by Carla Occaso
Many people tell me I have a cheerful disposition. My disposition is so renowned for its optimism, in fact, that as a camper at day camp years ago, I won the “smiley award” two years running. I still have one of the prizes—a leather badge that says “SMILEY.”
Well, even the smiliest of us have bad days. In my mid- to late 20s, I encountered my first bout of what was diagnosed as depression. It followed the end of an emotionally challenging professional experience that collided with the end of an important relationship. I felt like an empty sock writhing around in bed—shades drawn—with the conviction that I had nothing to look forward to. I did not want to go outside. I did not want to see people. All I wanted to do was lie curled up in the dark and occasionally take a shower or have a cup of coffee. But, though I thought all was lost, deep down I believed in myself and the future. So I sought help.
The first person I met with, a psychiatrist based in the Rutland area, told me I had a diagnosable condition. She prescribed an anti-anxiety drug and Prozac, the then-popular anti-depressant. The drugs did not seem to help, though. The only thing I remember about taking Prozac was that it left me numb. That was extremely weird. I didn’t feel happy, sad, mad, impatient, grumpy, silly … anything. I felt like a non-person, because, to me, what differentiates personhood from robothood is feelings. Feeling nothing was worse than feeling miserable, to me, so I jettisoned the meds and decided to tough it out. It was hard. My feelings were raw, but eventually I started to get interested in life again. I started writing, and my first short story, “Practically Nothing,” won an honorable mention in the Ralph Nading Hill Literary Contest.
That and other experiences pulled me out of the black hole. I found walking in the woods and around town improved my spirits. A new health care professional later decided I did not have a diagnosable condition, but rather a reasonable reaction to a life event. All was well—for a while.
And then, quite a few years later, I again found myself floundering amid feelings of uselessness and low self-esteem. The Great Recession had begun and I’d lost a job. My relationship was strained. I didn’t know what to do. Again, the doctor I turned to—this time a general practitioner in the Northeast Kingdom—prescribed anti-depressants. And again I tried them. And again I didn’t feel less depressed, just less everything. I only took the meds for a few weeks, because I couldn’t bear the side effects of fatigue and mental numbness.
And, a year after I’d begun taking them, I realized I had no memories of the big events that had occurred during the brief time I took the medications. I couldn’t remember that year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or significant birthdays. It was as if my mind, like a blackboard, had been erased. It freaked me out. I vowed to eschew pills to alleviate mental strife. I turned to fresh vegetables, walking, yoga and breathing to improve my mood. This worked to a degree. My career turned around as I entered the world of education, and I began to feel better. Again, I noticed my depression was directly related to the events going on in my life.
I learned to do things that made me feel good about myself. Going for walks, talking to friends, picking flowers and so forth lifted me up, even if temporarily. Writing continued to be a factor in my feeling better about myself. I channeled my sense of drowning into getting a master of fine arts degree in writing from Goddard College. That experience transformed me. It put me on the path of continued publishing and additional education. Once again life got too busy for me to impale my spirit on the small stuff. Depression faded away—for a time.
My most recent bout of depression came in the two years preceding my mother’s death from cancer. I had many joyous moments during her long, slow decline, but the impending inevitability of her death led my new general practitioner to prescribe anti-depressants. On the off chance that she was right, that they would help me get through the days, I took them for a month or two, but again I found they did not alleviate my sadness so much as they blunted my feelings. I went off the pills without consulting her and toughed out the final days of my mother’s life, and her death, and faced my life after that.
Maybe I was depressed, in the medical sense. I certainly was anxious because I felt the only person who ever really understood me was gone forever. I was a nervous wreck at work.
Five months after my mother’s death, I started seeing Dr. William Long, an obstetrician turned psychotherapist. He had delivered my son 14 years earlier. He did a great job of bringing a great human being into the world, so I trusted him. In his practice he concentrated on cognitive behavior therapy. He was a practicing Buddhist. He tried to get me to live in the moment and not in my unpleasant thoughts. He taught me that memories and predictions were unproductive products of the mind. He made me realize that I had been trained by my family hierarchy to view myself in a more disadvantageous way than necessary, and that I therefore had trouble putting myself first and giving myself my due. He gave me the framework for turning my life around.
Now, after working with Dr. Long for a couple of years, my life has indeed changed. The changes have occurred so slowly that I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that I do not live as much in the past and future imagery created by my mind in the form of guilt and anxiety. I force myself to make choices that mean advocating for myself—choices that are outside my comfort zone. I have a new hope for the future for myself and my son, a hope that I never before could have imagined. We’ll see what happens.