Depression: The Bell Jar
What is depression? I know.
When Sylvia Plath wrote her enlightening book, The Bell Jar, she described depression in a way no other had before or since. My experience is that depression truly is the bell jar that steals the air from us, making it hard to breathe or function, much less laugh and enjoy life. Unlike Sylvia, I have survived my times of overwhelming gloom without succumbing to the oven. I'd have to find another path, anyway, as my oven hasn't been cleaned in months. My depression never got that bad, I suppose. It was always just a pall that blanketed my small universe; it came from nowhere and left just as quickly. I can remember as a preteen waking up and feeling an all-encompassing relief because it would be gone—poof!—until next time.
Growing Up Sad
When I was younger, I didn't quite understand exactly what was wrong with me. I remember hearing my mom tell people I was "nervous." The most frightening thing about it all for me was my powerlessness over the wretched thing. I can remember feeling uneasy when I was happy, running and playing with friends, because I wondered how long it would last. Other children were afraid of the boogey-man. I was afraid of the real boogey-man, who came sprinkling gloom and sadness and fatigue. As a child and a young teenager, I would use those dark times for reading and most often to escape to my room for naps. The periods of sadness and gloom were always accompanied by a dreary tiredness that no amount of sleep seemed to relieve.
In college, I learned a bit more about depression in my freshman psychology classes, although that was many years ago and there wasn't that much to learn. After I married and had children, the bouts with depression lessened because life was so full of children and activities. In my late 30s and early 40s, the plague, as I've often called it, was back with an intensity I'd never experienced and some days it was difficult just to make it out of bed. I remember so many mornings talking to myself about being positive and grateful for what I had, etc., then bursting into tears. So much for the power of positive thinking. The depression came and went over the years. Some years were better, some worse. It was never situational and just seemed to materialize out of the mist.
Reaching My Limit
In the spring of 2005, I became so very overcome with sadness and gloom, that I finally mentioned it to my primary-care physician. She merrily wrote me a prescription for 20 milligrams of the antidepressant Prozac. Within four days, life was good! In fact, it was too good. I was absolutely intoxicated on the drug. I loved my husband so much, my friends so much, hell, I loved the stainless steel. It was something a bit like being underwater, taking the SSRI. I wasn't certain I liked the feeling, but after years of struggling not to cry at the dinner table, get in my car and drive to the ends of the earth or sleep 20 hours a day, I was ready for any relief.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Katrina came along in August of 2005. My husband and I were always very cavalier about hurricanes, had never evacuated for one. We often sat in our driveway in lawn chairs, drinking beer, surrounded by empty houses left by the evacuees, watching the weather come in, feeling smug and thinking about all those people fighting a parking lot of traffic on I-10. However, on that particular Sunday morning in August, Joe came in to wake me up at 8:30. His message was: They're saying this one may be a Category 4 or 5. Do you think maybe we should leave? Whatever. I didn't care. I felt fantastic! The Prozac was truly in my bloodstream by now and altering the workings of my brain, making me love everything and fear nothing, not even Hurricane Katrina. Bring her on!
We left to go to my husband's hunting camp in Arkansas. I don't remember the drive up except that we took two cars and all through the drive, I was smiling and humming and wondering if we'd be gone a day or two days and if we had enough clothes. When we got to the camp, I started to put my things away in one of the rickety chests. I wanted to check that the little pills were there to keep me smiling. Oops! I went through my makeup bag ten times. Double Oops. No pills. Oh, my God. OH, MY GOD.
By this time, we couldn't communicate with anyone in New Orleans and, as I later learned, my doctor's office was empty and would eventually be a total wreck, with windows blown out, water everywhere, etc. I realized I was going to have to withdraw from la-la land cold turkey. And I did. Actually, it wasn't so bad. I found myself coming down from the heights of ecstasy to being me again. And strangely enough, I liked it. I was able to think more clearly and make decisions objectively without that feeling that everything is going to be fine, which it very obviously was not. I was nervous for a few days after stopping the pills, but I don't know if it was caused by not taking them or all the other drama going on around me. One of my biggest focuses during that time was my fish, which hadn't been fed for almost nine days. I dreamed about them every night, could feel myself crumbling the flake fish food to feed them.
We returned home to New Orleans in nine days with a truck loaded down with gasoline and a generator. If we'd had a wreck, our truck would have exploded and I-55 would have lit up like New Year's Eve. The parish let us come back to check on our homes and when we found our neighbor had gotten the electricity turned on, we stayed. The stainless steel no longer glittered and shone and my husband got on my nerves in the worst way, just as I did his, I'm sure. I was cursing at the cats again, but I was myself, and I survived. Interesting enough, I was one of the few people in New Orleans who wasn't on an SSRI after Katrina. By the way, the fish were zipping around in about a half foot of filthy water that smelled like a swamp, but they were fine. It was very strange to be able to actually crumble their food and feed them.
After leaving the Prozac behind, I put up with the black spells until last year. After one particularly tough stretch, I came up with the bright idea that perhaps I should see a psychologist. Of course, it was always there, but I didn't like the idea. It was like giving in and saying I couldn't handle it any longer. I couldn't.
I went to see a female psychologist. I didn't like her at all and she didn't like me. I never went back. Her home in the Garden District was her office and the thermostat had to have been set on 80. I sat there and didn't say a word as sweat poured down my back. A few months later, I went to see a man close to where I live. I knew the moment I saw him that we would be friends and that I could talk to him. He had a head of Albert Einstein hair, was about 30 pounds overweight, very slow moving and talking, had a marvelous sense of humor and was just what I needed. Over a period of weeks and months, he let me talk my way in to being healthier mentally. I still see him occasionally, but just to visit and catch up. I still have spells when the plague catches up with me, but not as often or as intense as in the past. I talked to him about my family's history of emotional and mental problems, about my experience with Prozac, which he found totally hilarious, and about my life. Through those sessions, some of the threads of my thoughts about myself began to unravel and I realized that my problems were not going to be so hard to solve after all.
There are people who need to be on SSRIs and other medicines to regulate their moods. Thank God we have those medicines. Two years ago, my neighbor walked into his backyard and blew his brains out with his wife sitting in the den, watching television. Perhaps medicine would have stopped that waste of a good life. Those medicines serve a purpose and I heartily endorse their use for those who need them.
I am not ashamed of having been depressed and occasionally still being depressed. I think it's important that we talk about it. There is still such a stigma attached to it. I read and edit depositions and often the deponent is asked if they've ever seen a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Nice, huh? Now, just why do they want to know? For me, it's like having knees that don't quite meet when I put them together, just something a little different.
At a party one night, a woman about my age remarked, when someone mentioned something about her daughter's struggle with depression, "We don't have that in my family." Her tone and manner implied it was something akin to rampant nymphomania. I said, "Well, we do in mine." The woman who had been discussing her daughter's problems smiled and I smiled back: Connection. The woman who doesn't have that in her family left the conversation. I hope I never see her again because I might hit her.
None of us has an easy life. Everyone battles something. We have health issues, children issues, parent issues, marital issues, financial issues, etc. In the back of our minds is the answer, just as seeing a psychologist was in the back of mine for years. Don't waste all the time I did. Do whatever you need to do to make your life happier and more complete. The psychologist and I laughed until we cried the last time I visited, remembering the darker days when I first started seeing him. It was a standing joke that he would ask me: How does that make you feel? I would sometimes say: Like s**t. I no longer feel that way. Things are not perfect, but I face whatever is coming for me at 66 years old with hope and a degree of optimism. I've come to realize that some people have diabetes, some have gout, some have panic attacks. I (only occasionally now) have depression.
As for the bell jar, I have not broken it. I don't believe I ever will, but although it hovers, it is much farther away than in years past. Some days, I forget it's there at all. For that, I am truly, truly grateful.
I wrote this article a few years ago. When I re-read it recently, I felt concerned because I sound a bit cavalier, in my opinion, about finally getting past those dark times. I need to stress that it was not easy and that it required constant diligence and watchfulness about what I thought, said, and even felt. For me, there were a few days that were so wretched and miserable—you know those days when you just can't cry, you don't care enough—those few days were the catalyst for my getting well. I literally could not stand myself. When I finally reached that point, I began the hard work of monitoring my thoughts, actions, what I watched on TV, music I listened to, what I wore, where I went, who I spoke to, etc., etc. If this article makes it sound like an easy process, it absolutely was not. I wanted desperately to simply wake up and feel happy to be alive. Now I am.