My Turn: How I Thrive Despite Depression

"On a scale of 1-10?" my doctor always asks within the first five minutes.
"I guess I'm about a seven," I say.
"Really, a seven?"
"Wait—no not a seven." I can't remember if 10 is the best or the worst.
"10 is the worst," she says.
"Well, then I guess I am closer to a seven and a half."

My psychiatrist uses this scale to gage my mood. I am 30 years old, and have suffered from depression on and off (more on) for the past 13 years. It started when I was in high school. I would come home from school and fall into bed. I wanted, and was able, to sleep for hours. And I cried a lot, for no reason. That year was hard. I didn't understand the sadness and almost ridiculous sense of desperation that crept around my stomach daily. I started seeing a psychiatrist but I never told the whole truth. Instead of admitting I felt terrible, I'd say, "I feel pretty bad but it's OK." That was the beginning of trying to please everyone else.

Next came the affairs with medication. My first relationship was with Prozac. Prozac was "the" drug at the time and it worked, for a while. We got along pretty well until Prozac fell out of love. Throughout the next years I flirted with many medications, but it was love at first sight with Wellbutrin. My mood lifted without side effects, no cotton mouth, no headaches, no feeling spacey. I even got my sex drive back, part of it anyway. But soon I crashed again.

Depression is not predictable; it sneaks up on you. Some years were great—and some were not. I didn't sleep one summer and then slept through fall and winter. And I can now admit there were times I couldn't think of a single reason to live. I loved being alone but was also very lonely. I was scared all of the time.

Most people would be shocked to learn I have suffered and still suffer from depression. I am friendly, kind, and generally happy, sort of a black-and-white thinker with a cheery disposition. That is part of the disease. You learn to act happy for the benefit of others because you feel guilty. My family and friends were always extremely supportive even when they didn't understand. I couldn't look at my parents because their faces showed their devastation, and although I wanted desperately to be with them, my pain was constant and often unbearable. I wished I could get better for my family, but it felt out of my control. My 20s were not what they should have been, and I missed a lot. I was a late bloomer in many of ways.

But gradually I have accepted my depression and am learning to deal with it. I sometimes think of it as an annoying acquaintance you try to avoid but run into anyway. And I realize in certain ways depression has benefited me. It makes me sensitive and understanding, and I can give people advice and comfort. Depression also allows me to feel things more deeply. Recently I cried on the sidewalk as it started to snow; it was beautiful. For every terrible moment, I experience one that is equally euphoric. Not too long ago during a difficult week I was talking to my best friend, who also suffers from depression, and out of nowhere I said, "You know, living with mental illness is really hard." We both paused and then cracked up.

Now I see that living well with depression is hard but not impossible. In fact, a big part of me believes my depression shaped the best aspects of who I am. I am really proud of the woman I have become. I couldn't always say that. This year has been pretty great. Behavioral changes have made the biggest difference. I exercise, try to eat well, and try my best to keep to a good sleep schedule. I also try to put myself out there and socialize even when I don't want to. Having a good therapist is also a must. Wellbutrin and I are going strong. And, I started light therapy. Every morning I sit in front of an artificial sun for a half an hour. Amazingly, more than any drug, the light has made the biggest difference. I don't think it matters much anymore whether I am a seven or five. I suffer from depression and honestly expect to suffer from it in some degree for the rest of my life. I'm prepared for it and will fight it. I can still have depression and lead a very happy life.