How do you solve a problem like Cecelia?

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Her name was not Cecelia, but she could have worn that name like an ermine mantle, with her red curly hair and blue eyes that spoke of the frozen North. Her hair made me think of Viking escapades. At first sight of her, I recalled how St. Brendan spotted Judas chained to a rock in the North Atlantic and that I imagined long ago that the Vikings had also witnessed the captive Judas at sea, his significance lost on them. Both St. Brendan and the Vikings may have visited America, a land unknown to others of their homelands. Like them, Cecelia went to a place unknown but imagined by those of us left behind. Now Cecelia’s red hair has been buried since January, because that was when she took her life.

I feel it is apt to mention something as obscure as St. Brendan’s voyage to America because it ties into my memories of depression. I have trouble recalling the things I learned and my experiences while depressed, as if I had picked up a notebook dropped in the rain. A few passages are clear yet most of material has bled together. Hearing that detail of St. Brendan’s journey, that he allegedly saw Judas freezing and sodden, chained to a rock in the North Atlantic, is one of the limited academic memories I have of my college days due to major depression. I feel that I need to capture my memories of Cecelia now since my episodes of that disease are minor these days in comparison.

Explaining her end has one thing in common with my apologetics for leaving my daughter’s father. No matter how many times I explain it, the theory or theme is different than the time before, yet no new explanation really eclipses a previous one. It’s almost like walking through a labyrinth loaded with random fun house mirrors. The reflection changes, cannot be taken at face value, yet the person (oneself) being reflected is in a concrete sense the same. Would it be better to keep walking and ignore these distortions? Or I must I consider these reflections to get out of this labyrinth?

Often I consider that I was arrogant to think that I could mentor her out of her darkness, and that I failed to believe that her struggle was any worse than mine had been. Time and time again I assured her that she could find a way to survive because I had done so. I admitted to her that my depression lasted for most of her life (she lived only 29 years) and that I had been so afflicted at times that I prayed God would take me and blot out any memory or evidence of my existence so no one would mourn me. I told her that my healing began when I lowered my expectations to the point that I had done well enough on any given day if I lived through it, that I was a success if I stayed alive until a death caused by anything but suicide. To live until God in his wisdom decided I had had enough was my only goal, the sole aim that did not aggravate my depression when it was at its worst.  Once I had lowered my expectations so radically, my healing began. I was pleased little by little by the tiny accomplishments of the day to day, restored at a glacial pace.

One of the cruelest aspects of mental illness is that our story may not help other sufferers, that each of us lives a distinct private hell that seems too disimilar to the trajectory of other’s illnesses to find much comfort or guidance in someone else’s story. Instead of understanding that Cecelia was blind in this regard, I would periodically feel too angry or frustrated with her to deal with hearing more of her downward spiral. By then she wouldn’t be giving me updates on her life for a time, probably tired of hearing me tell her once again that she could make it through because I had.

Now I know that her illness was much more complicated than mine. She had a dual diagnosis of mental illess and substance abuse, though she did not abuse illegal drugs. Her drug dependence was confined to legal substances, prescription medications supplemented with astounding dosages of Benedryl and sporadic use of alcohol. The combo she took on a daily basis could have provoked the sleep of Rip Van Winkle in the uninitiated, but this regimen was not enough to relieve her anxiety and insomnia. Her medically sanctioned, long term dependence on these substances had annihilated her capacity to sleep naturally. For her, the pursuit of a cure or even reliable relief proved to be worse than the disease itself. She did try inpatient treatment, day programs, even a 12 step program. Somehow her involvement in these measures only deepened her dependence, like going on a diet and eventually weighing more than you did when the diet started. Is there such a thing as Yo-Yo rehab?  Could there ever be an Oprah of Recovery? Someone vulnerable yet brave enough to show their struggle with addiction in real time, as Oprah has with her attempts at weight loss?

While it is possible that my history of depression was worse at times than hers, there is no doubt that her struggle with addiction was harder than any affliction I’ve experienced. In the core of me, I feel that there is the unfortunate potential to become an addict, but my circumstances have not developed that problem too much. I am addicted to nicotine and caffeine, had bulimia as a teenager, and have had more than my fair share of compulsive overeating. None of this comes close to taking heavy doses of two, sometimes three different benzos on a daily basis and topping it off with at least 200mg of Benedryl a day . . . and adding glasses of wine if sleep is still elusive. This was not some extreme exercise in hedonism or self indulgence. Imagine being unable to sleep and an facing apocalypse-grade panic if you did not take these substances.

A week before she died, she mentioned to me that she was up to taking 600 mg of Benedryl a day. I thought she was exaggerating, which in retrospect is an odd assumption because she was not prone to inflating such numbers. Except regarding her involvement with men she was better off never knowing, she was the most candid person I’ve known.

When I heard that she died, I assumed she had died of a drug overdose. Her progression of dosing did not make this impossible. I had dreamed that she would die in this manner two years before her passing, that she would die in a hotel room while snow was on the ground. I did not reveal this dream to her but instead urged her to either seek inpatient care or rehab to adjust her medications. Not long after that dream, I had another dream in which my sister was her midwife and she gave birth to a radiant red headed baby girl. I did tell her about the birth dream because I hoped that it might offer a glimmer of hope for the future, for she wanted most of all to get her life in order and become a mother. I look back on this and now see that telling her about the birth dream may have been depressing to her because she also had PCOS which would have made conception difficult for her. The thought of getting well and then climbing the mountain of possible infertility may have seemed too much to bear. In the days after she died, I heard that one of the last things she said was, “I will never be a mom.”

Drugs were not the cause of her death. She posted a question on Facebook about a local news story, as if she were waiting for an answer, then went into the bathroom of her hotel room and hanged herself. She contacted many people in the week before her death, sounding worried about the meds she was taking but slightly hopeful about the future and taking a small job offer. I wonder if these measures were to allay suspicion of her pending suicide. She called us to say goodbye and wanted no one to try talking her out of it.

Her state of mind was a terminal condition. We hear how people lose or win their battles against major physical illnesses like cancer, but I have yet to hear those terms used for mental illness. Perhaps it is time we did. Cecelia was one of the 40,000+ Americans who will lose their battles with mental illness this year.

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