Serenity Now!

Some people are born with smooth lines; others have jagged edges. Some find contentment in a cup of tea, others stay restless their entire lives. “We would never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world,” Hellen Keller said. Not that I wouldn’t exchange my anxiety and depression for a calm disposition in a heartbeat. But I realize that  although my “colorful” nature was conceived and matured in pain, it taught me to rely on faith, friendship, and humor to get me through those dark nights of the soul.

I am alive today because of words spoken or written to me by fellow depressives: “This will pass;” “One hour at a time;” “One foot in front of another.” These weren't Hallmark card slogans, they simple directions from a life-saving network that continues to empower me today. That empowerment is what I want to share in this blog. I hope it will be a comfortable place where we can pitch the unfair stigma of mental illness, expose our real selves, and lend each other an empathetic ear. As a card-carrying depressive, I invite you to come take a seat in this healing circle of colorful folks who have grown to love and accept their jagged edges.

As Frank Costanza famously said on Seinfeld, "Serenity now!"

Monday, October 23, 2006     10:30 a.m.

My Story (So Far)

Although I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety from the moment I was induced from my mother’s womb, I officially joined the elite club in 1989, my freshman year at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, when I went by the Counseling and Career Development Center to inquire about local support groups (I was a just few months sober). One of the therapists politely invited me back.

A few months later she rattled off a few diagnoses: obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression. She strongly suggested antidepressants, but I resisted.

“They are happy pills that will compromise your sobriety,” some hard-core 12-steppers said. “The world needs God, not Valium,” preached a priest in his homily. Meds were the easy way out. And at the time, I was all about feeling the pain so that I could transform into a more spiritual person.

“Life doesn’t have to be this hard,” my counselor told me and gave me a copy of Colette Dowling’s book, "You Mean I Don’t Have to Feel This Way?" A year and a half later, when I was experiencing suicidal thoughts, I finally cried uncle, clinging to the lifeboat (or prescription) God sent me. After a few trial and error experiments, my doctor and I stumbled on the combination of Prozac and Zoloft, which allowed me to concentrate enough to study and pray, yet relax enough to tell a joke here and there.

Then I had kids, and my hormones huddled together to ask each other what the heck they were supposed to be doing now that no baby was in the womb or at the breast. My neurotransmitters (responsible for feelings of well-being) scattered for good, and I had an honest-to-goodness mental breakdown. I lost twenty pounds because I had no appetite, I contracted one urinary tract infection after another because my immune system was breaking down, I breathed into a paper bag every morning during a panic attack, and I trembled and flailed like Linda Blair in the “Exorcist” because my anxiety was so acute. Oh, and let's not forget the endless sobbing: at the grocery, at my son’s soccer practice, at preschool fieldtrips, in church, and everywhere else.

It took two trips to the psych ward, six different psychiatrists, and 23 different medication combinations over a year and a half’s time to get me well again. In other words, I upgraded to the platinum membership in Club D. As an authentic manic-depressive with Bipolar II disorder, I graduated beyond the my-primary-care-physician-can-give-me-my-meds, to the regular check-ins with doctors specializing in mental health.

Although I have many times cussed out God and asked what he was thinking when he designed my brain, I agree with Kay Redfield Jamison, author of "An Unquiet Mind," that “tumultuousness, if coupled with discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing.
In other words, 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.”

My real faith, the engine that propels me to love better and be better, was born in my dark night. Blindfolded, I felt my way through the woods to the campfire, where a crowd of fellow depressives welcomed me. They taught me which voices to listen to (Go for it!), which to ignore (You’re a failure.), and how to get out of bed the days your sickness has attacked every muscle in your body.

A friend and fellow depressive once told me that illness and anxiety are helping hands to help people tell their stories. I guess that’s what I hope to do here.

Monday, October 23, 2006     11:00 a.m.

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