“For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken. It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.” – D.H. Lawrence
I was 12 when the first dark period came on, though I didn’t know what to call it. I had hit puberty at ten. By sixth grade, all dolled up from modeling school know-how, already 5’9″, I spent the year getting straight A’s, fending off come-ons from 18-20 year olds and answering questions about how many grades I’d flunked.
When I skipped seventh grade, I was intellectually on point, and certainly looked like I belonged. But socially, I fell behind with older kids. Friends turned bullies, and my older sister started to head down a rough path for a 14 year old (a topic for another day).
Everything changed for me that year. I’d just become a vegetarian. I dropped the trendy modeling-school wear for head to toe tie-dyes, stopped shaving, and took to defacing my photo in laminated school ID card with a push-pin. Now different, socially ill at ease, at my eighth grade graduation I was voted “deepest”.
At the time, I thought of it like an “emotional death” moving from one life phase – childhood – into the teen years. I never called it depression.
The outsider alterna-girl identity stuck, raiding thrift stores just when vintage became cool, staging walk-outs from high school to protest military actions, eventually I took off for India alone- at 16. Different was my niche.
It came back after college. I had spent months on end in India over the past several years, planning to become a nun after graduation (another story for another day!). But the youthful zealotry couldn’t stand up to unanswerable questions. Intellectual integrity won and I dropped my plan 5 years in the making. Without that structure and identity, I felt like a blank. Times got dull and dark once again as I tried to piece together a new vision for my adult life.
Artist, not service, I decided. And life bumped along. But angst bumped along with. To me, this was simply who I was. Melancholy. Pensive. Mildly alienated. You know, deep.
Drive kicked in, filmmaking and work were the bright spots.
Then first love, the clouds parted and all of a sudden, joy like none other…there was a day on a remote stretch of beach on the Oregon coast. Spectacular sun, miles of glinty waves, empty pristine sand, and finally the warm embrace of someone who got me. Love chemicals. I wondered in that moment, and for years after: What do you do when you’ve lived your very best day of your whole life? When you know it will never get better?
To a pensive soul, as I thought myself, the heights of new love only spotlighted the moody drag I’d been hauling around. My dad, a therapist, suggested anti-depressants- both he, my mother, and grandmothers on both sides dealt with depression. I scoffed. If you have a problem with your life, I reasoned, ask the hard questions. Fix the source. Don’t just pop a pill.
Okay, I admitted, there must be something from childhood I need to fix. And I did get a hefty dose of therapy. Progress. Bright days, dull days came and went. Heartbreak, new love.
I moved to the meat packing district in New York, built a roof garden and stock photography mini empire, downed a lot of vegan cheesecake and triple-dose iced coffee. Man, did I get things done. But man, was I moody. Sharp-edged, plenty of crying spells, and low-grade dull feeling I couldn’t shake.
After my father’s death, I sat on the couch for 4 months, soul searching. When a reader later referred to this period as a “depression” I was surprised and frankly, offput. I’m not depressed. This is Sartre’s Nausea. The omni-present existential malaise that follows us all through adult life. Eliot’s Wasteland. Not depression. No.
I found my salvation: Work bigger than me, serving women in Congo, and later Somalia. It was real, my calling. Long training runs gave me runner’s highs. Trips to the field left my heart bursting with furaha, or joy, so much joy. The life and death stakes propelled me through endless streams of 14 or 16 hour days, months without days off, years without pay. As the research promises, doing something bigger than yourself does deliver happiness.
Still, I was warned. Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, told me she went on like that for three years, until she forced herself to slow down and get a life. I had to pace myself, care for my soul.
But I loved the work. Loved the sacrifice. Was proud to pay with sweat, cash, and fiancés…. Take it, universe! I’m here to serve!
But the oxygen did eventually thin. The more I worked, for free, the more couch surfing, the long lonely stretches, the grumpier I became. I was intolerant of anyone who worked for pay and took time off, even volunteers who drew boundaries irked me. It all annoyed me beyond measure: Roommates who wanted to squabble over fire-pits in the backyard or used couches on the front porch. One more well wisher suggesting, “You know what you should do…” One more caustic comment from another viper-tongued colleague. One more night alone.
I wanted to scream. And cry. I did. A lot.
Emotional fragility was coming on like a tidal wave. What was this?
When I went to Mogadishu, it was the most dangerous place on earth. I knew I could die. I just didn’t care. People with families had to worry about that. For better or worse, I didn’t have attachments. Somali women were more important. But when I stepped out of the Nairobi airport into the soft Kenyan air on the other side of Mog, everything changed.
I was never the same.
The headache came that December, along with deeper crap moods. Feeling off. Tired, much too tired to run. Foggy head, almost dizzy. I would take long hot baths and chew big-gulp cups of ice. And nap. And wonder where my drive went. If I’d ever be myself again. Chain-drinking black tea to buoy myself enough to function.
Tears. Unfamiliar rage. Vegan peanut butter cups and mac n’cheese. Brain scans. Unfamiliar fat padding. Months. 40 pounds. More months. A blood test. Anemia.
I found out in June, just a month before starting graduate school. I pounded back enough iron and B-12 to think straight. Enough to function at school. I was terrified I’d flunk out.
But it wasn’t enough to feel better. The gait with which I walked through the world was permanently altered. I was no longer Lisa, alterna-girl. No world-saver persona to hide behind.
Just some foreign me, raw, low.
First day of school. They told us over and again these will be the most important friendships of your life. Network. Network. Instead, at mixers, I stood to the side, awkward like a seventh grader, holding paper cups of tea, imploding.
The iron could clear my head, but not the burnout. Not the soul-fry. Not the…depression.
Thank God for my sweetest, dearest of friends, who was with me through it all, hauling me out of bed, prying The Bell Jar from my hands, dancing me around the living room to no music. Other decades-long besties first noted I didn’t seem myself, and eventually peeled off like onion skin.
He, and Harvard Health Service, made me admit it was depression, even if it was just an anemia side-effect. I had big-time vicarious trauma from years of immersion in horror stories, and PTSD from Mog, as shameful as it was to admit, knowing the phenomenal war-zone goers on the front lines every day. Walking squarely into what might have been my death, even if the 24 hours went near flawlessly, shook something loose.
I thought of my dad’s advice about anti-depressants, how they get you up to a basic level of functioning to rebuild. I tried Welbutrin.
Oh, what an abyss it tore open. This, my friends, was rock bottom. How real it all seemed, those darkest of all days. There but for the grace of my dearest friend…
Turned out that abyss was chemical. Simply errors with medication doses.*
It was a slow build back, drifting in and out for the next couple of years, on and off Welbutrin, trying to overcome running injuries that kept me from my sanity-crutch. Despite my fear of utter failure, I managed straight A’s at Harvard. I made good friends from the program, but mostly after graduation. I wrote a book- and was proud of it. Launched a new non-profit. But with countless glimpses in the mirror or at snapshots of myself, I was shocked at who was staring back. Who is that person? Where the hell did I go?
And so, last summer, I got real. Yes, I had to admit, I have had a lifelong struggle with depression. And burnout. And lack of self care. All compounding.
And it’s gotten worse with time. Those dark times more a steady companion, thoughts that hung on my shoulders, that I look to and say Ah, you.
Welcome, radical balance.
I cut sugar.
I cut caffeine.
Finally, finally take vitamins every day. And Omega fatty acids, known as essential for healthy brain function and more effective than pharmaceuticals in treating depression: Get this, I had no regular source for these brain and mood essentials….for 30 years!
Hello, micronutrients. Huge volumes of greens and whole plant foods every day.
Drugs are not my dream solution, but I switched to Celexa after a break from anti-depressants welcomed the return of let’s say “negative mindset”. It’s proved so much better for me than Welbutrin.
Daily yoga. Meditation. Walking, running again.
I moved from the ultr-urban condo share with my beloved, back to my grand old craftsman with fresh air, garden, huge walnut trees…and some solitude.
By early October, I was feeling…better. I can’t point to the components that worked best. But I don’t really care. More, please.
At New Years, I declared this the year of Joie de Vivre, my best year ever. That’s a tall order, because by so many external measures, my life has been blessed: Dream life work, passion, love, friendships, magical moments in places like Bhutan and Paris. But that dampened spirit often weighed down even the most glorious of life moments.
Not so now. Since October, I’ve been full blown…happy. As Pema Chodron describes, a happiness big enough to hold grief from letting go of my beloved and dearest friend.
The other day a friend asked, “Why do you have to get up so early to go to yoga? Do you even burn that many calories? You work for yourself! Go later! Isn’t running way better for you?”
Here’s why: I’m saving myself. Joie de Vivre.
This morning, I got up at 5 a.m. one more time. I struggled through yoga, exhausted. But I went for a run in the forest right afterwards, anyway. And as I pounded trail in the misty trees, a thought flew by: This moment, just like so many since October, feels every bit as bright and beautiful as that day on the beach when I was 25, with my first love. Spectacular. Years ago, I used to think that day was the pinnacle. As good as it gets, never so naïve, never so open hearted, never so many love chemicals working in my favor. These days, it’s more subtle, but it’s there. Among the best days of my life. Joie de Vivre.
No, I wouldn’t trade my life. So much good has come. But when I think back on all the years of brain-fog, nutrition-deprived, pensive doldrums when I could have just felt good, balanced, happy, it does seem a waste.
This is the toughest thing I’ve ever written. It’s so personal. Why spill it? Uncouth, no? Because I’m not the only one. Depression, burnout, service without self care, wonky body chemistry exacerbated by crappy food choices: These make up the ill-fated fabric of many of our lives.
I didn’t think I ever could feel better. I feared my best days were behind me. Maybe some folks out there feel the same way.
But there they are, all those days, all that Joie de Vivre, ours for the taking.
* If you plan to try a new depression medication, you must inform those close to you- and keep them close, with keen eye on darkening moods. Seriously, guys, you are playing with serious stuff.