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