AS I OCCASIONALLY do in crises, I’m counting on my bountiful rack to provide a distraction. I’m wearing a plunging v-neck white tee shirt, hoping my chest draws focus from the dark bags under my eyes and my unwashed curly hair spiraling out from under its sky blue knit cap.
It’s late May and Seattle is unseasonably warm. My neighborhood sidewalks are crowded and when two passing guys stare way too long, I realize my left sleeve is now draped halfway down my bicep, leaving much breast and bra exposed. I look like an insomniac hipster prostitute.
Sometimes, I am the worst feminist ever.
I’m headed to the pharmacy and continue walking undeterred. Or maybe, beyond caring. I’ve slept less than 10 hours over the past five nights and objects in my peripheral vision are starting to liquify. Despite the heat, my teeth have been chattering since morning. At the best of times, I often need a cane or crutches to walk (I’ve had CFIDS, similar to MS, for 22 years), but right now, the crutches are all that prevent a skull-shattering face plant. I wrote poetry most of the night before, committing my swirl of racing thoughts to page. I can’t drive, obviously, and didn’t cab it because I’m hoping the long walk will help finally propel me to sleep.
My mind is a movie screen and a cruel trickster is running the projector, bombarding me with horrible images and echoes. A voice that sounds disturbingly reasonable, even soothing, keeps noting how peaceful things could be if I killed myself. Such episodes–I call them “chemical storms”–began when I was 12 and have returned throughout my life, but only a handful of loved ones and clinicians know. This is by far one of the worst and I’m scared like an animal that eluded the trap, only to find itself in a cage.
How the hell did I get here again?*
“You’re just like your mother! Be careful or this could happen to you!” Dad yelled as we drove to retrieve Mom’s car from the psych ward she’d unexpectedly checked herself into that morning.
“He’s right, Litz. You don’t want to end up there,” my brother Gus added from the passenger side of our wood-paneled Mercury Zephyr station wagon.
I sat in the back middle seat and remained still, as if epoxied to the burgundy vinyl. I’m naturally shy but dodge it with reflexive verbosity. This was a rare instance in which I was stunned speechless.
“You’re so much alike! You get depressed! You cry!” Dad continued. On the list of things you might want to hear from your dad while on the way to the psych ward where your mom was newly harbored, this ranked slightly above “Those bangs will never work on you” and a notch below “You’re actually Rosemary’s Baby.”
It was the start of my sophomore year at the University of Washington and Seattle’s autumn light beamed through the car windows. Gus had just begun his senior year of high school and proudly wore his letterman’s jacket. If you discounted the circumstances, it was a lovely pastoral afternoon. But Dad kept warning of my eventual mental collapse and Gus kept agreeing with him and, with the best of intentions, they rendered the already frightening events positively terrifying.
Because we knew Mom’s depression had flooded the house again, like a mutinous river or blood gushing from the elevator in “The Shining”. But its strength this time had caught us off guard. All four of us are Greek-American and prone to epic emotions (Greeks are the original dramatists, after all), but even compared to Dad, Gus, and me, Mom’s highs were far higher and her lows alarmingly cavernous. Or I’d always thought so, anyway. Now, like ringside judges, Dad and Gus were declaring Mom and me a draw in the Bout of Big Feelings.
Renowned depressive and eventual suicide Ernest Hemingway concluded at the end of his life, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” and in some ways, Mom exemplified his theory. A brilliant attorney and bibliophile, she both examined the big picture and noticed the smallest detail and that, of course, can lead to upheaval.
But when she was happy, her warmth radiated like the sun. She hosted rollicking Sunday dinners for our extended clan and at the holidays, always welcomed friends who had nowhere else to go, even providing chocolate Santa-filled stockings at Christmas. When Gus and I were kids, she taught us to roller-skate and read us everything from Beatrix Potter to Newsweek. In non-psych ward related matters, being compared to Mom was a great thing.
“I never want to see you in a place like this!” Dad kept repeating like the world’s worst wind-up toy as we drove into the hospital parking lot, his Greek accent thickening as it did during times of stress.
“It’s not like I’m planning on it, Dad!” I finally responded, exasperated. “Now does anyone actually know where Mom left her car?” I asked, trying to focus on matters at hand.
When I get to the front of the line, I explain to the pharmacist that my doctor has phoned in a rush order for Valium and for Zoloft. My shirt slides again and I’m wondering why I thought cleavage would help matters. Like, hey, I’m picking up two different rush-ordered mind meds, but don’t I look fertile? The pharmacist is matter-of-fact as he retrieves my order and I remind myself he sees a cornucopia of human behavior on any given day. I’m outwardly lucid, after all, and am able to calmly pay and sign my name.
As I turn to exit, “Back on the Zoloft again!” wafts through my head to the tune of “Back in the Saddle.”
I might be depressed, but can still ferret out a punch line and find this weirdly reassuring. Then I recall all the times in my twenties I consciously and subconsciously blamed Mom for her depression and am reminded I can be a cruel idiot.
By genes and by circumstance, I was as likely to escape major recurring depression as a bowl-roaster is to forego Doritos. Not only did depression profoundly impact Mom until she received proper treatment, but it also afflicted her similarly brilliant and dynamic parents. And CFIDS, of course, is degenerative, incurable and limits my mobility, often rendering me unable to leave the house for more than an hour or so. Four years ago, my partner died when I was 42. For good measure, I’m a writer. And a woman. (All research shows writers have a high rate of depression even compared to other artists and women are more prone to depression than are men.) If a scientist were to create a depressive in a lab, a sort of super-bummed out Frankenstein’s monster, she would resemble me, though maybe with a less awesome rack. (Again, I’m going off statistics here.)
So what in fucking hell was I doing off my Zoloft?
Well, two years ago, the dose I was on stopped working. Instead of asking my doctor to adjust the dose or to switch to a new anti-depressant, I decided to taper off it. I was still deep in the grieving process and–this really did make perfect sense at the time–I thought nothing short of ether would do any good, so the hell with it. I’d give my liver a break and let my mind fly solo for awhile. Also, I present atypically: while many depressives sleep more and do less, I tend to overcompensate, both in an attempt to outrun the awfulness and to throw everyone off the scent. As such, I publish frequently, have never missed a deadline and don’t leave the house without an impeccable swath of lipstick. As I told my former shrink, “You’ll always see me dressed up and I’ll sound articulate and funny and it won’t mean a goddamned thing.” The grim apotheosis: one of the times I called the Crisis Clinic, the volunteer concluded dismissively, “You sound totally fine.” And then she hung up.
But what happened in May has changed me. I wrote a long missive to two of my best friends and confessed how many times I’ve narrowly averted disaster. I gave them explicit permission to inquire whether or not I’m sticking to the Zoloft. And because they love me, they do. Each periodically checks in, not in a condescending way, but in a manner that shows they understand depression. They know that when I say part of me has wanted to die, I’m not being a dick. And they know bumper-sticker platitudes are worthless. My namesake died under Nazi occupation, for god’s sake: I know so much of my life is great and that I have an easier hand than most of our planet’s inhabitants. But when the death voice wails like an air raid siren, perspective falls victim to the noise.
Depression, by definition, makes those of who live with it feel incredible guilt. If we’re honest, we might worry our loves ones. But if we stay quiet, we’re risking our lives.
I will undoubtedly contend with further depressive episodes. And the CFIDS will continue to attack my body and, no matter what, my best friend will remain a wad of ashes in a titanium box.
But I really don’t want to die.
So here’s to 2014.
You guys aren’t getting rid of me that easily.