I’m back.



My last post on this blog was May of 2011.  I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t been able to write these past few months and it seems that I am blocked.  Not in the usual “I can’t think of anything to write” sense, but more “nothing else will come until I get this out” sense.  So here it is.  It has nothing to do with food or baking or dessert, but it does have everything to do with something that affects millions of people everyday, and I think it needs to be talked about more openly.  Today, with Bell.ca’s Let’s Talk day, and the airing of the documentary “Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me” – today is the day I post this and move forward once more.

5 years ago, I was one of those people who thought that depression was a choice you made – “you either decide to be happy, or you dwell on all the negatives in your life” or a sign of weakness.  I had known and worked with a number of people who were on some kind of anti-depressant, and was naively of the opinion that these pills were over-prescribed by doctors to anyone who was just having a bad day, when what they really needed was to stop feeling sorry for themselves and snap out of it.  But that was then, and this….this is now.

I have suffered from serious depression.  It was quite a surprise to me when it happened, or more accurately, when it was diagnosed, since it doesn’t just occur overnight.  I’ve always been known as the cheerful, happy girl who loves to laugh – so how could this be happening to me?

Depression, I have since learned, can be brought on by a number of different things; physiological problems, such as an imbalance in hormone or seratonin levels, or the more obvious cause, emotional stress or trauma.  The latter, in my opinion, is what triggered the whole thing for me – a two year cycle of severe emotional stress that I thought I could just “get through”.  It started when my husband had what most people would call a “nervous breakdown”.  I still remember the day that it happened – the drive to work during my lunch-hour, the call 5 minutes later from a supervisor, who recognized what was going on and told me I needed to come pick him up and get him to a doctor.  She was incredibly sympathetic.  I was robotic.  He was diagnosed with Anxiety and Panic Disorder, brought on by years of trying to suppress emotional traumas from his childhood.  As I understand it (in layman’s terms, as it was explained to me by a therapist), when you go through stress, be it emotional, physical or otherwise, your body produces stress chemicals.  When you do something to deal with that stress, such as cry, write in a journal, or go to the gym and take it out on a punching bag, your body releases those chemicals and then can carry on as normal.  Suppress all of this and it can rear it’s ugly head in the form of a ulcers, panic attacks, or worse… a heart-attack,  Hubby was brought up to believe that he needed to suppress his emotions rather than deal with them, so, after several decades of suppressing and storing up all of these chemicals, his body took charge of the situation and started getting rid of the toxic build-up all on its own – through panic attacks that had no apparent trigger.  Sitting at dinner and playing a game of backgammon could bring it on.  Being in a grocery store.  Walking the dogs.  Sitting on the couch reading a book.  These attacks would happen without warning, and sometimes several times a day.

His doctor put him on medication, and he began seeing a therapist.  Gradually, the dosage of medication was increased again and again until he felt more stable, but he was no longer himself.  In addition to blocking his emotions from hitting the low spots, the meds also blocked any really high spots, meaning he never felt really happy either. “It just makes you numb” he said to me.  This, combined with my total lack of understanding what was really going on or how to properly deal with it, put an incredible strain on our marriage.  In just a few short weeks I had gone from thinking how wonderful our life was, to sharing a home with a detached, numb version of my beloved, who was off work and so heavily medicated that he seemingly lacked the motivation to do anything.  I was angry and frustrated, and ignorantly thought that this was just something we needed to “get through”, as though we could control it.  Not surprisingly, between the emotional numbness my husband was experiencing, and the emotional roller-coaster that I was on, our sex life was now non-existent.  Naturally created an additional strain and removed any sense of connection that we knew before.  It wasn’t long before we were essentially nothing more than roommates who just happened to sleep side by side in the same bed.  To make things worse, we weren’t really facing this together, but instead we were each going through our own personal hell; he, struggling to get to the core of the problem, learning new skills on how to manage his anxiety attacks, and piling on the guilt for what he was putting me though, and me confused, frustrated and not having any real understanding of what he was going through.  I had never felt so alone in my whole life.

Over the next two years, the universe would see fit to pile even more stress and sadness on our lives.  Our beloved dog Cairo’s health was failing and we had to go through the anguish of having her euthanized.  His mother was diagnosed with leukaemia.  My grandmother passed, after a lengthy battle with alzheimer’s, causing my mom (another cheerful, happy person) to go through a sadness and despair like I had never seen.  Hubby’s father had a cancer scare, which thankfully turned out to be benign, but was stressful nonetheless. Through all of this, we were each of us alone, lacking the support that spouses normally provide one another. It was no shock to either of us that our marriage was now hanging on by a thread.  Every day I would wonder if our marriage would survive, or for how long – two hours?  – two days?  Perhaps things were too badly damaged and divorce was the only answer.  Hubby told me he would wake up every day and expect to find a note telling him I was gone.  I contemplated carrying my passport with me so that I could catch a plane to my sister’s on a moments notice.  During this time hubby decided he was ready for a new puppy and I agreed, despite the fact that I was still grieving the loss of Cairo.  I was foolishly and desperately hoping it would inject a little fun and happiness into our lives, and somehow magically cure him and fix all that was broken with us.  Instead, puppyhood with a strong-willed bulldog was now more than I could handle, and something in me snapped.  I packed a suitcase and left to stay with my mother – something that had never happened in all our 15 years together.

After a week apart, hubby convinced me to come home.  We talked and cried, and decided our marriage was worth fighting for.  The next day, I made an appointment for us to see a marriage counsellor, hoping our marriage was still salvageable.  In our first session, after learning how much medication hubby was on, our therapist said “well, it’s no wonder you guys are having problems – your husband is pretty much tranquilized all of the time.”  It was then that I started to truly learn just how much the medication was affecting him, being on more than 8 times the normal dosage.  I felt terrible – I had no idea.  It became pretty clear to me that his anxiety levels were pretty high if it took that much medication to keep him stabilized.

Over the next several months, we continued our counselling and worked on connecting with one another again.  We travelled to Paris for a month, mostly because I knew I needed a break – I needed to feed my soul.  The trip was great, a sign that good things were starting to happen again.  Gradually, things got better and we started to climb out of the darkness, side by side as partners again.  The doctor began reducing hubby’s medication, very slowly weaning him off, and he returned to work.  That Christmas, as we headed down to California to spend the holidays with my sister, hubby took his last pill and things were feeling like normal again.  I for one, was happy and relieved to see that we had weathered the storm and survived.  Our life was finally back on track.

Less than four months later, as I prepared to return to Paris with my sister and mom, for mom’s 65th birthday, tragedy struck once more.  I picked up hubby from work, and as we parked in the grocery store parking lot, he turned to me and said “I have something to tell you, but I didn’t want to do it while you were driving.  Gilbert’s gone missing”.  I was stunned.  Gilbert was a dear friend of mine, a former co-worker who I ate lunch with every day for two years – a brilliant and wonderful guy with an incredible sense of humour.  We would even hang out outside of work, hubby, me, Gilbert and his roommate/best friend, Suzette. We had lost touch over the years, since we now worked in opposite ends of the city, though I occasionally bumped into him and Suzette down on Whyte Ave.  Ironically, over the past few months, I had been wondering how he was doing, thinking I should call him up and meet for coffee… only I never did.  Now I was sitting in my car, fearing the worst.  It didn’t make sense…Gilbert was nothing but a big teddy bear of a guy, but didn’t look the part – if you met him in a dark alley, you’d probably turn and walk the other way.  He was a big guy and often wore a full-length black leather coat.  If Suzette didn’t know where he was, then something was very, very wrong.  Police were searching, and I knew that there were hundreds of people in the city who, like me, were hoping that good news would come soon.  Gilbert touched a lot of people’s lives, all of whom became his friends.  I never met anyone who had anything bad to say about him.  He was loved.

A few weeks later, after returning home from our girls trip to Paris, the worst had come.  They pulled Gilbert’s body out of the river.  Gilbert, suffering from depression, had taken his own life.  For weeks, I’d been berating myself for not having picked up that phone and called him, wondering if it would have made a difference, if going for coffee with a long-lost pal would have brightened a seemingly unbearable day.  My life had been touched by suicide before – a distant cousin I hardly knew, the son of a family friend – but this time the news shook me to my very core.  It broke my heart to think that he saw so little hope or happiness ahead, that death would seem the only answer or chance for relief.  With this, the final straw after years of heartache, I slipped into a depression of my own, only I didn’t notice it at first.  I thought I was just still stunned about my friend’s death.  I had no motivation to do anything.  Getting out of bed and getting dressed was a painful chore I dreaded.  My job, which had previously been busy and challenging in an office of 85, had changed and was slow and completely un-challenging in an office of just 5 – I could go hours each day without even hearing another human being, let alone inter-acting with one.  The isolation magnified everything and I realized I was drowning.  I tried to snap out of it on my own (still oblivious to my lack of control over the situation) -  I attempted to keep myself busy and get involved in other activities that would re-awaken an interest in life.  But nothing worked.  I went to my doctor and was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.  Still clinging to my old way of thinking, and fearful that I would now become the medicated zombie I had witness hubby become, I resisted going on anti-depressants, but my doctor explained that they were necessary and would help.  I gave in and was prescribed medication (Pristiq) and immediately on medical leave of absence from work.  I made an appointment for counselling, heartbroken and devastated that this was happening to me.

The months passed.  Foggy, heavy, sleepy days came and went.  I forced myself to get out of the house to walk the dogs as much as possible, knowing that the fresh air and exercise would be helpful.  Still, I had no trouble sleeping for 12 or more hours each day, and getting even simple tasks accomplished was almost painful, but I made sure to keep up with my counselling and working through all of my grief.  I discovered that not only was I grieving for the loss of our dog, my grandmother, and everything else that had been piled on, but the loss of my grandfather 13 years earlier was still a fresh and open wound.  I also learned that the winters affect me deeply – Seasonal Affected Disorder is something that many Canadians (and any other northern climate dwellers around the world) struggle with.  The winter months when we see only a few precious hours of daylight are hard on many people – you wake up and go to work in total darkness at 8am, and your commute home at 4:30pm is just as dark.  If you work in a windowless room, you can literally go months without seeing daylight.  For me, however, the bitter cold and snow are the things that make winter so unbearable for me.  Having to pile on layer after layer of clothing, just to get the dogs out for as long a walk as they can manage in what is typically -20˚C, but can be as low as -50˚C with the windchill.  The snow makes the roads and sidewalks treacherous, and no matter how bad the blizzard, people in these parts never take a “snow day” and just stay home… if the roads are closed because of a winter storm, the mentality here is “I guess I’ll just have to get up 2 hours early so I can still make it to work on time”.  I really struggle with the idea of risking my life in such conditions so I can get to my desk and move paper and answer emails – I’m not a heart surgeon with patients whose lives literally depend on me, so why can’t I just stay home where it is safe and warm??  Saying I want to hibernate is an understatement – I don’t want to leave my house from November to April unless I have to or it is unseasonably warm.  Antidepressants don’t change this for me – I still hate living through these winters, and I feel no strong connection with this city, even though I was born & raised here.  I want, and need, to live somewhere else.  I know that now, and am lucky to have a wonderful and supportive husband who is up for the adventure.

Through the months and years that I struggled with depression, there was one thing that helped me tremendously through all of this was the one thing hubby never really had; a partner who truly understood what I was going through and was able to give me the love, support, patience and guidance to help me find a way out of the darkness.

Somewhat to my surprise, the medication did what it was supposed to do – it helped me fell better… I mean, of course it “worked”, but I didn’t feel numb or zombie-like, as I had feared, nor did I feel completely dependant on it. It’s not a magic pill that suddenly makes all of your cares and worries disappear and make you feel like running a marathon… it just lifts the weight of depression off your shoulders a bit, and gives you a break so you can begin to think and care about something else.  I was starting to feel good again, and after 14 months off work, I was ready to go back.  Life continued to get back to a state of normal, though I was still on my medication.  I thought I was in the clear….

Over the next several months, after talking with my doctor, we began slowly decreasing my medication, with the goal of being completely med-free.  I didn’t notice much change at first – some minor sleep disruptions, similar to what I went through when I began taking it. Weeks passed and dosages lowered, and I was happy to see I was still feeling like myself.  Other changes in my body didn’t go unnoticed, but it was a while before I would connect those symptoms with withdrawal.  I did a quick search on the internet and found a list of common withdrawal symptoms associated with Pristiq.  “Ok, now I have some answers, all of this seems pretty normal, so I’ll be fine.”  I spent 3 1/2 weeks traveling through Europe – hubby sent me away for what is typically the coldest and worst part of our winter, and so I could find out “where I can tolerate winter”, so we could find a new place to live where I’m not miserable 6 months out of every year.  I visited friends and enjoyed the beauty and history that is everywhere in that part of the world.  I came home, refreshed and ready for us to begin a new chapter of our life together.  I started clearing out the clutter and getting rid of things that would not be worth the cost of moving. A few months later, I had dropped down another notch on the medication dose, and was now taking 1 pill every 3 days.  In just a few more weeks I should be off the meds completely.  I was excited to be going to Germany for a food writing and photography workshop, where I would be meeting dynamic and talented food bloggers as well as connecting with the wonderful friends I have made through blogging.   I would spend a week in Germany – a couple of days in Frankfurt, head to Weimar for the workshop and then off to Heidelberg to explore a bit there.

Two days into the workshop, inexplicably, I hit absolute rock bottom…the lowest point of depression that I have ever hit, and one that I was absolutely terrified of.  For the first time in my life, thoughts of suicide entered my mind.  I was startled.  And scared.    What was wrong with me???  Why was I so broken???  Here I was, in a beautiful place, surrounded by incredible people, having a great time, laughing, engaged, being creative, learning new things… I should feel happy, not haunted by feelings of hopelessness.  If I couldn’t feel happy in a situation like this, would I ever be able to feel happy again???  I was devastated.  For the rest of the workshop I was distracted with these questions circles hrough my head.  I didn’t know what to do.  I felt disconnected from everything around me, and suddenly desperate to get home to my husband, to something I knew would feel comforting and safe.  I was frightened enough by my sudden relapse that I even called from Germany and made a doctor’s appointment for after I would return home.  I told hubby what I was going through, and he soothed me as best he could from half-way around the world. Somehow, in the middle of this crisis, I knew that I *had* to tell those close to me what was going on.  One thing I had been angry with Gilbert for was for not asking for help, when he was surrounded by friends who would have done anything to help him if they were given the chance.  I was not going to make the same mistake. I knew I there was no way I going to make it through this alone.

Coming home, I confided in my closest friend one evening, who shook her head knowingly and said to me  “It’s hard, not being in your own mind, isn’t it?”.  It was nice to know that people understood, though it would be several days before I would truly “get what she was talking about.  It seems that she and my husband were both aware of something I was oblivious to; that I was experiencing classic withdrawal.  I saw my doctor, who recommended I go back up to the last dose that I felt good at – one pill a day – and that maybe in a few months time, we could try the weaning process again.  I agreed, heartbroken that I had taken such a huge step back, when everything had seemed to be going so well.  I filled my prescription and went home.  Three days later, I came across the list I had saved of withdrawal symptoms, when I read them all the way through to the very last one… “WORSENED  DEPRESSION”.  It was like a thunderbolt to me – all this time I had been wondering what was wrong with ME, was I ever going to feel like ME again…. in actuality, the way I was feeling had nothing to do with me, it was the drug!!!  I immediately felt like a 1000 lb weight had been lifted off of me.  I was not broken, and feeling “normal” again felt like a possibility!   When I called my friend to tell her of my revelation, she said “I thought you knew what I meant the other night – that you’re just going through withdrawal!”  Hubby was also under the impression that I was aware of the side-effects, but I was oblivious.

I called to make another appointment with my doctor (whom I was pretty upset with, for not explaining to me that this was the drug doing all of this), but wouldn’t be able to see her for another week.  I went down to the pharmacy, to get a “second opinion”, now aware that they would know more about the drug I was taking than my doctor apparently did.  They told me I would still have to consult with my physician, but recommended a possible treatment plan to help lessen these side effects.  I also immediately went back on the 1-pill-every-3-days plan, armed with more knowledge and determined to push through this rough patch and reach my goal of eventually being drug-free.  A week later, my doctor and I worked out a much slower taper for finally getting off the meds.  It took the rest of the summer, and there were still some minor hiccups with but I eventually took my last pill.

With all of this going on, I stopped blogging.  As time went on it became harder and harder for me to contemplate starting again – I was avoiding it and all of the other social media I used to take part in.  I think in reality, I was avoiding telling the truth, and having to answer to many questions to the friends I had made through my blog.  Even with all I had learned over these past few years, there is still a lot of shame that goes along with this illness.  Most of it is self-imposed, but it’s still there.

It’s another winter here in Alberta, and hubby and I still haven’t realized (yet!) the dream of moving away to a place where the winters are bearable and where we can live the life we want, but we’re getting closer and not giving up.  He changed jobs after more than 22 years with the same company, and is enjoying the new job, and all of the new things he’s had to learn.  He’s away from me for a month at a time now, which presents a new set of challenges for us, but we’re both in a better headspace now, and able to face those challenges together.  I’m aware that being alone and dealing with winter means I have to work at keeping myself out of the emotional ditch, so to speak, so I stay busy, make sure that I get plenty of time around other people, because it helps me tremendously.  Life’s road will still have plenty of potholes and speed bumps, but having survived the past 5 years together, I know we can conquer anything.

I hope that by telling my story, I can help give hope to even one other human being out there who is struggling to keep their head above water. If I can help just one person make the choice to stay alive and fight and not end up like Gilbert, then all of this will have been worth it.  No matter how hopeless and alone you may feel, you need to know that you are loved, you are not broken, and you are worth saving

 

Things I have learned about depression:

  • Depression is a both a mental illness as well as a physiological disease.  Left untreated, it can actually shrink the brain’s hippocampus and potentially cause permanent damage
  • Most people who experience depression are not aware of it until it becomes severe.  The key warning sign for me is when I no longer have any interest in doing things I normally love…baking, photography, shopping
  • Depression is not something that you can just “snap out of” on your own, nor will it fade or lessen on it’s own like the an event-related sadness we all experience throughout our lives.
  • Anti-depressants were the right decision for me at the time.  That does not mean that they are the right decision for everyone else on the planet, nor would I ever suggest that they are.  Only you and your health practitioners can decide what treatment is best for you
  • One tool I find helpful for me is writing.  Physical pen-to-paper and letting everything inside me spill out onto the page seems to get those things out of my head so I can move forward. Everyone is different, but this one works wonders for me
  • Having depression doesn’t mean you are “weak” or “lazy”, nor are you introverted,  lacking motivation, or whatever other character flaw you want to associate with it – there are plenty of funny, dynamic, incredibly successful people in the world who have battled this disease.  Thankfully, more and more of them are talking openly about it, breaking down the stigmas associated with depression
  • The most important thing you can do for yourself is TALK TO SOMEONE – a loved one, a trusted friend, even reach out and write to me { leaveroomfordessert (at) gmail (dot) com}- it doesn’t matter who it is, but it is essential for you to do it.  You will quickly learn that you are not alone, and you will have made the brave decision to ask for help

Whether you or someone you know is suffering from depression, I absolutely recommend watching the following documentaries.  Education and insight are the only way that we can fight the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

  • “This Emotional Life” PBS Television Series with Daniel Gilbert
  • “Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me.” by Michael Landsberg of TSN

 

 

9 comments


  • Reading these words really touched my heart. I am really really really happy and relieved that you pulled through this long and dark tunnel.
    Having a good doc and a prompt diagnosis is extremely important and I am glad you got it!
    Welcome back with us, I really hope to be seeing you ASAP in this side of the pond :-)
    Missed ya!!

    9 February, 2012
    • Alessio! Thank you so much – you are right, having a good doctor and being diagnosed is very important! Getting diagnosed quickly can be so hard in this situation, especially when most people suffering from depression either A) don’t realize it, B) dismiss their feelings as “just having an off day” or C) are afraid to be diagnosed….. I am guilty of all three.

      I was so very much not myself when I finally got to meet you in person my dear. You will definitely see me on your side of the pond again, and I you will get to meet the real me – the really fun one! ;)

      love & hugs
      Julia

      13 February, 2012
  • OMIGOSH, this was a lot you’ve been going through, I am sorry you had to go through all this. While I really enjoyed meeting you in Weimar I had no idea you were feeling that way :(

    we were thinking you were in the middle of moving elsewhere in the world while you were going through this emotional nightmare. I am glad that you are back and feeling better.

    Depression still too often misunderstood and accompanied by guilt which does not help either – talking about it and raising awareness is the only way to help those around us who struggle with this. and yes I am talking out of my own experience.

    I am happy that you found your way back into blogging and am looking forward to see this blog come to life again!!

    10 February, 2012
    • Astrid, Simone – thank you both so much for your kind words and support. No one can possibly know what is going on inside another person’s mind, especially when they have only just met. I was in so much shock to find myself in such a dark place mentally when I was surrounded by so many great people and doing so many great things – I honestly didn’t know what to do. If it had to happen, I only wish it could have happened when it wouldn’t have taken my focus away from what we were all in Weimar to do – learn, grow & make new friends. I’m glad I still got those those three things before everything went sideways on me.

      I am truly sorry that you have both seen depression touch your lives – I don’t wish this on anyone, but it is so much more common than any of us know.

      Love and hugs to you both
      xoxoxo
      Julia

      …Simone – every time I go into my YAY-peg folder, I think of you and smile ;)

      11 February, 2012
  • Sweet sweet Julia…. In a way I feel bad that we – apparently – did not notice what was happening when we were all together in Germany! I’ve recently had two of my closest friends diagnosed with depression too so I have experienced the effect of this terrible illness that a lot of people don’t understand. I guess it is hard to understand until it hits you or someone close to you. I’ve also always thought that it would be something you could control until the people I would never have thought susceptible “caught” it and it turned out to be quite different.
    Thanks for sharing your story so honestly as I’m sure it will be of benefit to a LOT of people out there that feel alone or misunderstood. Hope you continue to feel better!
    Hugs
    Simone

    11 February, 2012
  • Julia, sweetie. I was wondering what had happened to you – you popped into my mind the other week and I didn’t see any updates to your blog since May, then I realised stupid Twitter had unfollowed you for me and I had made a note to go back to your blog and now I come back to see this. I am so so sorry for everything you have gone through but very very glad that you have it “out there”. It sounds like you are on the road to healing. Sending many many hugs XOX

    23 February, 2012
    • Mardi – you’re so sweet. It is good to be back, and getting back into the swing of things online. It had been so long, it took me half an hour to remember how to post & format….lol
      thanks for the hugs – right back at ya! xox

      28 February, 2012
  • Viola pie-ola

    Welcome back indeed. Your words are so powerful and so important. I’m glad that you & hubby have been able to hold on to each other through all of it. Please, anyone who’s reading this, if it happens to you, please try to reach out no matter how hard it seems, no matter how futile it feels, no matter if it’s a friend of twenty years or twenty minutes. For Gilbert.

    11 April, 2012
    • Thank you so much Vi, hubby and I are both glad we made it through as well ;)
      And your encouragement for others brings tears to my eyes…. Thank you. xo

      15 April, 2012

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