Narratives are my non-professional, personal documentation of my struggles with mental illness. Please excuse the language. Life ain’t always pretty.
2017: It Can Only Get Better
Part I: Dang Depression
I was talking with my sister on the phone about the new year and the events of 2016. We both made a lot of adjustments and changes in our lives over the past 12 months. It’s been a particularly grueling year for me, which is saying a lot, because I’ve had quite a few rough patches thus far. I was recounting the year’s events in our conversation and after voicing some typical outrage and obscenities (that’s what sisters are for), a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. I said, “it can’t get much worse; 2017 has got to be better. ” And here we are.
Looking back, I don’t think 2015 did much good in setting me up for a breezy 2016. I started the year riding the tail end of my first holiday season without family, namely, my parents. I was on the opposite coast, where I’ve lived now for almost two years. I’ve spent the last two Christmases with my boyfriend’s family, for whom I am eternally grateful. They made the holiday as warm and familial as possible, so it wasn’t like I had a catastrophic day or anything. I just really missed my family, damn it.
The more impactful factor heading into 2016 was that I was going through a bout of depression. I have MDD (Major Depressive Disorder–just an unnecessarily long term for depression). I have dealt with it since I was about 15. I have periods where I am doing fine, functioning normally, and then I have periodic dips that feel like my life’s been set in slow motion. Within those depressed periods, I often have intense episodes when I’m in an acute kind of pain (kind of like small mental breakdowns, for lack of a better description). At this point, life can become unbearable and medications have to be shifted in some way. Heading into 2016, my mood had been declining since about October, and the road ahead did not appear to be getting any easier.
I guess I should take a minute here to further define “mood decline”. For those who haven’t experienced or witnessed genuine depression, it’s hard to convey that experience to you. If you want a deeper insight, check out this post.
Anyway, by the first week of January I was finally scheduled to begin Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy at UCLA. I had been on the waiting list for about three months, and was now set to begin my daily treatment, which lasted through March. TMS therapy was kind of a final resort treatment for me. My psychiatrist and I had gone through several medication and dosage changes without any change in my condition. Over the past decade, I have been on at least 20 different types of medication. After weeks of trial and error, my doctor and I will find a combination of drugs that work for me, and allow me to go back to functioning and leading a [somewhat] normal life. Eventually, that combination of drugs will start to lose its effectiveness (whether months or years later) and we’ll have to go through the whole trial and error process again, looking for a new combination that is helpful. By the time 2016 had begun, we didn’t have any more medication options. TMS was the next step.
OK, so now the bigger question. What the fudge is TMS? TMS is a relatively new non-invasive, drug-free therapy option for people suffering from chronic depression. It is usually offered to patients who are not finding relief after trying several medications. It uses a magnet, placed on top of the head, to stimulate nerve cells in a particular part of the left brain. It came out around 2010, with insurance companies beginning to cover the treatment around 2013. It’s pretty awesome, really. I drove through LA traffic every morning for about 8 weeks to sit in an oversized dentist chair and watch Netflix for about an hour while this giant metal thing sent magnetic pulses into my head every 30-ish seconds. It feels like someone’s tapping their finger on my head. The pulses are actually super loud when they’re delivered, so you’ve got to wear earplugs. You get used to it all pretty quickly.
Cool, but does it work? About halfway through my TMS treatment, I wasn’t seeing much relief, so they increased the amount of time I spent in the chair, and additionally started stimulating a different region of my brain on the right side of my head. This is sometimes done when a patient has not improved within the first few weeks of treatment. Right-side TMS is also used to treat anxiety as well, which I soon discovered.
After about six weeks of daily treatment, I started to notice a difference. I found myself laughing again. I was slowly able to enjoy things more and more. When 2016 began, maintaining my job had become an insurmountable task. I felt like I was running a marathon every day just to get through my shift. I regularly escaped to the bathroom because I found myself starting to cry just sitting at my desk. I’d cover my mouth to stifle the sobs from being heard on the other side of the restroom door. These breakdowns started to happen less and less. It became easier to get up in the morning. Showering wasn’t such a task. The small things are often the most noticeable to me. Tiny, tiny pleasures entered my life again, like enjoying the color of the sweater I was wearing. Or appreciating a genuine smile from someone.
To be honest, I was shocked. I had some hope going into the treatment, but by about the fourth week of waking up every weekday to sit through an hour of skull-knocking without improvement, I had given up believing I was ever going to have a normal life again. I had convinced myself that it was a logical decision to end my time on this planet if I had to indefinitely continue enduring the lifelessness and pain that had become a part of my daily existence.
This may be an insane notion to most people, but I look back on those thoughts (which are one of many instances in my life when I’ve felt like dying) and still feel that those suicidal intentions were warranted. If I had to return to such sheer misery thinking that it would never end, isn’t it logical to say, at some point, “Hey I really can’t do this anymore. I am in an paralyzing amount of pain without a moment of relief?” I feel like that’s the semi-logical part of it.
The illogical part, which is the true battle of depression, is the belief that the pain is absolutely, without a doubt, never going to end. That’s the thought you’ve got to fight. And I hope that this story helps someone in that fight. Because it did get better. And it can get better for you, too.
Icing on the cake of this whole experience was that TMS improved my anxiety beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t even know how bad it was until it got better. Depression and suicidal ideation had always tended to overshadow any other issues I was having. I learned however, that the extreme anxiety I was having was certainly contributing to my overall condition. My depression continued to improve weeks and months after I had finished treatment, which is a normal part of the TMS process.
When I left the TMS center on my last day of treatment, I was told by my attending physicians what I already knew. My previous level of depression, some day, would come back. At what point , there was no way of knowing. BUT, what I didn’t know, is that TMS will work for me again when that time comes. Having that weapon in my back pocket has been an invaluable coping tool for me ever since. Never stop exploring your options and never stop asking questions. You never know what will work for you, and what one decision can do to change your life. Hang in there. ∗