A Story of Depression, Isolation, and Finding My Way Back

Princess cards she sends me with her regards,
Oh, bar-room eyes shine vacancy
To see her you gotta look hard
Manfred Mann, For You

I had just come off a ten-year stretch of depression, scattered with a few bouts of mania when Dan came into my life. For years I had been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. I did have periods of extreme highs, where I became excessively talkative, painted and wrote nonstop, and rarely slept. I thought my brilliance was just me being me.

About Dan. We worked on the same team for a Southern California city. We were drawn together like magnets and are tight to this day. We formed an immediate alliance over the shared task of working for elected officials who blew in and out like the wind, while we scrambled to make the newest mayor’s dream become a reality. New regimes could mean new jobs for us. Heady stuff. Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way, we became lovers.

One fine Orange County, California day, where everything is Disneyland perfect, I woke up to an imperfect day blanketed in heavy gloom and hopelessness. I was absolutely fine when I fell asleep. Where the hell had my happy run off to during the night? C’mon, this is the land of the sybarites, where everyone is happy, who stole mine?

It happened that fast.

It was one of the deepest darknesses I had experienced. I drove down to a store, bought a pack of cigarettes, and started chain smoking. Funny thing about smoking. I didn’t smoke then, but a psychiatrist had told me that there was a high correlation between people who were depressed and people who smoked because nicotine is an anti-depressant. I tried hard to prove this theory true before I went to work.

When I got to City Hall, I ran to Dan’s office and spilled my guts. It was then that he first shared with me that he was seriously depressed, suicidal, and had been so since he was a teenager. How do people like us gravitate towards each other? Is there some kind of invisible sign we wear? Perhaps there is a Depressives Anonymous and people are secretly brought together. I’ve never been a believer in coincidence. We were planets meant to collide and ultimately for life. Dan brought me to his psychiatrist. I mean, he literally brought me.

He called for an emergency appointment, threw me into his car and drove me to Mission Viejo Hospital to see the almighty Dr. Swanson. I call him this because I quickly learned that he spoke and you listened. When he affirmed my continuing depression/bipolar II diagnosis, I went through nearly every anti-depressant available. Most launched me into mania, and it was about this time Dan tipped Dr. Swanson off that I might be bipolar I. He then had me take endless tests to confirm this new diagnosis.

Buh bye anti-Ds, hello Lithium.

The almighty Dr. Swanson was the first doctor to suggest a psychiatric hospitalization—shocking me to the very core. I never told anyone he recommended this as an option. It was just too extreme. There was no possible way I would even consider it or discuss it. I was only depressed. Psych hospitals are for very crazy people. Years later I became one of those crazy people and won two psych stays to prove it to the world.

I’ll play the game and pretend
But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me
―Simon & Garfunkel, Homeward Bound

This is what my every day life had become. Or Groundhog Day, if you prefer.

Each day was a forced series of minimum tasks I would suffer through in order to find my way back to bed again. I woke up precisely at 6 am. I took my meds and drank one cup of coffee. I got dressed after a quick shower paying no attention to what I wore, nor did I care what I looked like. I am a person of routine. I crave structure. My focus was my sanity.

The many bipolar med combinations I tried seemed to make no difference. I was still very depressed and occasionally suicidal. My doctor’s answer was to try new meds and wait and see. I reached expert level at Try New Wait And See, but I remained depressed.

I could no longer remember what happy felt like, but I knew I once was. I only left the house for work. Most of my friends eventually stopped asking me to join them in any kind of activity. All I could say was, “No. I’m depressed.” Only the very attuned and loyal stayed.

Dan was one of those few. In many ways, he saved my life. I read motivational memes that said, remember your true friends, the ones who never left. And I understood. There were few, but they never left.

Eventually, I did not work anymore and I could lie in bed to my heart’s content. I spent my time dreading the impossible task of showers and dodging any attempt to leave the safety of my comfort zone. I had invented isolation. Or so I thought. If it wasn’t for my dog needing a walk a few times a day I’d likely have mummified.

Therapists have always called me out on my isolationist behavior. “Take a walk, join a club, or go out with your friends.” I’d pretend to agree just to end the conversation. I knew I wasn’t the only one. I watched television ads for depression drugs that showed vignettes of people sitting on their couch staring into space through empty eyes. The worst one for me was where a woman’s dog sits staring at her with his leash in his mouth. She could not go out and walk her dog. And neither could I.

It was just the way it was. I was an isolationist. Plain and simple. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but back in my decade of low self-awareness, it was the only way I knew how to survive. And, most importantly, how to fight the perpetual ideation.

Fill my heart with discipline
Put there for the teaching
In my head see clouds of stairs
Help me as I’m reaching
The future’s paved with better days
Eddie Vedder, Better Days

As it turns out, depression and isolationism have now become a story I just tell about. In one month I will have been stable for four years. Is there a chip for this?

My depression, as well as my isolationist behavior, is long gone. I’m out and about. I play with my friends. I drive after dark. I have fancy lunches with Dan. I fly across the country. I take risks. I fall in love. I paint and write. And I’m in the Happy for what sometimes feels like forever.

I’ve grown wings and I can fly again. I finally found an effective med buffet and I learned superpowers in therapy.

My isolationist tendencies are now locked tightly inside my Pandora’s Box. My hard-won new self-awareness learned in therapy has paid off tenfold to thwart any careening veers off Stability Road. But I must confess―there are bumps. It still happens. Sometimes up. Sometimes down. And the protective shield I use to hide behind until I can right myself again? Just a wee bit of the isolation. Enough to contemplate, learn, adjust, and go back in again. Armed a little bit stronger, and a little bit smarter. I’m happy to have left this self-defeating behavior behind. I’ve learned in therapy that it’s okay to bring it out if I need to. Just not to make it my permanent address.

I control it now—it does not control me. I use it now to protect myself. My shelter from the storm. And then I return it, no receipt required.

And so it goes. I save myself. One more time. 

Photo Credit: cinnamon_girl via Compfight cc

  1. Love you, Miss Grieta. Thank you for reading this and taking the time to comment–it means so much to me. And a big thank you for always having my back!!!

  2. Danny, if it can happen to me–it can happen to you. I suppose it all comes down to having the stamina for the Hurry Up And Wait part. There were actual years that would go by that I thought, “Is this really the best it’s going to get?” But it wasn’t until I decided to become the boss of me and take responsibility for my treatment (not an easy thing….even good doctors can be hard to convince you’ve already tried 50 meds) that my life took an upturn. This, plus intensive therapy finally brought it together for me. The summer I found the med buffet that worked, I entered an outpatient therapy program (I called it Crazy Girl Summer Camp) and I went to group therapy every day for three months. It was one of the best investments I made in my mental health. That, and learning and practicing mindfulness. I know this must sound overwhelming….but working it works for me.

    Wishing you the very best of mental health and happiness–D.

  3. Dori,

    Thank you so much for sharing. I too have abruptly become a shell I my former self, struggling to ever know what it feels like to be happy again. Routine habits cloud my day, hoping just to make it through each day is a chore. Too many meds and side effects to list, the experiments provide hope and then a crushing blow when they don’t work or become too expensive to afford if they do work.
    It is hopeful to read that you broke free from the depression and have some what of a normal life back, and I applaud you! Congrats 🙂 I can only hope to be able to tell that success story sometime in the near future, or ever.
    Cheers to your continued success and happiness.

  4. Karen,
    Work and my dog work well for me! I don’t know if my isolationism will ever change, really. I find an odd comfort in knowing exactly how my days will be. Now…disruption looks like this. Christmas dinner at my brother’s house with many people I do not know. Social anxiety overload. I’ll do the small talk, be nice to everyone–but inside I’m counting time until I can leave and go back home to my doggie! I’m on a similar med buffet as you are, I don’t think it’s the meds. It’s just me. Maybe the day will come when I make more of an effort. Maybe. I’m so glad you read this essay and commented! There’s a certain solace in finding people who understand how you feel.
    Happy holidays, xD.

  5. I too seem to be an isolationist. My family and a few good friends seem to be enough for me at this point in my depression despite a therapist who constantly points out that all I seem to do is work and go home to my dog. Meds (symbalta, abilify, and welbutrin) seem to be working well for me and I have accepted that this is my life until something is invented or discovered to permanently turn off depression in the mind. I wish I had a Dan in my life to help me over the rough days, which thankfully there are few of.
    Thank you for your blog.

  6. Ms. Cioffa,
    I find it necessary that, at this time, that we form a mutual admiration society. Everything you say about my words….know that they fly write back to you about yours. I am so glad you liked this essay. It was both difficult and freeing to write. I find myself wanting to send copies to (allegedly concerned and assuredly uninformed) friends and family and say, “Read this. Call if you have questions,”
    Thank you for taking the time to comment…and for getting it.

  7. Dear Gina Dear,
    Yes! Our accomplishments are so chip-worthy! And if I could, I’d march right on over to you house and give you a big gold chip right now!

  8. Mary,
    Thank you SO much for readin this…I wish that it brings your friend hope–which at times was all I had left to cling to. And I very much believe in hope!

    Oh, you got me good on “For You!” I actually prefer the Springsteen version and always thought that Mann had written it! But, wow, the song has always been somewhat of an anthem for me–and probably many others.

    Still remaining in your biggest fan (and now fact checker!),

  9. My dearest Marta From the Block,
    I believe we are a community that continuously inspires each other! I love you, and thank you for reading my essay…….xD

  10. Paulette, I’m so honored that you took the time to read my essay! It is funny sometimes how we are one way on the outside, and inside something very different exists. I’m so glad we connected, too (although I wish it was for a happier reason). You’re such a lovely person to take the time to write these comments. xD

  11. Dori,
    I am inspired and impressed by your candid, and beautifully written story. Thanks for sharing something so personal, in such a poetic way. You are a sensitive and talented individual. Glad we have connected in a small way on the web.

  12. Dori, your story is so inspirational! Someone I love very much is dealing with a lot of depression now, and your post gives me hope for them. Stay strong!! xoxo

    Oh, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but “For You” was written by Bruce Springsteen and covered by Manfred Mann. I hope I don’t sound like a jerk mentioning this, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs about depression ever written. Here’s a video of Bruce playing it at Hammersmith a long time ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18M-19hvDgo

  13. Dori,
    This brought tears to my eyes. Your story is in many ways mine. Congrats on the stability! We need to invent chips for these triumphs.

  14. Dori,
    Your words cut to the core, and always reach straight into gut and mind.
    Thank you for sharing your difficult journey, and the Happy sometimes ending.
    “Only the very attuned and loyal stayed.” I love this phrase, and relate.

    Your triumphs and heartbreaking challenges, finely tuned writing sensibilities and witty warrior persona shines on the page each time you share.

    Beautiful piece. Xx

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