Beyond Blue

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Last week I was interviewed as part of a “BlogTalkRadio” segment hosted by Hachette Book Group, my publisher. It’s basically a radio show that you can produce and broadcast yourself. To listen to it, you can visit this link.

I have written out my answers to some of the questions for those of you, like myself, that can’t commit to the time it takes to listen to anything. Here’s your cheat-sheet. Fellow blogger and friend, Marie, posted the answers on her wonderful site, “Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.” I was humbled by some of the responses on her blog, which is a wonderful resource for those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, have survived breast cancer, or have a loved one battling breast cancer. Click here to get to her site (and the interview). Thanks, Marie!

Please tell us a bit about Beyond Blue and why you wrote it.

I know this sounds somewhat arrogant, but I wrote Beyond Blue to help save lives. Almost a million people kill themselves around the globe each year; suicide takes 30,000 Americans each year, more than traffic accidents or AIDS. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of death for females between the ages of 15 and 40. 

I have suffered the loss of my aunt, my godmother, due to suicide. She took her life at the age of 43, when I was 16. And I almost followed in her tracks. For two years, the most difficult task in my life was to postpone the urge to take my life. During those years, I clung to every word of books like Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” and William Styron’s “Darkness Visible.” They became my companions in the darkness, until I could feel myself to the light. I want to continue the chain of support–to offer the only thing a person needs to survive those dark nights: hope. I want readers to take away a morsel of hope on every page of my book, and find some comfort in knowing that they are not alone. And while I’m at it, I also want to do my part of shedding the unfair stigma that mental disorders carry, and to inform people that mood disorder are organic, brain disorders, and that those who suffer from them should not be reproached for lack of will power, perseverance, or motivation.

Who do you think should read this book?

Um … everyone! Seriously, because every one of us is affected, in some way, by mental illness. Obviously, the person struggling with depression would benefit from reading. But so would the person’s husband, mother, friend, boss, co-worker, and cousin. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, “My sister is depressed, and I just don’t know what to tell her.” Here’s a start: educate yourself. That’s the most compassionate and empathetic thing you can do for her. Beyond Blue is a way into the head of your suffering loved one–because I cover just about every diagnosis listed in the DSM-IV, or shrink manual. My internal monologues might give you a better sense of the reasoning and rationale behind bizarre behavior. Or maybe you’ll learn that the words you thought were helping her actually made things worse.

What was it that kept you going each day since nothing seemed to be helping? You said that you got up and put one foot in front of the other but what was it that got you going in the morning?

You want my honest-to-God answer? I was afraid that I would somehow hang on to all the pain even after death if I killed myself… that my soul would be stuck in this uncomfortable place, saddled with the task of dealing with all the issues that were making me so depressed. In four words: the fear of hell. I guess being Catholic does come in handy. One psychiatrist I saw kept telling me that killing myself wouldn’t resolve anything. And his words really haunted me.

Here’s the prettier answer: the tiny speck of hope that I was clinging to. And I got that hope from my faith–that God was with me even though I couldn’t feel him for the life of me, he really was with me. So I squeezed my medal of St Therese so hard it almost got imprinted into my palm. It was my security blanket of sorts.

You have a blog on Beliefnet also called Beyond Blue. What does the blog do for you and what have been your best experiences writing it?

The blog has allowed me to interact with my readers in a way that I can gauge where the needs are. That was helpful for the book because I could include in the second half of the book, the self-help part, the topics that were most important to my readers. The blog was also a good way to tip-toe into telling my whole story. I’m not sure if I would have had the courage to publish the book without the blog. The feedback from the readers gives me the guts to keep putting the raw material out there. Every day there are a few comments that I print out and carry in my purse or put into my self-esteem. They are especially important to read on the days that I’m freaking out about being so blatantly honest with the world and risking my chances for future employment should the blog tank.

According to your book, you tried 23 different combinations of medication. Why did you have to try so many?

My form of bipolar disorder was subtle and hard to detect. Actually, many people are incorrectly diagnosed with Major Depression when they are, in fact, bipolar because you never go into a doctor’s office complaining about feeling like a superstar. “I just don’t understand, Doc, I wrote a book in a night.” Since mania is so often exhilarating, but most always ends in a crash, the crash is all the doctors hear about.

I also was under the care of some doctors–like the one I dub “Pharma King” in my book–that have their hands deep into the pockets of big Pharma, and so will prescribe only the newest drugs on the market, courtesy of all the nice samples they get. Ultimately, I decided to get a psychiatric consultation with Johns Hopkins University because the doctors there are less apt to take orders from big Pharma and because they don’t get lazy about staying up on the research that, for example, might say that Lithium is just as effect as the new antipsychotics.

Now that you’ve gotten the right help, are you still struggling? How would you go about a typical day?

I’d love to report that ever since I found the right doctor, I’ve never shed another tear or had a future death wish. I do have rough patches. I’m in one right now. But they don’t disable like they used to. Because I know that they won’t last forever: all depression is temporary. And I have a toolbox of trusted techniques that I can use to keep me functioning through the day.

You also talk about seasonal depression. Is seasonal depression something anyone could suffer?

Between 4 and 6 percent of the US population suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but 10 to 20 percent may suffer with a mild form of winter blues. I think that anyone who is “highly sensitive,” meaning very affected by her environment is going to feel the effects of short winter days. The decreased sunlight does alter circadian rhythms, and the lack of vitamin D can make a person feel sluggish. I keep a massive happy lite on my desk to help regiment my circadian rhythm and give me the sunlight effect that I crave.

In your blog, “The Eating Season,” you talked about how the holidays bring special challenges. Can you talk about how food can affect someone with sensitivities or mood fluctuations?

Here’s the catch-22: the more stressed you are, the more you crave coffee and doughnuts, pizza and Coke. But the more Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Big Gulps in your system, the more stressed you become. Because when stressed, your body has lower levels of serotonin, which causes your brain to produce cravings for sugar and simple carbohydrates, which primes the beta-endorphin system to want more and more. 

The same with caffeine. 

It’s a powerful drug that affects a number of neurochemicals in your brain, which means it produces withdrawal symptoms that can make you very very very very irritable.

I try my best to eat what I call “mood foods,” a diet that’s going to assist me in staying sane:
• Spinach! It’s full of B vitamin, which helps the brain produce serotonin … the neurotransmitter that’s real good at sending messages (“I’m happy!”) back and forth between the neurons.
• Walnuts! Apparently rats feel great when given an injection of omega-3 fatty acids. So researchers at McLean Hospital think we will too! Walnuts and ground flaxseeds are the best non-animal source of omega-3s.
• Milk! Milk products and vitamin-fortified non-dairy products contain lots of vitamin D, which increases serotonin production and has been linked to reducing depression according to a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
• Salmon! Again, lots of omega-3s in salmon, which must mean rats love salmon.
• Beans! Good for heart, and the more you eat … the more iron you get too, which helps combat lethargy and grumpiness.

It seems to me that just like any illness, those who suffer depression would benefit from the support of the people around them. How should loved ones and friends go about their support? What should they do to help?

Yes, people with mood disorders do recover more quickly and STAY recovered if they have the support of people around them. I believe that the most important thing that a family member or friend can do is to educate themselves about their loved one’s disorder. Without the knowledge and education, it’s going to be hard to say or do anything that helps. Part of reading up on a person’s illness is, I think, an effort at losing one’s own judgments. If a loved one can suspend her own judgments with regard to her sister’s illness for the hour that she’s with her, that goes a huge way. For me the most hurtful and frustrating element–and why I gave up explaining what I was going through–were the judgments cast toward me because I couldn’t meditate my way to perfect health. Another way that shows love and care is by offering to do laundry, cleaning, cooking, or caring for kids. If a person can help relieve the stress of the person depressed, those efforts will not only help him to feel better quickly, but will communicate the love and care that I think you want to show.

Would you like to offer some words of hope to those who suffer or those whose loved ones suffer depression?

Hope is, indeed, the purpose behind both the blog and the book. It’s hope … even tiny morsels of it on some mornings … that kept me alive. I would read everyday a paragraph from the last page of William Styron’s “Darkness Visible”: “If depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease–and they are countless–bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.”

I held on to those words, and to Kay Redfield Jamison’s who said, “Tumultuousness, if coupled to discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing. That unless one wants to live a stunningly boring life, one ought to be on good terms with one’s darker side and one’s darker energies.”

Depression is treatable. That’s the good news. Dr. DePaulo at Johns Hopkins reassures people that ANYONE no matter how long they have been ill, or how severe their condition, CAN improve to the point of being “at least 80 percent better at least 80 percent of the time.” Those are statistics I’ll take. Because even if you in the other 20 percent, you can look to Abraham Lincoln who managed to fuel his melancholy into a whole Emancipation Movement, by finding some meaning, some redemption, in the pain, and using it for a greater good.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

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