My Victory Over Cymbalta

As I wrote about in my last post, Jesus really turned my life around in 2008. By fall 2010, life was still good. I had a strong Christian community; I was growing in my faith; I had a stable home life with an incredible roommate; I had a new amazing teaching job. Despite the stress of my new teaching job along with beginning a graduate school program, I felt happy. I remember thinking, “It’s been so long since I’ve had a suicidal thought. Praise God!” I was even able to steadily decline on my antidepressant, til I was on the lowest prescribable dose.

In all of these positive changes, I was so grateful. But I still wasn’t satisfied. Anyone who knows me knows I rarely settle. I am always on the quest to better myself. I began getting more interested in how to take care of my body better. Around that time, I read an inspiring book The Antidepressant Solution. The main thing that stood out to me was that antidepressants are addicting and that doctors keep patients on them because they mistake withdrawal symptoms for depressive relapse. I also learned that the medication I was on, Cymbalta, was a drug with some of the worst withdrawal side effects. So, against the advice of my counselor and my roommate Theresa, I decided to wean myself off of Cymbalta. The reason they were concerned was because winter was beginning and my depressions usually worsened during the winter. Plus, I was doing well, so why change things?

But the facts in the book scared me, and I became determined and a little impatient. I decided to use the charts provided in the book as well as my journal to document my withdrawal symptoms.

How bad could it be? Little did I know what kind of hell I was about to undergo.

First, I decided to go from the 20 milligrams I was on to around 10 mg. Unfortunately, a 10 mg prescribable dose of Cymbalta did not exist, so I would break apart the capsules, dump out the little white balls inside, “eyeball” what I thought was about half of the contents and ingest the balls. As you can imagine, I was not very accurate in my “eyeballing,” so my poor brain was getting different amounts of its “fix” every day. I would have moderately intense symptoms, such as zapping sensations in my eyes, vertigo-like feelings, severe headaches, nausea, intense anxiety and dramatic crying spells.

Some of these symptoms were just a stronger version of withdrawal effects I was already accustomed to, having been medicated for ten years. So I pressed on, and after only a week of the 10 milligrams, impatience won over and I decided my body could handle even more discomfort. So, on November 6, 2010, I stopped taking Cymbalta. The withdrawal effects probably had an impact on my reasoning skills. I guess it didn’t occur to me that I had at one time been on 120 milligrams of Cymbalta and had adjusted to each new dose over the course of several months! And now I was going through multiple dose changes in the course of a few weeks without the help of a doctor. Not only that, but it was evident that my body was very sensitive to chemicals of all kinds.

I also didn’t realize that the first day of nothing could possibly be excruciating for a brain that had been “high” on antidepressants for almost ten years. That day was a Saturday and I was visiting my parents in Wisconsin. The first thing I noticed starting in the late morning was a worsening in some depression-type symptoms I’d already been dealing with: inability to concentrate, irritability, and radical mood swings. However, the physical sensations were severe and new: “Everything was hazy, glossed over, and there was this pressure on my head, chest, everywhere…I felt suffocated. Extremely dizzy and ‘off’. Everything was whirring, stirring. I felt thrown about, plagued by an unimaginable force…On top of all, was the migraine….which became unbearable. My ‘out-of-it-ness’ in combination with pounding head became so suffocating I literally felt as if I was dying.”

“Reluctantly I split the Cymbalta and took a little less than half the little white beads…I felt like a failure because I just want(ed) to fight my pain and discomfort but I realized I was probably not a fun person to be around. If I were alone I would’ve probably just gone to bed, but for Mom and Dad’s sake, I took the med.” Within a few hours, my symptoms lessened dramatically. I couldn’t believe how right the doctor who wrote the book was: I was addicted to Cymbalta!

After this experience, I became even more convinced I had to get this “poison” out of my system. My fears of how it was hurting me and SO many others I knew who were on antidepressants intensified. I was also angry. Angry because so many doctors were  handing out these horrible medications like candy and, mistaking reactions like mine as a depressive relapse instead of withdrawal symptoms, keeping patients on them or even increasing the dosages! (I can be a pretty all-or-nothing person. Just the year before I had finally accepted that, even for Christians, antidepressant medications were okay, good, even necessary for me to be taking.)

I was extra dependent on God during this time. Helping me through this trial of medication withdrawal was the number one thing I asked of Him in my journals. I felt I had Him and Him only to help me. NO ONE I knew was going through what I was. In order to maintain my sanity and be able to go to work every day, I weaned off a little slower. This was no easy task. I used a website I found to figure out how many balls were in each capsule. I discovered that 55 balls was about 8 milligrams. So I counted out 55 balls (very time consuming!) and ingested that amount for about a week.

I continued to worry that “I might go into a full blown depression,” but was hopeful that once I got completely off of Cymbalta, I would “be able to tell what’s med and what’s me.” This thought really motivated me to continue on the journey, and the journey gave me a purpose for living. Whereas for many years prior, I had continuously entertained thoughts of death by my own hand, I now wanted to live, and I saw freedom from Cymbalta as the possible key to my happiness.

During this time of withdrawal, I was also working a stressful job, going to grad school, and attending to all my normal church and family responsibilities. Through it all, my anxiety was unrelenting. “Just having a conversation with… (one person) makes me short of breath and my heart race. So when there gets to be more people, noise or commotion I have to consciously force myself to breathe deeply…Sometimes with all this anxiety I think I’m going crazy or may pass out due to my shallow breathing. Other times I feel completely vulnerable because I go for seconds without realizing who I am or what I’m doing.” I was also getting extremely tired of tediously counting all those teeny balls every day. Many days I was really tempted to go back on the 20 milligram pills. But I couldn’t imagine doing that with all the progress I’d made. So, with the support of the Lord and my community, I persevered.

I continued to moderate the number of Cymbalta “balls” I consumed to have just the right severity of symptoms. I didn’t want them so severe I couldn’t work, but I also didn’t want to be on the antidepressant much longer. This preciseness definitely turned into an obsession. But it was exciting to see the progress I was making. By December, I had a plan. I would take out one little ball every day. By my calculations, I would be off of Cymbalta by the beginning of February!

By Christmas 2010, I had gotten through my first semester of grad school and the first few months at my new job. The holidays were typically challenging for me depression-wise, so the fact that I was struggling was not a surprise. I continued to ask myself, “Is this me or the med withdrawal?” but I never came to a conclusion. However, I was encouraged to rediscover that I hadn’t had a lingering suicidal thought for many months. This insight spurred me on through the trial. I knew if I wasn’t suicidal, I was safe; I could handle anything.

I ended up ahead of schedule and took the last Cymbalta “ball” at the end of January. On January 27, 2011, I wrote in my journal: “Dear God, Today is Day 4 of no Cymbalta. I’ve been doing strange in a way lately. Everything (at times) seems kind of other-worldly. But, overall, I’ve been positive and happy and feel like You’ve blessed me beyond what I deserve. Maybe the strange feeling is that I don’t know what to do with the positive feelings.”

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, slowly but surely, I would notice something interesting: I was no longer depressed. Yes, I had my normal bouts of moderate anxiety, unease, irritability and melancholy. But, to me, this was not depression. Because no matter how down I got, I never lost hope. And I never once thought about dying. In fact, I had more of a will to live than ever before.

During this post-Cymbalta period, I continued to take care of myself by eating better, exercising, practicing all the skills I’d learned in therapy, and surrounding myself with positive people. It would be several months, if not a year, before I could truly say: I am healed from depression! I just could not believe that I was now feeling the best I had ever felt, better than any of those ten years I was on medication.

I later ended up with more of a balanced outlook on antidepressants: They are powerful drugs that can be helpful and, yes, they are necessary in some cases and for some mental illnesses more than others. But, in my opinion, they should always be given at the minimum dose possible and used in combination with natural approaches. People should be warned about the dangerous side effects of medications and their addictive qualities. I am especially extremely wary of putting children and teens on medications, as, in most cases, there are little to no studies done on what the longterm effects of meds are on this age group.

In my case, I never wanted to be on an antidepressant again after my horrendous experience getting off of Cymbalta. I kept wondering if I should have ever been on meds in the first place. What if, all those years, the meds were actually worsening my depression? I processed through a LOT of anger over the fact that, especially as a vulnerable teenager, I was practically forcefed medications and not even offered other natural treatments that would have no doubt helped me way better than the meds. Mostly, I just celebrated how far I had come with the Lord at my side.

I still consider my journey of Cymbalta withdrawal to be one of the largest feats I undertook of my entire life. And I have the Lord to thank for leading me to this victory!

“For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” Deut. 20:4

“Blessed is the (wo)man who remains steadfast under trial, for when (s)he has stood the test (s)he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12

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Stranger to Myself

“It may happen when you first wake up, or while flying on an airplane or driving in your car. Suddenly, inexplicably, something changes. Common objects and familiar situations seem strange, foreign. Like you’ve just arrived on the planet, but don’t know from where. It may pass quickly, or it may linger. You close your eyes and turn inward, but the very thoughts running through your head seem different. The act of thinking itself, the stream of invisible words running through the hollow chamber of your mind, seems strange and unreal. It’s as if you have no self, no ego, no remnant of that inner strength which quietly and automatically enabled you to deal with the world around you, and the world inside you. It may settle over time, into a feeling of “nothingness”, as if you were without emotions, dead.”

When I first read these words in my college dorm room during the early weeks of 2005, I felt a fresh relief was over me. I was not crazy. Similar to my awakening with my strange social anxiety disorder, I felt comfort knowing that my condition had a name and there were others suffering like me.

But that did not make it much easier to deal with. While I was convinced this new condition was nothing like depression, the state I was in fueled a new or continuing depression. According to this same article, depersonalization disorder or “DP” can be a coping mechanism and often occurs in life threatening situations. As someone who is also a Highly Sensitive Person, I had gone through so many life changes in the last several months that my body and mind were simply maxed out. I couldn’t deal with life because of the stress the changes caused so I literally “zoned out” and became like “an automaton or as if [I was] living in a dream or a movie.” 

So as I stated in my last post, I moved back home with my parents at age twenty. It was a toss up in my mind whether it was the right decision or not. But my therapist-the head of the counseling department at Bethel-and my parents basically decided for me. I had to withdraw from all my college courses and ended up losing a lot of money which was super discouraging. I also had to quit working at the group home job I loved without giving them any warning, which created extreme guilt in me. All of these changes only intensified my depression, feelings of shame, worthlessness and self-hate. But somehow I kept hanging on and trusting God.

I got in to see a bunch of professionals both in the Twin Cities and in the city where my parents lived in Wisconsin. I went up on the anti-depressant I was on and began a mood stabilizer, which the doctor said would help with pain and ease up the depersonalized, out-of-body feelings. But I had a lot of concerns about being on all this medication and worried constantly about it.

Not being at school stripped me of worth in a lot of ways. I had prided myself in my academics, in my job taking care of disabled adults, in my work as a youth group leader, and in just being independent of my parents. Now I was back under their care and continually berated myself for it, calling myself “weak,” “immature” and a “baby.”

My parents could never be what I wanted them to be, though the rational part of my brain knew they were doing the best they could to help me. My dad would annoy me with his positive attitude and encouragement, as though I could just snap my fingers and be healed. My mom was either too smothering or completely ignoring. I would one minute resent my parents’ very presence. The next minute I would think, “What kind of parents are they?” by leaving me home alone each day. “Don’t they realize I could easily hurt or kill myself with all sorts of tools laying around?”

For a few weeks, I kept busy by finishing up some classwork for my half-semester classes. I also went to Christian counseling once a week, but didn’t feel I was making any progress. I would also spend time lots of time reading and journaling. I tried to stay in touch with some friends back at school. Sometimes I was encouraged; other times I felt overwhelmingly misunderstood and would fall back into feelings of loneliness and self-pity. I felt a lot of envy for my siblings and some of my friends who seemed healthy, happy, and even thriving.

I continued to have headaches or migraines almost daily, unexplained nausea, and panic attacks that would come out of nowhere. My body would literally shut down every day around 7 p.m. I’d be laying on the couch, watching a movie and suddenly be unable to breath deeply. It felt like someone was suffocating me. The only thing I could do was lay in bed; but I wouldn’t be able to rest.

On top of (and as a result of) this, my depression worsened. One morning, in the beginning of April, I woke up and thought, “I have no reason to get out of bed. All I will be doing today is sitting around, spending time alone. My friends won’t even call me back and even if they do, I am finding it harder and harder to explain why I get so down. The same with my family. They want to hear me say all is well, so why not give them what they want? Besides, if I were them, I would be dead annoyed with myself for not pulling it together by now.”

That’s when I started planning my suicide, which would be to drive the van in the garage, windows down, car running, garage door down. I would have to do it soon-before Dad got home for lunch. He would be the one to find me. Would I be dead? I thought about how my suicide would affect people. Since my friends often forget I exist anyway, it won’t be so bad for them. Then there’s my family; extended, yeah, it will be a shock but somehow in the run of a year or so, they’ll get over it. Then immediate; yeah, they will suffer, but how much do I really add to their life anyway?

I came to the conclusion that, yes, this was the best solution. Better dead than having to live a double life, where on the one hand I’m a strong Christian with a deep faith, a compassionate and committed leader; on the other hand, a suicidal wreck, someone who spends her days trying to teach others NOT to believe the lies she herself believes.

Then the biggie: what would God think? I had already thought about this a lot over the years, but that day I thought about it the most. I figured since murderers could receive forgiveness, so could people who kill themselves. Surely God wouldn’t banish to hell, someone who’s been a committed Christian her whole life and one day just snaps, would He? I was sure I’d receive judgment, but once in heaven, it wouldn’t matter, right? I couldn’t imagine a place I’d rather be, and I decided I would do anything to get there.

For the first time in my life, I had the sudden realization that I held life and death in my hands. It wouldn’t take much. It wouldn’t even be painful. I’d finally be free of all my sickness and pain.

I laid their for probably two hours, wrestling with God in my head. I never did attempt suicide that day. It is unclear how much the medications I was on were triggering these thoughts. Before this extreme suicidal episode, my mood stabilizer-Neurontin-had been tweaked. In later months and years, I would notice similar episodes after certain med changes.

At the time, however, I was clueless. I just kept surviving every day. Despite still having suicidal thoughts multiple times a day, I would look to God. I wrote in my journal obsessively; it was my source of survival. I didn’t often feel close to God. I cried out to Him often, “Where are you, God?” But glimpses of His truth would sometimes reach me: through His Word, Christian books, and unexpected cards or phone calls of encouragement from friends. I also learned to have gratitude in the little things: my dog, music, nature and being with loved ones.

That spring, my schedule picked up and I made several trips to and from the Cities. I was planning on going on a mission trip with my church that summer to Mexico (as a youth leader/translator). So I had several events related to the trip to attend. Additionally, I attended my brother’s graduation in Minneapolis with my dad.

Finally, I nannied for my three young cousins two different times at their home in Illinois. This was probably the most empowering time of my entire time away from college. It was interesting to see how much better I did with the kids the second time (in May) as compared to the first time (in April). Each time was only for a couple days, but still very challenging for me. By the end of the second nannying experience, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in caring for children and in helping my family. I felt freer because I wasn’t so obsessed with thoughts of myself. I also experienced something I hadn’t in a while: joy and fun. I bonded more with the children, ages 3, 5 and 7, and created some unforgettable memories with them. I got a lot closer to God during that time, too, and praised him for allowing me to have this experience.

By the end of the spring, I was getting anxious to get back to my life in the Twin Cities. I still was not completely-or even remotely-better. I was having the same symptoms that had landed me at home with my parents. The most troubling symptom was how unreal everything felt. This created incredible sadness in me because I couldn’t experience joyful experiences, such as my brother’s marriage, the way I hoped to. But I kept trusting in God and staying near the love of my friends and family. I came to believe that I could still receive love even when people couldn’t understand me.

Even though my illness raged on, I was dealing with it better, so I moved back to the Cities at the beginning of June. My sense of purpose returned as I started up all my activities again. Gradually, the out-of-body feelings started lessening over the course of that summer. The bizarre physical symptoms also eased up. I still had no idea what my body was doing and why it just “chose” to do what it wanted all the time. But I praised God for my healing with the hope that He’d continue to be there with me as I resumed college that fall.

 

Withering Away into Nothingness

On February 27, 2005, I was sitting in a parking lot waiting for my parents to drive me away, away from the hell I was experiencing at college, waiting in agony, in desperation, in a state of surreallness and dizziness. I wrote: “I have never felt more disempowered / More lowly, more pitiful / The more I am around people / The more I lose joy / Because I feel like a failure / I had so much joy before / When I felt I had it all together / When the things I did made me believe I was worthy / No matter how genuine the love of others / I can never accept it because/ It makes me feel more and more ashamed / Lord I want you and you only / I want to shut the world out.” I was at the beginning on a new journey; I had no idea what hell would await me but I could tell it was starting. I was a junior in college at the time.

Since my early teen years, I became familiar with Depression. It was my new identity; a way I gave myself worth and my life meaning. I was accustomed to the sadness; the endless tears; the shakiness; the constant ruminations about self, world, faith, God, death; the many medications and therapy sessions; the physical illnesses that both caused and were caused by the depressions; even the suicidal thoughts that came and went sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Early in 2005, I thought I was having a reprieve from depression because I hadn’t thought about killing myself in a few weeks. I began having more trust in God and peace about my future. My brain was so fogged over and still probably under the influence of major depressive disorder, but the way I saw it, I was getting better.

But then I began having strange symptoms in which I felt “I was withering away into nothingness.” It was a hazy, disoriented feeling in which I became an observer of the world and myself. It worsened to the point that I literally felt no control over what I did or said. When I talked it was like a stranger’s voice talking. This made participating in class discussions and even having conversations with friends a nightmare. I always seemed fine on the outside, but sometimes when someone got close to me I would become unable to breathe and my heart would start to race. It felt like other people were literally sucking the life out of me. Not only that but I began feeling a lot of tightness in my chest starting around 6 or 7 pm every day. It felt like my body was shutting down; I could do nothing but lay down, but when I tried to rest, my mind raced and I would lay there as if there were a hundred bricks on me.

I researched my condition and later confirmed with a doctor I was suffering from depersonalization disorder, which is often a coping mechanism for people who do not adjust to change well, perhaps a symptom of depression. Looking back several years later, I realize I’d had a crazy couple months. I was still adjusting to my life back in the U.S. after a semester in Guatemala. I was dealing with the fact that both of my older brothers were in serious relationships. My one brother Greg suddenly got engaged in November to a girl younger than me who I barely knew (they began seriously dating when I was abroad). This news sent me into a tailspin. I felt my brother was being lost to me while also jealous and full of self-pity and self-hatred because of my state of singleness.

My oldest brother Nate, with whom I was extremely close, was dating my best friend and I was very enmeshed with their relationship. December came, and besides normal holiday and winter blues and dealing with my new bizarre physical symptoms, I was reeling with pain and sorrow of the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia (I had a history of experiencing worsening depression when disasters such as this occurred). Then in January, at the start of an extremely stressful interim (in which I took one class but was expected to do about 8 hours of homework a day), Nate broke up with my friend. I did not deal with this well, especially since my friend was also my roommate. It was one of the most painful times of my life. Whether it was this new disorder, or just a different type of depression, I later realized my body did not know what to do with all the changes and stress around me.

I began my second semester at Bethel College (now Bethel University) with a full load of classes, including an internship in a third-grade classroom. I was also working part time taking care of adults with disabilities in a group home. In all of my activities I hoped everyone saw me as a professional, competent, secure and happy person. Inside it was a hellish war; in fact, it became a daily battle to survive, to not take my life. I was constantly reasoning with God, pleading with him to take me out of my misery, my physical pain, paralyzing anxiety and despair. There were very few days that went by that I did not create a plan in my mind of how to take my own life.

I was so desperate for relief – I had always thought about hurting myself but I had never gone through with it. So one evening, I cut myself with a razor.  I’d heard that cutting had helped with relief of pain and my distorted mind told me, “What’s there to lose?” The next day, I was at my elementary school internship in the faculty bathroom. I felt so dissociated I didn’t even know who I was. I wanted nothing to do with the broken and confused girl I was the night before but I in no way could become the competent and worthy adult I wanted to be in that moment. I was washing my hands in the bathroom and wished I could just wash away every painful thing I had ever done to myself. I felt like I was and always would be my own worst enemy. In thirty seconds, I would have to face twenty-five children and try to teach them how to not be like me. I could not do this. I hated who I was. How would I ever change?

Just a few days later, I told my psychologist at Bethel about the cutting incident and that day he along with my parents basically made the decision for me: I would take a leave of absence from school. In a matter of hours, my whole world once again shifted.

Beauty, perfectionism and Christian dating

“I am not worth anything until I am dating or, by a certain age, married.”

I was always told I was “pretty” and “cute.” My mom was good at doing that. She would make me cute sweaters, bows and even clothing that matched with my dolls’.  As a child I always felt so happy wearing all those beautiful things.

My mom would also do my hair very “pretty.”As I got older, she taught me how to “do” my hair (and later makeup) correctly. I later realized being able to do one’s hair without help was a sort of a coming-of-age event for the girls in my family.

Most things I learned about girls and women I learned from my family. My mom, her sisters and my grandma, always presented themselves well. Always beautiful, hair styled, makeup on, impeccable outfits and matching accessories. The message I received from the women in my life is that a woman was expected to do everything possible to make herself beautiful (externally) to the world.

I began comparing myself to my family members especially as a teen. I wanted to be dating but we were not allowed to date until age sixteen. I knew most women in my family married very young (by age 20) so I had to make sure I got a “good start.”

Puberty struck me late in life; as a perfectionist, I constantly felt less than. I was obsessed with being on the “in crowd.” While my girlfriends talked about boys and periods at the junior high lunch table, I sat there pretending like I could relate. I had a lot of contempt for my slow-developing body; I longed to be taller and less flat-chested. I was also self conscious of wearing glasses. One of my brothers and I would often talk about our relationship woes. We both probably struggled with self-esteem and the need to look perfect for the opposite sex. One day, my brother made a matter-of-fact comment, that once I got contacts, the guys would “be all over me.” Through comments like these and the influence of my friends, I began lying to myself about the way I needed to look and the experiences with guys I needed to have.

Finally, everything started falling into place by my tenth grade year when I reached full puberty. At 16, I was finally “of eligible age” to date. I finally got a little bit more self-esteem; some days I even felt as “cute” and “beautiful” as when I was a child. Soon, I  did receive attention from guys, but they were not “quality” guys; my term for the guys that typically liked me was “messed up.” I would go back and forth between feeling flattered by their comments and disgusted. Then I would always question, what is wrong with me that no decent or popular guy would like me. I would find myself in a war when it came to relationships with guys. If a guy liked me I would initially act interested to comfort my wounded inner self, but later I would come to my senses and realize I didn’t want to spend time with these particular guys. I ended up having quite a bit of guilt for “crushing” guys, though my family and friends told me to forget about it.

During the later part of my junior year, I fell in love hard. I was head over heals for a guy in my youth group at church. I initially had no interest in him until he began giving me quite a bit of flirtatious attention. During a period of about six months, his actions toward me fueled my passion for and fascination with him. It’s so interesting because my feelings of that time come back so quickly. They were so intense yet I now realize they were all about me. I really had no love and care for the guy. I only cared about how I was perceived. My self-esteem finally sky-rocketed because I felt I was finally “worth something.” Any day now, this guy would ask me out and everything in my little life would be perfect. The world would finally love me. This never happened. The guy barely even talked to me much less asked me out and later denied even liking me. Even though my interest in him had died down, I was still crushed and found myself believing I was not good enough for good, popular guys.

These thoughts continued throughout high school and hit their peak my freshman year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College), a Christian liberal arts school where the common ditty was “ring by spring.” The theory is that, since most Christians are virgins, they just have to get married young; a marriage proposal would come by the spring of the girl’s senior year of college. There was a lot of pressure to find “the One,” that perfect Bethel boy, especially for someone like me whose only dream in life since the age of eight was to be married. Not only married, but preferably by age 21 and to have all my children before age 30 like my mom. (I used to pretend to pop babies out of my stomach with my dolls growing up! I just couldn’t wait for the real thing!)

I continued to believe the lie I believed my whole life: “If I only work hard enough to look beautiful, people—especially guys—will notice me. If can just be perfect, I will be worthy of love.”  I would often daydream about certain guys I met who I considered perfect. Sometimes I had proof that they found me attractive but wondered why they never asked me out. The conclusion I came to was always the same: “I am not good enough.”

I continued to swing from feeling like the most sexy thing ever to feeling like the scum of the earth, not even worthy to be an ant under a guy’s shoe. The summer after my freshman year, I was working full time and living with my parents at my Wisconsin home. One day, I had to bring my younger brother Tim his lunch at his work—a car dealership. I knew that Tim worked with all men and, for that reason (though I didn’t admit it to myself), I made sure I looked extra attractive. Sure enough, when I pulled around to the back of the dealership where Tim worked I noticed his co-workers staring at me. My desires to be noticed were met and I felt really good about myself. A few weeks later my brother revealed to me the conversation that came about after I left that day. His coworkers told him I was hot and asked him if I had a boyfriend. Tim said no and they responded: “Why not?! Is she gay?” Tim, of course, was disgusted with them and stood up for me, but I couldn’t help feeling overwhelming grief and self-pity at that moment. There is something wrong with me, I continued to lie to myself.

My dating experiences in college and afterward became predictable. My obsessions with perfection clouded my judgement and my own sense of identity. The judgments I put on myself were extended to the guys I dated. I was often petrified that we weren’t “good enough” together. I was terrified of how others would perceive us as a couple. I often made decisions based on what everyone else thought. I never really figured out my own identity or, if I thought I knew what I wanted, I would constantly doubt myself. If my family and friends liked a guy, I would feel pressure to like him too. I would constantly berate myself for not feeling love for the guy I was dating, when in everyone else’s mind, he was “perfect.” This came with the territory of people-pleasing and performance addiction.

I had such a profound hatred for myself during those times. I intellectually understood I was beautiful “inside and out” as everyone always told me and that I was dating material. I believed I was worthless, like I, the “bad” girl, was hurting and scarring this “good” guy for life. I was a failure in my mind. I couldn’t live up to all those women in my family who had great men and had married young. I would scream and cry out to God, “Please help me like him the way he likes me, Lord!” My low self-esteem spurred on my depression which in turn negatively affected every relationship I had.

One minute, I would come to the conclusion that he was the wrong guy for me and I had nothing to do with it. The next minute I would think, it’s all me. I am too unlovable and I’m ruining his life. Either way, I would break up with him and look for the next “perfect” guy, a dream relationship that existed in my mind. I was searching for love and truly believed I couldn’t be happy until I found it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it was probably best to heal before I dated, that I was able to separate my worth from my dating status. That I discovered this truth: I didn’t need to search for love because I no doubt already had it. Instead, I was searching for the ability in myself to accept this love. My profound inability to accept love from myself, others and God is what kept propelling my depression onward.

 

A Year of Bliss (mostly)

The bliss I anticipated my freshmen year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College) was even more intense than I had imagined. After my first campus visit in eleventh grade, I knew Bethel was the school for me. Maybe a lot of it had to do with being near my beloved older brother Nate, a senior at Bethel.

My brother was someone I greatly admired because of his fun-loving personality, go-with-the-flow attitude and loving acceptance of everyone, including his sister. Through phone calls and letters, he and I had gotten closer since he left for college three years earlier and his happiness was contagious. He would tell me about his crazy roommates, the “suite” where he lived, the classes he was taking and how he was growing in his relationship with God.

Most of all, he loved talking about the dining center where he worked. I imagined him chatting with his friends that walked through the food line, or playfully spraying his coworkers in the dish room. I felt like I knew some of the mentally handicapped men he worked with because Nate was so great at impersonating them. Soon, Nate began telling me how great it would be if I attended Bethel too. I felt so flattered that my big brother wanted me to go to school with him. His excitement was so intoxicating and his love for Bethel became my love. I started to dream about the day I would be free of the bondage of high school and could experience the kind of bliss my brother was experiencing.

Coming out of a severe depression, spurred on by a devastating social anxiety disorder, I began my first year away from my parents’ home at age eighteen.

My freshmen year of college was one of the happiest I can ever remember. There were probably many reasons for this, one being I finally felt “free.” Attending a conservative Christian liberal arts school like Bethel, that is really saying something. I could finally eat what I wanted, stay up as late as I wanted, and do what I considered “crazy” things with my friends, such as videotaping ourselves parading down the “runway” (one of the hallways on campus that had floor-to-ceiling windows on either side) with foil in our hair or dressing up in 50s clothing and playing croquet in the arena across the street from Nate’s “red house.” I didn’t have to worry as much about my parents and their judgments of me (whether real or perceived). I was simply having fun.

Relationships really soothed and straightened out the chemicals in my brain. I felt super connected the girls on my dorm floor, my RA and my RIOT leaders (sophomore girls who came and led a Bible study on our floor each week). For once I was surrounded by amazing Christian women and I craved their love and attention. I also had my brother. True to his word, Nate made Bethel an exquisite place for me. He and I hung out constantly;  I craved his love and acceptance too. He introduced me to his friends/housemates and soon they were my friends too. Together with our friends, we’d go to the jazz club in downtown St. Paul, have a movie night on Sem Hill, or a dance party at the “Red House.” We would also hang out just the two of us: walks around Lake Valentine, trips to the Tea Source and most often, study sessions at Caribou Coffee. My brother Greg also attended college at the University of Minnesota, so he and I would get together and have spiritual talks. Greg was always an encouragement to me; I always left our talks feeling strengthened and empowered in my faith. I finally felt I had a place to belong; a place to rest my head.

The spiritual aspect of Bethel really helped ease my depression too. I felt like a fish coming back to the water. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have professors pray at the beginning of each class and for us before we took a test. I loved the care and concern my professors had for each of us. I attended almost every Chapel, began attending a local church (with Nate of course), met weekly with my dorm Bible study and went to Vespers every Sunday night; that year, I grew deeply in my faith. I even fell into a regular Bible-reading routine, reflecting in my journal constantly; all the while taking eighteen credits as a freshman!

Depression still lingered under the surface fueled by perfectionism. I was still addicted to performing well and went out of my way to get good grades. Unfortunately, I had an intense realization that college was not at all like high school. The classes were really hard. While I could always manipulate my way into getting an A in high school, it sometimes was simply not possible in college. I slowly started to accept that grades did not determine my worth.

I also lived by the demands in my head to perform well morally. I began to be known as “virgin eyes” and “virgin ears” by my floormates because I had been quite sheltered growing up compared to most of them. Not only this, but I felt it was my moral duty to share when I thought what they were doing was wrong, such as watching a certain show or swearing. I really felt like I couldn’t not say anything. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered more “sins” that had taken place right under my nose that year.

Despite feeling close with a few girls on my floor, I soon began to feel alienated and began to believe the lies that I was a “goody two shoes” and too sheltered, too much of a freak to be anyone’s friend. Luckily, my roommate at the time, still liked me and we decided to live together the following year.

Despite being one of the most joyful years of my life, my freshman year of college was when I solidly began to believe another lie. A lie that had slipped into my mind around the time of puberty. A lie that would again spur me into another slippery, dark and deep rut of depression.

 

 

Perfectionism’s ruthless grip

High school depression continued (see my last post for the first part)…

Luckily, when it came to non-church areas of my life, I didn’t have to worry as much about God and what he thought of me. I worked really hard in school and was obsessed with getting A’s. I would do whatever it took, including going in for extra help, doing all the extra credit I could, and using my friends or brothers to perform well on an assignment. I went to the guidance office every few weeks to check my GPA. At the beginning of my senior year, I remember the high I felt for a moment when I looked at that little white piece of paper. “3.98, 6/437.” I couldn’t believe that I was sixth place in our entire class! At the same time, I knew if I wouldn’t have gotten those two A minuses in gym class the last two years, I could be even closer to the top.

That year I was in an advanced Biology class that was difficult. At the time, I was severely depressed (as the result of a devastating social anxiety disorder) and had a full load of classes, including a 7:00 a.m. Advanced Placement class. I couldn’t keep up in the Biology class and ended up with a B at semester. It was devastating for me. I knew I didn’t need the class and since it was my 8th hour class, that meant I could go home early each day, which sounded heavenly. I dropped the class, even though my teacher disapproved. I told him that B had ruined my GPA and he just laughed. I was not amused because I knew I was no longer in sixth place. Sure enough, when I checked my stats a few weeks later, I now had a “3.96” and was in ninth place. I was so disappointed.

My thoughts spiraled on and on. “If only I hadn’t taken that class…If only I had worked harder…Ninth place isn’t so bad, you’re still in the top 10 people of the whole school.”  I would negatively compare myself with my brother Greg who was Salutatorian of his class and positively compare myself to my brother Nate who was only in the top twenty percent of his class. Soon I found out who the eight other students were ahead of me in our class. I was not surprised by most of the names. The top two or three students I knew I could never compete with. They were in a different world of smarts. Then there were a few I knew I could have “beaten” if I’d only worked just a little harder. That aggravated me, but still I respected them because I knew, like me, they worked for their grades. But one name out of the eight surprised me. I couldn’t help feeling shock that this girl, a former friend of mine from youth group, was supposedly fourth in our class. In my mind she was a space cadet and a partier and could not be capable of such high grades.

I took lessons from the same private piano teacher as the valedictorian of our class. Instead of comparing myself in the usual way by putting myself down, I compared myself to her by putting her down. While I envied her smarts, I praised myself for gifts and talents that she didn’t possess (in my opinion), such as my singing voice and my physical appearance. This girl was also gifted in science and math, which I did not envy. Instead I praised myself for my giftedness in speaking a foreign language and in working with children.

My feelings about myself at that time were all or nothing. I felt either on the highest cloud of heaven or at the bottom-most rung of a ladder descended deep into the earth. And these thoughts would shift in minutes, based on who I was around or what environment I was in. I felt like a phenomenal musician at church but when I messed up at piano lessons under the watchful eye of my perfectionist teacher, down I plummeted. I was the star of my Spanish class, but felt like a total imbecile in pre-calculus class.

My mind was obsessed with performance. I did not know another way to look at life. The more I thought about performing perfectly, the more I would long for it. I would get a rush after each perfect paper, each A + on my report card, after each perfect score at a music competition. But usually the rush would last only a few moments. I would immediately begin thinking, “There must be some mistake” or “It’s no big deal. A lot of people got the same score.” And, inevitably, I did not always get a perfect score. In my mind, this meant I was imperfect, flawed, and worthless. These kinds of thoughts are what fueled my depression.

In quiet moments, while lying in bed at night, I would nurse a severe, aching emptiness in my gut. I would begin thinking, “Is this all life is about?” But then I would wake up the next morning and it would begin all over again. I was driven by what I did, how others perceived me. Like any addiction, I continued to strive for that high feeling. I never realized how powerful its grip was on my life.

I began to think a lot about escaping life.

The first time I became suicidal I was in tenth grade. My friend, Sue, was a girl who used to attend my junior high youth group. Since I was still new to the group the year she moved, I had only met her a handful of times. We became pen pals starting in eighth or ninth grade. Our letters were long; we’d discuss typical Christian teenage girl stuff: guys, feelings, church, family, school. Over time, I felt a deep connection with Sue. It felt like she really understood me, unlike the friends I had in “real life.” In one letter, Sue opened up to me about her history of depression. She wrote that, several years ago, before she recommitted herself to the Lord, she wanted to die. She had a Jars of Clay CD that skipped every so often it played a certain song. One day she decided that she would shove some scissors down her throat when the song played through without skipping. The song, of course, never played without skipping. Sue had an awakening that day and believed Jesus had literally saved her life. From then on, she became active in youth group (the youth group I later attended), was mentored by youth leaders and soon struggled less and less with depression and suicidal thoughts.

I was struck by Sue’s confession. I vividly imagined her planned suicide attempt. The more I thought about it the more I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wondered what her bedroom looked like. I wondered where the CD player was located. I wondered what the song was called. What kind of scissors were they? How was she holding them? I thought of my small sharp pair of purple-handed scissors that would probably do the trick. But didn’t she realize that was a painful way to die? Why did she decide on this method? Was anyone in her family home at the time? Did she plan who would find her? Or was she even serious about it? If the song would have played without the skip, would she have done it?

For a long time, I mulled the planned suicide attempt over and over. I knew it was wrong. I knew that my friend would not want me to be thinking this way. Of course, I knew her purpose in sharing this story was to testify how God got her out of that dark time. But, still, I found comfort in thinking that this girl and I were so similar. I, too, wanted to escape. However, I never imagined a way to do it. I was afraid of pain. I preferred to just go to bed at night and never wake up.

Despite the pain my thoughts caused me, I now recognize the strength I had during those years. Though I didn’t realize I had an addiction, I definitely knew I was not healthy. Somehow my deeper self continued to pull me toward life. The smallest things kept me going during those times, reminding me of why I was alive and soothing my aching, striving heart.

One friend who I could always count on was my beloved Yorkshire terrier Preston. During my senior year, I was often the first one home each afternoon. I looked forward to seeing Preston’s reaction to my arrival home and my high-pitched sing-song voice calling out to him lovingly. My heart would swell with joy hearing his small yip as he sat wriggling and writhing behind the child’s gate in the bathroom downstairs. As soon as I would free him from his prison, it was as if he hadn’t seen me in a year. He would dart out of the small bathroom like a startled mouse. Then he’d dance crazily around my feet, sometimes rolling over several times and finally ending up on his back, four paws in the air. I loved lying on the floor and watching my little dog’s mouth rush at my face to give me kisses.

I loved Preston because he played hard to get. He definitely liked his alone time, so I didn’t get to hold him or play with him for long. That’s why it was extra special when he would slink in my room during homework time. I’d be studiously working and he would crawl under my chair, curl up on my feet and sometimes jump up on the edge of my chair begging to be held. Preston’s warm body and soft kisses were a tangible reminder of a kind of love I could receive with no strings attached. In response to this love, I found I had so much love to give back. This simple realization often reoriented my thought patterns and placed me back on the path of life. Even if for just a few short moments.

Another life giver was writing, a habit I’d had my entire life. I had begun journaling in fifth grade and it started out as kind of a compulsory activity. While I did talk about excitements, fears and hopes, mainly I would write about my day, feeling compelled to depict specific activities in painstaking detail. I was especially dutiful on family trips or mission trips. I tried to never skip a day, and if I did, it was necessary that, in my next entry, I catch up on every little thing that happened. I wrote fewer words about feelings and more about general facts. For the longest time, I felt like I was writing for someone. I knew one of my parents or brothers could easily get ahold of my journal, so in a sense I had to guard what I said.

As the years went on, I slowly eased into more transparency with my writing. For a while I just wrote to my “journal;” soon I began writing to God. After all, He already knew everything anyway.

*************************************************************************************

My perfectionism followed me into my college years. In many ways, college was an extension of high school, a new backdrop for the same painting. I was the same little girl on a canvas, trying to make a name for myself, trying to reach all the expectations my professors had for me, so I could get the high I longed for—a kind word, a pat on the back, an A on my transcript…

Six Days in a Mental Hospital

As I walked into the psych ward, there was a big plexi glass office on the left where the staff were waiting to violate you. By that I mean take your stuff and dig through it and give you only a few things back. I did not mind so much that my belts were taken away (although my pants were way too big and kept falling off) but I was kind of distraught when they took my spiral journal. (I had kept a journal for over ten years-my writing was an extension of myself, often my closest friend.) I guess there is a chance I would take the metal spiral apart and harm myself with it. Although it was plain and empty, they did give me a composition notebook inside which I would soon begin dumping the contents of my psyche. Also, they took the string out of my hoodie, which wouldn’t have bothered me, except it was my boyfriend’s and I knew he would be a little annoyed.

I entered the hospital on a chilly Tuesday morning.The night before, December tenth, 2007, in a blubbering, raging stupor, I told my boyfriend I wanted to ingest a bunch of pills. (And I had a lot of them from years and years of psychiatric treatment). “This has never happened to me before, Brittany, but the only thing I can remember about this sort of thing is that you shouldn’t take it lightly. I think you need to go to the hospital.” I was not the kind of person you see on the movies that resist getting psychiatric treatment. The truth is, despite feelings of abject guilt for “abandoning” my Kindergarten students and burdening my coworkers, I was ready to escape my life, and so I welcomed this new “opportunity.”

My new world was surreal. Hazy, foggy, I was so disoriented and out of myself but I just followed the directions the professionals gave me, as the dutiful “good” girl I knew how to be. I was showed to my “room,” stiff, white and cold who I shared with a girl named Ashley. Ashley was not a “good” girl. Blonde, heavier-set, and about eighteen years old, she was feisty and often had verbal fights with the staff. She and I left each other alone but I often wondered how I ended up in a place with someone like Ashley, someone who was so different than I was.

The staff said I would probably be able to leave on Friday. On the first day I was referred to an ENT for my horrible physical condition and was put on another antibiotic (I had been on different ones for the past few weeks for my sinus infection but none of them had worked.) That night I wrote in my composition journal: “I think it will be good for me here. I have this really nice nurse, Gretchen, who’s very kind and I feel well taken care of…Having some feelings of guilt but mostly feel like I’m taking a vacation from my life-which maybe is a good thing-or what they want.”

On Wednesday, a psychiatrist came and visited me a few times; based on the comments of the other residents I realized the doctor was in the habit of diagnosing everyone with bipolar and upping their already high levels of meds. Sure enough he said he thought I had bipolar II or Rapid Cycling Bipolar and put me on a mood stabilizer called Lamictal. (I recognized this as a seizure med I would often dispense for the adults with disabilities I used to worked with. It was a weird feeling being one of the “residents” instead of the staff person.) The psychiatrist also wanted to up my anti-depressant Cymbalta to 90 mg a day. I remember agreeing to all these med changes, thinking, “What do I know? Obviously he is the doctor and I am the crazy one since I am in the psych ward.” During one of our sessions, the psychiatrist looked down at his papers, “The staff have been documenting your sad affect has not changed since you arrived.” Inside I thought, “Why should I pretend to be happy when I am not?” and mostly, “I would be happier if I were at home.”

On Wednesday, Ashley went home  (or somewhere else) and I got a new roommate, Elizabeth, who I took an instant liking to. Liz was a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and huge brown eyes. She looked maybe Hawaiian or something. Liz had been admitted to the hospital after attempting for the second time to kill herself. She had overdosed on Ibuprofen PM and thought she would just die in her sleep. She woke up with severe stomach pain and decided to drive herself to the ER where they pumped her stomach (this was similar to what happened the first time she attempted suicide, she said.) Liz had three daughters and an emotionally abusive husband. I always wonder about Liz and how she is doing or if she is even alive as it is very common for someone who has attempted suicide several times to eventually succeed. She was so beautiful and had so much to live for; it was so painful to hear her story, yet it helped me realize (again) depression is not a feeling, something you can talk yourself out of. It is a severe medical condition. Depression takes ahold of you until you are so far in, it controls everything you do; there is no escaping its hideous claws. For me it was and has been a lifelong journey.

I also met a lot of other “residents”—very interesting people who I realized were not much different than me and nothing at all like the “crazy” people the movies display. A few people received electric shock treatment several times a week because, according to their doctors, no other treatments were working for their depression. One lady who had been in the hospital for several weeks, Kathy, told us not to tell her anything important in the morning before her shock treatment; she would not remember it because the treatment caused amnesia.

During one of the group therapy sessions, a woman named Karen really stood out to me. She was kind of quiet and delicate and I remember she started talking about how she was just now-five years later-dealing with her mother’s death. Later that day after a meal, Karen told me she, too, was a teacher. She taught kids with severe autism but for the past several months she had been abusing Immatrex (a medication for migraines which I also happened to use). She had been driving with a coworker under the influence of the med and almost got the two of them killed by driving through a red light. The coworker called 911 and Karen ended up here. I was so in awe of this beautiful woman who was sharing her heart with people she barely even knew; I was so grateful she and her coworker were okay and I also thought of her students. We both shared our feelings of guilt for “leaving” our students, but realized it’s nice to be taken care of once in a while. In talking with Karen I realized I was not alone.

On Thursday, I wrote in my journal, “God, I am miserable. They want to keep me til Monday. Because of the multiple sicknesses I have, sinus infection, pain and constipation, on top of the depression and sadness. They want to see if the new med and med increase will start taking effect. Since I can’t work anyway, I guess it makes sense…”

Despite missing home and agonizing over what my coworkers and family members were thinking of me at this exact minute, I tried to take advantage of my “vacation” in the hospital. The food was not too bad and it was nice not having to cook for myself or clean up. Plus I got dessert after every meal. I did things I never got to do when I was in the “real world”: jigsaw puzzles, painting, reading. I also got a lot of attention which is what I secretly wanted; during the week I was there I received visits from my parents (who drove 200 miles from Wisconsin), my brother Tim, my brother Greg and sister-in-law Sarah, my boyfriend Will, and my coworker and mentor.

While in the hospital, I realized while I was sick emotionally, I had been much worse in the past but without appropriate support. I wondered if I would have just gone to bed that night, not called my boyfriend and told him about my urge to overdose…would I have just gone on as I had so many times in the past? I had had so many urges that were even stronger in the past to harm or kill myself and I never had. While I feel I would have never taken the pills on that December night some many years ago, I still believe I made the right choice to go to the hospital. My life was forever changed by my experience there; the faces of the people I met will be forever imprinted on my mind. Their stories have become part of my story. I became a more compassionate, gracious and loving person because of my stay at a hospital psych ward. I hope to never enter one again, but I would not edit those six days out of my life if given the choice.

Still, my hospital stay forced me to face the reality of my life, however surreal and zombie-like I still felt. How did all the things that happened to me result in me ending up here, a mental hospital? And where would my life turn now as a result of this important milestone in my journey?