When Everything Feels Broken

I came down with a nasty stomach bug and stayed home from work on Friday, waking up late in the morning to the news that Chef Anthony Bourdain had died of suicide. This follows quickly on the heels of the suicide of designer Kate Spade on Tuesday. I'm not one to become easily distraught by celebrity deaths, but these two deaths felt especially upsetting to me: I work in a support role in the fashion industry, and so the death of Kate Spade reminds me that even the people who make our lives beautiful often carry darkness. And this latest news really caught me a bit off guard, as Bourdain had been there at the beginning of my own journey with depression.

I first began to watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations during the summer of 2011. I had just quit a job that I had hoped would be my career. I watched a lot of Netflix that summer, trying to drown out the buzzing anxiety. I didn't know what to do next... I didn't know who to be next. I had pinned a lot of my identity, and all of my plans, on pursuing a very specific path. Seven years of my life had been dedicated to this job either through school or actual vocation, and then one day in May it was all gone. I remember sitting on my roommate's bright red couch, my laptop open on the coffee table as I struggled to fill out applications or complete a new resume. Stringing words together, one by one, became a laborious and painful chore. And I got through the days by watching Ken Burns' Baseball... or 30 Rock. And Anthony. I would sit there, upset beyond words, and travel the world with him when I didn't even know if I was going to leave the house that day.

At the time I wouldn't have said I was suffering from depression. I would probably have said I felt depressed, but I wouldn't have admitted that anything more was wrong. I told myself that grief was normal; that change and disappointment took time to process. And while those are true statements, it is clear when I look back that my reality was one of deep depression. After I moved back in with my parents that fall, my depression worsened and didn't lift for some time. In many ways, I would say it did not begin to heal until last summer when, after suffering two anxiety attacks, I began to take an antidepressant. 

There are many differing thoughts and opinions about depression. This might be because there are many different people and equally unique reasons why we struggle with depression. Even if it is biological, situational, spiritual... I suspect there is no one answer to every person's experience. But there are so many ways to seek help. I spent almost three years in counseling after I moved home to St. Louis. I had to process the grief and disappointment. I was lashing out at friends and family; I felt like I was living someone else's life and I was scared. I would say those hours spent in the counseling office helped me profoundly. I understood myself better, and came up with better coping strategies. It was out of this season of life that I began to draw and paint. I felt that even if I wasn't writing, I was still telling a story, still creating. My constant subject was the lower section of a tree. Just the bark, sometimes the roots. Never the leaves. Much later it came to me that I was drawing the state of my soul: still alive, rooted, but not flowering, not bearing fruit.

Tree Drawing, Heather Sparkman, 2015

Tree Drawing, Heather Sparkman, 2015

Even though counseling helped me put some of those deep wounds to rest and regaining a sense of "me" again, things happen: in one year, my father battled cancer, my mother was diagnosed with kidney disease, and my brother had emergency neurosurgery. My job became a significant stressor in my life. As much as I want to say I was able to handle these problems with grace... I did not. I found myself in a very painful place in early 2016. And I seriously considered asking for help, reaching out to a medical professional for medication or going back to counseling. But I did not. And I became more depressed, and more angry, and even while I was growing as an artist, and finding the artistic voice inside of me that I had not heard in years, I was still coming home and feeling numb. Or become outrageously angry over small things. And I began overeating again, and not exercising. The list could go on. The movement from winter to spring lessened some of the sting, but not all of it. And when I saw my doctor for a yearly check up, we discussed a game plan.

I did not want to go on medication. I was afraid it would kill my creativity, or make me lethargic (something I already struggle with). My doctor was willing to work with my hesitation, and suggested that I try L-Theanine, an amino acid that had helped some people with minor depression, but since it was an amino acid, my doctor said it shouldn't have the same problems as an anti-depressant, but it also might not work. I was game, and began taking this every day, and even twice a day during the winter. The L-Theanine helped, and I really began to feel better. I thought I had outsmarted the problem But sometime last summer I began to feel a real difference in my ability to process emotions. I had changed positions at work, and I believe the change opened up some deeper well-springs of anxiety.

My first panic attack happened at work; I was coming down the main stairs and suddenly lost my breath; my heart rate sped up, and the world lost focus. Though the attack lasted only a moment, I was weepy for hours afterwards. My nose ran and I would cry without reason. At one point one of our Vice Presidents approached me at my desk to ask a question; he was gentle and I am thankful for that, because I am sure I was a complete mess. I was tense and upset through the rest of the work day, but enjoyed a nice dinner to celebrate a friend's graduation. I was hopeful that this was a one time event, I could move on and move past it. The next morning, rushing to get to the graduation ceremony, I experienced another attack. This time it was more prolonged, and terrifying. I sat in the stairwell at Powell Hall and waited to regain my breathing. I eventually made my way to a seat and cried through a lot of ceremony, absolutely worn out and shaking. When I saw my friends after the ceremony, I still looked pale and ill. 

I saw my doctor a few weeks later, and broke down in tears as I described my symptoms. After performing an EKG to rule out any heart issues, she prescribed an antidepressant. And things did not get better right away. The first week was awful - I felt nauseated and emotional all the time. I was lethargic and tired most days for several months. It took time to adjust to the medication, both physically and mentally.

But 283 days later (because I track my daily medication use), I can say that I feel more like myself than I have in years. I still create and have started to write again. I can tell you that most days have been good - something that I cannot take for granted when I see that there are so many people who are silently struggling. I cannot take these days for granted.

I wanted to share all of these things in the hope that someone will be encouraged in their journey. You are not alone in your struggle. You are not the only one who feels this way. I hope that maybe my experience with depression and anxiety resonates with someone in a way that prompts you to find a counselor, a doctor, a friend. There are a lot of ways to seek help... you may need to give yourself permission to try... and fail. Not everything will work all of the time, or might need to be coupled with another option. But it is worth trying. You are worth trying.

And I suppose I would hope that not only you see that it is possible to get help, but that you might also need help. A wise friend (that former roommate I mentioned above) pointed out today in a post that depression is a medical condition and it is important that we seek medical help for a medical problem. Yes, you can couple that with counseling... or exercise... or making changes... but please don't feel shame for taking medication. I lost some precious parts of my life because I refused to ask for more help, and would not want that for you. Before you get so far down the road that it looks like there is no hope, please know right now that there is hope. And help.