By Gabrielle. Photo of George H. Brimhall (see the P.S. for relevance).
A little warning, this post is really long. : )
On Valentine’s Day weekend we ended up throwing 3 parties. Maude had friends over on Friday night — a little “GALantine’s” gathering with a pretty dessert table and chick flicks. Then on Saturday night, Ralph went to “Mormon Prom” a formal dance for LDS high school kids in the Bay Area who are 16 years old or older. We made corsages for the girls, and after the dance, the kids came to our house to hang out and have rootbeer floats. Then on Sunday, we hosted a “Policeman Party” for our nephew’s 4th birthday. And since there was no school on Monday, we had a sleepover for 3 of the cousins. (Sometime, I need to tell you more about the policeman party. It was a cute one.)
At some point, I turned to Ben Blair and said, can you believe this? Two months ago it took everything in me to get a Christmas Tree, and this weekend we threw 3 parties and are ready for more! I’m doing so much better!
So this post is a mental health report. I’ve been very open over the past several months about the status of my brain, and I’ve received dozens of emails from readers wondering how I knew my head wasn’t working right, how I recognized when to go to the doctor, and how the medication was working. Obviously, everyone who has experienced a downturn in their mental health has their own story, but here’s mine, in case it helps.
It starts 12 years ago. In the summer of 2002, right about when baby Olive weaned, I crashed. It had been a hard year. On August 1st, 2001 we moved to New York with 2 year old Maude and 3 year old Ralph. Three weeks later, Olive was born (the day before Ralph’s 4th birthday). Three weeks after that, September 11th happened and the entire city plunged into a depression.
We moved to New York, far from our families, so Ben Blair could do his graduate work at Columbia and we were delighted to be there. But until we got there, I didn’t really understand how expensive it is to live in New York, and here we were, Ben in graduate school, and me home with 3 very young children and no design-clients in sight — the poorest we’d ever been. Ben’s parents were very generous and helped us stay afloat during the worst months. It was the first time I’d tried the stay-at-home-without-earning-an-income option, and unfortunately it wasn’t the right fit for me. Additionally, right about the time we moved to New York, my mother remarried. She married a wonderful man, and we adore him, but seeing your mother married to anyone who is not your father (or vice versa) takes some major getting used to.
So, it was a rough year. I honestly thought we were managing pretty well — we made great friends and took advantage of what the city had to offer as much as possible. But at about the 1 year mark after our move, just as I weaned baby Olive, our car broke down. An 83 Toyota Landcruiser. The fix was $800, and we flat out couldn’t do it. Apparently, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My head just shut down.
It’s like my brain was paralyzed. I couldn’t make decisions. Even little ones. For example, my dear friend Megan lived downstairs and could see something was very wrong. So she came over to take me a movie and get me out of the house. I wasn’t opposed to a movie, but it involved so many decisions (Should I change my clothes? Where are my shoes? Do I need to brush my hair? Will I need to talk on the car ride? Should I stand up now and get my shoes now, or keep sitting for awhile?) that I couldn’t do it. I cried often.
This continued for several weeks getting worse and worse until all I wanted to do was die. I thought about death almost constantly, because imagining being dead was the only relief from feeling this awful that my head could conceive of. I very much wanted to die, but at the same time I could see that wouldn’t be fair to Ben, to leave him with 3 tiny kids. At some point I tried to explain to him in all seriousness that we needed to put the kids up for adoption, because then I would be free to die. In my head it made so much sense — a brilliant plan! Oh man. I remember the look on his face as I was explaining this to him — I had a moment of clarity and thought: Oh. I’m going crazy. Something is wrong with my brain.
Because I had grown up with my Aunt Mary Lu, I was familiar with what serious mental dysfunction looked like and if there was a way to avoid that life, I really didn’t want to become insane. My moment of clarity was a huge push for me to do everything possible to get better. But. There wasn’t actually much I could do. I didn’t even know what was wrong! And poor Ben, what was he to do? He had no idea what was wrong either. He was having to handle twice the responsibilities and was worried sick about his wife.
Luckily, a woman at church saw me and recognized what was happening. She told the leader of our congregation and he brought me Marie Osmond’s book about post-partum depression — wrapped in brown paper like it was contraband. He didn’t want to embarrass me. : ) He also told us if we needed to see a doctor, that our congregation had a fund that could help out with expenses. This was a huge relief because money was especially tight at the time.
I’m a fast reader and whipped through the book in an afternoon. I confess, it was not my favorite. But. At the end of the book there was a section by a doctor and it included a quiz to help you identify if you were depressed. I took the quiz and friends, I got an A++. I was depressed! This thing I was going through had a name! Suddenly there was hope!
The book said I should see a doctor to get a physical, and if needed, see a counselor. So I did. I still couldn’t really make decisions, so Ben Blair had to do most of it — the making of the appointment, the driving me there. And it all took time. My doctor’s appointment for the physical and basic checkup had a wait time of a couple of weeks. Then we waited for blood work. Everything on my physical checked out fine, so it was recommended that I see a counselor. Another 2 week wait for an appointment. The counselor sat with me for an hour and at the end told me I was depressed. I was so mad! I told her I already knew that and that’s why I was in her office. So frustrating! She told me I would need to see a psychiatrist so I could get a medication prescription. Ugh. I just knew that would be another 2 week wait!
By this time my head was even worse. I was trying so hard to get help and make the right appointments, but the whole process was quite ridiculous, and it was so new to us that we didn’t know how to navigate it well. I didn’t think I could wait another two weeks to see a psychiatrist. So. We called my brother-in-law Kevin. He’s married to Ben’s sister Jeanette and (tada!) is a psychiatrist. He lived far from us, but gave me an evaluation over the phone (side note: as you can imagine, it’s super fun to talk about your sex drive with your brother-in-law!), confirmed the depression and then shipped me a box of samples of a medication called Wellbutrin because he knew we couldn’t afford to buy medication.
I was told it would take 2 weeks before we knew if the Wellbutrin was working. At this point I had been sick for months, and known it was depression for about 5 weeks — the idea of having to wait two more weeks was so discouraging. What if it didn’t work? What if we needed a different medication? Ugh and more ugh!
But here’s the happy ending: two weeks went by, and one morning I woke up and was… normal. I didn’t want to die. I got dressed. I made a list of tasks and got through them. I ran errands. I had conversations. I didn’t cry for no particular reason. I wasn’t grinning all the time, or falsely happy, or overly happy. I was just my regular self.
It was awesome!! The Wellbutrin worked wonderfully for me, and I didn’t even notice any side effects. The best case scenario. I know what a blessing that is. Some people try for years to find the right medication or combination of medications. And some never quite find the perfect fit. Can you imagine how frustrating that must be?
In fact, one very clear memory from that time was realizing that my depression might be mild compared to others. The understanding came during the appointment with the counselor that I found so irritating. During our hour together she repeatedly assured me that how I was feeling wasn’t my fault. And I remember thinking: Duh. Of course it’s not my fault. Why would I ever choose this? But as I took the train home, it occurred to me that there were people out there who were experiencing what I was experiencing, but they felt guilt about it as well! Making it even worse!! And that broke my heart.
Even back then, a dozen years ago, I was very open about what I was going through, and many people told me that they thought it was probably related to weaning the baby. No doubt my hormones were at least partially out of whack, but honestly, I think it would have happened even without the weaning. It was just a particularly difficult time.
I took the Wellbutrin for about 3 months, until the samples ran out. By that time, I had found a full time job as a senior art director in an ad agency, and our life was very different. We had a decent income. I was being creative daily. I was getting out of the house. Life was good!
Cut to August 2013, a dozen years later.
A few weeks after the move to Oakland I could see I wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t depressed yet, but I could tell my head was pretty fragile. I tried to take it easy. I tried to get help around the house. I tried to eliminate all unnecessary tasks. But it didn’t really work. It was like this: I was dealing with something like 250% of my normal mental/physical workload, so I eliminated a bunch of stuff. But that basically took it down to 200% of my normal workload. Still way too much.
So we started looking for a doctor in case things got worse. I was open about seeking help. I was sure the process would be easier than the first time. But alas, it wasn’t! We called 15 doctors — and literally every single one had a message that they weren’t accepting new patients. Part of the problem was we weren’t desperate yet. After several rejections we’d take a break, and then I’d have a few good days and we’d forget about it. And then I’d have a horrible day and we’d try to track down a doctor again. We did this for weeks.
Eventually I realized I was once again desiring death, thinking about it all the time. Again, death was the only relief my head could find; the only scenario that offered peace to my broken brain. Like you might expect, the weird conversations happened again. I would have talks with Ben Blair about how my desire to die was a conscious, reasoned choice; that I’d experienced everything I want to experience. That he needed to let me die.
I realize that if you haven’t experienced anything like this before, the idea that I wanted to die might freak you out. But amazingly it’s actually quite normal for someone who is depressed. Isn’t that awful? And I should also note, that though I was desiring death almost all the time, I wasn’t specifically suicidal — meaning I wasn’t looking up ways to kill myself on the internet. Though I suppose that may have been the next phase. : (
Finally, in October we found an available psychiatrist and set an appointment — with a 2 week wait as usual. I went to the appointment and told her what was happening and that I thought I should probably take Wellbutrin. She talked to me for an hour and a half and then told me I needed to take Wellbutrin. I confess, I was once again very irritated because I felt like I was jumping through unnecessary hoops, but I was also simply relieved that I was finally getting help — and a prescription.
We filled the prescription and what do you know? Two weeks later I was feeling pretty fantastic. And by fantastic I mean normal.
I take half a pill each day. The doctor recommended that I ease my body onto the medication by taking just half a pill for the first few days. At that point, I tried a full pill and felt really funny so went back to half and stayed there. I take the medication at night before I go to bed. It works. I know it doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for me.
Friends, this post is not a call for sympathy. I mean it. I am doing great! I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been, and really, truly, compared to many people with mental illness, I have it easy as pie. If I’m ever in a bad way again and can’t seem to get help, I’ll be sure to share. But for now, I’m feeling wonderful. I’m back to my productive self and knocking out projects right and left. It feels great!
A bit of Q&A:
Q. Between the first episode and the episode 12 years apart, did I have depression?
A. Sometimes. But just for a few days. The neural path that was burned in my head during the first depression was apparently burned deep. And anytime I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed — say the week before I put on Alt Summit — I’ll find myself yearning to be dead in a mild way (if there is such a thing). But then it goes away when the stress disappears.
A few different times over those dozen years I had conversations with Ben Blair where I would basically give a heads up: Hey. I might need to see a doctor. My heads a little off. So we would be on the watch and start looking into doctors, but then a couple days later I would be fine again, and we’d forget about the doctor hunt.
Q. How long will I be on medication?
A. Who knows? Possibly forever. I feel no side effects, so I’m not in a big hurry to get off of it. For many reasons, this transition (from France to Oakland) has hit me particularly hard. We’re 7 months into the move, and I’m just now feeling like myself. I need some time to catch up on life. Right now my guess is I’ll be taking the medicine for a year minimum, but again, I’m not in a hurry to get off it. I’m just grateful it works! What a blessing.
Q. Is it always that hard to get medical help if you’re suffering from depression?
A. My assumption is a giant NO. I think I just don’t know what I’m doing. In both of my cases I had recently moved and didn’t have a family doctor yet. I assume getting help is much smoother and faster if you already have a medical team in place. I also wonder if I could have gotten help quicker in an emergency room situation. I honestly don’t know. Having gone through this twice, I’m still perplexed at how to make the process more efficient. I’m sure there’s someone out there that knows exactly how to go about getting help in the fastest way possible, but I’m not that person.
If I think about it too long, I get angry. It shouldn’t be this hard to get help. Depression is extremely common, and there is known medication that works. It should be so straightforward to get medical aid. I’m doubly compassionate for those going through this that don’t have financial, family, church or social networks as support.
Okay, Friends, if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a medal! That was a looong report.
And now it’s your turn. How has mental health (or lack of it) touched your life? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that is very similar or completely different from mine? Do you feel like you would recognize it if you needed to see a doctor? If you did think you needed help, would you know how/where to find it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
P.S. — The image at top is George H. Brimhall. He is Ben Blair’s great, great grandfather. He was the president of a university, but also suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide. I think it’s important to remember that mental illness can take many forms, and just because someone is highly functional, doesn’t mean they aren’t susceptible to depression.