I sit here in front of my computer, unsure of what to write. I just know that I feel ready to write it.
I want to share the details of my journey through grief and the terrible, life-altering depression that’s come in the wake of it and yet… I’m finding this the hardest thing I’ve ever considered writing about. I’ve thought long and hard about sharing how much I’ve struggled with depression since Henry died. I’ve written quite a bit about grief but almost nothing about the depression triggered by the grief.
As a writer, I want to tell my story because that’s what I do, I write about things to exorcise them. And as a bereaved parent, I share things in hopes that some other hurting person out there -whatever the specifics of their hurt might be – could maybe stumble on my honest recounting of my own hurt and find that my words help them in some way, maybe just by realizing that they’re not alone.
Before I lost Henry, I was an optimistic, outgoing and happy person. Certainly, I became sad and anxious at times but these times were actually related to something happening in my life, and the unpleasant feelings faded easily. I was anything but a depressed person, and even though I grew up with a profoundly depressed father, I truly had no clue what real depression felt like or what it can do to you.
But then came the grief – the kind of grief that pretty much everyone agrees is the worst grief a human being can experience – the loss of a child. But now, today, at this point in my journey since losing Henry, while the grief remains eternally present, it’s now like background noise, something I can usually work around if the need arises. But grief, for me at least, was just the beginning. Losing Henry and all the public and private pain that came with it triggered a profound depression that has tried its hardest to utterly reshape me into someone totally different than who I was before. Instead of the happy, outgoing, optimistic human being I was before the depression settled in, I now too often feel like a small, frightened person who lives day to day, never knowing until I get up and move around a little bit each morning whether today will be one of my good days or one of the truly awful ones.
Depression has isolated me from friends because if I schedule lunch or another fun activity with someone, I am terrified that the actual event will fall on one of my bad days, and then I have to come up with some excuse to cancel – yet again.
Some friends have fallen away due to what probably appears to have been utter rudeness on my part while others have never quit asking me to lunch, to go walking, to come to their parties, even though they know that I may not be able to show up that particular time. I love these friends fiercely. They have no idea what they mean to me.
I still struggle with grief and I always will, but as awful as grief is, in my case the grief morphed into some other beast. Grief somehow unchained the monster Cetus – the depression that in recent years has become as much a part of my life as my right arm and left leg. Depression meant that I had to walk away from the best job I ever had and that I absolutely loved. Depression has very often deprived me of the ability to write without fear that even occasional negative feedback that never would have bothered me in the past would now cause me to fall just a little deeper into the hole. Depression has meant that I’ve lost more than a few friends and have also lost the opportunity to make new ones. My depression has frightened and mystified my older children and caused my younger children to live their lives knowing that there are times when, “mama’s not feeling well today.” Thank God for Jon and my sister Betsy and Jon’s family for always picking up the slack – for understanding me and realizing that nothing that anyone could possibly say about my depression causing my children pain could possibly hurt any worse than the pain I feel for causing it. But starting with Jon, this little tribe of mine who has been fully aware of how I’ve struggled helps me mother my children at those times when I’m literally not able to do it myself.For that, I will never stop feeling the deepest gratitude possible.With the help and love of family, I think that even as they’ve lived with a depressed parent for the last several years, the kids are alright.
And as for me, well I’ve tried to do everything that all the experts keep telling me I’m supposed to do. I see a psychiatrist monthly and a therapist weekly. Together, my psychiatrist and I have tried literally dozens of medications to try to ameliorate my existential pain. We’ve tried inpatient treatment and outpatient treatment, experimental medications and procedures, as well as tried and true treatments that seem to work for almost everyone – everyone, it sometimes feels like, but me.
This is so hard to write. So hard to admit. Since the depression arrived I’ve tried so hard to hide how serious it’s been from almost everyone. I’m afraid that if I share my experience openly, I’ll never get another job (when I’m ready to get a job). I’m afraid I’ll embarrass my mother. I’m afraid I’ll get strange looks in the car line at school. I’m just…afraid.
I never leave the house on a really bad depression day because I’m afraid I might run into someone I know and they’ll be able to sense that Katie’s become a crazy person. So I am alone a lot during the daytime. My two youngest kids are at school all day, E lives in his fraternity house at college, and J graduated in 2017 and now has a great job and great friends in a bright, shiny new city. I’m so proud of of all 4 of my amazing children who have faced down the darkness of losing their big brother but who then – all 4 of them – consciously chose to turn back toward the light – just as Henry would want them to do.
But me? The light wasn’t there for me when I started to move out of my chronic, unrelenting grief into the next stage of my life. I turned away from the dark to find, well, a new kind of dark, something I never understood even remotely before experiencing it myself.
I do have good days. On those days I love to leave the farm and go into town to eat lunch or go for a walk with old officemates or enjoy browsing at a bookstore without automatically and secretively hiding out in the chair in the furthest corner of the store, huddled over books about battling depression. On these good days, I work in the garden, walk the dog, straighten up the house and fix a good dinner for my family. I treasure those days so much but I have to admit that when I have 3 or 4 or on rare occasions, even 7 of these good days in a row I start to feel frightened because I know I’m due for the black dog’s return. I know the depression will come crashing back into me and I will be plunged into meaningless despair again, sometimes for only 1 or 2 days but sometimes for up to 5 days before the pointless hurt starts to lift again. My doctor says that our goal at this point is to lengthen the good spells and shorten the bad ones until the depression is gone for good. I like this plan. I just don’t see it happening yet.
One of the primary reasons that I have started blogging again is to tell the truth about what grief has been like for me, as well as to be honest that for some people, like me, what subsequent depression is really like. I know that I am not alone. I see the people with the downcast expressions or halfheartedly watching HGTV on the TV in my doctor’s waiting room. I know that they are sad too. In some cases, they’re more than sad. Some of them have terrible psychiatric conditions like psychosis or schizophrenia. I’m lucky, I tell myself, I just have depression, and if all the ads on TV are to be believed, a whole lot of us are suffering from this particular disorder. The difference for me, so far anyway, is that none of those medicines they advertise for depression on TV have done a damn thing to stop mine.
So I guess I am going to hit publish now. By sharing my own story and not keeping it a secret any longer I hope that I can do my small part of lifting the stigma around depression, which is an illness, not a choice. I don’t know how much longer it will take for me to beat my depression but I do know this: my will to beat it has not diminished. I want to – have to – get well for my children, for Jon, for Henry and yes, for me too.
If you’ve ever suffered from depression, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. One of the primary reasons I’ve decided to be so brutally honest is to find community with others who’ve BTDT. It’s good to know you’re not alone even when you feel the most alone you’ve ever been.
NOTE: I realize that several people have had comments on this post disappear as we’ve migrated commenting away from the Facebook commenting system and over to the much better WordPress commenting system. I’m so sorry if your comment was one that went AWOL (along with my replies to your comments) but I hope you will consider commenting again. It should all be working now. Much gratitude.