I’ve taken a small pink pill every day for the past 23 years. From time to time I’ve stopped taking it but always resumed after a few days or weeks. I’ve come to realize that my overall health and well-being depends entirely on the presence of this drug in my system. And yet, this is something I rarely share with anyone outside of my immediate family and very close friends.
Last week’s sad news of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have resulted in many people speaking out, once again, about their own mental health challenges and the need for more understanding, more help, more compassion, more everything. I see myself reflected in so many of these messages, yet I’ve never told my own story.
I’ve been taking medication to fight depression for over two decades, but my struggle started well before that. Throughout junior high and high school, I was often depressed and felt hopeless. I remember having suicidal thoughts at times. When I was 16 I told my doctor how I was feeling and she scribbled down the name of a counsellor on a piece of paper and sent me on my way.
I felt dismissed. I didn’t feel in any way taken seriously, and I never went to the counsellor. I’m a private person by nature, and I was not comfortable talking to a ‘stranger’ about my feelings. None of my friends or family knew – I was too ashamed to tell anybody.
The thing about depression is, you’re least able to ask for help when you’re in the throes of it. I had summoned the courage but didn’t get what I needed, thus I was left believing it was just something I had to live with, no matter how painful. So that’s what I did for the next 12 years – lived with it. Even today, many people feel that way, and mental illness is talked about much more than it was 35 years ago.
“Depression makes us believe that the way
things are is how they will always be;
it paralyzes and isolates.”
Meeting my soul mate, getting married, and having kids in my early 20s helped for a while, or so I thought. I was busy and broke and exhausted but what new mom isn’t? My older sister was going through the same thing at the time, but we were often at odds during those years – each fighting our own demons. In early 1994, though, we went out for coffee and she was noticeably happier, calmer, and more ‘herself’ than I’d seen her for a long time. Turns out she had joined a support group and started taking Paxil, an antidepressant.
She told me she thought I should look into trying Paxil also, that it was helping her and it would very likely help me, too. We both believed our depression was hereditary, but she was at a place in her life where she was ready to ask for help. I wasn’t there yet (and I still remembered the sting of seeking help and not finding it years earlier). I don’t remember what exactly I said, but my response was basically ‘nope – not for me.’ She asked me to give it some thought but didn’t pressure me.
Just a couple of months later, she was killed in a car accident. What followed was the worst year of my life. Grieving for my sister, helping my brother-in-law care for my niece and nephew (who were six and four at the time), worrying about my parents, trying to raise my own kids, and working full-time was hell. The days went by in a blur. Jeff was incredibly supportive; he simply said: “this is our life now.” We resigned ourselves to this ‘new normal’, put our heads down, and plowed ahead.
I’m not sure what finally prompted me to see my doctor about a year and a half later. I just remember that the overwhelming sadness, anger, and feelings of hopelessness simply weren’t lifting at all. Almost apologetically, I told him Paxil had helped my sister, and she had encouraged me to try it, too. I felt ashamed to even ask because obviously, the sadness I was feeling was due to grief and grief is a process you simply have to go through, wasn’t it?
At the same time, this felt different. I wasn’t feeling any better than I had the day she died. I wasn’t healing. I had even tried counselling – finally taking my doctor’s advice from years earlier – but without much success. My counsellor and I didn’t connect, so medication felt like my last hope.
Thankfully, my doctor explained that grief and depression are two different things and that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain that must be treated like any other illness. He also told me that many, many people – people I likely knew – were also taking antidepressants with good results.
He prescribed Paxil, explaining that it might not be the drug for me and we may have to try a few. I was lucky, though – after a couple of weeks it kicked in. The only way I can describe the experience is feeling a sense of well-being slowly descend over me, one that I couldn’t remember having since childhood.
I no longer woke up in the morning and felt like a dark cloud was hanging over my head. To someone who has never suffered from depression, that dark cloud is omnipresent. You get up, you face the day, you go through the motions…but there is no relief from the unrelenting sense of doom.
Being on Paxil didn’t suddenly make me feel happy – I still grieved for my sister, and what might have been, every day. I still do. But I was also able to feel moments of peace, and even joy, for the first time in many years. A beautiful sunset, the smell of freshly cut grass, or a hug from my kids could flood me with happiness. It might only last for a moment or two, but just knowing I could feel it at all felt like some kind of miracle.
And yet, as I mentioned earlier, from time to time I’ve tried to wean myself off of my antidepressant. Why? There was no reason to believe my condition was temporary. I can’t really explain why. I suppose I still, for many years, felt that I shouldn’t need to take a pill every day just to feel ‘myself’. It’s part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
Each time I stopped was a disaster. After a few weeks, the feelings of heaviness, of sadness, of having nothing to look forward to, would inevitably return. Jeff would see the change in me and gently suggest I talk to my doctor. Thankfully, my doctor would encourage me to get back on my medication, patiently explaining each time that my depression is a disease that requires treatment just like any other. Eventually, I came to believe him.
Sadly, there are many, many people, who don’t have the kind of support that I had. Or they feel dismissed by someone they trusted and were afraid to seek help again. Or they don’t have a family member to take the first steps and then encourage them to follow. Or they stop their meds too suddenly and relapse into even more crushing depression. Or they can’t find a medication that works for them. Or they are ashamed. Or they are simply too sad and tired to ask for help.
Maybe that’s how Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain felt. We will never know. It makes me sad that Bourdain, someone who taught me to “please, treat your garlic with respect…avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic!” will never write another book like ‘Kitchen Confidential’. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.)
I often think that my sister’s greatest gift to me was that invitation to coffee. Had she not told me about the little pink pill she was taking, I would no doubt still feel that way, too. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today, either personally or professionally.
In fact, three years after she died, and just over a year after being on medication, I took a new job which started me on my path in the field of communications. I had approached my future boss confidently and basically convinced him he needed to hire me! And he did…there was no position available, so he created one.
Had I not gotten help for my depression, I can’t imagine doing that any more than I can imagine quitting my last job, starting my own business, or even writing this blog post.
Still, telling this story is taking me far outside of my comfort zone. But if even one person reads this and takes some comfort in knowing they aren’t alone, or is encouraged to ask for help, it will be worth it.
As for me, I am now resigned to the fact that I will be on this medication for the rest of my life. And I’m ok with that.