This article originally appeared in the Winter 2003-04 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, in a series of essays on young adulthood entitled “Mom Never Told Me It Would Be Like This.” We republish it here as part of Magazine Classics, a new series highlighting notable works from the magazine’s archives.
During the saddest winter of my life, Tuesday nights were the closest I ever got to happy.
It was late 1998, and I was living temporarily with my parents, depression slowly strangling my existence.
I’d graduated three years earlier and had been working as a journalist. But when I returned to the States after two years overseas, the life I’d known began slipping away.
At first, I wrote it off as anxiety over a life transition. Within months, terror had sidelined me. Convinced that I wasn’t cut out for journalism, I couldn’t face the prospect of looking for a job. I canceled a promising job interview with one of the biggest newspapers on the East Coast, watching as if from afar while my career spun down the drain.
During those excruciating months of blackness, only one thing made me feel like my self: At 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights, I’d climb into my younger brother’s dark leather recliner and tune into a sitcom called Sports Night, a pile of lime-dusted tortilla chips close at hand.
Sports Night was a crisply written, witty show about the sports broadcasting business. For a scant half-hour, I could lose myself in it. Keeping my mind tightly focused, I could almost forget that I’d thrown away a promising start in the same business or that I’d thrived under the deadline pressure that drove the plot.
Depression robs you of cherished things but also the most mundane: the preference for vanilla over chocolate, the comfort of slipping on a favorite sweatshirt. When life and identity have leaked away to nothing, enjoying anything at all is a tiny triumph.
As ridiculous as it sounds, for 22 minutes on Tuesday nights, a television show and a new kind of Tostitos were pinpricks of light in my very dark world. Even at rock bottom, I could manage a self-deprecating smirk at the unexpected path my life had taken.
A few years earlier, I was one of the many zealous students with a zest for life who flock to Notre Dame. I accumulated achievements as a matter of course: double major, editor of Scholastic magazine, Phi Beta Kappa. A year after I graduated, I was a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar, one of 18 people selected nationally for a year of work in Asia.
Professors and mentors pumped me full of confidence, telling me I could write my own future. At first, I did. A newspaper project I wrote the summer I graduated led to a grant to co-author a book. Three months out of Notre Dame, I landed a job with the Associated Press. After winning the Luce, I learned Korean.
When my fellowship in South Korea ended, I stayed in Seoul for a second year to work as a freelance reporter. I also did some work for Voice of America radio and moonlighted as a proofreader at South Korea’s foreign ministry.
Meeting other journalists for a drink at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, 18 stories above the heart of bustling Seoul, I had the heady feeling of having succeeded beyond my own expectations.
Depression turned it all upside down. The disease ate through accolades like hydrochloric acid. Within a few months of returning to the States with some promising job leads, I was holed up, despondent, in my childhood bedroom.
Looking back, I realize that the disease didn’t besiege me overnight. But the speed and depth with which it overcame me were remarkable.
The first signs appeared my second year in Seoul, when the Asian economic crisis and a Korean presidential election together created more work than I could feasibly handle. I went from writing for two newspapers and doing occasional radio spots to stringing for four papers and almost daily radio broadcasts. The day after a former dissident unexpectedly won the presidential election, I ended up with front-page stories in two newspapers on opposite sides of the globe — one in Boston, the other Hong Kong.
It was a heady time, but looking back, I know it was too much. The newfound success led to newfound fears about keeping up the streak. Sleep began to evade me, then it disappeared altogether. After a few months of insomnia, I found it harder and harder to function normally.
My concentration — and, it seemed, my work — started slipping. Living in a foreign city with a bare-bones personal support structure, I let it go on too long. Finally, a friend ordered me to tell my parents about the problem. In a teary intercontinental phone call with my mom, I agreed to take some time off. I went back home to Pennsylvania for a month, where a doctor gave me a low dose of Paxil, an anti-depressant, to help me get my days and nights straight.
The trip worked. I started sleeping again, and my confidence returned. I vowed to take better care of myself: keep a journal, read the Bible and pray for help keeping my priorities straight. My strategy worked — for a while. I didn’t realize that I’d had my first brush with mental illness.
I finished my last three months in Asia on a good note then returned to Pennsylvania, planning to get a newspaper job stateside. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I delayed my search. A few months later, my longtime boyfriend and I called it quits. Before I knew it, my mind had gotten off track again.
With no structure to my days, blackness overtook my thoughts.
For the first time in my life, reading was little solace. Every mediocre newspaper article taunted me. I paged through book after book for answers and inspiration, to no avail. I went on long, cold walks and scratched for hours in my journal. Empty of everything, I rarely cried. When the house was empty, I would sit in my bedroom and pray out loud, begging God for direction, for mercy. At the most desperate moments, one line became a touchstone: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Though I tried to avoid the outside world, it remembered me. Staying with my parents meant living expenses were minimal, but my savings account dwindled with each student loan and car payment. After a few months of inactivity, I needed some type of income, so I registered with a temporary help firm.
I hoped the reality check of signing up for a menial job might jar some life into me. I fantasized that I’d awake one morning from the nightmarish dream and find my former existence waiting for me like a pair of well-worn jeans.
No such luck.
I reported for work at a massive chemical engineering firm in my hometown, where I kept my head down to avoid old acquaintances and distant relatives.
I spent interminable days at a Xerox machine, sorting, collating, stapling. Standing in the copier room while the behemoth rumbled, I hit upon a title for the story of my life, and once again managed a self-deprecating smirk: “From Luce Scholar to Kelly Girl: The rise and fall of Kate Wiltrout.”
What made me turn the corner wasn’t the shame of doing work I was overqualified for. It wasn’t the uncertified Jungian therapist I started seeing out of desperation or the considerable love and support of my family.
It was a threadbare county mental health clinic in an old Victorian house near the hospital where I was born.
Calling the county mental health assistance line was a new low. It was bad enough to be living with my parents, not contributing anything to society. Now I felt as shamed as if I were applying for welfare — asking “taxpayer dollars” to cover the tab for my shattered life.
I felt terribly out of place as I pulled up to the clinic. Inside, I took a seat in the rambling lobby, filled with stained, mismatched furniture and dog-eared, dated magazines. An ancient radiator hissed against the January cold.
A few seats away, an unkempt woman carried on a conversation with herself. I couldn’t decide whether her presence made me feel better. Surely I was far saner than she was, right? Then again, maybe our circumstances weren’t as dissimilar as I wished them to be.
It didn’t take the psychiatrist long to assess me. I had all the classic symptoms of depression: Lose of appetite. Difficulty sleeping and concentrating. Inability to enjoy activities that previously brought pleasure.
Clinically, the symptoms sound banal, like something to overcome with willpower and vitamins. But that’s depression’s secret weapon: It burrows ever deeper by convincing you to let it run its course. You find yourself believing that it’s normally for a soul to suddenly wither and die. It’s a personal version of Stockholm syndrome: A captive mind begins to sympathize with the hostage-taking disease.
The doctor handed me a few weeks worth of anti-depressants and told me they’d help me get to a point where I could make rational decisions about my life. He also said he’d try to get me an appointment with an in-house counselor.
The straightforward prognosis calmed a psyche that had rubbed itself raw. Like an estimated 17.5 million other Americans, I’d been diagnosed with garden-variety depression. Naming the demon was powerful. For the first time since depression had descended, I had a sliver of hope that it was something I might conquer with therapy and drugs.
Counseling helped me discern where I’d gotten off track. My entire life, I tried to please the adults around me. I confused achievement with fulfillment. I was preoccupied with perfection. For me, therapy helped me reconcile my own dreams with the expectations of others.
Within a few months, I noticed the tide of anxiety receding almost imperceptibly. I didn’t wake up one morning ready to resume my old life, but I began to accept the reality of a new one. One in which I could admit that I was broken and sometimes needed help. One with personal needs at the top of its list. One that would let me take things day-by-day, without a preconceived notion of where it should end up.
As my mind cleared, I realized I could repack the contents of my old life. Some of it — like the mounds of expectations I’d let others put on me and loaded on myself — would have to go. I consciously decided that if I had to pick one, I’d rather end up with a family than with a job at The New York Times. I prepared myself for ambitious friends who’d ask: “What’s next? Aren’t you capable of more?”
In place of those expectations I packed something that took up much less space: compassion.
Throughout high school and college, and in my first years as an adult, I worshipped strength. Weakness was to be conquered, denied, purged through will. Like so many other Notre Dame classmates, my attitude toward life was the Nike cliché, writ large: Just do it.
On this side of the storm, I have a newfound respect for people who live by the less-marketable motto “Just get by.” It stems, I guess, from a simple understanding: We have no idea what battles people around us are fighting.
I no longer look down at those who work to pay the rent, not to be fulfilled. Folks who manage to hold own a job and keep up a house, who raise children or tomatoes, pay taxes and play the slots.
Within a few months, I felt good enough to start looking for a job. During an interview with the newspaper in Savannah, I fell in love with the city and decided I was ready to strike out again on my own. Leaving my parents’ house as a 25-year-old was more meaningful to me than heading off to Notre Dame at age 18 or shipping out to Asia at 23.
Five years later, my life has reincorporated some of its previous themes. I have a good job with a respected newspaper. I’ve won some journalism awards and running prizes. I’ve made close friends, weathered heartbreak and fallen in love. But the shadow that passed over my life still lurks above me. It probably always will.
I’ve had two more brushes with depression since its onset, each one a little different than the last. Having been through it already, I’m better now at recognizing warning signs and being preemptive. My family and friends know to keep an eye on me, too.
I’ve managed the downturns by concentrating on depression’s proven remedies: exercise, counseling and medication. Most important, I know not to get too wrapped up in the negative thoughts that can swamp my brain. It isn’t wise to make big decisions when I’m depressed or hovering on the edge. One of the strangest parts of coping with depression is accepting that you can’t always trust your own instincts and judgments. You listen to them only when on solid ground.
Though I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, and I’m not glad that it targeted me, it’s part of who I am. There’s no diploma, certificate or trophy to attest to it, but I am prouder of surviving it than any other accomplishment.
Things have come full circle. On some nights, I celebrate the luxury of “normal” life by relaxing on my own couch, a bowl of chips and the remote control close by.
Sports Night survived only a couple of seasons. I plan on being around much longer.
At the time of this article’s original publication, Kate Wiltrout was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia.