Sunday, October 25, 2009


I have lived with mental illness for all of my 51 years. At first, unknowing, too young, not understanding. Why did Mom cry so much? Was it because Dad sat in the darkened living room every night, with the ice clinking in his glass full of his chosen painkiller? Was it because Dad's mom, my beloved Nannie, sat in her room smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey, only tottering out to make a pot of tea after everyone had left the house? Was it because of the nightly argument to get her to come to the dinner table and be a part of the family? Was it dinner time itself,  which inevitably deteriorated into an angry riot ? 
At times, Dad was full of energy, mowing the lawn, finishing the basement, making gardens, other days, he sat like a zombie in front of the television set. Those were not good days. But he went to work every day, was able to function in spite of the quantity of alcohol consumed the night before. Every Friday he'd hand Mom a big wad of cash, keeping just enough to fuel his liquid lunches, and then sit down to await dinner. Louden Wainwright has a song with a lyric that goes 'drinks before dinner, drinks with dinner and after dinner drinks....'.  That was Dad's routine day after day, clink, clink, clink.  Sometimes after we were in bed, he would sit down at the piano and sooth us to sleep, playing old jazz standards. He was a gifted musician who chose to showcase his talent in a darkened living room.

As a child, I had no idea that this was not how every family functioned. Having no frame of reference, I assumed that all Dads sat in the dark. I thought every family fought around the dinner table, that dinner time was discipline time, argument time. I had no idea that Dads kissed Moms, that they ever hugged each other, that they actually loved each other.

My best friend  was an only child. Her mother was from Germany and had a funny accent. Her father was much older; she was a late in life baby. He was very reserved and kind of scary. Their house was always spotless, and very calm. We had to play quiet games and never make a mess.. Her mother was always scrubbing something. But she was ever sweet and kind, and she called me darling, and I loved her.They were different from us but I thought it was because they were from another country.

It was not until I made 2 new friends that I realized that something was amiss at my house. When Joanie's Dad came home from work, he enfolded her Mom in a hug that went on and on and they kissed!  I had never seen two people kiss with affection, and did not know what to make of it. All I do know is that it gave me a warm feeling, and a longing that I could not define. My friend Pat came from a big Irish family; she had 6 brothers and sisters, and  surprise of surprises, they all loved each other! They were nice to each other and they shared toys, they'd sit at dinner and laugh and talk about their day. Her Dad was a jolly man who cherished each of his children, and treated me like one of them. When he grabbed me up in a bear hug after he had set Pat down, I was dumbfounded. My Dad never, ever hugged me!  I practically lived at their house for many years of my childhood, preferring to stay in that warm and loving environment rather than returning to my cold and loveless house. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to love my siblings. I don't remember feeling anything about them whatsoever.

When I was 13, Pat's family moved away to Ohio. Her Dad was transferred and they had to go. I was devastated. On moving day, they all hugged me, her Mom for the longest time, holding me as I cried inconsolably.
My life was never the same. Joanie became a cheerleader and left me in the dust. I was alone and terribly lonely. I cried every night. I would take long walks by myself, and sit by the lake and cry. I'd stay up in my room, play my guitar and cry.  I discovered the reason why my father drank every night. It helped you sleep, it helped you forget, it numbed you to all feeling. I took up his habit with a vengeance. All through high school I drank. I smoked a ton of pot. I self medicated against the demons in my head for the following 15 years, although at the time I called it partying. It was no party , however.

I did a lot of things that now make me cringe to remember, that I try not to regret, but I was so self destructive. I wanted to die , but I did not know how to go about it, so I just lived numb. It was not until I finally stopped smoking pot on a daily basis that I realized how truly messed up I was. I did not know that there was a name for what ailed me. Actually, no one  talked about it back then, what has become a common term now: depression. I muddled through, still drinking, but less and less. My mother and I grew closer after I got married and she felt she no longer had to worry about me. But still I cried. Always when alone. I was one big smile on the outside and a huge gaping hole on the inside. When Mom died, I wanted to. I sat on my bed holding a loaded pistol I had bought when I moved in to my little house after my divorce, afraid of living alone. I sat and cried with that gun in my hands, wishing I had the guts to do it. But I didn't. I called my doctor the next morning instead. He put a name to my condition, told me he could treat it, that I had to be patient. He called me every night, reassuring me that I was not alone. And low and behold, I began to feel better. I realized that I had spent my entire life up until then living with a blackness in my heart and head that I thought was normal. When that blackness lifted, I was amazed! This is how I'm supposed to feel! This is how other people feel! I felt that I had been set free, at last. I called one of my dearest friends, and when he came over, I told him, all of it. He offered to take the gun, and it is now hidden in his barn. At once I felt both relieved and frightened. I felt my safety net had disappeared, oddly enough. It was as if my escape hatch had closed, and I was now on my own, but this was a good thing.

It has been 16 years since then, and I have had many set backs along those years, many times when things got out of control and the depression overcame the medication. I had a hard time wanting to live, holding on to life, but I guess I am nothing if not tenacious. I awoke many mornings wondering why I was alive, fought the compulsion to spin my steering wheel in morning traffic to put and end to my pain, looked with longing at the full bottle of sleeping pills, knowing there was vodka in the cabinet. But always, I would, in the far depths of my mind, remember that what bedeviled me was a treatable disease. I would call my doc in those desperate times, and he would see me at once and tweak my medication and call me daily until I was back on track. I credit him for saving my life.  I had friends in whom I finally confided and they looked after me and learned to recognize the signs of a downward spiral. I told my boyfriend, finally, and he asked if it was his fault. I cried in their arms more times than I care to remember.

During that period of dizzy highs and crushing lows, I spent a lot of time in therapy, learning about myself, and the whys and wherefores of depression. I learned to accept that I had a disease, that I was no different than someone with diabetes or high blood pressure, that my condition was chronic, and that I would have to take medication forever. I now swallow my handful of meds and vitamins gratefully, and thank the gods for every blessed day.

I have been genuinely happy now for about a year, probably the longest time I have felt so in my 51 years on earth. I have love in my life, friends whom I adore, hobbies, a good job and a warm and comfy home. My heart is at ease, my mind no longer races out of control and the depression has been held at bay. I still have errant thoughts that maybe I can forgo my pills, now that I am feeling so good, but then I remember that it is because of them, not in spite of them, that I am in this good place.

I now talk to people about this illness, admit to it, and speak of it freely. I believe that this also helps me deal. To name it out loud is to take away the power it has had over my life, I control it, it no longer controls me.I dare not become too complacent, however. I must be on my guard, always. The demon is held at bay, but not banished. It still lurks in the chemical/electrical circuitry  that is my brain, and  it is only through due diligence that I am able to keep the upper hand.

The Pennsylvania Dutch have a saying that speaks volumes to the human condition.."Too soon old, too late smart". 


Jeff- in the Berkshires said...

You have a powerful story and thank you for sharing it. I am glad you have had the inner tenacity to persevere and seek answers. It proves a very deep love of life. Admittedly I only know you though your writing and comments, but if that's the tip of it you have so much to offer this world that need so much.

I send you a great big cyber hug and send you good thoughts.


janet said...

Dear Peg,
Thank-you for writing this so honestly and fearlessly. I've learned MUCH from your comments to others, and from your postings here. It seems healthiest to talk about depression, and as you said, to take away its dark power. I'm glad you're so tenacious, as I'm sorry that life was so hard so early. Your wealth of friendships is such a blessing...having folks you love who care about you, too. That's the best, most important thing, and you've got it, and you share it generously.
Sending peace and hugs your way.

Anonymous said...

Your story and what you reveal about your self is so moving. I appreciate your honesty. It must be painful, but I hope it is also helpful when you recall your past. Glad you made it.

Jeff- in the Berkshires said...

Hi Peg,
Hope you are doing well.