Karen Weber works for a non-profit. She was 35 years old when I interviewed her on August 1, 2014 in Portland, OR.
The first time I remember being depressed and having a suicide attempt was in third grade. I was pretty young, and I don't really remember a lot about it. Nobody knew… The next year, I remember wanting to kill myself by jumping out a window, but I didn't. I just stood at the window.
Then there were some good years but, again, in high school, I was depressed—I think that was brought on by boy problems. My boyfriend of two years broke up with me in my senior year. I [attempted in the evening], and went to school the next morning. I was too upset to be at school, so I came home and told my mom what I had done, and we went to the hospital. I don't really remember very much about it, except that it was too late to pump my stomach and I drank charcoal.
That's all I really remember about it. I remember my dad's response was to go in his room and close the door. We never really talked about it again after that. From then, my mom [wanted me to go to therapy, so I did that for awhile]. I eventually met a new boyfriend and moved on.
I don't remember a lot about the really early ones. I don't know if I was depressed then or just given to being dramatic. I was depressed for freshman and sophomore year in college. I went on antidepressants for the first time during sophomore year in college and then, when summer was over, I just stopped.
Then in 2003, I had my first depression-for-no-reason kind of thing. Everything was going fine. I had a job, I had a boyfriend, I had a family. Everything was totally normal and white-middle-class. Everything was fine, everything was great; I was just depressed and crying all the time. My boyfriend and I moved from New York to Portland. Even though it was an awesome new city and I was happy with him, that was the most depressed I'd ever been, up to that point.
I didn't have a job yet, but it was fine. I remember, one morning, he left for work and I was sitting by the door like, "Okay, bye!" He was scared to leave me alone in the apartment. I told him, "I'm fine. I will be fine." I could barely hold my weight up. He left. I remember I just laid down on the floor where I was. I had no energy and wanted sleep all the time. It was so confusing, because there was no reason to be feeling like that, but I did feel like that.
That day, he had forgotten something. He came back, opened the door, found me on the floor, and kind of freaked out. He called a suicide help line or something like that. They wanted to talk to me, and I didn't want to. It turned into this big thing, and he was like, "You need to get help, no matter what."
He helped me find a psychiatrist. I got on Zoloft, and it was like magic, basically. I responded really well to medicationIt got rid of those feelings. As soon as I got more stable, he left. In retrospect, I see that he was a really good guy who put up with me being depressed for all that time and didn't leave me until I was okay. It was hard to see that at the time, but I see it now.
I was on Zoloft for many years. I didn't like how it had affected my libido, so a couple years later I added Wellbutrin, and that helped a lot. I eventually went on just Wellbutrin, and I was on a low dose of that until last summer. I basically went eight years without a depressive episode. Everything was going fine so, last April, I decided I didn't want to be on medication anymore. Since it was a super low dose, my doctor [told me it was fine to taper off].
I went bonkers—the worst depression I've ever had. It affected my work, affected my friends... I thought I was having some kind of nervous breakdown, so I flew down to California to see my mom. I was having all these weird things coming up for me. I had this weird blockage about third grade. I asked my mom [about it], and I was kind of expecting her to say, "Oh, yeah. You had this tragic thing you forgot about," but there was no tragic thing.
Up until then my family was very, "Sweep it under the rug, put a smile on your face, and ignore it." They never talked about problems like that, never talked about emotions. My mom’s from Southern California, and very much a free-spirit, like, “Let's hug and cry and talk to each other,” but my dad is kind of stiff upper lip, East Coast, and stoic, like, “We don't express emotions. Just cover it up and go forward.” That was really the first time I'd ever talked about that part of my life with my mom. It was good.
I came back to Portland. I was still depressed. More depressed. I started going to this naturopath who was super helpful for me. Not in a fixing-my-brain kind of way—just talking. I went to a psychic, and that's how I found the naturopath. She talked to all the spirits and everything that's around. She said, "I don't know what it is, but I think you need some help with your liver." I went to the naturopath, we did some tests, and it actually came out that I needed some liver support, which was interesting. I thought maybe they were in cahoots, but I don't think they were.
I started taking these supplements and seeing this naturopath on a regular basis. My body felt the healthiest it's ever been. I was super active and playing soccer all the time, but my mind still couldn't function. I was crying all the time. I was crying at work. I knew if I had soccer at five o’clock, I’d have the energy to go do that, but if I didn't have anything scheduled, I'd just go to bed. I'd sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day—sleeping so I didn't have to think.
I went to my general practitioner and said, “I need to get back on the antidepressants because I can’t handle this.”
She said, “Okay, but I want you to see a therapist.”
I wasn't doing very well at work. I worked in a small company, so I had a colleague who was both finance and human resources. She told me we had short-term disability if I needed to take time. Then I went to the therapist, who told me about this four-week outpatient program at Kaiser Permanente. You go there every day from noon to five, or something like that. You go through classes and work with other people. I went on short term disability and went into the program literally the next day.
The outpatient program was amazing. We had classes about how to manage your emotions, the importance of diet, and the importance of good sleep habits. We'd start every day with a check-in; people would say how they're doing. Being in a room with fifteen other people who were dealing with the same and different issues was a revelation. I'd never talked to anyone about depression or talked to anyone who knows about it. I’d talked to my boyfriend—the one who helped me get help—and he was very understanding, but he didn't understand. Being in a room with all these people who did understand what it's like to try to kill yourself, and understand what it's like to feel like there's nowhere else to go, was scary at first, but ultimately it was very helpful. I'd never been in a support group or anything before. It was so gratifying to be with all those people.
I still hadn't gone back on the Wellbutrin. The naturopath I was working with wasn't against [me taking it], but my body was feeling so healthy that I wanted to have this natural… I was like, "I don't want to go on the antidepressants. I wanna see if I can handle this myself first." Obviously I couldn't, but I was really trying.
That's the thing. Depression is like, you can have everything you want, and you still feel like dying. I've always been a very pragmatic type, and I'm like, “This doesn't make sense.” I wasn't working, so I had the mornings free; I had a support system; I had friends and family; I had financial support; and I’d just taken a month off from my job to go to this group, with no repercussions. I had everything, and I still wanted to die.
Even though the program was great and it was great to go there every day, I was still… I want to say I was having mood swings, but I was never up. My mood was flat, or I was hysterical crying. I remember sitting in my bed one time, and I was hitting my head and crying like, "I don't want to live anymore." I was like, "I have to do something about this."
I was talking to the naturopath shortly after that and bawling, just crying to him, "I can't go on like this."
He said, "Well, what are you gonna do?"
I said, "I want to kill myself. I do. I don’t want to feel this anymore..."
He said, "Do you think that this problem is gonna go away once you're dead? I don't know what's true, but how do you know you're not going to bring this into the next life with you?"
It sounds so woo-woo, but it just hit me: "Oh my god, maybe it's not the answer."
It's like I had been using suicide as this escape hatch. I realize now, it might not be. I might be stuck with this. I might kill myself and then have to do it all over again. I started becoming really interested in the soul and past life experiences and stuff like that—the thought of this being something I didn't deal with in the previous life, so I'm dealing with it now. It was at once hopeless and gave me a lot of a strength. I was like, "This is never going to go away. I can't just suicide and be done with it," but I also felt like, "We’ll take care of it."
I went back on antidepressants. Being in a group for years and years, you hear a lot of medication horror stories about, "Oh, it just stopped working for me one day," or, "I went back on it, and it didn't work," or whatever. So I was horrified when I went back on Wellbutrin and it didn't work anymore. We upped the dose, then upped the dose again. I was like a zombie. I didn't give a shit about anything at all. I was totally dead, totally flat. I'd go through the motions, that's it. “Who cares.” We added Celexa in, [increased its dosage], and then I started to balance out and feel normal. I had a really great job with great people, but something about it stressed me out, so I quit that and got the job I have now.
I wish I didn't have to be on antidepressants, but I do. I'm super happy right now. I like my job. I have a great boyfriend. I still have a great family. I am still financially stable. I'm still fairly healthy. I feel like I see this cycle every seven or eight years where I go through some kind of depressive episode—and it's taken me 30 years to figure that out. Even though I'm happy right now and stable, I know it's because of the drugs, and I'm still waiting for the shoe to drop. I'm gonna be waiting for the shoe to drop every six-to-eight years for the rest of my life, I think.
You know when you read stuff and people are like, "The gist of it is: I was really depressed, I wanted to kill myself, I got help, now I'm so happy and life is worth living?"
I don't necessarily feel like that.
I think that my life is worth living right now, but it's not so cut and dry. It's really helpful to talk with other people who understand, to read about other people who have gone through this. It's so stigmatized. Nobody's out and up-front about it.
When I started being out about it to my friends, I couldn’t believe the amount of people who were like, "Oh, one summer a few years ago, I was really depressed, and I went on antidepressants."
It's so helpful.
I read this People Magazine article about Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic skier who suffers from depression, and it's like, “Here's this totally successful person. She has everything. She's openly talking about her depression in a magazine.”
That was super helpful to see.
Des: Does it help that even Oprah has tried to kill herself?
Karen: I mean, it does and it doesn’t. People who are famous almost feel not-real. It's been much more helpful when it’s a peer; that’s what’s been really good for me.
After I went through that, I talked to my dad, my sisters, and my mom. A whole bunch of stuff came out. My dad suffers from depression, but he deals with it through exercise. One of my other sisters suffers from depression and anxiety. One sister was very understanding, but you could tell she hadn't ever been touched by mental illness. She'd been sad before, but [not like this]. She just had no idea. I think my mom has struggled with it as well.
It's interesting because… I'm 35 years old, and we never talked really about any of that stuff. We had never shared. I think about us as a family, all kind of in these silos, doing it by ourselves. Even though I had a supportive family, I still did all that really by myself. Everyone else is out there doing it by themselves too, because no one talks about it. It's not exactly like I wanna shout it through Facebook, but this seemed like a good way to take that step towards being up-front about it.
I think, for a long time, I couldn't talk about it without crying, and it's really hard to be open about something when like you're a total fucking mess about it. Now that I've had enough time to process and get to a better place, I feel like… if me being open about it helps one person, it's probably worth it.
Des: Are you afraid that your employer will find out and it will be a problem?
Karen: No. My last employer found out, and they were very supportive. The non-profit I work for now is all about having a conscious culture and treating their employees right. I've told my boss that I've gone to therapy. They’re all about taking care of yourself so you can show up present at work. I can definitely see how it would be a deterrent to employers, but I'm not worried about it in my current [job]—and I'm very lucky for that.
Des: A lot of people have said that they wanted to do the project but couldn't because they were afraid for their jobs.
Karen: Yeah, you don't know how this might come back at you. I might not have that job in two years, or five years, and who knows. But I feel like you spin it. You say, "That was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, and I went and got help." I'm all about the interview questions.
It was the hardest thing I've gone through or ever had to do. I think people don't understand because they're like, "You're young and healthy! You have people who care about you and love you! You have a car and you live in a great city! Why?" They don't understand. Those are the people who don't make you feel validated. In my head, rationally, I totally agree. I don't have any reason to be depressed. But that's the whole thing—even when you have everything, you still feel like shit. That's just what depression is, I think.
Des: What makes you depressed? What is depression?
Karen: Depression is no hope. [Depression is], “It's never gonna get better, there's nothing here, I just wanna die. I don't even want to die. I just want to cease to exist. I want to not have to think, not have to make a decision, not have to do anything. I don't want to think. I just want to not be anymore.” When I get to that point, usually I go to sleep so I don't have to think about it anymore.
Depression is being on the edge of tears or crying all the time for no fucking reason—not, like, you get set off by something. You're just walking along and the next thing you know, you're fucking crying and feeling like you want to kill yourself. It's also like, when you're in the middle of the depression and you laugh at a funny TV show, you feel like, "You shouldn't be laughing. If this was serious, you wouldn't be laughing." [It’s] invalidating myself. If I can laugh at this TV show, this is not a real depression.
Des: Weird guilt.
Karen: Yeah. A weird guilt. If so-and-so sees me out at the movies, they'll know that I'm not depressed or something like that. I always felt like I shouldn't be living my life while I was depressed. I should just be holing up and waiting for it to be over.
Des: Is suicide still an option?
Karen: Not right now. My boyfriend is someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with. We want to get married and have kids, and that gives me something concrete to look forward to. You can say, "Yeah, that will happen for me one day," or someone could say, "Yeah, it's totally possible that you can meet someone, get married, have kids, and go do whatever you want to do," but when you don't have that and you have no hope, you just [feel like it’s never going to happen]. Now that I have it, and I have this future to live for, I don't feel like I need to kill myself.
I do feel like having something to live for—and drugs—are what is keeping me going right now. I know that the antidepressants have a huge part in feeling okay, but I also feel like that whole conversation I had about the soul and past lives would be enough for me to soldier through the rest of this life for the benefit of my next life. That sounds so woo-woo.That's not the way I was raised. That's not something I practice every day. I'm not very religious, but that feels like more of a possibility than most of the religions I know of. So, I don't know, I’ll do it as right as I can for the rest of this life… because I didn't do that last life, I guess.
Des: How do you feel about the resources afforded to you here?
Karen: I was really lucky last year when I had insurance, short-term disability, and someone who knew how that worked. Even so, the paperwork and everything was so confusing. It's crazy to have to do health insurance paperwork when you're mentally not present. I don't want to say I was mentally incompetent, but there were some days that were just a haze. I definitely lost a lot of focus when I was depressed. A lot of memory, too. I think back to phone conversations with health insurance people, and then, nothing, like, "I remember that you called, but I don't remember anything about what was said."
Right now, I have insurance, but it's on my own, so I don't have short-term disability. I didn't have a therapist before, and now I have someone I can go to. It's hard when you you don't have a therapist or psychiatrist, and all you have is a general practitioner. I never would have known how to go get a therapist or how to go get a psychiatrist. Now, I'm stuck in the Kaiser Permanente system and scared to leave. You can only see Kaiser doctors when you're in Kaiser. You can't go anywhere else, and you can't be outside the system and go see a Kaiser doctor. When I bought my own insurance, I had to buy the Kaiser one, which is fine. I've got good care there, but it is a little... I don't know how I feel about resources. I don't know where I would go if I didn't have support from friends and family.
Des: Do you feel happy with their support?
Karen: I think it's hard. A lot of people don't know what to do or how to help. Then you alienate people because you don't return their calls or emails. I tried to write this one email like twenty-five times: "I'm having a hard time right now. Thank you for your support. I'm sorry if I don't reach out, but I still need you," but I couldn't write it. I couldn't finish it. I was depressed for several months last year, and that's longer than some people can [handle].
Oh, you know what’s interesting? A few years ago, one of the best friends I ever had… I think he was bipolar. Sometimes he was super manic and had so much energy, and other times he would just drop off the map. He would just be gone.
I saw, over the period of a year or two, how he got addicted to shopping. He had a very addictive personality. I saw him lose his apartment because he couldn't keep a job. He was so talented. He was a super talented woodworker, working at a really prestigious place in town, but he couldn't keep going to work, so he got another job at a cabinet shop. He couldn't keep going to work there… I saw him decline. Then he put all of his stuff into a storage unit, but didn't pay the bill, so they got rid of it.
He was living in his car, and then he went to live with his parents, and we just never heard from him. I would still reach out, I would still text him and email him and try and call. He would never pick up. I invited him to things. After a while, I just stopped because I was like, "He obviously does not want to."
I was kind of mad at him. Yeah, I was mad. He was the best friend I've ever had.
That was years ago. A couple winters ago, he came back. He showed up at a party and was like, "Hey guys, I'm back!"
I was pissed. I didn't want to talk to him. I was like, "You fucking dumped us. Dumped me. Never talked. Why would I want to talk to you right now?"
He was like, "I understand."
We met for coffee and I was cold. I was so hurt. He was trying to explain to me that he just couldn't do it, and I didn't understand. Even as someone with mental illness, I didn't understand about his. Now I'm like, "Oh, I should have just been there. Why did I give up so quick?" Then I think about my friends, and how hurt I felt when I stopped hearing from them. I can see the parallels.
I guess some part of me was hurt that people weren't checking up on me all the time because they knew I was going through a hard time. But I understand why they didn't. It's really hard to give care to someone who doesn't give anything back. They're calling, and I don't call back. They email, and I don't email back. They invite me to something, and I don't RSVP, and I don't show up. I can understand that it's hard to keep putting stuff out there with no response coming back.
Des: Yeah, my [wife] says it's like you're just gone. Like your body is there, but you're not.
Karen: It’s a very self-centered feeling. I had no room for emotions that weren't depression. If someone got a new job or went on a nice date, I couldn't even act happy for them, even though I knew I was. Rationally I'm like, "That's great for you. I am happy for you. Why can't I feel happy for you?” It's like there's no room for anything except for depression.
There's room for more depression. There's room for sad news, because sometimes you get in that spiral of making yourself feel worse and worse. You know that you're going down the spiral and you don't care, like, "Okay. I'm just gonna feel like shit so I feel like more shit." It feeds on itself.
Des: And you have to learn how to recognize and stop that.
Karen: It's really hard. By the time you get there, you don't feel like stopping it anymore. That's the thing that's always so screwed up to me: sometimes, when I was depressed, I'd want to be more depressed. It's like, "Well, I'm already here. I might as well just get worse." Feeling worse is so much easier than feeling better. Feeling better is really hard to do, but feeling worse? I can do that for sure.
Des: It's a skill.
Karen: Yeah, I know how to spiral down, but I can't climb back up.
Des: Tell me more about what it felt like when the medication stopped working and also what it feels like to know that you are on a cycle.
Karen: As far as the cycle, I'm kind of scared of it. I feel like the depression has gotten worse every time. Is next time going to be even worse? That makes me think, "Well, if I'm on my antidepressants, maybe I won't have it." When I went off the antidepressants, it was immediately a downward spiral, but there's part of me that's like, "I have to take these for the rest of my life?"
When I first went on this super low dose of Wellbutrin, I was like, "I wanna not be on antidepressants." I ended up on like four times as much as when I started. It's scary to think that I'm dependent on these drugs that might one day just stop working for no reason.
Then, with my boyfriend talking about getting married and having kids, that is really fucking scary. When I have a child, I'm gonna have to go off these medications. That is totally freaking me out because we want to have kids. I'm scared of postpartum depression. I'm like, "Oh, great, so I go off my meds, I get pregnant, and then I have to deal with my depression and postpartum depression? Can it get any worse? Am I gonna be able to get through that?”
My boyfriend has not been with me for a depressive episode; that scares me too. It's still a fairly new relationship, and he hasn't experienced that at all. I don't want him to experience it, but odds are, he probably will. He doesn't have any experience or faculties to help me through that when the time comes. We've talked about it a little bit.
So, yeah. I'm on this medication for the rest of my life. If I go off it, it's going to be a bad, bad time, but I'm gonna have to go off it at some point to have a kid. That's definitely something that I'll work with doctors on. That's not something I'm gonna try and do on my own. It is interesting that, last year, I thought that with diet, exercise, and meditation, I could control my depression, but I couldn't.
You read these articles about people who have conquered depression by like, cutting out gluten or meditating or whatever, and you feel like a failure because you can’t. I feel like a failure because I have to rely on medication to make me normal. To make me me. It branches out into this whole thing like, "What if we didn't have this medication, then where would you be?"
Des: How do you think we can get people to be more open about their experiences?
Karen: One thing about depression is that some symptoms are so similar to someone who's upset about something. Everyone has had that experience, being upset and crying and whatever. Other symptoms of depression are the same symptoms of someone who's just an asshole—someone who doesn't smile, doesn't laugh, doesn't want to get together, doesn't respond to your emails. That person is a dick.
It's hard to say, "No, those are symptoms."
People are like, "No, you're just a dick."
Depression is so many things. Some people sleep. Some people can't sleep. Some people can't stop crying. Some people have no emotions at all.
I fall asleep all the time. My memory is not good when I'm depressed. It's not cookie cutter. They may have experienced a depressed mother, but I'm not the same as their mother.
People don't want to be out with it because all the symptoms are so similar to other things. If you had cancer, you'd be accepting help from every direction. You'd be open about it, and you'd be posting status updates like, "I had a great day today. Felt terrific!"
You never do that with depression, and why?
I feel like some people do get depressed because of situations, but I feel like other times it's just chemical. It's a physical disability.
People don't understand that. They say, "Well, last time I was sad, I just cheered up after a little while! Chin up!"
Even my mom says, "Well just keep going, push through, and it will eventually stop."
Des: Do you think sharing these stories is dangerous?
Karen: I don't know. As much as I think that depression is a physical ailment, it also manifests emotionally. To be that open and vulnerable when talking about it feels a little bit dangerous. Or, maybe not dangerous.
I did think about this like, "Oh, if my name is on the website and someone Googles me, they would see it." Yeah, I can talk to my friends and my boyfriend about it, but what if my boyfriend's sister or whoever finds it? I guess, right now, I feel stable enough that I'm okay with it.
I wish there was a sign, like, "I'm suffering from depression," so we could identify each other and talk like this. Every once in a while, you'll see something on Facebook or you'll hear from someone else, and you're like, "Oh, that person is someone I could talk to and they would understand, probably." It's like being able to identify someone else who has had those same feelings as you, but there's no signal. There's no way to really know unless they put it out there, and no one puts it out there.
I guess I would hope that, by being open about it, it will validate other people. I was looking on your website, and I wondered, "Do people have this stereotype of people who attempt suicide? I'm totally white bread, middle class, whatever." It can happen to the “school freak” and it can happen to the “totally normal person.” It's not just alternative people or people who get bullied. It can happen to anybody.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
Karen's story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Al Smith for providing the transcription to Karen's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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