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Wheeler: Confessions from the ashes of depression

The question was innocent enough.

“Would you like a tour?”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. My God, you are so stupid.

I had just spent a few anxious minutes in the lobby of WakeBrook waiting to interview the mental health facility’s director for a column I was writing. Behind thick glass, a young woman with unwashed hair had been sitting in a plastic chair, her eyes red from crying, her possessions visible in a clear bag beside her.

I had a bag like that once.

Warm socks. A pen denuded of its potentially lethal casing. A Sudoku book, minus the staples.

Did I want a tour? I stood in the hallway paralyzed you are so stupid imagining the rooms, the sounds, the smells. Certainly WakeBrook would be very much like Holly Hill Hospital, out of which I had carried that bag almost exactly five years before.

With a puzzled smile, the doctor finally just pointed me toward his office. I spent an hour trying not to look him in the eye, sure that he would see that every cell in my body yearned to take a tour, commandeer a bed and never leave it.

Clinical depression is exhausting.

Twice in the past few months, The N&O’s front page has been overtaken by the sorrow of suicide: a beautiful UNC-CH graduate and a BMX star. Twice last week, someone leapt into eternity from an overpass in Charlotte.

The healthy among us find it unfathomable. What could possibly be so bad? We of the broken brains completely, sadly understand, though just as Tolstoy said every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, undoubtedly every unwell person is unwell in his own way.

Sometimes, you just get tired of being here. You are so stupid. There is no escaping your own mind.

Where healthy people get to use verbs like enjoying and savoring, the unwell often are merely coping and enduring, hating themselves mercilessly, believing they deserve every bad thing that happens, piling up guilt for not being better, stronger, smarter, knowing that in the scope of suffering in the world they have nothing to be depressed about, which makes their inability to just count their blessings or look on the bright side or pray harder exponentially worse.

Healthy people search for happiness and fulfillment. The unwell scratch for comfort and relief.

I imagine regrets and sad events wafting through healthy brains like wisps of smoke. They may linger awhile, but ultimately they dissipate.

In my brain, the sight of Syrian refugees fleeing bombs and then drowning in the ocean can spark a fire of raging grief that’s then fed by a hundred other logs: heartbreaking racial discord, aborted babies, sexually abused children, the assault on our schools, the impossible poverty six blocks away. I have no extinguisher, and the blaze sucks out all hope that there is a point to any of this. Lord, lord, lord, lord, lord is often the only prayer I can manage.

Like a rat, a regret will scamper across my thoughts, and I crumble as every failure I’ve ever experienced, every shame I’ve ever felt, every hurt I’ve ever caused starts feasting on my sanity. There are no traps for this torment.

Or for the gnats of anxiety that settle in my gut, making me feel as if I’ve been locked in a round room and given 30 seconds to find the corner.

The resulting indescribable weariness can leave me longing to lie down wherever I am – the grocery store, a work meeting, a church service. Don’t mind me. Just step over me. This is simply as far as I can go today.

David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, recently wrote about the elegance and decency of President Barack Obama, noting how he treats everyone with such dignity. It made me weep for days, first because it was so gracious and generous amid the election campaign’s unceasing ugliness and then because I was consumed by how the words magnified my failures.

I am not dignified or elegant. What I am, according to psychological tests, is intense and prone to be highly perturbed by injustice. You are so stupid. Nobody prays to be intense.

For the 14.8 million American adults battling a major depressive mood disorder, there’s no definitive answer on a cause, whether it’s biological differences, brain chemistry problems, hormone imbalances or inherited traits.

There’s also no clear answer on whether antidepressants even work. The two I tried left me 20 pounds heavier, which only deepened my depression. You are so ugly. It’s troubling that the psychiatrist who prescribed the second after I left Holly Hill never tried to contact me after I abruptly stopped going back for refills.

And finding therapy that’s helpful can be a long process requiring a level of energy and caring that many depressed people do not possess – because they are depressed. With depression, wry ironies abound.

I’ve spent seven of the past 15 years in therapy. When I faded away the first time after three years, my psychologist sent me a letter saying it would be dangerous to stop my treatment. The word was a smack in the face. I had never thought of what we were doing as treatment. It was more like vomiting my life every week onto a friend I loved.

I responded that I had to stop because I just couldn’t imagine the place where “done” lived.

The second round came to an end because she stopped taking credit cards, including ones from Health Savings Accounts. At the time, my limited stores of energy had to be reserved for actual functioning, so the thought of having to spend any doing the reimbursement dance was too much to bear. It was a fear immediately legitimized, by the way, when the bill for my last session was declined – an HSA is my own money! – for reasons now lost in a haze of hassle.

For no doubt irrational reasons, I hate that we have a separate, haphazard “mental health care system.” We don’t have a kidney care system or a lymphatic care system. We’ll never rid ourselves of the stigma as long as we don’t consider brain sickness the same as body sickness. The brain is in the body after all.

I tell myself repeatedly that I don’t need to be ashamed, just as no one would expect my diabetic colleague who has periodic seizures to be ashamed. I don’t believe me.

Used to be, newspapers wouldn’t print a word about suicides, let alone on the front page. The shame. The stigma. Maybe all of this will help.

It has been awhile since every fill-up of gas left me wondering whether it was enough to kill me if I left the car running, since I gripped the streetlight outside my office fighting the urge to dash into traffic, since I took a power walk to try to clear the dementors from my head only to end up at a nearby pharmacy buying sleeping pills.

I’ve had the gift of many days when I feel as if a nearly fatal fever has broken and I can experience inexplicable joy in the mundane: the sight of my made bed, a text from my daughter asking for a recipe, a soul-stirring song.

A little over a year has passed since that last visit with my psychologist. She sent me a note saying that she understood I needed a break because changing yourself is really hard work. You are so stupid.

I even failed therapy, I’ve said to my best friend numerous times since then.

No, you didn’t, she always says.

You’re still here.

Wheeler: 919-829-4825, bwheeler@newsobserver.com, @burgetta_nando

Where to call

Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255

One comfort

Music can be soothing, especially this song by Tenth Avenue North at nando.com/worn.

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