but it didn’t. Throughout the spring of 2011, I continued my long slide into depression. Over the summer, my therapist very nearly begged me to take antidepressants, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d gotten through depression without them several others times, and I didn’t need them. But therapy wasn’t going well; I had reached a point in my depression that therapy really couldn’t be effective. The only way I know how to express is that I was too far gone. Every thing she tried to say, I countered with why it wouldn’t work, why that wasn’t true of me, etc. There was just no helping me in the state I was in; I was incapable of assisting in my own recovery.
By fall 2011, I could barely function: I taught my classes, I picked up the kids, then I came home and collapsed on the couch or in my bed until G came home. I had little control of my emotions, I cried at everything, and I was irritable with the kids. Even though I loved teaching, I could barely muster the energy to do it. The only way I could cope was to count how many more days I had left in the semester: just 30 more classes, just 29 more classes, etc. I had wanted to die for months, and that fall my thoughts turned towards actively making that happen. I felt like I was being carried away by forces that were beyond me: in a classic English professor moment, I remember thinking that my life had become like that of a naturalistic heroine, like Carrie from Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Edna from Chopin’s The Awakening–I was hurtling towards my inevitable conclusion, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
While I had those feelings, I also worried about my children. A large part of me felt they would be better off without me, but I worried about them, especially M. I worried that my “inevitable conclusion” would destroy her; I didn’t worry about P so much, because since he was only three, I assumed he wouldn’t remember me and would thus never feel my loss (logic was not my strong suit at that point). But M was a different story altogether. Even in the state I was in, I could see what my depression was doing to her. I saw her worry and fear; she didn’t understand what was going on with me, but she knew something was wrong. I feared she would blame herself for my actions and that it would haunt her the rest of her life. I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t make her live with that.
For reasons I don’t understand but for which I am grateful, one Saturday in early October I had an epiphany: I had a life-threatening disease, and it was going to kill me every bit as much as other such diseases if I didn’t seek treatment–pharmacological treatment. If I had cancer, I wouldn’t hesitate to follow my doctor’s advice and take whatever drugs were needed. Why then was I so adamantly resisting my therapist, who kept trying to persuade me to take an anti-depressant? I couldn’t come up with a legitimate answer, and I knew it.
I cried a lot that weekend, and I did a great deal of reading as well. That Monday, I went to see my therapist and told her that I needed to get better and that I didn’t think I could do that without a prescription. We talked for a long time about my condition. It became clear that I had been suffering from dysthymia for most of my life and that I was currently in the midst of “double depression“–a major depressive episode (i.e., clinical depression) on top of dysthymia. Within a day or two, I saw my family doctor, who concurred with the diagnosis and prescribed Wellbutrin. He talked with me about how much has been learned about depression in recent years and how there is now an accepted understanding that every major episode of depression re-shapes the brain, and each subsequent episode makes the changes more pronounced. As he put it to me at the time, once that genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be forced back in. In other words, when someone has had several major depressive episodes, as I have, it is difficult to nearly impossible to treat subsequent episodes without medication–and that doesn’t even take into account the dysthymia, which makes depression even more difficult to treat.
Fortunately, the Wellbutrin had a huge positive impact. The suicidal thinking stopped right away, and I was able to do the work I needed to do in therapy. But the end of that school year (the 2011-2012 year), I was much healthier. It’s been nearly two years, and I’m still getting better. I definitely still have bad days, but that’s it now–bad days or even hours, not bad weeks or months. It’s a huge difference.
I’m still taking Wellbutrin every day. In all likelihood, I’ll be on it (or some other anti-depressant) the rest of my life. That has been the hardest part of this for me–admitting I have a disease over which I have no control. I know it’s ridiculous–I have asthma, and I don’t think of it as a personal failing that I can’t make myself breathe well and that I’ll have to take asthma meds every day for the rest of my life. But the stigma of mental illness is tough to shake, and it still gets to me. I struggle with the voice that whispers, “If you were just strong enough–a better, tougher person–you wouldn’t need meds. What do you have to be depressed about, anyway? You’re such a whiner!” But I keep on. I tell that part of me to shut up, because I know those feelings aren’t grounded in reality.
I wanted to write about my struggle with depression, because I think it is something many people have but are ashamed to admit. I was that person for a long time, myself. I see it in my students. I see the impact it has on them when I’m trying to persuade them to seek help and tell them, “Look, I have struggled with depression most of my life. Therapy and medication helped me–it will help you.” I know there are students who would not have gotten the help they needed if I did not tell them I have been there, too (and am still there).
That said, I do worry that others will take me less seriously because of my illness; that’s why I didn’t write this post until now. I didn’t want anyone to see my T and P case through this lens. Personally, I am amazed that I accomplished what I did while struggling through the worst of the depression, but I know there are some who wouldn’t see it that way at all. Once again, the stigma of mental illness emerges.
I don’t know what will happen in the future, and it worries me. I am very afraid of having another episode of clinical depression, even though I know it’s likely that I will. I try not to think about it, though. I have an excellent doctor and therapist, and they keep very close tabs on my treatment and condition. I trust them to take care of me. So far, I have been able to recognize my own crisis point, and so I try to trust that I too will know if and when my condition worsens. When I really start worrying, I go back into “one day at a time” mode–I’m healthy today, and I’ll see what tomorrow brings.
For now, it’s working.