THE BLOG
01/24/2008 07:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Stay Thin? Or Stay Sane? Heath Decided For Me

I canceled an appointment with my psychiatrist for today, and for that I have Heath Ledger to thank. That sounds a little crazy. So I'll explain.

Over the past month or so I have been putting on what I call my Huff Pounds: weight I have gained since I had the temerity to write recently about my spectacular, glorious weight loss, in "How I Lost All That Junk (Inside My Trunk)." I could tell myself that my waistline is facing karmic retribution from readers who didn't buy my diet strategy (this post's for you, ResidentCynic! I'm picturing you rubbing your hands together in glee, as is your right). But the truth is, I know why I've gained weight, and it's not because I'm eating more. It's because I recently doubled my anti-depressant. I was about to go to the shrink to either cut the dose, or switch drugs in hopes of shedding the Huff Pounds (and we're talking only a few pounds here). Enter Heath Ledger.

I didn't know Heath Ledger, obviously. I am not a psychiatrist. He very well could have died of natural causes. I can only tell you my gut reaction, which was that he was suffering from depression of some sort, and perhaps that will turn out to be wrong. Regardless, my instinct, warranted or not, drove me to put the Huff Pounds aside and take a rigorous account of my own mental health.

I know that many still believe that depression is a lifestyle choice for chronic complainers. I know they think that, because I used to secretly suspect that, until my son was born 3 years ago and I was so overcome by love, hormones and anxiety that I stopped sleeping, eating (a first for me) and feeling alive. I had had problems in the past, but this felt a few levels away from life-threatening. My husband said "you look dead. Your face looks dead." My baby's cries terrified me. I had panic attacks. I stopped returning phone calls. I stopped caring about watching McLaughlin Group (I'm serious, this is a depression litmus test for me). I only had the energy to care about one person's appearance, and that was my son's, not my own.

Within months, anti-depressants had saved me. The faraway stare was gone, the panic, at least part of the insomnia. But the tricky thing with the meds is that the better you feel, the more you begin to think you don't need them. About 2 years ago, I went off. I soon cratered again, and went back on a low dose. I vowed to never go off them again (and I won't) but at the low dose, I was still careening up and down. At a particularly bad time some months ago, I doubled my dose. And I haven't felt this good since before I had my son.

I am now sleeping better than I have in years. I am a peppy room parent at pre-school. I have been so productive with my writing work that I've been terrorizing editors on both coasts with my creative bounty (perhaps they wouldn't mind if I cut my dosage just a touch...). I've lost a lot of social anxiety, and what have I gained? A few measly pounds. Again, a forgetful arrogance began to sneak back in, the better I felt. Vanity is a sure sign that my mind is in proper working order.

I soon made the appointment to perhaps cut my dose or change the drug. I wouldn't go off the pills, ever. But changing them is a risk, for me at least. Even a few days of acute depression is a few too many. Then came Heath.

I focused in like a laser on bits of his story: his own mention of serious insomnia, that he couldn't stop his mind from racing. He was by all accounts besotted with his toddler and apparently very troubled by his separation from her.

I decided to go back and reread some of the emails from my "down times", as I call them, and they scared me, as well they should. I only found the energy to talk to a few best friends. I said "I'm down. I'm really really down. I can't sleep at all. I might need to see you." For a recovering Catholic, it takes a lot for me to ask for anything, especially help, even from best friends. Then I looked at a depression check list I made for my husband, what he needs to do if I have another "down time." The first item says this: "when I'm going down, help me call the shrink and push for a quick appointment. Make sure I get to the appointment, as in go in late to work if that's what it takes." I saw also that I noted in this file my down times from last 2 years, periods of a few weeks in which I lost and then gained back 7-10 pounds each time: Oct. '06, Dec. '06, Mar. '07, May '07, Sept. '07. Is this something I want to go through again?

The picture that moved me most in this Heath Ledger tragedy is the image of the name "Matilda" drawn into the pavement in front of the Brooklyn brownstone where Ledger first lived with his daughter and her mother. Now matter how Ledger died, the two-year-old will grow up without her doting and remarkably talented dad.

As for me, the meds are staying exactly where they are, because the most important man in my life doesn't care what I weigh. He's about a year older than Matilda, and his name is Frank.