Staring down hopelessness

How I learned to understand depression and work to overcome it

Photo By Kyle emery

About the author:
Sarah Downs is a local animal activist and host of Sentients on KZFR 90.1 FM, which airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m.

Where to go for help:
Butte County Behavioral Health: General Info: 891-2850
Crisis Line: 891-2810
Chico Branch: 891-2784
Enloe Behavioral Health (for severe cases, walk-ins are welcome): 332-5250
Chico Behavioral Health: 899-3150
North Valley Talk Line: 1-855-582-5554
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I didn’t know what time it was. I opened my eyes and found myself in a brightly lit hallway. All around me were walls of white. I heard shuffling of feet, probably a beep from a machine, and drifted back to sleep.

I woke up in a room in a hospital, Enloe, with a nurse at the foot of my bed. She saw me stir and asked how I was feeling. I said something shorter than “tired” before drifting back to sleep.

Around 7:30 the next morning I awoke fully and realized how I got here: The night before, I had taken about half a bottle of pills.

The woman who shared a room with me seemed to be somewhere around the age of 85 and very sick. I listened to her cough and cough to the point of vomiting, and later on watched her receive many visitors, people who loved her. It made me feel lonely. At least I had a nurse sitting nearby to chat with. She checked in on me every time I made a move. Of course, she was just doing her job; this is what happens with someone who is under suicide watch.

What I’ve described is a piece of my life back in July. I’m 33 years old, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression, and this was my second time at the hospital for a suicidal breakdown.

I have told parts of this story to friends, family and complete strangers over the past three months, and have found that a lot of people can relate. Many have shared their own stories of depression with me and how they never realized how serious it could be. Some have asked how they can get help. I’ve told them that recognizing depression is the first step. My hope is that opening up about my experiences will encourage others to get help, too.

So, here I am, telling my story. It’s meant for any person who may not know depression can be a serious problem and doesn’t know where to go for help or who to talk to. Had I known these very things years ago, I probably would’ve gotten help much sooner and not have ended up in the hospital. Twice.

As I write this, I’m in tears, thinking about all I would’ve left behind had I successfully taken my life. My family. They’ve been so supportive. My boyfriend, who loves me a lot. And my seven cats. Yes, seven. Simon, Lenny, Charlie, Selena, Mystique, Bebe and Sam.

Am I a crazy cat lady? You bet your ass I am.

I’m also bipolar II by definition. Bipolar I and II are described in a variety of ways, but, generally, bipolar I results in more manic episodes—euphorically “high” good moods, irritability, spending sprees, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, diminished need for sleep, things like that—with bouts of depression. A manic episode may also include psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or paranoia, and promiscuity.

Bipolar II—that’s me—is slightly different in that the depressive episodes can last far longer, weeks or even months, with the occasional manic episode that can include some of the symptoms of bipolar I. People with bipolar II often will go through phases of hypomania, a smaller, less destructive version of mania with irritability, mood swings, high productivity and less need for sleep. A person in a hypomanic state can get a lot of stuff done and still function like a “normal” human being.

I’ve been depressed as far back as I can remember. Like many people, I went through an adolescent-angst phase. That’s when I first took note of a lingering sadness, which I chalked up to part of being a teenager. But that sadness followed me throughout my entire 20s, and occasionally I ended up in some sort of meltdown. One particular instance etched in my memory stems from the loss of a pet, Clyde, a kitten my dad brought home when I was a kid. I considered Clyde my best friend.

But as I grew up he grew old. One day, when I was around 22 years old, Clyde became very ill and had to be euthanized. The subsequent feeling of sadness overwhelmed me to the point that I couldn’t function. This was my first real experience with death and depression; not being able to let go of the pain. It led to what are my most common symptoms: isolating myself and not wanting to leave the house.

I’ve experienced many lows and depressive episodes since then. Unfortunately, until ending up in the hospital, I never did anything about it. I thought it would make me appear weak. Besides, I really had no idea what to do about depression. I remember seeing television commercials for Prozac and Zoloft. One that stuck in my mind had a little bean-shaped balloon thing bouncing around with a frown on its face. But I thought those medications were for people who didn’t have the ability to deal with depression on their own. I pretty much thought I was the exception to the rule. You know, badass.

Turns out I wasn’t.

I was 19 years old the first time I really thought about suicide. I was living with my best friend at the time in an upstairs apartment surrounded by loud, strange neighbors. But, as things sometimes go when you’re on your own for the first time, things weren’t working out. On top of that, a boy I had a crush on turned me down when I asked him out. When he said no, I stood there, phone in hand, weeping. I was having financial problems, too, but the rejection was what sent me over the edge. I grabbed a rather dull knife to slit my wrists, but I obviously wasn’t 100 percent serious because I knew it was too dull; it didn’t even draw blood. I told no one about the incident, but still felt embarrassed about it.

Life carried on, depression came and went, triggered by a number of events: death of another beloved animal in my life, not being able to pay the bills, car trouble, and so on. When I needed something to lean on, depression was always there. It waited for me, as I waited for it.

Fast forward 13 years, leading up to the night of my 32nd birthday in November 2010. I had fallen into the deepest depression of my life until then. I wasn’t sleeping; I was isolating myself at home and away from my co-workers and friends. And I’d been drinking heavily every night for months, blacking out, going to work the next day, going home and doing it all over again. I didn’t have any plans for my birthday, so I went out to drink on my own. I had a lot of the same old depression triggers in my life at the time: emotional stress at work and the inability to pay my bills, including the cost of veterinary care for my cats, which was always a huge stressor.

Plus, I’m not crazy about birthdays. For me, each one brings back memories about dreadful past birthdays.

For example, when I turned 18, the only person to wish me a happy birthday was my mom. I spent my 21st birthday completely alone. Or like the birthday when a boyfriend broke up with me in an email. But something about my 32nd birthday, that particular night, that particular mood, that particular thought … something was different.

Photo By Kyle emery

As I sat in bed with a bottle of wine weeping uncontrollably over some bad news I heard from a co-worker, I looked at the bathroom and thought about all the prescription drugs I had in my medicine cabinet. After my first feeble attempt at suicide more than a decade earlier, I had decided that taking pills would be the best way to go about it, but this time my thoughts were serious and focused on those pills.

Something else changed: My pets suddenly became unimportant to me. Previously, whenever I started to feel this way, I would think about my cats and worry that their lives would be turned upside down. I always thought I could never do that to them. But that night I didn’t care anymore. That’s when I knew it was serious.

I sent a text message to a friend of mine and told him what was going through my mind. He told me I should go to Enloe. I didn’t take the pills. This time. He must’ve called my other friend, Lindsey, who met me at Enloe’s emergency room a few minutes later. Another friend, Mark, was there to help me through everything as well. Without them, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to stay.

During this first visit to the ER, I was referred to Enloe Behavioral Health, about a mile away on Cohasset. I vaguely remember the intake process at that facility. What I do recall clearly is hearing for the first time the mention of bipolar disorder. But I wasn’t focused on that. I just wanted to sleep. Please give me something so I can sleep, I pleaded.

I was given a couple of medications, and the next morning I woke up in a bed in a room shared with a young girl. She was already awake and introduced herself. She asked me when I checked in, and I went back to sleep not long thereafter. I woke up again to a nurse checking my blood pressure. She told me they do this three times a day.

When I met with the psychiatrist for the first time the next morning, he officially diagnosed me with bipolar disorder II. He explained what that meant in full detail, including that this was something that was going to be part of my life, whether I liked it or not.

Enloe Behavioral Health specializes in helping people with mental and emotional disorders. In my case, during my four-day stay, the nurses and counselors taught me how to cope with the symptoms that take over my life. I think of that time as a way that helped me escape from those everyday stressors. Sort of a mini-vacation. I made friends and participated in group sessions and activities where patients would share stories with one another, or draw and make projects. I was also able to call family and friends, a couple of whom visited me.

While there, I was taught many coping skills, including paying attention to my triggers and writing each one down, taking the focus off of them and instead placing it on positive things: being alive, having friends and family who cared about me, etc. This is often called journaling, although a more modern way of doing it is creating a private blog online. That was my choice.

Another coping skill is managing medications. If I’m not feeling right, or find myself slipping into a manic or depressive phase, it may be time to try something new. I learned to pay attention to the side-effects, and now keep a list of all my former and current medications on an application on my smartphone, so that I have it on me all the time. I also learned the value of regular sessions with a psychiatrist and therapist.

When I started to feel better, I consulted with the on-site psychiatrist, who agreed that I was safe and ready to leave. The nurses had assured me all I had to do was come back should I need help in the future. I walked out feeling pretty good. I was also put on disability, giving me the chance to recuperate and process. From there, I moved onto an outpatient program at another facility, where I participated in group session three days a week. I continued taking the prescribed medications, continued to see a psychiatrist, and went back to work.

Unfortunately, it was too soon to return to my former routine. I ended up falling into that same deep depression all over again; drinking, isolating, sadness. My psychiatrist put me back on disability, so I used that time to find a job that suited me better, one that I really loved. Things were going pretty well up until about five months ago, when things in my life started to unravel. I began drinking heavily again and felt that nothing was going to fix the depression this time. I was done for.

This time, my fix was taking half a bottle of pills.

I took them the night of a complete meltdown. Every trigger imaginable was consuming me at this point. I was drunk and incoherent and went for the first bottle I could find, swallowing as many as I could before my boyfriend stopped me. He dialed 911 and I was taken to the ER, where I was held under observation for 72 hours and endured the pain from an IV placed in my arm. I had to cart it with me into the tiny bathroom, which felt really awkward and silly.

I met the doctor only twice; once when I checked in and was totally out of it, and again the next day. He seemed very busy and not interested in talking to me, so I lay there alone (besides the nurse) much of the time, watching a lot of ridiculous daytime programs and newscasts on a fuzzy TV. I tried to read, but I was always too distracted by the amount of noise and activity going on.

Toward the end of my stay, I met a therapist from Butte County Behavioral Health, who asked me questions about how I was feeling, and if I felt it was safe to go home. He talked about my options for help, such as help lines, checking into Butte County Behavioral Health, or calling him directly. It was reassuring. That this man came directly to see me and talk to me made me feel like I was the most important person in the hospital. He made me sign a contract saying I would never try to hurt myself again, and allowed me to go home.

After being released, I started to recover with some additional help from my psychiatrist and sessions with my therapist. This is when I knew I needed to share my story. I want people to know that depression is not something to be ashamed of, nor should it be ignored. Sure, it’s normal to have sad days here and there, but those suffering from lingering depression should take the time to see someone about it.

Thinking back to the day I returned home from the hospital is surreal at this point. The house was complete chaos, and there on the counter sat my empty bottle of pills. It was hard to accept that those pills nearly ended my life. And there were my cats—the seven of them surrounded me. I was overwhelmed with joy, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in months. I can only imagine how scared they were when the emergency crews entered my home.

The most common signs of depression are finding no happiness in the things that previously brought joy, feelings of hopelessness, despair or even anger. Another symptom is feeling guilt but not really knowing why. Some people cope by using recreational drugs or alcohol. Others may sleep all day or isolate themselves from others. Personally, I’m pretty good at isolation and crawling back into a bottle. But these coping mechanisms backfire, as I’ve learned the hard way.

When a person with bipolar disorder is in a manic or hypomanic phase, he or she may believe medications are unnecessary and stop taking them. The consequences can be devastating and even fatal. Medication is often a part of the recommended course of treatment for bipolar disorder. People who experience life-threatening symptoms, such as life-endangering impulsive behavior or psychotic symptoms, as well as anyone who is severely suicidal, should go to an emergency room for evaluation. Doctors there often make referrals to a psychiatrist for further treatment. In some cases, hospitalization in a psychiatric facility is a standard approach.

I am fortunate in that I have insurance. Thankfully, for those who do not, there are programs in Butte County that can help.

As I mentioned before, I had no idea what to do when I was in crisis, or where to go. I didn’t know what Behavioral Health was, let alone what it did. The options in Butte County include Butte County Behavioral Health (they offer many free resources with offices in Oroville and Chico), Enloe Behavioral Health (also here in Chico) and Chico Behavioral Health. There are resources out there, and plenty of people trained to help.

Today, with a change in medications and a slew of coping skills, I take it day by day. Life still has had its ups and downs, but I’m managing my emotions better.

So don’t lose hope. All it takes is reaching out and asking for help. Like I finally did, albeit the hard way.