18 September 2008


For better or for worse

There's no good reason to try to determine which has been the worst year of your life, but I do consider it from time to time. It could have been last year, when I found out I had cancer, went through painful simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation, had four different surgical procedures (one of which kept me in hospital for almost a month), lost 60 pounds, and ended off with yet more chemo and no end in sight for treatment, even though I was feeling better.

It could be that. But it could also have been 2004, when I nearly lost my wife Air to clinical depression. I alluded to what happened that year, but never wrote about it it any detail, to maintain her privacy.

Now, almost five years later, she has written a four-part series on surviving major depression, as guest blogger at Mental Health Notes. She covers her initial post-partum depression back in 2000, the catastrophic breakdown in 2004 that took her to our local hospital's mental health ward for two weeks, her subsequent intensive outpatient treatment program at the hospital and gradual return to work, and the silver linings she has learned about in the years since, and now that she's had to take care of me through all my health problems.

In that weighty year, the worst moment for me was one day, after bringing our daughters to visit Air in the hospital. We had played cards with her in the patient lounge, on the ward where nothing is sharp, and there is nothing mounted to the wall or ceiling that will hold a person's weight. I brought the kids back to the car and buckled them into their seats, then I slumped on the outside of the door, and I cried and cried, not even caring what the girls thought, or whether some stranger might see me there, weeping against the station wagon in the hospital parking lot. At that moment I didn't know if my wife would ever leave that ward, or if she did, what would happen. I feared our life together would change permanently.

And it did. But, in many ways, for the better. When you get married, there's a reason you pledge to stay together for better or for worse, and part of it is that the worse forges something in your marriage that the better never could.

I look at her writing this way: I don't have to be brave to admit I have cancer. It brings almost nothing but sympathy from everyone who hears. I wish it were so for depression and other mental illness, but it isn't. As someone who's never been clinically depressed, I regret terribly that I really didn't understand what Air was suffering at all until it had gotten very, very bad in late 2003 and early 2004. I didn't have a fucking clue. And most of the rest of us don't either. Many people who have no experience with it remain judgmental about mental illness, so for her to write about it candidly now, when she doesn't have to—well, that's brave.

Her treatments have worked extraordinarily well over the past four years, but as with my cancer, as long as she is alive her battle is never over. I hope I am a better help in her fight now than I was in my previous ignorance. As my love and the person who cares for me, she is certainly the best reason to try my hardest to stick around.

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As usual, Derek, you are right on the money. My partner also battles severe depression (and MS) and there is much stigma attached.

We have always noticed that whenever we go through something major, like her illness or mine from earlier this year, we always come out stronger on the other side. This unconditional support and love coupled with true and genuine respect for each other means that we have a relationship that works and one that can withstand, so far anyway, anything. I suspect you and Air have the same kind of thing going on. It is truly special and rare.
2004 WAS our nightmare. 28 May 04, we lost our 20-year old son to suicide. We didn't know that he had depression, and he hid all his symptoms. We would have done anything to save him. When I tell people he died from suicide, they run - when I say he died from depression, they are confused, but the stigma isn't as bad...
Untreated depression kills...
thanks (again) for touching words and sharing your thoughts. between you and airdrie, i find i get a lot of things in my life put into perspective.

it's funny, the "no sharp objects" comment is so familiar..... i had an episode of depression after my step father died and my mom was dying of brain/lung cancer. there was an unfortunate incident in which i had picked up my prescribed medications, went home, had a glass of wine and my ativan and the next thing i knew i woke up at home with all my meds gone, the bottle of wine empty and the evidence of some nighttime sickness in the bathtub.
i didn't know what i did or what else i might have taken! i went to the ER, discussed things, and did have a week of what i called crazy kindergarten - 5 days of outpatient psychiatric support.

the lunches were served up with sporks and the place was almost crazy making in itself...

you both don't know me, but are often in my thoughts!!!!! come to virginia will you??
This is beautiful, Derek. Airdrie truly is brave for sharing her story and I know by doing so she is doing a lot to help others in similar situations and to combat the stigma that unfairly surrounds mental illness. And I think it's a truly wonderful thing that the two of you have each other, for better or for worse. Clearly, of course, you already know that. =)
I don't think I can add much to what other commentators have said, only to say that you both are very brave, and that yes, Airdrie is helping A LOT of people by sharing what she has gone through with her depression.

Of particular value I think is the fact that she offers all the silver linings, and in doing so, she keeps reminding us the same thing you mentioned... that as long as you are alive, the battle is never over.

Keep fighting, both of you, we are here with you.
I finally got treatment for my depression in 1995 and have been on meds ever since. They completely changed my life. Not that there haven't been rough spots since then. (And a couple of bad years after my divorce, second marriage and a complete life change--I didn't allow myself time to deal with it all and it all caught up to me eventually.) I just wish I had help years earlier when I was in my teens.
I've sought councelling a few time since then with mixed sucess. The experience that sticks in my mind was when I was referred to a physchologist by my doctor, made the call, and was asked by the psychologist to explain why I needed therapy. After I talked for awhile, he told me that I was spoiled, my life was fine, and to get on with it and just suck it up! Luckily, I was able enjoy the absurdity of this situation. I probably should have reported him to the state.
My husband had trouble with the concept of depression. We were newly married and he couldn't understand why he couldn't make me happy, even though I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with him.
I call my cat Fezzik my guardian angel, because when things got really bad, I held on to him and concentrated on that fact that he needed me to care for him and would never understand it if I were suddenly gone from his life.