Mythbusters Edition: “Depression is Just in Your Head”

Well, okay—Depression IS just in your head, but not in the way people mean when they say something like that. People who make (misguided, misinformed, misanthropic) statements like the above are saying that you just need to change your mind / suck it up / pull yourself up by your bootstraps [side-note: what, exactly, IS a bootstrap?]… And Bingo, there-you-go, just decide NOT to be Depressed. If it were that simple, do you really think there would be anybody still struggling with  Depression? (“You know, I’ve been thinking about what my Outlook on Life should be, and I’ve decided that Depression is a perfect fit for me”... Nope, nobody says that.)

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

Like Addiction, Depression is a matter of Brain Chemistry. To borrow from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (substitute “Depression” for “Alcoholism”—I will personally vouch that this statement applies with equal truth to both): “If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.”  In other words, it’s absurd to believe that anybody would choose to be Depressed (or an Alcoholic, come to that) if the remedy were as simple as Deciding Not To Be. Both illnesses (and they ARE illnesses) are based in brain chemistry—and for one of them, science has presented us with a chemical answer, in the form of prescription antidepressants. (Of course, there are no “pills” yet to reverse Alcoholism, so thank God for A.A.!)

If I seem to have a bee in my bonnet [side-note: did ladies really used to have problems with insects invading their head-gear? why do we use so many phrases based on clothing that's no longer in use?] on this topic, it’s because it makes me angry to see anti-depressants demonized (or even discouraged, or disapproved of), either in the media at large or in personal or social interactions around us.

tumblr_lumn9tscW71qjywvlo1_500Bottom line: anti-depressants are preserving quality-of-life for millions of people, and saving ACTUAL lives for some of those.  (Depression isn’t the cause of all suicides, true—but I’m here to say that when you feel utterly incapable of dealing with shit, the idea of having all-the-shit-go-away can be appallingly attractive.)

The first time I faced Depression, I really didn’t know that’s what it was. I was not-quite-thirty, and happily situated (I honestly believed) as the stay-home mom of an entertaining three-year-old Hobbit and a new baby (there’s a hint: I knew about Post-Partum Depression, but somehow didn’t imagine it would apply to me)…  At that point in my life, a deeply-ingrained part of my self-image was the idea that I was a person who pressed on (cheerfully! and stubbornly!) even through adversity. I grew up very comfortably middle-class American, with most of my “problems” of the trivial First-World variety, but I HAD dealt (cheerfully! stubbornly!) with a fair bit of real adversity, primarily medical in nature.

Since my diagnosis at 15, I’d been engaged in an epic and ongoing battle for control-of-my-life against my nemesis, Crohn’s Disease. Despite being told that I shouldn’t/couldn’t undertake or finish any number of things (school semesters, student-teaching, having children…) I managed to get those things done. Cheerfully! Stubbornly! More recently, I’d dealt with the three-months-early arrival of my daughter, 12 weeks of shuttling between my toddler at home and my (constantly endangered) infant in the NICU, and then the crushing diagnosis that my daughter was profoundly and irreversibly Deaf. (For a Hearing mom who knew only a smattering of words in what I presumed would be my child’s First Language—American Sign Language—that was a challenge of staggering proportions.)

Then some Miracles happened. Six months out from that diagnosis (confirmed by multiple specialists), my daughter was inexplicably Hearing—and had all those specialists scratching their heads at the “impossibility.” My own Crohn’s Disease at that point had inexplicably been in remission for almost three years (STILL is, in fact—leaving my gastroenterologist scratching his head at the “impossibility”).

Yet it was at that point, with my Life’s Challenges blessedly removed from my shoulders, and my family settling into a happy routine (that didn’t include a dozen doctor-appointments in a week), that Depression hit. And it took me way too long to figure out what was going on and get help for it—because (dammit) I was a person who DEALT WITH SHIT. Cheerfully! Stubbornly!

What stands out in my mind about that time isn’t SADness so much as FROZENness—the utter inability to face or cope with really, really simple stuff.  Perfect example: I can remember obsessing and stressing ALL DAY about the fact that I really needed to empty the dishwasher.  Yet despite my unwarranted levels of anxiety over this existence-of-clean-dishes, I absolutely could not bring myself to DO the sensible thing one would usually do when confronted with an affronting load of clean dishes: namely, to put them away. I just somehow couldn’t deal with that.  All day.

Prozac turned out to be my next miracle. (Though, unlike our family’s other Medical Miracles, this one is entirely explicable through basic brain-chemistry.)  Within a few weeks of seeing my doctor, that darn dishwasher no longer had the power to intimidate me.

Trying to understand why I’d gone into meltdown AFTER things got better (because I tend to over-think stuff!!) I came up with an analogy from my college days at University of Hawai’i. I’d been Scuba-diving once, about 80 feet down, when my air tank blew. I (calmly) banged on my tank to get my dive-buddy’s attention, (calmly) instigated “buddy-breathing” procedure from his air-supply, (calmly) made the ascent at the prescribed rate to avoid the Bends, (calmly) swam the half-mile or so to shore… And then went completely to pieces. I still remember my dive-buddy standing over me in bewilderment, asking “Why are you crying NOW?” And the best I could answer was that I couldn’t go to pieces “out there” (where keeping your head can literally be a matter of life-and-death) but this was something I HAD to go to pieces over… Once it was “safe” to do so.  Looking back, I think there’s SOME truth to this analogy, but I also know better (now) than to discount the biology behind an episode of Depression. The fact that I’d been super-stressed half a year earlier does NOT fully account for the insane amount of power that dishwasher was holding over my mental and emotional life.

In the intervening years, I’ve dealt with a round of Depression far worse than the first one—because the second was exacerbated by alcohol. (Yes, the Biology-major-in-me does know that alcohol is a depressant… But the Alcoholic-in-me was nevertheless senselessly trying to “feel better” by using it, to excess and insanity…)  Once again, Prozac relieved me of one of those illnesses (while A.A. has enabled me to keep the other at bay).  I thank God that I live in a time when both of these solutions are available to me, and I HATE (a word I use sparingly) seeing either of these solutions—or worse, the people who need them—disparaged or denigrated. I’d like to think that there’s somewhat less of a stigma on anti-depressants (and people who take them) than there used to be. Just ten years ago I remember some of my acquaintances expressing shock that I was open about seeking the help of “psych meds.” (Not shocked that I was taking them, I think, so much as shocked that I would admit to it.)  I’d like to think there’s less of that mentality out there now.

During my freelance-writing years, I was hired to write on a lot of crazy topics, but there were a couple where I just couldn’t bring myself to write what was requested. Knowing full well that the client might refuse to pay (and worse, find another writer who WOULD write that stuff) I nevertheless forged ahead with a version I could live with. One of those was a client who wanted me to write about why people should use “natural” remedies instead of “drugs” to deal with Depression. After wrestling with myself, what I actually wrote (and, incidentally, what the client did accept) was a set of articles on natural remedies that might help with Depression IF a person were unable or unwilling to turn to pharmaceuticals, or even in addition to such prescriptions. I wasn’t willing to be responsible for even one person reading that they “shouldn’t” consider prescription anti-depressants.  There’s too much of that out there already.

If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly busting-out-of-nowhere with this topic (breaking an 18-month writing-drought, no less), it’s because I recently realized that my (formerly friendly and utterly inoffensive) mailbox has taken to intimidating me. Last night I MADE myself go out to collect a week’s worth of mail, which had accumulated there while (day after day) I’d been thinking I needed to get the mail, but somehow couldn’t face doing it. This is especially “crazy” given that we don’t even get BILLS at our home address (those all go to the business address), so it’s not even a matter of worrying about what was IN the mail… There’s not going to be anything threatening, or even bothersome (unless you count junk-coupons) in that box, but the task of emptying it seemed to be beyond me. Apparently the mailbox is my new dishwasher.

Happily, at not-quite-forty (birthday in a couple weeks) I understand myself somewhat better than I did at not-quite-thirty… I have an appointment Monday to renew my Prozac!

 

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