In this post, Health Activist Jane Waterman chronicles her experiences with the depths of depression and living with invisible illness while pursuing ambitious career dreams. Her struggles are difficult to read but relatable to those who have lived with unresolved symptoms and painful side-effects. Though her journey was not easy, it is a testament to the process of healing and the work that goes into maintaining hope and finding solace. Thanks Jane, for bravely sharing your story with us. –Amanda
My Beautiful Career
By Jane Waterman
[Trigger Warnings: depression, self-injury, suicidal ideation]
I was not yet out of undergraduate school when I was visited by the first of many invisible illnesses. An introverted and isolated girl, I completed my honours degree in Physics in 1988. With a dream of becoming an astrophysicist, a PhD was the next logical step. However, beset by major depression, I knew I wasn’t ready for the challenge. It was time to enter the “real world”.
In 1990, I was training to be a meteorologist, a side-step from my envisioned beautiful career, and newly married to my first boyfriend. At a mid-year celebration, I contracted food poisoning and spent the rest of the year wracked by nausea and abdominal pain. After the requisite diagnostic tests deemed my health “normal”, the GP sent me to the psychiatrist.
I finished the training, but was unable to work due to my physical and mental distress. In 1991, two young men I knew committed suicide within months: one had chronic fatigue syndrome; the other, depression. My decline started in earnest. I began years of drug treatments for depression (my physical maladies were dismissed as something I’d have to learn to live with). In hindsight, the regimens of increasing dosages, switches, and combinations of psychiatric medications led to side effects that exacerbated my illnesses.
Even though I secured a dream job as a support scientist in 1992, I felt broken, and isolated myself from family and friends. Over the next couple of years I survived a drug overdose, had brief hospitalizations and was dismissed for more drug therapy. My new marriage fell apart. I felt consumed by inner rage. Whenever it leaked out I controlled it by directing it at myself. I began to scratch my arm with a blade. I didn’t know what self-harm was. All I knew was the feeling of immediate relief from the pain locked in my brain and body. It was the only way to ease the tempest: ironically, to help me pass as “normal”.
In 1994, an online friend introduced me to cognitive therapy and a good therapist in town. My new psychologist talked to me. He gave me the tools to return from the edge of madness. Through years of intense loneliness, and chronic fatigue from my undiagnosed physical illness, I felt someone believed me enough to want healing for me.
I loved my job in computer modelling, but despite my achievements I was plagued by worthlessness. Lacking self-trust, I checked my work for mistakes repeatedly, likely due to an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. In bad flares of brain fog, my self-mistrust grew. The checking became paralyzing. It was difficult to finish things, and I kept checking things that were finished. I started getting passed over for promotions.
Emotionally, I felt raw around people at work – there were few others in my life. Some manipulated and exploited my illnesses. As someone who’d always had trouble expressing emotions, sometimes I’d take unscheduled breaks and go for walks, just to cry where no one could see me.
I spent more time at the local clinic and found a few locums sympathetic to my distress. One offered to write me a note for 2 weeks’ stress leave. Although I never took her up on it (workaholism being an ingrained family trait), I felt such gratitude to have been seen.
In 1997, I developed a relationship with a beautiful soul in Canada. I investigated transplanting my career and was accepted for a PhD in 1999. Through my marriage, I also became a parent to two teen girls. With the love of my new family, I hoped I could navigate graduate school at last.
After changing countries and leaving friends, grad school was exciting and terrifying. In my first semester, a bully on faculty seemed to delight in giving me failing grades, and then after more hours of work, giving me the grades I deserved. Grad school fed into all my fears of imperfection. My compulsive checking worsened, and my supervisor would at turns praise me highly and then question my lack of progress.
After researching my symptoms, I suspected I had lupus and asked to see a rheumatologist. In June 2002, he diagnosed me with Sjogren’s syndrome and started me on Plaquenil. What should have helped me merely led to more side-effects. I became suicidal. The self-harm that had been mostly controlled, re-emerged. I compensated by indulging my OCD tendencies and cleaned our home for hours each day, often at the expense of my school work.
I had a name for my illness, 12 years after it emerged, but after years of trying alternatives to Plaquenil, I found none that were effective or I could tolerate. By 2005, wracked with doubts and exhausted, I left my beautiful career on disability. I knew the stress of applying for disability benefits would finish me.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of healing work, but skirted the roots of my illnesses. I found an amazing counsellor in 2010, who taught me about metta (loving-kindness), and mindfulness-based techniques. I began to receive the messages my wife had given me for years: that I was lovable and could love myself. It takes time to erase old tapes, but I’m giving myself that time.
Now, in 2012, I’ve begun my next beautiful career: writing and advocacy. Although I still have difficulty facing the world, I’ve found power in words. I now believe it’s not only okay to talk about it, it’s important to let others, including my younger self, know the compassion of sharing: of being heard and believed.
Even with exhaustion and pain, I’m grateful to have times like this when I can sit and share my message. You’ll make it. You’ll find things you are passionate about. You’ll make mistakes. You can forgive yourself and go on. There are beautiful things on the other side, and even if you end up where you didn’t think you’d be, you’re in exactly the right place.
Jane is a blogger, artist and advocate at Blackbird at Night (http://blackbirdatnight.com). Jane grew up in Australia, before joining the love of her life in Canada in 1999. At 46, Jane has lived through and with many challenges including depression, dissociation, Sjogren’s syndrome, endometriosis and PCOS. These challenges have necessitated several reinventions. When not eking out her time and energy as a freelance technical writer, Jane chips away at her dreams of being a “real” writer of novels and inspirational self-help books.