Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Then and Now

This time I saw him coming. But that didn’t make a difference. By the time I thought to get out of his way it was too late. One quick, well-timed sucker punch and I was down for the count.

I’m talking about my recent rendezvous with depression. It sounds romantic when it has been anything but. It has been a terrifying and fantastic journey through ever-changing moods. Shackled in despair and longing to be free: those moments of indescribable panic when my hands shake uncontrollably, the constant tears in my eyes, the sleepless nights, the hyperactivity and the belief that I am absolutely worthless. And then teetering on the edge of a bold new vista at freedom’s heralding call: those moments of giddy happiness when I am wrapped up in life and all its beauty, boasting a tri-cornered smile.

Ah, depression — my friend and my enemy, my muse and my headsman.

The Trigger

It was Saturday, 2 October 2010. Restless. Agitated. Anxious. I woke up feeling that something was different in the world but I could not name that something different gnawing at my heart. The day started like any other. I showered, dressed, fed the cats, wrote in my journal. I was then ready to run a few errands — hit the stores before they became overrun with energetic shoppers. All of a sudden that feeling of something being different was back, stronger than before and swarming over my body. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, my hands shoved in my pockets, and stared abstractly at the badly refinished and chipped dark brown cupboards. I don’t know how long I stood there — it felt like forever. And then, as if finally coming into the truth of the matter, I snapped out of the trance-like state, grabbed my wallet, keys and jacket, and bolted out of the apartment.

Ambling down the aisles first at Wal-Mart and then at Maxi (a grocery store chain here in Québec), I was in a daze — disconnected not only from the world but from myself. I trembled. My heart raced. I fought back the tears rushing into my eyes. At the check-out, I held my gaze to the cashier’s mouth as it opened and closed (like watching TV with the sound off), paid for my purchases and left without saying a word. When I arrived back at my apartment, shortly after 11:00 a.m., I had no sooner set my shopping bags down on the kitchen counter when the phone rang. I went into the living room and said, “Hello,” into the phone.

“Hey, Marcus,” my sister Kim (visiting from Calgary) said, and continued, without missing a beat, “Are you sitting down?”

I swallowed hard and said, “Yes,” but was still standing.

“Mom’s in the hospital,” Kim said. “You have to come home now.”

I don’t recall much from the time I got off the phone with my sister to the time I arrived at the QEII Health Services Centre in Halifax later that evening. I staggered, and drew in a deep breath, when I walked into my mother’s hospital room in the ICU. There were tubes everywhere — in her arms, mouth, nose. She laid there still, absolutely still, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling. I wasn’t ready for that scene, and it was hardly the image of my mother who, earlier in the week, had been out volunteering and showing off her twin grandsons to her former colleagues. My mother had suffered an aneurism. The prognosis was not good. In a word: devastating. There was nothing the doctors could do. I sat down on the edge of the bed and took my mother’s hand in mine and, as the tears rolled down my cheeks, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed.

The following morning, I sat with my mother, a god-fearing woman, and sang to her some of her favourite hymns and spirituals — Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, If It Wasn’t for the Lord (He’s Everything to Me). I hoped that she could hear me and know that I was there. And, then, surrounded by family, my mother passed away. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment the muscles in her face relaxed — her mouth drooping open, her head slumping to one side — and the limpness in her hand I was holding in mine, her chest no longer rising and falling. My mother was gone.

I come from a large extended family with nine children on my mother’s side and ten on my father’s. Family members were at the house every day. While you’re grateful for the support, it doesn’t leave you much time to grieve. I was exhausted, trying to cope with the acute sense of loss. But in the middle of all of this were Tony and Alex — my twin nephews — full of life, smiling and laughing, and reminding me of the beauty that is this world. And that gave me hope.

It was a Monday morning, the sky a dull grey — nine days after my mother’s funeral — when Kim drove me to the airport. As I lifted my suitcase out of the trunk, I saw the tears fill my sister’s eyes, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t check my own tears. Kim said, “If you need anything,” throaty with emotion, “just call.” We hugged, an embrace cementing our connectedness as brother and sister … as family.

“I’ll call you when I arrive,” I said as I pulled out of the embrace. I walked towards the airport terminal, blinking magnificently, my breathing shallow, a heavy grey weight bearing down on my chest — and wanting to believe that death was a beginning and not an end, as much for my mother as for those she left behind.

The Slide

I returned to my home in Sherbrooke, Québec, still carrying the shock of my mother’s death. For the first time in my life I was thinking seriously about God, mortality and eternal life. What is it that I am really doing here on this planet called Earth? Is there something beyond this life? Am I realizing my fullest potential — doing my best to achieve my dreams? All of these questions were swirling about my mind, and what scared me was the fact that I didn’t have any answers, no inkling of what to do or where to begin.

The ensuing days were long and restless. I moved about in a daze — here but not here. I couldn’t hold my concentration very long to any one task. When I made it to the piano, I stared longingly at the keys and, after a time, struggled through songs that once came so easily to me. I would stand in front of the easel for what seemed like an eternity, the blank canvas hypnotizing and transporting me to some other world. And putting words to the page … utterly impossible. That was the most terrifying of all — to believe that I had lost the ability, the will, to write.

And to make matters worse … I wasn’t sleeping.

I lay in bed at night, tossing and turning, checking the time at regular twenty minutes intervals. I was tired, exhausted actually, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t quiet my mind. I tried Dormex, an over-the-counter sleep aid recommended by the pharmacist at the neighbourhood Jean Coutu; it had no effect. I thought that I could “wait out” the insomnia, and that with time my sleeping would return to normal. But after three weeks of not sleeping, after three weeks of feeling drained, disoriented — like I had lost myself — I had hit a wall. I knew from past experience where a long bout of insomnia would lead: straight to depression. I didn’t want to go there.

It was a Tuesday morning, a little past eight-thirty, when I arrived at the Clinique des Médecins d’Urgence, a walk-in clinic. The waiting room was already full. I pulled a ticket from the red machine below the sign that read, “Please take a number.” My number was thirty; number two was being served.

Waiting for my named to be called, I pulled out from my knapsack the notebook I had brought with me. I was surprised, and relieved, when my hand sped across the page. I wrote and wrote and wrote until the doctor called me into the examining room. I felt a certain ebb and flow that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the first time since my mother’s death that I felt hopeful, like I was getting current.

When I left the doctor’s office, the unusually warm October air brushing against my skin, I had reason to feel hopeful. The doctor had listened to my concerns, offered solutions, and assured me that my sleeping would return to normal. I returned home, ate lunch, and then ran a few errands. A stop at Home Hardware, the bank and the dépanneur. On the way home I went into the neighbourhood café called Le Tassé, where I was greeted warmly by the owner. While enjoying a slice of chocolate cake with whip cream and an allongé double, I wrote some more. I grabbed a coffee to go and headed home again. The day was too beautiful to let pass me by, and even though I still felt exhausted, I went for a run along the Saint François River.

The day held promise, and the hope that, with time, life would once again return to normal. It was nice to feel the ebb and flow of life, of the life I was used to living.

The Fall

The fall of 2010 was a hectic period — a “good” kind of hectic. I had reclaimed the early morning hours for my writing and painting. The evenings were spent in part at the piano, in part writing or painting, or both. Sandwiched in-between was a full day at the office. The days were long but I felt on top of my game. I had inched my way forward, slowly but steadily, on the rewrite of a manuscript. My time at the piano produced a couple of new compositions. Painting daily, a new series came together quickly. Then there were public readings, a group exhibition, and my debut (in French) as a singer-songwriter. I was laying track. All of that despite the fact that I still wasn’t sleeping. I was running on empty, and desperate for some sort of refuelling.

Fall gave way to winter … The never-ending grey skies, the lack of sunlight, the bitter cold. Smouldering underneath the surface was a certain restlessness, sluggishness, ready to pounce, knock me down. This wasn’t just the winter blues. And when I saw my doctor on 23 December 2010, the diagnosis was in: depression. I was terrified of what that meant: finding a medication, and the correct dosage, that worked. Coping with the side effects. The stigma of mental illness. Dangling on the edge of a breakdown, and unsure if I would find my way back again.

I spent Christmas with my sister in the familial home, and there was something hopeful and uncertain about it. Hopeful because it was the first Christmas we spent together as a family without my mother, yet feeling her full imprint on our lives. Uncertain because I had lost my footing, lost sight of what mattered. You see, my mother had lived a good life. She was active in her community and in her church, doing the things she loved to do. There was a certain uneasiness now to the saying, “Here today, gone tomorrow.” There were new questions poking at me: Is my house in order? Am I moving confidently in the direction of my dreams?

I thought I was holding steadfast to my dreams, that I was living in the present. But I was stuck in a soporific job, and utterly unhappy. I was trying to establish myself in a city that I had only called “home” for a year. This wasn’t the life I had imagined. I am happiest when I am at my desk writing, playing the piano, painting. Spending eight hours a day in an office sucked the life out of me, left me wounded, but I did it because it was necessary — it put food on the table, shelter over my head. But returning to the office after the Christmas break was unbearable, insufferable, damning.

And then …

Sunday, 6 January 2011. About a half-hour before bed, I took the sleeping pill, Dom-Zopiclone, prescribed by my doctor. I didn’t sleep that night and crawled out of bed around quarter past five the next morning. I made myself an Americano and wrote in my journal. Afterwards, instead of getting ready for work, I climbed back into bed. I thought I was coping well, and that I had done the right things: recognize the signs, seek professional help, ensure I was keeping physically active, establish a support system among my circle of friends. But despite my best efforts, despite trying to stave off depression, my walls came tumbling down.

The next few days were a blur. My head throbbed with pain, my eyes half-open and heavy. I couldn’t do anything without feeling like I had run a marathon (without training!). I would drag myself out of bed to feed the cats, no longer able to take their incessant meowing outside my bedroom door. I had flat lined. Four days later, summoning all the courage and energy I could muster, I went back to see my doctor. When my doctor asked me how I was doing, I had to check my tears. I had switched to Cipralex just before Christmas, which was working slightly better than Citalopram, but my head, as was my heart, was still heavy. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through this difficult period. How had I arrived at this point? My doctor listened patiently to my litany of complaints. Together, we decided on a course of action.

I woke up the next morning tired, and still feeling a bit lost, but somehow hopeful.  I had to be patient, give the medication time to work. “And this, too, will pass,” became my daily mantra — determined that depression would not have dominion here.


The last few months have been more than an experience of trial and suffering, more than a mere dance with the winter blues. It has been an outright battle to remain sane, whole, unto my own. It’s an odd feeling — and often difficult to describe — to feel yourself sliding into depression. It’s kind of like the rough turbulence that rattles an airplane, tossing passengers about as baggage falls out of the overheard compartments. It’s like the back tires on a car spinning on ice and quickly going nowhere fast. It’s like having the wind knocked out of you and gasping for air in order to breathe normal again. But when you’re there, when you’ve crashed into that wall — when depression has you pinned down — everything falls apart.

When I broke down in early January 2011, I had not only lost interest in life but also in the things that I loved to do. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to string words together to form a sentence. I couldn’t get myself to the piano to practice scales or show up at the easel. I was holed up in my apartment, away from the world I felt completely at odds with, trying to expel the heavy weight bearing down on my chest. I had lost hope, and faith.

Apart from taking my medication regularly, apart from my weekly sessions with a psychologist, my doctor encouraged me to get outside daily, even if it was just to go for a walk. Some days it took a lot of convincing to get myself out the door, but I did. After a 17-year break, I took up downhill skiing again, spending the mornings at Mont Orford. There was something about standing on top of the mountain, taking in the spectacular view of the region, that spoke to me. I had finally arrived at where the truth lies.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the insomnia that I’ve experienced since early October triggered my depression, at least in part. My mother died leaving things unsaid between us, and that too played a role. When I am honest with myself, when I am not afraid to face the truth of the matter, it was my mother’s death — its suddenness, and the fact that the world had lost an active and youthful person (my mother was sixty-five and nine months into her retirement) — that reminded me that I need to live the life I imagine for myself. This is my chance to make a mark on the world, to follow my heart, to nurture my dreams.

I was caught in a job I did not enjoy, in an environment that brought me down. And I stayed because staying is easier. But when I tumbled, fell completely apart, I knew things had to change. So I quit my job.

Depression creates uncertainty. With the right medication, keeping active, loving, understanding and supporting friends — and a strong desire for wellness — I hope for better days. There are good days, when life seems normal and on track. Like today. There are bad days, when I’m unable to get myself moving, once again held hostage by a certain restlessness that clouds the mind, dampens my spirits, has me, repeatedly, on the verge of tears. There are few bad days now.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but what I do know is that today I have to husband my dreams. I must keep on keeping on. I must love myself.

And, yes, depression does not have dominion here.

1 comment:

  1. You are a talented and wonderful person and we are very proud of you!