Jul. 16, 2019 - In their early 60s, my parents were empty nesters: Dad enjoying retirement and Mom, an extremely energetic and joyful person, continuing a 25-year teaching career. However, over the course of a few months, Mom noticed herself changing. First came increased worry and anxiety. She was convinced she had a terrible disease and sought out doctors constantly. Her stomach was in knots, she had no appetite, and she was losing weight, quickly. She was chronically tired and overwhelmed by work. Her joy was gone.
These changes happened gradually, as is often the way with depression. Mom had experienced a few losses. Her very close friend died of cancer, another dear friend moved away, and her three children were living in other states. Each of these stressors was significant. Combined, they pushed Mom’s coping skills too far, and depression set in.
At first, my parents kept all of this from me and my siblings. Then they visited, and I immediately knew Mom was depressed. I am a clinical psychologist, and I had interviewed hundreds of people with depression. I knew. Dad knew. Mom did not.
Mom didn’t accept that a mental health condition could be causing such physical pain. She had never experienced depression before, so why now? In addition, she was feeling scared and irritable, not just sad.
Mom eventually accepted that she may have depression, but convincing her to see a psychiatrist was hard. Mom is an educated and open-minded person. She believes in counseling and even worked as a crisis counselor in the past. But when it came time for her to see a mental health professional, she hesitated. She was worried people would find out and judge her for it. She was worried about losing her job. She was also wary of taking medication.
Mom’s resistance was so frustrating to me. Here I was, working in one of the premier psychiatric research centers in the country, and my own mother wouldn’t seek treatment.
I worried about Mom daily. Check-ins with Dad revealed she was down to skin and bones, had no energy, and was riddled with anxiety. She took a leave of absence from teaching. She cried often and was feeling hopeless. She was completely withdrawn. I was afraid for her life.
As Mom got worse and Dad became more determined, she finally agreed to see a psychiatrist. A colleague recommended a doctor who incorporated spirituality and yoga techniques into her practice. Her office was over an hour from my parents’ house. Dad would have happily driven five.
Mom met with Dr. X and had her first full psychiatric evaluation. She was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, moderate, with anxious features. Dr. X prescribed an antidepressant, anti-anxiety medications to be used as needed, and weekly psychotherapy. Mom reluctantly agreed to all. Dad, enthusiastically.
Over the course of the next few months, things slowly improved. As is common, Mom tried several antidepressants until she found one that was effective and resulted in few side effects. She engaged in therapy sessions and practiced skills at home. In consultation with her doctor, Mom decided to retire from teaching completely. This provided both a sense of relief and concern. She knew she would have to find a substitute for her beloved work.
Thankfully, the medication and therapy continued working. Mom transitioned to seeing her psychiatrist once a month, and connected with a psychologist who was closer to home for weekly sessions. Soon she was reading again. She was playing with her grandchildren and smiling more. She practiced yoga.
Mom continued with the therapy and the medication for about two years. She worked extremely hard to fight her depression. She pushed through her concerns about judgment, and sought professional treatment. She followed her treatment prescriptions, found a therapist that really worked for her, and embraced alternative approaches to supplement her healing. She did not give up. And in doing all of these things, she provided invaluable lessons for how to live.
All the while, my father provided invaluable lessons for how to love. Throughout the course of Mom’s illness, Dad was her rock, her advocate, and her coach. He read everything he could about depression. As it became clear that exercise was good for depression, he encouraged Mom to go for walks with him. He made sure she took her medications, and went to her appointments, and stayed active in life. He knew that when people with depression withdraw from activities it worsens their symptoms, so he planned dinners and lunches with family and friends and encouraged Mom to go.
Caring for someone with depression isn’t always easy. Dad sometimes got frustrated and overwhelmed. Thankfully, when that happened, friends were there to help.
My parents’ journey is just one story of beating depression. There are many who successfully live through and love through depression. On the other hand, there are many stories of loving families who don’t have as happy an ending. Like any health condition, sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. I am grateful my mom is still around, successfully managing her condition.
Reflecting on my parents’ story, here are two bits of advice I would offer:
1) To those experiencing depression: Do not give up. Be open to treatment, and let people love you. Know that their lives are better off with you in them.
2) To those loving someone with depression: Do not give up. Encourage treatment and provide support. Then, stick around, keep pushing, and keep supporting. Keep on loving and know it can work.
Colleen M. Jacobson, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.