When I was a young girl growing up on suburban Long Island, in the 1950s, like all typical dreamers of that era, I used to fantasize about being a model. With my impossible to tame dark curly hair and a nose that I hadn't grown into yet, I knew my hopes and dreams would never materialize, for those were the days of the blonde-haired blue-eyed girl next door. Cheryl Tiegs was just not in my DNA. Well, fast forward to the age of 60 when my dream came true. My brown hair became sleek blonde; I grew into my nose and landed my first print ad. As exciting as that was, I had a bigger accomplishment, I overcame 20 + years of depression.
Last summer I started writing for Huff/Post 50 about my reinvention at age 60. What I didn't write about was that my reinvention came on the heels of winning my battle with depression. In fact, long before I was diagnosed, for as far back as I can remember, I now know I was depressed as a child. When I was in elementary school, I remember trying to end it all, with a bottle of aspirin. While standing in the kitchen, after eating a devil dog, I opened the bottle slowly, took out the mounds of cotton which seemed to go on forever like the magician's magic scarf trick that I saw performed the night before on the Ed Sullivan Show, until I stood there staring at the pills. Tears started to run down my cheeks as I took one, then two, then three, then four and when I got to five I lost my nerve. That was my only real brush with suicide. Not that I hadn't thought about ending it all, during many low points too numerous to count, that I would experience in the future.
The only people who knew about my depression were my husband, my psycho-pharmacologist and various therapists over the years. Lately, there has been so much written about depression and suicide in middle-aged people and older. A front page article on the subject appeared in The New York Times on May 2nd about baby boomers having the highest rate of suicide today. I keep reading about how we must end the stigma of depression. I now knew I had to take a stand.
Before I committed to "coming out" I consulted with a few professionals. "Don't do it," one said flatly. "The fact that you have been able to overcome your depression is a positive trait but not everyone sees it that way. You could write about it under another name." "The stigma of depression can wreak havoc on your life," another warned. Well, I guess I will find out because I'm putting my money where my big mouth it.
When I was a 30-something I had a severe case of the PMS paranoia blues. Every month like biological clockwork I was convinced that my live in boyfriend no longer loved me. Around that time, I heard that Mount Sinai, here in New York City, was starting a PMS clinic so I decided to check it out, wanting to end my cycle of hell and his.
After diligently filling out the seemingly innocent questionnaire about my emotional state, the doctor who was leading the clinic approached and asked rather pointedly, "Do you really feel like this?" The "this" she was referring to was very dark. I remember how bleak life was for me, not just at that time, but always. No hope, no dreams no happiness. Confused and taken aback at her question, I responded in a barely audible, "Yes". Then I heard the words that would change my life for the next 20 years, "I think you are depressed". Looking at her incredulously, I said, "I am?" "If you feel like this, I think you are", she replied. Well, I did feel like that, so maybe I was. It certainly would explain a lot.
At that moment my head was twirling like a baton being tossed up in the air not knowing where it would land. This was 1990 and she told me she wanted to put me on something called Prozac. Things were quickly starting to escalate. She handed me a prescription and explained in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, "Prozac is an anti-depressant." I knew nothing about anti-depressants and my only frame of reference with drugs up until that point were the mind-altering drugs I took at Woodstock in 1969. I was not happy. Well, I mean, I was not happy, that I was told that I was not happy, and had to take drugs to be happy.
If I were playing bridge, PMS was now trumped by depression. All of a sudden PMS didn't look so bad anymore. I reluctantly agreed to take Prozac but after a few days I called the doctor in a panic to tell her I was having a terrible reaction to the drug and had to stop it at once. When she asked what that was, all I could muster up was, I feel weird. She calmed me down, and asked if I thought I could give it some more time. Not wanting to let her down (which was probably the reason I was depressed to begin with but that's another chapter) I continued with my happiness cocktail.
More phone calls and more coaxing continued for about two months total (lucky me, turns out that I had a high tolerance). Then it happened. I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. The house has just fallen, I opened the door and my life went from black and white to color. I skipped along merrily on the yellow brick road in my ruby slippers with Toto by my side. A big fat smile was plastered on my face. Laughter became my MO. Big ones that were loud and carefree that sounded like they came from someone without a care in the world. Who was this vivacious person that invaded my former humdrum self that I now only had pity for? Although it took two months for the drug to work I experienced an extraordinary change from one second to the next. I was Joanne Woodward in 3 Faces of Eve or Sally Fields in Sybil, take your pick, transitioning from one character to another, only this wasn't a performance worthy of an Academy Award this was real life, my life. I was euphoric. I had a new love and its name was happiness. I thought, this was too good to be true... and it was. Two years later, one day I woke up and as quickly as it appeared it vanished. Poof! Gone! Never to be seen again. My fairy tale was over. One minute I was Cinderella at the ball and as soon as the clock struck midnight all I had left was a rotten pumpkin. Where did my prince and glass slippers go? I couldn't go back. I liked the new me and so did everyone else. She had a winning smile and personality. She was fun to be with. The life of the party. Now what? What I found out was that in some people (yay me!) antidepressants lose effectiveness over time. They even have a term for it called, the "poop-out" effect known as Tachyphylaxis. I have my own term for it, F***!!!
For the next 20 years, my psycho pharmacologist and I were part mad scientists and part mixologists experimenting together frantically in the pursuit of happiness, just like in the Declaration of Independence. Every time I pooped-out I popped back with yet another concoction until finally I popped back and never needed the drugs again.
Working on creating the ultimate happiness cocktails, we should have opened a bar.