cannot complete a crossword puzzle—though I do know a number of synonyms for unhappy: sad, melancholy, miserable.
But these words are descriptive, not diagnostic. None of them denotes my experience with depression, a crippling, deadly illness that grinds away at one's self like sandpaper.
Nor do many people appreciate how mental illness affects each sufferer. Some people want to cut me some slack because of my occupation. They say that I'm in good company as a writer who suffers from depression, joining ranks with artists like Edgar Allen Poe and Virginia Woolf and William Styron—but those people are mistaken. My illness does not enhance my creativity any more than it did that of those writers. Rather, it shrinks my whole being. In every way, I am diminished by my mental illness. I am no longer capable of scholarly work. Depression has aged me prematurely. I no longer think of myself as pretty. My face looks haggard. I've never gone off my medicines long enough to lose the weight I gain when I'm on them.
Coming home from my third and fourth hospitalizations has meant once again facing the arduous climb back to normalcy. My last ECT treatments left me so tired that more than once I pulled my car into a parking lot, locked the doors, and fell deeply asleep, unable to complete my errand. I was lucky if I was able to read one book every other month. Writing was impossible. I desperately wanted to stop crying and start laughing, to make
"Depressed" is still the word used to describe the mood of highschool seniors who don't get into the college of their choice. In most cases, however, that is disappointment, not depression. The disappointed, the grieving, and the sad do not sharpen knives and count pills.
others laugh. There is some degree of reassurance in knowing that I have been in this position before and have climbed out of it, but I feel like Sisyphus. The
stone is heavier each time.
Prejudice remains. Despite how widespread depression is in my family, it is a subject we rarely discuss—especially my kind of depression, the kind that takes someone to the brink. I was interested to read that no one could be elected pope who had mental illness in his family, and I think of my sensitive, intelligent children and the opportunities they may be denied because of their genes. Those of us who suffer from depression and strain to keep ourselves on an even keel are still barred from many jobs. In some cases I understand the rationale, but the stigma stings.
The way back is slow. When I feel as if I've made no progress at all, I look at the distance I've covered. It's measured in fewer tears, a book read, a page written, a rediscovered reservoir of patience for a complex task. These are just inches, but inches away from the abyss, so they feel like miles.
I feel stable enough at this place to write this article. And to look around. I see the old wishes for my children, and I realize that they are inadequate. Now older, wiser, and more fragile, I no longer wish for them the strength and fortitude to fight mental illness should it strike them. Instead, I hope with all my being that they never struggle with this devastating sickness. They are old enough now to appreciate its toll. I am not now and never again will be what I was. I am simply what's left.
Graff—a writer, editor, and historian who lives in Vermont—has to her credit three nonfiction children's books, two young-adult novels, several books on Vermont history and culture, and dozens of articles on a variety of topics. She is also the former editor of Vermont Life magazine and has taught at the University of Vermont and Community College of Vermont. She wrote a feature (pdf) for Dartmouth Medicine's Spring 1996 issue after her first hospitalization for depression—an article that won the Association of American Medical Writers' national Frances Larsen Memorial Award and that has remained one of the most-often-requested articles the magazine has ever published. She has been a member of Dartmouth Medicine's Editorial Board since 2003.
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