Sometimes it’s too dark to think clearly. It’s not the low light of winter but the darkness inside. Sad, painful or dark times are parts of life. But depression isn’t sadness. Depression is a sometimes debilitating illness caused by dysfunctional brain chemistry.
About 20 years ago, I learned the difference between feeling depressed and having depression. I started taking Zoloft to adjust the way serotonin moves through my brain. The medication, combined with therapy and recovery from alcoholism, saved my life.
In the book “ The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David K. Shipler, almost every profile says the person “suffers from depression.” In this book, and in just about all of the writing I’ve read about poverty over the years, people are described as having depression. I’ve become skeptical about the accuracy of the label.
My skepticism is why I write this column every month. I thought, “Surely not everyone actually has depression, right?” and I began considering my own life experience. Through my interest in my own life, I learn about the larger world. I consider how my experiences might benefit others. I can never know when or how they might help. But perhaps some good might come of them.
Assuming the people described have clinical depression, for example, I began considering a chicken-and-the-egg question. Can poverty cause changes in brain chemistry leading to clinical depression? There seems to be no consensus. Some reports say people living in poverty are “ twice as likely to be depressed.” (See the use of “depressed” rather than “depression”? What do they mean?) But the same publication reports that anxiety may be overdiagnosed in people living in poverty.
Rather than try to cite statistics, let me return to my own experience. In the early 1990s I began taking Zoloft. Treating my depression and my alcoholism led me to a life grounded in hope. I learned that no matter how bad things got, they would always get better.
Nearly five years ago, after my marriage ended, and we declared bankruptcy, I found myself in crisis. As I’ve written about here before, despite my ex-husband’s generous support and my own earning potential, I ran out of money. I had young children, including an infant, and I was committed to being at home with them.
There were a couple months when I didn’t know whether we would make it back and forth one more time to my older daughter’s school without putting more gas in the tank — when I had only $7 in the bank. It was at that time when I began my experience with the Department of Health and Human Services.
What I haven’t written about here before was how my mental health changed as I tried to survive those most difficult days. My personality — who I was — changed. It was as if my brain was trying to reconfigure itself to make me fit into this new world. I wasn’t someone who would ever even consider divorce, let alone actually get divorced, for example.
Because all of these life experiences — the shame of declaring bankruptcy, the humiliation of applying for food stamps, the heart-wrenching loss of a marriage — merited sadness and pain, I didn’t recognize how bad things had gotten for me.
When I found myself without hope, approaching the edge of considering suicide, I knew I needed professional help. After more than 15 years of knowing things always get better, the fact that I believed even for a short time that the pain would never end meant something was seriously wrong.
My darkest times only lasted a few weeks, as my doctor connected me with a therapist who adjusted my medication. I quickly returned to a place where, despite feeling a great deal of pain and darkness, which was reasonable for my situation, I rediscovered hope. I knew it would get better.
I am lucky. Too many people living with untreated mental illness don’t get the help they need. Without the medication to rework the pathways for the serotonin in my brain, the daily tasks that already felt nearly overwhelming would have been too much. Each confusing piece of mail from DHHS, missed phone call from a doctor’s office, or lost car keys might have been the last straw for me.
I think of people living in crisis who don’t have proper mental health care, and I understand why people make enormous mistakes with serious consequences.
I have advantages people who are truly poor don’t. As I wrote in one of my earliest columns here, I am situationally poor, not generationally. In fact, if it weren’t for my car’s beyond-repair transmission and these two teeth that might not let me keep ignoring them, I’d say things are looking really good for me and my family. We are still on the edge, but we’ll be OK.
What I want to do with this column is share my experiences within the larger context of social justice issues. Unlike most of the 14.7 percent of the people in Maine who live in poverty, I have access to a public forum. I’ve also had some bumps in my life, and I love writing. Maybe someone will read what I write and think about poverty in new ways.
And, who knows, maybe those new thoughts will lead to actions, whether advocating for mental health care services for people who can’t afford them, or something as simple as compassion and patience for the struggling young mother in the checkout line in the grocery store.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.