I Have Treatment-Resistant Depression & This Is What It's Like
I am crying. My husband took off work — again — because I am crying and cannot stop. I've been crying for two days straight. The reasons why changes. Sometimes I’m dropped into a hole of existential misery and dread. Other times, struck by the tininess of my three sons’ internal organs, I’m convinced they will die. Sometimes I’m tormented by visions of my family hacking their way through the apocalypse, other times, tumbling through a hideous car crash. I want to cut myself, but my husband will see, and I’m not allowed to do that anymore (the therapist I see for my treatment-resistant depression has at least gotten me that far). But right now, for whatever reason, I cannot stop crying.
A day later, I end up in an outpatient mental health center, a discrete brick building off the interstate where I sit in uncomfortable chairs and learn how to change my thoughts. I had been "withdrawaling from an anti-psychotic," the doctors discovered, and that’s why I couldn’t stop crying. Even after getting to the root of my issue, I finish the program anyway. Psychiatrists mess with my medication: dial one up and the other down, then add another. My husband takes Family Medical Leave to care for our children. Because he's a teacher, he misses the end of the school year and graduation.
This can be what it’s like to live with treatment-resistant depression. When it’s bad, it’s bad, and the kids suffer for it. I’m stressed out, so I yell. I obsess about housecleaning. When they fight, I put my hands over my ears and scream at them to stop. I am not the gentle, positive parent that I typically am. When it's bad, I do not practice attachment parenting; instead, I practice survival. I try to apologize to the kids for yelling when I do, and they gravely accept my apologies. We all ask each other not to do it again. It works... for a while.
I wasn’t the best mom in the history of the world; I yelled sometimes and relied on the TV more than I should have. But I read to the kids. I got science projects done. We made art. They might have eaten more sandwiches for lunch than usual, but we did well. And I did better and better.
But most of the time, living with treatment-resistant depression is just that: living. I’m a hippie mom who still breastfeeds her 2-and-half year old, who still sometimes apologizes to her children and makes pacts not to yell. I limit TV. We homeschool: reading, math, science and social studies. We go to the park and catch tadpoles. The mess piles up, and while I try to fight the tide of toys, I mostly let it engulf us. My car is filled with empty drink containers; the kitchen table contains a recent art project. We make dinosaur cupcakes. We are living.
I’ve suffered from treatment-resistant depression since I was 7. Once I got on medication in my 20s, the cycle worked like this: we’d medicate, the medication would work for a certain amount of time — maybe months, maybe years — but eventually, its efficacy would plummet. Then I'd need another drug. Right now, I’ve found the magic combination with a cocktail of seven different drugs, including an anti-psychotic prescribed off-label for depression, your standard selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a popular bipolar drug, and ADHD medication.
I went through this depression with my children. A doctor put me on a drug cocktail when I was first pregnant with my 6 year old, and it worked until I delivered my 2-and-half year old, but then I spiraled darkly into postpartum depression. That's when the meds began to pile up. First my doctors put me on an anti-anxiety, then a stronger anti-anxiety. Then they tried a different SSRI. When that didn't work, I got the "harder stuff": the brand-new-to-the-market miracle drugs, and eventually, the anti-psychotics. Somehow, throughout all of this, I maintained a life. I wasn’t the best mom in the history of the world; I yelled sometimes and relied on the TV more than I should have. But I read to the kids. I got science projects done. We made art. They might have eaten more sandwiches for lunch than usual, but we did well. And I did better and better. We capped it off the treatments by treating my ADHD, which gave me more energy and self-esteem.
Living with treatment-resistant depression isn’t easy. There’s always a chance my medication will stop working, that I’ll revert to yelling, to sleeping too much, to letting the TV do my parenting.
Now I’m the same as any other mom. I rarely yell, and when I do, I make the standard pact with my sons not to do it anymore. I make the kids clean, but don’t ride them to do it. I pay attention when my son shows me his latest Lego creation or dinosaur drawing. Homeschooling is going well, and my 4 year old is finally learning his letters. My 6 year old is perfecting his handwriting. He reads aloud everyday and does his math on the computer. My medication is in balance. I can even cook mac and cheese for lunch.
Living with treatment-resistant depression isn’t easy. There’s always a chance my medication will stop working, that I’ll revert to yelling, to sleeping too much, to letting the TV do my parenting. Luckily, my husband and I both know the signs, as does my psychiatrist, who always has another trick to pull on my disease. It may get bad, but it’s never bad for long. I know to ask for help when it comes, to enlist friends to help me take care of myself.
Depression sucks. But as a family, we all get through it. Chiefly, I desire that my children grow up unscathed by my mental health issues. So far, I’ve succeeded. Even on my worst days, I yell less than I'd ever thought I would. When things are really bad, the boys still don't spend their entire day in front of the TV. We make room for living, no matter how small or how big. Treatment-resistant depression is hard. But today, I’m making it. And that's enough.