A Long Post About Depression

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.

13 thoughts on “A Long Post About Depression

  1. sarahcotchaleovitch

    I had terrible postpartum depression the second time, and I think it hit especially hard because the first was a breeze and a joy. I bordered on postpartum psychosis. I say bordered because I had enough rational thought to leave the baby when I thought I might hurt him. (In another room–not in the car or something!) I told my dad one day I wished I was dead, but it was more like wishing to be out of my misery–I wasn’t going to hurry the process along. It’s hard to admit these problems, but it’s good to know we’re not alone–and to let others know that it is absolutely real. Thanks for sharing.

    1. releaf1954 Post author

      I’m sorry you had to go through that, Sarah. I hope you were able to find more help than I did back in 1980. Thank you for being open about your own experiences. The only people who really understand are the people who have been through it.

  2. releaf1954 Post author

    One reason I hesitated to bring it up is that I know I could go on for for pages and pages. This is a blog, not a book, so I had to condense a very complex story. Thanks for reading.

  3. gregmercer601

    In my personal and professional experience, I’ve learn two things that agree with yours ( so well described btw!): One: Lots of things build our overall wellness, and they all help, regardless of diagnosis. They’re nonspecific, and that’s just fine. Help is help. Two: Often enough, we need more specific medical and psychologic treatment. It’s not a failure of the nonspecifics or failure of character or failure of ANY kind, although clearly many of us could do more to care for ourselves. Instead, it’s usually a matter of a specific, serious, biologic/psychologic problem. We lack the ability to pinpoint which one, having available only still rather vague diagnoses that don’t offer much in the way of directing treatment choices. Still, once we find effective treament, sometimes the first try, often not, by trial and error, the benefit is obvious and decisive. I’m not a big fan of current diagnoses as they offer little practical benefit and lots of worry/misunderstanding, but effective is effecitve, and for millions of people, psychiatric treatment makes for a decisive improvement in their lives. It even saves lives, many of them as it turns out. Not for everyone, of course, but for many. We need to think in terms of pros and cons with an open mind, and figure out what works for US as individuals. Not what SHOULD work or we WANT to work: worthless, both. What works. Go with that.

    Thanks for your fine post. It helps.

    1. releaf1954 Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for the work you do helping people to fight this disease. Mental illness is a formidable adversary and all options need to be on the table.

  4. desertrose7

    I’m so sorry you have been through all this.
    I know depression only too well. Since being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s- (an auto immune disease that affects your thyroid – and your thyroid affects almost EVERY cell in your body – including the brain!) , I have now come to understand SO much more about myself and why I have lived for most of my life with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. It wasn’t a “chemical imbalance” for me, but a thyroid issue all along and nobody bothered to try and dig for the root cause of my depression. I seriously have to wonder how many people out there suffering from depression or anxiety OR female hormone imbalances might have Hashimoto’s – considering that it is THE most common auto immune disease and the amount of people diagnosed is growing at an alarming rate!

    1. releaf1954 Post author

      Well, a thyroid issue amounts to a chemical imbalance, I think. Hormones are chemicals. Our bodies are full of all kinds of chemicals and the organs that produce them don’t always work properly. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with depression, too. Since I published this post, I have heard from a lot of people who have had to fight this disease in its many forms. Some of them were friends and relatives who never mentioned their depression to me before. There are too many people fighting their secret battles all alone. I’m glad we’re becoming more open about these issues, though I know we still have a long way to go. Thank you for your heartfelt comment.

      1. desertrose7

        You are welcome and you’re right….far too many people suffer alone in silence.
        I agree that hormones equate to chemicals….after all they cause chemical reactions in the body. I have to be honest and admit though that I think FAR FAR too many doctors are too quick to prescribe synthetic ‘chemicals” when in a lot of cases getting to the root cause might be a better/safer option. I’m not criticizing yours or anyones use of anti depressants because there are situations where they are definitely useful, but often imbalances of hormones need – hormones- preferably bioidentical, and often accompanying that- huge lifestyle/dietary changes also. I just feel getting down to finding out more about the imbalance is preferable but this never seems to be the first course of action. I fear that many women in particular are simply looked at by doctors as ‘neurotic” and “sensitive” – too “emotional”….therefore, hey presto, take this pill and go away….. There is much interesting new research going on which is talking about the strong possibility, if not quite strong evidence that food sensitivities/allergies and gut health is one of the root causes of many conditions such as depression, ADD, ADHD etc. It’s really interesting!

      2. releaf1954 Post author

        I absolutely agree that doctors are often far too eager to prescribe antidepressants. I fought against the idea for a long time, but they were lifesavers for me.

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