What is Major Depression?

By Michelle Lemme

Webster’s dictionary defines major depression as “a mood disorder having a clinical course involving one or more episodes of serious psychological depression lasting two or more weeks each with no intervening episodes of mania”.

I realized, only recently, that what happened in May (see blog archive) was, in fact, my fifth episode of major depression, this time with psychotic features. My first episode occurred when my girls were just 2 and 6 months old. My then and now ex-husband confessed to me that he had been having an affair, on and off, with his best friend’s wife for the better part of our 6 year marriage (wonderful news for my already low self esteem).  His confession came just as I was returning to work after having our second daughter and 2 years after I lost my father to cancer (while I was pregnant) at the young age of 60.  I felt completely alone, isolated and ashamed.  I was embarrassed and scared; I could see no way to survive outside of the marriage and so I stayed, despite ongoing and continuous “mental abuse” suffered at the hands of my narcissistic husband; I could see no financial way for me to leave him and take care of my young children. I stayed in the marriage and did all of the recommended marriage counseling, I was miserable, living a lie, but could see no way out.

The second episode occurred approximately 3 years later (the girls were 3 and 5).  I was still married to my emotionally abusive husband, working in an exciting, new, demanding job that I loved.  The job required that I leave the house extremely early (to avoid traffic) and return home quite late, most days of the week. My husband had to take on more of the household responsibilities which, apparently was too much for him to handle.  He could not find it in his heart to support me, even though my work was good for my fragile and extremely low self esteem. He did all he could to make me feel pathetic.  We were two enemies living in the same house.  Not a good environment for our two small children.  Finally I had had enough. After an exceptionally brutal encounter with my husband, I came home from work and declared that enough was enough.  I wanted out and I was leaving him; the battle that ensued was mind blowing (topic of a later blog).  My self esteem was all but destroyed.

I found a lovely little house to rent in the same neighborhood so the girls could continue at the same school.  Once I was settled into “my” own house, I began seeing a work colleague who had also recently separated.  Ironically he had two girls, aged 3 and 5.   I was finally beginning to feel good about myself and the care that I was able to provide for my children.  I really believed that life could and would be good.  For a brief period it really was, and then, unexpectedly, I was terminated from the job I loved without causeI was beside myself and terrified.  How could I possibly take care of two small children, pay rent and expenses with no job?!  I was given a six month package, which meant I only had a short time to find another job to ensure that I would be able to maintain the children’s care.  I was “teetering” on the brink of another breakdown when I landed another job, this time, closer to home.

My third major depressive episode occurred immediately after I married my present husband. I felt I was losing control over who I was; now, instead of two little girls to love and worry about, I had 4! I need to mention that throughout and between each of these episodes, my oldest daughter was being seen and treated by countless specialists to try and determine what emotional issues she was struggling to deal with.  Difficult to comprehend how a child who was so young could have so much bottled up inside; anger, frustration, anxiety.  No one could provide us with any specific answers and so, we managed the best we could while we continued to seek help and support for her.  Blending a family comes with its own unique set of challenges but, add to that, a vindictive mean spirited ex-husband with a wife who despised me and my husband the challenge became like living in a minefield.  I was travelling a great deal for work, as was my husband, leaving the kids with their “other” parents made me physically and emotionally ill.  My husband started to drink excessively, which only compounded all of the struggles we were having with managing the girls.  My ex made life miserable, after years of being divorce we actually had to go to mediation to renegotiate our separation agreement, which was a joke (his financial contribution to the care and well being was actually reduced, even though he was paying me less than the guidelines mandated).  I agreed to his absurd demands simply to get him, literally out of my face.  Six years into the new job, I walked into the office to learn that the company was going to be taken over; the new office would not be in Toronto.   Another job search, another package.

I landed a great position in a new company and felt like, for once, things might be getting better.  I was working in a senior role, which was extremely demanding, but also very rewarding.  I was director of a new business unit, charged with launching an important new team and product.  Things were hectic, but I loved the pace and the challenge.  The only nagging feeling continued to be regarding my eldest child and the emotional difficulties she was experiencing, which were, to say the least, disruptive to our home life.  I continued to work with our family physician to try and find her the help that she desperately needed.

In 2005, I was asked to take over the oncology business unit, a challenge I accepted.  Just as I was getting up to speed, my boss was diagnosed with breast cancer and went on an indefinite medical leave.  The president of the company asked me to take on her role (vice president, specialty) while I maintained all of my other responsibilities.  I was thrilled to be part of the leadership team and that senior management believed that I had the intellect and capacity to manage both jobs.   While I loved the work and was intellectually challenged, the job was demanding; extremely long hours, work at night and a great deal of travel.  Although my family was supportive, it was difficult on all of us.  My oldest daughter was now in grade 8 and her behavior was becoming more and more disruptive and troublesome.  The school offered no help or guidance at all; we made the decision to have her assessed for psychological and learning disabilities.  The school did not or would not do the assessment so we sought the help of a private child psychologist.

The results of her assessment were mind blowing; I was not really able to comprehend the meaning of the results, I just knew that before she started high school, she was going to need an Individual Education Plan (IEP) , medication for severe Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity (ADHD) and further medical care to get at the root of all of her behavioral issues.  I was devastated, confused and terrified.   In 2006, once she was in high school things continued to get worse; parties while we were away, binge drinking, hanging out with people who took advantage of her, constant arguments with her friends and sisters, yelling, screaming, swearing, never ending stress…when she came home one day and told me that she wished she had a gun so she could kill herself, I snapped.  One call to our family doctor and we were off to see a pediatric psychiatrist and had her admitted to hospital.   Through all of this, I continued to work.  Then, without warning, after an exhausting argument with her on the phone, while I was working, I simply broke down.  I went to see the company nurse who sent me home.  I was off work for over a year.

Five episodes…am I resilient?  I believe I am.  Next blog topic will be about recovery and the self care required to survive major depression and be happy.