The Biggest Thing

Today  I’m linking up with Heather at The Extraordinary Ordinary. She hosts Just Write, the goal being to write about what is happening around you, freely and without editing or censure, what you see, hear, feel, think. I’m nervous because I’m not a writer, and yet I’m linking to a writing blog. Go figure. And also, I didn’t exactly follow the rules – I didn’t write about things going on around me. I wrote about things going on inside of me. I guess these words just needed to come out.

2012 was a horrendous year for me. I broke down. Like an old car, or an old horse that has walked beyond its last step and can now only stand with head hanging low over the fence rail. Unable to move forward or back. I found myself hitched to a wagon, some rusty old thing with sticky brakes and loaded up with chunks of old concrete and rebar. That’s what it felt like. Depression. My body forgot how to dance.  My body and my brain forgot what it was to experience joy. I  remember watching the partly frozen river flowing by and wondering what it would be like to go under the ice. Cold at first. But then warm again.

That was exactly one year ago.

I couldn’t work and was granted a 6-week leave of absence. I saw a doctor. I saw a therapist. I got a diagnosis. I started taking citalopram. I started sharing my story on my blog. I asked my friends for help. I started to get better.

One year later, today, I consider myself recovered. Healed, but with scars that still ache once in a while. Like old bones that have been fractured but still occasionally twinge and complain even after they have closed. I am careful with myself. I am frightened of returning to that state. I am chary of becoming overwhelmed, and have been ginger about putting things on my plate. I’ve taken it slow. I started off by committing to sewing one quilt block a month on an on-line quilting bee. Then last term I enrolled in a course simply because I was interested in the subject, but I worried about my ability to juggle it all. A full-time job, a college course and a quilting commitment? Was I well enough? Would I break down again?  I was. And I didn’t! I successfully did it all – and enjoyed myself, too!  and so this term I have enrolled in another interesting course and have taken on a 2nd quilting commitment (two on-line quilting bees). Though I am nervous, I know it will be okay.

Recently, my body has remembered how to dance.

I haven’t done any formal practice, but not because I can’t…because I don’t feel like it. (Oh how I love being able to say that! I don’t do something “because I don’t feel like it”. How freeing! How empowering!)  Instead, I wiggle around the kitchen to whatever strikes me to move at the moment. I realize that I am still a dancer. Yes I am. Just because I’m not practicing at the moment doesn’t make me any less of a dancer. Any less a dance artist. And miracle of miracles…I am starting to miss teaching dance, too. Just because I’m not teaching at the moment doesn’t make me any less of a dance teacher!

Do I have a goal for next year? Are you kidding? The biggest thing I learned during my year of illness and recuperation is that my worth isn’t measured by how much I produce or how much I accomplish. I have intrinsic value. I matter.

What began as a curse has turned into a blessing.


Menopausal Depression part 2

Please read my blog of February 8th for part one of the story. Thank you to those who have given me their love and support, your words mean a great deal to me. I am neither strong nor brave…in fact, I am writing the next part in the 2nd person because it is still very difficult to talk about and somehow saying “you” instead of “I” makes it more bearable to share to the world as I am doing, however silly that may be. I still feel the stigma and the guilt and shame. But because I truely believe that talking about it is the only way we can remove that stigma and help each other, here is part two of my story. Part three will come another day.

Imagine yourself wandering blissfully through a field. Grasses are waving, the air is warm and scented, and butterflies flit around. You know where you are going; you’re open to challenges and capable of meeting them. You love your life. You love your job and your home and your family. There are a myriad of little things that you do every day that you don’t even think about. You get out of bed in the morning. You brush your teeth. You take your vitamins. You look forward to the day. You sing and you dance. You describe yourself as a happy person, a content person.

That’s your life before depression. When depression hits, you don’t notice at first. You go along, but you just aren’t your “old self”. People might notice that you are less patient than you used to be. Maybe you start to make errors at work, drop balls you used to juggle effortlessly. You probably don’t notice this is happening, though others will. What you do notice is that it is harder to concentrate, harder to juggle more than one thing at a time. Things you used to love doing have become chores. Things that used to be hard become impossible. You know you’re going through menopause, so you attribute your mental state to that. After a while, the green grass in your meadow starts to dry out and get prickly. The nice smell goes away and the pretty butterflies turn into annoying gnats. Instead of dancing along cheerfully, you begin trudging up a hill and the sun gradually goes behind some pretty nasty-looking black clouds.

You used to get out of bed and spend time with your home yoga practice or walk on the treadmill every morning. Maybe you always complained about getting up early (who doesn’t?), but you did it, and once you were out of bed, you enjoyed it. Now, you only get up when you absolutely have to. Now you get up at the last minute and rush through getting ready. You don’t even think about yoga or exercise. It’s all you can do just to get out the door. You used to bounce your shoulders and nod you head to the music on the radio as you drove to work. Now, you start crying before you’re half-way there. The world is flat and uninteresting. You feel hollow. You start to eat comfort food to fill the empty space, but of course what you gain is weight, not happiness.

You know something is seriously wrong, but you don’t know what and you are unable to do anything about it. And then you tell yourself that maybe it isn’t so bad, really – you’re still doing your job, you’re still teaching your classes, you’re still cooking dinner at night. So what if the joy is gone, that’s just life. You tell yourself you’re just tired. You’ll get over it. And you know that’s crazy. You start listening to the dark voices in your head. You are exhausted at the end of the day because you’ve been wearing a mask to fool everyone around you into thinking you are fine, and that mask takes every ounce to maintain. And you think you’ve done a pretty good job of it, too, because nobody says anything to you or appears to notice anything amiss. Which means you must be fine and these feelings (or lack of them) are normal.

You start to wish things weren’t always so hard. Wouldn’t it be nice to get into a nice little car crash – just bad enough to put you in the hospital for a few weeks? People would take care of you, make you tea, bring you books and presents, show they cared. You wouldn’t have to do anything but sleep. Then you cry because you know that is a seriously bad thing to think about. How selfish you are, wanting to be taken care of! People like that are weak. You are weak. You are useless. This is it. This is your life.

One day you are walking along the river with your husband and your dog. The ice is in. You don’t remember the last time you laughed. You don’t remember it being this hard to walk. You feel like you weigh 500 pounds, just lifting your feet and putting them down one after the other. You watch the ice in the river and wonder what it would be like to go under it. You think about it all week. You don’t want to do it, not really – but you wonder what it would be like. One night it is -40 and your husband is out of town. You wonder what it would be like to go outside in your nightgown and just go to sleep. You don’t have any intention of really doing it, but never-the-less, just having these thoughts invade your mind scares you. Scares you into action.

You’ve been seeing the “Depression Hurts” ads on TV. You begin paying attention to them.  When your husband gets home you tell him that you think you might have depression and then, with his encouragement, you make an appointment with your doctor.

You are so ashamed to even say the word “depression” about yourself. You research it on the web. You print off a depression checklist and take the test. You don’t like the result, so you take it again, moving your answers all one place to the left on the checklist. You still don’t like the result. You do it again. Eventually you’ve moved all your answers to a place that don’t reflect how you really feel anymore. You throw them away and take the original checked off list to the doctor. He spends a good amount of time talking with you and asking questions. He reads your check list. Then he says you have severe menopausal depression and tells you about how brain chemicals and hormones work. He tells you that some women need a little help getting through menopause, and he writes you a prescription.

You are not happy with the diagnosis. No way are you going to admit to anybody that you have a mental illness. No way are you going to take an antidepressant, for god’s sake! So you make an appointment with a therapist. You want a second opinion. The therapist spends an hour with you. She reads your checklist. She talks and asks questions. Then she says you have acute depression.

So okay. The doctor was a good doctor. He looked at you when he talked to you. The therapist was a good therapist. She listened and confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis. So you go to the pharmacy and you get the prescription filled.  You can’t look the pharmasist in the eye. You feel as fragile as glass. You really hate taking medication, but you know you need help. And to prove you aren’t weak and because you are a stubborn person,  you’re going to take that help in the form of a little white pill every day for probably 6 months.

You are relieved. Something really was wrong with you, and you can do something about it.

If you think you or a loved one is ill with depression, menopausal or otherwise, please see your doctor. There is help. The grass does turn green again.

Menopausal Depression part 1

Today is Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk about Depression day. Today, for every text message sent and every long distance call made by Bell and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate 5 cents to mental health programs.

In a CTV news article, Olympian Clara Hughes says that the biggest adversary she has ever fought is depression. As spokesperson for the Bell Canada campaign, she is sharing her own story in order to help remove the stigma around the illness and to encourage people to talk about it.  “Mental illness is much more common among Canadians than many people think. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and the remaining four will be affected through a friend, family member or colleague.”*

So I’m going to take a deep breath and talk about Menopausal Depression.

I find it a hard thing to talk about. It’s very personal. It isn’t something I really want to share with people. So why am I blogging about it when it really isn’t anyone else’s business? I don’t know. I guess that if Clara Hughes can talk about it, so can I. And maybe someone reading this will recognize themselves and go talk to their doctor. Maybe someone reading this will learn something and become more tolerant of a depressed person in their life. Maybe by telling the world, I will learn to be more accepting of myself and my illness.

Society has a long history of being suspicious and afraid of mental illness. So while you don’t want to tell people because you don’t want to be labeled as being mentally ill and stigmatized by those words, you also carry those very same misconceptions and stigmas, and use them against yourself. This self-imposed shame on top of the public stigma can be very crazy-making. I cannot say about myself that I have a mental illness. I can say, however, that I have menopausal depression, or that I have a chemical or serotonin imbalance. Same thing, different words. Crazy, eh?

The word depression has been thrown around so much that it can be hard to attach any seriousness or legitimacy to it. Being depressed is not being down in the dumps. It doesn’t mean being slightly frustrated or shocked by an unpleasantness. You can’t become depressed by the state of your closet or by a rainy day. And you can’t tell a depressed person to snap out of it any more than you can tell a diabetic to will their blood sugars down. Being depressed is an illness that is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Menopause is another thing that people don’t talk about very much. Every woman is different, but I started noticing signs of peri-menopause (the period of time before menstruation ceases) at about age 44 when I noticed that my monthly periods were becoming less reliable. At age 49 I officially entered menopause (you are “in menopause” for the full year in which you have not had a menstrual period). I am now considered a post-menopausal woman, and I turned 50 last July.

Menopausal Depression is caused by low serotonin levels, which are the result of a drop in estrogen. “Serotonin regulates sleep, energy, mood and libido, and is central to our well-being. Women (like men) vary in the amounts of serotonin they have available in the brain. Researchers have suggested that women who have low serotonin to start out with (largely a genetic matter) may become more symptomatic than other women at menopause.” **

When your brain is messed up this way, you don’t see things clearly. You exist in a fog. You’re tired all the time and you feel bland and empty. Happiness disappears from your life. You can’t dance because dance is joy, and joy is gone. It takes all your energy just to hold your end of a conversation or to show animation in your features.  It takes all your energy to go to work, and your work eventually suffers. While having a cup of tea with your friend may be the best thing for you, it is also completely exhausting and so you avoid your friends.

There are medications that can help, including a fairly new class of drugs called SSRIs (Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.) SSRI drugs work by slowing the reuptake process in brain neurons, which results in a rise of the amount of serotonin in the brain. With more serotonin present, the brain can more efficiently transmit messages regarding sleep, mood, emotions and feelings. ***

If you have a friend who suffers from depression, one thing you can do for them is to educate yourself on the illness, and then take it upon yourself to check in with them now and again. Not to talk about their depression, but just to say hello… because depressed people almost always isolate themselves.

Living with menopausal depression is a struggle. It’s like climbing a scree slope. I might decide to write more about how depression has affected me another time. For today, I just wanted to add my voice to the conversation and let people know that menopausal depression is real and it isn’t something to be ashamed of.

This excerpt from Tess Zevenberge of The Province says it better than I can:

Accepting the fact you are depressed is not easy. You may fear what people’s perceptions of you will be. I was terrified  everyone would see me as weak. I definitely felt weak and powerless and surrendering to this feeling was hard to do. Depression was the antithesis of everything I thought I was — resilient, independent and in control.  Instead my depression has taught me humility and moreover, that I am human but not superhuman.

Working through the grey malaise of depression has made me stronger even when I am at my most vulnerable. I can see the bright spot in my depression in the form of my courage and strength to be open about it and in my ability to accept it and reach out for help. There is nothing to fear and nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to shed societal expectations of who I think I should be and start living my life as who I am, as one friend put it. It’s a process. There is no overnight cure.

So it’s with conviction and personal experience that I tell you the worst thing you can do when you are depressed is socially isolate yourself and worry how others will perceive you. This will not help you get better.

We need to give depression and mental illness a voice and that’s what I aim to do. I want to be part of the conversation that does make it better and provides hope.

References in this blog found at: