A paralyzing pain

Local woman provides first-hand account of a severe depressive episode

As a licensed clinician and someone who has battled depression her whole life, Robyn Alana Engel (pictured) has both professional and personal experience with the condition.

As a licensed clinician and someone who has battled depression her whole life, Robyn Alana Engel (pictured) has both professional and personal experience with the condition.

Photo By Howard Hardee

About the author:
Engel is a licensed clinical social worker and freelance writer. She maintains a humorous blog, Life by Chocolate, at www.rawknrobyn.blogspot.com. Her first book, Just the Right Time, was published in November of last year.

I collapsed in a puddle of tears, as if a monstrous force had slammed me down to the carpet of my living-room floor. I was paralyzed by a pain so raw it consumed me. I couldn’t move, and didn’t want to try—living took too much out of me. Every molecule of my being froze with loneliness, despair, fear, sadness and debilitating exhaustion.

I didn’t want this life.

Months earlier, I’d stopped taking my antidepressant medication, which had been tremendously helpful in managing my lifelong depression. When I lost my job, I lost health coverage, and couldn’t afford to pay for insurance—or my medication—on my own. Now, my body was trying to adjust to the absence of a substance it had absorbed for more than 15 years.

I was also coping with significant trauma. I’d just learned that, on a recent evening, my ex-husband had left his Bay Area apartment—formerly our home—with a Colt revolver in his hand. He walked several blocks along a semi-busy street, stopped, held the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Lying defeated on my living-room floor, I experienced the same pain I believed my ex-husband must have felt. I didn’t want to live anymore; I had no hope for the future. I was rattled by the fear that I’d become suicidal.

Therein lies the danger of severe depression—it’s like tiptoeing across an unending piece of thread suspended over the drop into suicidality, all the while knowing how easy it is to misstep and fall into the abyss.

Though I’ve never attempted suicide, depression and I have had a long relationship. A few times during my childhood, I cried through the night because I couldn’t fall asleep. I routinely sat quietly on the family-room sofa, watching my siblings and neighbors play, not wanting to join them.

But I didn’t necessarily appear depressed—I succeeded in school and made many friends. Then again, depression has no face.

As an adult, I’ve discovered that depression often has no voice, either. The stigma associated with having any mental illness is so great that seeking help for a condition like depression takes strength and resourcefulness. I’m actually a licensed clinical social worker, and even I’ve had a hard time finding the help I need. Several sessions into our work together, I told one therapist, “I want to hear that I’m not messed up.” Her response: “But you are messed up, Robyn.”

I’ve had similar encounters with other counselors who furthered my sense of shame and isolation. But, I’ve also found a few warm, competent therapists who have helped ease my pain, if only by providing a safe place to cry.

As alone as I’ve felt at times, I’m not. The World Health Organization reported that depression is the world’s leading cause of disability, afflicting more than 350 million people. There are more deaths by suicide than by car accidents. For every two homicides, there are three suicides.

Lying on my living-room carpet, I decided I didn’t want to be a statistic. I pushed myself into a standing position and slowly walked to my computer to type in the words “crisis services Chico.” Tearfully and anxiously, I called the first number that popped up. The voice on the other end sounded compassionate. He urged me to go to Enloe Behavioral Health, so I did.

I hated having to be there. I felt ashamed. As a licensed clinician, I kept thinking that I should be on the professional end of this scenario.

A police officer arrived with a woman about my age who appeared comfortable there, as if it was just another regular visit for her to behavioral health. I had seen her around the community with her social-services worker, but hadn’t ever spoken to her. The officer looked at me and, in a sincere, caring tone, said, “It’s going to get better.” I couldn’t see his face or the name on his badge through my tears, but I’m forever grateful for his kindness.

A few minutes later, the woman turned to me and asked, “Ma’am, are you OK?” This lady who, under different circumstances, could’ve been my client, expressed concern for my well-being. In that moment, I stopped feeling so desperately alone.

“Yeah, I’m just tired of waiting,” I told her, not wanting to divulge any details. “Thank you for asking.”

Once my name was called, I spoke with a counselor who followed up with me over the phone later that day. She referred me to another department at Enloe, where I met with a doctor who was compassionate and helpful. Shortly thereafter, I was back on antidepressant medication (fortunately, I got a new job that provided health-care coverage) and, through the support of a few understanding professionals and loving friends, I ultimately conquered that bout of depression.

Now, one year later, I’m feeling much better. My current therapist is sweet and skilled. I’ve fulfilled a lifelong dream of publishing a book: a hopeful and playful collection of poetry. I have a solid network of support, and I laugh daily, if not hourly.

Connecting with others who struggle with depression and suicide-loss has provided me incredible healing. Support-group members understand the intensity of the pain, the loneliness, and the pressure of being expected to move on with life when everything has fallen apart. I don’t need to explain or defend my emotions, which is simultaneously validating and relieving.

Angst and tearfulness come and go, and depression resides just below the surface. I want this life, though. I want to make the most of each day.

Recently, I came through major surgery and feel as if I have a new lease on life. The flipside of a harsh experience like a traumatic depressive episode is that the sweet moments become even more precious. I’m grateful for so much, and I know I’m worthy of the same.

Moreover, I’m certain that I’m not alone.