This is the story of my recovery from depression. I expect it to be an ongoing process that will take a while. But I want to show that recovery is not only possible but should be the expected outcome. This writing will grow. I learned as a child to keep my mouth shut as my thoughts and ideas were not welcome. So, I am adding to this as I think of things that I need to talk about. It’s a bit of a struggle for me to communicate, so please bear with me.
I have suffered from depression my whole life. One doctor told me that dysthymia (or mild depression) was what I suffered in between my major bouts of depression. The causes of my depression were environmental. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family in Minnesota. My parents were both alcoholics and depressed, and their dysfunction became my growth environment.
I’ve had three major bouts of depression:
The first time was at puberty in the eighth grade. I had no confidence in myself. My childhood was filled with messages from my father telling me I was fat, that fat people are ugly, and that no one would ever love me. So, I grew up feeling fat and ugly. I was so sad, I could barely make it to my room after school before the tears would start falling. This happened almost every day. My parents took me to a psychologist who did hypnotherapy with me. It proved to be fairly effective for the short term.
My second major episode of depression was as a senior in college. I came to realize that I would soon be leaving college and entering the work world. I had no confidence in myself and was soon lost in tears over my prospects. I called my parents at home and they came and got me to spend a few days at home. I was educated but not prepared for life.
My third major episode with depression happened at about age 40 in 1991. We were now living in Oregon. I had a very good job in the high-tech sector at a computer manufacturer. I was building test equipment for our product for manufacturing and maintaining that equipment and much more. I was running the lab, and purchasing parts, and serving as a lead in my group. I had received accolades in the job I was doing and went on an employee excellence trip as an award. When I got back from that trip I was told, “We have to cut back, and your group has been dissolved.” Some people in my group lost their jobs, and others got reassigned. The management forgot about me. I was finally assigned to a job in purchasing which was basically grunt work. I was typing purchase orders and filing them. I became very depressed and suicidal. I didn’t know how to resolve the dichotomy of being told I was an excellent employee and then put into a job that was so bad for me. The rug of self-confidence was pulled out from under me.
I contacted my health insurance company in 1991 to get help. I had never taken advantage of my insurance so they sent me a questionnaire to fill out to assist in finding me a doctor. It took one and a half years to get a doctor appointment. I had never been taught to fight for myself, and thus was not able to fight that battle. Worse, I believed I really didn’t deserve help.
Once I finally got in to see the doctor, I started taking antidepressants in 1993. It took six months before I started seeing an improvement in my mood. I was also put into a cognitive behavioral therapy group which I found to be very enlightening, but of limited usefulness. It demonstrated to me how we see and think about things when depressed, and how twisted it was. It lasted 10 weeks.
Over the years I have taken a wide variety of antidepressants. There was always a balancing act between which was worse, the depression or the side effects. Side effects included things as minor as dry mouth, to constipation, irritability, a zombie-like state and sexual dysfunction.
I stopped taking them on my own twice, with disastrous results. I got extremely depressed both times. It was worse than before I started taking medications. I would stop in the middle of the workday to run into the bathroom and cry. It felt like I had a bowling ball in my stomach. I ended up going back to my doctor both times and taking something else. Antidepressants changed my brain chemistry. Stopping them too quickly or without medical supervision is a very bad choice.
My doctor told me after the second time that I would have to take them for the rest of my life. I believed him.
In the end, I was taking 500 mg of Nefazadone in the evening and tried a number of different antidepressants in the morning. I had problems with all of them.
The last morning antidepressant I took, I had to stop taking it when people told me how zombie-like I was. I spoke and moved very slowly.
After almost 25 years of taking antidepressants, I had no emotion left whatsoever. I felt dead and wanted to be dead.
I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t do daily tasks, keep up on my daily chores, or manage my own house. We had 36 acres of property that I had been managing, but I couldn’t do it anymore.
In 2016, my husband and I made a decision and moved to southern Oregon, and sold our house. We wanted to be closer to family and to where my husband grew up. My doctor in the Portland area told me that I needed to make contact with a new psychiatrist here to “manage” my medications.
Moving and packing was a nightmare. Our house was in total disarray, and making decisions about what to pack and when to pack it proved to be very difficult for me. My head was spinning, and I couldn’t make decisions about what to do. We did the move very slowly. I think we went up and down I-5 about 25 times over the course of six months. The new house was situated on about five acres (we really downsized) with a panoramic view of the Rogue River valley.
I made an appointment to see a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I really liked her. I was still not doing well, so we talked about my starting anti-anxiety drugs. She seemed to understand me.
She made it clear that she would be unable to continue treating me — she could not bill Medicare, which I became eligible for within several months of arriving in the valley. She referred me to my new doctor.
Shortly after I started seeing him, my new doctor had me read the book Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker. It took me a while to read it, but by the end, I became angry over the manipulation and lies that the pharmaceutical industry tells to the public about psychiatric drugs. The FDA only requires six months of studies on the efficacy of psychiatric drugs. They do not require any long-term studies. Independent research has shown that psychiatric drugs have very limited usefulness over the long term and in fact can be harmful. The pharmaceutical industry also says that mental illness represents a physical problem with the brain that needs to be fixed. There are no studies that prove that this is true. Doctors are now taught in school to prescribe drugs, not to treat mental disorders.
Studies have also shown that in the case of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, the weaning-off process can be very difficult. Close to 20% of US citizens are on a psychiatric drug of some kind and this country has the worst outcomes on mental illness by far in the developed world.
My therapist and I jointly made the decision to wean me off of the drugs. We started by reducing my meds by 10% per month. He always asked me if I was ready to go down, and I always ended up saying yes. Finally, a doctor was teaching me, rather than telling me!
In the beginning, it was a very scary process for me. Since I had twice gone off medications on my own, I knew how bad it could get. I was also expecting that at some point in time, my emotions would come flooding back.
There were a couple of episodes of anger that I experienced while I was reducing my medications. I got angry with my husband for letting the dogs out of the house at a bad time. I got angry with a bird for pecking on our metal chimney. No one got hurt, and I learned about riding out my emotions. Feeling them in a safe way.
At the same time, I was also learning tools to help me with my emotions. I was learning to meditate and journal. Meditation in particular has proven to be an incredibly important tool for me. It has helped me “smooth out” my emotions and gain a better understanding and compassion for myself and others. I can say without exaggeration that meditation has saved my life.
One time early in the process, I was meditating and I was thinking about how scared I was reducing my medication. After a while, a voice came into my head saying, “You are going to be okay.” What an amazing thing to happen! I eventually came to believe it, and it became easier and easier to continue reducing my meds regularly. My last dose of medication was taken in June of 2017.
Earlier that same spring, I started attending a local Buddhist temple. Buddhism has been an interest of mine for a long time. In coming to the valley, I found myself with a choice of places to go. My doctor had started teaching me how to meditate, and I wanted to deepen that practice. At the temple I learned about various activities I could participate in that would help me learn more about my new skill. The one thing that really called to me was a one-week meditation retreat that would happen in June. At first I rebelled against the idea of one week away from home meditating, but I came to believe this was the right thing for me to do.
So, I applied to the temple for permission to go, and I went. There were three 90-minute meditations per day. On the advice of the lamas, for each session I spent 30 minutes meditating, 30 minutes studying and another 30 minutes meditating again. I had found a book there to study. It was called The Mindful Way Through Depression. As soon as I saw it I knew that was what I had to work on. I read the whole book during the course of that week.
It was during that time that I took my last doses of antidepressants. I had started feeling emotions. During one of my study sessions, I started thinking about all those years of depression, and I started crying. I cried for about an hour. Just being able to cry was such a relief! It was very good for me. I plan on attending the same retreat this year.
My individual therapy continues. I am also participating in group therapy. I still have issues with anxiety which I am confident I will learn how to deal with. Group therapy also involves getting a “buddy.” A buddy is someone you meet with weekly or semi-weekly to talk about what is going on in your life. We have only one assignment, and that is to tell each other our life story. After that the agenda is our own. It’s a hard thing to do. It can be very emotional. It is actually a great way to get to know someone. I have several buddies now and it has so far gotten me a few very good friends, for which I am incredibly grateful.
What else have I learned? One thing I’ve learned about is my “inner guide.” That’s who spoke with me when I started down the path of medication adjustment. The inner guide can be called God, Great Mother, former lives, and many other things. The inner guide helps me make the hard decisions, once I learned to listen to it.
The good news is, I am alive. I feel alive, and I now have emotions, both good and bad. I am very grateful to have all of them. Most of all, I have joy.
I am also reconnecting with my husband in a wonderful way. We are talking about what I am going through and what I went through.
I am learning more each day about how to be more proactive in my own life. I no longer wait for someone to tell me what to do. I learn what to do by seeking appropriate people, books, and thoughts. My growing self-confidence gives me great hope!
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.