Depression, Lack of Pills, The Revenant, and Lessons from a Custodial Guitar Hero

The theatre was newly renovated.  I relaxed in a cushy recliner sipping a smuggled beer as I watched The Revenant.  The movie tells the story of an 1800s trapper who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his hunting party.   As Leonardo Dicaprio crawled with damaged limbs along frozen landscapes, plummeted into icy rivers to escape attack, and cauterized his own wounds with not even a shot of whiskey for anesthesia, I thought I have zero right to complain about anything, ever.  

If there is one thing I am learning from watching the films nominated for best picture, it is that my problems are pretty small.  Room, The Martian, Mad Max, The Big Short- the common thread for me is that my lot in life could be a hell of a lot worse. This lesson proves a bit ironic, as I went to see The Revenant to escape a bad day and an ongoing bought of depression.

I’m still struggling with the loss of Chris.  Sometimes it seems strange and inauthentic how much I miss him.  I think about him now more than I did when he was alive.  I guess that is loss.  I’ve been thinking about what it is, outside of just loving him, that makes me miss him so much.  It is in part, what he represented for me: fun, release, a return to a former self, an embodiment of all that I am.  To most people I am compartmentalized.  I am a mother.  I am a girlfriend.  I am an artsy-crafty psuedo hippie.  Chris knew me my entire life.  He knew me as a party girl, a wannabe musician, an artist, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a terrible athlete, a mother, and a thousand other things.  When I saw him as an adult, I was always on vacation.  My mom was going to spoil me with her cooking.  My brothers were going to ensure I had a good time.  I was going to laugh harder than I had in months.  I was going to feel cool.  And happy.  Loved.  100% like the best me.  Will seeing my family feel like that again, or will it always feel like something is missing?  I don’t know yet.  It’s too soon.

I can’t wallow in it anymore.  For my sake, for my families.  Ben will come home in the evening and I’ll be cooking dinner in tears.  He’ll ask what’s wrong and I’ll reply with one word.

“Chris.”

He’ll want to know what brought it on this time, not in a disrespectful way, just curious to identify the source.  A song, a picture, a 100 other triggers.

One day, I gave over and talked about it with Ben as my boys played close by.  I don’t know if I’ve consciously tried to not hide my emotions from them, or if I just feel things so deeply there is no choice.  But that evening, as I tucked Liam in, he started crying that he was scared of dying.

“What got you thinking about death?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he sobbed.  “I just don’t want to die ever, ever, ever.”

“Did you hear me talking about Uncle Chris?”

“Yes.”

“I get sad sometimes because I miss him.  But then I remember all the fun times we had, and I’m glad I got to know him.”

I don’t want to not talk about my brother, but I also understand my son’s need to feel safe.  I can not burden his six year old mind with my vocal way of coping.

It has been nearly two months since I stopped taking antidepressants.  Some might argue that now would be the exact scenario when antidepressants would be helpful.  In the past, I might have agreed with them.  But as difficult as some days are, I feel good about this choice.

I came very close to going back on them.  I refilled the prescription.  It still sits on my counter.  But after I made it through the withdrawal, I did not want to have to go through that again without good reason.  Antidepressants never seem that strong to me, until I try to come off of them.  Headaches, confusion, aches, irritability.  In weighing risks vs. benefits, I did not feel the benefit was great enough.  I feel like I am coping ok without them.  Yes, I am sad and emotional some days.  My brother just died.  I have reason to feel that way.  But I also have happy days, good times.  I’m getting my kids to school.  I’m volunteering, creating, being social.  All in all, I’m alright.

One thing it has taken me a very long time to learn is that it is okay to experience intense emotions.  I think we live in a society that is scared of raw emotion, and views it as a weakness.  I also don’t think we respect that becoming adept at reading and responding to our emotions is a process that takes our entire lifetime.  We need guidance and models of emotional complexity well beyond when we are expected to be adults and exhibit adult behavior.

I’ve been reading a book called Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness by Robert Whitaker.  Trying to summarize the information in the book is difficult, especially because it sites multitudes of studies with complex scientific data.  But Whitaker creates a compelling argument against psychiatric drugs- that at best they offer limited relief and at worst they actually exacerbate the problem.  I ran across these paragraphs on Amazon that summarize why you might want to read this book.

“Why has the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States tripled over the past two decades? Every day, 1,100 adults and children are added to the government disability rolls because they have become newly disabled by mental illness, with this epidemic spreading most rapidly among our nation’s children. What is going on?

Anatomy of an Epidemic challenges readers to think through that question themselves. First, Whitaker investigates what is known today about the biological causes of mental disorders. Do psychiatric medications fix “chemical imbalances” in the brain, or do they, in fact, create them? Researchers spent decades studying that question, and by the late 1980s, they had their answer. Readers will be startled―and dismayed―to discover what was reported in the scientific journals.

During the past fifty years, when investigators looked at how psychiatric drugs affected long-term outcomes, what did they find? Did they discover that the drugs help people stay well? Function better? Enjoy good physical health? Or did they find that these medications, for some paradoxical reason, increase the likelihood that people will become chronically ill, less able to function well, more prone to physical illness?”

The scientific information Whitaker provides is intriguing, but I found myself relating to one of the anecdotal case studies.  A woman who had taken medication for an extended period stops taking her pills, and fares better than she had on the drugs.  She stated that when she first started receiving medication, she was not “that sick.”  She, like many of us, was put on medication because it is the first line of defense.  You go to the doctor, you say you are depressed, you walk out with a prescription- that has been my experience.

She mentioned that she liked knowing that she was responsible for her emotional behavior.  This spoke to me.  I remember a time years ago when I “freaked out” and went back on medication after an extended period off.  I was working for a small company that built alignment tools.  A job came up that I thought my brother would be perfect for.

In talking with my brother about the position, he became excited.  He was working in a bar, drinking too much, and among other problems, he had gotten a DUI.  He had worked in bars for at least a decade at that point.  He, like me, did not have a college education.  We both struggled to believe we could have a “career.”  We were the people who worked dead end jobs that didn’t go anywhere.  Here was a chance to get a job that could amount to something, a normal 9-5 gig that would get him out of the bar scene.

He did not get the job.

When my boss told me they awarded the position to a woman with a degree, I completely lost it.  I cried.  I called him names.  I stormed out.  The next day, I apologized- and I told him I had a preexisting condition and was going back on medication.  In my mind, it was saving face.  It wasn’t my fault. I had a disease.

Looking back, I see the honesty of my emotions, and the dishonesty in how I dealt with them.  I wanted a good life for my brother and felt helpless when I couldn’t make that happen.  I still wonder how things might have been different if he got that job.  But I couldn’t voice the magnitude of my disappointment, and I didn’t have the experience to cope with the letdown.  I lashed out and refused to take responsibility for that choice.

I’m older, maybe wiser, and I can take responsibility now.  I don’t need a pill to lessen my pain.  I am hurting and I can own that pain. It’s okay to feel sad.  I don’t have to be scared of it. But I also have the experience to understand, as much as it hurts, it will lessen.

Taking responsibility is not an easy thing.  I started thinking Okay, if you are not going to take pills, you have to do something else to help yourself.  You can not just wallow.  Great.  So what do I do?

I don’t have all the answers.  But I did have an experience this week that spoke to me.

I volunteer in my son’s “Discover Room” at his school.  It is a place with lots of exhibits and materials are set up.  Kids are free to explore as they see fit.

Sometimes special guests offer presentations. This week, a man played the guitar and taught children about sound and vibration.  In between classes, I spoke with him.  He had such a natural connection with the children, I inquired as to if he was a teacher or gave lessons.  He wasn’t. He was a custodian.

After his lesson, a couple of girls asked him if he would play a song.  His eyes lit up- a captive audience.  He gave an intro about the song he wrote and then began strumming and singing, the words of the song stating “all I want to do is play guitar.”

It might sound a little cheesy, but he was so sincere in his delivery, I couldn’t help but buy in.  He loved playing guitar.  He wanted to share that joy in whatever capacity he could.  We weren’t the first school he visited.  He teaches this lesson around the Valley, always leaving a guitar behind for the kids to experiment with.

With Chris’s passing, I had started to question what I was doing with my life.  I’m one of those people still trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up.  Sometimes, I feel like a failure.  No great career, no crazy life.  Just a stay at home mom raising two boys. My days are filled with cleaning toilets, buckling car seats, and grocery shopping.  Not exactly scintillating stuff.

But we all have gifts.  Some of us get paid to share them, and others of us have no such luck.  But if we share them, aren’t we richer for the experience?

I don’t have all the answers.  I won’t swear off drugs for good.  But I do think, if we focus on giving the best of ourselves, whether we are paid or penniless, in the end, at least maybe we’ll have connection and that’s the best form of antidepressant I’ve ever known.  It isn’t easy, at least not for me.  But it’s real.  It matters.  It’s the guidance I wish I had when I was in my twenties and given a prescription for Prozac.

Be kind.  Give of yourself.  Embrace beauty.  We don’t know what life holds, but if we have that in the end, we’ve lived well.

Another all over the place rambling from the mind of a crazy woman.  In my mind, it makes at least some sense.

 

 

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