Saturday, December 8, 2007

Vitamin Z

It's a gray December morning - the beginning of a long, slushy, gray winter here in the rustbelt, the beginning of the S.A.D. season. Soon my neighbor Marsha will start saying, "I've got to get one of those full-spectrum lamps!" She and I agree on that every winter, but neither of us does it because it's just too icky to go out. Then every Spring we forget. But if a door-to-door salesman came down our street tomorrow, selling those lamps at a reasonable price, he could clear out his inventory on our block alone. So if I'm a little down today, a little blah, there's nothing out of the ordinary in that. Except that, in my family, every brush with depression is like walking near a precipice; as my mother says, depression doesn't just run in our family, it gallops. Here's an incomplete list of the toll it has taken on us. My great great grandfather - a mostly white man who had tried to help the Eastern cherokee - died in an insane asylum speaking only Cherokee. My grandmother's sister hung herself after having the flu. Her brother committed suicide too, (they say he had a forbidden love for an Asian woman. Eeek!). My grandmother's husband, my mother's father, committed suicide by jumping out the window of his law office.

When I was little, my mother used to tell me, among many other stories, the stories of these people. They were all had comfortable lives, people who loved them, reasons to live. Most often, she would tell me about her beloved father, driven to insanity at the end of his life because he was terrified he was getting alzheimers. And she used to say things to me like, "If you ever get the flu and feel like doing something 'bad' to yourself, promise you'll call me first."
"OK mommy," I'd answer. "I'll call you," not exactly knowing what we were talking about.

My mother also says, "It's not that the depression is so bad. It's the cure we choose that's awful." By which she means, when the door to the unthinkable is opened, it never closes completely again. Knowing my grandfather walked out a sixth-floor window one day, gives any height a double fear for me: 1. I might fall accidentally 2. I might fall on purpose. Because of what he did, I always know that "cure" is an option. So, ten years ago, when my middle daughter was diagnosed with autism, I followed my kin toward the edge, and had a nervous break down. Even though I had a wonderful husband and two beloved daughters, a comfortable life, and many, many people who loved and needed me (not least of all, my disabled daughter). The diagnosis simply snapped the ropes that held me to those moorings, and I drifted away into full, nonfunctional, depression. I remember lying in bed, unable to move because I was pinned down by an unbearable weight. It was like lying at the bottom of a dead ocean; and it wasn't so much that I wanted to kill myself. It was more that I wanted to stop living. It sapped all the love out of me. and it just hurt so damn much for my lungs to breathe, for my heart to pump blood.

But unlike any of my kin, I broke down in the age of pharmaceuticals. My doctor prescribed Zoloft, and within two weeks I no longer wanted to stop existing. Within a month I was able to remember love, to get out of bed and care for my people. So I am still here. I take my low dose of "Vitamin Z" every morning, because my mother was right; the depression is not so bad, and a very little bit of extra serotonin makes it all manageable. Which is not to say it's entirely disappeared. There are gray days and gray times when I hear my ancestors whispering. But I'm not afraid, anymore, that they'll pull me over the edge. One little pill, and magically, no one in my generation has taken that final step off the ledge. i don't tell my children cautionary tales of flu and ropes and the dangers of high windows. I tell them that I take a pill, that if they need help, they can take pills. And i have hope that the sad list of wasted lives ends here, with me.


more cowbell said...

Wow, very interesting post. There's a bit of that on my maternal side. My great grandmother killed herself by drinking Lysol. My grandfather was the one who found her, at age 10. My mom, who became a psychiatric nurse later in life, realized he (my grandfather, her father) was almost certainly ... either bipolar or manic/depressive, I can't remember now what she said. Mom was always outwardly fine, functional, whatever, but she started taking Wellbutrin just several years ago as a result of another medical she was having, and says she wishes she'd had it much earlier in life. My grandfather would never ever talk about his mother.

SAD has been kicking my ass, hard, since moving to the PNW. I have one of those lights. A colleague noticed I was ... in need, shall we say, and left it at my office door. It helps, but ... not enough.

thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth said...

I think every family has its history that echoes into the present, lots of it difficult. I used to never talk about my breakdown because it frightened me so. I thought I might become one more on the list of those lost to our bad biochemical inheritance. But after years on it, I have come to have faith in the me that Zoloft has allowed me to become - a better, kinder, braver, and more creative me. And it does help me, at least, with winter/lack of sun sadness too. Though I still think a two week vacation to the Caribbean every January (for medicinal purposes only!) would cure it completely. Sadly, no one's taking me seriously on that....

Red7Eric said...

Wow -- heavy stuff. Glad that your low doses of "Vitamin Z" are working for you. I have a good friend who deals with depression and is in fact going through a serious episode at the moment, accompanied by heavy doses of Vitamin X -- he's been on the heavy meds a little too long for my comfort, but ... it's not my comfort I should be concerned with, so ... anyway.

Glad you've found a way to lift that terrible weight that kept you in bed for days.

Elizabeth said...

red7: Yes, I'm VERY lucky that my biochemistry responded so quickly and easily to the first drug I tried. I know people who have had to go on huge doses of antidepressants, with awful side effects, or who have had to try various drug cocktails.

I'm so sorry for your friend. It's hell.

more cowbell said...

If there was a prescription for traveling to sunshine, airfare and hotel covered, my life would be .... aaahhhhh.

Will said...

Well, at the moment it's 54, sunny and clear here in Davis, CA. I saw online that it was 70 out in Charlotte. Global warming hasn't been proven my ass.

Did the tropical thing last winter. I got some dirty looks when I started complaining about my sunburn in the third week of January.

Elizabeth said...

" the moment it's 54, sunny and clear here in Davis, CA."

You're heartless! You know if I could, I'd still be living in No. Cal. To think I made my husband get out of bed at 5 a.m. to make blueberry muffins with you when you were two years old!!! Where's your grattitude?

Luckily, your dad seems to have escaped the biochemical curse. Don't know where he got his (annoying) sense of zen-like equanimity, but I do believe he passed it on to you. Hope school is going well. Lotsa love

Will said...

Dunno where he got it, but I'm glad I ended up with a fair amount too. Otherwise I'd probably be having kittens right now - finals (I should probably be studying instead of posting on your blog...ah, procrastination). In fact, I have 3 in the next 24 hours, but it's not like they're all spread out, no no. 6-8PM, 8:30-10:30PM, then (here's the real kicker) 8-10 AM tomorrow morning, which is by far the most challenging class.

If it makes you feel any better, it's been bloody cold and windy the last week or two... In fact, if you want, I can give you the link to check the temperature at the Mt. Veeder property anytime you want - in real time (minus an hour or so). Will just knowing what the weather is like in CA help the S.A.D. (I suppose I should know this because I took a psych class a while back...)?

mumbliss said...

Dear e-beth, I am too tired after work today to really write any intellegent response to any of your intelligent and thought- provoking blog content, but, all I can say is you are doing a great job, I love you madly and you have a really wonderful nephew. How lame is that? I am taking a bow. Another bow, another bow. Kisses, blowing kisses, all directions, another bow, ooops, yes it is my behind, yes, it is a little bigger, yes, yes, more kisses, another bow. Yes, and tomorrow is a new day, yes.

Elizabeth said...

will: re the CA weather update... Nah, that's O.K. I remember VIVIDLY how cold it got on Mt. Veeder this time of year. 20+ years ago, K would have been taking his finals about now, and then we'd pack the car with presents (mostly for you!), and prepare to freeze our asses off at your house!

Finals- Oh groan. 8 a.m. double groan. Now that would give me some real S.A.D.

ATWB: Not lame in the least. I do have a wonderful nephew. As well as a very wonderful long-time friend. And it's extremely annoying that we don't live nearer one another so we can cackle over coffee. kisses back dear. And hugs.

pat said...

This is a touching post. Thanks for being brave and talking about it.
I have a dear friend who says she woke up one morning and knew something was Different. She was clinically depressed for three years.
She tried a lot of things, but in the end what made her feel better was 1) Regular exercise, and 2) Eating an occasional piece of fish or meat (she had been a strict vegetarian.) (I realize this comment may contradict the one I made about your post on hunters and gatherers, but, oh well.)

Elizabeth said...

Pat: I don't require inter-comment consistency. And anyway, occasional meat is what our ancestors ate, because the stoopid hunters only brought it back occasionally.

I'm glad your friend is OK. It's taken a long time for me to not be afraid that the depression will take me again. And also not to be ashamed of it as some kind of weakness. I always hope that openness about my own struggles will help someone, somewhere, with their own. Fear, hiding, shame only feed the darkness.