“Ugh! I’m so overwhelmed,” my sister said.
It was 1998. She had a toddler and was working full-time; I was working part-time and had three children between the ages of eight weeks and three and a half years. (We were often overwhelmed back in those days.) We’d been on the phone for some time. I don’t remember who called whom, but one of us was incurring some serious long-distance charges. That’s another thing we did a lot of back then.
There was nothing exceptional about that day. I wasn’t particularly sad or especially down. I felt fine, my version of normal. So, I don’t know why I said what I did. It had never slipped out previously. Not during the horrific months of my sister’s complicated, high-risk pregnancy. Not when I had lived half-way across the country and suffered intense homesickness. Not during our college years when we mailed long letters to each other or in any of the years previous when we shared a bedroom. But that day, with the phone cradled between my shoulder and ear so I could talk and load the dishwasher at the same time, I said it almost absent mindedly.
“Yeah, I know. Doesn’t it make you wish you could just die?”
The line went silent. After a moment, my sister said, “Ahm, no. It just makes me stressed out.”
Whoops. Did I say that aloud?
“Yeah, right. I just meant, not kill yourself or anything, just get hit . . . ya know . . . ha ha, by a Mack truck. That’s all.”
“No. I don’t ever wish that,” she said. (I recall the moment in slow motion.) “Aileen, do you have times when you want to die?”
I did. I had all my life.
“Sometimes,” I told her. “But not now. I promise. Right now, I am fine.”
We talked for a while, and I guess I convinced her that I really was fine (either that or one of the four wee ones in our care demanded attention). Still, I could not get the conversation off of my mind.
My sister is so much like me. How is it that I feel this way and she doesn’t? This just might not be normal. (I’m pretty quick on the uptake like that.)
Thus began my growing awareness of my own depression. Shortly after that conversation, I began my search for effective treatment. Through trial and error, I found the right mix of medication, therapy, and behavior modification to keep my depression under control. Most of the time.
That conversation with my sister was nineteen years ago. I’ve kept my struggle mostly private, confiding only in family, my closest friends, and a few others along the way. I haven’t actually been ashamed, per se. Rather, I feel protective of that part of myself. Protective of the new mother terrified of messing up, of the 13-year-old who cried herself to sleep, the 8-year-old who found existence so very tiring. But over the years, I’ve learned ways to take care of me that allow me to share my experience. And now it’s time to share that story with you.
It’s a long story though, longer than one blog post for sure. So if you want to hear about my 40-plus year struggle with mental illness in the form of chronic depression, stay with me. I’ve got a lot to say.