One afternoon, I sat in my living room and looked around at my belongings. There was the large cabinet that held souvenirs from my adventures working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. There was my book collection (organized by size and color), the college degree I had worked so hard to obtain, and a display of carefully selected photos with my friends and loved ones.
But as I stared at all these objects, the symbols that represented the life I had created for myself, I sobbed inconsolably. From the corner of my eye, I could see a hardcover copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I recalled Friedan’s writing about the unhappiness that plagued middle-class women of the 1950s and 60s. I never thought I would relate to these women, who, on the surface seemed content, yet upon closer inspection, were miserable. Friedan called it “the problem which has no name.”
I knew I had a problem, but unlike the one Friedan wrote about, mine did have a name: depression.
In the last few months, I had accepted my dream job working on the frontlines of women’s reproductive rights. I should have been ecstatic, but instead, not even the strongest espresso jolted me out of my constant state of inertia and apathy. I couldn’t function at work and my appearance on the outside was starting to reflect how I felt. I was typically a “cardigan and pearls" type, but lately, my long black hair was frequently matted and dirty, my clothes habitually wrinkled and disheveled. My husband would often come home to find me sobbing on the floor.
Depression is almost comparable to the first time you were dumped by someone that you really, really liked. In the weeks that follow, the world loses its color and everything is shades of grey. The light inside of you is reduced to the dim flicker of an oil lamp.
The difference is, after a break-up, the pain eventually subsides, and the pieces of you start coming back together. With depression, the recovery part never seems to happen. Anything that used to bring you joy is met with absolute numbness, and you feel like an empty shell of the person you once were.
I was actually no stranger to mental health issues—during my first year of college, I was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder when a panic attack caused me to pull over in the middle of rush hour traffic. When I got home and told my mother, she said, “well, if you can’t deal with life now, what will you do when you have real problems later in life?” That might explain why I never sought help for my anxiety, and didn’t fully understand at first that depression is a real condition that can be treated.
But it is. And several emotional outbursts later, I finally gave in and saw a therapist. After a few appointments, I walked out with a piece of paper that read: Diagnosis: Depression. My therapist also told me that I had a really bad case of A.N.T. (Automatic Negative Thoughts) that was contributing to my depressive state.
A.N.T. works something like this: My friend will say, “I went out with this guy last week! We had an awesome date—he’s really close to his mom and is working on getting his own business started.” I will respond: “Sounds like an unemployed loser with mother issues.” Over a long period of time, this persistent negative thinking transforms your mind, and you start seeing life through a kaleidoscope of negativity. It’s never sunny and nice—it’s grey and cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms and tragedy.
Thus, the first step to changing my life was to change my brain. But I knew it would be a long road towards reversing years of automatic negative thoughts, and I was desperate to get better, so I accepted my doctor’s recommendation to begin taking anti-depressant medication.
That night, I looked at the tiny white pill and the promise it held. I wondered how I got to a point in my life were I was unable to function without the help of a drug. I couldn’t escape my mother’s words as much as I tried. Was she right? Was I unable to deal with the realities of my life?
But I decided it was worth a try. And after a few weeks on the medication, the view from my kaleidoscope took a different form. Suddenly, random comments from co-workers were met with fits of manic giggles from my formerly miserable self. I worried about whether this was normal. Was this marvel of modern psychiatry changing my personality? I had been depressed for so long I couldn’t even remember which version of Betsy was the real Betsy.
My psychiatrist quickly assured me that that these feelings of euphoria were normal and that soon, my mood would stabilize. (Pretty comical, I thought—my moods had been unstable for as long as I could remember.) But the fact that I was finally laughing at something was definitely an encouraging sign.
I also continued going to therapy. After several sessions, my therapist finally hit a nerve one day. “Betsy, we consistently talk about what you need to do and the many things you are to so many people. But what does Betsy want? What does Betsy like?” My eyes welled up and tears began streaming down my face. I had absolutely no idea.
In her book, Friedan discovered that 1960s suburban housewives were unhappy because they had lost their identities in their husbands and children. Decades later, women like me have been liberated from that identity crisis, and we have many more opportunities to find fulfillment outside of the home. But now, we’re constantly searching to find our place. We are overwhelmed by the many choices that are available to us and we want to have it all, preferably at the same time.
That day, I realized that my depression was not a curse but a gift that was providing me the opportunity to hit the reset button on my life. For so long, I had invested myself in continuously working towards the next best thing, but in the process, I had lost sight of what I wanted. I had been so busy trying to take advantage of all my choices that I had set unrealistic standards for myself to have the perfect job, the perfect relationship, and the perfect life. When my expectations weren’t fulfilled, my negative thought process set into motion a chain reaction that affected my outlook on life.
I wish I could end by saying I have answered the questions: Who am I? What do I want? I still don’t know. But my depression took me out of auto-pilot and forced me to sit still and listen to the voice inside me—the voice that may hold the answer.
Photo courtesy of Grim Santo.