My first bout of major depression started in my sophomore year of college. I don’t remember any specific event surrounding it, I just remember feeling the deepest and darkest despair I'd ever felt or even knew could exist. It was like I fell into a black hole from which there was no escaping. Even when I think back on it, it hurts. It was so bad that I could barely manage to brush my teeth at the time. Naturally continuing in school was out of the question so I had no choice but to temporarily withdraw. I spent most of my days (and nights) lying in bed in the dark, listening to sad songs. My greatest wish was to shut my eyes and wake up in the future as my normal self. I never felt suicidal but I didn’t look forward to living because it just meant another day of suffering. Just knowing that I could have that thought breaks my heart.
Depression is a horrible, horrible illness and the pain can be excruciating. It can completely paralyze you.
Of course I remember asking myself how I got here. I was alway so happy when I was young. I had such a charmed life and the things I wanted came so effortlessly. Was I hard on myself? Yes, but I was happy. And confident. It’s funny how things can change in such a short amount of time. It was right around the end of my junior year in high school that things started to spiral downwards. In hindsight I was escaping from the grip of anorexia. Suddenly the control over my food and my weight did a 180 and I was completely out of control. Now when I looked in the mirror all I saw was this ugly, fat girl staring back at me and I HATED myself for it. It pains me to this day to see photos of myself back then. I can see the pain in my eyes and remember the war going on in my head. I was really quite unhappy and lost, as if I had been taken over by some alien force.
Fast forward two years and I was now unable to do even the easiest of things; my life was at a complete standstill. However, I was incredibly lucky that even though I was severely depressed somewhere deep down inside there was a small light that hadn't gone out. This light propelled me to keep trying to find myself. Now don't forget that at the end of the 80’s depression was not something that was generally discussed in public. Mental illness was not the hot topic it is now, plus this was pre-Internet so finding help was not easy. But by the grace of God I saw an ad in the Village Voice about a study on depression run by the New York State Psychiatric Institute. They were seeking participants struggling with depression for a clinical trial on an antidepressant medication. I can't quite remember if the trial was 7 or 8 weeks long but I had to go in for weekly check-ins. At the end of the trial I would find out if I had been given the actual medication or a placebo and then I would be given treatment if needed. I still can remember what one of the doctors running the program said to me at my initial interview, “medication can treat depression, it is just a matter of finding the one that works for you.” For the first time I felt some hope. To this day I wish I could remember the doctor's name so I could thoroughly thank him for saving my life.
At the end of the trial it was revealed that I had been receiving the placebo. I wasn’t entirely surprised because I wasn’t feeling much different than when I first walked through the door. This led to my first experience with medication and the start of my long road to recovery. I have always said that I was given a second chance at life...and it was nothing short of miraculous.
Since we are on the topic, let me address my thoughts on medication. At the end of the 80’s when I participated in this trial, antidepressants were not as widely available as they are today. In fact, my trial was for Fluoxetine (Prozac®️) which was the first of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are so common today. It wasn’t until the 90’s and later that other SSRIs such as sertraline (Zoloft®), citalopram (Celexa®), paroxetine (Paxil®), and escitalopram (Lexapro®) came to market. I have been taking medication for depression (and later for anxiety) for over 25 years. Medication saved my life many times; again, I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t taken them. In fact some of my later relapses occurred because I decided to stop taking them (without my doctor’s advice). To clarify, I’m not suggesting that I would have ended my life without them (although who knows?), but I’m 100% positive that my quality of life would be so poor that I wouldn’t be able to live anyway. I absolutely believe that with the right supervision antidepressants can SAVE lives. And I've never felt any shame about taking them.
Did my story end here? Absolutely not. According to The American Psychiatric Association (APA), “Of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder, who are treated and recover, at least half are likely to experience a recurrent episode sometime in their future. It may come soon after or not for many years. It may or may not be triggered by a life event.” As you will see and might know firsthand, I would continue to have low level depression and some more exacerbated episodes throughout the next 20 plus years.