3.25.2013

Puddles of Depression

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guest post by: Liz S.

It's not depression. I don't have depression," I said to my Indian-born psychiatrist as I was curled up in fetal position on a couch. In a white-walled room. On the psych ward. At a hospital. Somewhere in Northern Virginia.


"I'm just stressed. I have anxiety. I haven't slept well for days, and I just have anxiety. If anything it is anxiety." I was a psychology minor in college, so of course I knew what I was talking about.

Then, in his blunt manner he finally spoke, "Anxiety is depression left untreated."

I'm pretty sure I started to sob. Where had things gone wrong? How could I have depression? My life was a dream. I had recently graduated with my teaching degree from one of the nation's top education universities. My husband was attending an Ivy League Law School in the nation's capital. Our opportunities seemed endless. My aspiration of teaching at-risk children was being realized, and despite my students’ lagging reading levels, we were just finishing up the classic African novel, Things Fall Apart.

This adult life of mine seemed so much better than I had ever imagined. I knew I'd made that small town, starry-eyed girl I once was proud. In convincing myself that my life had turned out better than I'd envisioned, I'd failed to face my struggles head on.

Let’s rewrite paragraph #4: I started to sob. I knew he was right. I had depression. My life had fallen apart, completely shattered. I was a fresh college graduate working at a job I hadn't even interviewed for; my principal just gave my resume to the HR department and told them I was one of her six new English teachers, making me ineligible to apply at any other school in the District. My husband's law school was so expensive I refused to look at the bill -- just take out the loan, pile on the debt. Our closest family members were hundreds of miles away, and most were thousands. And I was an inner city high school English teacher.

My students acting out a scene from
"Things Fall Apart," just weeks
before I'd literally fall apart.
My students could hardly read. Few of them showed up to class consistently. The school building looked like a prison from the outside and was even worse on the inside. There were no walls; my classroom had no walls. On top of that I'd foolishly agreed to be the girl's basketball coach. Can you imagine, 12 of the school’s roughest female athletes, waiting in the gym for their 25-year-old-never-played-college-basketball-white-girl-coach to come lead them to a city championship?

Oh, and my computer broke. Cause that's how life works, whenever it seems like you just can't handle one more problem, the technology you depend on dies.

That list of problems only covered life on the surface. I had so many personal battles waging on inside my soul.

Personal problem #1, I needed to make new friends. I'd never had to make new friends from scratch. Never. There were the girls from church, who were very nice and welcoming, but for some reason I didn't feel like I fit in when we went out for ice cream. There were the girls from work, whose personalities seemed to match mine better, but their life stages and styles didn't. Oh well, I told myself, I don't need friends. I've got my own family to think about.

Which leads us to personal problem #2. My husband, whom I love dearly and was a complete rock during this moment of my life, felt ready to start building our own family. I was a little more hesitant, what with the demanding job and all, but I didn't want to be the one to say no. Besides, my birth control prescription was running out at the end of the month and I hadn't found the time to get a new doctor. Word of advice: if your life is too crazy to schedule a quick Dr visit, your life is too crazy to have children. How I ignored that obvious mess is beyond me.

At Mount Vernon with my dad and little brother on 
Thanksgiving Day, about 10 days before I'd be admitted
to the psych ward.
Personal problem #3 aka the moment I knew something inside my soul was wrong. I was homesick. My parents and kid-brother came for a visit during the week of Thanksgiving. I took a day or two off work to show them my favorite sites: Mount Vernon and the monuments on the national mall. For the holiday weekend we all drove up to Pennsylvania to see my brother who was in medical school, and his wife, son and brand new-baby girl. We had a wonderful time. It was the first moment I'd had to relax and just be myself since August. I felt little stress and little pressure for five fabulous days.

On Monday I rode the metro to the end of its line and put my Utah family on their bus to the Baltimore airport. Even all these years later I think of that moment and fight back tears. I was standing tall on the Maryland pavement, but my heart and soul were melting into a yucky puddle beneath me. My brother gave me our traditional bear hug, and now that he was much bigger and stronger than me it nearly broke my ribs. My dad's hug followed and then my mom's. All I remember about those hugs is an overwhelming darkness. I'd said some big goodbyes to my parents before. When I left to serve an LDS mission I’d hardly looked back; I gave them hugs and I had tears in my eyes, but the feelings in my heart were of peace and happiness. On that metro line that cold November day all I felt was pain and emptiness. The feeling was palpable. My parents could literally feel the depression dripping out of me. Until that moment there were no clues, I had mastered looking and acting strong. But that puddle beneath me was going to win.

I was about to drown.

Fast-forward one week, and my Dad was flying back to DC. This time he’d come visit me on the psych ward of that Virginia hospital.

"You're psychiatrist won't tell you this, so I'm going to have to," he said as we sat in the privacy of my room. "They are looking to see if you can take care of yourself. You need to shower every morning. You need to put on clean clothes. You need to eat. They will not let you leave here until you prove you can take care of yourself."

Those simple instructions sounded novel, and I had no desire to do any of them. But if anyone knew how to achieve a healthy release from the psych ward it was my dad. Tucked away somewhere in my hope chest is the dream catcher he made for me during his own stay at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center Psych Ward. I was 16-years-old when I made daily visits, 200 miles round trip, to visit my dad who was recovering from a bi-polar breakdown.

They’ll tell you group therapy is optional. It isn’t optional Alizabeth. You need to make friends and socialize around the ward or they won’t think you are ready for the real world. You need to go to craft time, game nights, and group therapy.”

Aside from the "you need to shower” advice, the best advice my father gave me contradicted everything the counselors were telling me to do.

Your job is too difficult, they'd say. Even I couldn’t do it. Teaching doesn't have to be that hard. You shouldn't go back. You could get a teaching job in Virginia. The students on this side of the river are much easier to deal with.

In the privacy of my own room my father sat me down and looked me straight in the eyes, "I know it is your choice, so you do what you want. But I know you. And I know you will regret giving up on those kids for the rest of your life. It will be hard; you already know that. But go back to that school and prove to yourself that your depression doesn’t have to control your life’s direction. Finish the school year and then move on. That's the best recovery I think you could give yourself."

To fight off the depression and the serious weight gain of 
anti-depressants I decided to ask my SIL and teenage 
best friend to train for and compete in a sprint-triathlon 
with me. I nearly took dead last, but 10 months after my 
break I completed something pretty challenging! Hard 
things can be done.
I waited another year and a half before I (involuntarily) moved on. Teaching kids who get shot at on the weekend is no easy task. As with all difficult things, the rewards are as grand as the sacrifices. I saw drug users transform into track stars. I had a straight-A student murdered for a pair of shoes. That job never got easier, and I suppose one who suffers from clinical depression is never fully healed. But I did what my dad told me to do, I proved to myself that my depression didn’t have control over me. It broke me down into a fragile human being, but I had power over it.

This doesn’t mean I can ignore my new label. During the year of counseling and psychiatric treatments that followed I had to identify the signs of my depression. If I ever loose my appetite and fill my time with an impossible list of constructive activities I need an intervention. My mom chuckled when I told her these were my signs of weakness. “I’d be skinny!” she giggled into the phone. I’m sure most people eat more and do less.

Me about 3 months into 
treatments, playing with my nephew
and niece in Pennsylvania.
We all handle our mental health differently. Some never suffer the ills of depression. They have normal highs and lows, but no rock bottom. Some don’t want to discuss their sufferings; they battle them in private. Others stigmatize mental health and will judge me a weak human being.

I’m okay with that. Judge away.

I know one of the most beautiful things about me is my depression.


Liz Szilagyi is a stay at home mom living in North East Wisconsin. Her current passions include politics, homemaking, and exploring the outdoor activities of the Midwest.
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27 comments:

  1. Thank you for bravely sharing this! It's definitely difficult to admit you have depression in a world where people are still learning how to handle it socially. Most of us (even those of us who experience it) still don't know how to talk to our friends about depression.

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    1. Thanks Rachel! It took a long time before I could talk about. I knew my mom and dad had mental health disorders, but even as I was going through this I begged Ben not to call them and tell them. There is no way I could have gotten through it without them, and I have no idea how I thought I'd hide it from them (especially since they felt it with that hug), but I think our society has just conditioned us to hide those feelings. We all have to get over that in our own way and on our own timetable. Thanks for being such an awesome Internet friend. Makes me wish I had spent more time with you (and Mallory) when we were kids.

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  2. Liz...you are awesome! I never would have guessed that you struggle with depression with the little bit of knowledge that I have of you from our younger years. You always had a smile...you were always laughing...and you were always nice/sweet to those around you. I praise you, your amazing accomplishments, and your "open-ness". In my eyes, you are one of the strongest people I know and you deserve every happiness that this world can offer you :)

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    1. Thanks Selena. I love your words of support. I remember going to counseling and being asked to identify other times in my life when I suffered depression, and I realized age 16-17 was pretty hard for me, which was weird because those were also my favorite teen years. We really never know who is battling what, and sometimes we don't even know it ourselves.

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  3. I am very grateful that I had the amazing opportunity to serve with you in the great Singapore Mission. You are a blessing to many people. I am glad to call you my friend, colleague and sister. Keep going strong Liz!

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    1. Oh Ee, it's nice to have someone as genius/funny/ambitious as you say nice things about little ole' me. Sure can make someone feel special!

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  4. And here is my fiftieth thank you to you! I think this is a beautiful thing to add to your great legacy. I know that this will touch and help people like it has touched me.

    Love,
    Rachel

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    1. Thanks for putting it all together. I had the courage to write it, but having someone else see it through to the end made it a much easier task to complete. I sure love this blog!

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  5. Thank you for sharing. I'm battling my own postpartum depression right now. It gets easier for me the more I share and talk about it. I hit a milestone last week and was able to spend a night at home alone with my baby. It was a major win for me to be able to hold her without crying and spend that time one on one. Every day is a challenge, but each day is also a win.

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    1. Keeping winning! I haven't had postpartum (yet), but my heart goes out to you. I hope you get the time and support you need to win your battle.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to so many of the things you have gone through, especially the needing, not finding, friends and being homesick. While it is not great to have experienced these things, it is comforting to know we're not alone when we do feel that way.

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    1. Yes, it is definitely nice to know we are not alone. Homesickness is hard, and I would have never guessed it just gets harder the older I get. Weird.

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  7. As someone who has struggled with Bi-polar Disorder Type I for over 15 years (but only diagnosed 12 years ago, post-mission), THANK YOU for sharing. It's not easy to discuss, but I really admire you for sharing your story and encouraging everyone to seek the help they need from people who are trained and experienced to gather up the pieces. You are right, these labels do not have to control us.

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    1. Because I love my Dad so much (total daddy's girl here) I have a special place in my heart for the label "bi-polar." In my mind it means "perfect." Silly, I know, but he wouldn't be who he is without his "bi-polar." We all have to own it, and make due.

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  8. Thanks for sharing your story Liz! You're awesome!

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    1. Ah, you're welcome Biz. Hope your flight home went smoothly!

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  9. It is so neat to see that you can overcome something so difficult and consuming. Thanks for giving us that look into your life. It is inspiring!

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    1. Thanks for being the one that brought this whole thing about! I've been thinking about wax denim ever since your guest post. It even inspired me to go buy myself a new top. I wore it today and told my husband it was nice to not feel like such a slob! I didn't dare go on an all out search for new wax jeans, but maybe soon enough I will. First, me and my muffin top have some reconciling to do.

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  10. Sharing things like this tears down unhealthy stereotypes and promotes others to step forward and share and get help. You are brave and I admire your strength.

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    1. I sure hope it does break down those walls. I also think it helps those who never have severe mental health disorders realize just how normal they can actually be. Thanks for listening.

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  11. My hope is that every day the stigma around mental illness is chipped away a little more. Who among us hasn't had a loved one with a mental illness? Or battled it ourselves? My most favorite people in the world struggle with depression (including my spouse) and they fight so valiantly. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  12. What a great post! Many others have already commented about how wonderful it is to have people open up and be willing to talk about their battles with mental illness, and I couldn't agree more. I loved reading your experience, and hopefully it will help those who haven't had personal experiences with mental illness understand it a little more. Thank you!

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  13. I still remember when I 'came out' on my blog about my depression and your personal email to me about your experience. I kept that email, in fact and still have it to this day because your opening up to me about the beast we have in common and sharing your story, made me stronger. And reading more details about it today just did it again. Thanks for sharing it all and putting it out there. It's such a release, isn't it? And you deserve that. So thanks for sharing today, but thanks for sharing with me a couple of years ago too. You helped me more than you know and I will forever consider you a true friend for it. :) Love ya, Liz!

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  14. I love this so much. Your doctors words about anxiety and it's relationship to depression really struck a cord with me. Posts like this are so important and helpful to understanding and accepting others, as well as ourselves. Thanks so much, Liz. I really admire your honesty and inner strength.

    Hope we get to hear more from you in the future ;)

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  15. Liz, thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad you have acceptance of this and the courage to share. It is so sad when people feel the need for help is a sign of weakness, or that common human experiences like depression and anxiety means there is something wrong with them. Stigma is a soul killer. Any way you look at it we can all use help at some point in our lives. And I'm always a little sad for those who go through their lives without seeing a therapist at some point for something. It's such a treat. :) Thanks for your courage.

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  16. Thank you for sharing, my 12-year old son is currently battling depression, it's a bit of a hereditary thing with us. Great to hear your story.

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  17. Thank you for sharing this! I've recently started anti depressants for the first time due to post pardum depression. I want to blog about it, but I'm scared to! I think you have helped me be more courageous!

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