Depression and Power


So there I was—the victim of depression and antidepressants.  I no longer could tolerate antidepressants but I was still depressed.  Then one day I was talking to Mary Lou Rubenstein and she told me that the trigger for depression is the perception of powerlessness.  In her family, Mary Lou was surrounded by depression—both unipolar and bipolar—in her parent’s generation, her siblings’, and her children’s.  If you wanted to make a case for depression being genetic, Mary Lou’s family would have been your case study.

Mary Lou was not depressed.  Mary Lou was trained as a social worker and became an activist.  When confronted by a sea of troubles, she took arms against them, however, when she was about seventy, she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  She had finally met something over which she was powerless and she got depressed.  She talked to a friendly neuropsychologist who was always referred to as “the brilliant doctor so-and-so,” and he explained that depression was triggered by the perception of powerlessness, so I went to talk to the fellow.

We talked about powerlessness, and I told him that I no longer could take drugs, then he put me through six hours of tests followed by a massive report about what was right and wrong with me and concluding with a recommendation of which drugs I should take.  “But I can’t take drugs,” I howled in dismay.

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t think you meant it.”  We talk about care providers not listening, but it is not that they don’t listen—after all, the brilliant neuropsychologist remembered what I had said.  It is that they don’t believe us.

So I wept and went home, devastated that he’d had nothing to offer but more drugs.  But I kept thinking about this idea that powerlessness was the trigger for depression.  If powerlessness was the switch that turned on depression then couldn’t you turn it off by acting with power?

Traditional psychiatry talks about depression and “helplessness.”  There is a difference between being helpless and being powerless.  Helplessness is being unable to defend yourself or to act without assistance.  Powerlessness is lacking strength, resources or authority.  The difference between helpless and powerless is subtle but significant.  Helplessness is a state in which you need somebody else to take care of you:  it is called “being a child.”  Powerlessness is a condition in which you cannot take care of yourself.  In other words, helplessness is a normal condition for children but as the child grows into adulthood, the person should be acquiring power.  “Mommy, I’m hungry” is a normal statement of childhood; “I’m going to go cook supper” is the normal statement of adulthood.  We move from helpless dependence on others to powerful independence in our selves.

But what if poor parenting results in a helpless child who grows into a powerless adult?  Or it’s sick alternative:  an adult with a normal power level who is compromised by drugs?  Unbeknownst to me, Dr. Peter Breggin was writing about it while I was living it.  I did not perceive antidepressants as my enemy but as my friend. In an inpatient group exercise, the participants were asked what three things they would want if they were stranded on a desert island.  I was the only person who said I wanted my drugs.

I was a believer, however, during the quarter of a century that I took antidepressants I did not marry, have children, finish college or develop a career.  I did lose jobs, become unable to work, and become a “psychiatric patient” whose life revolved around group activities organized by “normals” for such damaged people.  I became homeless, then wholly dependent on government support through Social Security Disability, Medicare, Medicaid, HUD housing, Food Stamps and HEAP.  I acquired severe obstructive sleep apnea, left ventricle hypertrophy, right branch bundle block, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, chronic renal failure, celiac disease and cataracts, all caused by or seriously exacerbated by antidepressants.  However, with my brain dulled by antidepressants, I did not see the cause-and-effect relationship between drugs and my terrible life.

Then, in 2001, I stopped taking drugs and began to get my brain back.  I would wake in the morning and think.  My mind would leap from one idea to another like a mountain goat leaping from one high crag to another.  As I watched my mind leaping into the far distance I realized that the drugged years were like having one foot nailed to the floor:  all I did was go around in circles.  Without drugs, I was traveling forward in great leaps and bounds.  And where I was traveling to was Power.

If powerlessness was the trigger for depression then wouldn’t power be the cure for depression?

I began to see my depressive episodes as a call to power.  A Medicaid transportation call-taker denied me all power:  every time I said something she didn’t like then she would slam me onto hold without notice.  I once spent half an hour on the phone in the doctor’s office just trying to get a ride home.  And I got depressed.  At home, I would lie in bed and cry after going three rounds with this nasty girl.  Finally I started filing complaints.  I complained to her supervisor, who did nothing.  I complained to the supervisor’s supervisor, who also did nothing.  Then I complained to the executive director, who fired the girl.  And I learned power!

When you are boxed in by depression then the way out is to kick the sides down, not to take drugs that make you comfortable with being in the box.  The first lesson I learned about power was that everybody has a boss.  If you don’t get what you need from the person you’re talking to then go over that person’s head.  I am continually shocked by how many people live at the level they are at and don’t consider going up a level.  If you are dissatisfied with the goods or services you are getting then why wouldn’t you kick it up a notch?

After the people who don’t think about climbing the hierarchy come the people who are afraid to try.  I don’t understand that either.  What is the resistance to taking your complaint to a higher level?  What is there to be afraid of?  Why are people so resistant to climbing the hierarchy?  What I learned was that the higher you go up the ladder, the more likely you are to find successful resolution for your problem.  Frontline workers are stupid and/or inexperienced.  The higher you go up the line the more apt you are to find people of intelligence and experience.

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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2 Responses to Depression and Power

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