Like many who have struggled with depression, my journey is not one that I readily discuss with just anyone. As a mom, wife, and (especially) a business owner, I was afraid that talking about my depression would make me appear weak or unwanted as a photographer. But if I’ve learned anything in the past year and a half, it’s that while the stigma around mental health is certainly lessening, it’s still a topic that needs to be normalized and discussed often. I’m proud of and thankful for my journey, and I’m ready to share it.
Depression isn’t something that I struggled with for years and years. It was something that crept up on me in the midst of the worst year of my life. Towards the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, I found myself recovering from a slew of diagnoses: MTHFR, Hashimoto’s, and IBS. I was also still breastfeeding my one-year-old son and growing a business. Life was hard – REALLY hard. I could barely get out of bed, I was constantly nauseous, and I felt tired all the time. I made progress day by day, but I certainly wasn’t my normal self. And everything just took longer to fix than I thought it would.
There was one night in January of 2017 when I was FaceTiming with my best friend from high school. I sobbed and told her how worried I was about my recovery. It was overwhelming, and I simply didn’t have a handle on my emotions. Being the phenomenal doctor-in-training that she was (and the amazing doctor that she now IS), she listened intently, and adamantly encouraged me to talk to my primary care physician (PCP) about how I was feeling and about my worries. Dr. BFF validated every feeling that I had and made me understand that there was help available.
Later that week, I talked to my PCP about everything. She already knew what was going on as she had seen me at least once a week for the last month (and gotten several texts and calls in the in between days – she’s also ridiculously amazing), but vocalizing it was like lifting a weight off of my shoulders. After discussing some options, she gave me a prescription to help with my anxiety (officially General Anxiety Disorder). But together we quickly learned that this was not the easiest or best course of action for me and my body. Because of my MTHFR, every medicine I tried caused severe adverse side effects. I started seeing a therapist, and she helped me begin to understand and control my anxiety. However, the depression was another story. It crept up slowly and became a serious problem. There were times that I was barely able to make Henry a sandwich for lunch. While I never contemplated taking my own life, I remember truly feeling like the pain and mental fog would never end and I’d never be “normal” again. After another discussion with my therapist, back to the doctor I went.
Being the brilliant and determined and simply intelligent doctor that she is, my PCP suggested that I should try a treatment called TMS or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Anything was worth a shot, so I made an appointment. The psychiatrist that I saw told me that I was an ideal candidate for the treatment, and I started the following week. During TMS treatment a magnetic device is strapped to your head and pulses are sent to the same area of the brain that anti-depressants stimulate. However, the side effects are much more minimal because there is nothing going through your blood stream. The psychiatrist evaluates your specific needs, and that determines the pulse strength and frequency. You sit with the device strapped to you for 20-30 minutes per session while you watch TV or read. It feels more-or-less like a woodpecker is pecking at your head.
Here’s the kicker, though. The treatment is five days a week for approximately six weeks (thankfully our insurance covered nearly all of it). This element of it definitely makes the treatment a serious commitment. But it was worth every. single. session. After completing only three weeks of treatment, I no longer was considered clinically depressed. The only side effect I did experience was chronic headaches, but once I completed the full 35 sessions, the headaches were totally gone. This treatment changed my life. It was evident to everyone around me that I was a different person. I was more active and enjoyed all of the simple things about being a mom once again.
It’s been nearly a year since my last treatment. In that year, I’ve done some more fine-tuning of my health and worked to get back to my “old self.” I started acupuncture (again at the suggestion of my PCP – have I mentioned how awesome she is?), and that has reduced my anxiety significantly, calmed my stomach, and changed my life in an equally positive way that TMS did. I’m not back to my old self; I’m a much better self. The knowledge that I have the tools to ensure that I don’t suffer from depression again is truly empowering.
I’ve never been someone to hold my feelings back, but I still had trouble explaining all of my feelings to my husband. It’s so difficult to describe the feelings of anxiety and depression to someone who has never experienced the same things. Thankfully, Will asked a lot of questions and always let me discuss what was going on at my own pace. Even when he didn’t fully understand what was going on in my head, he constantly made me feel supported. That’s the best advice I can give to anyone who is trying to help someone struggling with their mental health: simply be there. Validate their feelings. Don’t say “I understand” as an instinct if you don’t actually understand. And keep reaching out. The New York Times wrote an article about what else one can do when someone they know is depressed, and it has some great advice.
To be honest, I had never heard of TMS before my PCP suggested it. And no one outside of the medical community that I’ve talked to has ever heard of it, either. That’s why I decided it was time to share. In total I had over 100 doctors’ appointments in 2017. Over half of those were mental health-related. Getting a handle on it has been the biggest struggle of my life. But it’s the single most important journey I’ve taken. I am a better mother, wife, and business owner because of these struggles. They do not make me weak; in fact, they make me a strong, badass woman who knows she can handle anything that life throws at her. And I can’t wait to share the rest of that wonderful life with the people I love most in this world. It felt impossible to be at this point when I was at my lowest, but there’s always hope. There’s always help. And there’s always a new chance at a fresh start.
All photographs taken by Shannon Carlsen Photography