Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with education, or classroom teaching. I wrote it because I feel it’s time to come out of the shadows, share my experience with depression, and let other sufferers of this chronic disease know that they are not alone. I don’t have any advice, or some “magic bullet” to cure the disease. I only have my experience to share. It’s not happy or upbeat, but it’s the truth. I hope that by sharing my experience, I can bring a little bit of light to someone else. Here’s (part of) my story:
I remember when it first hit me. I was 12 years old, and it was summer.
All the previous years of my life, summer had been a happy time, spent outside, roaming the neighborhood or biking to the local pool for the day. My exposed skin was a rich warm brown, almost black on my knees. My hair was yellow-blond from the sun’s rays. My friends and I stayed outside until the streetlights came on, before returning home for dinner and bed.
The summer I was 12 was different. I didn’t go outside. I didn’t play. I didn’t go biking, or swimming, or much of anything else, for that matter.
Instead, I stayed home, alone most of the time, with the shades drawn, and the house semi-dark. I grew so pale that my skin fairly glowed blue-white.
My mom had her own problems. She was the divorced mother of four children, and she worked full-time to make ends meet. When she came home, she disappeared into her bedroom to smoke and to read, emerging to feed us dinner or put us to bed, or to watch the television.
I don’t mean to imply that she was a bad mother. She loved us, and she did the best she could, but she was overwhelmed. Years later, she was diagnosed with depression, a disease which I would later find out runs in families.
My mom didn’t know how to help me. One of my sisters thought she did, and she insisted that I put on my bathing suit and stay in the backyard for a couple hours. Meanwhile, she and my mom went shopping. I was ordered to stay outside until they returned, which I did, despite the foot-high weeds and buzzing insects.
When they finally returned and unlocked the door to let me inside, my skin was no longer glowing white, but pink, the beginning of horrendous sunburn. For many days, my skin blistered and peeled while I lived in my bathing suit. Finally, the pain subsided, and I could wear regular clothing again. I was not forced to go outside again after that.
The outside world was suddenly a scary place. This point was driven home to me the day I was home alone, and heard a group of neighborhood boys jump our fence to steal the collection of empty coke bottles we had on the back patio. (You could get 5 cents for each empty glass bottle you returned to the store back then, and we had hundreds of bottles just sitting there.)
As I peaked through the blinds I could see the boys using what I would come to find out later was a water pipe, used for smoking drugs. I didn’t know what to do, and so I just stood there, terrified and trembling in my living room, until the boys collected their loot and left.
There was no 911 at that time, and I did not know how to call the police. My family was furious at the loss of the bottle income, so I hid in my room for a while, waiting for it to blow over. Whenever the anger at home became too loud for me to bear, I ran outside and hid somewhere in the neighborhood, returning after hours, once the yelling had stopped.
I used to visit my father once a week, on Sundays when I was a kid. Not that I actually saw much of him. Once we arrived at his house he disappeared into his bedroom, reappearing briefly to assign cleaning duties, or setting up his dining room table with many stacks of paper several inches high. Our job was to assemble the stacks into individual letters, staple them, fold them, and put them into envelopes, which we were then to seal, stamp, and affix with address labels. It took most of the day to do this. One time, it took so long that it was way past time for us to return to our mother’s house, and there were still stacks of these letters to collate and complete. My father sent all the paperwork home with us, with threats about what would happen to us if we didn’t complete it by the next day. This infuriated my mother, but we begged her to let us finish, and we told her our reasons why. Reluctantly, she agreed, but made sure that my father never sent paperwork home with us again.
One time, my middle sister had refused to do this paperwork for my father. In response, my father called me over to him, then squeezed my chest until I could not breathe. As I panicked in his grip, my father told my sister that he would let me breathe again once she agreed to complete the paperwork. She complied, but later she punished me for being my father’s victim. I think I was around 10 years old at that time.
A few months later, this sister ran away from my father while we were with him. My father and his “friends” searched for her, but could not find her. (My two eldest siblings had reached adulthood by this time, and no longer had to visit our father.) Furious, my father eventually took me home, which was a ½ hour car drive away from his house. Meanwhile, it had started to rain, and my sister had called my mom, told her where she was, and asked to be picked up. As soon as my father was a good distance from our house, my mom drove to get my sister.
Somehow, as a result of this incident, I no longer had to visit my father every weekend. My mother later told me (as an adult) that she had agreed to forego the $100 per month child support she had been receiving from my father in order for us to be spared the visits. As a result, I only had to see my father a few more times during my teenage years. Each time I was paraded around a group of his co-workers, I guess to show them that he really did have children. My last visit with my father I was 14 years old. After that, I refused to go.
In the absence of parental direction, and with many issues of her own, my middle sister took control. I was only allowed out of my room at her whim. I was only allowed to eat what she approved, and if I tried to cook my own food, she would destroy it and throw it away. She was extremely compulsive, cleaning the house from top to bottom every day, and chairs had to be pushed in to the table at a precise measurement. Sinks had to be washed and dried after every use. She didn’t want me to walk on the floor, as my footprints would mess up the pattern she had left on the carpet there. I did my own laundry, but if she decided she needed to get her own things washed immediately, she would haul my own laundry out, throw it on the floor, and make me clean it up later.
When my sister turned to drugs, she became violent, literally tearing the shirt off my back during an argument when she was mad that I objected to her wearing my clothes. My mother was standing right there when it happened.
Eventually, this sister moved out, and our apartment became more peaceful. However, my world was still dark, and my health suffered. I was out of school for weeks at a time with horrible bouts of bronchitis, as I couldn’t breathe without gasping and coughing up huge globs of mucous. When my mom sent a note to school asking for my homework, my civics teacher responded with a note that said, “If she was here, she would know.” When I returned to school, this teacher cornered me in the quad and told me to act like an adult and not have my mommy complain to the office about him. Mortified, unable to breathe without gasping, I complied. My world darkened, and I hid in my room at home.
Years went by, and I grew up, went to college, got married, went to more college, became a teacher, and eventually had my first child. That was the happiest day of my life, and all seemed well for the first few weeks. Then the walls closed in.
My husband was jealous of our baby. He accused her (at three weeks of age) of being “a manipulative little bitch,” and said, “She knows what she’s doing,” when he missed sleep due to her crying from colic. I had lost a lot of blood during the delivery, which ended up being by caesarian section after 29 hours of labor with a Pitocin drip. I was pale, but as the weeks wore on, my pallor deepened. I remember feeling like I was under water all the time. Sounds were dim echoes and the world was swimming in a gray pallor.
When I told my obstetrician about my feelings of hopelessness and despair, she diagnosed me with post-partum depression and prescribed medication, which I waited until I weaned my daughter at four months before I started. Meanwhile, my husband disappeared for 5 days at a time, only coming home on the weekends to complain about all the time I was spending on our baby, and to demand that I choose between her and him. When he was home, I feared that his actions would result in our child’s injury or death so it was almost better that he stayed away so much.
Finally, I left, and took our infant daughter with me. I continued to take my medication. After about three weeks, I felt like I was at about 80% of my normal capacity, and school started. A month went by, and I felt like a normal human being capable of functioning again. My husband and I started to talk, and I thought we had a chance. Although it took a year-and-a-half of trying to get pregnant with my first child, it only took one weekend (during which I was not trying, but in which I was not protected due to the imbalance of hormones in my body at the time) to get pregnant with my second child.
When I informed my husband about the new baby, he began talking about angels appearing to him and giving him direction about the future of this child. He prophesied many things, and I was naïve enough to believe him. It wasn’t until I told our church leader about my husband’s prophesies that I was gently pulled back down to earth. This leader reminded me that my husband wasn’t living right, and would not be feeling the necessary Spirit for prophesying. I lost all hope of repairing my relationship with my husband and being a family, together. I was under so much stress while I was pregnant with my second child, that I was rushed to the hospital seven times during the last few months with pre-term labor. When my son was born, my husband refused to visit, and we were left alone in the hospital.
Years went by. My husband and I divorced, and his behavior grew more bizarre. When he started hurting my children, I filed for sole custody, and a bitter custody battle ensued. The judge decided that it was possible that I had poisoned my children’s minds against their father. She ordered that they be sent to live with him while the 730 evaluation was done. When my children were in the custody of their father local people around his house (not me or anyone I knew) repeatedly called DCPS, the judge ordered that all contact between myself and my children cease immediately so that their father could have the opportunity to “re-bond” with them.
For the next two months, I was not allowed to call my children on the phone, or even to send a letter. My lawyer took my money, but the case did not progress. I sank into a tailspin of despair, and cried on the phone to my mother every night. Yet I found the strength to push for the 730 evaluation to be completed. I flew back and forth to my home state for interviews with the court-ordered psychiatrists. In the evaluation office, I saw my children for the first time in months, but was only allowed to speak to them in the presence of the doctor.
When I sat down next to my daughter and hugged her, she lifted a pant leg to show me her calf, covered in bruises of every hue: black, blue, purple, brown, yellow, and green. I hugged her tighter and fought my despair. My children became my one reason for continuing to live. I could not give up, even as I fought back the engulfing misery. Months went by while I roamed my empty house, unpacking my children’s belongings and setting up their rooms. I wanted everything to be ready for them once they returned. It was unthinkable that I would not get them back.
Eventually I won full custody. The 730 evaluator declared my ex to be a significant threat to my children, and recommended he only be allowed supervised visits with them, with primary custody to me. My ex and his court reporter girlfriend did not want this report to be read by the judge, so they agreed to return my children a month sooner than I would otherwise have gotten them. They also agreed to full custody of the children to reside with me, as long as my ex did not have to pay any of the years of back child support he owed, or any future support.
That was more than two years ago. I still take medication for depression, and sometimes my meds have to be adjusted by a doctor. I have learned that depression is a chronic disease, manifesting through a chemical imbalance in the brain. This imbalance can be treated with medication, just like other chronic diseases like asthma and high blood pressure. It can be (at least partially) caused by childhood trauma, but it also tends to run in families. It cannot be wished away, thought away or exercised away. Diet and exercise may help improve the symptoms, but will not cure the underlying cause.
Unexpected life stresses can exacerbate the condition. Last year we were undergoing some difficult circumstances. I reached out to my church leaders for help. I was told that I “Need to experience the joys of self-sufficiency.” The church had helped us for one month, and that was the limit of their generosity.
As I looked at my church leaders, I remember the room seeming to close in on me. I felt like I was encased in concrete, with only a small hole for me to see my way out of the enclosed room. I made my way home and for the first time understood what drives some people to shoot their children and then themselves. It was an overwhelming despair.
Then I got mad. Somehow this helped me to pull myself through the black, sucking mud that threatened to swallow me, and my children, as we struggled to move onward. We stopped attending church. I believe in the gospel with all my heart and soul, but we would not survive in that compassionless, judgmental atmosphere. I do not believe that Jesus would ever tell a suffering family that there was a time limit on fellowship, or a limit on love.
Some people have told me I have a strong spirit. I don’t want to have to be so strong, although I wouldn’t survive without this strength. Sometimes I ask God why I must endure these things. Then I ask for direction as I strive to move through them. There’s a song in country music about moving through hell. The idea is to keep on moving, and you just might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.