“You will never make it without antidepressants.”
These were my psychiatrist’s “words of encouragement” during our first session, when I uttered, between my tears, that I wanted to try to get through this without medication.
The five years prior to this meeting had been anything but a walk in the park.
I was the mother of a sensitive baby (then toddler) with big needs, and spent three years barely getting three consecutive hours of sleep.
My husband was going through his own mid-life crisis.
And I found myself at work sandwiched between a rock and a hard place.
I felt unappreciated, unsupported, unloved. Crushed under the weight of daily responsibilities, and, in many ways, alone.
So, what did I do? I kept going. When my friends and family asked me how I was doing, I would paint a big smile on my face and say: “I’m OK.”
But I wasn’t. My soul was weighing heavy with pain.
At some point, my body, heart and soul decided to take over the reins. If I was not going to pull those breaks and change something, they were going to do it for me. I found myself crying all the time; incapable of making the smallest of decisions; overwhelmed by everything.
Cooking. Noise. Music. TV. My own child.
The simplest of tasks, like sorting my books or shopping at the nearby supermarket felt like a mountain waiting to be climbed.
My family doctor said I was having a burn-out and needed to be hospitalised. “I don’t want to be away from my child”, I sobbed.
“I understand, she is still little”, she said. “You may want to consider a day-clinic then. Here’s a sick-leave note for your work. And here’s another note for your health insurance”.
My health insurance said it was a depression. Hospitalisation would be the easiest, they proclaimed. “Easiest for whom?!”, I wondered. A day-clinic stay, they explained, would involve a whole set of bureaucratic procedures which may take months. “But I want to be with my family”.
They didn’t care. Procedures come first.
I knew deep inside what I needed… and I knew I was not going to get it through State agents or health institutions. I needed to muster whatever energy I still had left in me and build myself my own individual web of support.
My initial emergency helpline, to get me through life one day at a time (sometimes one hour at a time), were my parents. With God’s grace, they moved from Egypt to Switzerland, two weeks after my mental collapse, into the apartment literally next door (same building, same floor). Say what you will, but I know I have God to thank for this nothing short of a miracle.
My second helpline was my psychotherapist, who was a wholesome, supportive and compassionate soul.
But my health insurance agent struck again: “We can’t pay for a psychotherapist. We only recognise psychiatrists”.
A big mistake
So, I left my trusted therapist, and poured my heart out to my new psychiatrist so she can tell me that medication was my only way out.
“They’re not a big deal”, she said, handing me some pharmaceutical pamphlet. But I knew from my counselling work that this wasn’t true. “I don’t want to take antidepressants” I repeated. “They often don’t work or act as a placebo, and they can have nasty side-effects. I want to try to do this without medication”.
“You will never make it without antidepressants.” she asserted.
I left her office gutted, feeling even more down than when I entered her office, dragging my lead-heavy legs back home.
She wouldn’t even look me in the eye. The whole time I was pouring my heart out, she kept looking at her watch.
Upon my second visit to her office, sensing her uninterested gaze upon mine, I mustered all my courage and said:
“I will not be coming back here anymore.”
Her eyes widened: “Oh… that’s quite a surprise”. Really? “I was counting on us working together over a longer period of time”. No, thank you! I’d rather use up my savings than be at your and the health insurance’s mercy.
Source: Pinterest, saved by Bloom Taliercio
Carving my way out.
It took me four months to regain a new sense of balance.
With the loving support of my parents, the compassionate ear of my therapist, with my husband and daughter by my side, encouraging friends who forced me out of my shell, and my faith in God.
I knew I needed a daily structure of some sort, so I don’t sink in the shifting sands of my muddled mind, wallowing in old miseries. So I read up on what type of activities clinics do, and created my own schedule, guided by what inspires me, gives me energy and a sense of purpose.
Feeling alive & creative
I started exercising in the morning.
Took up a painting class. And one of my friends coaxed me to sign up to a dance class she was visiting. Both of these activities allowed me to give form and colour to my pain and the hope I had within me. It was cathartic.
Re-igniting old passions
I started writing children’s books again, and joined a wonderfully supportive critique group online.
And honouring my love to learn, I joined all kinds of online courses on a variety of topics that interest me. Parenting courses. Writing courses. Coaching courses. Psychology courses. Happiness courses. Through these courses, I was able to connect to fellow students, their experiences and stories. Some of them have now become dear friends.
Gaining a new sense of purpose
I volunteered a couple of hours a week with the Salvation Army in the kitchen, serving lunch to school children and washing dishes. It felt good to be part of a supportive community, while feeling “useful” again.
Food for the soul
I researched silent retreats in my area, and found a beautiful home for nuns that opens to the public for silent days of prayer. So I joined them, and have been going there ever since. Contemplating. Chanting. Reflecting. Praying. Spending time in nature. Simply “being” in the silent warmth of other yearning souls. Seeking peace.
I joined an elderly church group for Bible study, whose members filled my heart with love and companionship, in the only way 70-year olds can.
And I created a “sacred” corner in my room. I covered my shrine with a cloth imprinted with Jesus’ picture, holding a benevolent look towards me. And I placed on it pictures of people I love, memorabilia that transposed me to a happier time, a cross and my Bible.
This corner became my retreat every morning and evening. I prayed. I cried. I talked to God about my pain. Reproached Him for allowing my suffering, begging Him to take it away.
But more importantly, I know today, more than ever, that He guided and supported me through it all, so I can use that pain to metamorphose my life to what it is today.
I also made it a ritual to walk to a beautiful nearby Catholic church every day, sit inside the shrine (there was nobody else there), and read my Bible. It filled me with a sense of peace and calm, to visit my Father’s house and read His word in perfect stillness.
“Mon âme se repose en paix sur Dieu seul,
de lui vient mon salut.
Oui, sur Dieu seul mon âme se repose,
se repose en paix.”
It was hard!
Please don’t get me wrong. None of this was easy! Getting myself out of the house to get to any one of those activities was excruciatingly hard.
Part of me just wanted to crawl into bed and never have to get up. I felt like I was being sucked into a dark cold hole, a bottomless pit. It’s scary when you are taken hostage by your own mind… and you don’t know how to make it stop or how to escape it. But I had to try… Whenever my mind wondered away into a dark alley or headed towards a cliff, I would either:
Get busy – with ANYTHING – reading, going to my parents’, cooking, exercising, taking a shower, …
I would repeat a Bible verse over and over again. These were my favourite:
“Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me. For your thoughts are not of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23, Berean Literal Bible).
“The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)
And Psalm 91.
One thing was certain, whenever I fell into one of my “dark episodes”, I needed to keep on moving. I needed to dust myself off and find a way out. Wallowing in that dark spot was not an option! For I knew if I did, I may end up losing myself in a “no man’s land”, with no return ticket.
My parents were critical allies for me, as were my listening/empathy partners. If you are curious what a listening/empathy partner is, check out this article and this one :). While the context of these articles is parenting, the principles explained can be used in any situation.
My husband was also of great support to me. It was difficult for him at that time to support me emotionally (he had his own “shit” to sort through, as he would say). But he was my rock: caring for our toddler pretty much single handedly; taking all necessary decisions so I didn’t have to face its oppressive pressure; and pushing me to get out of the house…
I don’t think I wanna go to the dance class today, I would mutter, curling up on our living room sofa, sinking deeper in my dark well.
“Of course you’re going! You love it once you’re there, don’t you”?
Yes, but I’m not sure I have the energy to get out. And it’s cold, was my excuse.
“Get dressed and go. You’ll love it. HY will also be there. And you don’t need to worry about K. (our daughter). I’m here”.
With a big sigh, I would lift my heavy legs off the couch, and drag my lifeless body out of the house.
But once I was in the dancing studio, HY would greet me with her big smile and we’d chat. And then J., our dance teacher, would show up, armed with his enthusiasm, positivity and, let’s face it, an incredibly toned body!
After some chit-chat, he would play the most heavenly music by Max Richter, while guiding our bodies to express themselves in a way that gave wings to my soul. Tears often came streaming down, as I gave shape to my pain and released it through movement.
I felt alive again, quickly wiping away my tears lest anyone notice.
Re-building my world
It took me four months.
They were the hardest four months of my life. But I made it out of the pit.
One day I woke up, and those emotions that laid so heavy on my chest felt all of a sudden lighter. I started to feel joy again. I started to make plans. I also knew I needed to make some changes in my life, starting with my job. I needed to learn to let people in. Give myself permission to share my needs and say “no” or “later”.
Little by little, I re-built my world… a new world… with a new sense of purpose and confidence that all things will work together for the good.
I still had ups and downs.
Some days were better than others.
But all in all, I knew I was on the right track, and that I will make it. Not because I’m especially strong or special. Sure, I refused to give in to the voice of despair thundering in my head, and I reached out for help. But I was also fortunate to have compassionate people around me, willing to support me, challenge me, and push me when I needed a push. And most importantly, my Faith in God and His healing words, helped sustain me as I re-built my world.
Brave – Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.
Source: Pinterest, saved by Marie-Louise Jaeger
It’s been exactly 5 years since my burnout. And I pass by that psychiatrist’s office every day on my way to work.
And when I do, part of me wonders how it would be like if I were to walk up to her in her office and say:
“Remember me? Probably not… Five years ago, you sat here and told me that I would never make it through without antidepressants. Well, here I am to tell you that I did!
Just because you wear a white coat, doesn’t mean you know it all! You sure as hell didn’t know me!
Curiosity and Humility can go a long way.
Listening to your patients with genuine interest can go a long way.
Exploring with them the resources they have in themselves and around them can go a long way.
Showing up as a genuine human being can go a very long way.
Please don’t ever doubt the resourcefulness of your patients again, no matter how desperate or “broken” they may seem. Your job is to lift them up, not crush them down!”
Maybe one day, I will. Meanwhile, I’m just gonna keep on moving.
- Article: Listening Partnerships by Madeleine Winter, Hand in Hand practitioner
- Book: Doctoring the mind, why Psychiatric Treatments fail by Richard Bentall
- Website (in German): Silent retreats at the Wesemlin Monastery in Lucern, Switzerland
- YouTube video: TedxTalk Depression and spiritual awakening — two sides of one door by Lisa Miller
- You will never make it without anti-depressants” (part II): My second post in this series detailing how a Panic Attack helped me change course