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Depression: Cancer Of The Soul
A first hand account of the importance of knowledge

Kathleen Gudmundson Collins
© Copyright 1999 by Kathleen Gudmundson Collins

There I was, sitting in the office of my new boss. It was only my third day on the job. What was I going to tell her? How could I explain to this business savvy woman that I was on the brink of an emotional meltdown? I certainly couldn't lie to her. I couldn't lie to anyone. I was an open book. A book very much like one that would be written by Dr. Seuss. The words easy to read but not making much sense. The simplest of ideas had become jumbled in my mind and I could no longer articulate them clearly. Simple issues had become complex. I felt as if I had a million thoughts and feelings swirling around in my head and I just couldn't concentrate on anything anymore.

Over the past several years I knew my cognitive abilities were declining, but in ignorance I assumed it was due to many different reasons. I wasn't getting enough sleep, or pressures at work and at home were to blame and, as with most women, there was always a major issue or crisis to deal with. It's normal to feel overwhelmed and depressed at times, right? What escaped me was the fact that those feelings of depression were no longer only at times. They were becoming an every day part of my existence. The depression took over every aspect of my life until I no longer found pleasure in anything. It was invading my very soul. When the depression and anxiety became too much to endure a bottle (or two) of gewürztraminer or Merlot would to some extent numb those painful feelings. But over time the drinking itself became yet another issue. This, of course, only made my situation worse. I would discover later that this is known as dual diagnosis but all I knew at the time was that I was in a great deal of pain. Psychotherapy came to mind as a possible way to help. Though I wasn't thrilled with the idea of unloading on a complete stranger, I told myself it would only be for a short while. I would soon be back to my old self. Unfortunately I didn't understand the process of therapy. I was also ignorant to the idea that I may actually have a medical disorder. Through the next couple of years, I had seen many different psychologists, however in those hundreds of therapy sessions I had never completely opened up. My therapists became "sounding boards". Although the opportunity to vent my frustrations and concerns to an unbiased ear was helpful for a while, it slowly became ineffective. The sessions were no longer helping me and I didn't know why. I got to the point where I felt I was literally screaming out for help, but no one could hear me or simply no one cared. I was ready to give up. So I did. I ended the therapy and decided I could go it alone. Given time, I told myself, I would snap out of it.

But I didn't. In fact time proved only to exacerbate the symptoms. I felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride, only this ride was no fun. Some days were tolerable while others were agonizing. Subsequently, other areas of my life began to suffer. Not only did I look and feel like something my cat dug up, but my family began to feel the effects of my depression as well. My husband of only 2 years and my newborn son were the innocent wounded caught in my line of fire. My husband wanted desperately to help, however this was new territory and neither of us knew what to do. One of the symptoms of my depression is memory loss. To this day I don't exactly remember when I finally decided that I did need outside help after all, but once I came to that realization I felt both miserable and relieved. I knew that I was losing my family and probably my sanity but I also recognized that I might actually find a solution. My employer at the time sponsored a help line for its employees. The call I made that day was the most difficult but most important call I would ever make. I think I may have even dialed the number several times before I got it right. The voice at the other end was sincere, caring and knowledgeable. It was suggested to me that a Psychiatrist might help. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must have known this truth because I immediately agreed.

The next call I made was the second most difficult and important. After some research, I found a doctor that was well known and respected in our community. That first meeting was frightening, but I learned more about the disorder I was diagnosed with. It was then I first learned about Manic Depression. My doctor prescribed what would turn out to be the first of many anti-depressants for me to try. He explained that it might take months or even years to find the correct dosage of the right medication but nothing prepared me for the years of painful experimentation ahead. I listened intently as things were explained to me, but I still failed to see the big picture. I wasn't quite ready to acknowledge the fact that I was sick. At some point in those sessions I must have told myself the first few tries would produce direct results, and this journey would not be all that difficult. I was relatively healthy and strong willed and will power was all I needed. It's hard for me to believe I was ever that naïve but I was. Will power has little or nothing to do with recovery. The will to live does.

So, as I faced a new boss and a new perception of reality, I realized my career in Real Estate was about to hit a brick wall. I had just spent the last three years putting my heart and soul into my work. I knew my potential. I knew that I possessed the knowledge and work ethic it took to be great. I had proven it time and time again. But now, sitting in front of a professional I had only a week ago sold my abilities to, I no longer had that confidence. I had been fighting to keep it for as long as I could remember, but it was slowly being eroded away. Eroding with all the other fine qualities that made me special. Those that made me the fun loving and happy person I was many years ago. I knew something was wrong and had known for quite some time. But I didn't understand that I had a disease. A disease that left untreated would eventually destroy me. My new boss knew something was wrong too. Like many other people, she could easily see that I had something on my mind. "What's going on?" she asked. My head reeling, I searched frantically for the right words. Then, the situation seemed to turn into a strip straight out of a cartoon. I swear I felt a light bulb above my head and just as someone hit the switch, I understood. "I have an illness," I said. "It's a medical problem that I have been treating for a while, but it's progressively growing worse". "Is it life threatening?" she asked. Immediately sensing her concern, I explained it was not contagious. "It's genetic," I said. "But yes, it is life threatening".

Life threatening. Those two words struck me hard. I realized that not only was my career at stake, but my very life as well. As I sat motionless in that big leather chair, the perception I had of everything around me changed. It felt as if the entire room began to slowly move past me and I was about to collide with reality head on. The feeling of my heart sinking into my stomach quickly followed. For the first time, I fully understood the severity of my situation. I've had suicidal thoughts in the past and I even thought about how I would carry them out. This time was somehow different. I was feeling a sense of urgency I had never quite felt before. I knew if I didn't get immediate help, I would no longer be able to control those thoughts. In this new and anxious state of mind, I could see that I never gave my therapists the chance to really help me. I was not open and honest with them, but more importantly, I was not being honest with myself. I simply was not ready to admit to myself that my illness was serious and that it required an earnest and lifelong commitment to remedy.

I began to try to explain to my new boss that I had to leave. "I know I've only been on the job for three days," I said. "But I need to resign my position so I can devote my full attention to my recovery." It was unexpectedly easy for me to talk to her. "I don't think it would be fair to either of us if I tried to stay on." I continued. "My mind would not be focused on my work. I'm so sorry". Not only did she understand, she was downright supportive. "Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked. I was surprised and grateful for her offer of help. I had a feeling she knew precisely what was wrong. We talked for a while about the obstacles we sometimes face in life and how easy it is to forget our own needs. She handed me her business card and said "When you are at a place in your recovery where you are ready to go back to work, please call me. In the meantime please know you can call if there is anything I can do."

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I was feeling even more depressed. I was also angry. I couldn't believe I was at the point where I was not even able to work and I blamed myself. Many months would pass before I would learn that the illness was to blame and not me. Many months of intense therapy and medication would also pass before I would begin to understand this disease, this cancer of my soul. So began my long and critical journey to recovery.

After my embarrassing and frightening incident with my former employer, I spent the following couple of weeks floundering. I decided to pay a visit to my Psychiatrist and begged him for something to relieve my pain and anxiety. He prescribed Valium and Zoloft to supplement my therapy with my Psychologist and suggested I take some time off. Previous experience had taught me that it always takes time for medication to work. Weeks seem an eternity. Previous experience had also taught me that, in my case, medication doesn't always work. It was as if I had tried every medication known to man for my depression to no avail. As soon as a new one appeared on the market (most of which begin with the last five letters of the alphabet), I would try it. Still, nothing seemed to work. I was getting discouraged so again I retreated to alcohol. This "self-medicating" method is clearly the kiss of death, particularly for a depressive and it eventually landed me in the hospital. I knew I needed to do something for my disorder but I just didn't know what else there was to do. The combination of alcohol and drugs decided that route for me. The end result of that dangerous indiscretion could have been tragically different, but it was exactly what I needed. Had I known more about depression and what it can do to your mind, body and soul, my actions might not have been so desperate, but for me drastic measures were required.

All I could think about at that point was ending the pain. After chasing who knows how many valiums with a big fat bottle of wine, I spent the rest of the night in a haze. The next morning, I learned that during most of the night I was on the phone with my big sister in San Diego. I have no idea what I said but it was enough for her to act quickly. She was already on a plane heading North straight for me. Since a close friend of hers also suffers from a form of depression my sister was able to recognize the seriousness of my predicament. On the way to our house from the airport, she and my husband had an enlightening and decisive discussion. It was determined I needed intense therapy with constant medical supervision. I could no longer be trusted alone. For me that meant hospitalization. Normally I would have been livid that my life's decisions were being made for me, but I stuck my tail between my legs and willingly followed.

Now the mere thought of spending any time in a mental facility was absolutely horrifying to me. I didn't belong there. The people in Psyche wards are totally nuts. I was simply depressed. But in reality I had more in common with those patients than I did with "normal" people in the outside world. That first week was and still is a blur. My husband tells me that I spent most of the time sleeping. I do however remember feeling terrified and abandoned. Those feelings soon gave way to hope and optimism. This bad situation gave my doctor and I the opportunity to aggressively tackle my disease and we attacked with a vengeance. Some of the time I was sick from all the medication. Other times I was the walking dead. I recall that at one point my blood pressure was only 40 over 60. But that was the whole purpose for my hospitalization. Sure the drug therapy was harsh but I was always carefully monitored. Plus I was finally able to afford the time required for recovery with no outside influences to distract me. As difficult as it was, I left the daily stresses of life behind so I could concentrate on the crisis at hand.

Not only did the hospital offer medical supervision, but it also offered something much more valuable... direction. As with any illness education is a key element in the recovery process. The more you know about what ails you, the more ammunition you have for the battle. This also holds true for those closest to you. My days at the hospital were filled with one rigorous psychotherapy session after another. We had most of the evenings to ourselves, but I was eager to spend that time with the new friends I had made. I found that the other patients were actually interested in what I had to say. The same held true for me. It was comforting to know that I had so much in common with so many others. They also played a valuable role upon my release from the hospital. During the difficult early periods in recovery, we were able to draw the support we needed from each other. This was especially true during those first few days after release. It's ironic but when that time arrived I was actually reluctant to leave. In the hospital, I had nothing but support surrounding me 24 hours a day. That kind of help would be especially crucial when I finally went home. I was given the tools I needed to combat my episodes of depression but without the support and love of those dear to me, my grasp on those tools would quickly slip. It's easy to lose sight of your goals when you encounter (and you will) someone who thinks you should "just snap out of it" or "just handle it". If only it were that simple. Many people find it difficult to recognize that depression is a physical condition. A deficiency in the brain. Even those with the best intentions can impede recovery unintentionally merely by their lack of information. It's frustrating for everyone concerned. As I confronted recovery at home, I was worried that my family may not be up to the challenge. They proved me wrong. Once again I was astonished by the power of love.

That brutal route I chose for recovery was not only tough on me, but it was also difficult for those who loved me. I scared everyone I talked to. They were never sure who I would be from one day to the next. "Will she be okay to talk to today?" they would wonder. "Or do I have to walk on broken glass again?" Today I thank God that I had so many wonderful, loving people around me who took the time to learn about my disease. Everyone was exceedingly patient, even more so than myself. It took over a year before I felt even the slightest bit of relief. Consequently, I lost my patience often yet few abandoned me. The medication also made things interesting. Half the time I was not even coherent. My friends and family were gracious enough to learn my new language and be there for me to just listen (as best they could, of course). They had the courage to be tough on me when I needed it, the compassion to be sensitive when I needed it and the knowledge to know when I needed which.

Looking back, I am shocked at how bad my situation really became. I was lucky to have lived at all. I still struggle daily through the depression and probably always will, but now I'm better armed. After an ordeal of almost 15 years I've finally stumbled onto a new medication that appears to be working. The side effects are minimal and my episodes are improving. Time of course will tell. I did have some difficulty in returning to the workforce, but only for a few months. I slowly worked my way into a great new career. The strain on my family has been painfully apparent, but we are still together and stronger for the experience. I still regularly keep in touch with a few of my hospital friends. They help keep me grounded when I feel myself slipping and they come to me when they need friendship and encouragement. The key in this fight is not to wait until you've hit rock bottom before seeking help. Educating yourself about depression will only make it easier for you to recognize the illness in yourself or someone you love. Knowledge will better prepare you for what to expect. There is much to know about this cancer of the soul. I've found the hardest but most important part is learning all you can without giving up. The best part is you are never alone.

Warning Signs

There are several different types of depression. The following is a basic list of some of the symptoms. If you have a few or all of the symptoms below, please contact a doctor, help line or anyone you trust to help guide you in the right direction:

* Severe mood swings.
* Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
* Anxiety or feelings of panic.
* Inability to concentrate.
* Confusion and memory loss.
* Persistent feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
* Loss of interest and pleasure in activities you normally enjoy.
* Sluggishness.
* Disturbed eating or sleeping habits.
* Withdrawal from daily life.
* Suicidal thoughts.

Where To Find Help

If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, call 911, your local hospital, or the Suicide Prevention Hotline (found in the white pages of your phone book) immediately. It's not always easy to make that call, but there is someone at the other end of the line who cares and will help.

Alcoholics Anonymous (212) 870-3400 For immediate help: (212) 647-1680 P.O. Box 459 Grand Central Station New York, NY 10163

Al-Anon (800) 344-2666 P.O. Box 862 Midtown Station New York, NY 10018-0862

National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (312) 642-0049 730 North Franklin Street #501 Chicago, IL 60610

National Mental Health Association (703) 684-7722 1021 Prince Street Alexandria, VA 22314

American Psychological Association (202) 336-5800 750 First Street N.E. Washington, DC 20002

The above parties can refer you to their local chapters. Your local white pages are a great source of information. There are numerous hotlines listed in the first few pages. You can also look under Depression or Suicide. Another great source of information is your local library. Many fine writers have written exceptional books on the subject of depression. Of course there is always the Internet. There are numerous web sites available that can open many opportunities to network with others that also are in battle with the disease. I wish you well on your journey to enlightenment.

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