Medication doesn’t usually work instantly, especially with depression. It’s important to hear stories that remind you: your life is worth the wait.
After spending several days languishing in the fetal position on my couch with my entire body trembling, I worried that I would never find my way back to the real world. My experience was so raw and frightening. Everything just seemed so, so wrong.
It sounded weird to everyone else, but I was just trying to recover from a recent stint in the psych ward in any way that I could. I had been carted off in an ambulance from my job due to lithium toxicity that masqueraded as a possible stroke. My speech was slurred, and by the time I moved through the emergency department and to my new home in the psych ward, I couldn’t even remember my own mother’s phone number.
The psychiatrist in the hospital decided that staying on the lithium could kill me, and there was a question if I could ever go back on it again. While she rattled off the usual suspects — the bipolar mood stabilizers that I had sampled over the years since my diagnosis — my hands trembled in my lap.
I was a known lithium responder and couldn’t imagine what my life would look like without taking those three pink capsules every night. But this hospital doctor hadn’t traveled the journey with me that my regular outpatient therapist had.
She didn’t know that lithium had saved my life.
Taking me off the lithium, she started me on another mood-stabilizing medication I had choked down before: Depakote. I spent the rest of that week shuffling through the psych ward, slowly getting better, but I also worried about what was going to happen when I was discharged from the hospital without the safety net lithium had always unconditionally provided.
Reintegrating into my life post-psych ward was not so easy. Without that lithium coursing through my blood and filtering up to my brain, I quickly spiraled into a hardcore depression.
I was listless and numb, and felt broken to bits and pieces. When I was able to make it to my office at work, I sat in my swivel chair for hours, staring vacantly at the computer screen in front of me. I couldn’t respond to all the e-mails that had built up in my inbox while I was hospitalized.
I couldn’t seem to respond to life in general.
My regular therapist was my lifeline back to the world I had left behind. I wrote him e-mails on the healthcare portal throughout the day and when I couldn’t sleep at night. He always responded to my pain, offering extra words of encouragement and reassurance when I was so sure that I was in the process of decomposing from all the sadness.
He decided that I needed to go back on the lithium now that the toxic level of the drug had cleared from my body. I needed that drug if I was going to have a chance at recovering from the depression.
“The lithium will kick in soon,” my therapist kept saying online and on the phone. “You have to be patient and give it some time, Elizabeth. This isn’t going to happen overnight.”
But there was this certain undeniable urgency to my depression that made the despair seem so life-threateningly dangerous. I felt like I was in a bubble — that everyone on the outside could see me as this person with problems who just couldn’t seem to cope with life. I had traveled to this place that was so scary and lonely.
I wanted the lithium to work immediately. I didn’t think I had much time left.
I was even considering a return trip to the local emergency department to possibly get readmitted to the psych ward. I missed those mornings when my doctor met with me in my hospital room and she promised me that I would find my way back to myself soon.
Something had gone terribly wrong in my head, and I was losing my mind again. But the journey back to the ER was also so unnerving: to be weighed, poked, and prodded, a swab scraping against my nose for the COVID test, and sobbing on a stretcher while the doctors and nurses came in and out of my hospital room.
I wanted to be strong so badly. And I wanted to wash my hair, listen to music, watch some old 90’s sitcom on Hulu, and read more than a paragraph of a novel. I wanted my life back, a life when my brain didn’t ache whenever I tried to suck in a deep breath of fresh air.
“This might be the worst, darkest depression of my life”, I kept saying to myself.
The problem was that every depressive episode seemed worse than the last one.
When those suicidal thoughts started rumbling through my brain, I got really scared. I reached for my phone and started dialing a crisis hotline. I wanted to talk to someone about what I was going through.
My psychiatrist was frantically trying to keep me alive and was in regular contact with my mother, who was worrying hundreds of miles away in her own house. She couldn’t just run over to my apartment. Through the worst of it, we spoke several times a day, our conversations getting more urgent and desperate.
“Mom, I don’t think I can live this way,” I would say.
I could hear her crying on the other end. And she came up with all sorts of advice for me: “Go get a really tasty meal.” Well, my arms and legs were so heavy from the depression that I didn’t think I could move from my couch. “Watch a movie.” Well, I couldn’t stop crying long enough to get past the opening credits.
I finally reached out to one of my co-workers, who had also struggled with depression of her own. She dragged me out of my apartment and into her car, where her two dogs were panting in the backseat. I remember that the radio was blasting some rock song as the spring air filtered in through the open windows. We went to a park and watched her dogs run around for a while.
“I’m thinking about killing myself, you know,” each word vibrating in my throat even more than the last.
We just kept circling around the dog park, discussing how I would survive until my lithium started working again and I could reclaim some sort of normal life.
But I did gradually get better — just like I always do. It certainly did not happen overnight, like my psychiatrist said. Things just started getting easier.
I could write a work-related e-mail without skulking away from my desk in terror. I could finally eat a real meal again instead of simply making do with the easiest grub I could acquire: usually something that came out of a box or a bag from the convenience store down the street.
Of course, my psychiatrist had been right. Depression lies. It told me that I would stay on that couch forever. Even when logic told me that the lithium would settle things down once again, just like it always does, I didn’t believe it.
But this episode did offer me that chance I needed to see that I could rely on my doctor, my medications — but, most importantly, myself.
Medically reviewed on November 14, 2022
Have thoughts or suggestions about this article? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.