2005…It Could Have Been the End

Depression can seem worse than terminal cancer, because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem.

David D. Burns

This latest major depressive episode had its beginnings by mid-2004. There had been a change in leadership in the office and it definitely was not for the better. The new director, B, never supported me (this is backed by observations of colleagues across campus and isn’t just my ‘thought’). I believe it was because I had very similar philosophies with the previous director, Alan, with whom she did not agree.

During this time, I had an overwhelming sense of incompetence at work. I didn’t feel I was even giving 20% of my student load my full attention. I even felt the students would be better off with a different advisor. Despite having a desire to do and give more, I remained extremely hesitant because I had a looming sense that “it would end soon any way.”

After a student in our discipline committed suicide, it felt as though everything made me think of suicide. In May, I wrote in my journal:

I feel like each time I have these depth of thoughts, I’m shaving a year off of my life. Back in March I said I didn’t think I would live past 50. Now, only 2 months later, I’m feeling like it is more like 40. I’m 33 and don’t expect to live more than 7 more years?! What is wrong with me?

My death is the easiest way to deal with everything right now.

Because of when our orientation program (Day on Campus, DOC) happened each year, I had already missed a couple of years of attending an annual family gathering in New Mexico and I REALLY needed to go and be with family. In December, I told B that I really was uncertain what my mental condition would be come July if I were not allowed to take the time off. I purposely was making my request months in advance so that we could plan around it.

There was absolutely no attempt made to accommodate my request at that time. It was flatly denied. During that holiday break, I was physically making a pro/con chart regarding staying in my position or looking for something new. My depression was deepening and everything seemed so hopeless at work.

A tiny glimmer of hope appeared when B announced she was moving to a different department across campus. (Actually, we secretly did a happy dance behind closed doors!) I thought maybe if I gave a specific suggestion to the interim director, P, my request for vacation would be approved. In March 2005, I specifically suggested that I see extra students early in the program so that the rest of the staff would not be burdened at the end. This time, my request was denied with the reason being that it was office policy that nobody is allowed vacation during that time. This had not been a formal policy to that point.  As a matter of fact, the year before one colleague had taken the last day off for a 50th birthday trip.

You can imagine my fury at being dismissed AGAIN and with an invalid explanation given. This only caused the anxiety and depression to increase with each passing week. I felt like I was under a microscope and that every task I was given was a test of my will. Where I had previously been given some leeway to complete certain tasks, I was now being given very short deadlines. The only thing that kept me going to work was the knowledge that things would slow down in May once the semester was completed. I figured I would take a week or so off at that time to mentally prepare for the upcoming DOC season.

When the time for vacation arrived, I had not completely finished my handouts for orientation, but knew it wouldn’t take much when I returned. There would be plenty of time to get them printed before we began. Little did I know that I would not return in a week’s time…or even a month’s time.

As the week of vacation progressed and time to return to work grew closer, my anxiety increased. I was struggling to comprehend the repeated denials of my request despite my willingness to do extra work up front. It became more and more difficult to get to sleep at night. In my thinking, if I did not go to sleep, that meant I wouldn’t have to wake up and face the next day. Days were spent fruitlessly sitting in front of the TV watching nothing in particular. My thoughts were obsessed with having to ‘face’ work again.

By the end of the week, I knew I could not return. I made an appointment with my psychiatrist to request paperwork for extended medical leave.   Again, I thought I just needed a little more time to mentally prepare for the stress of orientation and that I would return a few days before it began. I still remember trying to explain to P that I didn’t know when I would return. I had reached a whole new low and felt so ashamed that I didn’t have the strength to return to work.

By this point, the thought of suicide was EXTREMELY real. I strongly considered going in-patient. I asked my co-workers to write me letters of support in case I did. That brought disappointing results…and caused more pain and a sense of dismissal when I only heard from a couple of people. I knew it was their busy time, but I honestly thought they cared enough about me to take the time to write me a ‘simple’ letter. I found out later that they just didn’t know what to say. They didn’t understand the depression and were at a loss of words. Knowing this really didn’t lesson the pain, it only explained it.

The lack of understanding depression was made especially clear when one coworker, Meredith, told me of an associate dean, C, asking about me. C wondered why I didn’t change medications or just get a new doctor or even go in the hospital if what I was doing wasn’t working. She even asked Meredith if she thought I would return to work. Meredith had to tell her point-blank, “Criselda is having a hard enough time deciding if she even wants to live.” That was the last C asked of me.

At this point, my face was a mess from picking on it as I tended to do during major episodes. I was barely showering. My leg was scarred from an intentional burn with a fork. I had been so numb from the depression that I needed to know that I could still ‘feel.’ I heated the fork on the stove and held it to my leg.

Knowing that I was in such a desperate place and that she was going on vacation, my therapist, Rebecca had me sign a ‘No Harm’ contract.  To try to get my mind off of suicide and Rebecca being unavailable, I took the trip to New Mexico. I wish I could say it was the best thing for me, but, honestly, I didn’t fully enjoy myself. My depression was so deep that I essentially sat and observed the entire time. At one point, one sister asked what happened to my leg; I lied and said I had accidentally dropped a fork. She saw right through me but didn’t really press the issue.

I ended up taking nearly three months off from work that summer. When I did return, we had a new director, K, and we spoke immediately about my situation. K seemed to have a true understanding of depression and explained some of her own struggles. Finally, there was someone who would understand me again! This was welcomed news as I remained in a heavy fog for at least three months before I really felt like I was moving at a ‘normal’ speed again.

The depression continued to improve over the next couple of years. Besides having K who understood me, the original director that hired me in 2001, Alan, eventually returned as director.

But, alas, as Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote, “all good things must come to an end…”

 

SuicidePrevention

I am sad to report that K understood my depression all too well and took her own life in 2012.

 

2000…the Never-Ending Year

 May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout the month I will share my own experience with depression. This is the continuation of the journey which would eventually lead me to qualifying for Social Security Disability benefits because of my depression.


I returned to work after a month off in early December 1999. I felt a sense of optimism that life was beginning to move forward after a temporary standstill. That feeling was short lived once the stress of work returned. On the last day of the year I wrote:

I hope and pray that I can get some added “get up and go” in 2000. I have great ideas and intentions. I just don’t follow through.

As I continued to process the experiences of the year as we often do on New Year’s Eve, a strong feeling of anger began creeping in on me.

Outside, I feel “calm” so to speak. Inside, however, I look at myself and it scares me. I see myself with so much pent up anger/energy that I just want to tear everything up in the house.

I see myself just knocking tables over, pushing things off the entertainment center. I would put my hand or foot through the fireplace glass. I would pull everything out of the cabinets in the kitchen. I would knock the bookshelves over and tear up some books. I would rip clothes. I would tear apart plants.

How do I get rid of all these feelings?

As late January rolled around, work stress began taking its toll. In a reaction to poor communication between my supervisor and me, I stormed out of his office and slammed his door. I honestly thought I might lose my job that day. My inability to control myself was very troubling to me.

I feel like no matter how much work I do on my issues; I will still have days like last week. It is part of me. How do I deal with that? If there needs to be accommodations, what would they be? Is that right, or do I just have to “deal with it” and take my chances? How can I keep going on like this?

I believe I was beginning to recognize the depression as being a disability, but did not really know exactly what that entailed. Was it valid to call it a disability that required accommodations? I had already received an accommodation for it by being assigned to the current position; but would I need, or did I even deserve, other accommodations to make work less stressful? In the end, I wouldn’t think about it as a disability again for about a year.

Despite this, the depression and the symptoms I was experiencing did not let up.

Late February: I am really drained tonight. It’s not that I worked hard (I hardly worked) it’s just that I didn’t have much energy to begin with. Being depressed just drains you sometimes.

March 17: Two more days off and then it is back to work. I have had a good Spring Break, fairly productive. At least until today. I have just felt different today from the rest of the week. I have ended this day ‘blah’ and with a heavy heart.

March 21: Well, I missed the last two days of work.

This pattern of calling off from work immediately after a holiday would become a regular pattern for me down the road. I wish I could say that it was because I wanted another day or two to play; but it was far from that. Those extra days away from work were spent in bed trying to gather the energy needed to return to work. There was subconscious anxiety about having to face the work-related stress.

April remained a stressful month and I had A LOT of contact with my therapist to get through it. I was facing the possibility of having my paycheck docked because I was using all of my sick and vacation leave by calling off or taking time for therapy appointments. My therapy sessions were very focused on how to deal with the disagreements as professionally as possible.

This allowed me to go into May feeling a bit more balanced and really ready to make improvements in work areas.

May 10: It is a really sad thought when people start commenting about how happy you look and you know they are saying that because they haven’t seen you laugh and smile more than once a week or so in a long time. One friend mentioned that she could see in my eyes that I am doing so much better.

Previously, my therapist had introduced me to The Healing Runes by Ralph H. Blume. The book comes with a bag of stones with different symbols on them. You focus on what is heavy on your mind and draw a rune. The book then has an ‘interpretation’ of the symbol. I like to describe the Healing Runes as a way to help you place focus when you might be feeling overwhelmed. More often than not, the interpretation will have deep meaning. On the same day as above, I drew the rune of Courage.

The Rune of Courage announces that the cycle of sorrow and pain has finally come to an end. Be at peace with your healing. You have walked the path of Courage; now it is time to go out in the world and live the life you were born to live.

Damn, if the joke wasn’t on me again! It wasn’t that I felt the pain and depression had left, I just felt a little more optimism once again; and drawing the Rune of Courage had been my proof.

June 26 – Well, it has been quite a while since I have written. Maybe it is because I am scared to face the truth.

Last month, I was notified that they were not going to renew my contract after August.

Just when I thought life was getting on track a bit, it slapped me in the face and I never saw it coming. I had been so consumed by the depression I wasn’t able to put the clues together.

In mid-July, the Information Technology guys would come to my office to back up my computer. No reason was given, but I’m guessing they thought I was going to destroy work product that would be needed once I was gone. (That was kind of accurate, but not on a large scale.) I had a stack of my own personal disks where I was saving samples of my work that I wanted to carry out of the office with me. They saw this and immediately demanded that I leave them.

Once again, I had an irrational reaction and became physically defensive. I do not recall the specific details other than the fact that I knew in my head that I would not be walking back into that office during regular business hours again. The next day I was notified that I was placed on administration leave with pay for the duration of my contract.

The next month was a bit of a blur as you might expect. I vaguely recall thinking about a job search, but feeling so hopeless that I did nothing. It was at that point that my sister that lived in Indiana invited me for a visit and suggested I consider moving north.

I mentioned previously that my self-harm method was picking on my face. This is a picture of me from my visit to Indiana in September. I am smiling, but I am anything but fully happy given what I had done to my face.

2000

September 2000

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate with being unemployed and majorly depressed, I had a gall bladder attack while in Indiana. I returned to Texas immediately hoping to have surgery as soon as possible. It would take nearly two months before I could schedule the surgery due to issues with my COBRA insurance.

Once I recovered physically, I was able to begin the moving process…with some trepidation of course.

Late-December: I am making progress, but I also feel as though I am just standing still when it comes to my overall future.

On December 21, 2000, my Chihuahua Comet and I drove the U-Haul out of Midland, Texas and began our 1440 mile trip to Indiana hoping to make a fresh start and create happier memories in the new year.

Me and Comet

Me and Comet

Me and Savannah, my dog I had to leave with my parents in TX

Me and Savannah, my dog I had to leave with my parents in TX

Depression Becomes More Visible: 1996

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout the month I will share my own experience with depression. This is the continuation of the journey which would eventually lead me to qualifying for Social Security Disability benefits because of my depression.


After my ‘mini’ breakdown and not showing up at the junior high, I was able to finish my practicum and completed my Master of Education in August 1995. It was a few tense months before I landed and started my first full-time job at a community college in January 1996.

This was NOT an ideal position for anyone, much less a 25 year old fresh out of graduate school. I reported to three different supervisors for a grant-funded position with no clearly defined duties. It was a recipe for disaster from the beginning regardless of my struggle with depression.

Early on I was very resistant to accepting criticism/feedback. I wrote one night that “more than once, I have gotten defensive and/or just ignored what was said to me.” I knew I needed to get back into therapy, but because I had previously been diagnosed with depression, I had a pre-existing condition and had to wait the required six months. (Thank you Affordable Care Act for changing that for others!)

By the time I was able to return to therapy, the stress had built to such a level that I began to have inappropriate angry outbursts whenever I was critiqued by one specific supervisor. After one of these explosions in mid-July I wrote in my journal, “I know that it was PMS and that it had only been getting worse each moth as I had more and more work.” (In hind sight, this is a sign that full-time jobs were not for me. It only took me 13 more years to finally accept that as fact. J)

In regards to the same ‘episode’ I wrote, “She made it appear as if I had chosen to act that way. I was not in total control. But, she doesn’t understand that.” I knew I didn’t have a handle on the situation, but I just was processing what needed to be done to better the situation.

Much time in therapy was spent exploring my anger. I was encouraged to read, “When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within,” by Matthew McKay. I was given handouts about the different types of anger and suggested ways to work through it without it coming out of me like lava when a volcano erupts. We did guided imagery to help me get more in control of my emotions. We did EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is often used for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

None of this was helping. I just couldn’t get a grasp. In December, I was very discouraged and wrote, “I become upset at the lack of control I have over my feelings.”

Not only was I being easily agitated and having inappropriate/unprofessional outbursts, my physical appearance was also taking a toll. My release for anxiety and stress was most often to pick on my face. A simple, small pimple would easily fall victim to my fingers and repeated scrapings. Before long, my face would be covered with large, very noticeable scars.

1996     1996

These were taken the summer of 1996, only six to eight months into my first job. It would take a few major episodes, and many years of doing this before I recognized it as a pattern. But, the pictures don’t lie. Friends and family thought I just had a problem with acne and would give me advice and tips to clear my face. None of us realized at the time that it wasn’t an acne problem, but rather a more serious problem with depression and anxiety. Let’s call it what it really was: self-harm.

When someone talks about self-harm, we often first think of someone that cuts one’s self. According to NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness:

Self-harm includes cutting, picking, scratching, burning…to reduce, express or cope with overwhelming, painful emotions…[persons] living with depression may self-harm if they do not have healthier alternatives in place to cope with or relieve negative feelings.

 Self-harm can also be used as a kind of “self-medication” for treating depression—not unlike drinking, using substances or overeating. Some individuals report that self-harm can be experienced as a “runners high” when “feel good” endorphins are released in the brain in response to the physical injury.

By and large, picking was my form of self-harm behavior. I had one instance of intentionally burning myself; and then just a few years ago, I was scratching my hand with a box cutter. Picking at my face was mostly an unconscious act. The burning and the scratching with a box cutter were deliberate attempts to relieve the pain of the depression.

Even with that pattern of self-harming behavior, I was not prescribed a separate medication for anxiety. I suppose since many of the antidepressants I had been prescribed are sometimes used for long-term treatment of anxiety as well this is why my psychiatrists took so long to consider adding another medication.

Things in that position never really improved to where I was happy with the job. I eventually asked for an accommodation based on my depression to be moved into another position for which I was qualified. I began my academic advising career and worked directly with students just as I had wanted all along. For the most part, this was a much better position and I was generally happy…until my world came crashing down in 1999.

In my next post I’ll share one of the worst days of my life and the impact it had on my depression.

rune

This is the tattoo I got to cover the scar where I burned myself with a fork.

It is a compilation of four runes from “The Healing Runes” by Ralph H. Blum and Susan Loughan.  In short, the runes are a way to bring focus in a chaotic world.

The different runes are: Courage (the arrow going up), and starting at the bottom going up Surrender, Prayer, and Serenity.