I wrote last week about using exercise and other self-care strategies to fight depression. I didn’t go into great detail about my history with depression because I don’t like long blog posts and I figured most of my readers were related to me and familiar with that history. It turns out that’s not entirely true. I actually have some readers who don’t know me well.
Someone who doesn’t know me well might read that post and think I’m one of those people who believe that happiness is a choice and we can fix any mood with appropriate self-care and a positive attitude. I am NOT one of those people. I am a woman who has had two bouts of major depression in her life and knows that both of them were related to hormone fluctuations.
I did not need a double-blind study to tell me this. The first episode happened when my life had just become as perfect as it could be, after the birth of my second child. I had everything I had always wanted, including a loving husband, a secure home and two healthy children. If my mood had been reflecting my situation, I would have been in a state of complete joy and peace.
Instead, I woke up every morning wishing I could die. I went straight from sleep (what sleep I got with a new baby in the house) to despair, with no conscious thought in between. I knew it was chemical, but everyone I talked to about it wanted to find some situational reason for it. There was none. This happened in 1980 and I could find no help. I had to tough it out until my hormones adjusted. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I survived. There were two clear thoughts that kept me from killing myself. The first was that the world was a very dark place for me, but that it would be a whole lot darker for my children if they had to grow up knowing their mother killed herself when they were babies.
The other was that I couldn’t believe, with absolute certainty, that death would end my consciousness. I wanted to stop the pain. I didn’t believe death would end it, so I hung on to life. It was a bleak time, but my hormones did eventually settle down. I was able to wake up and see light in my life again. I even had another child without having another episode of postpartum depression. I hoped the depression was a one-time thing and I would never have to deal with it again.
PMS was a recurring theme in my life, but my loved ones learned to give me space during those times and life went on. As I got older, the PMS got worse. I tried herbal remedies. I wrote a lot of poetry. I meditated. It was just one week out of four. The light always reappeared, right on schedule, so I just kept toughing it out, month after month.
As time went on, there was more darkness and less light. I realized things were going downhill fast when I caught myself weeping in the grocery store and having panic attacks in the dentist’s office. I had lived through a dark time once before and I could see another one coming, so I decided to get help. The counselor I chose was a woman well-known for her belief in natural healing. I was floored when she suggested that antidepressants might help me. Chemicals? For all-natural, new-age, tie-dyed, aging hippie me?
I was desperate and I trusted my counselor, so I gave selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors a try. These drugs take a while to build up in your system and I wasn’t sure, at first, that they were working. I mentioned my doubts to my husband and he said, “They’re working. You’re laughing at my jokes again.”
I had not realized I had stopped laughing at his jokes. He was right about the medication. It made a huge difference. I stayed on it for years. My doctor told me that the medical wisdom was that it was possible to have two episodes of major depression and recover and be able to live without medication, but that once a person had a third episode, that person would probably need to be on antidepressants for the rest of his or her life. The drugs had helped me tremendously but they did have side effects and they were not inexpensive. Once I made it safely through menopause, I decided to try weaning myself from them.
With the doctor’s guidance, I gradually decreased the dose. It took some time and there were bouts of dizziness but, eventually, I was living without selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. That was when I discovered how much difference exercise could make. That was when I learned the other self-care strategies that keep me relatively sane.
I mentioned these in last week’s blog post but I never meant to imply that I believe they are a proper treatment for major depression. My major depressive episodes were hormone-related. Once I got through the hormone storms that caused them, I was no longer dealing with major depression. I’m guessing I will always deal with mild to moderate depression and I am glad there are natural strategies that will get me through the bad days. If I saw another major episode approaching, I would go back on medication in a heartbeat.
There are people who will tell you there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance. These people are dead wrong. When I hear someone say this, I have to resist the urge to smack them upside the head. Fortunately, these people are usually celebrities on television or Facebook acquaintances and I can’t reach them.