Talking About My Depression
I cry when I am tired or need something to eat. I also cry when things are amazing, all aligned in the world. Basically, I’m a person who’s pretty open to feelings. Despite the predictability of all the tears, my two sons still get concerned when they hear or see me cry. They’re seven and ten now, a bit young for heavy topics unless you happen to live with these short people. Then you realize seven and ten are practically men a good portion of the time.
Instead of covering my tears with a bright smile when the boys walk in the room, I’m trying to do better about talking about why I’m crying. I don’t want these tiny humans to grow up thinking tears are a sign of weakness. I’ve hated my easy waterworks my whole life and I’ve internalized the oft-repeated message that logical, thoughtful people eschew silly things like emotions.
My father likes, and has always liked, rational thought: debates, discussions, orderly arguments. According to him, that’s how you win affection and show your value. When you cry, you ruin the whole thing. If you do get upset, you must move through it quickly. Get angry, get sad; get over it. While age has mellowed some of these qualities in him, they are the ones I and my five siblings grew up with. Unpleasant enough, but, with the specter of depression just under the surface in me: failure was constant. It took me until college to realize that not everyone cried every day of their lives.
Citalopram had replaced paroxetine for me in my early twenties, working about as well on the depression side of things with less tiredness. The ceaseless tears, despair, and general sadness were gone. Was I joyful? No. I had the ups and downs of regular life and was still a bit more cynical and emotional than most people. But the drug was, I would say, 80% effective at mitigating depression, and that was better than I’d ever hoped.
Things were fine until medical research tracked and reported on the long-term effects of citalopram. One of the findings was heart damage, specifically something called a prolonged QT interval. As I understand it, the refill process is slow, so your heart just takes a bit longer pumping. No big deal…mostly. Until of course, it is a problem, and you keel over and die of a heart attack.
At a routine check-up, the doctor mentioned this new research when she saw my drug history. A few minutes later I was lying topless on the exam table hooked up to a portable EKG machine. Result: prolonged QT interval, present.
Twelve years of emotional stability had come at a cost. Yes, I’d had a career and children without spinning out of control. But something had happened to my literal heart at the same time.
And so, though I felt physically well, I slowly stopped the medication.
I tried to explain to my boys why I was bursting into tears ten times a day. I called it ‘The Crying Sickness’, emphasizing that they weren’t the cause. I gave examples of things that seemed overwhelmingly sad to me, sans medicine: grass growing was the one that stuck with them most.
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They looked at each other, at me, at their dad, at each other. Then burst out laughing.
“I’m sad that I don’t have any fur points,” I explained.
You get fur points, in our family at least, when you are at the off-leash dog park near our house and you pet dogs. It started, as most odd family legends, as a way to get the kids to run around more. Fur points are a running joke. Fur points have never made a person cry. This whole conversation suddenly makes a lot more sense.
I was a mess, so much so that it made me willing to talk about depression, more honestly than I ever had before. There was no hiding my constant tears and seemingly endless ability to be heartbroken over everything.
I got a new psychiatrist, figured out a plan, and started new medication about six months later. I’ve been pretty good since—good for me, I guess. But, news about refugee families? Gonna cry. Olympic ads? Ditto. Forgot to eat lunch? Bawling again. The difference now is, I’m more willing to explain my tears rather than pretend not to have them.
This summer we spent a lot of time in hotels as we traveled. We don’t have network television at home, just Netflix and such, so my children are fascinated by advertisements. Watching with them, seeing their rapt attention, I turn into Teacher Mom.
“Does that soda really make every day amazing?” I ask. “What is this even an ad for?” I point out gender differences, especially concerning appearance: women in skimpy clothes while men are fully dressed. I start muting the ads when I can’t stand the bombardment of messages any longer. That leads to excellent Bad Lip Reading family time.
One category of ads mostly passes by unnoticed, unless they repeat too often during a program: ads for prescription medicines. You know the ones—where you can’t quite figure out the disease involved and you start noticing all your own symptoms? The ones with so many lonely people near bodies of water, staring vacantly off into the distance? Then, with the help of a hard-to-pronounce drug, they start attending barbecues with good looking friends.
I wish these advertisements were accurate. As anyone who has taken more than an aspirin knows, those rapidly-recited side-effects at the end of an ad can wreak havoc on human bodies and minds. “This med might make you leave your house more, but you’ll be a lot fatter, you might have seizures, and most likely it won’t work. But if you can afford it, go for it!”
On the other hand, normalizing illness through exposure? Maybe that’s a good thing. Erectile dysfunction probably is less shameful than it once was, thanks to commonplace advertising of treatment. Maybe psoriasis and depression are getting similar boosts. I don’t love the idea that a pill is the solution for whatever ails you–and I hate my kids getting that concept. Yet the truth remains that a little pill is at least a partial solution for my sickness.
There are other treatments of course—the stream of therapists I’ve had in my life. They’ve helped me work on issues specifically, but the general depression has never moved. Coping mechanisms? Yes. Permission to be angry? That too. A desire to walk into the ocean and never turn back? These mental health talk professionals have not helped me counter the desire to die.
Apparently, there are several new antidepressants on the market. My boys made fun of the ads—they’re only human. The third or fourth time one came on, I recognized a moment, and I decided to take it.
“This medicine is for depression. That’s the sickness I have.” I tried to be casual, lying on a pile of fluffy hotel pillows with the rest of the family. But I realized it was the first time I’d put a name to ‘The Crying Sickness.’
Depression. It is a sickness I have.
I went on to explain some of the humorous elements of the ad—the dark cloud following someone around—in terms of how depression feels.
I know the kids, and my husband, were paying attention. They were quiet and listening.We were on vacation. Was I really doing this–going serious? My husband and I are very different souls in terms of sharing and openness. Hell, I’m a writer. I feel healthier and whole when I don’t feel like I’m hiding. He, on the other hand, speaks to his parents twice a year–primarily about the weather. He’d say they are “close.”
Sitting there, I felt dramatic, like I ruin everything fun in our family. Why can’t we just watch TV like normal people? At the same time I feel like the Good Mom, the After School Special Mom who talks about Big Topics casually while cooking dinner in a well-appointed kitchen. Do other people overanalyze their parenting? I always feel so conspicuous, like I’m acting like an adult and my kids can tell I don’t know what I’m doing. A decade of motherhood has made me better able to ignore that feeling and muscle through. So I stifle the “dork feeling” and I talk.
Because I worry. I worry my boys will have this mental illness or another. And I don’t want them to feel alone, broken, like I did. That’s the truth.
The moment, and the commercial that inspired it, ended. We watched people cook with challenging ingredients and we chose our favorite chefs. The topic hasn’t come up again. That’s how I want it, for now. Depression is a part of our family life, even when I have good treatment. I’ve struggled against the disease since kindergarten.
My mother tells the story of me coming home from a half day of kindergarten with Mrs. Ursel at Sand Lake Elementary. Over lunch, I told mom I wanted to die. Thirty years on, I’m sickened to think of it.
The best way I can explain is this: my youngest son has epilepsy. His first night in the emergency room, after a handful of seizures when they stopped ignoring me and saw him shake for no reason, my toddler had to have a spinal tap. So he was dosed with ketamine to sedate him in the safest way possible.
I held his hand while the doctors worked on him. My son’s eyes were open but he was not there. Writing these words my stomach turns, so vivid is the memory. It was horrifying, the most realistic zombie film possible.
When I am depressed, that’s how I feel: there, but not. If I consider my children feeling that way, I cannot breathe. It crushes me to imagine being near them and not knowing. Or knowing, as my mother did, and somehow going on.
I don’t remember that specific moment, but I do remember the next ten years, fifteen, twenty: I never tried to kill myself during those ensuing years, but always hoped I’d die.
As I neared thirty (and now forty) I had no vision of what I wanted for my life. Was I meeting my goals or expectations? Falling short, achieving my dreams? No. Not because of failure, but because I never looked forward. Never. I just wanted it to be over. I went through the steps, the motions, but hoped for death around every corner. That looks like a complete lack of seat belts, jaywalking with abandon. No retirement savings. A living will that clearly states how I’d like no life saving measures whatsoever.
I can’t protect my kids from ‘The Crying Sickness.’ I can be on the lookout for signs of concerns. My oldest son, the one who worries and internalizes? I don’t let a hard day of his go much longer than that—a day—before we settle into a comforting snuggle. Even as he nears adolescence, he knows we’re simpatico and can talk about how his brain traps him in rings of spiraling, escalating panic.
And I can most definitely talk about ‘The Crying Sickness’ so there isn’t the stigma and shame of having this condition. In my extended family, depression and other mental illnesses are rampant. There’s certainly a genetic component (thanks, ancestors!) that is unavoidable, but the silence, and the pretending it can be muscled through are misperceptions that can be changed. Stoic silence hasn’t helped one of my siblings or cousins. Not one.
There’s a Twitter thing “#TalkAboutIt” that people use when giving light to dark subjects, the ones we don’t bring up in polite conversation. Consent and assault are big ones that have gotten a lot of discussion of late, and rightly so. If we talk about our challenges, our diseases, our hurts, we remove some of the stigma. And we make it easier for other people to #TalkAboutIt, to get the help they need.
I’m talking about my depression, not in vague terms any longer. It is a problem. It has a name. My boys know that name and I hope they’ll be stronger for it.