After so many years of battling with depression, it shouldn’t fail to surprise me that I can be so horribly wrong about its power and the lies it tells. I’d like to think that after so many years of fighting the good fight, I’d achieved some kind of mastery over it. Perhaps I have, but the truth is, depression still (if you pardon the vernacular) scares the shit out of me.
My counsellor used words like “burnout” several weeks ago, and I remember thinking that was just a nice way to say I’d had a nervous breakdown. I still managed to think I was in some control of the show when it all came tumbling down and told me how little I was. In fact, it reminded me how eerily like my first major episode (aka nervous breakdown) in 1991 this all was. Back then I’d taken a few Valium, thinking that would somehow calm the fear that comes from simply LIVING with depression. Another 22 years later, you’d think I’d have a few more skills under my belt. I was running scared. As so often happens when the disease affects the seat of logical thought, all reason went out the window. I took a dozen Ativan.
I just needed a rest, I told myself. A good solid sleep that will help me feel better. That many Ativan is nothing… it won’t harm me at all.
I am not the poster child for responsible medicine-taking, people – I hope you understand that if I haven’t made it clear before. I was and am sick. I just didn’t know how much. It was somewhere in the wee hours of Wednesday, November 27th, that I made this little deal with myself that the pills were okay because all I needed was a little rest.
Sometime after that, disembodied, some soul deep inside of me went to Facebook and wrote the following message. “I am in that place where I need to ask help. I don’t know who I have to ask ow (sic) where the answers will come from, but this is a call for help.”
I have no idea who wrote that message, but it was me and waking from my Ativan slumber some hours later, reading it was like taking cold water to the face, or sucking frigid air into the lungs, with the awareness that I needed to stop bullshitting myself (sorry but there’s something about this kind of rampant denial that demands hearty language) and read the writing that apparently I had put on the wall.
The miracle of this breakdown was the stream of messages that appeared in response to my plea in the next hours and days. Most people on my friends list on Facebook know I am not prone to random attacks of dramatic announcements put out to fester and create more drama. My dear friends, bless them, I think knew better than I, that I was in trouble.
Where am I now? I’m not out of the woods. I’ve since had more workplace stress that drove me over the edge and shredded whatever semblance of professional credit I thought I possessed. I called the new project manager at work and had a full-on nervous breakdown on the phone (even more remarkable given my absolute dislike of oral communication). Days later I still reel in shame and embarrassment because the cat is out of the bag. I am having an “episode”. I am having a nervous breakdown. I am mentally ill.
I still haven’t been able to say thank you in a coherent way to all those who responded to my unconscious plea for help, so here is a start. Thank you. As the shock of my own words settled in as they were played back to my conscious mind, so too did the messages of love and concern, the offers to help, the checking in that I was okay.
I am also blessed with an amazing wife, Mrs Blackbird, and a counsellor — both of whom I am indebted to for modelling compassion for my ill self so beautifully when I feel so bereft of kindness for myself. In fact, most of the time, I feel nothing but that terrible emptiness, even less than the feeling some weeks ago when a heavy leaden blanket first settled palpably over my brain, malleable in a way that the disease in my brain was not. My counsellor reminds me of the the importance of expressing feelings as the transient beings they are, rather than letting them settle into lockdown around my heart. Instead I find myself inhabiting the youthful defences of my teens — identifying with an automaton, devoid of all feeling and emotion. This morning some tears broke through, as I lay, flattened on the couch, but once more they’re gone and my brain is back to studying dispassionately the void left behind.
All I have now is a promise — that I will go to the hospital if things again take a turn for the worse. I dilly-dallied with the decision to return to medication — not helped by my completely broken down relationship with my GP — and it’s clear that this broken relationship is worse than ineffective: it’s dangerous. It’s only thanks to my naturopathic physician that I finally committed to going back on Prozac. Now it’s a matter of waiting to see if it will work as it has in the past to restore the balance. It’s not a cure, it’s a lifeline in the dark, and combined with the cognitive skills I do possess, I trust that it will be enough. However, given my daughter’s renewed illness and fear of the hospital, I know I owe it to her to be a model in this too, and to turn myself over to the hospital if I can’t regain mastery of my brain.
I’ll confess to her now, as I do to you too, that I’m scared. Some of my literary heroes survived decades of this affliction, only to succumb at a late hour. It’s not an illness you can will away or smile or bear. It’s not an illness you’d ever wish for or claim for show. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay (as some small part of my brain confessed that morning) to ask for help.
Like trees against the darkening sky, the spectres of my illness are very real and held in sharp relief, and there’s no way to bargain them away with a showman’s sleight-of-hand. I have to hope that conventional treatment will help. There is also the fear of the doctors I don’t trust – knowing that I may yet have to offer myself to them for dissection.
My only hope in this darkness is the miracle of friendship that I found when I didn’t even know I needed help. Thank you.