“Some days are better than others, but that’s okay.”
I experienced my first bout of what I now know was depression when I was 11—uncontrollable crying, not wanting to get out of bed and go to school, and feelings of worthlessness. I was more sensitive than ever about being “left out” and the mercurial slights that characterize preteen girlhood. Nevertheless, I remained the consummate perfectionist. For instance, anything less than an “A” in school would validate my sense of inadequacy.
I think medical professionals and society in general were still coming to grips with childhood depression back then. My parents and family pediatrician were worried and perplexed. I did see a psychologist for a short time that, in retrospect, did more harm than good. Still, my depression lifted and I got on with my life. After college I relocated to Los Angeles to work in the television industry. On the surface I appeared to have it all—an apartment near the beach, great friends, a successful career that included international travel. And everyone thought I was “so together.” In reality, I had created a façade that enabled me to stuff down my feelings.
At 28 I had a nervous breakdown while traveling in Northern California with friends. My parents cancelled a trip to Boston and flew out to bring me back to Chicago. At first I struggled with constant anxiety and panic attacks. I was “anti-medication” at the time, but finally agreed to a prescription of Ativan. It was a godsend. But the anxiety gave way to eight months of severe clinical depression. Some days it was all I could do to get out of bed and take a walk around the block. I wasn’t actively suicidal, but I couldn’t see the purpose in living.
Yet something urged me to go on. However, with major family support, seeing a therapist who specialized in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and an antidepressant, I slowly clawed my way out of what felt like an interminable black hole. I was accepted to law school but opted instead to get my master’s degree in social work. I married, started my own business, eventually moved to California, and sailed through the next 20 years relatively depression-free, except for occasional periods of the “blues” at the onset of winter. I was pretty sure I had depression licked.
Four days after my 50th birthday my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. He died just two and half months later. I was grief-stricken but thought I was coping well. A few summers later, my girlfriend’s husband, who seemed to be on the upswing from his own bout with cancer, suddenly passed away while I was visiting them.
I was glad to be there to help her deal with the traumatic early stages of loss, but I was completely unaware of the toll it took on me. Three months later, I slid into another severe depression. It was tough, but I quickly returned to therapy and changed antidepressants. It took a few months of trial and error to find a more effective medication, but when I did, I immediately started to feel better.
Some people deal with chronic illness like diabetes or autoimmune disorders. I’ve come to understand that recurrent depression is my Achille’s heel. There is also a strong biological component in my family; my mother and sister both struggled with severe postpartum depression. I know that medication alone is not the cure-all so I’ve expanded my arsenal of coping skills. I exercise, try to eat healthfully, volunteer, set boundaries like saying “no” when I need to, work on turning negative to positive self-talk, and cultivate an attitude of gratitude whenever possible. Some days are better than others, but that’s okay. Through it all, I’ve become a little wiser and much more accepting of myself and others.
It pains me that there are still so many misconceptions about mental illness because it prevents so many people from seeking treatment. Don’t let perceived or even real stigma stop you from feeling hopeful or getting help. It’s your life and you absolutely matter.
Jan Silver Maguire is a freelance marketing communications writer specializing in mental health.