The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

On Depression: Growing Older and Getting Better

Mental Illness and the Art of Surrender

I was thirty-four years old when I had electroshock therapy for a severe and unrelenting depression.  I thought I had reached the limits then of what a human being can stand.  My psychiatrist reassured me that "things would get much better when I was older."  One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't nail him down.  Exactly how old, I should have asked.  And exactly how much better?

The rest of my thirties is a sordid blur of drinking, depression, medications that refused to work, and the consequences of a full-fledged mental illness:  financial havoc, failed relationships, and rampant suicidality.  Every birthday I would wonder:  is this the age where I should start to be feeling so much better?  Or do I have to endure some more, and if so, do I care enough about life to hang on?

I did notice some improvement in my early forties, but I think that was wholly attributable to the fact that I finally wised up and got sober.  Sobriety allowed my medications to work, and the medications made me feel better—not completely, and not all the time, but enough so that I noticed the difference and stopped ruminating so obsessively about ending it all.

I fully expected my fifties to be a disaster:  the end of physical beauty, the beginnings of menopause, a gradual descent toward decline.  But to my utter amazement, I think the psychiatrist's promise may be coming true at last.  I do feel better.  It's rather an astonishing thing for me to write these words, and I think they bear repeating:  I do feel better.  Not that I'm totally immune from depression.  Far from it.  Just last week, in fact, I experienced an excruciating episode, so familiar to me by now that I greeted it like an unwelcome houseguest:  I changed the sheets, stocked up on groceries, and prepared to spend the usual ghastly four days in bed until I could begin to move and think like a human being again.

But it's miraculous that all the while I was suffering, I knew that the agony would eventually end.  I had my past to reassure me, the pattern of so many other tortured mood swings.  I'm old enough by now to have a past, and for someone so intent on suicide so much of her life, that's an amazing thing.  It's worth being fifty-two just to have the luxury of knowledge born from memory:  that yes, this too shall pass.

Knowing your enemy inside and out doesn't mean you've conquered him.  But it goes a long way toward having compassion for him, and more importantly, for yourself.  In a perfect world, I could sit across the table from depression and say, remember that time in 1994?  You damn near got me then.  Old enemies do not necessarily care for each other, but they respect each other's grit and fortitude.  I am by far a stronger opponent now than I was at thirty-four.

It's scary to say I feel better.  I'm just superstitious enough to feel like the gods will point at me and laugh and visit their wrath upon my hubris.  You think you're better?  Hah!  Just try this on for size.  It's entirely possible, but somehow, I don't think that's going to happen.  I think I'm going to continue getting well, and getting sick, and getting well, and getting sick, until I'm finally old enough to accept in my heart the cyclical nature of all things, including mental health.

So for everyone who's suffering out there, let my story reassure you.  In its own time and in its own way, and if you've been a scholar of your own disease, depression does get better.  If you are strong enough to survive, you are no longer a victim.  You are a seasoned campaigner with tales to tell, and everyone respects a warrior.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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