At seventeen I visited my first shrink, an elderly widowed woman who explained the anal phase while offering fresh-squeezed lemonade. As I spoke of knotty terrors and homosexual impulses she encouraged me to see cause and effect. Perhaps if I could choose not to be gay the “conflicting” emotions would clear up the same way my acne was currently being cured by Benzoyl Peroxide. At least she was conversant.
To describe my second shrink as taciturn is like saying a tongueless man is garrulous. He charged seventy dollars an hour to stare at me, and I can scarcely remember him speaking more than a few hundred words over three year’s worth of sessions, but the takeaway was that I was too close to my mother and I would only find relief from what plagued me by transferring repressed anger. He showed a keen interest in the fiction of my dreams but when I described having been traumatically bullied by peers, he robotically nodded and urged me to get back to decoding symbols from my unconscious.
By the age of twenty-two I had learned one thing from all that wasted talk—psychoanalysts are charlatans. For years I had been, on and off, melancholy, anxious, and haunted by morbid thoughts of death and disease, yet neither professional had helped me in any tangible way. They were overpaid soothsayers at best, dangerous narcissists at worst. This flash of insight came during a horrifying personal crises—my boyfriend had just been told that he was HIV positive, which put me next in line for the dreaded blood test. When I shared the news with shrink number two, he flinched. I suddenly understood that this guy was helpless to help me. He was so subordinate to the method, so mechanistic by his training that he was utterly incapable of offering real, honest human sympathy. If I had ever wished to take him seriously during those three years it vanished the second I realized that he was a man who had never been tested, never tossed into hell. What he knew of other people’s lives he had learned from academic demagogues and graduate school dictum, not from living an actual life of his own.
My HIV test result was negative, but the crises had pushed me too far. I disavowed the diagnosis and convinced myself that either the test was incorrect—a false negative, or I had been given someone else’s results.
After college I moved to San Francisco for no good reason. I rarely worked, accomplished little, and watched my boyfriend destroy the tail end of his life with street drugs and promiscuous sex. His health was in fast decline but somehow he managed to believe otherwise. Shortly after San Francisco’s second most violent earthquake in history, we broke up. I transitioned by becoming involved with a borderline sociopath in search of a new identity: someone else’s. Insanely, we moved to my home state. There, he stole money from my parents and filed a false police report against me for allegedly urinating “f*ck you” in the snow outside his apartment.
The crack-up, at twenty-nine, came in two stages. First, I fell into an almost hallucinogenic terror. When I looked in the mirror I saw a man ravaged by AIDS—hoary spots on my tongue, swollen glands, skin lesions. My family tried to convince me that they saw no physical symptoms but I refused to believe them. My sister dragged me to a doctor, who also found no disease, but did point out, kindly, that I was perhaps not in my right mind, and encouraged me to get that follow-up HIV test I’d been avoiding. Please, I said, give me every test on the market and run them all twice, at two different labs, on opposite sides of the country. The tests were negative, and for a brief time I enjoyed a manic high, but the elation eventually diminished, and depression returned.
The following year, I fell ill with an intestinal infection. I took antibiotics, which worsened the symptoms. Strangely I ended up in a proctologist’s office surrounded by two gastroenterologists and a visiting immunology intern from India. Because I had confided my sexual history they seemed enthusiastically intent on diagnosing me with AIDS, but to their disappointment the problem was merely an inflamed bowel, a bad reaction to antibiotics. The treatment? Another antibiotic and a strict diet of applesauce and water. Not surprisingly, four straight weeks of acute diarrhea is exhausting. I spent my hours sleeping and watching sitcoms. During an episode of Friends, a booming voice hijacked my thoughts: “Die, asshole.”
Fearing the onset of psychosis, I informed shrink number seven (I had by then discovered the benefits of Cognitive Therapy, virtually the opposite of psychoanalysis) that suicide was demonstratively calling my name. He strongly urged me to try the anti-depressant medication Prozac, but psychoactive drugs had always unsettled me, and the few I had tried only aggravated my symptoms. The good news: debilitating diarrhea was not a known side effect of taking Prozac. I agreed to swallow the pill.
Initially, I felt mildly agitated but not unpleasantly so, and I had more mental clarity than usual. The suicidal thoughts lessened. All told, I assumed that Prozac was working and I scarcely expected more, so it came as a stunning surprise when my desaturated world was restored to vivid color. In a sensuous rush, I remembered the good feelings that had once filled my heart. Depression had long-imprisoned my better nature but somehow my brain had kept it safe. After years of living in a glass box, helplessly staring out at an inaccessible world, Prozac handed me a sledgehammer.
Life after depression is an interesting journey. The existential aspect of it especially struck me—if I am not depressed, what am I? Depression may be a fiendish soul-sucker, but if it hangs around long enough it becomes your companion, a tragic friend who is better than no friend at all. Not to say that I missed being depressed, not in the least, I was both profoundly happy to see it go and a little frightened that it would come back to stalk me like a great white shark rising from the blackness.
If a blue and white pill could fix my brain’s damaged chemistry, what did this tell me? Was depression like diabetes or hypothyroidism, simply requiring a supplement to restore a deficit? Had my lifelong concept of “self” been determined by depression, and now that it was vanquished, would my personality change?
Ultimately, there is no simple way to explain, or define, depression. Depression is certainly a mental illness that flails along a wide curve and is mixed up with any number of other behavioral issues. It is clinically categorized for the sake of diagnoses—prescribing medication, hospitalization, as a legal tool, but none of these definitions fully reveal the breadth of depression. In lay terms, depression is still woefully misunderstood. Many people assume it’s just a type of sadness, something that can be willed away with a positive attitude.
I assure you, depression is not sadness. Sadness in all of its guises can be many things but to define depression merely as being sad is a fallacy. In my darkest times I would have welcomed an ordinary bout of sadness, the kind that other people have when their dog dies—a few tears and a couple of gloomy days later and all is well.
It took a few years for me to completely trust Prozac’s benefits. For a time, I reflected on the 1960’s novel Flowers for Algernon, a story about a mentally disabled man named Charlie who gains high intelligence after experimental surgery. Near the end of the book the procedure reverses itself and Charlie slowly declines to his formerly impaired state. Interestingly, I tried more than once to go off Prozac, and each time my depression came back and clobbered me. I think it took a total of three massive failures before I finally accepted that I’m on medication for life. Perhaps testing the waters was a necessary part of my recovery, although I don’t know why one round of self-abuse wasn’t enough.
I accept that depression will always be a part of me. Something that big leaves a permanent footprint. Depression strips you of what you are meant to be, it pillages and plunders until the self is shriveled, desiccated, ossified. But I am free now, free to feel pleasure and sadness. Today, my world is dimensional and nuanced, words spring from the page, the color of a leaf enriches my day, people are interesting. I manifest, I produce, I create—these are the very definitions of being truly alive.
About the author:
You can visit Shane at his blog The Passionate Gardener