At the beginning of September 2010, I was extremely happy and had great confidence in the satisfying future ahead of me. I was living in a studio apartment in a nice residential neighborhood in Paris with my attractive and talented French wife. We had married in June at a lovely ceremony. Our best friends and closest family came from around the world and showered us with pink and yellow rose petals on the church steps above la Rue du commerce where you can look out over the 15th district’s scene of unassuming shops and bistros. For our reception, we cruised down the Seine on a river boat, eating well, drinking Champagne, dancing well into the early morning. From the heights of my emotional peak, I watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle off the water against my bride's once-in-a-life-time white dress and darkly Mexican tan shoulders.
My personal life was coalescing into order, and I was also flying high in my professional life back then. I’d written the first chapter of my dissertation (on Proust and friendship). My advisers liked it, and I was progressing on schedule towards my PhD. A smooth path into the tenure track and a happy nuclear family was opening in front of me with no visible obstacles in sight.
By the middle of October, I was a helpless suicidal wreck standing on a metro platform pondering whether I would jump in front of the next train. Things fell apart at break neck pace. I dropped like lead faster than I ever imagined possible into a bout with major depression. After two hospitalizations, five adjustments in medication, six therapists, six psychiatrists and countless hours of anguish for me, my friends, and my family, I’ve emerged intact and breathing a year and a half later. The nauseous funk has dissolved away, and once again, I am functioning and even enjoying the things that lost their flavor when I was sick. The pleasures of running, reading, cooking, and writing have returned.
Health professionals and other writers often describe depression as a loss of identity. In the depths of the illness, you are not yourself in an utterly terrible way. Things that once mattered no longer do, and you stop caring about what motivated you when you were healthy. You want to care. You dreadfully miss your motivation, but for some reason, it is incredibly difficult to pop the emotional clutch and kick start your active will once it sputters out with depression.
If you lose yourself when you are depressed, it’s tempting to say that you recover when you learn how to be the old you again. Recovery though is not necessarily a return to a previous condition. Often undetected problems in your former identity caused or at least contributed to the onset of illness. In many cases, recovery requires building a new identity from rubble of the former self. I am no longer the same person I was when I walked out of my wedding into the fluttering rose pedals. My recovery has been a transformation, at times a rather painful transformation. Our marriage did not survive the turmoil of mental breakdown, and it has hurt and still does hurt to let go of such a huge and important part of me.
This past winter, I got involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the director of our local chapter suggested I train to become a Family to Family instructor. I spent an intense emotional weekend in January learning about the family dynamics of coping with mental illness. Our trainers Sue and Linda are two truly spectacular women who have made remarkable long term commitments to share what they’ve learned from caring for their struggling relatives. They taught me how grief is a major phase of recovery from depression. Following a breakdown, we and our families need to mourn the changes in our lives—the lost time, the unrealized potential, the shattered projects, the wasted opportunities. Listening to our wonderful trainers explain the grieving process, I broke down into unabashed weeping. Sue and Linda and the Family to Family materials had pierced me deep and opened a flood of pent up emotion. I understood that day that the life my wife and I had built and the dreams we’d planned together were gone.
But the experience wasn’t entirely negative. The painful realization of my loss also brought a powerful feeling of release. My tears were searing hot, but they were also rinsing out some of the hurt from my divorce. When I think of this loss in terms of mourning, my broken marriage doesn’t ache quite so badly. I accept that our relationship is gone and not coming back, and acceptance brings solace and peace even if it never completely wipes away the pain.
For many of us, our first depressive episode is a fall from grace. Like the sin that drove Adam and Eve from the garden, depression pushes us out of the happy state we once knew. And so as I look back over what depression smashed, I recall the end of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Those closing lines comfort me greatly because they are not just the end. They’re also a new beginning for Adam and Eve and the beginning of humanity’s march towards redemption. The story’s not over. Paradise will be regained. And so too with mental illness, perhaps in repeating cycles of fall and redemption. A simultaneous Alpha and Omega of depression, loss and fiery destruction of yesterday’s bliss, hope looking ahead to tomorrow’s wide open world before us.
They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way