It began when I was in college, behaving in ways that were quite contrary to my 10 years of Catholic school upbringing. I knew there was a reason I was ‘acting out,’ drinking too much, sexually promiscuous, I just didn’t know what it was. Oh sure, my parent’s divorce when I was 14 was ugly and scary and devastating. My father’s alcoholic fist fights on the front lawn with Uncle Bob or Uncle Jim were terrifying and embarrassing, and always left my mother in a rage at everyone, including my younger brother and me. My beloved step-father, the ‘white knight in shining armor’ bestowed his love and affection on me in ways that were appropriate only with my mother. But he was the good guy. My Dad, who I had worshipped as a little girl, was the villain, and I wasn’t about to be the one to jeopardize our new, loving, safe family unit. So, as I stumbled to classes – when I wasn’t cutting them, I blocked out all that dirty history, and simply acknowledged that something wasn’t right, and it remained unnamed.
Despite my reckless college years, I passed my nursing boards and became a commissioned officer in the US Navy Nurse Corps. I struggled to learn what I was supposed to have learned in college, received above average fitness reports, was an ace at starting IVs, and compassion was my strongest skill. I met a brash and handsome corpsman, we fraternized, fell in love, and got married. We travelled to exotic duty stations and lived life as though each location was an extended vacation. We lost our first baby, Ada Margaret, in San Diego, conceived our son Cecil in Hong Kong, and our daughter Katie was born at Camp Lejeune. It was during my assignment at Camp Lejeune that things began to fall apart. After 7 years of active duty, I decided I could no longer live with the fear of my superiors finding out how inadequate a nurse I was, that I felt incredible confidence and joy as a mother, and so left active duty to finish my last 12 years in the Reserves. My last assignment at Camp LeJeune was on the Psych ward. I had no previous psych experience, and would have preferred a clinic assignment, but that’s where they put me. Thank God. For while I was learning how to identify the patients’ moods and behaviors, and explore their physical/mental/environmental histories, I slowly became aware of the fine line between the patients and myself, and more than a few times, wondered why I wasn’t one of them instead of their nurse.
So, four months off of active duty, besieged by uncontrollable crying, despair, disinterest in living, and sleeping as long as possible to escape my pain, I secretly called one of the psychiatrists how had been a colleague while I was still on active duty. He had me come in immediately, and after only a few consultations, diagnosed me with severe clinical depression. For the next 20 years, I saw many psychiatrist, psychologists, social workers, self-help groups; and tried every antidepressant and combination of antidepressants/mood-stabilizers, anti-anxiety medications, and herbal remedies known to the profession. There were periods of relief, normalcy, occasionally actually experiencing pleasure and joy, but they never lasted long. And my depressive symptoms began to include head-banging and body-slamming in an attempt to drive the madness from my body. My husband, a vibrant, creative, social and virile man, did his best to love and support me, even when my libido vanished as a side effect of the meds, even when I turned on him with rage, even when I often ruined what should have been happy, joyful vacations or accomplishments of his. Our families were also as supportive and loving as they could be, even when they couldn’t fully grasp the extent of my illness. I thought I hid my depression fairly well from my children, screaming into a pillow, doing my body-banging in my bedroom with the door closed while they were watching tv downstairs, still making all their practices and games and reading and singing to them every night and putting together special birthday celebrations. But they knew something was wrong with Mom, and were afraid for me.
Finally, life began to unravel at the speed of light. Our dream farm was creating a debt that terrified me; my husband had retired after twenty years of active duty, and I was completely unable to support him in his search for the next adventure in his life. And I resented that he wanted to, needed to move on with living, when my soul was dying. Unable to find a solution to our diverging paths, I divorced him, the most wrenching, ambivalent decision I ever made in my life.
From there my spiral into hell was unstoppable. One morning I called my mother in Florida and said “I need you.” She was there that afternoon. After a couple of overnight stays in area psych units, we convinced my psychiatrist that there was only one treatment that we hadn’t tried, and it was time. And so I was admitted to a hospital, and let them attach electrodes to my skulls and send measured jolts of electricity to my brain in a last-ditch effort to recover my sanity. It took 14 treatments, and it worked. ECT was the chemotherapy that cured the cancer that was devouring my ability to experience joy, pleasure, peace, confidence and forgiveness. Not only have I been able to forgive my tresspassers, I have been able to forgive myself, and embrace myself for the kind, loving, compassionate, funny woman that I am. While I always favored the saying “Hope springs eternal’” I am now able to believe it.
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