Beyond down in the dumps

[wide]depression[/wide]“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.

— Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation

 

This is not just a depressing topic, but a painful one for me to write about because it’s something I’ve known a bit too up close and personally, with immediate family members affected and in turn affecting me. Luckily my own depressive episodes take the form of the occasionally brief bouts typical of most people: just feeling sad for a while, with exercise or distraction serving as quick effective fixes. But I’ve seen what havoc depression can wreak in a life.

Depression may be no picnic for beleaguered family members and friends, but is a living hell for the sufferer. Millions of us have depression in some form. The exact number is hard to count because so many cases are undiagnosed and untreated. In part, because it’s a disease complicated by its attached stigma. “Just pull out of it” or “Snap out of it,” people tell the depressed, failing to understand why they can’t just give themselves a little shake and a pep talk and feel all better.

Many more women have clinical depression than men, possibly because of hormonal or psychosocial reasons. In women it may manifest as guilt, melancholy and feelings of worthlessness, while in men it can look like fatigue, insomnia, apathy and irritability, even anger. There are no racial differences, but more urban dwellers have it than rural.

Think again

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Collage illustration by Will Dendis

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Suicide. The word is a complete sentence, a complete thought, a complete statement. I know from personal experience. When I was a child, I sometimes experienced intense impulses late at night or during stressful periods to run a knife deep into my arm from my fingertips up to my armpit. For me, the impulse was as powerful and real as yearning for an umbrella in the pouring rain.

What is that about?

My goddaughter suffered a similar impulse, and ultimately took her life in her early twenties by hanging herself with her dog’s leash a few nights before Halloween. Hers seemed a sudden, probably unpremeditated decision. Her body was found feet away from matching sets of Halloween costumes for her and her baby sister. Her mother blames a psychotropic medication used to treat anxiety that many attribute to exacerbating suicidal impulses.

When I was assigned this article, I put out a blast to my near 1000 social-networking “friends,” calling for their stories, assuring anonymity. More than ten responded with extremely moving stories, leaving me feellng honored, amazed, humbled and even slightly changed for having heard them. The telling of personal stories is inextricably complicit in healing. For me, my first-paragraph admission had been my small effort to illuminate the vast black cave through which so many have passed alone in the dark. Not everyone surfaces.

Suicide prevention counselors select their words carefully, especially with the media, even to the point of circulating information pamphlets on “Safe Reporting on Suicide”. They are willing to go deep, but not too deep, into the dark world of the phenomenon.

The replies I received included those from two deeply respected friends who had come forward almost immediately with stories from their backgrounds which I had known nothing about. Both Shelley and Anabelle (not their real names) expressed to me the hope that their “survival stories” might inspire others to survive their own ordeals.

My acquaintance Shelley is a mom of two who owns a thriving business. She said she found herself in the midst of a disintegrating marriage in the mid-1980s with a man who made her feel worthless. She became convinced that her kids would be better off without her. About to become homeless and jobless, in her mind she felt useless to society, convinced that she was unlovable and undesirable. At this very rock-bottom point of vulnerability, she was attacked and raped.

“Someone entered the apartment I had just moved into and brutally beat me,” she said. “The attack was compounded by the way I was treated by the police, all friends of my ex-husband, who was also a cop. I am a fairly practical person. Even in the plan to end my life I had planned everything so it would be the least inconvenience for those around me. It all made such perfect sense at the time.”

Shelley described herself as so emotionally overwrought that she went numb, apathetic. “I just didn’t care about anything because whatever I did was wrong, and obviously I was a bad person being punished on some cosmic level for being the type of person that I was,” she said.

Shelley, who was pregnant at the time, cooked up a suicide plan which she described as very sensible, even likening it to a grocery list. “It was with a great sense of clarity and resolve that I had decided that ending my life would be not simply the best solution,” she said, “but the only solution acceptable.”

Shelley managed to pull back from the brink of suicide. She met her now-husband while pregnant with that baby. He supported her completely, even accompanying her during the C-section she had 40 weeks after the attack.