This blog is not FDA approved
The most surprising thing about depression to me may have been just how accurately other people described what it was like. I had read about it in novels and memoirs. But I’d never really felt it before. They’d nailed it — I really did feel like I’d fallen into the bottom of a dry, circular, gray stone well. I could see the blue sky at the top, but I couldn’t get out. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out how to start trying to get out. That, and I just didn’t care enough to try.
It happened in 2000/2001 when my husband, John, our son, Jacob, and I lived outside of Geneva, Switzerland. It is a spectacularly beautiful place, and we had made some good friends in our time there. But living in a country where you speak the language poorly can be very isolating. It’s impossible to forget that you’re not home.
But that’s not why I got so depressed. No, I developed what is known as “situational depression,” from something that happened that I just couldn’t cope with.
The New Millennium, Y2K, started with a bang for me. My sister Judy died suddenly, unexpectedly, and as a result of a lifetime of bad choices. I got the call from Dad just as John, Jacob and I were heading out the door to celebrate my birthday. I collapsed into a heap on the floor like a Victorian heroine; it took me years to get back up.
There were seven of us: Mom and Dad are always included in the count. Then there were the five of us kids: Beth, Bob, Judy, Fred and me. Beth was 9 years older, Judy 5. The boys 7 and 3 years older.
When we became adults, Judy was my best friend and a total pain in the ass. She won the award for “Person I Most Want to Smack” regularly. She was completely self-destructive, which started in our childhood; I started covering for her very early on. There were few times in life when offered a choice that Jude didn’t make the poorer one. And among her most stupid choices were cigarettes and alcohol. She smoked for 35 years and drank heavily for nearly as long (with many attempts at sobriety). That’s why she’s dead.
But she was equally wonderful. And whenever I shared a problem with Judy, well, it stopped being a problem and became situation comedy. She was funny and big-hearted. I’ve written about her here and here. At the end of her life, she worked as an advocate for the homeless, particularly homeless veterans. After her death, a homeless shelter was named for her.
Judy was also the most amazing mother. She got pregnant at 16 and raised 3 wonderful kids. Her daughter is my closest friend, she embodies the good from Judy without the self-destructive features. I rarely want to smack Jen. Jen’s brothers, my nephews, are terrific, wonderful people; we’ve remained close.
Yeah, Jude was like no one else I’ve ever known.
When she died, I felt I’d let her down, that I’d been unable to help her solve her problems. That was my role in her life, and I was usually pretty good at it. I felt guilty at the falling out we’d had when our mother died in 1997 – Judy turned to the bottle immediately and, well, I didn’t speak to her for two years. Thankfully, I can’t stay mad and I got back in contact with her six months before she died.
Anyway, there I was, 3,000 miles away from my family and from anyone who knew Judy. She was dead and I was devastated.
Like other things in life, my depression formed a routine. I could cope during the first half of the day. I’d get up, shower, get Jacob breakfast and head off to work. And I managed at work, too, somehow. My job was busy but didn’t need too much deep thinking; I was active and distracted. That was good.
But my tears started with the car engine as soon as I left work each day. I began to cry immediately, and I would cry all the way to Jacob’s school, where I’d dry my tears and head on in to get him. It never occurred to me that folks could see my red eyes, or that, from the back seat on the way home, Jacob could see my shoulders shake as I tried to cry silently.
When I got home, I would plop Jacob at the table with his homework and give him something to eat. Then I would head down into the well — it was in a corner of the hall where the back of the fireplace jutted out, forming a cozy corner. I would sit on the floor in that little corner in the fetal position and cry. And sob. And pound the walls and the floors. That’s where John found me frequently when he came home from work. Often Jacob came and sat with me and tried to comfort me. So did our dog, Cooper. But I was completely inconsolable.
My depression went into overdrive on Christmas Day, 2000 when Dad died. Ho Ho Ho.
Eventually, John suggested that I might need antidepressants. I would have been angry at him, but I didn’t have the energy. I did finally agree to go to see our doctor and get some help. I wanted/needed grief counseling. I couldn’t do this alone or just with John and Jacob and a bunch of supportive friends. I needed professional help.
But that’s where living in Switzerland became a bit of a problem. Medical care was great there, but there was the language barrier. And there were very different ideas on mental health over there. Our GP was perfectly adequate for flu shots and antibiotics. But this was different.
“You want to see a psychiatrist?” Dr. G asked. “But they’re all nuts.”
Dr. G had a good point. My experiences with psychiatrists had been hilarious and bizarre, but never helpful. Plus there was the language barrier. I gave up.
John didn’t though. Somehow he talked me into considering trying St. John’s Wort, which was unavailable in Europe as far as we could tell. My friend Bonny mailed some to me from the States.
I really didn’t want drugs. I was afraid of how they would affect my personality, that they would change it. That taking them would put a band-aid over my hurt and that the pain would be unbearable when it was ripped off. I wanted to get over my loss, get through it, tough it out. Be strong.
But my life was falling apart. So I took the damn pills.
It was the right decision and that realization was clear within a week.
Taking the pills didn’t do the things I feared. They didn’t change my personality. They didn’t gloss over my problems. They didn’t make the world rosy and happy and perfect. They didn’t bring my sister or my father back to life either though, sadly.
But the drug somehow let me get me out of the fetal position — up off the floor. It severed the connection between my car’s ignition and my tears. It enabled me to cook dinner, to pay attention to my son, to my husband. It let me go on with my life. The drug took just enough of the weight off my heart to let me recover. It let me deal with the world again, just like I always had.
Of course, the pain didn’t go away. Judy and Dad were still gone, as was my mother. But at last I could manage it. I could think of them, be sad and feel the loss. I think that that was part of what I was afraid of — that if I took the drugs that the hurt would vanish and, well, I believe that people need to feel, we must somehow get used to those empty places in our hearts, in our lives, in our families. But we also need to go on. And to do that I needed help. And in addition to a very supportive husband and son, well, the St. John’s Wort made a huge difference.
Here is something I always tell people when I tell them this story: Taking medicine for depression doesn’t mean you will always need to take it. But antidepressants can help, just like all of the other tools we use every day to help us get through life.
I took St. John’s Wort for several months, and it made a huge difference. In 2009 when my eldest sister, Beth, died too, I took it again, without hesitation. Because I knew that neither of my sisters nor my parents would have wanted me in that well. And I didn’t want to fall back in there either. It’s not a good place to be.
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St. John’s Wort is serious medicine. It has pharmacological properties similar to some prescription antidepressants. Do not use it without medical advice, especially if you take other medications, particularly other antidepressants. It interacts with them.
It also interacts with numerous other medications and supplements, and not in a good way.
SO REALLY: DO NOT TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT WITHOUT TALKING TO A DOCTOR OR PHARMACIST
This is my personal story of how St. John’s Wort helped me. I am not a doctor or a pharmacist, or a psychologist, or any kind of “ist” at all. This is just my story.
Of course, the moral of my story is that if you need help, get it. Do not hesitate. Life’s short. My sister Judy was 47 when she died; Beth was 61. And me, well, I spent two years in that damn well. It was not a good use of precious time.
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Many thanks to my blogging buddy, Lorri Carter, for letting me use her beautiful photograph of the well. I first saw it on her post: Falling Fast – the End of the Show at her blog, The Eff Stop. It’s really what I pictured sitting there in my corner in the well. Except mine was totally enclosed.
Lorri is a terrific photographer who somehow often manages to photograph souls. With this one she shows a piece of mine that I’m so glad I left behind.
And my deepest thanks to Le Clown for letting me share this story in a venue where I am less likely to be fired. Shhhhhhh.