On a cold morning in February 2004, the lights went out. I’d been feeling incredibly stressed at the time: work was unusually overwhelming, my long-term marriage had hit a rough patch, and our youngest was about to leave for college. Our son’s leaving home for college was a good thing, but frankly, I like my chicks in my nest. Besides, my son’s departure meant that I had the arduous task of finding a place to store—or better yet to junk—the helicopter I’d used to perfect my parenting style.
During the weeks leading up to that frigid February day, I found myself ruminating endlessly about the issues that were troubling me. Days blended into nights. Many nights, I barely slept at all.
Then one morning, it was as though someone had flipped a switch. I felt the most intense anxiety I’d ever experienced. My stomach was twisted in a constant knot. My heart raced. I lost so much weight that my clothes hung on me. The light hurt my eyes; sounds overstimulated me. I felt as if I were in constant danger. And then I tipped into a deep depression that nothing in my then 30 years of clinical experience had prepared me for. If you’ve ever been depressed yourself, you know exactly what I mean.
Depression sucked the life out of me. Waking up felt like a curse. I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed, but I was too anxious to do that. I couldn’t keep still. Each day was a battle to stay connected to the things that gave my life meaning, the things that usually anchored me—my husband, my children, my mother, my friends, my work with couples, even my dog. But I couldn’t stay fastened. It was as if I were in an insulated space suit, floating in darkness, completely untethered.
One morning, I picked up the phone and called a psychiatrist. Although I viewed medication as a last resort, my deepening depression prompted me at least to get evaluated for the possibility of beginning a regime of antidepressants.
The psychiatrist’s office was housed in a large, sterile-feeling hospital—not exactly the feng shui I’d been hoping for. The doctor greeted me in the waiting room, white lab coat and all. He barely smiled.
But after talking with me, he gave me some good news. “You won’t need medication,” he announced. “You just need 6 to 10 sessions of CBT and you’ll be fine.” Enormously relieved, I scheduled a second appointment for a week later, and those next seven days were remarkably depression and anxiety free. I couldn’t wait to tell the doctor how well I was doing! When I did, he observed, matter-of-factly, “It’s good that you’re feeling better, but it probably won’t last. Besides, you need to stay in therapy to figure out why you were vulnerable to depression in the first place. “Not everybody is, you know.”
Do you know the meaning of the phrase iatrogenic disease? It’s when a condition is made worse by a healthcare provider or treatment. I’d thought I was on my way up, but as soon as the doctor said that, I felt myself starting to sink again.
Mustering my last ounce of energy, I set out on a journey to find the magic bullet that would relieve my pain. I’m pretty sure I tried every model of psychotherapy, and trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted me in your practice. I was your classic “yes, but” client. I knew just enough about each therapy approach to be dangerous. No therapist was going to pull a fast one and trick me out of my depression.
When therapy didn’t work, I read every book on depression I could get my hands on. I went on week-long retreats. I changed my diet. I tried vitamins and supplements and hormones. I used a light box. I did acupuncture. Then, out of pure desperation, I tried numerous antidepressants. Nothing worked.
Almost a year later, I realized that there was no single magic bullet. I had to face the fact that I couldn’t afford to wait until I felt better to do better. So I made a promise to myself. I promised that every morning, I’d make my bed.
This might seem like a small thing, but it was huge. Making my bed gave my life structure. It was a metaphor, a springboard, for forcing me to engage in other therapeutic behaviors, such as exercising daily, finishing a long overdue book, and honoring my work commitments. Realizing that I had the strength to get my feet moving, no matter how crappy I was feeling, was a major turning point for me. I began to feel a flutter of hope.
This fledgling sense of hope, in turn, enabled me to notice and appreciate the life rafts that had been floating beside me all along—my people! I began to feel the power of their love. I had an insatiable need to talk about my feelings all the time, and I can still picture the faces of my family and friends as they listened patiently, their eyes filled with quiet compassion. They sent me self-help articles, drove me to appointments, and answered my frantic, late-night calls. My mother sent me daily emails with inspirational quotes. No matter how exasperating I must’ve been, they wouldn’t give up on me, even when I felt like giving up on myself.
I began to notice, too, the love that showed up in unexpected places. About a month into my struggle, I’d contacted Michael, a friend and colleague who specializes in depression. We spoke on the phone for an hour, after which he said, “Get out your calendar so we can schedule another appointment next week.” At the end of that session, he said the same thing. And he continued to say that for a solid year. Repeatedly, I told him that I wanted to either pay him or stop having the sessions. His only response was, “Michele, we’re not stopping, and I’m not taking money from you.” Little by little, I began to feel tethered again.
And then there was my Buddhist therapist, Jennifer. She encouraged me to meditate. “Start with one minute every day,” she said. I told her I would, but I never did. I was a “yes, but” Buddhist. So what about Jennifer was helpful? Plain and simple—she loved me. I wasn’t just her 2-o’clock appointment. She had a way of making me feel cherished. She always seemed happy to see me. I felt certain I was her favorite client, even though that’s what 30 other people who saw her each week probably believed, too.
Jennifer was enormously generous with me. She made herself available to me between sessions for reality checks or pep talks. Maybe even more importantly, she’d talk about rising above adversity in her own life, and say, “Michele, if I can do this, I know you can too. You’re going to get through this.” That’s all I ever really wanted to hear. And somewhere deep inside I knew she was right. It felt so comforting to be reminded of my inner resources by someone who I deeply respected and loved. She held up a mirror to reflect the best, most resilient parts of me.
Of course, my healing didn’t happen in a straight line; there were many hills and valleys. The biggest challenge came one morning as I was getting ready to do a two-day intensive with an out-of-town couple. I was standing in my kitchen, feeling at peace and thinking, I’m doing so much better, when the phone rang. My mother, one of my primary anchors in life, had been in a car accident and was being airlifted to a hospital in Denver.
The world stood still.
When my daughter and I arrived at the hospital, the staff placed us in a “family room.” Not a good sign. After what seemed like an eternity, I learned my mother had died—without my holding her hand, kissing her goodbye, saying, “I love you” for the billionth time, or even being able to tell her that she didn’t have to worry about me because I was going to be okay.
In the days that followed, my biggest fear was that my grief would consume me, taking me to a frightening place from which I’d never return. But while I did fall back into depression as I tried to embrace this unfathomable loss in my life, I found each emotional setback was slightly more manageable than the one before it. Each time, I found my way home.
I’m back now, and I’ve been back for a very long time. But I’m not the same person. One of depression’s gifts has been the deep and daily sense of gratitude I feel for the blessings in my life—the way the morning light casts shadows on the mountains near my home, the boisterous laughter of our grandchildren, and the enduring love of so many people.
My clinical work has deepened, too. Although I’ve always recognized the importance of this thing we call “the therapeutic relationship,” I now understand it in my heart. When I’m with my clients, I’m totally in the flow. Together, we laugh, we cry, we hug. I’d always been comfortable being open and vulnerable with my clients, but now somehow the membrane between us feels more permeable. And when they lose their way between sessions, they know they can count on me.
Most importantly, when my clients seem disheartened, I flash on that granite-faced psychiatrist in the white lab coat I first saw—and I intentionally ooze hope. I brazenly predict, “You’re going to get through this. I know you will. And I’ll help you get there.” You see, the worst part of depression for me was the unbearable loneliness, the sense of being untethered, and the belief that things would never change. And the antidote to that was love and hope. Love and hope, as it turned out, were the medicine for my soul.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/DIGITAL STEPHEN
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