Paws and Effect
My cats saved my life, more than once, when I've been through periods of deep, dark depression.

For the first time since I adopted her, Tara’s taken to sleeping on the bed.

I’m sitting here staring at the blinking cursor, waiting for the inspiration to come and words to flow out of my heart and mind. But my brain feels like it’s moving through molasses, and the thought of actually concentrating on anything makes me want to do anything but this. Junk TV? Yup. Video games? Yup, that too. But after missing last week’s post because I wasn’t feeling well, I figure it’s time to come clean about exactly how I haven’t been feeling well.

I was inspired to write this post by my blogging friend Susan Willett of Life with Dogs and Cats. Earlier this month she wrote a post called “Meet Agnes,” about her struggle with depression (which she calls Agnes) and how it’s affected her. She also mentioned that May is Mental Health Awareness Month–something I hadn’t known before I read her post–so I figure this is as good a time as any to break the silence about how mental illness has affected my life, and how my cats saved my life more than once.

***Trigger warning: Discussion of suicide. No graphic details, but still…***

The first time I can remember feeling seriously suicidal, I was 10 years old. I knew all about how household chemicals were poisonous and how they could hurt or even kill you, and I pondered long and hard about using some of those poisons to do the job. I talked myself out of it by saying that I didn’t think my mother would be able to deal with it and that even if my fellow students wouldn’t miss me (I wasn’t a popular kid), my teachers probably would. I spent what seemed to be an incredibly long time fighting off these thoughts, although I can’t remember exactly how much time passed.

The next episode of major depression I can remember happened when I was in my junior year of high school. I felt an echoing emptiness inside of me. I was so far down I couldn’t even cry. I barely ate any more than I had to in order to keep my mother from worrying about me. Nonetheless, I probably lost at least 15 pounds over the six months the depression endured. There were times when I contemplated suicide, but instead of going all the way there, I got angry and told myself, “there’s no way I’m going to let these bastards get me down.” Through this time, the cats kept me going. Even if nobody else loved me, even if I couldn’t even love myself, my cats still purred when I petted them. I took some comfort in that.

All my life I've suffered from depression and other psychiatric fun "happy" times. But through all my ups and downs, the one consistent thing was my cats. This story is about how my cats saved my life--more than once. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so today I'm sharing my journey with depression and bipolar disorder. It's time to break the silence and be a #stigmafighter.

Through my college years, I went through a roller-coaster of emotions. I’d be completely absorbed in my work, spending every spare moment writing the novel that would be my senior thesis. I had boundless energy. I could go out and party all night, wake up three hours later, and get on with my homework and my novel. Then I’d go through other, darker periods, where I would deliberately trigger myself by reading stories of people who had endured childhood trauma (let’s just say my childhood was less than ideal in some very important aspects). In essence, I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, but I was more or less playing “chicken” with my mental health: How bad can I feel before I come out of this?

I was smart enough to get counseling while I was in college, to help me deal with some of the more traumatic aspects of my childhood. My college had a counseling center where you could see students working toward their Master’s Degree in psychology or social work, and they were under the supervision of professors in that department. I don’t know why none of them copped to the fact that I might be suffering from depression, but I did get a lot of good help for managing depression.

As the years passed, I found myself going through periods of hyper-productivity and excessive risk-taking, but I didn’t think much of it because I was feeling so good at the time. And when your highs lead you to productivity rather than psychotic mania, people tend to think it’s a good thing. And the lows, they came too. I coped with them as best I could, trying everything from pagan rituals to drinking more than I probably should have, and even at one point becoming a member of a fundamentalist evangelical Christian church. (As a liberal and a queer woman, I eventually found that this didn’t sit well with me, even though the mind-altering nature of the services lifted me out of my depression.)

All this time, I had my cats. At that time, it was Sinéad and Siouxsie, and they were barely kittens. But I knew they needed me, and I know my cats saved my life several times throughout those years. But really, I was pretty much in denial of how I was feeling. It was just safer that way.

I couldn’t ignore it any longer when, one day in 2001, I was lying in bed preparing to start my day and I casually thought about the pistol in my closet and how easy it would be to just use it on myself. Let me tell you, that woke me up right quick! I was alarmed at those thoughts and I had no idea where they’d come from. I did two things that day: I brought the pistol to my brother’s house so I wouldn’t have easy access to it (I haven’t owned a gun since), and I started calling therapists who took my insurance. Thank goodness I had insurance!

I got my butt into counseling and went faithfully every one to two weeks, depending on what my need was at the time. Al the while, my cats were with me. And again, my cats saved my life. Their purrs comforted me, and their presence reminded me that I’d made a lifetime commitment when I adopted them. I couldn’t abandon them.

Thomas is one of my life-saving cats.

I adopted Thomas in 2004, and he’s been with me through a lot of my ups and downs.

I was doing pretty well until about two years into counseling, when I found myself in a very deep downward spiral once again. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, so I spent my days staring at my monitor or playing video games, feeling crappy about myself because I was “lazy” and I wasn’t doing my job well. My heart felt like a deep well of emptiness, and I felt like nobody cared whether I lived or died–and in fact, they might be better off without me. I bought some razor blades from the hardware store below my apartment. But I couldn’t bring myself to use them: I had no energy and no desire to do anything but curl up in a ball and die. My cats–by now my feline family consisted of Sinéad, Siouxsie, and Thomas–did everything they could to keep me focused on life. I knew I had to confess these feelings to my therapist, so I did. She asked me if I was suicidal. I was honest with her. I also said I didn’t want to take medications because I thought they were a “chemical lobotomy.” I got a lot of support for this attitude from my family and friends.

“You have two choices right now,” she told me. “You can go to your doctor and get a prescription for antidepressants, or I can have you admitted and you’ll get medications whether you want them or not.”

“When you put it that way, I don’t see how I can possibly refuse,” I told her. But I was so non-functional by this point that I didn’t even know if I could manage the call to my doctor. My therapist told me she’d help me if I needed it.

But I made the call. I got the pills. Prozac (fluoxetine), which was the first-choice antidepressant at the time.

I started taking them, and although I was told that they’d lift my depression in two or three weeks, I immediately started feeling the effects. And they weren’t good ones. I couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was out of control. I couldn’t stop clenching my teeth. So here I was, agitated and suicidal. A very bad combination.

Honestly, at that point I probably should have been hospitalized, but the stigma of a psychiatric hospitalization was more than I could bear.

The next time I saw my therapist, it was three days after I’d started taking the medication. “I don’t know what’s happening to my body!” I cried. “I hate this!” She told me there were other medications that might be less “activating,” and again told me to call my doctor and explain what was happening. I did, and then I got a prescription for Paxil (paroxetine). That one worked better without all the agitation, but again, I felt the effects a lot more quickly than they said I would. I felt fantastic! I felt productive! I felt like I was alive again!

And then the meds wore off and I felt crappy again. This is known as the “poop-out” to a lot of people who’ve experienced it. So, I went to my doctor, we increased the dose, and once again I felt amazing! Productive! I had so many ideas! And at one of our sessions, when I couldn’t stop talking, my therapist looked at me and asked, “Are you manic?”

“No,” I said. “I just feel amazing, like I’m supposed to feel!”

This cycle of upping the dosage, feeling fantastic, and then falling into a deep depression again, repeated itself for several years (with some harrowing episodes of suicidal ideation thrown in for good measure), until I got sick of it and talked to my doctor. “I want to find a psychiatrist who can help me figure out this meds situation,” I said. “I’m sick of taking more and more of the medication until it wears off, and I want to know if this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.”

She referred me to a psychiatric nurse practitioner–the closest thing to a psychiatrist in my small Maine town.

The two-hour intake interview was really depressing. Intake interviews usually are. That’s when you go through every horrible thing that’s happened to you, and your life with medications, and so on. But at the end of it all, she said to me, “This doesn’t sound like a unipolar depression. Your history seems to show that what you’re dealing with is a variant of bipolar disorder.”

I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I’d been nursing some suspicions that this was the case, but I thought I was probably just being a hypochondriac and that I was being “influenced” by books I’d read like Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist who has bipolar disorder. But hearing my suspicions confirmed, I didn’t know what to think.

“I need to do some research myself,” I told her. “But one thing I know for sure: I don’t want lithium.” I had a friend who started taking lithium and became acutely suicidal, and I’d had enough of that game for one life. So research I did, and I found out in the course of my research that a lot of the things I’d experienced during my “up” times were what one psychiatrist who specialized in bipolar disorder called the “soft signs” of the illness. Things like being thrust into hypomania by antidepressants, experiencing your first depressive episode at a very young age, and so on. So my official diagnosis went from major depression to bipolar II.

I started taking lamotrigine with my antidepressant, and my emotions became more stable. No more hypomanic episodes, no more weird side effects and “poop-out” from my antidepressants. I was pretty stable for years after that.

Bella's been here with me since 2013, and her crazy, funny antics provide me with smiles even when I feel like crap.

Bella actually stopped moving long enough to sit in my lap today! Her crazy kittenish antics make me smile, even when I’m in the depths of despair.

Fast forward to 2015. I’d been living in Seattle for two years, and I had a very stressful job. I started to feel myself going downhill again, but it wasn’t until I woke up one morning and I could. Not. Stop. Thinking about hurting myself. When I got to work, I researched my health insurance’s crisis line and the employee assistance program. I couldn’t abandon my cats, I told myself, but I can’t function, either. Once again, my cats saved my life. But I felt like a heap of shit. I couldn’t focus on my job at all. Finally, on my first break, I called my sister and told her what was going on. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.

That led to my first hospitalization.

It was kind of a relief.

I felt safer in the hospital than I would have been outside. I had a chance to work through some really difficult stuff, and I came out stronger and with some concrete steps to take in order to put my life back together. Five or six days later, I was out of the hospital and back at work. And I knew I didn’t have to fear hospitalization at all. I also learned that Seattle has a much better psychiatric infrastructure than Maine did. I got commendations from psychiatrists and counselors here for the fact that I managed to figure out how to navigate such mental health care as there was, and lived to talk about it.

Not gonna lie–I was hospitalized three more times after that for self-injury and suicidal ideation. I wasn’t sure what was happening, since I’d been stable for so many years, so what was different now? The only thing I can think of, really, is perimenopause. I’m sure hormonal changes have an effect on mental health and probably on the effectiveness of medications, too, for that matter.

And can I tell you how damn embarrassing it feels to be self-injuring when you’re in your late 40s? I clearly still have some internal stigma about this because part of me thinks of self-injury as something only teenagers do, but my therapists have told me that this is definitely not the case.

Fast forward to today. I’ve really been struggling with my depression. Again. It’s taken all the color out of my life. I smell the lilacs outside my window, and a part of me knows I love that smell. I hear my cats’ purrs and smell the fresh-cut-hay scent of their fur. But for the most part, I just feel numb. I vacillate between feeling nothing and feeling like I want to die. I only eat because I know I have to put fuel in my body, not because the food tastes good or because I have an appetite. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, but I’m here. My last hospitalization was so awful that I’m pretty much doing everything I can to stay out of the hospital again. Yes, I admit I’m kind of playing “chicken” with my life. But again, my cats saved my life. And they continue to save my life.

I have an appointment with my psychiatrist this week, and I’m going to tell him something like, “This is bullshit. I can’t keep living my life this way. What can we do about this? If it means different meds, if it means (gulp) hospitalization, whatever it means. I’ve got too much to do to let depression kill me. And I love my cats too much to abandon them in such a horrible way.

And that’s the story of my life with a mental illness. I know I’m not alone in my struggles. And I’m really fortunate to have Thomas, Bella, and Tara by my side. My cats saved my life. Many times. I’m incredibly grateful to have been blessed with such amazing feline companions.

I’m coming clean because I want to be a #stigmafighter. For me, for you, for anyone who’s ever suffered from a mental illness. You’re not alone.

If you’re in crisis yourself, here are some things you can do:

  • Call 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Hotline)
  • Crisis Text Line (for people who may feel more comfortable in a text conversation than on the phone)
  • Call a safe friend or relative.
  • Call 911 (in the U.S.–especially if you’ve already committed a suicidal act).
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Life goes on, and you deserve to be happy.
  • If you’re in counseling, make a crisis plan. This usually involves knowing what your warning signs are, figuring out what you can do when those warning signs happen, and putting together a list of numbers you can call if things really go south. I’ve found that having a crisis plan makes it easier for me when I’m really deep in depression and I’ve lost all ability to organize my thoughts or figure out what I need to do.

Update, June 12, 2018

Three days after I wrote this post, my depression got so bad that I couldn’t stop thinking about suicide and putting the suicide plan I’d developed a couple of weeks before into action. Instead of ending my life, I went to the emergency department, and from there I stayed at an inpatient behavioral health facility for four days–enough time to stabilize me and keep me safe while I was in crisis mode. I’m currently working with my psychiatrist to change up the medications I’m taking, in the hope that I won’t have to deal with repeated hospitalizations. And my cats saved my life. Again.

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