I have always been in tune with sadness. As far back as I can remember I’ve felt a kinship with it, like it was a comfortable old friend of mine. I’ve always liked sitting with it and trying to understand it, trying to explore its meaning and to give it the attention it craves. Far from being something to fear or avoid, sadness has always been a little bit fascinating to me and inexplicably beautiful.
I have a memory around the age of five of being completely inconsolable when I found out my great-grandmother died. Nothing too weird about that, you might think. But let me add that I think I’d met this woman maybe three times in my life. I didn’t know her and she didn’t really mean anything to me. Let me further add that by all accounts she was an incredibly harsh and unloving woman and you can start to see why it might have been a little bit strange that I felt so deeply about her passing. I know I wasn’t crying because I was going to miss her. I was crying because I was overcome by the intense sadness of it all – the sadness of death and of the idea of not being able to see someone again in this life.
Another memory that stands out is about the Broadway musical Les Miserables. I was fortunate enough to see it on Broadway when I was 12 years old and was blown away. I became obsessed with it. I listened to the CDs so much that I had the nuances of each song, down to the singer’s breaths and intonations, memorized. My favorite song was not, “On My Own”, like most adolescent girl’s was. No, my favorite was “I Dreamed a Dream.” Even as a 12 year old, I was drawn in by the sadness and despair of this song and of the singer’s story. One time, I brought two of my friends who’d never heard of Les Mis up to my room to play the song for them. Before I played it, I gave them the back story: the woman who could not provide for the child whom she loved so deeply, how she had been abandoned by the child’s father, how she had been driven to prostitution out of desperation, how it killed her but not before she sang a sweet lullaby to the child she would never see again. As I got to the end of the story I started to cry and barely got the last few sentences out. I don’t think my fellow 12-year-old friends quite knew what to do with the sobbing friend before them. All we usually talked about was clothes and boys! When I played the song for them I remember feeling a little frustrated that they didn’t seem to connect with it in the same way I did. It was so hard to find anyone else who understood the beauty I saw in anguish, the catharsis I felt when grieving about the sadness of life.
Now don’t get me wrong. Most people would never have really seen this side of me. I have never been an Eeyore, always gloomily walking around with my head down and a raincloud over me. Overall I was a happy child and young teenager who loved to have fun, to laugh with friends, to watch silly musicals, to plan the next day’s outfit, and to flirt with boys. There was just a part of me that understood how sad life could be and felt connected with that sadness. While I enjoyed “happy” books and movies, the ones that really stuck with me and that I would find myself thinking about over and over were always the sad, emotional ones with unhappy endings – Gone With the Wind, Dances With Wolves, A River Runs Through It, Romeo & Juliet, Titanic. The longing in these stories would overwhelm me and I would live in their sad worlds inside my mind for days. I couldn’t seem to help myself. There was an all-consuming desire inside of me to swim in that sadness.
Allowing myself to submerge completely into these emotions truly felt cathartic at times, like a part of my soul was healing; however, much of the time it was also unhealthy. As obvious that probably sounds, at the time I didn’t know anything about mental health or depression. Those weren’t the buzz words that they are today. People didn’t understand or really even talk about those things back then. So I didn’t think much about these overwhelming feelings, except to let myself swim in them for a couple days before returning to the happy, outgoing and driven teenager that I normally was.
Then my freshman year in high school I had sort of a “Come to Jesus” experience and became really active in my church*, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e. Mormon). For the most part this filled my life with a joy and happiness that I cannot adequately describe, but I also started to obsess about my relationship with God and being morally/spiritually “perfect”. For those unfamiliar with Mormons, we are not supposed to have sexual relationships until we get married, we don’t drink or smoke, we don’t lie, steal, cheat, or swear, among other things. I followed all of these commandments and then some. I didn’t do ANYTHING wrong. I was every parents’ dream. And yet I was always feeling guilty, like I was never doing enough to be worthy in God’s eyes. My journal entries are especially telling from these years. Entry after entry is about how I’m not trying hard enough to be good, I’m so prideful, I need to focus more on the Savior’s love when I pray, I need to feel God’s love in my life more but I’m too selfish to do so, etc. I even talk about feeling guilty if I didn’t finish my homework. I was constantly beating myself up and feeling like God was mad at me because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be good.
During my junior year of high school I started to feel sad all the time, day in and day out. Most people wouldn’t have understood why, and truly I didn’t understand why as my life was seemingly wonderful at the time. My family was happier than it had ever been, I was very popular at school, a lot of boys were interested in me, I was the lead in our school musical, I’d made 1st chair in the Texas All-State choir, I even got a sports car for Christmas that year. What else could a teenager want? And yet, I was always crying. Here is a journal entry from that year:
“I have been depressed for so long now. I just feel like I want to crawl in a hole and wait til all this passes. I don’t feel like trying or caring, and crying doesn’t even help because I’ve done it so much. I’m always on the verge of tears. I’ve never felt like giving up before, never. When I’m usually sad I can talk to myself or cry or something but I never feel like ceasing to try like I do now. It’s really hard. I just go through the routines of life.”
My mom and I would talk for hours trying to figure out what was going on, why I was crying almost every single night. We would always come up with some sort of reason along with some sort of solution, but nothing ever stuck. I was sad inside no matter what I tried. In my journal entries I talk about how my unhappiness must be because I wasn’t having enough faith, or because I felt God was telling me I wasn’t focusing on Him enough or I wasn’t being kind enough, and on and on. I usually end these entries feeling like since I’d pinpointed what the problem was (not being kind enough, for example) then I’d also found the solution (just be kinder). I always ended these entries saying something to the effect of, “I’m so glad I finally figured it out! NOW I’ll be happy!” And then the next entry would be about how I cried all night again.
One time my mom and I discussed the possibility of me having depression. A few of our relatives had been diagnosed with depression and took anti-depressants so we knew a little bit about it. But my relatives acted very different from me. They struggled with anger and could become socially withdrawn. I didn’t have a problem with anger at all and I was Miss Social herself, even while feeling depressed deep down. So, we figured, I must not have depression. It never occurred to us that depression could manifest itself differently in different people. Again, there wasn’t a lot of understanding back then.
So, I muddled through the rest of that year as well as my senior year. Things actually were a little better my senior year. I had tried to lighten up about things (well, a bit – I still felt guilty a lot of the time) and had had a lot of fun doing all the senior stuff. After I graduated, I attended BYU. On the outside, my freshman year would’ve looked like a blast. I truly enjoyed most of my classes, got great grades and was always doing something fun, whether with friends or on dates. And yet, underneath it all the sadness had returned along with a deep loneliness. It didn’t matter that I hung out with friends almost every weekend, that I stayed up most nights giggling with roommates, that I had more dates than most other girls I knew. I felt so alone. And so lost. And so sad.
When I came home that summer, my mom finally took me in to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I felt so relieved. I was so tired of battling these feelings and finally felt some hope that something might actually make them go away. I tried a few different anti-depressants before we found the one that seemed to work (Welbutrin – I wish I remembered all of the other ones I tried, but unfortunately I don’t. I do remember that one of them gave me such horrific and vivid nightmares that I was scared to go to sleep at night. Needless to say, I didn’t take that one for very long).
By the end of the summer I felt like a new woman. The sadness wasn’t quite so acute and I just knew that I’d found the answer. I started my second year at BYU with high hopes. I found out my roommate also took anti-depressants and we bonded over our struggles. Things seemed to be better.
But, as the year wore on I started to struggle once more with overwhelming feelings of sadness, longing, and guilt. My journal entries are, yet again, about trying to figure out what God wanted me to learn so I could be happy. The real zinger was when the movie “Titanic” came out. Words fail to describe what that movie did to me. Obsessed is an understatement. Mentally unstable might even be an understatement. If other movies caused me to swim in my emotions, this one caused me to drown in them. Looking back, that movie was the perfect storm for me – It contained a historic tragedy, a heart-wrenching love story, vividly stunning visuals, and hauntingly beautiful music. My poor soul never stood a chance. I think I cried for two days after I saw it the first time. The second time I saw it I started to cry as the opening credits came on. The third and fourth time I saw it…well, I don’t think I can bare to tell you how pathetic I was by that point. I’ll give you a taste by saying that I would frequently would put on the soundtrack in my car and drive through the mountains at night for hours, sobbing the whole time.
Mental case. I know that’s the word running through your head as you read this. And yeah, I kinda was on the inside. But people still wouldn’t have known it from the outside. I was still the social and outgoing person I’d always been, even with all of this going on deep down. I think being social was the only thing that kept me going, really. I had a lot of fun with my roommates and on dates and still did well in school. But almost all of my alone time was spent trying to figure out why I was still so sad deep down. There just had to be a reason why I felt so sad. I was constantly analyzing my emotions, my thoughts, my situation, to see what it was that God wanted me to change about myself in order to feel better. Surely, if I could just think through my feelings deeply enough then I could find the thing I needed to work harder at to finally make the sadness go away. I didn’t think my diagnosis of depression freed me from all responsibility towards feeling happy. And besides, I was already on medicine. If I was still sad then I obviously had to do something else on top of that, right?
I saw a psychiatrist at the BYU health center when I needed my medication refilled. Every time I went in to see him I would feel hopeful, like finally someone would be able to help me figure this all out. But each time I would leave feeling angry. It seemed the only thing he ever said to me as I would sit sobbing in his office was, “Let’s up your dosage.” It didn’t seem like he was even listening to me! Why wouldn’t he talk to me and try to help me figure out what was going on? At the time I didn’t realize the difference between a psychiatrist (prescribes medicine) and a psychologist (listens to and talks through your problems with you). I was seeing a psychiatrist but expecting him to act like a psychologist. This left me feeling a somewhat bitter about medicine. I knew anti-depressants weren’t “happy-pills” that just solved all your problems and yet that’s how it felt like they were being pushed on me (again, because I didn’t understand the psychiatrist’s role). So I stopped taking the medicine for a while. Admittedly, I also stopped because part of me felt weak for taking them, like I wasn’t strong enough mentally and spiritually to overcome these emotions.
When I returned back home for the summer I think my mom convinced me to start taking medicine again. So I did. And that fall I did a Study Abroad in Vienna, Austria. It was an amazing, incredible, life-changing experience and for the most part I was happy. But I do have a journal entry that shows that the sadness was still there:
“I can’t shake my depression. I don’t know what’s wrong. I hate it. I don’t think my problem has to do with medicine – I think it is something spiritual and I need a spiritual remedy. I just feel awful inside. I can push it down to where I don’t notice it, but it’s always there. And lately it’s been ever-present in my heart. I just want to cry really hard. I don’t feel the Spirit and I feel a heavy hopelessness and sadness. I need help. I don’t know what to do. I know it’s partly due to a chemical imbalance that I have but we just doubled my dose of medicine before I came out here and it hasn’t helped. I know I need to do something. My mind is contorting and binding my insides. I just want to cry. Why am I sad? Why do I always feel bad about myself? Is there a solution? I feel like I’ve tried everything. I feel like such a weakling. Why can’t I get over this? What is my problem? It always comes back, no matter how many times I think I’ve found the answer. And the worst part is feeling like God is mad at me and cold towards me. That’s the main problem. I don’t have faith in Him or myself. I obviously have a huge problem with that but I don’t know how to fix it. I’m fasting today for 24 hours cuz I need help. I really need help. I feel alone cuz I feel like God is mad at me. I know it’s my problem but how do I get over it?”
And then, in another entry I talk about stopping my medicine (now it was Zoloft) because I didn’t think I really needed it:
“I’m almost positive that I don’t need medicine. The reason why I’ve been so sad for the last four years is because I wasn’t listening to my own personal guide I have inside to tell me how to be happy. I felt unhappy but didn’t listen to the promptings inside of me that told me how to be happy again in simple things. I honestly think this is the only real way to cure my depression and that my depression has been a result of me not heeding the longings I have inside as to who I am, what I love, what I need to do to help me progress, develop, enjoy life, and to develop a special, close relationship with Heavenly Father.”
HELLOOOOOO?!?!?!? Hasn’t it been FOUR YEARS that I’ve been thinking that the answer was trying to focus on God in one sense or another? It seems so obvious looking back that my brain was not healthy and that I needed outside help, but back then it was not nearly so clear cut. Back then, every single time that I felt the answer was to focus on God it felt like a new answer. And like THE answer. And it would give me hope and direction until I crashed again.
Continue reading on My Story 2