Nearly twenty years ago, after my sister was murdered, I sat across from a counselor and told her that I wanted to kill myself.
The counselor inquired if this was the first time I had those thoughts, and even though I had just experienced the most tragic loss in my life to date, those thoughts were not new, just intensified in that moment. She wanted me to seek psychiatric treatment, but wanting to take my own life was not enough for me to believe that something was medically off. I refused to go. I didn’t want to face the possibility of having to take medicine for an illness that could not come up on an X-ray or lab test.
My belief was that any so-called illness of the mind was not an actual illness; it was a weakness. I was a strong black woman, just like my mom before me and her mom before her. In the African-American community, mental illness in general, and depression specifically, is still taboo. We are expected to be strong and get over things because we have dealt with so much.
My ethnicity, upbringing, and many other theories could be the reason why I didn’t accept depression as an illness, but there was more. Ultimately, I didn’t view “hope” as an actual part of my body, such as brain cells, red blood cells, or my immune system. Hope was not a necessary characteristic of my life to keep me alive. I thought the severe lows that led to sleeping all day, daily thoughts of suicide, self-loathing, and self-hatred were normal.
It’s been more readily accepted as an illness over time, but for some reason, depression remains one of those stigmatized issues. People think you’re just crazy.
Although there may be some truth in the “crazy” label, most of us who are diagnosed with depression are diagnosed based on the symptoms. Feelings of worthlessness, overwhelming guilt, loss of interest, lack of energy and concentration, thoughts of suicide, all of this for more than a few weeks…and I can go on and on. These are obvious symptoms, but what makes it real?
The most eye-opening image I’ve ever seen in my quest to understand depression was a picture I saw on social media. The image was of two brain scans; the one on the left side represented a person with clinical depression, and the one on the right represented a person without it. The left side was dimmed, lacking the presence of light, and engulfed in a shadow of darkness and hopelessness. The right side was bright, enlightened, and glowing, and I imagined that this brain was full of hope.
Given the nature of this visual, I came to my own conclusion that depression, yes, is a real illness. This, of course, is not news. But what happened within me at this moment was that I realized, at a fundamental level, that depression occurs when people are clinically unable to have hope. I’ve come to recognize that, similar to how Alzheimer’s disease attacks brain cells, sickle cell anemia attacks red blood cells, or HIV attacks the entire immune system, major depressive disorder is a disease that attacks hope.
Years passed after that first preview with my depression destiny. I found myself in a counselor’s office yet again with the counselor making the same suggestion. Psychiatry. Medication. Chemical imbalance. But this time, something began to shift. I had just ended a two-year relationship with a married man and had spent that time surrounded by shame and secrecy. I no longer wanted to hide. I now craved a feeling of normality, if such a feeling existed. So I took my counselor’s suggestion and sought psychiatric help. I was diagnosed in my early twenties with what was then known as clinical depression, and I began a course of drug therapy that took me well into my thirties. But my story of major depression did not end there.
At the end of 2009, I left an abusive work situation, subsequently losing my income and everything I thought defined me. This included my health insurance. With no job, little income, and, more importantly, no health insurance, I made the decision to go off my antidepressants. I had dated a guy who told me I was crazy for taking meds, and my mom kept asking me when I was getting over this thing. I figured if I was ever going to try and “beat this thing,” now would be the time to do it. I “treated” my depression naturally with aromatherapy and vitamins. I was only halfway in denial. Psychotherapy remained a part of my self-made treatment plan. Luckily, by that time, I had retained the services of a therapist who took my case pro bono.
Things were okay for a little while. But leaving a job in the midst of the economic crisis made securing additional work close to impossible. In March of 2010, I ultimately lost my home, my car, and many other possessions. I made the transition from living on my own to living with my mom. I suffered severe culture shock as I went from my spacious one-bedroom apartment, where I lived independently, to a room as big as a box, where my mother treated me like I was twelve. I also took a part-time job that at the time I felt was beneath my value and qualifications. I was extremely unhappy and lonely. I sought out many solutions to cure my condition. I spent a lot of time sleeping, in isolation, irritable, and crying. This went on every single day for an entire year.
And then Christmastime came…
The holidays have always been difficult, but Christmas 2010, I felt like a stranger within my own life. I spent time with a dear friend and her family for Christmas Eve festivities. Her family had always made me feel so welcome and loved, which was something I desperately needed. But after the festivities were done and I left their home, I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness and emptiness. I cried all the way home. I couldn’t understand why, in the midst of all of that love, I felt so unloved. Life wasn’t perfect, but I still had so much to be hopeful for, I told myself. And yet I was unable to feel any hope at all. I hated myself for being surrounded by so much happiness and love and being unable to feel any of it. A person like me did not deserve to live….
I’m no genius, but I consider myself a relatively intelligent person. But life, at this point, had me completely puzzled. I could not figure out what my issues were. I only knew I needed to fix myself in some way because I was broken. I felt this tremendous pain in my heart, and I wanted it to stop. My body radiated with agony. I wanted to feel hopeful, but my brain would not allow me to get there.
It’s one thing to be depressed when everything is going wrong. But it’s another thing to be depressed when you are surrounded by love, encouragement, and positivity. There is so much shame in saying, I’m so blessed, but I’m still depressed, sad, and hopeless. I still can’t get out of the bed. I still can’t stop crying. I still don’t think my life means anything. This is a tricky disease.
When I got home from my friend’s house, I went to my room and closed the door. I kept the lights off and turned on the TV. I cried and cried and cried as I watched It’s a Wonderful Life and thought, I really don’t want to die…. Yes, like George Bailey, I wish I had never been born. But I found myself looking on the Internet for ways that I could end my life. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. There would be no dramatic letters or good-byes; here in the privacy of my little room, I would just disappear.
I had been prescribed Tylenol with codeine awhile back for back pain, and I hadn’t taken the entire bottle. There were about ten pills left in the bottle. I took about six of them. For some reason, nothing was happening. I wasn’t even able to sleep.
I couldn’t even do this right. This was my rock bottom.
Something was holding on to me. I literally just stopped taking pills to kill myself and began to look up suicide hotlines. I called one. The man on the line told me that he was grateful that I had called him because he got to spend this time with me on Christmas Eve. The guy obviously knew his job well, but if he was bullshitting, I didn’t care. It was something I needed to hear. I hung up the phone and eventually drifted off to sleep.
At the end of January 2011, my condition grew worse.
I began walking around like a zombie. Uninterested. Indifferent. I went to work and couldn’t remember how I got there. I’d come home and cry myself to sleep. The transforming pain that was with me on Christmas Eve was now here, sitting with me, and I could no longer deny it.
My counselor suggested I see a doctor. I still had no health insurance, but I found a doctor who was willing to prescribe an antidepressant. It wasn’t working. Here was that desperation. I felt like asking my doctor if she knew where I could buy some serotonin. Through hopeless tears, I just asked if she could up the dose of my meds. She said that was as high as she could go and suggested I see a psychiatrist.
I couldn’t afford to see a psychiatrist.
After beginning drug therapy again, and the symptoms not changing, my counselor suggested that I may have something called “treatment-resistant depression.” But I was tired of the labels. I just didn’t want to feel like this anymore. Whatever this was. I wanted to feel something other than nothing again.
An idea popped into my head. Maybe there was a depression research study somewhere that could look at my case? That way I wouldn’t have to pay for treatment; they would pay me for treatment. I put the idea in the back of my mind.
Then it all caught up with me. One morning, I woke up and literally felt nothing. I felt numb. I felt as if nothing in the world would make me happy. I thought about the things I usually enjoyed—reading a book, laughter, snuggling with the cat, watching the fish in the fish tank—and none of it sounded appealing. I couldn’t even feel God with me. I literally felt like I was null and void.
I didn’t have time to feel this. I got up, threw on some clothes, and went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my mom. When I returned home, there was a commercial playing on television about a depression research study. Specifically, the study was geared toward people with treatment-resistant depression.
God was taking care of me.
The research study had an easy number to remember. I immediately called and made an appointment.
Several days later, I went to the research center. I had to answer a bunch of intake questions, and then I met with the doctor who was leading the study. He was very nice. But it turned out that for various reasons, I didn’t meet the criteria for the study. I was devastated. Done. I was never going to feel better. They gave me $20 for my time, and I cried as I slowly walked out of the research office, leaving my hope behind.
I had barely made it to the parking garage when my cell phone rang. It was the intake lady from the research center. She said, “Michele, are you still here? If so, the doctor would like to see you.”
I was thinking I may have forgotten something. I turned around, went back to the office, and sat down with the doctor. He kept looking at me, and looking at his notes. He told me there was just something about me…something about me that he just wanted to help. He told me, “You are too smart of a person to think there is no hope for depression.”
Fresh tears began to flow. He told me that he would treat me for free for three months and then continue to treat me based on whatever I could pay. And then he said something that I will never forget.
“After the three months, we can talk about payment. But your level of treatment will not change based on what you can or cannot pay.”
I squinted my eyes and looked at this doctor in disbelief. Based on everything I had told him about my story and my history with antidepressants, he believed another course of drug therapy in a new class of antidepressants would work for me. But it was more than the drugs. This doctor believed in me. He believed that my hope could be restored.
I began taking the new meds, and I eventually began to notice a difference. I was functional again. Not cured, but functional.
There are still struggles, and feeling better wasn’t just about the medication. There was work on myself I needed to do but had been unable to because my brain was sick.
Over time, I felt the darkness in my brain being replaced with light. My diseased hope is now being healed.
The Spy is pleased to republish Michele Whitney’s personal essay from The Delmarva Review, Volume 9. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.
Michele L. Whitney is a writer, musician, and teacher from the South Side of Chicago. She holds an MBA as well as a MS in Human Services. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, and her creative nonfiction is published in The Griffin, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Diverse Arts Project, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Her website is michelewhitney.net.