My Recovery Story – Part II

Shadows from the umbrella danced on my legs while I hid in plain sight. I watched the world go on from my lounge chair by the pool, wishing I could melt into the seething white cement without anyone noticing. I didn’t check my watch; I had no interest in knowing how long I had been there. Playful shrieks floated up from the pool while a woman walked by with her newborn. The tiny baby nestled in her arms as she watched her other children launch into cannonballs from the side of the pool.

She beamed.
I silently wept.

My mind buzzed with relentless agitation and raged against the unfairness. I would never know that kind of joy. All I could do was park myself within arm’s reach of humanity, cry, and wait for Nortriptyline to quietly breathe life back into my ravaged brain. This was my second time fighting Major Depression.

Four months prior, I was stable—stable to the point that my doctor, husband, and I decided I could try weaning off my antidepressant. It had been four years since I was first diagnosed and went into remission, and I had worked hard to maintain my wellness. Quite honestly, I had worked hard to even like myself again. Now, we dreamed of moving on and starting a family. My goal was to accomplish this without Nortriptyline, and I hoped I was healed to the point I wouldn’t have to take it again.

I weaned very gradually over four months, relapsed at the end, and had to go back on my medication—for good. The suffering was real: extreme side effects from starting the medicine again, depression itself, and thinking I would never become a mom. And so, I spent many hours sitting next to that neighborhood pool with the warm sunshine wrapping itself around me. It was the closest thing I had to hope.

My recovery was won in small steps over time. I made the commitment to take Nortriptyline every day and keep regular appointments with my psychiatrist and psychologist. I let go of the idea that it wasn’t natural to take daily medication to be myself, and instead appreciated it for the freedom it gave me to be my best self.

I confronted my fears about taking an antidepressant during pregnancy, passing on depression, and being a good mother. This involved finding the best mental health care in our region and seeking a consultation from a maternal-fetal health expert. In my case, there were very few risks. It would not be considered a high-risk pregnancy. Truly believing I was fit to be a mom took longer, but therapy helped me separate the facts from my fears. On my good days, I would visualize myself in the hospital delivery room with my husband, holding our newborn for the very first time. On the challenging days, I would carefully tuck that dream in the back of my mind. I placed it out of sight so I wouldn’t dwell on what I didn’t have, knowing that I could easily summon it when I was ready to move forward again.

I realized that I would be a better mom for having battled depression. The simple acts of getting out of bed each morning and giving a good morning kiss to my newest love would not be taken for granted. I’d have more compassion for everything from stubbed toes to moody streaks and broken hearts. Depression has given me patience, which would certainly come in handy while pacifying tantrums and waiting for those tiny fingers to pick up every last Cheerio. I’ve undoubtedly gained the humility to ask for help at the first sign of needing it. I figured if I had the stamina and determination to survive being secretly unwell, I could be a tremendously capable mom when feeling well with full support.

Was I ready to become a mom despite depression? The final answer came to me on a wintry Saturday morning run in 2015. My footprints blazed the trail in the pristine snow, and ice glistened on the bare tree branches overhead. Playful shrieks floated up from a nearby hill where families had gathered to sled. Parents chatted on the hilltop while their bundled children flew down the slope with excitement.

They beamed.
So did I.

I knew that I was ready to share the beauty of life with our children—as perfectly imperfect as life may be.

~Sixteen months later~

recovery-2-pic

 

My Recovery Story – Part I

One of the most powerful moments in my life was when my antidepressant first started working. I was sitting next to a first-grade student I was tutoring, trying to figure out my next teaching move and waiting for depression to taunt me as usual- “You can’t help him. You’re incompetent. You’re worthless. Why are you even here?” But instead of hearing depression’s voice, I heard my own for the first time in years. “You can do this. You can figure this out. You’re right where you should be and you’re going to be okay.”

I was 26 years old when major depression overpowered me for the first time. It had been pushing me around for years, but now, I felt weakened to the point that I couldn’t push back.  I had been in therapy for a year, but I could barely get myself out of bed in the morning and had to blow-dry my hair hunched over our bathroom rug because I felt so sick to my stomach. I cried relentlessly the moment I came home from work each day—the barrage of negative thoughts had to be released. I constantly beat myself up, felt terrified of being judged, and could no longer focus on improving. It kept getting worse. As much as medication scared me, it was now a risk I was willing to take.

The first psychiatrist I saw prescribed me Zoloft and recommended slowly building up to a therapeutic dose. Within a few days, it became clear that even a small amount of Zoloft made me much worse. I couldn’t eat or sleep and cycled through feelings of stability and extreme agitation every 12 hours. The doctor told me to stop taking the medicine immediately and that he no longer felt that antidepressants were right for me. “You should try things other than medication,” he said, as I stared at him in disbelief. I had finally taken the leap to help myself and lost every shard of wellbeing in the process.  I didn’t think I could go on. Fortunately, over the course of the next six weeks my husband helped me switch doctors, try a different class of antidepressants (tricyclics), and start cognitive behavioral therapy twice a week until I began feeling better. It saved my life.

One of the most important realizations I made in therapy after this episode was that feelings aren’t facts. After letting depression run unchecked for 10 years, I felt my distorted thoughts were true—that I was inherently a miserable, unlovable, unintelligent, incapable person. Therapy helped me learn that what I thought were personality traits were actually symptoms of depression and social anxiety. Over time, the combination of medication and therapy changed my self-talk and allowed me to approach my thoughts more mindfully.

In the face of mental illness, I have earned my Master’s degree, specialized in early literacy, and challenged myself to keep improving in my career. I have adjusted to moves from Virginia to North Carolina and Pennsylvania with my husband of 10 years, and focused on building friendships—old and new. I’ve finished 3 marathons and I’m signed up for my 18th half marathon. I am immensely grateful I had the chance to plan a healthy pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby girl in April 2016. My illness is something I actively manage each day; it’s a marathon fraught with peaks and valleys. But I consider my recovery journey to be one of my greatest unsung achievements in life. I have braved major depression, social anxiety, and severe reactions to antidepressants, one step at a time. Hills inevitably loom in the distance, but I know I will rise to meet them.

Stride On,
S

Why I Run

figures-1384865_1280I’ll never forget being curled up on our living room couch 7 years ago, watching the look on my best friend’s face as she came through our door. We had been through a lot together. It was a friendship built on the countless miles we ran on our high school cross country team. Now, we were in our mid-twenties, both married to our high school sweethearts, and facing different challenges as adults. Mine happened to be depression. I tried to smile at her but I was empty. It felt like a vacuum had sucked every warm memory and sensation of well-being out of my body. My friend sat next to me, trying not to succumb to her own tears. “Is there anything you’re looking forward to, you know, once you feel better?” she asked. I shook my head. Nothing. My only thoughts revolved around how ill I was and how I couldn’t possibly go on. Insomnia ensured that these thoughts were relentless. This was my first time battling severe major depression. “Hang in there,” she said, “I know that one day soon, you’ll be back and crossing the finish line of your first marathon.”

I couldn’t fathom it. If I couldn’t even bear life beyond the couch, the thought of running 26.2 miles was simply unimaginable. However, by the end of that month, medication, therapy, walking, and plenty of support helped me reach full remission. My walks started getting faster and my mind started dreaming again. What was I truly capable of? After experiencing incapacitation, I wanted to feel boldly alive. It started with clean eating and lacing up my running shoes often. One block around our apartment complex turned into three. Once I felt confident with three miles again, I added on a weight lifting class at the gym. I craved that burn in my muscles. For once, I was in control of the pain, and it was the kind of pain that made me stronger.

It took some time, but within a year, I was ready to realize my best friend’s vision. I set my alarm for midnight the day the application went live for the 2011 Chicago Marathon. Before I knew it, I was registered and hitting the road most days of the week. Those four months of training transformed me. Running was proof that my own two feet could carryme through anything. It was my solitude, comradery, processing time, and rebuilding time. My emotions ran raw as I crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon that year. I was back. As much as depression had changed my life, running equalized it.

So, why do I run? It fulfills me. It fuels my growth, frees my mind, accepts me for who I am. It anchors me in hope and reveals the beauty of life. It breaks me through to the other side. It’s what moves me. What moves you?

Stride On,
S

A Step in the Right Direction

Surely it had to be my job. It had to be the reason I had hung up my running shoes, sobbed every Sunday night, and secretly stuffed my face with chocolate chips every chance I got. Surely the job was the reason I could barely peel myself away from my comforter every morning, and generally saw life through an unfortunate haze that became more noticeable to my family and friends with each passing year. Surely it was the job…why wouldn’t it be? It demanded that I brought work home every night, worked through most of each weekend, and barely had lunch breaks. The expectations were getting lofty, the government was mandating more, and I was surrounded by people who embraced the workaholic life. I was being set up to fail. We all were. I just happened to wear it on my sleeve more. I mean, everyone was slogging through the muck of adult life the same way I was. Right? It was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a tall glass of wine, endless episodes of Sex and the City, and hour-long venting sessions with my husband. When that stopped working, I decided I just hadn’t found my niche in my field yet. Perhaps a higher degree, a different building, a smaller group to manage, or a specialty to focus on would be the relief I so badly needed.

No. Life felt endlessly uphill.

Fortunately, my husband and a few compassionate colleagues intervened after several years when they realized what I was going through. It started with some gentle nudging: “Not that you need counseling, but here is a number in case you ever decide talking things out would be helpful.” Over time, the message became loud and clear: “You shouldn’t have to feel this way. Have you considered that medication might help you feel better, live your best life, and be the best version of yourself?”

That hill—those feelings—had a name. Depression.

I never knew that life shouldn’t feel that way. It took a little bit of time, but after finding the right combination of talk therapy and medication, it felt like the proverbial light switch had been flipped. That’s not to say that depression completely disappeared, but it eased to the point that my self-talk became overwhelmingly positive. I’ll never forget the day I stopped beating myself up so much and started marveling at my newfound life.

Sunday nights? No problem.
Option A didn’t work? Let me try options B, C, and D.
I still can’t figure this out? It’s okay. I can find some help here…
Train for a marathon? Yes, I Can!

It felt like meeting myself, my true self, for the very first time at age 26.

—–

In the end, it surely wasn’t the job. Although I was hopeful that being in remission for several years would put me at peace with my career, after 11 years and with a clear mind I have decided to resign. It simply isn’t the best fit for me, especially since my wildest dreams recently came true—becoming a mom.

I’m saying goodbye to paralyzing self-doubt, mistaking my symptoms for my true self, and a job that wasn’t a match for my strengths. At the same time, I’m grateful that my first career revealed my illness sooner rather than later. It placed me in the company of others who could see through my symptoms and help me grow into a better person and parent. I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. It all led me here, to a place where life with and beyond depression isn’t just possible—it’s beautiful.

Stride On

S

 

Did you know that in 2015, an estimated 16.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year? (National Institute of Mental Health). Knowing the signs can help you or someone you know find a way toward wellness. You can find more information, next steps, as well as a free and confidential depression screener on the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website: http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_depression