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Escaping the realm of living death

Nancy Rempel

My battle with depression began more than 30 years ago. By Nancy Rempel
My battle with depression began more than 30 years ago.
I grew up in a home that was very uncomfortable with emotions, except anger. The deaths of my eldest brother and only sister from the genetic disorder Cystic Fibrosis bookmarked my unexpected appearance into this world.
I was brought home to grieving parents and my remaining siblings — two older brothers.
When I was eight, my family survived a serious car accident caused by a drunk driver. My mom and brother spent the summer in hospital. I grew up quickly,  learning how to cook, and even helping my ‘nurse’ mom to change her dressings.
These events confirmed a general view that the world was not a safe and secure place. I resorted to some obsessive-compulsive behaviours like repetitive counting and worrying about germs, to help control my world.
By the age of 13, I deeply hated my distant father. I blamed him for what was happening to me — the terribly low moods, eating disorder, shaky self-esteem and generally bleak outlook for the future.
It was Valentine’s Day, and I was cutting up onions in our kitchen with the two people I loved the most – my mom and brother  — when I began having scary thoughts about hurting them.
I called my doctor from a payphone in my small town. He prescribed an anti-psychotic in the form of a little blue pill. Shortly after taking it, my eyes screwed up and locked to one side of my head. They stayed like that all weekend and, needless to say, I refused any offers of prescriptions from then on. Instead I limped along in life; hiding when I was ill, and catching up when I was well
Like society, my family didn’t “get” mental illness. My dad believed allergies were “imaginary,” even though my mom and eldest brother suffered each spring. If you bucked up both mentally and physically, you could become immune. The same philosophy applied to my flawed mind.
I managed to complete university and  journalism school and then landed a job as a reporter in Yellowknife. The low pay, demanding workload, combined with four hours of daylight in the winter were very stressful.
I became extremely depressed after hearing some bad news from home –
my beloved cat had died and my dad was starting to have Alzhiemers-like hallucinations. I managed to hide how ill I was feeling. That is part of the beauty of journalism – as long as you meet deadlines, you remain employed!
I feel very lucky that I inadvertently picked up a magazine with an article called In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression, by Jonathon Bentley Mays, a columnist with The Globe and Mail.
I had never seen a story so close to my own. He talked about taking Prozac and I went straight to the doctor to get some.
It was like a magic bullet.
My mood rocketed from minus-40 to plus-40 in the middle of January in Yellowknife! I continued to have bouts of depression, but nothing like before. I felt like I could finally outrun it. I hoped I was  becoming immune to the paralyzing lows. I got married, had children and became a busy at-home mom.
Then I turned forty, and began questioning my value in life. My kids were becoming independent. Other moms in my circle were returning to their careers. We had moved to Edmonton and my prospects to work again as a journalist were limited. My writing skills were rusty. I no longer had connections to the competitive world I longed to rejoin.
To top things off, my husband decided to return to university, and we began living on a very limited income. For four years, I slipped into clinical depression each fall, when everybody went off to school and sunlight diminished. I returned to life each spring after about six months of what I call “living death.”
The Prozac no longer helped, I tried every medication under the sun, and experienced all the lousy side-effects.
Finally, in the spring of 2011, my psychiatrist of 17 years convinced me to consider electric convulsive therapy (ECT).
My husband and I were terrified, but also desperate. We did a lot of research and finally agreed to a treatment that sounded like something in a Frankenstein novel. I distinctly remember walking in our ravine shortly after one of my first treatments and hearing a bird sing. I felt beauty and joy for the first time in seven months.
My reaction to the ECT came with a new diagnosis of Bi-Polar II mood disorder.I always thought I felt like other “normal” people when I am “well.” I’ve discovered that I am mildly high, and have learned that feeling super energetic and “buzzy” is the beginning of my next bout of depression. Now, I take Prozac and a mood stablilizer to prevent the highs, which I confess I really miss.
This past winter, I escaped my impending “date” with the big “D” for the first time in five years. I have found stability through meds and a very good psychologist.
She has helped me to believe I can be well – that I am not doomed to a cycle of depression every winter – that our bodies and minds are changing all the time and nothing is forever.
I am also working at being kind to myself and managing my illness daily through “mindfulness.” Even though I still struggle with shame and actually believing that I have a chronic illness –  that it is not just a lack in character – I feel stronger and more in control of my life than ever before.
Whenever I start to poke myself with critical thoughts, I think of people like Olympian Clara Hughes and other well-known, successful individuals, who have stepped up and shared their struggle. They remind me that I am not alone. I am not a weakling.
I hope to bring this message to readers in future columns – mental illness does not mean you are “less than” or a “freak.”  Instead, you are one of many members of what my eldest brother calls a “unique club.”  Members need to be educated about their illness, find hope to carry on, and do their best to stay well.  Most importantly, we need to be our own best friends when our minds become ill and convince us that we are unworthy and doomed to live in darkness for the rest of our lives.
Once this happens, we can work together to address the stigma, and hopefully, by sharing our stories, make the path easier for those who follow.
Finally, I’d like to sincerely thank Tom Shand and the Alberta Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association for creating  Our Voice, and offering me the chance to share my experience of living with mental illness.

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