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Surprised by Depression

Discovering my enemy had a name helped turn my marriage around

My husband came home from work and found me, as usual, huddled in one corner of the sofa listening to the clock tick. Our five-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, was playing Barbies by herself in the cold kitchen. No smells of dinner beckoned from the oven. In fact, crusty dishes from yesterday and the day before filled the counter and sink.

Larry spent several minutes picking up the worst of the clutter, then prepared a quick supper of canned soup and crackers. Over dinner he tried to engage me in conversation, asking about a book deadline I was facing. I told him I was still lagging behind, offering no further explanation.

After dinner, I felt too exhausted to help clean up. I was relieved when it was finally time to put Kaitlyn to bed. I lay down next to her under the guise of keeping her company until she fell asleep. But in reality, I couldn't wait to close my eyes and give in to sleep myself.

I had been exhausted for months. I slept long hours every night—and during the day as well. In fact, at any given time of day or night, I found myself able to sit on the couch, close my eyes, and drop immediately into the deepest of sleeps.

I wasn't completely sure what was happening to me. All I knew was that something was terribly wrong. But perhaps the most frightening development of all was that I didn't care.

Clueless in Texas

I had always been an optimistic person with lots of friends. I'd been married for ten years and had a successful husband, a beautiful daughter, and the writing career of which I'd always dreamed.

I should have been on top of the world. Instead, for nearly a year I had been unable to cope with even the simplest of tasks. I seemed to have virtually stopped functioning. I never cooked or cleaned house, and I went days without changing my clothes, combing my hair, or brushing my teeth. I was unable to concentrate or think clearly, and even the smallest decision left me feeling overwhelmed.

When I wasn't feeling overwhelmed, I wasn't feeling anything. Not angry or sad or happy or hopeful. Nothing. It was as though all of my emotions had simply clicked into the off position. Typically, a passionate person given to zany brainstorms and can-do dreams, I suddenly couldn't think of a single thing in my life to look forward to.

Larry later told me that he just figured I was under pressure with a book deadline. He assumed I was too busy writing to take care of myself or our home. His solution at the time was to do more things around the house, to try to pick up the slack. He now realizes he should have been asking more questions instead of just washing more dishes. But he'd never seen anyone suffering from depression before. He didn't know how to respond.

For nearly a year I had been unable to cope with even the simplest of tasks. I seemed to have virtually stopped functioning.

As I continued to spiral, Larry tried on several occasions to draw me out of my shell. I remember one evening in particular.

"Remember how you always said you wanted to start a magazine?" he asked. "When we got married it was all you talked about. I know I said at the time it would cost too much money, but I've been thinking and I know you could do it. It would be worth the investment. What do you think?"

He tried other tactics, dangling all the dreams that had driven me in the past like a carrot, but nothing caught my eye. He even volunteered to quit the job that he loved—the job that had prompted our recent relocation from California to Texas—and move our little family back to California where I could be near friends and family.

"I'll do anything, Karen," he pleaded. "Just tell me what I can do to help."

I began to cry. "I think we need counseling. Please go with me to counseling."

He winced and shook his head. "I'll do anything, Karen. Anything, but that."

Looking back, Larry says that he should have agreed to counseling when I asked. "Somehow I'd gotten the idea that counseling was for folks who were socially unbalanced or who didn't have their act together," Larry says.

Of course, I also should have gone for counseling for myself, with or without my husband.

But around that time, I made an appointment to see a family doctor in our area, hoping he might be able to recommend some vitamins to help me feel better. Instead, he gave me a checklist to fill out. He evaluated my answers, then said the three magic words that brought both terror and hope into my life: "You're clinically depressed."

Depression is a scary word. And yet a wave of relief surged over my numb and exhausted spirit. My enemy had a name. And if it had a name, maybe it had a cure. I felt the first stirrings of a fragile hope. Maybe I could lick this thing yet.

The doctor handed me a prescription. He also gave me some advice: "Exercise for half an hour, three to five times a week. As much good as the medication will do, the exercise will do that much or more."

I thought Prozac and sweat made an odd combination. I know now that it's not so strange after all. Long-term depression can occur as chemistry in the brain gets out of whack. Think of a swimming pool: With the right balance of chemicals, a pool stays clear and clean. But when the chemistry gets out of balance, the pool becomes cloudy and algae-filled, and it can take months to get things balanced and clear again.

Both medication and exercise impact brain chemistry in a positive way. Medication can replenish seratonin, while exercise releases feel-good endorphins.

I wish I had listened to my doctor. Instead, I only followed his advice for about a week—my concentration was so bad I never remembered to take my pills.

As a result, my downhill slide continued. One day I was driving on the freeway when I zoned out and began to drift into the next lane of traffic. A horn blast from the car on my left jolted me back into reality. I jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, overcompensating and sending my little Honda into a spiral. I spun across three lanes of cars and ended up facing oncoming traffic as I slid sideways onto the muddy shoulder of the freeway.

I sat stunned for several minutes until, trembling, I got the car turned around and headed home. I didn't tell my husband about the close call; I just went home and went to bed. It just didn't seem to matter anymore.

At the Crossroads

That June my daughter and I traveled to California to spend a month with my parents. Perhaps it was the change of scenery. Perhaps it was seeing my parent's shock over my numb and lifeless state. Perhaps it was the fact that my folks dragged me with them every morning for a brisk walk. (At first, I was hard-pressed to walk ten minutes. Before long, we were up to 45!)

Whatever the reason, a little of my stupor began to lift, and I knew I had to do something drastic—though not necessarily positive—to reclaim my life.

Larry remembers just getting home from work when he got my phone call. I told him I was at the end of my rope and that I wasn't coming back to Texas. "It took me 20 minutes to throw a few things in a knapsack and hit the road," Larry says. "I drove through the night and the next day as well."

By the next afternoon, he was on the doorstep of my parent's house. He didn't know what was happening to me. All he knew was that he loved me and that he was willing to do anything to save me and his marriage.

This time when the topic of counseling came up, we were both in agreement. We would return together to Texas. And we would work together to get whatever professional help was necessary.

Not a Quick Fix

We went to counseling for two years. Sometimes we went together and worked on some of the issues in our marriage that led to my depression. Other times I went by myself and sorted through layers of anger and hurt that, compressed and unresolved, had robbed me of my zest for life.

I went back on Prozac. My battle strategy was two-fold: I turned to counseling to deal with the my past issues while relying on medication to correct the resulting chemical imbalances that had kept me there.

There were many days I thought we were getting nowhere. I alternated between depression and anger. Some days I felt worse than ever. Still, I kept my appointments with my counselor. I cried. I wrote in my journal. I went for walks, sometimes to exercise, sometimes just to reflect.

I wish I could say that I spent hours in prayer, but the truth is that I felt too numb to pray. I remember sitting in my parked car one night and sobbing, "Jesus, I can't take it anymore. You've got to do something. I don't care what or how, but you've got to help me, please!" Other than that, I felt too wounded to pray. I know now that Jesus hears us even when we're hurting too badly to say the words.

My wild midnight run was marked by an awakening of my five senses and by the first stirrings of hope and joy that I had experienced in a very long time.

Late one night I stepped out onto the back porch to feed our golden retriever, and I suddenly had this urge to run.

Our house sits on an acre, and the backyard is bordered by evergreens that loom tall and black when the sun goes down. Chased by our dog, I ran toward the trees at the back of the lot. Overhead, the stars glimmered like diamonds against black velvet, and the cold January night air stung my face and arms and lungs. The moon, hung like a silver earring in the sky, illuminated my crazy path as I ran circles in the grass. I stopped then and watched my breath hang misty and white before me. I smelled promise in the air. I heard the panting of my dog beside me.

That was the first time I knew, really knew, that I was going to be okay. Looking back, my wild midnight run was marked by an awakening of my five senses, but it was also marked by the first stirrings of hope and joy that I had experienced in a very long time.

There's Good News and Bad News …

Unattended problems in my marriage led to my depression, but in an odd twist of events, my depression may have helped save my marriage. After two years of counseling, I felt more alive than I had in a long time, and Larry and I were closer than ever before. It felt, in fact, like a new marriage. I teased him, saying, "My first marriage was horrible. But my second marriage is great!"

The bad news is that people who have experienced clinical depression are at great risk of experiencing it again. Indeed, twice in the past eight years, I have felt myself beginning to slide back into the abyss that claimed my life for several years.

Fortunately, Larry and I are better equipped this time around to recognize the symptoms before things get out of hand. One night I went to him and said, "The depression is right behind me and it's gaining ground. I'm feeling overwhelmed and I'm slipping. Please help me."

We brainstormed together and came up with five significant changes to reduce stress in our lives. Another time we turned back to counseling.

Marriages have struggles. So do individuals. At least in my life, these problems were very treatable. The real culprit was denial. Larry and I both wish we had obtained help sooner for both our marriage and my depression.

In my writing and speaking, I sometimes talk about depression. As a result, I get e-mails and letters all the time from women saying, "What a relief! I thought I was the only one going through this."

I always write back with this message: "There is joy and hope and life and laughter after depression. But you can't beat it on your own. Get smart. Get help. Get well. I survived The Great Depression—I know that you can, too."

Karen Linamen is a frequent speaker, a contributing writer for Today's Christian Woman, and the author of eight books, including, Just Hand Over the Chocolate and No One Will Get Hurt (Revell). She also writes a weekly humor column, "The Funny Farm," published online at www.women-of-faith.com.

Are You Depressed?

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 80 percent of people with clinical depression can now be successfully treated, usually with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Use the following checklist to determine if you or someone you know if suffering from clinical depression. If five or more of the following symptoms have lasted for more than two weeks, call a doctor as soon as possible:

  • Feelings of sadness and/or irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure once enjoyed
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless, or worthless
  • Inability to concentrate, remember things, or make decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Restlessness or decreased activity noticed by others
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

For more information, call the National Mental Health Association at 800-228-1114 or visit their web site at www.nmha.org.

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