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When the Ghost of Depression Haunts You

Photo by: iStock

It was a long time ago. More than a decade…

“What do you do for a depressive patient who doesn’t respond to any medication? Who is getting worse every day?”

My father, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai, called the head of the psychiatric department at the same hospital, asking this question. His daughter was deathly ill. A doctor who had saved a lot of lives was facing the possibility of losing his own child to a potentially terminal illness.

“We call it end-stage depression, and we use E.C.T. When administered correctly, in the modern way, it is the most effective, and least invasive treatment for intractable depression.”

My father called my mother. Scarcely had he dialed from his desk in Los Angeles, that she was picking up the phone in New York City, where we lived. She wrote down the name of the hospital we should go to and the directions for getting a patient admitted quickly.

That morning I awoke and caught sight of myself in my mother’s mirror. I saw wild eyes and wild hair. The eyes stared at me in fascination and horror.

“You look haunted,” My mother said.

Yes, I thought. That’s the best word for it. I said nothing. I had no voice left. Illness had left me ravaged; all that was left was pickings for the birds. I’d lost the ability to eat. Food was oppressive and nauseating. I couldn’t walk in the street without forgetting to check for cars coming in my direction. I hoped they’d finish the deed. I could not dance, I could not act, and I could not work. I had very little use of my vocal chords and interactions with strangers were unbearable and confusing. I was not organized enough to have a plan, but I spent a lot of hours on the ledge of the roof of our seventeen story building, hoping for a strong wind. I was meandering toward my end, not planning it. I was starving to death from apathy and nausea. If the wind were strong enough, it could perhaps blow my brittle shell to the pavement of Third Avenue and the pain would cease. In an instant. I begged myself to have the courage to lean into that wind more steeply.

While we were packing to leave, I wonder if my mother thought about the moment she’d returned home to this same apartment when she was about 19 to find her beautiful, loving, noble father on the ledge of his bedroom window. I don’t think he wanted to jump. He wanted help. When she found him perched there she told him, “Dad, we’re getting in the car right now and going to the hospital.”

And he did not fight her. Once on the road, my grandmother spoke up. “Morton, isn’t this a lot of nonsense? Can’t we turn the car around and go home?”

“Stay out of it, Mom,” my teenage mother warned.

My grandfather was treated with E.C.T., in the dark, old days when it was used too frequently, and with too much electrical power; when the alternatives were equally oppressive – drugs from before the dawn of SSRIs, drugs that caused side effects too dismal to dwell on here.

It worked. “No alcohol, Morton,” the doctor said when he left the hospital. He never touched a drink again. He didn’t need it anymore.

My mother and I arrived at Lenox Hill emergency room sometime in the afternoon. We saw a doctor. She talked to me. I told her I was scared and homesick, but I would do what she told me to. She took me upstairs. My mother wasn’t allowed to come. The tears flowed and I tried to back out. I was told I couldn’t; they didn’t consider it safe for me to leave now. I was locked up, for however long it was legal for me to be kept.

The first person I saw on the mental ward was a midget with a black eye named Mary. She was watching the news in the lounge. I found out later she had been some sort of producer in Hollywood, a successful one. I no longer remember how she got the black eye. I vaguely remember there were a lot of fights in group therapy. It is equally possible she had harmed herself.

I was escorted to my room. I put my mother’s stuffed tiger on my bed. It had been a gift from my older sister. His shirt read “somebody at Princeton loves me.” My roommate was surveying the view from our window. She told me there was a car across the street, and people were watching us. Always, she warned me, someone was watching.

Wow. This is the real thing.

I suppose the people who were watching us finally got her, because by morning I had a new roommate. She was Portuguese and she had long, shiny hair, and mocha-colored skin, and a boyfriend whom she was certain would marry her. She advised me to find someone like that and all this would go away.

E.C.T. happened three times a week at 6am. We were lined up in the hallway to await the elevator ride to the basement. Yes, we were to be taken to a basement and zapped. If only I’d a sense of humor then I would have enjoyed the macabre setting. They let my mother accompany me, even though it was against the rules, only because I was so young… and scared. She arrived at my room at 5:30am.

My doctor wore a bow tie. He was white-haired and he told me about his daughter’s swimming pool in California. He was visiting his grandkids the next week. He smiled at me and told me I was going to make a full recovery.

Electricity was applied to only one “pole” of my brain. In the old days, my doctor told me, they applied it to both sides of the brain and E.C.T. would result in memory loss. In the old days, they used the treatment too frequently, and people often lost large sections of memory. No worries, my doctor told me. That was the “old days”. Now they used an eighth of the electricity and applied it for a fraction of a second.

I counted backward. I asked a nurse when it would happen. She told me it was over – “all done”. I was waking up. My mother was there, smiling and holding my hand.

She brought Chinese food during visiting hours that night. I was hungry. I gobbled down noodles and chatted. My mother stared in amazement. I was a rail thin slip; a shadow who less than 24 hours earlier couldn’t speak or eat or do anything but cry. I finished the noodles and asked if she had brought me any newspapers to read. I intensely desired the pulpy crinkle of the New York Times. I desired knowledge and words. Again, my mother stared.

I stayed in the hospital for a week. I had three or four treatments. I did lose some memory, but nothing irreplaceable, and all of it surrounding the time immediately before and after my stint of treatment.

I remember a lot of things, too: the kindness of the staff, the little stalls separated by blue curtains where we waited our turn for electric shock. We were like produce waiting to be stamped. I remember that a pastry chef with a successful restaurant was in the ward, and I watched her cling to her husband during visiting hours. I remember wondering how someone so successful could be so sad, so ill, so reduced to childlike terror.

I also remember a sense of quickening of my own pulse and flesh, of revival, of awakening after a blood-soaked, mildew-infested nightmare.

Depression lends itself to endless metaphors. It is a cancer that attacks every brain function except the one for processing emotional pain. It is an assassin. It is a post-modern landscape. It is a dark wood. It is an hourglass that sifts for eternity as time hangs heavy while you wait for some unspoken, unknown fate. It is madness.

It is the loss of all comfort. It is identity slipping down the drain. It is leaving a job interview abruptly because you’ve forgotten the answers to the questions, and you’ve forgotten your last name. It is realizing your own biology is indifferent to, and the cause of, your plight. It is feeling guilt over the burden you may place on others if you tell them. It is self-hatred. It is walking a path that has no beginning or end.

But some of us are lucky. Your mother takes you to the emergency room. You meet the right life partner; you find a reason to live, to create, and to hope. That’s what happened to me. I am always mindful of a change in the wind: I see the curtains fluttering from a sudden chill breeze and I spring to action to make sure the ghost’s clammy hands haven’t time to flex around my neck. Remission is keeping vigil. Being happy is not something to lose track of, and signs of danger need to be heeded.

We lose some, we don’t lose others. Some of us begin life anew. Some of us lose the battle. We don’t know how many people suffer. We need light shed on the illness, so the ghost has nowhere to hide. Right now we have nothing but stigma born of ignorance to fear. We have nothing but love and medicine to save us.

I thought about my illness today as I waited in line for my turn across the floor in theatre dance class. We lost a great performer to the clammy hand last week, and I was reminded of my own battle with the specter of death and my tremendous good fortune.

My husband came to pick me up from class and with him was our little sidekick: our relentlessly energetic two year old daughter. She kicked off her rain boots and twirled to the music. She flew into the studio to sway to a brassy big-band rendition of a song from Bye Bye Birdie.

You know what the song was? There’s Such A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor living in New York City. She was a nanny for a decade before having a child of her own, who is now nearly three. She writes (of course!) at her blog Hungry Little Animal.

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