Opal drives a lackluster Ford pickup, its faded paint more of a burnt umber than the original Santa-suit red. With her dogs riding shotgun, Opal leaves Ohio one day without notice, driving west through the skinny states and a few of the wide ones.
The journey ends in Montana or maybe Idaho. Somewhere in big sky country where the open landscape sweeps up feelings of confinement, loss, agitation and more before tossing them into the atmosphere to become painterly clouds.
Opal settles in a town small enough to be quiet, but big enough to ignore her and the dogs. She rents a room by the month in a weather-worn, single-story hotel and hires on for the 5 a.m. shift at a local diner. Her afternoons are spent wearing out the dogs with walks alongside rivers and writing without interruption.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt’s Griselda, Opal is my personification of depression.
Years go by with no word from Opal, and then something, or even nothing, will trigger her to make contact. Mostly, like the wisps of steam rising from a cup of morning coffee, she quickly dissipates.
But when Opal plops down for a good long stay, she unpacks insomnia, headaches, weepy bouts and intermittent nausea. Worst of all, she’s a master ruminator. Thoughts about past events, comments made the day before, lists of things needing done — these and more she turns over and over like rocks in a polishing machine.
Were I to accept Opal’s standing invitation and drive away, my feelings, thoughts and moods would simply accompany me like Opal’s dogs do her. And yet there were times, especially in my 30s, when her siren’s call was potent.
As a child, I was my mother’s favored receptacle for her wellspring of rage. I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation starting in middle school, if not earlier.
While other children played games or gossiped during recess, my best friend and I sat with our backs on the sun-warmed bricks of the school. Her father was also abusive and we talked, day after day, about our lives after we could escape our parents.
When that day arrived, I sought professional help, both psychological and psychiatric. While this was enormously helpful, it wasn’t a cure.
A baby who has colic for nearly six months can give any parent or caregiver mental health issues. Hugo was such a baby when I was first prescribed Zoloft. By his first birthday, Hugo had become as happy as he was cherubic, and I no longer needed an antidepressant.
According to the National Institutes for Health, in any given year 1 in 10 American mothers suffers a major depressive disorder. And yet, even though a federal law (passed in 1996) requires parity in funding for mental and physical health issues, there is still a large coverage gap for mental health care.
Perhaps the lack of affordable treatment options is why there are few statistics for mothers having mental health episodes that are not major enough as to require hospitalization, but are difficult nonetheless.
I belong to a closed Facebook group in which all the members are women. In this private space, one woman timidly described her mental health difficulties but also her fear of taking Zoloft. For weeks thereafter, dozens of women from all walks of life recounted very personal stories about depression, therapy and medications.
Qualified professional help is the most important step in managing depression and other mental health issues. If a therapist seems “meh,” try again. He or she may be perfect for someone else, but the therapeutic relationship is just that — a relationship, which is why it’s important to find a therapist with whom you click.
And while antidepressants are not a panacea for all sufferers, they have helped countless people get to the other side of an episode. And just as diabetics need insulin to live, some people need to take antidepressants indefinitely, or always.
During my tortuously long divorce, I never needed, nor took, Zoloft. But after Max was laid off in 2015 by the only law firm for which he’d worked, he remained underemployed for three years. The chronic stress over finances affected my physical and mental health. Zoloft helped.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health concerns is still significant. Increasing awareness of the benefits of active treatment reduces the perception that having a mental health issue is somehow a character fault.
This is why I applaud Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and late-night comedian Conan O’Brien for speaking publicly in recent months about seeing therapists and, in O’Brien’s case, accepting pharmaceutical treatment.
For parents who are not flattened by their depression, caring for children can itself be helpful (along with professional care). Parenting requires thinking of someone else and helps the ruminating brain to pause, if only temporarily.
Children know their parents better than anyone knows anyone else. When he was 8 years old, my eldest son was aware that I was depressed. He did not have the language for it then, but he does now and he’s shared with me the concern he felt as a boy.
On one hand, that breaks my heart a little. I wanted my children to feel always secure with me in charge of our lives and never worry about me. But nobody’s life is eternal days of sunshine. Rain falls in them all.
How parents deal with life’s rainy times is fundamental. Our children are watching, even when we don’t know it. And when they become adults, how we handled our struggles will inform how they handle their own.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 20, 2019.