Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sweet Rose

On this Memorial Day, I am remembering my mother in law. She died 19 years ago this month. It seems like hardly any time has passed, and that a lifetime has passed.

Mary Margaret Cook Jensen was her name. She died way before her time of breast cancer, too soon to see her grandchildren grow up, too soon to see her oldest son married, or to live out her golden years with her husband.
Margaret Jensen as a young woman

Margaret, as I knew her, made family her top priority. With four children, she must have been crazy busy. She volunteered a lot in her community, her church, and at school. She had a fantastic sense of humor, often smirking quietly at the things she found humorous. (Those of us who have married into the Jensen clan might know why.)

The things I remember most about her are her love of books and of music, which is her legacy to her children and grandchildren. All of Margaret's grandchildren are musical and voracious readers. She would love that.

She was fond of Masterpiece Theater, travel, movies, and classical music. She was also a really good cook, and we still make many of David's favorite recipes from his childhood.

I remember her when I look at the man she raised, whom I married. He reflects all the best parts of her. He has a vast sense of humor, an integrity not often seen in people these days, a loyalty to his family, honor, intelligence, thoughtfulness, a generous and caring spirit. He works hard, doesn't complain about his lot in life, and pushes on no matter what.

I remember her when I look at her grandchildren, who are kind, smart, funny, and musical. They all love to read, and I know she would be proud of them. Peter never met her, Emily was still an infant when Margaret died, and Melissa was very young. She might not remember her Granny much, but she carries those genes around with her.

Margaret's memory has been carried on in many different ways: a memorial children's reading room in the Hot Springs Library, yellow roses at family gatherings, visits to her grave when we are there. But mostly her memory is carried around in the people still living who were part of her life. I am pretty sure she would laugh, smile, and be inwardly so proud if she could see them all now.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Story of My Depression

I was going to write some sappy piece about Mother's Day, but you know what? I want to write about depression. Now, hold on, don't get me wrong. I don't associate Mother's Day with depression. Motherhood does not equal depression. But I have been feeling this tug lately to share what depression has been like for me, mostly because I think a lot of people don't really understand it as a disease and don't really accept it as a disease. The only connection it has with being a mother, for me, is that I wish I had gotten help sooner, because I would have been a better mother in my children's early years. I think I did pretty well anyway, mostly because I gave every single ounce of myself to the job, and because I am a supremely strong human being who was able, miraculously, to do what I needed to do for my children despite my disease.

Let me start by saying that I have had depression for about as long as I can remember. It wasn't too severe until I became an adult. I guess everyone assumes teenagers are going to be full of angst anyway, so maybe it wasn't really apparent then. I don't know. Even so, I was able to function okay. I suffered severe migraines for many years, and sometimes I wonder if they weren't partly from hanging on so tightly and trying to be so strong.  Who knows? As a young adult, I knew I felt horrible, and I wanted to seek counseling, but it seemed like an expense we couldn't afford. So I just kept  hanging in there.

When my children were very young, I honestly believe breastfeeding kept me going. You may not realize this, but breastfeeding releases hormones, the same feel good hormones that are released during orgasm. Not to get too graphic here, but these hormones are relaxing and very helpful when you have depression. So it was probably a good thing I made the choice to breastfeed. Even so, the depression was there all the time. It manifested mostly as anger. And I was angry a lot. I threw things. I yelled and screamed. It was as if I knew I couldn't just collapse and fall into the dark abyss of my soul, so I got mad about it instead. At least I functioned, that was my thinking. A lot of people I love had to bear witness to this anger. My husband and children, my parents. I know I did things that hurt them all. I hope they all see that it was the disease and not me. Or that they at least forgive me.

I LOVED being a mom. Still love being a mom. But as we all know, it's incredibly difficult in the best of times. It's really hard when you suffer from a debilitating disease. I'm sure I messed up a lot with my children, but I also feel really fortunate that they are pretty okay. Not perfect, but better than I was at their ages. And I think my depression helped me understand things that helped me be a better mother. I think it helped me see what my children needed in a very deep way.

I am a really, really strong person. That also helped keep me going. I knew how strong I was, particularly after delivering the very large baby that is Peter. He was 10 lb., 10 oz at birth, and I felt incredibly empowered to have delivered him at home with no drugs. I think that kept me going for a while, too.

Eventually, though, I used up all my energy, all my stores of strength, all my resources by being so strong. And then I wasn't strong at all. I fell apart. I sensed myself drowning, madly trying to tread water but barely staying afloat.I got physically very sick, unable to really get well. I felt like I was at the bottom of the darkest hole, alone, unable to climb out. I couldn't, wouldn't, think about suicide, because I couldn't do that to my children. But I didn't know how much longer I could hang on.

That's when my husband saved me. He reached in, pulled me out of the hole, and sent me to counseling. My counselor helped me decide to try anti-depressants, and I turned to my doctor, who prescribed something. It seemed to help a little, but not too much. She upped the dosage, which made me really sick.

My counselor helped me find a psychiatrist who specializes in depression and anti-depressant meds. They helped me find the right meds and dose for me. It took a while, but I started to feel like a human being.

The only problem was that once I got the depression under control I discovered that I had pretty much depleted my physical body of all its strength in order to fight through each day. I had depleted my thyroid, my adrenals, my iron stores. I am still working on repairing those aspects of my health. But the depression is under control.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it was for me to find a medication that helped me without harming me, and I did.

Here's the thing. I don't think most people really understand depression. Especially since our culture seems to prescribe anti-depressants for all kinds of things. Some people don't need meds for a long while. Some just need them to "get over a hump." How I wish I was one of those people. I don't like taking drugs, which is probably why it took me so long to get to the point where I had no choice. In fact, with my psychiatrist's help, I have attempted to barely even lower my dose several times. It doesn't work. Even a tiny reduction sends me falling down the black hole again.

So I had to accept that this is my life. I have depression. I always will. It is not a personal failing. It is not because I'm weak that I have to take these meds. I KNOW I am stronger than most people. I made it through 20 years of depression without help. How I did that, I still have no real idea, but I know it was because I was strong.

I don't talk about my depression very often, because I feel a bit ostracized. I think our society views it as weak. It's also immensely personal. It's hard to bare that to other people. But I am doing so now because I want people to understand it better. To know how it feels to live in this skin.

I think what prompted this whole opening up was a friend's question about why I have to see the psychiatrist every four months. I told her that they want to make sure I'm still doing okay with this med at this dose. And that some people struggle for years to find the right med. And that some people have bad experiences with meds, like feeling they want to commit suicide. She's a nurse, and this was news to her. So if she didn't know, then probably most people don't know.

You see those ads on TV that say "depression hurts" and all those things. Yes it does. It does hurt physically. It also hurts deep down in your innermost being. I am not a sad person. Depression isn't about being sad. It's not an emotional thing. It a brain chemical thing. It's physical. I am a happy, generous, active person, but depression made me feel like a wreck, a failure, a monster. That wasn't me. The meds simply (actually it's quite complicated) override that brain chemistry and allow me to be the true me.

So I guess the whole point of my writing this is to tell everyone who feels those things that there is help for you. You are not weak to need help. Do we tell a person with diabetes that they are weak for needing insulin? Of course not. You can live a great life if you want to. Depression does not have to drown you. Find someone in your life who will reach in and pull you out and help you find the treatment you need. It's hard, I know. It's embarrassing to admit that you are no longer strong enough to manage. That you have used up yourself. Like being eaten alive from the inside. Hang on. Ask for help. It is out there. And if you don't get the right meds on the first try, don't give up. Go to an expert. Not a family doctor. (Nothing against family doctors, mind you.)

If anything, depression has made me stronger than I was before. It has made me a better mother, because it gives me insight to see things in my children that might not appear on the surface. It gives me a heart of compassion for all beings who suffer. It makes me full of gratitude for my husband who loved me enough to hang in there with me. It makes me see more truly what is important. So that's the sappy part.

And Happy Mother's Day.