By Amber Shumake
This story is a PSA about mental illness. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
Perhaps due in part to the fact that many of my Facebook friends are yogis, I see so many posts condemning medication. And I don’t feel I can be silent. For a long time, I’ve felt I wasn’t strong enough to share though either.
The litmus test about whether something is safe for me to share is “Am I healed enough in this area that someone’s retaliation wouldn’t break me?” And “Would this piece hurt anyone I love?” I don’t even really bother with “How will this affect my career?” because being honest and transparent – or as so many of you say “raw and real” whatever that means – has never hurt me in my career.
This might not be true for you, and so I’ll be honest enough for both of us. After all, I’m self-employed and my students and clients already see me for who I am.
And if you were to write comments condemning me for taking antidepressants, I wouldn’t give your comment a second thought. I’d turn off my technology and sleep well tonight. (I never could sleep well until I began taking an ssri.) And, I got approval from the wife, who’s been my first reader for the past decade and will be until our next life. So, I guess I am healed of any shame or stigma in this area. So here goes.
I’ve built my life around yoga, meditation, and holistic health. And still, depression has tortured me. Living with depression feels like living in a cave. And living in the cave became a new scary kind of normal for me.
You see there are many in my life for whom I’ve wished and prayed and pleaded to take their medication. I am as powerless to change other people as I was powerless over the depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behaviors with which I’ve struggled for most of my life.
In the cave, it’s cool below and the walls feel safe to the touch, but when I look up or out, I’m filled with undeniable fear. The people closest to me hang back one at a time…so as not to scare me. They hold my hand and remind me that there’s this big beautiful world out there, a sky so vast it could move me to sing and dance. You are the sky; this is the weather. And in Texas just wait an hour and it’ll change. “But I’m good,” I tell them, “I’m gonna lay here on my cool concrete floor curled up in a ball until I have to go to work again.”
And then sometimes it’s so bad, I can’t work. How do you create art when you’re only half alive, when all your energy must go to taking a shower or brushing your teeth? And, I can’t call forth the energy to move my body on my mat. I am terrified of seeing other people. And so, I ask to be relieved of teaching group classes. I’m sobbing five minutes before I teach and somehow I set it aside – “That was my favorite class…ever…” one student says. I’m not sure how I remain a high functioning depressive when I feel equal parts despair and dread.
“You need life to pause for a while,” my therapist says and I cannot meet her eyes which are filled with concern. I cannot imagine putting life on pause. I cannot stop crying.
I push pause and book a trip to California on a whim. And, the panic follows me on the vacation I don’t even want to take. The depression has me shackled, the death grip so tight I don’t even want to visit my happy place, where my heart lives. The sight of the horizon does nothing to quell the compulsion. The sound of the waves does not soften the mania within. The fresh food, I don’t care to taste.
I haven’t eaten in months. I’ve been starving myself though for years because I’ve come to understand that when you’re empty of food you’re also empty of feelings. Win-win. The preoccupation with my body is a welcome distraction from the depression. But, honestly the depression and anorexia dance hand in hand.
Alcoholism no longer cuts in. Except I know that if I go on like this much longer, I’ll drink again. And to drink is to die a quick soul death. Though I’m in the cave, somehow I still want to live.
There was no reasoning with Anorexia. There was no reasoning with Depression. They each held guns to my head. If one laid her weapon down, the other picked it up. I had to get help. And I did.
I cracked. Wide open. Again. Shattered in pieces. It was the hardest, most humbling experience I’ve had in a while. Maybe ever? And I’ve been through my fair share of Life…I guess…so people tell me when they call as I’m going to bed. “I’m calling you because I know how strong you are.” I want to laugh because I don’t think I’m so strong, just strong willed is all.
Sure, I am no stranger to hard spiritual work and deep muddy waters. And I’m not on the other side of this yet. I’m not sure there is another side to this.
Each time I’ve cracked wide open, God’s pieced me back together again.
I couldn’t bear the thought of breaking out of the cave. All of the action and self care it takes for me – to enjoy a life I’ve worked so hard to create, through grit and Grace with wonderful people I’ve opened myself up to loving and trusting – I didn’t have. I’ve had dark times when I’ve known the panic stemmed from needing my circumstances to change. But this time, there was no logical reason.
Unable to eat or sleep and riddled with paranoia, I relented with desperation and asked for medication.
People who visited me in the cave all these years keep saying “Well, you may not need it forever” and maybe they’re right. But, I’ve kinda needed it since I was 8 – the first time Depression held me hostage, the first time I went to the hospital with unexplainable stomach pain that I know to be what’s left in the wake of debilitating anxiety and stress.
With the help of medication, new doors have opened inside my brain.
I come from a gene pool riddled with mental illness, so I believe I’ve come by this as naturally as one would high cholesterol, cancer, or diabetes.
But just to make sure my instincts were right, I went off my medication for a while. It wasn’t voluntary, per se. The medication the doctor prescribed, the medication I had finally embraced, with insurance, might as well be a second car payment. But, I had decided to take it – because I value my life more than any fancy vehicle more than any savings account I won’t have access to if I’m dead.
Ironically, my insurance company does not value my life, I guess. And they rejected the medication and wanted me to try something cheaper and because of some fine print and red tape, I didn’t have any medication to take for a while.
And wow. I don’t wish that upon anyone. Ever.
Medication is the cure, for now, and perhaps forever. And I share this rather personal story because the best thing you could say to someone like me is, “And that’s ok” (e.g., you’re ok). And I share this story for 8-year-old Amber and 16-year-old Amber and 21-year-old Amber and 33-year-old Amber and all the people who have been or still are in the cave (even those who are not named Amber.)
And I share this story because you might be thinking with enough meditation and high frequency foods and cardio, you’ll eventually get your levels right and exit the cave – which is possible.
I’m no doctor; that simply hasn’t been the case for me.
And I share this story because you might be in the cave and think that medication will have too many bad side effects – which is possible. I’m no doctor; that simply hasn’t been the case for me.
And I share this story because I hope it brings compassion for the people you might be judging – those who are stuck in the cave. It’s not easy to live with someone who’s in the cave.
And I share this story because I don’t want people to have to live in the cave if there’s another way.
There is another way.
There *is* a big, beautiful world out there…as long as I take a pill once a day.
And that’s ok. I’m ok.
Latest posts by Amber Shumake (see all)
- To Take a Pill: Emerging From The Cave of Depression - October 7, 2016