Jean, age 73
When Jean thought about her past, she said she never thought she'd live beyond age 40. Remembering that she wished to kill herself when she was young, she could recall her depressed feelings starting at around age 10. It wasn't until age 19 during nurses training that she realized she had clinical depression.
Jean lives with recurrent depression (meaning episodes of depression are separated by usual functioning) with underlying dysthymia (a long lasting sad mood not as severe as major depression), anxiety, and PTSD. She said she doesn't go into deep depression anymore (ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, took away most of the suicidal thoughts), but her depression can be affected by stress related to things happening with her adult children and her own health problems.
Jean recalled one of her worst times with depression around 1980. She was extremely depressed, lacking the energy to do much of anything. Her daughters were doing a lot of the housework. Jean remembers talking to her therapist on the phone in a panic because her stash of pills was gone (the stash being enough pills to kill herself). It turned out that her daughter had thrown them away, knowing how on the edge her mom was. Jean said of this time, “Even hell would be better than this.”
Jean is very open now about her mental illness, but she used to hide her depression from everyone, “always smiling and laughing to hide it.” To describe how her mental illness feels today, she said that it can feel like “an avalanche of a grain of sand.” But on good days between her episodes of depression, Jean smiled and said, “Oh! This is how other people feel!”
“A lot of people think that people with a mental illness are crazy or dangerous. Maybe for the minority, often because they stopped taking their meds. Mental illness is a physical disease of the brain. A mental illness is invisible—looks normal but may have some odd behaviors. 'I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid,’” she said with a chuckle.
During our interview, I experienced Jean's wonderful sense of humor and hearty laughter. She also made it a point to tell me things she really enjoys doing: meeting up with high school classmates, going to live theater, singing in her church, and about her love of writing poetry. Jean has a big heart, too, “big enough to love everybody,” she says. She shows some of that love by volunteering at a daycare and a special education classroom.
Her advice to others living with a mental illness is, “Don't go off your medication without your doctor's ok. I see a lot of people stop, with negative consequences.”