All of my life I have experienced mood swings. For years I thought my emotions were something I had to fight, to stop from appearing when anyone else was in the room. After all, in grade school my lack of control gained me the very unwelcome nickname Crybaby.
In high school and college, I attributed my mood swings to the normal process of growing up. I still found I would cry at the first sign of a sad story – or at a perceived slight from friends. My friends told me I was too sensitive.
Then I got married. And still the mood swings happened. I read somewhere that birth control pills sometimes caused depression, so I stopped taking them and instead settled for an IUD. But the periods of depression continued, followed often then by extreme happiness – euphoria. But I noticed the moods were cyclical, so I concluded the cause was chemical, hormonal. And I was happy enough to know that the depression would be followed by happiness and I thought nothing more of it.
But as I exchanged my stable lifestyle of living in the same community year after year for a career that required I move every two or three years, depression followed each move. I just waited for it to stop even when I couldn’t see the cycles any more. I just waited.
If I hadn’t ended up working in a place with two Registered Nurses, Nancy and Genie, my life would probably have continued with the occasional mood swings. And I would have clung onto the expectation that the depression would be followed by happiness. But when the dark moods hit, I would turn to Nancy and Genie to see if one of them had a cigarette (I had stopped smoking but I knew what comfort the first drag would bring me) or valium. Thankfully, the two of them realized neither was a productive way for me to deal with the moods or, as I insisted on referring to it, the stress. So without telling me, they called in an expert, the regional psychiatrist, to talk with me about the mood swings. He told me about options to deal with the swings – more specifically the depression – in less destructive ways. With my consent, he prescribed anti-depression medication.
That was in 1998. After about three months, I told Genie that I now knew what it was like to be happy. What I had considered happiness, except for those years when I experienced euphoria, was really just the absence of the depression.
I have been taking one anti-depression medication or another ever since, except for a couple of drug holidays that I took without talking with any doctor about. In both instances, I was fine for about two months, and then the irritability would return. And I would go back to taking the pills.
Yesterday I took part in a three-hour session at my church about depression. The suicide of Robin Williams was the provoking act for the session being scheduled. I hadn’t planned to attend. After all, I knew that the regional psychiatrist I met with back in 1998 said he believed that I could avoid being diagnosed with clinical depression by taking medication. So I didn’t think I was really depressed.
How deluded I had been. The presenter of the session yesterday is a clinical psychiatrist who talked about the full range of depressions – she was very careful to use the plural form during most of the session. And one of the conditions on the spectrum she described fits me perfectly – dysthymia.
Dysthymia is inherited. It presents in adolescence but is rarely diagnosed then because everyone knows adolescents are dealing with hormonal changes. And dysthymia is the only form of depression that does not respond to medication over a limited period of time. It requires taking medication over an entire lifetime. Drug holidays just don’t work for dysthymia.
So thank you Nancy and Genie, for noticing that my mood swings were not normal and that my handling of the darkness, the stress, was destructive. Thank you for bringing in an expert who could provide a solution. Thank you for caring enough to do something.