The Marriage of Grief and Depression

I recently developed a new mantra.  It goes like this:  It is not my job to make people comfortable.  I don’t mean that I’ll go out of my way to make friends and acquaintances ill at ease.  That’s not really who I am.  What I mean is that I am trying very hard to be honest about myself and my life.  If that makes people feel uncomfortable, then I need to let that roll off my back.  

With that in mind, I need to tell you that this blog post is not a happy one.  I’m purposely going for honesty.  Maybe someone out there needs to hear this and know they’re not alone.  Maybe there’s someone else who feels just like I do.  Today’s topic — grief and depression.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I know well. 

A few years back, I was diagnosed with depression.  This was before my daughter Ally’s illness, before I had experienced real loss. We were dealing with some behavioral issues with my son, which looking back, were insignificant compared to what we’d later face.  But still, I was struggling.  My therapist thought I had situational depression, and he suggested I talk to my doctor about this.  My doctor then put me on a low dose of Lexapro.  For several years, I stayed on this medication, and it worked.  It helped keep me level and able to cope with life.  

A few years later, life got really difficult.  My sweet, twelve year old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.  My family lived in limbo for the next 3.5 years, trying to stay afloat while also living in fear of what could/would happen next.  Those years were filled with joy, fear, hope, tears, love and a deep sadness.  I stayed on meds to keep going as grief was starting to creep in; I grieved a life of normalcy for my child, for my family, and for myself.  I had constant worry, a constant sense of ‘What will happen if…?’ 

In April of 2020 the if happened.  We discovered that treatments were no longer helping Ally.  On May 3, Glioblastoma took my daughter’s life.  And that’s where real depression kicked in.  Intertwined with this depression was grief, which has been a constant companion since then.  I’ve been trying to work through my grief, take the right steps to keep my depression at bay, and still be a functional human.  I’m on meds, and I recently adjusted them as I can feel that the holidays will be hard this year. I see a therapist.  I am doing life the best I can.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, I really thought I was doing okay.  But then depression swoops in, and I’m flat on my back again.

Now here’s the part I’m a little embarrassed to share.  I like to think of myself as a strong person.  I’ve had to be during my daughter’s illness and after her death.  I feel compelled to be strong at work and when I’m out in the world.  But the last few weeks when Rich and I sat in counseling together, working through our grief, I got called out by our counselor.  She said I was “awfully tearful.”  I was furious.  Of course I am tearful.  Counseling is hard.  Grief is hard.  Trying to piece your life back together after a devastating event is hard.  I thought I had been doing so well.  I get up in the morning and go to work.  I am trying to be a kind teacher, a reliable co-worker, a loving friend.  I exercise.  I read.  I stay busy with writing groups and yoga classes and happy hours with the girls.  And yet, I’m still depressed.  I had an epiphany:  I live in a haze of blah that I can’t fully pull myself out of.  And I’m so angry that I can’t outrun the grief and depression that hangs over me.  If a friend were to tell me about his or her depression, I’d tell my friend to get a good therapist and to consider medication.  Don’t give up.  Be gentle with yourself.  Practice self care.   Why can’t I be gentle with myself?  My therapist and my doctor both suggested I should give myself grace…which is hard.

In most of my blog posts, this is where I’d try to insert a positive reflection or maybe a bit of wisdom.  But this time I can’t because I don’t have any meaningful insights.  I don’t have a solution.  I’m still in the depths of trying to understand my loss and correctly treat my depression.  I will say this:  If you are hurting, if you feel low, if you are anxious about the holidays, you are not alone.  Do not be ashamed about asking for help.  Do not feel badly about needing therapy and medication to feel better.  And do not second-guess being honest about all of this.  Life is hard, my friends.  However, life is better when you love and grieve and share with and lean on your people.  As for me, I’m not giving up.  But dang, this journey of grief and depression is a long one.  Here’s to lighter days for all of us.

”Grief is so human, and it hits everyone at one point or another, at least, in their lives. If you love, you will grieve, and that’s just given.”  – Kay Redfield Jamison

Note:   If you are struggling with depression during the holidays or any time, you can call the Depression Hotline at 1-888-771-5166.  If you want to search for a therapist near you, go to the Psychology Today website at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.  Most importantly, if you feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. 

Why Write?

I think I first recognized the power of writing in 3rd grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Erickson, assigned a creative writing assignment — a story starter.  I don’t remember what I wrote about, but she liked it.  And she called me to read my story aloud.  Well, back in 3rd grade, that was tough.  If you know me today, you wouldn’t believe it, but up through high school I was shy — sometimes even painfully so.  My fear of speaking out made reading my piece difficult, but I did  it and enjoyed the accolades as my fellow students laughed at my story.  After that, I was hooked on writing.

Fast forward to 6th grade.  As a pre-teen, I faced the typical girl drama and emotions.  I got mad at friends (okay, usually over boys) and didn’t know how to deal with these feelings.   I don’t remember the specifics of this particular incident,  but I was fighting with my best friend.  To be fair, I wasn’t really fighting.  I was nursing a wound that I hadn’t shared with her.  I was too timid back then to be honest and say, “Hey, you hurt my feelings.”  So I wrote her a note.  I said everything that was in my heart.  I let her have it — said all the silly and irrational and painful things a 6th grader represses.  I folded that note (the way we folded notes back in the 80s) and I saved it.  Later, I ripped it up.  I eventually got over being mad at my friend, but I remembered how cathartic it felt to get out all of my feelings.  The process of writing — getting all my feelings out — helped me.  

As I grew older, I decided to major in English.  I believed what John Keating said in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  I still believe this.  I remember sitting in my college dorm room, reading the YA novel Running Loose by Chris Crutcher (still one of my all-time favorite books) with tears running down my cheeks.  Although I had grown up loving books, this was the first time a book touched me in this way.  But I think that the best writing moves you, makes you laugh, makes you think, and inspires.  And for me, writing is the way I understand and process the world.

Today, I use writing in many ways.  My work requires me to write.  I write short social media posts that are meant to be funny.  I share anecdotes about my family to not only vent but to also make my friends understand that they are not alone in their family fails and mishaps.  I write educational blogs because I’m a teacher and I’m extremely passionate about the importance of education and educators.  And I write to work through the deep pain that I’m trudging through every day.  (More of this in later posts.)  Writing has always been like therapy for me.

I started this blog because I feel myself about to burst.  I feel I have words that can no longer just rattle around my head and heart; instead, these words are meant to be shared.  I  have experienced unique joys and hardships in my life, and I hope that I can reach someone out there if I’m brave enough to share these stories.  Thank you for joining me, for checking out Crysta Clear.  I hope that my experiences may resonate with you in some small way.