WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT


darkness“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.”  ― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

It was nearly a year ago when things started going dark.  It came on very suddenly but, had I been looking more carefully, I might have seen the lights start to flicker.  Surviving 10 days without heat and power after Hurricane Sandy and the desperation and anxiety that comes from not knowing when the torment might end certainly set the stage for me but it was more than that.  In fact, when the lights came back on at home, they started dimming in my mind.

The fall is usually a good time for me.  It reminds me of my two pregnancies that fill me with joy and nostalgia.  It reminds me of the first days in our home back in December 1998 with the hissing sound of the steam heat seeping from the old radiators.  The distinct smell of those first bursts of warmth are etched in my mind and always offer sweet memories of settling into our very own home together, before the children arrived.  I love watching the colors change and the comfort of my warm sweaters and snuggly boots.  Fall makes me happy.  But, a year ago, it was a very different story.  It was a high pressure system.  A perfect storm.  Fronts moving in from every direction.  What I didn’t know at the time was that, inside my mind, there was a natural disaster waiting to take place.

I wrote off all the signs.  I was overwhelmed from the storm.  I had been stranded in California while visiting a friend for a big birthday celebration weekend.  No one believed that the hurricane would be everything they predicted.  Those storms rarely lived up to the hype.  It never even occurred to me to cancel my trip.  We all assumed it would be messy but no one suspected a week with closed airports.  The stress of watching the round-the-clock coverage on the news while nestled comfortably in my friend’s Northern California home, all sunshine and clear skies, was overwhelming.  I knew my younger son was terrified of the violence of the storm and I imagined him looking for me to comfort him while I was 3,000 miles away with arms not nearly long enough to stretch to reach him.  When I spoke to my family on the phone before they hunkered down for the long night of the storm, I could hear the tension in my husband’s voice.  He knew it might be a while before I could get home and the aftermath, whatever it might be, would be his to endure while I tried to find a way back.

Once it was clear that the storm was, unbelievably, matching the expectations of the often-exaggerated reports, I booked myself on every flight possible to try to sneak back home before it hit.  One by one, they were cancelled.  My iPad was attached to me as I kept checking every airline site, booking anything that looked like it would have a shot of making it into the tri-state area to reunite me with my family.  It was quickly obvious that there was no chance that I would get home before the storm and I had to then wait until the dust settled to gain some perspective on when the airports might reopen, allowing me to come home and see the damage left in its wake.  On Sunday, as the storm was making its direct hit, I called my best friend and cried.  I was powerless and scared.  I just wanted to get on a plane and make my way home.  He offered me refuge at a halfway point at his home in Kansas City, thinking it might make me feel closer.  There I would only be 1000 miles away and that was drivable.  I refused, holding out hopes for a flight.  Days passed.  The outlook was bleak and, finally, my business partner in Boston encouraged me to fly there and rent a car.  He would give me shelter for a night and, hopefully, I could arrive safely into Logan before the storm hit the Boston area.  I got the last flight out of Oakland and was catapulting towards the devastated East Coast.

I miraculously made it home three days after my expected return via planes and automobiles and felt relieved, despite my reality of darkness, cold and despair.  At least I was safely ensconced with my husband and kids. It became Groundhog’s Day as every night we lay shivering under the blankets in the dark house, fantasizing about warmth and television.  No one knew when the schools might reopen or how we would be able to procure gasoline for our cars (I finally drove 40 miles and filled up as my last drops of fuel enabled me to wait in the long line for hours).  During the first weekend after the storm, the gear shift in my car broke, leaving me stranded in my friend’s driveway where I had gone to do some laundry and get some solace from the cold as his power had been restored just a day earlier.  We now had only one car (and the fuel I so patiently waited hours for was sitting unusable in the broken down SUV) and felt even further trapped.  As the end of Daylight Savings Time approached, the shorter days became longer because they dragged on in endless darkness as we sought warm shelter and places to recharge phones, iPads and computers.  The kids needed to be fed and entertained.  The apocalypse felt near.

And, then, on the 10th day, just as the next storm was hitting – this time snow – the power returned.  We watched with our neighbors as the out-of-town crews hung high on the poles to replace the transformer that had blown and catapulted to the ground, pulling down wires that were intertwined with branches and bulky trees that blocked the road, becoming the signature image of our storm aftermath.  As the workers from Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and the other southern states who generously shared their crews to help with the disaster, worked fastidiously through wind gusts and sticking snow, we were certain that the 30 mph wind maximum would be exceeded and the crews would be required to come down from the cherry pickers.  We expected our hopes to be dashed because every day we were hopeful and every night we went to bed in the dark and cold.  As my neighbor made calls to plead for our restoration – we were the last neighborhood to still be in the dark – we feared that our salvation was slipping from our grasp.  But, he assured us that they had assured him so we returned home to wait.  We all sat on the couch, watching the snow fall in the grey sky.  We were optimistic and, sure enough, as if it were any ordinary day, the house lit up like a Christmas tree.  The TVs were on, the lights filled room after room in our home.  The heat began cranking and we were all back to normal.

Everyone, except me.

The darkness was lifted as the darkness descended.  As one switch was flipped on, another one shut off.  The days that followed found us grateful to be warm and our lives began to return to normal.  The children returned to school, I was able to get back to work in my home office.  We had power and heat and food in the refrigerator.  It was almost as if it had never happened.  If not for the debris that littered the streets for weeks to come, you might not be able to tell that we had endured such a crisis.  In the days and weeks that followed, I ignored my growing anxiety, easily attributing it to residuals from the storm.  Everyone was still on edge.  It was a difficult period.  But, as I looked at myself in the mirror, I noticed that my eyes were dark.  They were empty and I was numb.  I felt my grasp slipping away and I could not pinpoint the cause.  I was not able to identify the source – the root problem.  Coming from my family, bouts of depression were normal.  I had good days and bad.  But this time was different.  Just a few weeks after the storm, I had to return to Boston to meet with my business partners and I knew I was a shell.  My body was there.  Words came out of my mouth but I was empty and withdrawn.  I was holed up inside myself.  I was shut down.  I was in a deep, dark hole.  I could barely see the light from above and, with every blink of my eyes, the light faded just a bit more.  My head became noisy.  Bad voices pushing me further and further into the corner.  I was emotionally curled up in the fetal position, hiding in my bunker.  My voice was feeble.  I could not scream for help.  No one would hear me.

I continued to push away the reality.  I insisted, to myself, that I was tired, stressed out, overwhelmed because we were launching a startup, I still had my day job and had bills to pay.  I was in unfamiliar territory.  I blamed it on my disappointment in my friends who I felt abandoned my husband while I was away and he struggled with juggling the kids and work in the aftermath of the storm.  I began to feel like I could trust no one.  I challenged my thinking about everything.  I put value judgments on my life that were irrational yet seemed perfectly plausible.  I started dreading the nearing holidays.  We would be alone again for Thanksgiving.  Of course.  No one loved us.  We were unwanted.  Merely an afterthought in everyone’s life.  Through all the noise and confusion, those thoughts made sense and seemed clear in my head.  I pulled back.  I retreated.  I slept.  I cried.  I dug deep in my hole.  I was now so far underground that no light was possible. I was buried deep beneath the dirt and the lights were out for good.

As my mind raced and the anxiety built, I started to wonder if maybe, in fact, something was wrong.  Perhaps this was not what it seemed.  Perhaps I was actually….dare I say it?  Perhaps I was deeply, painfully depressed.  Despite my acceptance and understanding that depression is mostly chemically induced and does not indicate that you are a pariah not capable of interacting with other members of society, I felt shameful about it.  I could not admit it.  I had to keep my secret from everyone – especially those closest to me.  Thanksgiving was now upon us and I had already been falling for weeks.  I was rapidly making my way down to the bottom of the pit, waiting for the impact as I hit the cold, hard concrete floor.  My best friend was leaving for a long weekend away in Chicago with his partner and I struggled, wanting desperately to ask him for help, knowing it was neither the right time nor the right request.  I had friends texting me because I had been out of touch and I refrained from telling them that I was swallowing Xanax 2 or 3 at a time in order to sleep for long stretches and lock myself away.  I hunkered down, pulling myself into the crash position knowing impact was imminent.

And then it hit.

On Thanksgiving.

I was irrational.  I was in a sea of blackness.  No light.  No air.  Tammy was so far away.  I was left with someone I did not know.  I was cracking, feeling the shards of myself as they fell off, then stabbing me, leaving me a bloody, scarred mess.  As we neared the time to sit down to dinner, I was nose-diving.  I could see the ground through my windshield and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  And, then I went completely black.  The night ended with screaming sobs and my admission that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital.  I felt so alone.  My husband and children could not comfort me and were just reminders of how I had failed.  I was embarrassed and pained to watch my 12 year-old son cry as he saw his mother lose her shit.  I was flashing back to my own childhood and I could not reach him and pluck him out.  I emotionally beat myself senseless, realizing that I blew it. I had caused my children to relive my worst days and I could never unring that bell.  They would forever remember that Thanksgiving.  The year mommy fell apart.  As I sat amid the burning fuselage, I wondered if I could ever fix this.  I was terrified that too much damage had been done.  It was irreparable.  They saw me break and I was now shattered.  I had cracked right down the middle and there was nothing I could do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The night ended and then the sun came up Friday morning and I could see the light, just a little bit.  I was aching from the collision, bruised and broken, but my eyes were able to focus – just a little bit.  As happens when you hit bottom, you have only place to go and, with the remnants of my crash around me, I knew I needed to start putting the pieces back together.  Only I could do it.  I had to recognize what had happened.  I had to say the words.  I had to move forward.

By Christmas, I had confessed to those closest to me.  And, I wrote this blog post.  I needed to come clean.  I needed to own my truth.  And, as with any crash, when we are trying to piece things together afterwards, to find out what systems might have failed, I studied myself for many months to follow.  I dug in to find shattered fragments of myself that I could lay out on a table to rebuild the me that existed before the impact.  The me that was suffering from damaged parts.  I committed myself to try to correct the problems.  I promised myself that I would not let myself fall so far without first asking for help.  Without looking for a hand to help pull me up before I am too deep into the trench that no rope, no ladder can reach me.  I opened myself up.  I unlocked some gates and made for easier access.

So, now it is November again.  It is nearly a year later.  I can feel some familiar aches.  Perhaps it is the holidays.  The prospect of being alone, once again.  Perhaps it is the stresses of work.  Maybe it is just scar tissue that flares up.  But I am alert and I am fortified.  And I hope, this year, the lights will stay on.

MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.