COMMENTARY: Fighting depression — working hard to stay alive

Fifty-five years ago, I wrote my first suicide note. I was 12 years old. It was not a cry for attention; it was the first step in trying to relieve the pain of depression – the hopelessness, the self-loathing, the feeling that life was unbearable. Whether my failure to commit that act belongs in the “Success” or “Failure” column of my life story is debatable. I spared my family heartbreak and, like Scrooge viewing his Christmas futures, I realize the world is a better place with my children and grandchildren in it. I may have even saved a life or two over the years. But the price I paid was my own lifetime of pain and self-loathing.

I have no training in psychiatry or psychology. My opinions and “expertise” come from first-hand experience and second-hand input from mental-health professionals. I have Treatment-Resistant Major Depressive Disorder, caused not by trauma, drug/alcohol abuse, or any other outside factors. It is a physiological imbalance of my brain chemicals. It is not whining, being ungrateful, or just plain hard to get along with. It’s an illness.

For me, a normal day is akin to being half-alive, one half pretending to function normally through the kind of determination and grit that tears a person down and wears her out. Humbly, I suggest I deserve an Oscar for 60 years of (mostly) acting as if everything’s fine, as if I’m not repeating, “I hate myself. I wish I were dead,” in my head, all the while working hard to stay alive.

A bad day is sleeping as much as possible as a refuge from the pain, isolating myself to avoid the pressure to act happy (or at least normal), self-loathing, and yearning to be free from this life; counting pills in my stash, and believing it is my absolute right to end my life if I can’t get through it anymore.

There are a few good days which I can usually count on the fingers of both hands (if I’m lucky) during any particular year. I wonder, on those days, if that is what it feels like to be “normal”? Is that how other people feel on a regular basis? How amazing and wonderous that would be!

Depression is real. And it can be deadly. If you take nothing else from this story, please understand that depression is a condition every bit as legitimate and serious as diabetes, heart disease or cancer.

Treatment for depression is still pretty much a guessing game. It’s a long and frustrating process – try an antidepressant, wait four to six weeks to see if it’s going to help. If it doesn’t, try a different antidepressant, wait four to six weeks, and so on, until either something helps, or begin combining two antidepressants, wait four to six weeks, etc., etc., or you die.

I am now participating in a drug study for Esketamine (a form of Ketamine, a dissociative hallucinogen currently used as a general anesthetic), which acts on the brain in a totally different way than antidepressants currently on the market. The results of the trial so far are promising. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for me as I had hoped, so they added an antidepressant along with the test drug, then, after four to six weeks another, and another.

I’ve lost hope of being “cured” of depression. The best I can do is to try to get through each day. To avoid hurting my family with the stigma, rage, and unwarranted guilt a suicide is bound to produce. But, still, I count my pills.

Sharon Baldwin Sittner is a writer from Cincinnati.

About the Author