The Story of Me

Excerpt from "It's Not Always Depression"

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I was born into a family of Freudians and a culture where mind over matter was the mantra. My mother had been a guidance counselor and my father was a psychiatrist. They believed that I could and should control my feelings with intellectual insight. Emotions were rarely discussed at home and, if they were, it was the goal to master them or “fix” them.

My clear memories begin around the fourth grade, when I started to feel self-conscious. My mother always told me I was beautiful and smart, but I didn’t feel it. I felt stupid and ugly. When I looked in the mirror I felt that I came up short. I wasn’t bullied and was friendly with the cool kids, but I always felt separate and insecure. As an adult, I realized that what I was feeling was anxiety and shame.

In middle school, I excelled academically. With each good grade and honor society mention my confidence grew. I developed the belief that if I worked hard, I would succeed and be recognized. With each success and recognition, I felt relief from insecurity.

Around that time, my seventh-grade English teacher had us read Freud and I became obsessed with psychoanalysis. In retrospect, it must have helped me understand myself in a way that made me feel in control. My passion for psychoanalysis continued to grow through high school to the point that my friends begged me to stop analyzing everyone. So I curbed my hobby of providing free—albeit unwanted—psychoanalysis and, instead, read voraciously on the topic.

By that time, I had decided I wanted to be a doctor like my father. I loved and was good at science, and I received a tremendous amount of positive attention for that decision. Up until my junior year in college, I never questioned my path, but I had never really considered what the day-to-day life of a doctor looked like. In college I signed up for a course called Contemporary Psychoanalysis. Much to my chagrin, I realized that in fact it was an anti-Freudian course in feminism. For the first half of the semester, I sat righteously in the small seminar, me against ten radical feminists. Confident in my position, I argued fervently about why Freud was brilliant and his theories valid. After about five classes, I realized that my arguments were falling on deaf ears. In fact, my classmates had brought up some solid counterarguments and research that I found incredibly persuasive. The thought occurred to me that maybe I could learn something if I wasn’t so busy arguing.

By the end of the course, I had started to question everything, including the values and beliefs of my parents, my society, and my culture. I started to consider why I had decided to be a doctor. As embarrassing as it was for me to admit at the time, I realized that my fantasy of being a doctor had everything to do with achieving a certain lifestyle and nothing to do with wanting to treat physical illness. When I imagined myself dealing with very sick people and having to deliver a dire diagnosis to their loved ones, I found the prospect too difficult—too anxiety provoking. I bristled at the responsibility. I didn’t want to deal with such heavy issues of loss and death—topics we had always avoided in my family—on a daily basis.

I was too scared to abandon the medical track and I needed an immediate plan or I would be lost, out of control. Starting from childhood and up until this point I had been driven by the desire to minimize my anxiety. I was making decisions, big and small, with the goal of having a long-term plan for my life to ensure I would be happy. I had many fears festering under the surface that I believed I could avoid if I just stayed on course to achieving a good career and finding a good husband. So . . . I decided to become a dentist.

In dental school, I met my first husband and I thought everything was working out perfectly. I had an amazing partner, I was ready to start a family, and my lucrative career was on track. Then step-by-step everything fell apart. I became a dentist but hated it and left the field a year after graduation. My decision to leave dentistry upset my husband, my in-laws, and my father terribly— I lost their approval and esteem. After six years of marriage, my husband and I were unable to manage the conflicts that had arisen between us. I was lost, alone, and afraid. Couples therapy didn’t help. We had no way to solve our problems; our marriage ended. I was single again, with two little children and no career. Everything I thought I knew and was confident about proved wrong for me. I loved my daughters, but I felt lost and without a compass. For the first time in my life I was off track and without a plan. 

To support myself, I took a series of unfulfilling jobs. I rose up the corporate ladder to a management position at Maybelline Cosmetics, worked in the Garment District, started a home-based business selling vitamins, and headed sales for a new medical soft- ware company. Nothing felt right; nothing felt like me.

At that time, I took pride and pleasure in my stoicism, my toughness, and my “mind over matter” attitude. When things didn’t go well, I made changes. I believed that I controlled what I wanted to feel. I proudly pushed aside fears, longings, and any other emotion that I deemed useless or counterproductive. Then my former husband announced that he was getting remarried. Although I was happy for him, I had an emotional reaction that blindsided me. I fell into a depression. I became overwhelmed by life. His marriage suddenly symbolized and sealed my utter aloneness in the world. I was afraid, and I was also ashamed that I was afraid. Fear begat shame, anxiety, and, in turn, depression.

It had never occurred to me that pushing myself, growing a career, raising children, and seeking a new partner would cause me to crash and burn. I thought I would be fine—after all, I always had been. But my emotional mind had another agenda. I was overwhelmed and I shut down. My lethargy grew until I couldn’t leave my bed. I found refuge under my covers, lying in darkness, hiding from people and the daily demands of my life. It was the only place I felt safe.

My sister, Amanda, suggested that I see a psychiatrist to treat my depression. I was so checked out of myself that it never even occurred to me I had been suffering from depression, but once she suggested it, I knew she was right.

My psychiatrist suggested I take Prozac. She diagnosed me as having an agitated depression—a depression with lots of anxiety. She explained that stress made it harder for the body to manufacture a brain chemical called serotonin. When serotonin levels dip too low, depression results. When stress is relieved, serotonin production increases to its original levels and the depression goes away.

All I could say was, “Thank goodness for Prozac!” Four weeks later, I was up and around, functioning like I had been before, but I was forever changed by this experience. For the first time, I appreciated and respected my emotions for their power. I learned I had to pay attention to my feelings, to listen carefully to what they were telling me, and to take actions in accordance with what I was feeling. Still, I wasn’t exactly sure how to tend to my feelings, how to act on them appropriately, or how to understand them. I started psychoanalytic psychotherapy and was able to dis- continue taking Prozac after six months. Having a place where I could talk about myself and my life was indeed helpful.

I decided to alter my priorities. Instead of choosing work based on what it paid, I would focus on a career based on my interests, and my interests had always drawn me toward psychology. I received a master’s degree in social work and then enrolled in a four-year postgraduate program for psychoanalytic training.

From the book IT’S NOT ALWAYS DEPRESSION by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. Copyright (c) 2018 by Hilary Jacobs Hendel. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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