My story of depression is one story of hundreds of thousands of stories. I tell it for one main reason: once we name something, once we step outside of it by speaking it, we gain power over it. The storyteller gets to shape the narrative even as the narrative shapes her. There’s another reason to tell my truth: maybe others can borrow strength from my story. At church this week we recited a Canadian statement of faith, the first line of which is “We are not alone in this world.” Yes.
My depression story officially began when I was 16, though I had a hunch that something was out of whack much earlier than that. Sixteen was the year that I got official help–from a doctor, therapist, and pharmacist and pastor.
The help I got was kind and gentle and compassionate. The help I got was from people who loved and cared about me and who were smart about how brains worked. They did not place blame for my ‘ disease’ as they called it; they did not indicate that I should feel shame. They gave me a safe space to talk about it.
And I was grateful for the help. I was grateful, mostly, that someone was listening to what was happening, affirming that it wasn’t how I had to feel forever, and that there was a way ‘out.’
Yet, I was not sure the help I got was the right help. I hated taking the pill. I hated telling my friends I was depressed. Crazy. I felt shame. I felt like it was a part of me that I should hide. I knew it was more than that and was curious, but was weak and was doing what all the experts said. They treated a mental illness. They had a recipe for sadness and irritability and negative thoughts and anxiety. Their recipe was an SSRI (Prozac, 20 mg daily), counseling, prayer. Their recipe was designed to help my body have more of this neurotransmitter that I clearly lacked, to have space to talk about all the things that must have led to the disappearance of the neurotransmitter, and some spiritual intervention that would help me know, I guess, that I was loved enough for someone to intervene to the heavens on my behalf.
This has been the recipe for the last 19 years of my life. This recipe, when I’ve followed it, has kept my depression at bay. The alleviation of my symptoms has been really helpful. And it has come with its own consequences. Side effects. And most disturbing, the actual truth that the depression was still there. Underneath the prozac, my body was still not well. It was still tired and weak and foggy. So for 19 years, I’ve turned the volume down on tired and weak and foggy. But what I really longed for was to actually be alive and well and clear.
This recipe–the recipe that contains drugs that mute symptoms and that gives therapy for changing thoughts and behaviors–it forgets a really basic question that no one–no doctor, no psychiatrist, no counselor, no nurse, no pastor, noone in 19 years ever, ever asked: why does Amanda’s body not make enough of this essential thing, serotonin, that she needs to feel good? No one asked anything about my physical body. So they were creating a recipe that would alter my mind–and I knew all along that my depression was in my body.
Before I move on, do you notice the disconnect? Do you notice how strange it is that everyone isolated my ‘disease’ to my mind? That we even talk about the mind and body as two separate things? There’s this assumption that is so deep we hardly notice it anymore: the mind is powerful and is in charge of everything. And can be treated separately from the body–as if the mind were located somewhere outside of our physical selves, in a command center miles away. Last time I checked, my mind was actually attached in really permanent ways to my body, and is, in fact, part of it.
No expert ever acted as though the two were connected. No one asked me the one question that would assure me they understood that my mind was actually a part of my physical body–and that my whole body needed attention.
It wasn’t because they didn’t have clues. Oh, I gave them clues. Every single person with whom I’ve shared my depression story has heard the same line from me when I give them the symptoms: “It never starts with sadness. I’m great with sadness. I feel it, I value it, I learn from it, I embrace it, and I eventually allow it to pass. It always, every time, starts with physical fatigue. I’m really tired. I’m so tired in my body that all I want to do is sleep. I’m compelled to sleep. I nap all the time. I go to bed early. I sleep late. I sleep so much that the next thing that happens is that my appetite goes away. It’s like I’m hibernating. It’s like all I need is rest and I have no need for nourishment. I physically shut down. And going days and days like that starts to take a toll on my mind. What I first notice in my thoughts is not sadness or anxiety, but simple fogginess–like I can’t remember what I just read in a book or I kind of glaze over when people are talking to me. And all that means that I feel incredibly weak–physically unable to do anything of value. So I withdraw. Because going out with friends is a real chore. Reading is a chore. Eating is a chore. So I’m alone, lonely, foggy, weak. So when anything at all stressful happens, I am so exhausted that I feel I can’t take it. And the only expression of help-seeking I have left in me is to weep in isolation. Or, to get in my car and drive. I would do that a lot. Because I wouldn’t want to be this way in front of people. Because I’ve built an identity on being competent and bright and witty and wise. And to let anyone really see me weak and weepy and foggy was too much. So I’d drive. I would hide. I would think “I just don’t want to be anywhere right now.” And so driving would allow me to be in between places. There was great comfort in that for me in my darkest days. And one time, a sophomore in college (before the death of my brother, not after), I drove in the dark. And I was in so much physical pain, I was suffering so much. I wanted someone to help me, but I didn’t want the same kind of help. I wanted help for my body. I wanted, too, a good and socially acceptable reason to be ‘nowhere’ for a while. So I turned my headlights off as I was driving at midnight down a two-lane road between Richmond and Bedford. I wanted someone to crash into me. I wanted my body to feel alive again–and I wanted to get help and I wanted to do both in a way that wasn’t so shameful. And if we’re all honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that a woman in a hospital bed from a car crash is much more OK than a woman in a hospital bed because she’s crazy.
A car came by and I quickly and quietly turned my lights back on and I found my way back home to Bedford, VA. I screamed in pain as I drove. I got home about 2am. I slept on the couch and told my mom I’d talk to her in the morning. We did talk in the morning and I told her what I did and she called for help and I did end up in the hospital. The hospital for crazy people. At 18 years old, I was locked on a long hallway of middle-aged people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and drug addictions. I did not feel safe. I did not feel loved. I was not allowed to go outside. I was not allowed to do any of the things that would actually help me feel well. I found my way out of there only by promising I’d return to the treatment plan. So I did. Prozac, counseling.
There are more of these stories, though not all lead to the hospital. There is the story of being so paralyzed on the job in my twenties that I literally couldn’t get out of the car and go into a conference. There is the story of post-partum depression that left me unable to feed, clothe, or play with my first-born son for most of his third month of life. My story has lots of smaller stories of depression. And every single one of them begins with fatigue. Not sadness.
Just about a month ago, at age 35, I went to another doctor. I tried again telling my story and saying: Prozac helps, it really does. And counseling helps, sort of. But I think there’s more to it. And I want to really be well, to be all the things my body is capable of being. And I think that taking this medicine is missing something really big. And–I think that this idea that I need a way ‘out’ of depression is sort of missing the point. I think I need a way INTO the depression because I think it has something to tell me–and not just about my mind or my circumstances, but about my physical body. My body doesn’t feel well and can’t do the things that bring me joy and I think that this depression can actually help tell the story about why. So maybe, please, can we listen to it instead of make it easier to ignore?
And for the first time in my 19 years of seeking help, someone listened. Someone asked, “I wonder what is going on in your body that you’re not feeling well?” Someone accepted my symptoms and didn’t expect my symptoms to fit their diagnostic manual and instead asked what was behind those symptoms. Someone said, instead of treating the lack of chemical XYZ, let’s get really curious about why your body seems to lack it and let’s support your body in making what it’s supposed to make all on its own. And for almost three hours, this doctor and nurse team listened to my story from day one of my life (literally, from the day of my birth) to the present. They mapped out my symptoms, major life events, and other details. And they’ve tested my blood, my spit, even my shit. (I mean, if dogs can get a stool sample once a year, why not, right?) And they’ve gotten all the clues about why my body is so worn out that it has failed to produce (or adequately process) all sorts of hormones and nutrients and minerals. And all of those things we can start to re-balance with the foods I eat and the way I take care of my body. So my body gave the doctors all the clues they needed. It was there all along, running through my veins. My body had a story to tell that the mind could never express.
I am Prozac-free today after almost 3 months of this deep inquiry into my body. After about a 3-week period of adjustment off of the medicine–during which I was a bonafide MESS–I am experiencing health like I must have had as a kid. I have a healthy appetite. I eat good food when I’m hungry and I quit eating when I’m full. I do not want to take a nap. I finish my days at work with energy to contribute to my family. I’m able to give baths and cook dinner and play outside. This is a miracle.
There’s more to this story–and I will surely feel compelled to write it soon. For now, I want to say that I am most grateful for the spirit in me that would not give up–that believed there were answers worth getting. I am grateful for the friend who planted the seed about this branch of medicine (functional medicine or integrative medicine–which I would officially like to call real medicine). I am grateful for a tiny little medical community that exists in some corners of the world that asks the harder questions. Gratful that they go beyond “what pill can alleviate these symptoms” to “what is behind these symptoms and what story is that telling us?”
I’m grateful that I did not end my life before I found out a way to really live. I’m grateful that the help I got was given in love.
Running on a parallel path beside my gratitude is a path of deep grief. For the 19 years I believed a story that I’m crazy, poorly-designed, defective. For the days I slept or was in a fog or was suffering, I am sad. For the moments of my kids’ lives I’ve missed. For the hudreds of thousands of people who are also living in a story that says they are not worth asking the hard questions about. For the thousands of children in Virginia today taking enormous amounts of mind-altering medication and believing that their minds are ill; that they are weak, not quite right, problematic. For the countless adolescents and young adults and middle-age people and elderly people who are living inside a story that says they aren’t enough. For all who have not been given the help that says they have a story worth hearing. That a way ‘out’ is less helpful than a way IN to their stories. That their bodies have amazing, healing stories to tell. I grieve for you and I grieve for me. So I tell my story. You aren’t alone. And you are powerful beyond all the labels and cures you’ve been given.
More to come.