I have been suffering with recurrent major depression and cyclothymia for most of my life. I’ve learned good coping skills and have a great support system, but some days and weeks are still difficult for me. I’m in the midst of a particularly trying few months, so I’ve decided to share my story. I hope this will give me some comfort, as well as encouraging others in my lifelong mission to reduce the stigmas of mental illness.
When I was first diagnosed with depression as a teenager, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was put on an antidepressant but I didn’t think it made much difference, so I quit taking it after awhile. By the time I was 21, my moods and emotions were starting to take over my life. I struggled with feelings that bounced back and forth between being overly sensitive and being angry. Eventually, I was so overwhelmed with suffocating emotions that I was scared to be alone.
I was suicidal and after spending a week at my sister’s house (so I could finish final exams, me being the overachiever that I am), we finally decided it was time to admit me to the psychiatric ward at Abbott Northwestern hospital. I was voluntarily admitted for 72 hours, but decided to stay for 5 days because my experience there was saving my life and I knew it. It was there that I learned to take very seriously my responsibility to myself to get help when I need it. I participated in group therapy, individual therapy, and all kinds of meetings and support groups. I was put on antidepressants as well.
There are many important things that I remember from those 5 days that were already 12 years ago. What I learned was that although I was afraid to talk to my parents about my feelings (because I didn’t understand my feelings myself), they would learn alongside me to figure out what it was that this disease meant for me. I learned that the most important thing to me was my faith and I have never stopped remembering that, no matter how hard life has seemed. I learned that acquaintances became really good friends when I needed them (which I saw when a room full of people showed up to sing church songs with me). I learned that no matter how hard it was to look at myself in the mirror, I would get through it. And most importantly, I learned how to survive no matter what. No matter how difficult, or how impossible, or how painful. I could survive.
I will never forget for the rest of my life how the little old ladies who were also hospitalized for depression looked at me while they told me to stay on my antidepressants so I wouldn’t waste my whole life going in and out of the hospital like they had done. Still, I have been able to come off my medications a few times, but the results were always disastrous. I have now accepted that I will be on antidepressants for the rest of my life. I think it takes just as much courage to be on them as it does to try to live without them.
I will also never forget the written contract I signed, promising to always call someone for help if I didn’t think I was safe being alone. I have put aside my pride dozens of times and asked my mom or sisters to drop everything they were doing and come be with me. I have driven to be somewhere safe with other people to comfort me in times of complete darkness and sadness that is so consuming it is almost blinding. I have kept my promise and I always will, no matter how hard that is.
So by the time I left the hospital, I had figured out who and what was important to me. And I know that being there saved my life, because I wouldn’t have lived even one more day with this life-threatening depression that I have. I also made it my personal mission in life to speak out about depression and mental illness in hopes of helping others and reducing the stigmas.
Over the years, I have learned a lot about this disease and myself. I volunteered for awhile with an organization called SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). Most of the people involved were parents that had lost children to suicide. I learned that no matter how worthless a person suffering from depression feels, their family is never better off without them. The pain I saw in those parents’ eyes is something that I don’t think can ever go away. I’ve remembered this when I feel I’m burdening my family too much.
I’ve been through a lot of psychotherapy and I am a huge advocate of talk therapy to process feelings, learn coping tools, and to help disperse that deep feeling of being alone. For someone with depression, telling them you understand and you love them is wonderful, but sometimes they still feel really alone way deep inside. At least I do. Sometimes.
And sometimes I wonder how the crushing sadness I feel can possibly be masked by my outward personality. My psychiatrist explained to me many years ago that people with depression who are extremely intelligent express it in a different way. For us, we can talk about our disease in a very detached way, as if it is something we can control. We may talk normal and seem happy, even when we are hurting inside. I have to remind myself to be vulnerable and tell people when I’m depressed, because I’m too good at hiding it and I need emotional support.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve discovered to help my depression is Traditional Chinese Medicine. Because acupuncture releases serotonin (happy chemicals), it helps balance the chemical imbalance that causes depression. I also take herbs that not only reduce the side effects of the very strong combination of antidepressants that I’m on, but also help them work better. With regular acupuncture and herbs, my quality of life has gone up tremendously. I also believe that a person’s lifestyle affects their body and mind, so I do yoga and qigong exercises in the morning and meditation in the evening. I exercise regularly (kickboxing, yoga, and walking), eat mostly organic food that I cook from scratch, sleep 9 to 11 hours a night, and take supplements like fish oil and b vitamins that help balance brain chemicals. All of these things balance me and keep me from feeling overwhelmed, even when I’m struggling with my disease.
Most of the side effects from my medications can be controlled fairly well with herbs, but my weight is the one area where the antidepressants won’t allow me to be quite as successful as I would like to be. So I’ve learned to love myself as a plus-size woman and I’ve decided that I’m just as beautiful with a bigger body. Would I like to be thinner? Of course! But is it worth worrying about? No way! I’ve got much bigger struggles to worry about. So I continue to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and reduce my stress. And I’m happy with myself and my body.
The other day one of my sisters reminded me that although living with depression is hard, it also means that I feel everything more deeply and I experience joy in a way that nobody else does. She was right. I’ve seen that life can be hard, so I try to notice all the little tiny things that make me happy every single day and the result is that most of the time I’m extremely happy. I love gardening and will spend 10 hours outside planting, weeding, and mulching just because it brings me joy. I love cooking, so I do lots of canning and preserving as well as keeping a personal 500+ recipe cookbook of all my favorite recipes. And I express my joy with loud laughter, lots of enthusiasm, and a general awareness of life’s innumerable beautiful moments. Because I know that when things are dark and sad for me, I will have trouble remembering these things and I want to experience them as often as possible when I have the chance.
I take responsibility for how I run my life and I don’t use my depression as an excuse. Because of that, I have 3 college degrees – my AS in Pre-Engineering, BS in Mechanical Engineering with Biomedical Emphasis, and MS in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. I am a licensed acupuncturist by the MN State Medical Board, am nationally board certified as an herbalist, and am a member of Acupuncturists Without Borders. I own my home, am very close to my family and friends, help others when they need it, and have a strong faith. I am proud of how successful I am and I know that I am the one who brought myself here. Nobody did it for me. I am strong and independent and gifted.
With all of these accomplishments, I recently found a new inner power that I didn’t have until now. Although I will always rely on my family and friends for support, I am the one who gets through the tough times all on my own. I don’t need anyone to take care of me or save me. I live with severe depression and it makes me more compassionate so I can help others heal. I love myself and I’ve made my depression into a gift that helps me love people very deeply, live every single day with passion, and help others find their inner strength. I am whole and complete the way that I am.