By Heather Alberts
A Humbling Journey
A survivor encounters the depths of depression and the power of support on the road to recovery
By Heather Alberts
For most of my life, I had been the happiest person anyone knew. Then, about two years ago, I found myself falling down a deep, dark hole. At 65, I had developed not just a sense of being lost but also of despair. It was my first real recognition that I was clinically depressed.
In April 2006, I shared these dark feelings with my husband. I had married Dave when I was 22, at the beginning of his second year of medical school, before he became an oncologist. In his wonderfully rational way, he explained that depression was an imbalance in my body’s chemistry—possibly a result of my stage 0 breast cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS) two years earlier, treatment of the disease, aging, or all of the above.
My husband’s explanation felt like a relief and gave me the strength to ask for help. He encouraged me to see a health professional who could help me both medically and psychologically. To do so, I realized, would be to admit I had a mental illness—a daunting and foreign concept. In my mind, this was the descriptor for those in deep psychological trouble. But, indeed, this was just what I was experiencing. It was an amazingly humbling thought.
My first step was to see a psychiatrist, Karen Weihs, who specializes in treating women with breast cancer. She listened as I explained the beginning of this new experience for me and how frightening it was. I discussed my diagnosis of DCIS and the three months I spent on a clinical trial of tamoxifen a year later. Even back then, I recalled, I had a slight tingling of sadness and depression. And when the feelings crept back in 2006, I began to feel real physical pain.
I talked with the psychiatrist about all of this and the other events in my life. I seemed to have a lot of time on my hands. Because my four grandchildren were now in school, there was less need for me to pitch in. And then, there was my husband’s job as the director of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson. Until this point in our lives together, I had been quite independent with a satisfying career of my own. But now that I was retired, I felt I had lost my identity and had somehow become simply “the director’s wife.” The good news was that my psychiatrist understood this. And so we set up a plan that included an antidepressant and weekly counseling appointments.
But getting better wasn’t so simple. The next day, I had a checkup with my oncologist and told her about my prescription. She was surprised, suggesting that I “tough it out without drugs.” I said I would give it a try. A week later, I was in excruciating pain and called my psychiatrist. I started the antidepressant and felt better within 24 hours. But as the days wore on, I began to feel physically unwell. Dave and I went to our beloved retreat home in Sedona, Ariz., and I finally told him how badly I felt. We called the psychiatrist, and I switched to another drug. Then I decided again to go it alone, without drugs. What a mistake. I was deeply depressed, nauseous and wanted only to stay in bed. I lost my appetite and couldn’t find anything that made me feel better. Driving back to Tucson, I sat in the passenger’s seat wanting to curl up and die. For the first time, I could glimpse what contemplating suicide was like for those deeply in pain.