In August 1985, at the age of 17, I discovered that I was pregnant. Young and inexperienced, but with a pretty good sense of self, I decided that I was neither ready nor willing to be a mother. I wanted to have an abortion, but parental permission was denied. I considered adoption, but the closer I got to having my son, the more I realized that I would not be emotionally strong enough to give him up. Over the years, I have had friends and beloved ones who have had abortions, and because I know that it is such a heart wrenching and soul searing decision, I admire them for the people they are and I think that their strength in the face of what had to be the most difficult decisions they have ever had to make is to be both commended and respected. I did not choose to not have an abortion; that choice was made for me. Like any medical procedure, I believe that such decisions are best left to the people directly involved and their primary medical care providers. But this is not a story about teen pregnancy or abortion; it is a story about depression.
Sixteen years after my son was born, I suffered a devastating emotional breakdown. A strong woman, I suddenly found myself unable to cope with living in the world I had created, and so I called my mother and begged her to allow me to come live with her. It was 2001, and it would be the first time since my son was very small that I would be living under my mother's roof. The intergenerational factor notwithstanding, I had also come out as a lesbian – something that my mother had come to believe would surely send my soul to hell. It made life difficult, to say the least. But this is not a story about being a lesbian; it is a story about depression.
A few months after moving into my mother's house, I secured a job working as an administrative assistant at a non-profit organization. This organization provided educational opportunities for healthcare providers in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, so that they could keep their training and licensure current by earning needed continuing education credits through coursework and practical experience. The nonprofit also advocated for legislation that reinforced a woman's right to make her own pregnancy termination choices, should such become necessary – a position that I highly respect and value. As I progressed within the organization, my job became more specialized, and I began work in the area of membership acquisition. Part of my responsibilities entailed reading the journal articles published by members of our association in various medical journals.
Several factors came into play, between November 2001 and February 2003: a new living situation, a new job, a child who was angry at having to move in his junior year of high school, falling in love, getting kicked out of my mother's home for being a "practicing" lesbian, moving in with my new lover, a chance encounter that led to PTSD flashbacks from childhood and adult sexual traumas, and intense therapy to learn coping mechanisms for all of those situations. When I read an article by one of my association's doctors, detailing an abortive procedure that required the insertion of a needle into an unborn's brain and literally sucking the life out of that fetus before inducing its forced expulsion, I began having panic attacks every single day as I walked into the office. While I am strongly supportive of a woman's right to choose, discovering the details of this specific procedure caused me no end of heartache and regret. In the end, my then-partner encouraged me to resign my position, as it had become clear that along with everything else, a complete mental and spiritual meltdown was imminently approaching.
The whirlwind hit with a force that I had never encountered before. Nightmares, daymares, flashbacks . . . emotional imprisonment. My mind was no longer a safe place to be. Over the next two years, I would watch myself slowly slide into a chasmic abyss from which there seemed no escape; I turned from a confident and self-assured woman into this near-agoraphobic child that I hardly recognized. I dared not look in the mirror, for fear of coming face-to-face with what I had become.
I had a few saving graces during that time.
• My then-partner did not abandon me, even though promise after promise remained unfulfilled. For instance, I had promised that if I were allowed to quit my job, I would keep the house spotless and have dinner on the table every night. It was understandably disappointing and anger-inducing when many days, I felt triumphant if I could just get out of bed and wash the dishes. There were many arguments during that time, but hindsight has revealed that we were both doing the best we could while struggling with and against each other – and our selves – in very unfamiliar territory.
• Another saving grace came in the form of our choir director, and by extension, our church itself. Our choir director became my rock, my anchor. She saw into me in ways that I kept hidden, even from my therapist. She held me when I wept, and she taught me how to be strong again, through the most gentle and firm ways imaginable. She was actually the first person I encountered when the flashbacks began, and from that moment, she made me a priority in her life. At 2:00 AM, when the nightmares kept me awake, I called her and she helped me go back to sleep. In the middle of the afternoon, when I grew silent and withdrew, she called right at the moment when the walls started to close in on me. And she recognized my penchant for isolating. So she got me to use my administrative wizadry to help her keep our music ministry – and her office – organized. I was SO GRATEFUL for a reason to get out of the house, out of my own mind's prison, and to keep functioning. If I needed to not be there, she understood and supported me. But when she could see that I had too much time on my hands, she filled my hands so that my mind could heal. She became my first mentor in the ministry, and she will always embody those qualities in a mom that my own mother was unable to provide.
• By extension, my church is also a saving grace for me. After much encouragement from my then-partner, I underwent training to become a deacon, and just the opportunity to be surrounded by people who take care of people – and to be of help in taking care of every one of them – provided me the opportunity to be cared for, myself. I think that this can occur in any situation – a hospital, nursing home, church – anyplace that provides sanctuary and care of others is such a healing place to give and receive the gifts of love and grace. When I started ministering to the needs of others, I found my own needs being ministered to, as well. And as I say "ministering", I am not just speaking of the classic meaning of ministry – in a church – but of the overarching meaning: the caregiving, the support, the doing-for-others-ness that occurs when I give freely of myself, not expecting or wanting any sort of payment in return. I find a little bit of me in the people I help, and I have come to accept that that is not selfish or co-dependent. It is interdependent. My health does not depend on whether they need me. My health depends, in part, on my own willingness to use my gifts to help myself to help others to help themselves.
• My therapist was and is a saving grace for me. In those first few months, we saw each other three times a week, every week. She was another anti-agoraphobic agent. I had to get out of the house to see her, which meant riding the bus and train for up to two hours each way. My MP3 player and I got very close in those first few months, and I still keep it in reserve for when I have to be in the city, riding public transportation. Probably the most important thing my therapist did for me is twofold: First, she gave me homework for every day between our sessions; and second, she put the responsibility for my recovery into my own hands. It was my responsibility to put into practice the tools and techniques she taught me; it was up to me to journal or draw or talk through those events that, when locked away, only ate at my soul and at my life. It was all up to me, and I have no doubt that if I were still seeing her three times a week after six months, she would have recommended me to another therapist. Her goal was that I get better, and her level of professionalism dictated that if I weren't showing signs of progress, then she would have suggested I continue my treatment elsewhere. That inspired a level of trust within me that I had not felt in a very long time.
I would like to say that I am completely depression free now, and that all of life is rosy and happy, every moment of every day. That would be a lie. A very wise friend recently told me that "health is a choice." It is a choice that I have to make every single day – and, to be honest, sometimes I have to make that choice moment-by-moment. I still battle my depression because like my sciatica and pinched nerves, depression is a chronic disease that – left untreated – will eat away at my core, and will eventually erode my sense of self, my relationships, and my life. That same wise friend says that, "depression kills, but with a very long and slow timeline." If I am not careful, I will not see that it is destroying me until I look around and see the destruction it leaves in the wake of my life.
I am definitely on "happy pills"; Zoloft has been a Godsend. But Zoloft alone is not enough. Without the care of my therapist, the love of several dear people, and my own willingness to push myself beyond what I thought were my limitations, I would still be locked in my own home, a prisoner of my own mind. But the most important thing I think I did was that I let go, and I did what I was told to do. I stopped struggling, stopped giving my therapist and my friends and my beloved ones reasons for why I could not, and I made the decision to just get up and do what I was told. I discovered that because I stopped trusting my parents' abilities to act in my own best interests, as a very young child, that I had a lot of trouble picking the right people to trust in, as I grew into an adult. Of the many people I have chosen to be in my life over the last 40 years, only a very small handful have proven to be ones that I want to grow old and die with. But then, that handful is not the handful that I have chosen; they are the ones whom I have encountered at the very most unlikely of times and have stuck with me, even when I did not want to stick with myself. (There is a lesson in there, I am sure of it.) But once I decided to just do what I was told – to trust the love of my therapist and my family-of-choice – a whole world opened up to me, and I have not regretted a single moment of this new ride that I am on. The beginning was hard and shaky and there were times when I got off, threw up, and then got right back on again. And there are still those upside down moments, backward turns, and major upheavals (spiritual, emotional, and spiritual) but I still do what I am told, especially in those moments when I have to admit that I do not know what I am supposed to do.
I had to decide that I wanted to be healthy. I still have to decide that I want to be healthy. Part of that decision is realizing that I do not always know what is best for me – that most times, it is the people who love me who know what is best for me. Someone looked in and found a place where I could come, just as I was, to work on my outside while I and my therapist worked on my inside. Someone encouraged me to push myself when I thought I was too weak to even want to get out of bed most days. Someone cared about me and did not let me keep playing those self-destructive tapes that drove me to kick myself while I was already down. Someone showed me grace and love, and showed me that I had grace and love to give, when I thought that that I had none and deserved neither. The people in my life were not just there for me. They were there with me – pulling, pushing, encouraging, cajoling, and forcing me to see things and do stuff that my mind would not allow my heart to admit I wanted to do. Of all of those, I thank God most for the parts where they pushed and forced me, because if they had not, then the pulling and cajoling and encouraging would have only netted moments of laughter – rather than the life of joy that I am privileged to be an active participant in.
I still have to choose to be healthy. At least now, though, it is not nearly as hard a choice as it once was. My mind is a safer place to be, and thank God for the amount of work that it takes to make sure it stays that way.