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Something I have come to know as true is that there is a chemistry of contentment. I cannot weigh or measure it, nor can the science and medicine of our time.
I came into the world with an inheritance. From my family, I received many things: blue eyes, a broad back and strong bones, some intelligence; and a pervasive and persistent propensity for severe depression and anxiety.
My forebears, all landless peasants – some Catholic and some Anabaptists – were unwelcome in Reformation Germany. Several centuries ago they boarded fetid ships for America, pushed by hopelessness and hope toward a new world.
Among these people, amid a rather lonely and imperfect childhood, I learned grit, hard work and a will to carry on.
My journeys into profound despair began early: childhood summers when I hid from the sun and found no desire to get up; a high-school episode when I wandered through a fog, not even responding to my name.
In a flight of emotion, I “accepted Jesus as my personal saviour” and drifted awhile with fundamentalists who claimed truth as theirs alone. Nothing changed. By university, I turned to the existentialists, sure that with enough courage I could find meaning that would overcome my bleakness.
My grandmother had known such bleakness. After her early death, I read of her disease of the mind in diaries stretching from 1935 to 1965 – 30 tidy volumes of “feeling lost,” of “taking cover away from things at my house,” of “why [do] people have to live on and on so.” (She was 50.) She would drive herself to a park “only to shuffle along going nowhere.”
My diaries and poetry were much the same.
In the 1960s, medicine had little to offer my grandmother: asylums in the countryside, perhaps some kindly counselling, maybe electroconvulsive shock therapy.
But by the time my own despondency peaked in the late 1980s, psychotropic drugs had become available. I began many years of taking pills (and pills and more pills, in varied colours and combinations) and trying every variety of talk therapy.
Mental well-being rests on the intersection of what happens inside and what has occurred and is occurring outside. Therapy, good times with friends, work, fresh air and exercise are about what occurs outside. When we are feeling blue, we can immerse ourselves in such things with good results. What happens inside, in the still-mysterious chemical stew of the brain, can remain relatively untouched by what occurs outside, I found. I had periods of relative stability, but mostly I had skittering highs and perilous lows. I was diagnosed as bipolar.
By 2008, with a long marriage ended and a career reassembled, I felt the worst was over – though I was still hurrying to do as much as possible when feeling good, hedging my bets against the inevitable lows. I looked longingly and with mystification at those who progressed surely and consistently through their lives.
Despite the assurances of one psychiatrist or therapist after another, I feared that what was wrong with me was a lack of self-discipline, or some intrinsic moral failing. I cannot say how haunting and demoralizing such feelings are as the dim and desperate times appear over and again. Eventually, on seemingly solid ground, I fell deeply in love with a long-time friend; we married and moved to Vancouver Island. I thought the world was my oyster. But then everything tumbled down. Over six months my mood plummeted. My new psychiatrist (long in becoming available) was unsympathetic, and I lurched into a place where the light couldn’t get in.
Life being as complex as it is, I’m sure that my collapse was partly situational. I had left behind the (extremely rich) community of most of my adult life, in Edmonton, semi-retired and moved out of many familiar and comfortable routines.
Replacing such things takes time and effort. I am an introvert, so I’m slow to find my way in new communities.
Still, the seismic shift came largely from within. (Now, however, people and places, experiences and events, make each day richer.)
My new husband loved me endlessly nonetheless, and I lurched along as another, more sympathetic psychiatrist began experimenting with the latest pharmacology. For my “treatment-resistant” depression, a patient combining of antidepressants is needed. With each medication, it took about six weeks until I saw if it would help, a waiting game strung out over day after day of frantic despair, night upon night without sleep.
Now, nine months into this round, a cocktail of three antidepressants and a thyroid medication have produced enough stability and clear-headedness to allow an actual “pursuit of happiness.” Each ordinary day is a feast for having known the famine of the soul.
I must be vigilant, attending to subtle changes that may require further medicinal tinkering.
I am grateful, so grateful, to live in an age when the vast frontier of human brain chemistry is being mapped. Tonight I will go to bed expecting to sleep and to awaken ready for tomorrow. And I will continue to revel in a life out of the shadows at last. But I will never take it for granted.
Rebecca Garber lives in Nanaimo, B.C.