I was 25. I was a little more than halfway through my graduate education. I was getting papers published, and I was enjoying being a teaching assistant at the large land-grant university. There was so much promise ahead of me, and I was just desperate for all of it. I was so desperate that I couldn’t get my head around everything I wanted to.
A visit to a campus doctor concerning unrelenting fatigue (my perpetual tell-tale sign, it turns out) turned to conversations about my mood, my eating habits, my attitudes towards others, and a whole gamut of topics that really didn’t make me feel like we were talking about anything medical. That was the first time a doctor used the word “depression” around me.
The doctor’s voice was very gentle: Y’know, you’re dealing with things that are normal for students who put themselves under great deals of stress. There’s a group here at the student health center who gets together to talk these things out. Here’s when they meet. It’s free, you should join them.
I don’t remember much else about that day. I think I was polite and thanked the doctor. I think I also left the building, started walking very fast, and then was RUNNING across the campus back to my building to sit in my workspace and close the door and hide.
I was well on my way to a Ph.D., and I had ambitions of being in one of the serious computational labs working on the big problems. I had the taste of the 600-student lecture hall, and frankly, I wasn’t intimidated by it; I could be an elite professor. Of course I was running from the suggestion that I was depressed. “Depressed” was a word that I couldn’t allowed to be connected with me.
“Depressed” was a word that I couldn’t allowed to be connected with me.
Except that, over the next five years, it became increasingly obvious that depressed was something that I was. The ebbs of motivation became more and more pronounced. I did land a postdoc in one of those serious computational labs, and I became increasingly miserable and increasingly nonproductive, so much so that the postdoc failed.
I got a faculty job immediately, and I discovered anew that I really enjoyed the time spent in front of students, and I threw myself into every opportunity to be in front of students, so much so that I frustrated myself. I was frustrated with the real limitations on my life and my inability to know everything about every student to help them learn better. I was frustrated with my colleagues because they refused to challenge those limitations at all — almost as if they had better things to do with their time, like sleep.
(That’s not a joke. That’s how I thought.)
The frustration boiled over into other aspects of my life, as I saw a very clear picture of how much could be done and how many roadblocks were in my way to doing it all. I became consumed with how much I was investing in work, and I became consumed with how much I was investing in all the other things that could make me look better at work, to the point where even the tiniest distraction from that investment threw me totally. And made me angry. And made me lash out.
And, ultimately, made me collapse into ugliness.
Everything associated with that faculty job was a new opportunity to run away from what was real. I had to address the fact that responsible adulthood didn’t just mean taking on a job title and all the work that came with that title. It meant recognizing that there were real limits to the work that I could do and recognizing how much damage trying to exceed those limits could do.
It meant, fully five years after hearing the word for the first time, dealing with the diagnosis “depression.”
Now, this is the part of the normal narrative where the person gets the help they need and everything is magically better ever after. And I did get the help I needed at that time. There was therapy. There was a medicine. The first medicine was awful and made me feel awful. I told the doctors. We adjusted quickly. The second medicine was far, far better.
I attacked the depression with the same vigor I attacked the new faculty job. I invested in taking the benefit from the medicine. I invested in changing my habits. I was even able to manage everything I was feeling well enough to go off the medication and still attack the realities of the disease. I was even kind of self-righteous about it. I’m better now. You look like you’re dealing with the same stuff as me. Have you thought about…
I attacked the depression with the same vigor I attacked the new faculty job.
I managed to stay off of antidepressants for fifteen years. I had symptoms of depression. I attacked them, sometimes in healthy ways (backing off overcommitment, recognizing external stressors and forgiving my reactions to them, sleep), sometimes in not-so-healthy ways (filling my life with doing things, working too hard to solve unsolvable problems, and resisting sleep).
The small issue with running from this thing, though, is that even as you run, it catches up with you.
I left the first faculty job I had as the school was on its third president in three years; I felt every measure of the instability that came with the place. I left the job to move to a four-year school in the exact teaching line I wanted to be in, with the exact breadth of responsibilities I craved. I also left that faculty job full of bitterness, not completely understanding all the people around me who wanted to help, not acknowledging the positive place they wanted to help me create.
I wasn’t really better. Attacking the depression with every ounce of energy that I had didn’t leave me much energy to pursue the benefits that better health would bring me. My goal was overcoming the mental illness, just like any other obstacle in my life.
It was a fool’s errand. It was “running” under a different name.
I left the second faculty job I had right ahead of a Christian fundamentalist takeover of the institution, complete with lifestyle agreements as conditions of employment, to move to a school more in theological line with what I wanted to accomplish in higher education. I also left that faculty job without fully coming to grips with my lack of control over others’ decisions. I still hadn’t sought support from those who could provide it. I was still full of frustration.
I left the third faculty job I had without much choice in the matter; the school ran out of money. That might have forced me to accept help and deal with my lack of control.
A two year respite in a temporary faculty line with very narrow obligations that very quickly turned into a second postdoc (and the postdoc on science teaching pedagogy that I’d always wanted but never thought I could have, no less) was a blessing in disguise. When I received the offer of a permanent position after that respite, I well and truly felt like I’d earned it.
But when I arrived, so many of the habits I had worked hard to manage returned with a vengeance — the overwork, the perpetual busyness, resisting support, and hiding away. It didn’t help that I was a couple of decades older than I was when I started. Rather than having the look of a bright new faculty member, I seemed tired and old. Building trust was difficult — trust in students, trust from students, trust from colleagues, and trust in colleagues — which drove me into trying to solve more on my own. The spirals were familiar. The crash was familiar. The need for medication to break patterns was familiar. The feeling of failure was entirely too familiar.
At a certain point, you need to step back from the narrative and look at the reality.
I was depressed nearly twenty-five years ago, outside of that student health clinic at Ohio State. I was depressed nearly twenty years ago, starting as faculty at Middle Georgia College. I needed treatment, both medicine and talk therapy, and I resisted that treatment for far too long.
Even after getting treatment, and weaning myself from that treatment, I have had moments of depression, tangibly, at all of the different stops that have made up my career.
After restarting treatment for depression at my current job, and initially responding positively to that treatment, I started to discover that many of those symptoms of depression were sticking around, even as I thought they should have been gone. My moods were managed well, and I never got too high or too low. But fatigue was ever-present, and repetitive habits without productivity — refreshing email or Twitter streams repeatedly, for example — became a pattern I recognized and couldn’t break.
I started to come to the conclusion that the thing that was supposed to be going away wasn’t, and something larger was happening. And that meant going back to the doctor’s office.
Having the right practitioner helps. The first doctor I saw in Greeneville was always so hasty in dealing with me — I found myself taking an argumentative posture with him just to make sure he heard me and was addressing my needs. I realized there was a problem when I was more exhausted leaving a doctor’s visit than I was going in.
A change to a physician’s assistant helped me a great deal. Discussions with him were never stressful. They were always a real give-and-take, and I always left feeling heard. When I came to the realization that my depression wasn’t going away despite taking antidepressants, he was in position to listen, take notes, and make a suggestion. He wondered if I had ever heard of dysthymia.
I had, through a family member who had dealt with the same kind of symptoms and the same kind of stubbornness. But I’d never investigated the symptoms seriously, and I’d never looked up information on this thing we now call persistent depressive disorder. The “persistent” reference made a whole lot of sense, though, because however this thing expressed itself, it was incredibly persistent. It had been persistent for a very long time.
It was a very specific passage from NAMI’s description of dysthymia that served as a hammer to the head:
Dysthymia often has an early and subtle onset during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. However, it can be challenging to detect because its less severe and lingering nature can make the condition feel “normal” for that person.
Also making it a challenge to diagnose is the fact that about 75% of people with dysthymia will also experience a major depressive episode. This is referred to as “double depression.” After the major episode ends, most people will return to their usual dysthymia symptoms and feelings, rather than feel symptom-free.
I cannot begin to describe what a thunderbolt the phrase “double depression” was for me. I had a sudden recognition that the antidepressant was working. Mood crashes that I’d experienced as part of my depression in the past weren’t happening with regularity. They weren’t causing me to spiral as they once did. And yet I was still feeling symptoms of depression. This knowledge gave me all kinds of new appreciation of what was happening to my head. It helped me recognize that many of the sensations that I’d associated with the defeat of depression weren’t going to just go away. A more aggressive attack that would be necessary to deal with it.
That’s hardly good news but I felt relief. Now, it was of utmost importance to treat the persistent disease.
I got prescribed a mild antipsychotic. That’s hardly good news either. But the denial of the limits to my energy and capacity to do work had elements of psychosis — not difficulty recognizing the difference between the real world and a classic fantasy world — but the inability to see the difference between an overburdened workload and a workload I could set up for myself to handle fairly. As I look back, I found I’d gotten very good at lying to myself without the slightest of intention. I needed a pattern-breaker to help me recognize the differences between fair and unfair expectations, to eliminate what Matt Reed once called the “hollow yes” from my life.
It’s been a couple of months. It’s not been easy. The initial dosage of the medicine came with substantial side effects, including akathisia — an inability to be comfortable sitting still and a feeling of restlessness. My sleep patterns still haven’t entirely recovered, either. But the pattern-breaking was immediate with positive effects. The medicine adjustment substantially shifted my stress levels at work. I’ve been able to manage the shifts and continue to work forward.
I still recognize moments where the depression creeps in. I still have moments of debilitating burden. I’m emotionally dealing with the newfound reality that those moments will always show up. There’s no 100% recovery.
But I’m not running. And it’s a good start.
DISABILITY ACTS, founded in 2018, is an all volunteer-run magazine — run by disabled people, featuring disabled writers, who write about disabled life, literature, and more. Please support DISABILITY ACTS. Even one dollar helps. All money goes to paying our writers. You can see updates about how much money we have raised on our Submissions page.