So when did it all begin? Well I was a fussy baby and very sensitive from the start. I had severe separation anxiety, so much that my mom quit her job and started working at my daycare center. I was so sensitive that my mom had to literally drag me to first grade sometimes because I thought my teacher was mean. If I didn’t get my way I would throw tantrums, like the time I threw my best friend’s jelly shoes at her because she wouldn’t let me wear them. I was a moody little shit sometimes and always a little anxious, but nothing to be overly concerned with. I didn’t say much because I was super shy and still am somewhat to this day. It is easier for me to type my thoughts and feelings than it is to talk about them.
My first major depressive episode started my senior year in high school as my parents were getting divorced. It hit me like a ton of bricks and by the end of my senior year my dad was living over four hours away and I wasn’t speaking to my mother. It felt like I lost my family overnight. Then I tried to go to college near my dad, but I hated being so far away from my friends and boyfriend. I felt completely alone on campus. I cried my eyes out when my boyfriend and dad left me there. I only lasted a week. I went back to my hometown and stayed at my boyfriend’s parents’ for a few months. I still struggled even though I was back home. My boyfriend worked a lot so on the weekends I would spend hours in bed watching tv. I stopped hanging out with my friends and often found myself crying for no reason. When I would visit my dad, I would stay up late by myself crying because it felt so strange not having my family together. Holidays were the worst. I dreaded them. The first year out of high school was painful, but I never thought about seeing a doctor. I never thought that there was something wrong with me, but clearly there was.
I struggled with my self esteem in college. I went on birth control which gave me some small broken capillaries on my legs which I thought was the end of the world. I obsessed about them constantly. I would hide my legs, wearing long pants even in the summer. I was convinced I was ugly, stupid, and worthless. I never spoke up in class for fear of what others would think. I was so distracted with my negative self talk that I had a hard time focusing on school work. I still got decent grades, but I am sure I could have done better if I wasn’t dealing with such nonsense in my head. I had a difficult time picking a major because I was convinced that I was too stupid to do anything. I settled ironically on Psychology because I was interested in it and the bachelors of arts didn’t require much math or science. Even though I studied mental health, for some reason it didn’t click that I was mentally ill. I did very well in my classes and I knew all of the signs or symptoms, but it never occurred to me that I needed help.
It all came to a head as graduation approached. I had to figure what I was going to do to make a living. Since I felt like I was an idiot, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I interviewed for jobs in my field and was offered one to work in a group home for children with emotional and behavioral problems, but I turned it down because I didn’t feel like I was emotionally equipped to handle it. The stress of looking for a job took it’s toll on me. My immune system was affected and I ended up at the doctor twice in one month with swollen glands. The doctor thought I might have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which of course made me freak out even more. It ended up being a virus that caused me to breakout with canker sores in my mouth and throat. It was extremely painful I could hardly eat for days. My anxiety was at an all time high and I ended up seeing my doctor about it. She asked me if I had typical symptoms of anxiety and depression and I think I said yes to every single one on the list. I was crying hysterically. I did not want to admit that there was something wrong. At this point I was very good at pretending everything was fine. I was a great actress. I had been clinically depressed for five years and I don’t think anyone around me knew. I didn’t want to admit it to myself and for some reason I felt like I would be letting my dad down. My doctor prescribed an antidepressant and I started feeling better a couple weeks later. It kicked in when I went to Florida to visit my mom and stepdad. I was like turning on a light switch. Oh, this is what life is supposed to me like! It made me realize just how sick I was. I felt like a kid again. Every experience felt like it was happening for the first time. I was in love with life and for the first time truly happy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was probably experiencing a little euphoric mania induced by the antidepressant.
January has historically been a tough month for me. I think it is tough for a lot of people, especially those of us in Ohio. The days are shorter, the skies are gray, the weather is dreary, and if you’re like me you want to curl up and hibernate until spring. I spend a lot of time alone in the winter because of Chad’s sports schedule and that in itself affects my mood and energy. I was hoping the Deplin vitamin that I started last March would help fight off my winter depression, but when I came back to work after Christmas break I could feel it starting to creep in. Instead of succumbing to the blues, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I have collected over the years.
I had stopped smoking (again) and was working on a strict detox diet from my doctor. I realized that attempting both of those at the same time was not a good idea so I decided to just focus on eliminating smoking and gluten. I knew cutting out everything (sugar, gluten, dairy, coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes) would have an impact on my mood so I chose to ease into it. I also chose to cut back on alcohol after a few glasses of wine turned into a grumpy mood for two days. Alcohol is a depressant and although I have had lots of fun with it in the past, I just don’t think it is worth it anymore. I can have a couple of gluten free beers occasionally, but that is my limit.
I also started to get more active, by exercising in the gym at work in the afternoon on most days. The exercise boosts my mood, gives me extra energy for the rest of the day, and provides a break from my computer. It is not as great as exercising in the fresh air, but it definitely helps. Using an activity tracker helps me make goals and stick to them. Something about seeing those stars light up makes me happy. I think it produces endorphins just like making check marks on a list. I also eat lunch with friends at work on most days. I’m an introvert, but I have learned that being around people is important for my mental stability. People need people.
On particularly a dark day (after the wine incident), I gave myself permission to eat some comfort food and I also asked a friend to stop by for company. She brought her little ones and spending time with all of them really helped. It is important to have a support system you can rely on. Phone a friend when you are feeling down. Also getting out of the house helps. I didn’t want to go home and sit in an empty house last night so I went to the mall. Didn’t spend a lot of money, but just wandered around browsing and it got me some more steps.
My friend gave me a great birthday present that helps beat the winter blahs, a “Happy Light”. I have it on my desk at work and I use it for a few hours in the morning. Natural spectrum light helps reduce fatigue and increase alertness. I use it during the winter months. I’ve found that watching positive television shows and listening to my favorite music also helps my mood. These tricks help my depression along with medication and therapy. I can’t rely on these alone, but they definitely help pull me out of the hole.
I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. I’m thankful that my health has been fairly stable for the past 6 months. I’m thankful that I believe I’ve found the missing piece with Deplin. I’m thankful that I no longer feel like I’m dragging my ass around constantly. I ran errands for 6 hours yesterday without getting fatigued. I’m thankful I have energy to cook a meal after a long workday. I’m thankful that I’m getting appropriate sleep almost every night. I’m thankful that I’m not so doped up from meds in the morning that I fall asleep during my drive to work. I’m thankful I don’t have to nap in my car during lunch to make it through the day. I’m thankful that I can cope with everyday stresses without panicking. I’m thankful that I don’t have to take vacation time just to rest because I’m so exhausted. I’m thankful that I no longer live in fear of going into psychosis during a work meeting again. I’m thankful that I don’t constantly worry about losing my job because of my illness. I’m thankful that I can think clearly enough to perform my job and be productive every day. Hell I’m thankful that I don’t get lost driving home at night because that has actually happened before because my brain was so scattered. I’m thankful I don’t spend my weekends curled up in my bed. I’m thankful that I don’t spend hours staring off into space while my mind races frantically from one thought to the next. I’m thankful that I don’t cry for hours for no reason. I’ve come a long way since that Thanksgiving in 2008 when I enjoyed my turkey while having serious delusions at the dinner table. A long way. Life is good.
Right now I have 4 different sizes of clothing in my closet. My moods sometimes make me feel like I’m on a rollercoaster and my weight follows. All it takes is an episode of hypomania and I can lose 15 lbs in two weeks. I’ll eat like crazy. I’m ravenous. My mind and body move so fast that I burn up the calories at an alarming rate. When I landed in the hospital in 2009, I had lost 20 lbs in a month with no diet or exercise. In my twenties I almost became addicted to it. It made me feel good because I was constantly trying to lose weight. It was a boost to an already elevated mood. Hypomania is not always a high though. There are times when it causes so much anxiety that I can hardly eat or drink. I’m in a constant state of fear and I can barely sleep. I’ll get compliments on my weight. I say thanks, but I really want to say I’m dying inside. It is rare that I get the super elevated mood. Hypomania usually happens for me in the spring as soon as the weather breaks. I truly believe that the seasons affect my disorder.
Then there’s the winter depressions where I pack on the pounds. It is super frustrating. My energy is so low that I can’t get myself to exercise and it doesn’t help that I sit all day at work. There have been days where I’ve taken less than 500 steps. I inevitably gain back all the weight that I’ve lost during the hypomania plus some. This past winter was a tough one. I put on at least 10 lbs and I’m still struggling to get rid of it. I think the Deplin put the smack down on the mania so here I sit with a pooch. It is definitely better than the alternative, but I have to admit that I miss the super highs and the benefits.
Then there are the meds that cause weight fluctuations. When I left the hospital I was given Remeron which is an anti-depressant taken at night that makes you drowsy. It also made me want nothing but sweets. I ate chocolate peanut butter clusters and toast with honey for dinner several nights. That is a really good way to pack on the pounds. I’ve also been on the highest dose of Welbutrin which made me drop weight like crazy. I spent most of my twenties on a high from Prozac where I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. It has been a struggle to change my eating habits to adapt to my mood and meds especially since I am an emotional eater, but I’m learning.
For now I’m trying to be content with my body no matter what size I am, not pay attention to the scale, and just focus simply on nutrition and my well-being. I am truly thankful that I have been healthy since the spring and I will continue to work on maintaining my health.
So here I am once again trying to play with my diet to see if it makes a difference. I’ve been attempting to get off caffeine, gluten, and dairy for the last couple of weeks. So far it has been going well, but I am definitely craving some comfort food. Eliminating caffeine has been fairly easy. I just tapered down for a couple of days then stopped. Wow, what a difference it has made in my energy level! It is easy to stay on track when you immediately get results. If you are struggling with fatigue, you should experiment with cutting out caffeine. Fatigue has been the one symptom I haven’t been able to shake, but this seems to be doing the trick. Gluten has been tricky because it is seemingly in everything and I’ve had long love affairs with bagels and pizza. I haven’t had much time to prep and cook my own meals so I’ve been living off veggies, hummus, and nuts during the day then cooking a meal in the evening. Dairy hasn’t been too bad so far, but again I keep fantasizing about Donato’s pizza.
So why gluten and dairy? I’ve done a lot of reading about diet and mental illness and I keep seeing gluten and casein (protein found in milk) as being the culprit in many mental illnesses. I got my health coach certificate from The Institute of Integrative Nutrition last year and I was introduced to Dr. Mark Hyman in my studies. I read his book “The UltraMind Solution” and he suggests getting rid of all processed, high-sugar foods and the two main allergens (gluten and dairy). He has seen depression and anxiety symptoms improve in his patients while on this diet. So I am working on these two then it will be my crutch, sugar. I’ve grown to love Dr. Hyman so much that I’ve made an appointment at The Cleveland Clinic Center of Functional Medicine where he is the director. I’ll be meeting with a functional medicine doctor, a nutritionist, and health coach. I’m super excited! Hoping to see if I can manage my illness through diet and lifestyle changes and get rid of meds while we try to conceive again. If you’re interested in reading about food and mental illness, you should also check out “Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection” by Leslie Korn and “Grain Brain” by Dr. David Perlmutter.
These drastic changes to my diet can sometimes be a struggle since eating has been one of my coping mechanisms when dealing with depression and anxiety. I’ve turned to food often in the past to comfort myself. Giving my favorite foods up has always been difficult for me (especially when I’m not smoking). So I am slowly learning how to deal and trying to find healthy foods to love. I’m hoping to see some improvements in the next month or so. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
After the episode in 2008, I kept mentioning to my nurse practitioner that I did not feel like myself. At one point she told me that I might not ever feel like “myself” again. Those of you of in recovery can probably relate. The anti-psychotics can relieve the negative symptoms, but they can also take away the good feelings and in my opinion, change aspects of your personality. My illness caused me to have intense emotions including positive ones. Hypomania can be a beautiful thing. The meds calm my mind, but they make me less creative and dull my sense of humor as well. I don’t laugh as often and it takes more to get me excited.
I had to give up alcohol for the most part. Drinking with the meds did not mix well. I became overly emotional after only a couple of drinks. This was a big adjustment for me and my husband. We spent our twenties partying so it was a major lifestyle change when I stopped. Hanging out with drunk people was annoying to me when I was sober. I wasn’t as much fun and stopped wanting to go out to bars with friends. The anti-psychotic that I took in the evening made me so drowsy that I could barely stay awake when we were out. This caused Chad and I to argue. He got tired of making up excuses for me and missed that time with me. I’m on the right combo of meds now that I can go out and enjoy a few drinks and still keep my illness in check.
I also had to start taking better care of myself. I had to eat on a regular basis. I went into psychosis briefly while standing in entryway of the Indiana Pacer’s stadium because I had not eaten anything all day. I can’t eat a lot of junk either. I have to watch the caffeine, sugar, and processed carbs which can make me anxious and affect my sleep. I started having issues with my blood sugar as well. I don’t know if either it causes some of my symptoms or if the illness causes the blood sugar fluctuations. I feel better when I eat every few hours and drink plenty of water. Sleep is also very important. I have to make sure I am getting plenty of rest. No more late late nights for me. I’ve been told that I should be going to sleep at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. This has been a challenge for me since I still struggle with insomnia a couple of times a week.
Checking in with my therapist every 2-3 weeks also keeps me on track and I look forward to our talks. I also attend a NAMI support group that gives me support and allows me to help others. Overall life is much better than it was before meds. It has just been an adjustment. I still miss parts of the old me, but the stability that the meds provide is totally worth it.
After the episode in 2010, I continued to take my anti-depressant and anti-psychotic, but they left me feeling a little like a robot that was just going through the motions. I felt numb and could hardly stay awake in the evenings. I continued seeing the nurse practitioner, but we struggled to find the right meds. She would constantly look up different meds in her book and a lot of the time I felt like I knew more about them her. I had tried almost every anti-depressant out there. I was losing confidence by the fall of 2011 so I decided to see a psychiatrist that I saw briefly during my outpatient therapy at the hospital for a second opinion. The psych decided to do a DNA test to find which meds I would get the most benefit from. The test showed that none of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors worked well for me and a selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor called Pristiq would be better as well as an anti-psychotic called Geodon. If anyone out there is struggling to find the right meds, I strongly suggest you find a doctor that will do this test for you.
I started the new meds right away and it took a while to adjust. The Geodon made me so tired at first that I sometimes had to pull over on the way to and from work to sleep. There were many mornings that I almost drove off the road from nodding off. Eventually we found the right dose and I stayed on them until the summer of 2012 when we decided to try to get pregnant. The withdrawal symptoms from the Geodon were intense. They say there are not any problems with withdrawal, but I definitely experienced some. When I first started tapering off I would wake up every hour the nights I didn’t take it. I would have chills the following day and difficulty thinking clearly. It is hard to explain, but it was an awful feeling.
Once I was tapered off I did fine for about 9 months without them, but in the spring of 2013 I was hit hard with a mixed episode and extreme anxiety. Thankfully I caught it before I went into psychosis again. I went back on meds and I started seeing naturopath that prescribed vitamins. I also had cranial sacral therapy done which relieved so much tension in my face and jaw that the look of my face changed completely. It was amazing and I recommend it to anyone who needs relief from anxiety and stress. It took months to recover from the episode. I had so much anxiety at times that I got lost driving home from work. I ended up working full-time from home for 3 months then I worked 2 days in the office and 3 from home for six weeks. I was very lucky that my employer accommodated my needs.
I stayed on meds until January of 2014 when I thought I was doing so well on the vitamins that I didn’t need it, but by June I was depressed and anxious and had to go back on them. I’ve been on them ever since. I’ve been pretty stable for the past two years, but I still experience depression in the winter months and the one symptom that has been the hardest to shake is fatigue. However I am starting to see improvements in that area as well. I started a prescription vitamin called Deplin in March and it is really helping with the mild depression and fatigue that has lingered on. The big test is this winter, but things are definitely looking up!