Anyone who has seen “The Matrix” will remember the moment. Neo stands looking at two pills, one red, the other blue. Morpheus tells him, “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” It’s a moment of grave decision. Neo swallows the red and his life–even his understanding of reality itself–is forever changed.
And so it is that I now stand with the red pill in my hand.
It’s time for me to confess a 17-year history of depression. Maybe longer. Since it took me a while to realize that I was depressed, it’s difficult to say exactly when it began. I won’t tell you all of the details, because this is my blog and I can say as much or as little as I want. But I will tell you enough.
When my children were very young I worked part-time as an adolescent psychiatric nurse. One day I got sick. It was some kind of run-of-the-mill flu. I don’t recall now if it was respiratory or intestinal, but it doesn’t matter. When my symptoms abated I could not get off the couch. In fact, I could hardly raise my head. Michael and I thought I must have mono or some such thing, but when I went to the doctor he could find nothing physically wrong with me. Then it hit me: “Oh, my goodness. I have depression…just like the kids I work with.”
Therein lay part of my problem. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly proud person, but I couldn’t admit that I, the psych. nurse, was depressed. But it was much worse than that. I was a Christian. Aren’t Christians supposed to have it all together? And I was a pastor’s wife, for crying out loud! In my mind, such frailty was O.K. for other people, but it simply wasn’t allowed for me. I must be strong. I must pray my way through this–completely on my own.
And so I fell into a pattern. I would do pretty well for a while. But when work got too stressful or the marriage became rocky, I would lapse into a two or three day depression. Still, however, no one else must know. I became adept at somehow getting through the hospital shift–or the Sunday School class or the worship service–all the while masking the deadness I felt inside. If anyone noticed and asked “Are you O.K.?” I would do what any self-respecting Baptist minister’s wife would do: lie. “I’ve got a headache,” and “Oh, I’m just tired” became standard excuses for my lack of energy. And they believed me, even on the psych. ward.
Then in 1995 I took a trip to hell and back. This was not the biblical version of torment, but my own private chamber. And I stayed there for most of a year. By this time we were at Oneida. I was no longer a pastor’s wife, but now a campus minister’s spouse. What’s the difference, right? And this time I myself was in full-time Christian service. So the inward pressure to hold it all together was just as fierce as before, if not more so. Only I didn’t do a very good job of it this time. I began to crack around the edges, and as the crevices ran deeper I feared that my very soul would break in two.
I dragged myself to work in the publications office, where I could be as reclusive as I wanted to be. Then I went home, where I would lie across the bed and cry. When Michael asked why I wept I couldn’t tell him. I honestly didn’t know. In the late afternoons and evenings I had a different job: counseling our troubled young ladies. Oh, the irony. How could I possibly help them when it had just taken every ounce of energy I had to walk to the counseling appointment? In truth, I’m sure I didn’t help them much, if at all. I could relate to their pain, but I had nothing to offer. When my counseling shift ended I would again go home, crawl into the bed and weep.
Michael tried so many times to convince me to go to the doctor. He even threatened to take me to a hospital and check me in. Day after day I begged him not to. He and I now agree that he should have intervened no matter what I threatened or pleaded. But I would say each time, “I think I might be a little better today,” or “Give me just another day or two…please?” No one must know how weak I was. If I could just have more faith or pray a bit harder this would surely all work out…wouldn’t it?
Somehow, after months of abject misery, the wet blanket lifted and I could breathe again. Later still, I could even laugh once more. It wasn’t long until I settled back into my now-comfortable formula: stress in life = mild to moderate depression x 2 days. Compared to a year in hell, that sounded like a piece of cake.
As the years rolled by, I became even more resistant to the idea of antidepressants. For one thing, I was so much better than I had been in ’95. If I could just stay away from the edge of the abyss I could certainly keep from falling in, couldn’t I? And yet somewhere along the way I did make a promise to Michael and to myself: If I ever become as sick as I was before, next time I will get help.
One factor that fueled my anti-medication mindset was my friend’s situation. She began struggling with emotional illness as a very young adult. Although I know plenty of people successfully and happily living with the aid of psych. meds., my friend has had no such luck. Twice, after major breakdowns, she has been medicated, and it has never gone well. She has side effects that bring on a second medication…which carry more side effects that bring on a third. She eventually weans herself off all medication just so she can live her life. My experience tells me that her bad fortune is not typical. Yet it’s been all I could think of whenever I’ve considered a pharmaceutical answer for myself.
Another factor is that I’ve always been really big on issues. I want to meet life head-on, deal with my stuff. Antidepressants were fine for other people, but for me they somehow seemed like a cop-out. Marriage problems? Mid-life issues? Work stress? I wanted to handle these things drug-free and proud. The only problem was that things never turned out quite the way I had planned.
Then somewhere along the way, I began getting worse again. I can’t tell you when, for I don’t know. Where does one draw the line between normal life and out-of-ordinary stress? Between normal grief or sadness and out-of-control emotion? My current slump may well have been in the making for a long time, but I think the real trouble began this past spring. “Good stress” (is there really such a thing?) morphed with bad stress. Then the tension snowball hit the grief wall head-on before colliding with the empty nest in the front yard. Add to that a dose of other mid-life issues and a sprinkling of those ever-popular hormones, and I had the makings of a pretty flavorful stew.
I thought I had been handling everything pretty well, all in all. But of late I’ve been noticing disturbing patterns in my thinking and my behavior. I’m still crying more than I should be, given the time I’ve had to heal. Obsessive thoughts and actions have crept back in, with anxiety lurking just around the corner. (No, I’m not going to tell you the gory details. This is my blog, remember?) Still, I was doing basically O.K…wasn’t I?
Then a few weeks ago I could not get out of bed. After Michael left the house one morning I just lay there in the darkness, crying. Why? I didn’t know. From that point on it became harder and harder for me to accomplish anything at home or at work. No motivation led to no energy which led to no action. The final straw came last weekend. It was going to be a big two days, a busy time. But it was all good. I had made a couple of commitments that were routine sorts of thing for me, and I had been looking forward to both. Yet when Saturday dawned I was overwhelmed. I felt I simply didn’t have it in me to carry on any more. I was emotionally paralyzed.
At that point I remembered 1995. A little voice from deep inside my brain asked gently, “Denise, are you really willing to go down that road again?” I knew I couldn’t. This time my marriage would not survive. This time I might not survive. And I had promised Michael and myself that it wouldn’t happen again.
Today I finally came clean to my doctor, and he gave me a prescription. What may seem completely routine to you is, nontheless, a huge step for me. Though all the folks I currently know who are on antidepressants are doing great, I am still filled with questions. (Hey, I obsess. It’s what I do.)
Will there be any unpleasant side effects? If so, what?
I work so hard to eat right and exercise; will I now gain 50 pounds in spite of all that?
I’ll be glad to give up depression, but what if I never feel truly happy again, either?
So many really creative people through the ages have been depressed at worst, melancholy at best. The world would not suffer if my mildly creative bent fell by the wayside, but my writing is important to me. What if I lose the muse altogether?
And what about my spiritual life? Will I still have moments when I feel close to God? When I sense His leading? For that matter, are these feelings genuine in the first place, or have they been manifestations of my mixed-up emotional state all along? Either way, will it feel as if He’s abandoned me forever?
Last but not least, will I still be me? Which begs the question: Who am I anyway? I may not always like the way I feel or behave, but I’m used to being me. I’m the only me I know. I’m accustomed to sometimes being wistful, sometimes having hidden thoughts and deep longings. If those vanish, how much of me will be left? On the other hand, if the meds supplement what I’ve been missing all along, maybe I’ll be more of my true self than I’ve ever been before.
My true self. I suppose that’s what I’m seeking. All these years, have I been the person I was truly created to be, or just a shadow of my real self? I have come to the moment of decision, and I suppose there is only one way to find out. Morpheus told Neo, “Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
I stand with the red pill in one hand. The glass of water trembles in the other.