I silenced my cell phone for the fourth time while walking barefoot across the white sands of Huntington Beach. It was 2018 and my family and I were on vacation. When my phone stopped ringing, my husband’s began. When his phone stopped ringing, my daughter’s phone went off. She answered. The doctor’s office had been frantically trying to reach me.
I’d left a message for my doctor on Friday, the day before we left, to get a refill on my anti-depressants. Nearly constant thoughts of suicide had consumed me. While I made sure the doctor knew my request was urgent, business hours don’t always comply with urgency. My family and I left for our vacation as planned. I’d hoped that keeping busy and staying in the sun would help me get through the next few days.
Depression has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up as a gay kid in a fundamentalist Christian home made self-acceptance impossible. My father’s verbal abuse ensured that my feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness were valid. I’d learn later that my mother struggled silently with depression, but decided to put her trust in Jesus and believe he was going to make everything alright. Eventually, she sought the help of medical professionals.
I felt mentally exhausted by the time we drove my white SUV to Los Angeles. Donald Trump had ushered in a new level of hate and fear carried on the shoulders of the evangelical church I’d once called family. Hundreds of laws of discrimination were launched against people in the LGBT community, women, and people of color. I’d been furiously writing fact-filled articles against the regime, which was now sweeping across the country like a dark, evil cloud. Hopelessness was setting in. My doctor asked me to see him as soon as we returned from vacation.
The third degree burns on my feet from paddle boarding in the ocean barely registered by the time I finally sat down in my doctor’s office that Wednesday morning. My husband, Abel, came with me. I confessed to both him and my doctor that I’d been actively mapping out gun stores and planning for a death that would be easiest on my family. My doctor gave me an ultimatum: either attend a month-long outpatient facility or he would put me in a psychiatric ward immediately.
Months earlier I’d been offered the opportunity to host the Recovering from Religion podcast. I knew it was an opportunity to promote my message of hope and healing for those negatively impacted by conservative Christianity and other faiths, but I was unsure if I could meet the obligation. Depression made me despondent, sometimes for days or weeks. I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish. I asked my friend, author Bill Prickett, to cohost with me.
Bill and I slowly built our audience and received positive feedback about the success of the show. I started on online group for people who wanted to discuss their deconversion. I was in my element as an interviewer and researcher, but I could feel my passion waning. Something was off and this time things were different. By the time my third book was released, I had withdrawn from most activities around writing and speaking. I’d simply lost my will to fight.
I’d spent much of my career in corporate education as an independent contractor and business owner. Changes in state laws made it more difficult to operate. When I was offered a job with a Fortune 100 company, it seemed like a good move. I took this as a sign that it was time to focus my remaining working years in corporate life, climb the ladder, and retire comfortably.
I resigned from the podcast, shut down my website, and closed the support group. By this point, I hadn’t been involved in months. Still, the sadness in my gut of what felt like destroying my life’s work hit me hard. I continued to shut down my presence on the web. I asked Wikipedia to remove my profile and focused on simply disappearing from sight.
The pandemic, like it did for so many people, pushed me into further isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. Though I had a husband who loved me, and two adult children who still needed me, if not just my money, depression assured me they would be OK without me. In fact, they were better off.
I was as certain as I’d ever been that I’d done all I had been put on earth to do and my exit was imminent. I’d always looked and acted years younger than my age, but suddenly I felt decades older. My body and mind were tired. I was no longer curious. If I wasn’t spending hours scrolling through the social media posts of strangers, or binge-watching shows and documentaries about death, I sat in a stupor. Ruminating. Planning for the end.
The disease of depression affects many more parts of the brain than just the happiness chemicals we’re familiar with like serotonin and dopamine. The disease eats at the myelin sheath that protects our neurons, making memories harder to store and recall, slowing our thinking, and shrinking critical parts of our brains. Those of us who suffer from years or decades of suicidal ideation are literally dying alive, slowly losing brain function, and living with damaged cells throughout our bodies.
Suicidal ideations, fueled by the ever-intensifying disease, are a form of psychosis that negates logic and reason. In this place, emotions supplant the best of well-written strategies to get help. Diet and exercise can only take a person so far. The disease, I felt, had moved from my brain to my body and I could almost feel myself withering away like an autumn leaf.
My psychiatrist encouraged me to try ketamine treatments, which have been shown to instantly lift patients out of suicidality and significantly increase brain function for people with treatment-resistant depression. Though skeptical, I owed it to Abel to try the treatment, with the caveat that if it didn’t work, my suicide was inevitable.
Abel has patiently loved me, held me, and taken care of me for over thirteen years as our lives have often been disrupted by the disease. Interfering at times with our ability to connect and communicate, Abel has often been left isolated and alone. Yet, somehow, he’s separated the disease and its behavior from me as a person.
The ketamine treatments were administered intramuscularly over a three-month period. Most of my experiences were unpleasant and anxiety-inducing. Other patients, however, have reported feeling euphoric or having out-of-body experiences. These experiences are less important, researchers say, than the work that ketamine does in rewiring the brain. Suicidal ideations are instantly relieved, giving patients the power to gain control over their lives.
For those of us who are used to riding the waves of motivation and engagement to despondency and hopelessness, it’s hard to get excited at the prospect of a “cure.” Coming out of depression feels more like a holding pattern than a remedy. However, while ketamine is a wonder drug, of sorts, it’s like any other medication that requires ongoing treatments.
Major depressive disorder, until an actual cure is found, is a terminal disease for many of us.
The impact on our bodies and brains lowers our life expectancies by up to ten years. Comorbidities, such as heart disease and cancer, reduce the quality of life in many people. A percentage of us will commit suicide.
Depression is a complex disease, often brought on by trauma that involves predisposed biology and inherited genes. About one-third of us suffer with treatment-resistant depression, meaning if we respond to medication at all, it’s usually short-lived. No substitute exists for a regimen of diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, socializing, and talk therapy, along with medication. This is the best way to effectively address the disease.
I’ve resumed ketamine treatments under the care of a doctor using a micro dosing regimen. I’m in a good place. I’m learning to accept that depression for me may well be a chronic disease that requires managing, though I continue to study the latest research and pursue more permanent treatment options.
I’m under no illusion that the way I feel today will be the way I feel tomorrow, or even this afternoon. But like anyone else suffering from a mental illness, I do the best I can with what I have, and that’s good enough.