Interview Fifteen: Empty Nest Teacher

“…it’s fascinating to me that some people can talk about depression without having much stigma… Big, famous celebrities, actors and actresses, creative people and artists, writers… this is old hat. But what about professions that are academic, lawyers or business people… I think the stigma is different. And I don’t think there’s a lot of discussion in the academic world…”

[Content Warning: Suicidal Thoughts, Domestic Abuse, Symptoms of Postpartum Depression]

Reading Time – 12 minutes

Life with Depression

I would say… it’s always been hard in my life… but I didn’t realize it. My clinical diagnosis is clinical depression, or major depressive disorder. I had two really, really intense episodes… a couple of years each. Now I’m well beyond that; however, coming through those episodes has changed the way I make decisions. The patterns and the habits… the things that I do now… functioning and how I do things have all been shaped and formed by how I had to fight to survive and learn how to take care of myself.

I’m very stable right now, and it’s been this way for a long time. I have the diagnosis of partial remission right now, and I haven’t been on any medication in years. But I live with the awareness that something could happen… and I don’t know… I need to keep monitoring those patterns and my self-care.

I’ve been going to therapy for 20 years now. Sometimes it’s really intense, maybe once a week… and other times maybe once a month. It’s now a commitment. It hasn’t always been easy, because there were times when I didn’t have health insurance, and I had to pay out-of-pocket.

Precursors to Depression in Childhood

It’s hard to identify when my symptoms started. In hindsight, with the knowledge that I have now, I remember myself as a little girl… I would say I had difficulties that became depression. However, I don’t think of it as some kind of medical abnormality. I think of it systemically… in terms of family environment, gender, and class… all of those things are involved. I wouldn’t want to just say, “Yeah, I had it as a child.”

As a ten-year-old, I had this incredibly intense shame… about, “I’m going to go to Hell.” Deeply related to my family and religious background. This was explicit teaching that was in me by the time I was able to have my own thoughts. I remember in high school I had the feelings and emotions that you would associate with someone who was struggling to think of life being worth living… whether or not you want to live. Thoughts of death and ending your own life. I just don’t want to overstate that, because I never did make an attempt, but the struggle was there… and I kept it hidden.

Living with Undiagnosed Postpartum Depression

Looking back into my thirties when I had my first child, I was married… I think during that time I had postpartum depression, but it was never diagnosed. I never acted on it. But I remember my thoughts… I mean, I remember thoughts that nobody wants to admit to… I remember living in a two-story house… and having these thoughts that were just so… horrible… about how easy it would be to just throw this baby out the window. I didn’t want to do it. I loved my baby, but I had these thoughts.

It never got bad enough that I couldn’t contain it. It didn’t reach a point where I couldn’t keep it hidden until I was in my thirties and had three little kids. Suddenly, I wasn’t functional. I stayed home with the children, and it wasn’t a healthy marriage. In my view, my collapse… yes, I realize I have the biological predisposition, but I can’t think about that without acknowledging my unhealthy situation. All my resources were drained, and I hit the bottom.

The Physical Symptoms of Depression

It really seemed like a physical illness. No matter how much I slept, I was exhausted. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything, and that was just not tenable when you have a two-year-old.  Uncontrollable weeping… couldn’t stand light or sound. I just wanted to bury myself in some sort of cave. It became noticeable to my husband at the time.

I was pushed to see a physician, and I was prescribed anti-depressants. It was astonishing how fast they helped. But it was also a real struggle to take them. In my mind, this was an incredible shame… because my way of thinking at the time, was, full of shame. “There’s something wrong with me. I’m weak. I don’t need help, I just need someone to tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get off the couch.” That was my total way of thinking about it, and it was part of the dynamic of the marriage that I was in. I was encouraged to get help… like the way a car gets taken to the shop to get fixed… so I could just get back to work.

I was on those anti-depressants for two years, and that was my first episode. After a while, once we got to the dose that was effective, after two years I could tell that it was wearing off, which is a typical thing. Instead of trying to ramp up or switching to another medication, my interpretation of it was, “Hey, it’s done it’s job. I’m good enough to try to handle this.” So with the support of my therapist, I weaned off of it.

Living in an Abusive Household

I’ve been divorced for 15 years now, and I was married for 21 years. I would describe that marriage as emotionally abusive and physically intimidating… like, throwing things, punching holes in the wall, breaking furniture, yelling, almost kicking the dog, physical threats… constantly, daily. The emotional part… just being called names and belittled… intentional humiliation in front of my kids. The whole atmosphere of being ranked as not as attractive or as good in comparison to other women.

My ex-husband dominated the space. He never hit the kids, but it was very much an atmosphere of intimidation. Sometimes it was intimidation through humor… having someone make fun of you, then say, “Oh come on, can’t you take a joke? What’s wrong with you?”

That’s why I think there’s a gender analysis aspect to this. I have taken responsibility for my own life, but I don’t know if I would have had full blown clinical depression if it had not been trying to survive in this abusive environment. If I had left that environment and helped myself, maybe it would have been… I don’t know.

The Second Episode

My second episode happened during my unexpected divorce. The first episode led me to make changes that enabled me to go forward. One of those changes was, not immediately, learning what I needed to do. Not only being at home with my kids. So I went back to graduate school, and I started to develop career aspirations that I put on hold to stay at home with my kids. By the time the marriage ended, which to me was unexpected… it wasn’t something I that initiated. I thought things had been getting better, but it was because I was getting better. I was getting stronger.

When my husband decided to leave for somebody else, I was already committed to graduate school, halfway through the program. Having those obligations and responsibilities in addition to my children actually helped me to get through it. I mean, it was hard… I had to take a leave of absence for a while, but I don’t know if I would have done that if it wasn’t for that first episode.

I had a neighbor who told me, later, that I had lost so much weight in such a short period of time that he thought I had cancer. It was like a physical illness. The thing that sent me to the doctor was… one day, going back and forth between classes and teaching, I almost fainted in the hallway. I just kind of slumped against the wall and crumpled. It was because I hadn’t slept, I hadn’t eaten, so worn out.

Depressive Triggers

I definitely see a relationship between the triggers of both of my episodes. During my second episode, my salary was $10,000. I had no resources to take care of three kids. It was an extremely adversarial divorce. All of it was a fight. My ex-husband is a lawyer, and it was horrible. I’ve heard from other people that getting divorced by a lawyer and a doctor are the two worst… I don’t know about the doctor part, but the lawyer part I can testify to. (laughs)

The divorce was really horrible, because I was financially dependent on my ex-husband. It lasted a really long time. In hindsight, I’m fortunate that he was quite wealthy. In his mind, he objected to paying child support, but the amount of child support I was able to receive was adequate, because he was quite wealthy. It was very antagonistic, because he didn’t want to pay any of that. I was lucky, because that’s how I survived. I mean, I would have been on public assistance otherwise. I’m astonished that I finished graduate school, because I was applying to jobs to try and get out of grad school and earn money… but I could never get any. And so I just kept going to school, because at least I had a fellowship.

It ended up being good for me, but it was humiliating. Every step of the way I had to fight for something. By the time this happened, I had already been home with the kids for eight years. At one point, he just decided that he wasn’t going to pay anymore… and I was within a week of having to put groceries on the credit card, because I had no way of paying… I had to use the legal system, which I didn’t want to do. Two appointments with the mediator, he just didn’t show up… so I had to hire a lawyer, which was money. I had two lawyers, and they both gave me discounts, because they recognized my situation… which was wonderful.

Privilege, Class, and Mental Illness

There’s also a class thing in here that I want to acknowledge… that I’ve benefitted from a general middle class background… like health insurance… even though I didn’t have health insurance, because of the divorce, for quite a while. Actually, that’s how I got off anti-depressants the second time around… I couldn’t afford them. I had been on them long enough that I didn’t just spiral out of control, but still, it wasn’t a choice. But for many other people, just getting the diagnosis and getting the treatment, I think that there are racial and class issues that are hard for people in ways that I haven’t experienced. None of us are just one thing… I mean, I have the privilege of my education and my racial identity, but for a time I thought I was going to be homeless.

I’m so thankful, because I know that I’m really lucky. I almost dropped out of grad school a million times. It’s really rough to get a full-time job in an academic setting, and I’m glad I landed one. It’s really hard to get tenure. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I worked really hard, but I know there are people who work just as hard who don’t receive the benefit or the same outcome.

Motherhood and Shame

The mother part of me still feels a lot of shame… for the atmosphere my children lived in. I only had postpartum issues after my first child, but when I had that second experience of clinical depression… since that happened in the context of their father leaving… I was barely functional, and I’m sure that I did not give them what they needed to get through the trauma of divorce. There’s that kind of guilt. I almost made an attempt on my life then… I was thinking about it, and I had all the pills and alcohol in front of me. But I didn’t do anything. But just the thought of how I let them down… how I wasn’t strong for them… I still carry it.

(Interviewer: Do you ever turn that around and put that blame on their father, who was the one who caused it and left?)

I take it in still, because it’s quite complicated. I chose to have children with him. I’m part of it, and I lived in that environment. That was my decision too. I don’t have much respect for him, and we don’t have much of a relationship other than raising the children. It’s something I talk to my therapist about.

The Risks of Talking about Mental Illness Professionally 

My closest friends are people that understand, or also have some struggles themselves, and there’s no shame anymore among my good friendships. However, it’s another thing when you talk about professional identity. One of the reasons I wanted to keep this anonymous was because I’m a professor now, and it took me a long time to get where I am. I’m not tenured yet, but it might be coming up… I’ll know in six months or so. I’m struggling personally now with how much of this is appropriate to talk about.

In my limited experience and awareness, it’s fascinating to me that some people can talk about depression without having much stigma… like Bruce Springsteen’s memoir coming out. Big, famous celebrities, actors and actresses, creative people and artists, writers… this is old hat. People can talk about it. But what about professions that are academic, lawyers or business people… I think the stigma is different. And I don’t think there’s a lot of discussion in the academic world… I mean, it exists, but you have to think very carefully about not only in terms of how you’re judged by your colleagues or administration… but also how you’re perceived by your students. It’s tricky.

Life Informed Research in Critical Disability

If I get tenure, then I’ll have a set of options open to me that I haven’t had before. I’ll still be thinking very carefully about the context. It just doesn’t need to come up sometimes. But if there would be an opportunity or a place where it would naturally fit, then I could think about it. This interview is my foray into that, because my academic work addresses issues of critical disability, disability theory, and disability studies… I want to bring that into mental illness, because so far, critical disability studies has been more about sensory and physical impairment, not so much mental.

One of my children lives on disability because of mental illness. Going through that experience with them… now that’s their experience, not mine… I’m at the end of the spectrum where I’m functional, but I have to watch it and be aware. Their experience is at the extreme end, where so far they have not been able to hold a job, or finish a course of study, because of the impairment. Part of what’s fascinating to me is the continuum. I think people think in binary terms… either you have it or you don’t… either you’re disabled or you’re not. And I reject all of that. I don’t think it makes sense.

Being a Part of the Disability Community

I think it would be dishonest to say I’m disabled or a part of the disability community, because I don’t experience any of the stigma. Unless someone’s my friend, people don’t know anything about me… and at a functional level, day to day… I’m doing fine. I feel like I’ve learned how to take care of myself. Some things might be harder for me than they are for other people, but I’m doing it. It takes effort… concentration… This is a part of my quandary… I would like to consider perhaps being more vulnerable, in the sense of laying out my personal experience. But I don’t need to live on disability. I can have a job. To me, that’s huge. I don’t want to minimize how difficult it is for folks who need the SSI benefits.

I want to be a part of this conversation… about how there’s a continuum here where things are ambiguous and fluid… but I want to have it in a very respectful way. It’s like white privilege. I can walk around in the world without being treated as if I’m about to shoplift or something. And that is a privilege that I carry around with me, because of my appearance. I see it as very much the same thing.

I’m trying to think about what is my responsibility being in the middle of the spectrum. Perhaps being able to extend an arm of dialogue in each direction? Sometimes, people who find themselves in… difficult functioning because of mental illness… they aren’t going to be able to publish articles, because of the impairment. So, maybe I can, and I want to testify to that, but without speaking for people. I don’t want to co-opt their experience for myself. I can’t say I know exactly what I’m doing with it, but I’m in the middle of it. I haven’t published anything yet, but I hope to soon.

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