Thursday, February 23, 2012

Moderate to Severe

The following is brought to you by the 60 Minutes piece I saw last Sunday about how antidepressants do not, according to science, actually work. It rocked my world, I must admit. And while I am not one to argue with science in most cases, I felt compelled to voice my dissent. Not because I believe their studies are patently false, but because I feel it's dangerous to attach more stigma than there already is to the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Telling someone it's all in their head and that getting better after a few months on Paxil is all a placebo effect may discourage young Kentucky co-eds from giving it a try, and that could actually be a fatal for those young Kentucky co-eds. I should know. I was one once.

Of course. Of course this is happening to me. Why wouldn't it?

I had come there for help. And instead I found myself being mildly assaulted in the waiting room by a very large resident who would not relax his vise grip on my hand and who kept telling me, in the way the serial killers in movies tell their victims, that I was so, so pretty. The kind, soft-voiced receptionist looked my way and nodded, picking up the phone. I hoped she got help before my unknown almost-assailant (I called him Lennie in my head, and pictured him asking about the rabbits) decided to put me in a choke hold, lest my first-ever therapy session begin with me dead. Oh, the irony.

It was easy to forget, in the brilliant pre-spring sunlight that I had been enjoying as it filtered into the powder-blue waiting room, how just a week before I had gone for a two-hour walk in a heavy, cold rain, wanting to die.

I was not adjusting to my new collegiate life very well. I had thought it was just homesickness when, after arriving back on campus after Christmas break, I had holed myself up in my dorm room and cried until I was sick. I had fought my parents for three months to be able to go away to school. Why then was I so sad to be living my own dream?

Things got worse. As the cold, snowy winter passed, I found myself sleeping as much as I could, sometimes 12 hours a day. I had made new friends, but I had little interest in seeing them when class was out. I couldn't stand to see them laughing and happy when I was so deeply sad that my heart hurt. I tried exercise, going to the little gym on campus and lifting weights when it was too cold to walk my favorite route, to the old cemetery on the edge of town. Some days this helped and I felt the gloom lift. Other days it dragged me deeper into my black state of mind and I found myself wanting to lie down on top of a grave and fall asleep on the cold earth, uncaring whether or not I woke.

Please, God, just let me go to sleep and not wake up.

The lowest point came one Sunday night when winter fought with spring. Snow had mixed with rain and the rain won, falling down from a cold, cold sky. I couldn't sit still in my room. The walls were closing in. I felt trapped, lost, alone. I did not want to go home in defeat, just another student who had tried going away from home but who couldn't take it. And yet I did not want to stay. I did not even want to go on. So I left, without even a coat, and walked. I wanted to feel something, anything, out there in the rain. I did not feel cold. I did not feel scared. I came back numb and wondered how many Tylenol, the only drug I had at hand, I could take to not wake up in the morning.

The thought made me cry. Then it made me laugh. Tylenol? Really? That's the best you can do?  And then I woke up from whatever nightmare I had been in. I called Comp Care the next morning and felt empowered by my choice. Strong. Brave.

Until Lennie came along.

My captor began to rub the back of my hand in a way that reminded me of how we used to try to give each other indian burns as kids.

"You got a bo-friend?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. BIG bo-friend. Very tall." The receptionist was still on the phone, smiling assuredly at me, as if this sort of thing happened every day. Maybe it did. Our little drama had gotten the attention of the other patients in the waiting room, who were looking up from their People magazines. So much for trying to go unnoticed.

A door opened and a nurse called out to "David" to come back to see the doctor. David let go of me, and the nurse whispered that he was an inpatient at the attached "facility." I had no idea what that meant, but I was sobered by the thought that I might actually get committed here. I began to panic. I had seen One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest and knew what happened at inpatient facilities. I was suddenly afraid I'd see a lot more of David.

Eventually they called my name. I was led into a room lit by soft lamp light where a small gray-haired woman shook my hand.

"What brings you here today?"

I wanted to impress this woman with my bravery. I had been thinking of some jokes on the walk there, just a few starters to show how smart and witty and self-aware I was about my own depression. I did everything shy of writing a script down on note cards to try to play the role of a tragically depressed college student convincingly and show that I could handle that label with grace and humor. I was even ready to improvise in regards to my mishap with David out in the waiting room. But before I could answer, I started to cry.

I told a complete stranger how I had been so sad that it physically hurt. How I couldn't imagine going on any longer if it didn't get better. How I had been feeling, if not suicidal, then definitely ambivalent about the whole living thing.

And when it was over, when this person I had only known for five minutes finally found an opening to speak, she simply handed me a tissue and said one of the most wonderful phrases in the English language, when spoken honestly and with sincerity:

"You're going to be okay. I'm here to help you."

I met with an honest-to-goodness shrink that day, a psychiatrist who evaluated my need for medication and sent me back to campus with sample packs of an antidepressant. I noticed he was wearing a gold Mickey Mouse watch and wondered if I should really take him seriously. I was given the phone number of a suicide prevention hotline just in case, and I almost let loose with a line I had heard Rodney Dangerfield say: I called suicide prevention, but they put me on hold! But it was neither the time nor the place, despite the Mickey Mouse watch.

I used my six free collegeiate Comp Care visits by the end of my freshman year. And used all six visits the next. I had to confess my need for medication to my mother, as once the free samples ran out I had to get my prescription filled with our insurance card. I thought she would be devastated; instead she was relieved. Apparently, I was the last to know that I had been moderately to severely depressed.

A wonderful thing happened. Two weeks after my eventful first visit with David and Dr. Mickey Mouse, lights suddenly seemed brighter. I smiled more. Food tasted better and I gained back some of the weight I hadn't even realized I had lost. When I went for a walk, it was because I wanted to enjoy the weather, not because I was running from something. The weight I had felt in my chest for ever so long lifted. I understood why "the light at the end of the tunnel" is such a popular expression.

I've been on antidepressants several times in my life since weaning myself off of them once the immediate danger of my own self-demolition passed. Sometimes, they have worked for me. Sometimes, they have not. When I freaked my doctors out with my persistent gloom following Ainsley's birth, the drugs did nothing for me; I had a colicky infant and a little cancer thing going on that we didn't yet know about, all mixed up with some crazy post-partum hormone withdrawal, and I needed a 12-hour nap, not Zoloft. But when I felt myself starting to derail in the months following my father's death, when I could not sleep at night for an entire summer because I was convinced Death was outside just waiting for me to let my guard down, I turned again to a doctor who told me I would be okay and sent me out the door with a paper bag full of free samples. And I got better. And I've done well since without the help of any medications. But I know that depression is a war and there will be more battles.

I know people in my life who have struggled with it since I did the first time so long ago. If they choose to talk to me about it (and it can be so hard to talk about) I tell them there's no shame in medication, no shame in seeing someone, no shame in asking for help. No shame in admitting you're struggling. In fact, the only thing I find shameful is that there is still a stigma attached to it. That there are those who think we choose to be depressed and if we could just flip that switch with diet and exercise and prayer and ridding our bodies of Xenu that we could fix ourselves.

If only it were that easy.

So this goes out to anyone who has ever fought depression. Just know you are not alone. And you will get better, if you ask for help.

And I will be here, holding your hand. Gently, and not like David.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Dozen

"Are they from your husband?"

"I sure hope so."

A pair of beaming office aides have just brought in a dozen red and white roses in a gorgeous be-ribboned vase. It's the first time I've had roses delivered to me at school since I was a student myself, a junior in high school, 21 years ago.

At 17, I was a hopeless romantic. I'd never been interested in just dating a string of boys and getting my heart broken; I wanted love. (But not like Bella Swan wanted love; I never would have gotten married and vamped without at least going to college first.) I needed a rock, a foundation, a lighthouse in the storm. And when I unexpectedly found these things in the tall guy who had been both rival and friend since 7th grade, I wanted everyone to know it.

Everyone knew it on Valentine's Day, 1991.

Jason and I had what I thought at the time was a long-distance relationship. That is to say, he went to a high-school 15 whole minutes away. Neither of us drove yet, so the miles that separated us felt like so much more than that. He had moved in with his mother and despite my pleading, been taken out of the high-school we were growing up in to go to an elite institution of secondary education. (It wasn't really elite, but it sure thought it was.) Yet by that Valentine's Day we had been together almost a year, and I no longer worried about all the time we spent apart. I was mature enough to see that if we sat next to each other every class, every day, we would have split up a long time before. I needed space, and so did he.

But I was immature enough that sometimes I wanted the judgemental It Girls to know that someone loved me, even though that someone wasn't around to engage in public displays of affection during class changes.

So when a student office aide knocked on the door of my English class with a long white box for me, I felt like the luckiest girl in the school. Inside were white roses and a card that made me blush. Not because it was frisky, but because it had the words "love" and "you" on it. There was no awkward waiting-for-the-other-person-to-say-it-first period with us; we started our relationship with "I love you." But that doesn't mean I ever took those words for granted.

History repeated itself today when another bouquet of white (mixed with red) roses found their way to me inside a different school building. Again, they were delivered by a teenage office aide. And just like before, I unwrapped the tissue paper from them in front of a group of high-school girls who said, "Aww..." when I blushed reading the card inside.

I had just been thinking about how different Valentine's Day is now that we're married with child. I usually cook because we don't want to deal with restaurant-on-a-holiday craziness. Sometimes Ainsley has swim practice or a piano lesson. By the time we get the kid fed, homeworked, and in bed, we barely have the energy to catch up on The Daily Show before falling asleep on the couch holding champagne flutes still half-full of Sam Adams. And really, I'm okay with all this.

Until I see my big vase of gorgeous roses sitting right out on the circulation desk in front of anyone who cares to look, and I feel 17 and hopelessly romantic all over again. That tall guy, I think I'll keep him.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jedis, Redrum, and Night Owls

I do not remember seeing Star Wars in a theater, but I know that I did. Aside from a fuzzy recollection of how the Stormtroopers scared me almost unto tears when they were rendered 10-feet-high on the silver screen, I just have to take my parents' word for it when they say that I saw it at age 3, loved it, and talked about it non-stop. My real experience with the first movie began the day Dad bought me all the main characters in action figure form and I began to deconstruct what little I could remember of the story on a daily basis for the next three years.

I distinctly remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back in a theater, though. It was the coolest moment of my life at the time, not only because I got to see my beloved Luke again, but because I saw it in the middle of the night, way past a normal kid's bedtime. Because midnight showings were the only movie showings my night-owl family went to see.

Maybe it was because Dad worked second shift and was used to getting all his movie and television watching in in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe it was my parents' shared dislike of crowded places. Or maybe we were just ahead of the times. But I never entered a movie theater with my parents unless it was after 11pm on a Saturday night.

So on Memorial Day weekend of 1980, our family of four headed out to the Showcase Cinema way past when most people on my street had retired for the night. My mom and sister were not Star Wars fans, so they went to see The Shining in the theater next door as my dad bought me a huge bucket of stale popcorn with extra butter and made sure I had a seat behind no one so that I could see every bit of intergalactic action on the screen.

It was a marvel. We nearly had the theater to ourselves. As "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." flashed on the screen and the John Williams score swelled, the few people in the theater applauded. My heart filled to bursting. I looked at my dad, usually stoic, and saw that he, too, was smiling.

In such an empty theater, I could become totally absorbed in what I was seeing on the screen, with nothing to distract me. During the Hoth scenes, I felt the cold of the ice and snow and the terror of the approaching AT-ATs. I laughed at Yoda when I thought he was just a strange little tropical nuisance and grew in awe of him as he raised Luke's X-Wing from the swamp. I felt a disturbance in the force when Leia told Han she loved him and he gave a smartass remark in reply (I was six at the time; in all my re-enactments with my action figures, I made it clear that Luke and Leia would someday marry and have little Jedi babies.) And in the shocking final moments when we all learned that Darth Vader is Luke's father, my eyes began to water. Maybe because it was 1:30 in the morning. But just as likely it was that I was so shocked by the revelation that my kindergarten brain could only handle it by having a bit of a cry. How could that be?! They are mortal enemies! And Luke's real father was killed by Vader! You lie!

We walked outside to a silent, almost-vacant parking lot. I heard the snap of a cigarette lighter and saw the red glow as Dad inhaled deeply. The stars above burned bright and clear as we waited for The Shining to let out. I wondered which distant star was Dagobah, and which was Hoth, and where Han had been taken after he was carbon-frozen. I had no words. Only wonder.

"What did you think?"

"I can't believe Darth Vader is Luke's father. Do you think he really is, or was he lying?"

Dad laughed. "I guess we'll find out."

I tried to think about how old I would be when the next movie came out, which I had heard on TV would be in three years. That would mean I would be nine. Wow. So old. And like Yoda, I would be so wise. By then, I would write cursive and know how to multiply and divide. It seemed as distant as a rebel base.

Soon Mom's movie let out, and we were joined by the rest of my family. No one made any move just yet to get in the car; the night was beautiful, and we had much to talk about.

"It was...something," my mother said, and told us how her movie was a little disappointing and not nearly as scary as she and Joanie thought it would be. People laughed, she said, when Jack went crazy with an axe. The way Mom and my sister were talking and laughing themselves, I would have guessed they had just seen a comedy. I asked if I could see it the next day, and got a firm "No!" Curious movie, indeed.

"And how was your movie?"

I talked nonstop. "I loved it! There was this big snow monster and I thought Luke was going to die, and then there were these big walking robot things, and then Luke met Yoda, who was really old and really smart. He fought a battle with Darth Vader that might have  been a dream because when he cut Vader's head off the mask opened and it was LUKE'S FACE and I didn't like that part. Then some bad stuff happened to Leia and Han and she told him she loved him and then he got frozen and I don't know, maybe he's dead. But then Luke's hand got chopped off and replaced with a metal one and he found out DARTH VADER IS HIS FATHER but he must be lying." Then I yawned.

"I think we're all tired. Let's get you home."

I fell asleep that night thinking of both space heroes and evil empires and mad men with axes chasing their families while quoting Ed McMahon. I thought of how cool it had been to come home to a completely dark street and wander into my house red-eyed and exhausted but with my head full of new characters and good stories. I still like watching a late movie (on video, now that I'm old and almost a morning person) and going to bed while the movie's still fresh; sometimes the movie sticks with you through the night and you get an encore in your dreams. I should say that this is better for a movie like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than for a movie like The Descent.

Growing up in a family of night owls was weird and often unsettling. What normal people eat dinner at midnight, I ask you? But when it came to movies, we got it right.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Parents Are People, Too

"Wait...what are you all watching?"

I was in college, home on break, and had just walked in after a late evening out with my friends. Both of my parents were staring intently at the television and I simply could not believe they were actually watching, and enjoying, what I thought I saw on the screen.

"It's that crazy Monty Python movie," my mom said.

Dad jumped in with his fake-authoritative voice, the one he affected in an exaggerated fashion whenever he knew the answer to a question that he thought actually made him look smart. My father was a very intelligent man, but was raised in a time and place where smartness was not valued as a masculine trait, so he did his best to hide it. In second grade when he realized he was about to win his class spelling bee, he told the teacher that "pound" is spelled "l-b-period" and sat down promptly while everyone laughed. I imagine he gave that smartass response in his fake-authoritative voice.

"Actually, it's called Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he said. The Black Knight scene was on, and my mother chuckled and shook her head at the silliness of a knight being completely dismembered and still wanting to fight.

"And you all like this movie? It doesn't seem like your type. It's one of my favorites but, well, you know..."

Dad gave me a withering look, a look that said I was getting too big for my britches and making assumptions I had no business making in such an uppity fashion, so I shut up and walked in a daze back to my room where I realized I really didn't know my parents nearly as well as I thought I did.

I had been under the delusion that anything I learned about in College With a Capital "C" was so far above the rural high-school education they had received that it would be foreign to them. While I had seen Holy Grail at the very end of my senior year in high school at a friend's house, I didn't appreciate it and quote it until I watched it again (along with Life of Brian) with my Centre friends. It seemed too high-brow and, well, weird for my parents, who watched Roseanne  and Cheers instead of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and who owned a copy of Forrest Gump. (Though they both told me later it should not have won the Oscar for Best Picture; they bought it thinking it must be the best movie in the history of the world and were sorely disappointed by it.)

It shouldn't have surprised me. My senior year in high-school I had walked in on the two of them doing something utterly shocking. They were reading from a college-level collection of 20th-century American poems, plays, and short stories I had borrowed to pick a piece for a speech-and-drama competition.

"Have you read any of these?" my dad said, flipping through the poems.

"Some of them. Not many."

"I really like this one," he said, and he flipped to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

" 'Recuerdo' ?" my mother said. And my parents started reading the poem silently together, talking about how much they liked it. Had I caught them in flagrante delicto I would not have been more taken aback.

I eventually outgrew my intellectual superiority and saw my parents for the surprisingly smart and with-it elders that they were. But there are still times that my one surviving parent, my mother, shows me that while I may know her well as a mom, I don't know her well at all as a person.

On Saturday, Mom lost her companion of three years. He had been sick with cancer for a while, but his death was still sudden and shocking. He was receiving hospice care at home but not yet bed-ridden, and one minute he was sitting on his couch asking Mom to open the door to let in a little air and the next he was...gone.

Since she started being in a relationship with this man, she has lived her own life largely separate from mine. Initially, this hurt me. I am the baby, therefore it is my God-given right to take up the bulk of my mother's attentions. But I got over it. She spent every other week at his home an hour away, and they developed their own circle of friends from the people they went dancing with on Saturdays and the folks they met up with at a bluegrass club on Friday nights.

This week, I accompanied my mother to the visitation and funeral.

"I hate crowds," my mother said on the way down to Corinth. "This will be awful. I won't know what to say to all those people."

As it turns out, she gives herself too little credit. My mother, at 68 years old, knows how to work a room.

The place lit up when she walked in. I was introduced to so many men and women she's friends with that I soon lost count. Everyone knows Joan. And everyone loves Joan.

"Your mom is a special lady," I heard time and time again. Men flirted unabashedly with her, women hugged her long and hard and shared their tears, and family of the deceased seemed so grateful for her presence in their lives.

Mom was so worried about not knowing what to say and dealing with the crowd. But her mouth was barely closed all night as she shared stories, delivered comfort, and welcomed many admirers with a ready smile. This was not the mom I know. It was the graceful and elegant woman behind the mom facade.

As I listened in on the stories of her and her companion's time together, I saw that my mother has changed a lot since my father's death. She has taken on an independence and a confidence I had no idea was there. The adventures she and her friend had were not the kind of things she did with my dad. She danced. She became a regular church-goer. She developed a fondness for dogs. She was welcomed into a huge family that dwarfs the little family she raised. She became knowledgeable of some of the inner workings of a cattle farm.

In some ways, it was like meeting a stranger.

My parents didn't do "date night", and I never had a solid bedtime and was with them through all their waking hours as a kid. I thought by the time my dad died that I knew pretty much everything there was to know about my parents, had heard every story, had met every friend.

My mother's story, it seems, has really just begun.

I hope she continues to surprise me for many more years. I've known for nearly 38 years now that Joan is a pretty terrific mom. I see now that she's a great person, too.