When We Were Small: An Intense Struggle with Depression
by Jeff Campbell
I broke down on a cold December evening and rested my head on the window.
I didn’t know how unclean I’d become, until I watched the world fill with snow.
My parents always did everything they could for me. It was the seventies. There was hardly any psychiatric medication to speak of then, cognitive therapy was barely emerging and, in general, the information on mental illness was not there to discuss, if you wanted to. I first felt it when I was about eight years old. Depression. When I was sad, I got comfort from my stuffed animals. I wasn’t their king. I wasn’t their leader. I was their peer. Whole stories were told in a small Wisconsin house in a single evening. And although I liked to be alone often, to make up my own world, I had many close friends. Aside from getting beaten up occasionally in middle school, most of my childhood was happy and without trauma.
As I got older, depressive episodes became intermittent and, at times, would last for months, or years. In my senior year of high school, I was put on my first medication, the first of dozens. I didn’t get therapy then. Following the breakup of a four-year relationship in my early twenties I fell into another sadness that lasted for close to two years. At the time my emotions were completely out of control and the experience was long lasting and awful.
But after moving on I enjoyed some of the most positive times of my life. In my mid and late twenties I built close friendships, partied with great people, danced, heard the blues, played cards, sat by the lake and stayed up late bantering free form in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. In my thirties, in Atlanta where I landed a job at CNN, my wife Julia and I had dinner parties. A lot of dinner parties. At three a.m. the wine bottles on the table looked like an ocean wave of speckled surfers while good conversations were still hovering overhead. But, as you might expect, folks started having kids and things changed again. In 2007, Gianna entered the world and, five years later, her sister, Francesca was born. By 2010 we were in Lincoln, Nebraska where Julia took on a new career.
Other than working in social work full time for only a few months in 2014, I remained a stay at home dad since 2012. My days were filled with my daughter Francesca and we had a good time for a long time. We played catch the sock, dressed Daddy as a princess, watched really bad TV, and did other father/daughter activities all day. When she could walk we scooted all over the place just to get out. I got to watch her grow up in her youngest years and I tried very hard to not take the privilege for granted. I had a beautiful family, house, plans and ideas.
But that couldn’t stop me from completely breaking down in early 2014 — a severe depression that would last for more than two years. If depression in the past was a violent storm, this one was an ungodly, oceanic black hole.
I rested my head on the window
It snuck up on me like vines hurling themselves up a tired tree. I began seeing my psychiatrist often in 2014 and she would adjust or change my medication. It basically felt like meds were the only way to get relief so, naturally, I struggled to find one that had a benefit. I have been on dozens of different meds and through as many therapists, but neither seemed to ever make much difference. Being on medication is some kind of twisted joke with thirty-year punchline. All things considered, it was obvious that I was treatment-resistant.
I was put on Ativan for anxiety, which would show up as terrible binge crying and hyperventilating. When Francesca went to preschool I felt down. The sun was out, shining through the windows and the shifting shadows of trees danced on the hardwood floors. With twenty or thirty minutes to spare I twisted on the bed crying, joining them in some dark theatrical production.
I don’t know if that was anxiety, but I took the Ativan anyway.
Despite the increasing depression, I quit drinking in December of 2014, after spending most of my adulthood trying to control it. I went to dinner with my girls, toasted a glass of Chardonnay to them and that was it. I just quit. It’s now been over two years. What I did not anticipate was my mood becoming amplified. I had cut off my self-medication. My equalizer. My temporary hope for better things. It’s not that I ever really missed alcohol. That was the easy part. Regardless, abstinence was done on my own terms. It took fifteen years but it got done.
I didn’t know how unclean I’d become…
In 2015 we moved from our home of five years in Lincoln Nebraska to Denver, Colorado where we have family and opportunities. What I thought would be a fresh, clean and healthy break became the most terrifying and bizarre times of my life. Things went downhill fast. Off and on episodes of crying quickly became daily rituals of crawling on the floor hyperventilating like a worn out broken toy. Every night I watched the clock, petrified of the steady march toward morning.
I was prescribed one to two mg of Ativan daily. I was taking eight or nine at a time. Apparently I kept falling asleep at family get-togethers or when out in public. I passed out at the Science and History Museum with my children present and recall nothing. I got into car accidents. After hitting a median and blowing a tire on Colorado Boulevard in a tornado storm with my girls in the car, which I also don’t recall, Julia and her family decided I should not be driving. A big part of my independence was taken away from me for a year. Not long after, my family made the decision that I could not take care of my girls alone. While Julia was gone on business they would stay with their grandparents and I would be left alone to haunt myself. The family was doing what was in the best interest of my girls and all I could do is watch from the center of a swirling decline. I soon became distant and only talked when necessary. I ran away and fast. I was looking at my little girls through a shimmering bottle that kept getting smaller. Walking to school, Gianna and I played the letter game. (“I found another ‘S’ Daddy!”). But her voice trailed off into the distance with the melting letters surrounding us. I would end up on the back steps of the school in a heap begging myself to return to my girls.
Therapy proved pointless. I needed intense counseling and my therapist only acknowledged and sympathized without challenging me. I was fortunate to find a much-respected psychiatrist in Denver who did everything he could for me. But medication trial after trial was not helping me. In September of 2015 I saw a holistic doctor and Julia and I quickly realized that an elimination diet and other programs were no match for the severity of my illness.
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That’s when my doctor said ECT.
Electroconvulsive therapy, formally known as Electro-shock. Great. Electricity is applied to the brain to induce a seizure. It’s all done under anesthesia. With a muscle relaxer that temporarily parallelizes the patient. Sounds like fun. Julia and I discussed it in depth and after a two-hour meeting with the psychiatrist who administers the treatment; we decided to go forward with ECT. I had nothing to lose by doing it. Except my memory.
I figure I can remember about twenty-five percent of 2015. To be fair, sucking down that much Ativan at a time certainly contributed and whether there is retrograde amnesia because of treatments is up for debate. For whatever reason, whole significant events are scattered across a year’s time and there is no recollection of them at all. Other than snippets of the outpatient procedure, I have no memory whatsoever from mid October to mid December of 2015 when my treatments were administered. My parents came to town in November and I did not learn of it until January. If you have ECT treatments, you will lose your memory.
A majority of patients generally get relief after six to eight treatments. I never did. After seventeen treatments in a two-month period I called it off. Honestly, except for my third treatment, where I woke up confused and had to be held down after ripping the IV out of my arm, nothing bad ever happened. It was just very uncomfortable and creepy. Going under anesthesia three times a week is disturbing. Your eyes roll back into your head and you can feel it. Your breath slows down, your limbs evaporate and you fade away, carried off by a gentle, smooth death. Would I do it again? No. Would I tell others not to proceed with treatments? Of course not. There are a lot of personal issues that must be brought to attention to inform one’s decision.
I hung on through the holidays, barely present. The top of the 2016 calendar was the peak of my sadness and the depression was worse than at any other time. Breaking down on the floor of a bathroom stall at a Mexican restaurant, while my family ordered lunch, and my therapist calling the police after I texted her about taking all my pills were not exactly highlights of my life. It was a destructive time and I knew I wasn’t healthy. Although I thought about death often and spoke openly about my wish to die, I was never suicidal. I won’t leave my little girls. I will not destroy them by leaving them without a father they love. I had to survive. Death was not an option.
I thought it was a good idea to change therapists and since I wasn’t driving, he or she had to be nearby. I located a qualified therapist a block away from my girls’ school and a fifteen-minute walk from our house. I began meeting with her twice a week. She was unlike any counselor I had seen in the past. She scolded me over fine details, stared at me when she thought I was lying to myself and reprimanded me when I sought validation from her. Her style was not soft and gentle. I called her a “tough bitch” once and she exclaimed with a confident “Yes!” She addressed my breakdowns with exposure therapy by having me write a script about my fear of never getting better, record it and listen to it for forty-five minutes a day. Somewhere around April she insisted I get to a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group. DBT works on two-week modules and teaches distress tolerance, interpersonal relationships and emotional regulation. The program is centered on mindfulness. I began going to “DBT sessions” once a week beginning in May of 2016.
I’ve seen at least a dozen therapists in my life. But the difference this time was that it was the right therapy with the right person and I was doing a whole lot of it. She helped me learn that nobody, including her, can save me. She taught me how to save myself. It’s the first counseling experience where I really felt like I learned something every time I was there.
Watching the world fill with snow
In May of 2016, my psychiatrist put me on yet another medication along with Effexor and Lamictal. Rexulti is a new anti-psychotic class medication with no generic, as of yet, and is used as an add-on. Being treatment-resistant to medication all my life, I had little expectation of success. Yet only a week after starting one mg of Rexulti in addition to my other meds, I felt something new — the cloud of despair leaving me. I started to wake up in the morning without the sadness and fear I had been living with. Every day held a new moment to cling to. I knew I had a long way to go but now I could concentrate on therapy without the distraction of the heavy weight that kept me from functioning. I can honestly say that medication made recovery happen quickly. It’s like remembering your last swig of poison. You just don’t forget the day you start to feel better. It was, however, therapy that started from scratch by breaking me apart and taking me along the long hard road to get somewhere; a place where life was waiting for me. Therapy and the medication converging at the right time proved to be one of the most important things in my life. It would eventually pull me out from the deep water that filled my lungs.
Recovery. I never thought I’d see the day I could say that word without it being filled with some kind of irony. As I write, I am seven months into recovery and I continue to see my therapist and take my medication as prescribed by my doctor. I also recognize the damage I have done to my family and I am going to couples counseling with Julia so we can be a stronger couple and I can be a better husband and father. I will always struggle with depression, but finally I feel I am done clearing the land and am ready to plant the seeds that will become new growth. I will take my new found insights to protect me and my children from ever visiting the place I went. I have had a thousand dreams letting me know that there is hope, and that is why I am alive.
A smart man told me life is full of sprinkles. Hearing the autumn leaves shuffle to the sound of the shortening days, seeing the rain wash over the bay; watching the world fill with snow. Those are gifts of inspiration. But we cannot live in a world of only sprinkles. Life is more than that. To search for something better “out there” — to escape your life, whether it’s through drinking and drugs, the infatuation of a new relationship… or talking to your stuffed animals, is to not pay attention to the gift of peace that is inside of us all. Depression grows in a mind filled with fantasy and isolation that resides in a world that does not exist anywhere other than in the workings of a fragile soul. We have an obligation to live; to become clean again. We have an obligation to our children, our families and the world of love we have created. Death is not an option.