I've felt these little nudges several times in the last few weeks to share my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but I have pushed them aside every time. Then last night I was at the General Women's Broadcast, and I knew through the burning I felt in my chest that I needed to take the time to write and express my story, because it can be a source of light and hope for someone else. So here goes sharing something very personal to me-- my journey through depression. It's hard to know how to write such a story as this, so bear with me as I try to express the deepest feelings in my heart. And consider yourself warned now that this will be long!
I had experienced depression before in high school, but nothing like I did from January 2013-June 2016, the period of time when this story takes place. I can't pinpoint exactly when it started or why it started, just that it was almost like the flipping of a switch, suddenly turning off nearly all of the light and happiness in my life. Unfortunately, this switch flipped just a few months before I started dating my husband, so the first 2 1/2 years of our marriage were hard. I needed him and had very little to offer in terms of emotional support. I was not myself and I desperately wanted him to know that. I will forever be thankful for him when I think of the long, tear-filled nights and the strength and patience he offered to me when I was in such great need. I know for a fact that Heavenly Father provided him to me right at that time so that everything would be alright like it is now.
It was my second year of college at BYU-Idaho, and I suddenly knew no one, not a single person. All of my friends and past roommates were either on missions or at home for their off-track. I stayed in Rexburg for the winter semester to work, but I was so lonely. I remember sitting in my room in the evenings when I wasn't busy working and feeling the loneliness envelope me. I had already been so brave to go to college alone the year before, and I had met wonderful people, and now I was starting over. For some reason, probably the depression already developing inside of me, this felt like too much for my heart to handle. It was only a little while later when I connected with my roommates and when I met my husband, but the tears still didn't stop, even when I felt the warmth of friendship surround me.
Then on top of that, I ended up not serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I had planned, because I felt in my heart that it wasn't right. This made me question all the answers I had ever received to my prayers or if what I thought I had received were even answers at all. It also made me feel incredibly afraid of becoming a mom, because I had thought before that serving a mission would be my gospel preparation for motherhood. I don't know why I thought that, but I did, so taking it away made me feel completely inadequate.
Only a few short weeks later, my husband and I started dating. I didn't realize this until much later when I looked back on it, but I had dating anxiety, not the going on dates part, but the having to choose who to marry. I was deathly afraid of making the wrong choice. I was afraid of not seeing some "red flags" and having my marriage crumble. With the beginning of our dating being just a few weeks after my experience of doubting my answers to prayers, I felt unable to pray to ask God if I was doing the right thing and receive an answer. This left me an emotional mess during our dating time. I didn't cry that often when we were together and most of the time I truly enjoyed myself while we were together, but when the nights came and we went to our separate apartments, the fear and sadness took over. I knew everything about him was right and was exactly what I had been looking for, but my doubts in myself were overwhelming. I had some special experiences that helped me keep moving forward, but it was so hard and definitely nothing like what I imagined it would be. Eventually I opened up to him about my fears and doubts and he accepted them with such love and compassion. I felt at a complete loss of words to explain the whole array of thoughts running laps through my brain, but I was able to tell him enough to feel calm for the time. Somehow, I was able to move forward with faith and courage to keep dating and to say "yes" to getting married, even though my mind and my heart were confused about everything.
It all happened so quickly, our dating, engagement, and wedding. It was right and we both knew it. We felt very impressed that we needed to get married quickly. Little did we know at that time that a beautiful, excited baby girl was ready to join our family soon, but that definitely didn't lessen the intense pain and fear I felt.
Our wedding day came and I was filled with peace while we were in the Nauvoo Temple. I felt God's love and His approval of my life in a way that I had not felt for months. It didn't feel super intense, but I felt it just enough. I compare it in my mind to looking through a window at something vs. being outside and really experiencing it. You can see all the same things through the window, but you don't get the full experience of smelling the fresh air, feeling the breeze, touching the delicate flower pedals, etc. The window blocking my ability to fully experience everything at that time was depression. But I felt peace, and I relied on the remembrance of those feelings of peace for weeks and months to come.
The weeks and months after I got married were very difficult for me. I was happy in the sense that I was married to the man I loved with all my heart and we were starting a wonderful life together, but I didn't actually feel happy. Instead, I felt sad about everything and nothing all at the same time. He was so good to me; he took care of me, he loved me, and he expressed that love often, but I felt empty inside and often felt that I had done the wrong thing by getting married. I felt darkness and fear and pain where I should have felt light and carefree happiness.
Sometimes the pain would turn into panic. It would squeeze my heart so tight that I would struggle to breathe. It was awful, completely awful! Once while I was working as a chemistry tutor, I started to feel this breath-stealing panic. I had my laptop with me, so I started typing in how I felt and realized that this was a panic attack. After knowing what to call them, I noticed that I was having several a day and never went a day without having at least one.
I didn't know how to explain what I felt to anyone and I was so afraid that if I tried they would think bad things about my husband. After all, I was supposed to be so happy at this time in my life. So instead of opening up to anyone, I closed the lid to my box of emotions, wrapped it in paper, and tied it with a ribbon. I decided that no one would ever get in to know what I really felt.
Unfortunately, all of my emotions were too strong and I couldn't contain them no matter how hard I tried. I cried every day for months. Sometimes I would cry about how other people feel sadness and hurt and loneliness, sometimes about how inadequate I felt as a wife and a future mom, sometimes about how I was sure that Heavenly Father was so disappointed in me. It was agonizing and exhausting trying to hide such intense, unidentified emotions. And it took every ounce of courage and strength to open up to my husband about how I felt instead of hiding my emotions from him just like I did to the rest of the world.
One day after having a long night of crying the night before and having the residue of red, puffy eyes, an old co-worker saw me and gasped, "Shantelle, you look awful! The light is missing from your eyes. Is your marriage going ok?" I was so upset and didn't know what to say. I walked away sobbing, knowing that I had blown it. I had let someone see the sadness I felt, the sadness that had absolutely nothing to do with my husband, and yet he was the one being blamed for it. I felt ashamed in myself that I wasn't stronger. It was so hard feeling emotions like these without a source to blame. No one ever told me that depression can come on without a cause, that it's just a chemical imbalance and doesn't have to be explained, so I thought something must be wrong with my life, with me.
Despite all this sadness, I did begin to feel a deep gratitude and love for the Savior. One morning I was biking to work and the thought came into my mind that the Savior took these awful feelings on Himself so that He could understand me right then. I was overwhelmed as I thought about how He had taken this one awful trial on Himself, along with all the other trials I had faced and ever would face. Then to think that He also did this for every person who has lived and who ever will live. It was more than I could bear to comprehend and I cried the whole way to work imagining what that must have been like for Him. I am still in awe of this.
Well, my life continued on and I continued trying to feel happy. I occasionally really felt the happiness that I knew was trapped under the dark blanket of depression, and those times were very good. I got into the nursing program at BYU-Idaho and felt genuinely excited. Then I started and only did it for a week before I found out that I was pregnant, and I was super genuinely excited about that too. Looking back, I am so glad that I got pregnant right at that time for a couple of reasons. 1) It gave me a reason to stop doing the nursing program which would have been too emotionally taxing for me at the time when I already had so little to give. 2) It gave me a source to blame my past months of emotions. I mean, everyone talks about being emotional during pregnancy, so I could just say that's why I was feeling sad, right? I really believe that was a huge tender mercy because it was the first step to me opening up and telling someone how I felt.
After a few weeks of intense anxiety and sadness, I decided to talk to the bishop at my church. I honestly felt like he was the only one who could calm my heart since he could help me know that I was not failing at life, that I had not committed some grievous sin, and that Heavenly Father was not deeply disappointed in me. I visited with him several times in the coming weeks and over time he was able to help my heart find some peace and calm from the storms that were raging. I am so thankful to this day that I was blessed with a wonderful bishop at that time who was there for me when I needed comfort and peace.
Because of dropping out of the nursing program and switching my major to health science, I was able to meet another wonderful person who played a crucial role in my journey. Her name is Amy and she was doing an internship at the same nursing home I was at. From the first day we met, I knew that I needed her friendship and that she would be a rock in my life. Unfortunately for her but fortunately for me, she was able to relate to my struggles in a very real way, not because of her own experiences but because of the experiences of a close family member. I trusted her and opened up to her more than anyone else besides my husband and my bishop. Heavenly Father definitely sent her as an angel to me when I was in great need.
I went to a regular OB/GYN appointment for my pregnancy and told the doctor that I was feeling depressed and would like to try taking a medication to help. The fact that I did this showed just how hard it was, because up until that time, taking a medication for depression would have been a last resort. In some ways it was. I felt so desperate for relief for my tattered, bruised, torn, shattered heart. I didn't know how much more it could take. I started taking a medication but it did little to nothing to help. I kept taking it without telling anyone that it wasn't working and accepted the fact that I would feel sad for the rest of my life. I didn't know how I would get through the next day, let alone the rest of my life, but I accepted that somehow I would do it.
A few short months later, Brooklyn was born. The moment I met her, I was able to feel real love and happiness and thankfulness for her. That feeling lasted only until we got home from the hospital, when everything suddenly came crashing down. It might have felt more like it a crash because of the emotional high I had just experienced, but it really was a new level of intensity that I had not before experienced. Now I had the addition of someone who depended on me, someone who needed love and support even more than I desperately needed it. I was completely overwhelmed at my role as a mom. Partly because it is such a sacred role and I knew that, but also because I never knew my husband's mom and so everything I heard about how perfect or wonderful she was placed a huge burden on my shoulders, a burden that was impossible to carry because of how irrational it was. I cannot even begin to count the number of hours I cried in fear that I would never be able to be a good mom to my sweet girl. I'm so glad for the progress I've made and that I never have to go back to that scary time again!
After Brooklyn was born, I was able to go back in to the doctor and try another depression medication. This one did wonders. I actually started to feel happy again, real genuine happiness. I felt energy that I hadn't felt in over 1 1/2 years and I started to feel a little bit like myself again. I still had my moments of hurt, especially when I would forget to take the medicine or would refuse to take it because I wanted to be happy on my own, but it really did lift my spirits and give me hope.
It got so bad that I stopped eating all of my meals except dinner and often would do nothing all day except nap and try to do something little with Brooklyn. I could hardly function. Once my husband would get home from work, I could function again because he motivated me through his love and support (most often without even saying a word), but during the day I was practically useless.
After a couple months of living in Iowa, everything got worse. I remember so perfectly the evening when I was sitting on the couch next to my husband after we had a little disagreement. I had been thinking for the last couple of weeks that I didn't want to go on, but after that disagreement, I made the decision that I would end my life the next day. I was sitting there thinking about how I would do it and what time so that my husband could get home shortly after to take care of our daughter. I still get so emotional and scared thinking that I reached the lowest of lows and really contemplated something so serious. He could see that I was upset and asked what was wrong. For some reason, I actually told him what I was thinking. I told him that I wanted to die and that I was sitting there at that moment planning it all out.
Of course he was worried, just as I was. We talked for a long time and I promised him that I would hold on through the next day no matter how hard it was. He was an absolute saint and did basically everything for me during that time. We set up a schedule for my days and even made a points system to help me have some motivation to stay productive and to do the basic things that I had been neglecting.
But still, the thoughts of death continued every day, lingering in my mind from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, even on the fairly good days. I wanted to die, because then I could be a memory to my husband and daughter and they could remember only the good things about me. I felt like I wanted to be gone so that I wouldn't do more "damage" than I felt I had already done. I was scared that Brooklyn and our other future kids would find out that I had taken an anti-depressant and that I had struggled and they wouldn't love me. I was intensely afraid of not measuring up to my husband's "expectations" and not being everything that Brooklyn needed. I was sure in my mind that she would harshly compare me to others someday and would be disappointed that I was her mom instead of someone else. All of these sound so irrational now, but at the time, they were all too real.
I didn't know how to fight these thoughts when they were so active in my mind. It was more than I felt I could bear, and definitely more than I could fight off with just positive thinking. After 5 months of battling and fighting my own thoughts, my husband and I decided that I needed to go see a counselor. The morning of my appointment, I gathered together all the courage I had and wrote a post on Facebook about my struggles. I was overwhelmed with love and support and knew that everything would turn out alright in the end.
The counseling appointment went well and I continued going to counseling for several more weeks. It felt so good to be able to tell someone everything about how I felt and to know that I wasn't being judged or criticized. I felt safe with her and with other friends who shared their struggles after my post on Facebook.
After several counseling appointments, I was able to stop seeing the counselor and to move forward with some things that had been causing me great turmoil. I was able to put the past behind me and look forward to a bright future.
In July, I was even able to go off of my anti-depressant and have been off of it since. That is such a huge thing for me given my long and painful journey and my dependence on that medication after having Brooklyn.
Right now, in this moment, I feel so many things:
- Emotional about telling my story
- Slightly scared about putting my deepest emotions out there for others to read
- Thankful for a Savior who truly understands everything we go through
- Thankful for a husband who has never given up on me and who has supported me even when I was incredibly frustrating and irrational and impossible to understand
- Thankful for a daughter who has brought so much light into my life and who loves me despite my imperfections
- Thankful for the tender mercies God has given to me to help me, especially my friends and family
- Thankful for my life
- Thankful for medication
- Thankful for depression which has helped me to see and feel and understand things that I never would have known otherwise