What do you do when your illness feeds your success?
by Sarah Boon
For my 35th birthday I received the gift of depression. It didn’t appear in my lap in a sparkling paper-wrapped box with shiny red bow. Rather it crept up on me slowly like a coastal spring, with January crocuses followed by February daffodils and finally the sweet pink cherry blossoms of March. Knocking on the door to my party, uninvited.
Having been diagnosed with depression at the end of my PhD degree, I recognized the signs. The lack of interest in tasks I normally enjoyed, and the constant craving for just a few more hours of sleep. Withdrawing socially and having difficulty concentrating. Wearing the same baggy cord pants for days on end and crying myself to sleep. And when I did sleep the nightmares – long a problem for me – took over. By far the worst, though, was when I yelled at our new puppy, who didn’t know any better and cringed from the harsh sound of my voice.
From the outside, my illness would have seemed “inconceivable”, as the little man from The Princess Bride would say. My husband and I had a nice house in town, with a large yard and garden, and renovations more than halfway completed. I’d just been awarded tenure and promotion based on an impressive CV of publications in good journals, graduate student supervision and collaboration, teaching excellence, and extensive service to my professional community. I’d finally obtained a research grant I’d been trying for years to get. I was on my first sabbatical, doing research at the cutting edge of my field at a university famous for the depth and breadth of related programs across departments and faculties. I was connecting with an increasing number of interesting scientists and science communicators from around the globe on Twitter. My graduate students were finding good jobs after finishing their degrees, I’d been invited to speak at several international conferences, and many colleagues were interested in collaborating with me.
When I finally saw a psychiatrist, seven months after first going to my family doctor for help, he diagnosed major depression and anxiety, with a side of mood disorder. The latter, he noted, must be cyclothymia rather than bipolar II given how successful I’d been throughout my life.
I wanted to cry and laugh all at once. Yes, my life was immensely successful – from the outside. But how do you explain that you’ve excelled as a coping mechanism? That growing up abused made you feel apart from the world, and the only way to join in was to follow the rules, fit into the boxes, and construct success the way the world understood it? How could I explain the moment I realized that the ‘up’ phases of my mood swings were actually feeding that success? That my ability to get more done in a day than most people got done in a week more than compensated for the ‘down’ swings, when even getting up at the front of the classroom to teach seemed almost impossible.
When your illness feeds your success, how do you separate the two? Where do you draw the line?
I drew the line between the personal and the professional. While my career flourished, our dogs died well before their time, both of them within a span of half a year. In the course of doing field research, I sustained an injury that stubbornly refused to heal, leaving my mobility limited even three years after the fact. My husband and I had few to no friends in the community, and never felt as though we belonged. My ‘down’ cycles also made it difficult to socialize outside of work – it was either work or socialize, I couldn’t do both. I had friends across the country whom I hardly had time to email, let alone call or visit. And our family time in the outdoors had decreased to almost nil – both as a consequence of my work and because we lived a long drive away from the nearest decent wilderness.
As my career star rose, my personal vitality diminished. The ‘up’ cycles became less frequent and the efficacy of work as a coping mechanism began to fail. And into the gap stepped depression. Blowing out of the west like a battering chinook wind. Drowning me like the monsoon rains of a Prairie spring. And as I fell, the reference horizon became more indistinct, until there came a point when I just couldn’t see it anymore.
A year ago, my illness brought me success. Today that same illness has forced me to take a medical leave and left me barely able to make it through a day. Sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, I considered the past months of changing medications and subsequent side effects – including a midnight visit to the ER to beat back a massive migraine that no amount of Tylenol #3 could touch. Slogging through therapy, and surviving the darkest weeks of constant suicidal urges. The glimmers of good in each day as the puppy learned new skills, or I made it to bedtime without crying.
My 36th birthday will likely retain an undertone of depression, and perhaps also a better understood mood disorder. But it has indeed – as unlikely as it seems – been a gift, for all that it’s almost killed me.
I’ve learned how to cherish the smaller things in life. A few hours in an armchair, listening to the stereo and writing, does more for me than an invited talk at a conference with 20,000 attendees. A sunny afternoon in the garden harvesting potatoes overrides the joy of any paper publication. A day in which I don’t want to die is more valuable than a $150,000 research grant.
Mental illness has made me take a wider view of where I’m at – and why – and the route I took to get here. And I realize that I was wrong all along: being apart from the world isn’t something to be fixed by following the rules, achieving external success, or getting people to like you. It’s a state to treasure, a perch from which to observe. It’s a gift in and of itself but – like depression – double-edged.
In a way mental illness has given me my life back. Dented, bleeding and with a few limbs missing, to be sure. But it’s mine to do with as I need, and as I please.
[Sarah Boon is an associate professor of Environmental Science at a small university in Alberta, Canada. She’s also a science writer and memoirist, and enjoys quiet: gardening, hiking with her dogs, and reading.]
[Image credit: eyehook.com. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License.]