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My health story: Choosing life in the face of depression

By Theodora Blanchfield

Editor’s note: September is recognized as National Suicide Prevention Month. It’s a time when mental health advocates, prevention organizations, survivors, allies and community members come together to promote suicide prevention awareness. At Aetna, we’re committed to raising awareness and promoting available resources year-round. This is a first-person account of how Theodora Blanchfield chose life in the face of depression. It is intended to inspire others to get help when they need it.

Five years ago, I was having panic attacks nearly every day. I often couldn’t catch my breath. And, despite being in the best shape of my life, my heart frequently felt like it was beating out of my chest. This went on for six weeks.

After 30 years of a mostly storybook life, I could no longer manage the onslaught of anxiety and catastrophic thoughts. Even the strategy I’d used until then—literally running from my fears by training for marathons—was no longer enough. With my heart rate at a cool 140 beats per minute, I ran to my primary care doctor, where I was given my first mental health diagnosis and a prescription for anxiety medication.

Not all objects are as they appear

Until that moment in 2013, I didn’t even realize that I’d been struggling with mental health issues. I knew my birth father had grappled with mental illness. But I’d always filed this away as information that I’d hopefully never need to know. Despite being given up for adoption at three days old, my childhood was otherwise routine and happy.

In my 20s, I had a few bouts of what I now realize was depression, but I weathered them without medication or therapy. It was only at the age of 30, while working a stressful job at a fast-paced digital agency and overloading myself with marathon training and volunteer commitments, that I recognized I needed another level of support.

The morning after I picked up that first bottle of anxiety medication, I knew I needed to get to the root of my anxiety. Rather than thinking medicine would be the magic cure, I also wanted to work with a professional to develop better coping skills. I immediately began searching for a therapist, and miraculously clicked with the first one I found. I worked aggressively with her to find solutions to my problems that involved more than popping a pill.

Falling into a deep depression

Over the next two years, I worked with different clinicians and tried different approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which seeks to change one’s thoughts and actions. As part of this therapy, I worked with the therapist to challenge the thoughts fueling my anxiety. And I found myself getting a handle on the issues plaguing me. But then the depression resurfaced. As my therapist and psychiatrist both explained, anxiety often cloaks an underlying depression.  It took six months of listlessness and apathy before I agreed with my therapist’s suggestion to try an antidepressant. I’d reached the point where I was ready to try anything that would make me feel better. I started the medication, a low dose of antidepressants, and at first it helped me. For nearly two years, I felt more stable and like myself. But in May of 2017, my life started to become too much for me to handle.

Escaping the pain

My mom was dying of stage 4 ovarian cancer and only had months to live. She was my greatest cheerleader, both in life and at my marathons, and I couldn’t comprehend the thought of losing her. Around the same time, my apartment building management forced me to give away my dog because they said he barked too much. I no longer wanted to live. I wanted to escape the intense amounts of pain I was in. The intrusive suicidal thoughts were persistent.

My psychiatrist ultimately put me on a mood stabilizer thought to reduce suicide risk. But after a few weeks—the week my mom died—I told my psychiatrist I planned to stop taking it. At the time, I thought it was making me feel numb. But looking back, I laugh, knowing that it was grief that was making me numb, as my brain fought to make sense of something too large to grapple with. Despite the fact that I knew my mom’s death was coming, it still stunned me when it happened.

Just as I thought I was beginning to slowly get a hold on life without my mom, a romantic relationship ended. And then I got laid off.

I tried every coping mechanism I knew of. Nothing could pull me out of the deep depression caused by several traumatic events in a very short time. I was struggling to keep up with work as a freelance writer. Still, I tried to keep up a façade socially. Only my very closest friends knew the extent of my pain.

Immediate regrets

Then, in March, I had a particularly emotional weekend that was my breaking point. I had a tough therapy session and an emotional meeting with a support group followed by some challenging family discussions. The effects left me reeling and after having several glasses of wine at dinner, I went home and took what I knew were too many pills. I’m not sure my intent was to harm myself, but I knew I didn’t want to feel anything, either.

Still, before the pills even took effect, I immediately regretted my actions. I watched my mom die and was terrified of dying. But more than anything, I didn't want to inflict on my loved ones the same pain I was acutely feeling. I knew that, realistically, I wouldn't always feel as depressed as I did, and I wanted to live to see my life improve. So I called a friend to ask her to bring me to the ER.

There, they admitted me to the psych ward, where I stayed for four days. I immediately wondered how my life had come to this. I was doing all the things I needed for my mental health: medicine, therapy, exercise, eating well. How did I end up in the hospital? Why did I feel like I couldn’t get a handle on my life? But once I let go and listened to the professionals who were trying to help me, I was able to move past the stigma of being an inpatient for mental health issues and absorb the help I needed.

While hospitalized, my care team suggested a different format of psychotherapy. Previously, I had been seeing a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy. But the hospital social worker suggested I try psychodynamic therapy, which explores more of the icky, scary stuff in our subconscious. She also sent me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, which forced me to confront my relationship with alcohol. I didn’t believe I was an alcoholic, but I know I’d been using it to self-medicate, which was unhealthy, especially with the psychiatric medication I was on. I shook in tears after that first meeting, terrified that I’d given someone reason to think I had a drinking problem. But I ultimately decided to give a moderation group a try.

Life after the hospital

After coming home, I vowed to do whatever it took to feel better and keep myself alive and out of the hospital. I changed therapists, and was no longer afraid to open up more during our sessions. And I gave my friends more concrete ways to help me since they’d been asking what I needed. I sent them a detailed list of things I was working on in therapy that would benefit from extra support, such as limiting my exposure to alcohol, knowing how poorly it affected my emotions. In June, one month before the one year anniversary of losing my mom, I even wrote my best friend a letter telling her how difficult it was going to be for me, and asking her to occasionally check on me. We have a special emoji that I can text to her so she knows I’m feeling low.

Over the past few months, I’ve more closely examined emotions and patterns I was previously—and still am sometimes—afraid to touch. I now know I need to understand myself on a deeper level if I want to feel any degree of healing. I’ve also decided to move to a place that has brought me immense peace throughout this chaotic year: California. I know a fresh start in a wide open, sunny place will do wonders for my mental health.

I’ve been able to dig deep and do the work needed on my own to complement the work I do in therapy. For instance, I’ve found journaling to be especially helpful. It allows me to see a problem on paper and work through the answer. I still have my bad days, but I believe I’ve seen my rock bottom and will claw myself out if I have to.

But I’ve also seen hope. So I know my life is worth working for. And I’ll continue to write, to make sure others know they are not alone.

If you are having difficulties with depression or anxiety, please consider taking an assessment  and either speaking with your doctor or scheduling an appointment with a mental health provider as soon as possible. Treatment is available. If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please:

  •  Learn more about the warning signs at afsp.org/signs.
  •  Find a mental health provider online at aetna.com/docfind.
  • Remember support is available 24/7 to Aetna members who have employee assistance program (EAP) benefits through Resources for Living by calling the number provided by your employer.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential support 24/7.
  • Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.
  • Call 911 for emergencies.

About the author

Theodora Blanchfield is a Los Angeles-based writer. She blogs about grief, mental health and using running to handle it all on Preppy Runner.