As told to Marnie Goodfriend
I was about 6 years old when I began to feel that the world was dark, and I was very alone. My parents were neglectful and in denial about my mental health. They weren’t equipped to raise a sick child. My dad was a military man, and appearances meant everything to him. It was the early ’70s, and depression wasn’t openly discussed. I still tried to describe how I felt, only to be told I was a “hypochondriac” who was “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
I learned very quickly that my home wasn't a safe place. I was expected to be a perfect child, to do well in school and to be the peacemaker in my family, making sure everybody was happy — except me. I was painfully shy, so I didn't reach out to friends or other people for help. In my teens, I developed an eating disorder as a coping mechanism for my debilitating depression and obsessive-compulsive traits, trying to control the outer world because my inner world was chaotic. I was good at wearing a mask to cover up my pain, but when I couldn't cover it up, I wouldn't leave the house. When I got to college, I knew I had to confide in someone about my depression or I would end up dead.
I was studying psychology and got a position working in a psychiatric hospital. That's when I started seeing a great therapist who diagnosed me with depression, anxiety and borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The first medication I was prescribed didn't do anything for me. A few years later, I met my now-husband, Geoff, as I continued therapy a few times a week, trying different medications and using alcohol to numb out. I desperately wanted to figure out why I was always suicidally depressed.
When I found out I was pregnant with my son in 1996, I stopped taking the two medications I was prescribed. Looking back, I probably had postpartum depression after he was born, but I was very focused on taking care of him. Nursing him for the first year kept the hormones at bay, but everything fell apart when I weaned him off, and I tried to take my life. That was my first time as a patient in a psychiatric hospital.
Over the years, I tried antidepressants in every category and a combination of other antipsychotic anti-anxiety medicines, but very little changed. At one point, I was on nine different medications. These cocktails of medications had horrific side effects — some of them were worse than my depression, such as ending up in the ER because I couldn’t urinate, hearing voices and having extreme irritability.
After several unsuccessful treatments, which included medication, electric convulsive therapy, close to a dozen hospitalizations over 15 years and several suicide attempts, my depression was classified as treatment-resistant. I only experienced two feelings — severe depression and anxiety — and thought about killing myself daily. In 2007, without my doctor's consent, I decided to taper myself off my medications because none of them were lifting my depression. Instead, I used extreme exercise to pull myself out of my dark world. It worked for a very brief time — until it didn’t. Drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, exercise and shopping were all forms of escapism and a way for me to feel a temporary high, but they didn’t address the core issue and, ultimately, they failed me.
Nothing I tried worked for very long, if at all. In 2014, I decided I was done with all the treatments and I refused to go back into a psychiatric unit. I put all my energy into working with my therapist, who came to my home because I was suffering from agoraphobia and couldn’t leave my house for several years. I spent most of my time in our walk-in closet. The therapist and I focused on behavior modification to try to desensitize myself so I could enter the world again.
I woke up every day angry, crying and asking God, “When am I going to stop feeling like this?” In January 2015, I almost lost my life from another attempted suicide and slipped into a coma. Geoff was desperate, looking for any way to help me, and he found a small blurb written in Psychology Today about people with treatment-resistant depression finding success with the psychedelic drug ketamine. I regained consciousness and agreed to try it, but I told him that he would have to accept that he had to let me go if it didn't work.
Fortunately, ketamine was my answer.
Vials of ketamine, 2022 (Photo/Susan Gayhart)
Ketamine is stigmatized as a street drug and for its hallucinogenic effects. The treatments are also very expensive, not usually covered by insurance, and at the time, there were few clinics in the U.S. that even offered the treatment. I found a psychiatrist in New Jersey who could give me the medicine, so I had to travel eight hours to his office and get a hotel to receive six treatments in two weeks under his care before returning home to Virginia.
A person typically knows if ketamine will be beneficial for them within six treatments, but I knew from day one, because I was still struggling with agoraphobia at the time. Geoff asked me if I wanted to go to the mall with him, a place that terrified me, but I didn’t feel anxious. I still had fearful thoughts about it, but my body didn’t respond to them. That was the first good sign. The third treatment uplifted my depression enough for me to be smiling. Other people around me — my family, my husband and my son — noticed a difference before I did. Even taking a shower, which was previously overwhelming to me, seemed like a good idea. To have a sense of joy, to giggle and to have it be genuine were all new feelings for me.
I eventually found a doctor closer to me who administered intramuscular ketamine, a procedure where the drug is injected into your muscle from a syringe. After the injection, I would retreat to a side room, put on headphones, meditate for 45 minutes and leave. As I started to feel better, I was able to integrate healthy coping mechanisms into my life. Now I’m virtually symptom-free for the two-week period in between treatments. I might have a suicidal thought or two, but I don't entertain them. I have more control over where my mind wanders.
I've replaced the word “depression” with melancholy or low mood because that word has a different meaning for me. I can feel a wide range of emotions that I only knew the definitions of, but had never experienced. Whenever I have a bad day, I think of what my son once said to me: “Old Susan lived in a closet. She would have given anything for your bad days today.” I keep that close to my heart. I honor my feelings, but they don’t dominate my life.
I never kept things from my son, and I wanted him to know it was okay to talk about hard feelings and difficult situations. Geoff is my person; I literally wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for him. He and my son made it worth staying on this earth. It's hard to have somebody grow up with a parent with severe depression, but I think it’s made my son a more compassionate being. He has a huge heart and works well with other people struggling with depression.
Today my days revolve around engaging in life, enjoying sunny days or talking with my son. The simple things, like being able to enjoy other people’s company or brush my teeth and take a shower, are miracles for me. I remember days where I wouldn’t be able to do those things for weeks. I wasn’t able to be at my son’s high school graduation, but a year ago, he got married and I was able to be a part of it.
Joy is an inner feeling too, the sense of being okay in my own skin. I had only been told that other emotions would bring me joy. Now I can experience it on a daily basis and connect with people and the world around me. Ketamine didn’t give me my life back — it gave me the life I never had without it.
Editor’s Note: People should not take themselves off of any medication without the supervision of a medical professional.
If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis, please call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
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