Hopefully, learning this physician’s secret will help you

I love my husband. Not in a common way. This love is an earth-shattering, jigsaw puzzle fit, Hallelujah chorus kind of love. I look at him and just reel with the awe of our having found each other. We complement each other. We are best friends and confidantes. We have a mutual respect that sees us through conflict and a collective sense of humor that keeps us laughing. And yet, I have a disease that, at its worst, made me want to turn away. Not from him, but from his need of me. From my role in his life.

My emotional reserve was so shallow that by afternoon, anything but solitude felt like an assault. I was obligated and determined to meet the needs of my daughters, and after that, I had nothing left.

I love my kids. We waited six long years to have them, and they are more than I ever could have designed. This vicious, lying thief of a disease left me walking the other way when I heard their sweet footsteps. “Please don’t need me. Please don’t need me” on repeat in my unwell mind.

I love my parents and sister. They love and support me unconditionally. But I hid my disease from them.

The energy it would take to reassure alluded me, leaving me in a selfish lie of omission which, were the tables turned, would hurt me deeply.

I love my God. Since age three, I’ve had an abiding, life-giving faith in my Creator. Yet this disease dulled my hope. I never lost faith, but I didn’t seek God for help.

I love my friends, yet I withdrew. I felt I had nothing to give, feeling scraped clean, turned inside out, and shaken empty by the basic responsibilities of life.

Every depression has its unique beginning, progression, path. I was in college in Seattle and began feeling spent, worn thin partway through the day. This was uncharacteristic for my high energy, determined self. I kept thinking if I could just get more sleep, I’d be fine. I limped by, graduated, and moved back to our bright Reno skies and the challenge of medical school and returned to myself. Medical training brought its own anxieties, but that dark cloud didn’t return until after I had my first baby at age 31. With the sleep deprivation and newfound responsibility, it seemed expected. I wasn’t as happy as I had envisioned, but I was exhausted from 60-minute sleep intervals and the life of a new parent.

The storm cloud didn’t return until 40. With no warning, the skies went gray. Premature ovarian failure caused hot flashes, a brain full of cobwebs, an inability to multitask, and a short fuse. I couldn’t find my cheerful, high-functioning, energized self anywhere. Hormones helped some. I thought they should fix everything, so I waited. I waited for two years, telling no one. The feeling was one of deep, all-encompassing defeat.

A turning point for me was reading a blog article from CupofJo.com, “The Hardest Two Months of My Life.” In the telling of the author’s own self-realization, she says, “When you’re depressed, you don’t realize that your life actually is fine — you’re simply sad because you’re depressed. The depression is the reason for the depression.” I began thinking about my family history of depression and how no matter what I fixed, I never felt better. Her description of the experience, the feeling, the mind-set rang so true to me that I felt I was reading words I had written.

When I decided to confide my husband, he was blind-sided. I am a great pretender. How could I have looked so normal when inside, my cup was emptying faster than it could be filled and springing new leaks every day? It was as if the appearance of being OK was all I could control, all I had left of my former self.

I resisted medication because I was afraid I’d lose my “edge.” This was a lingering fear from the residency days when I was convinced that one of the reasons I was a good doctor was because of the faultline my anxiety kept me straddling. I thought my anxious perfectionism was my superpower.

But, in truth, depression blunted my edge. I had no energy and was quick to think, “I just don’t care.” I never contemplated suicide. But I sometimes wonder how having me around in this state was irreparably, if subtly, harming my kids. And I often thought that it would be a relief to just be done. Waves of despair hit me at the oddest times. I’d find myself carting through Walmart, willing myself not to cry while calmly consulting my shopping list. At every point in my past, if something was scary or hard, I would approach it with the requisite vigor, determination, and focus — and presto! Mind-over-matter would prevail. I prided myself on my mental heartiness, my ability to avoid shrinking in the face of fear.

But “mind-over-matter” couldn’t fix this. Love couldn’t fix this. It was a first, and it was a blow. Grit and strength of will had failed me, and love, rather than being a savior, felt like another way to fail.

I eventually found a combination of exercise, adequate sleep, and medication which has me back at center. There is no such thing as a quick fix. Sometimes I’m happy, and sometimes I’m sad. But with medication and good self-care, I can reach happy. And when I’m sad, it’s about something sad, not something trivial or for no reason at all.

This story has no tidy conclusion. My life is an ongoing, messy combination of joy, love, faith, disappointment, struggle, and striving, just like yours. I’m telling it so that you or someone you love might feel less alone, more understood, armed with language to describe their invisible battle. I write it so that those with the gift of sound mental health might remember that a person who looks completely together may be drowning.

Joanne Jarrett is a family physician and can be reached at Creating Cozy Clothes. She is also the host, Fancy Free Podcast.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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