David Blistein says that at various times in his life he has been depressed, manic, hypomanic, dysphoric, bipolar, cyclothymic, and agitated — and that he has “tried everything” to snap out of it and get stabilized. From medications whiskey to spirituality, to massage, he has spent a good part of his life attempting to quell the devils and clear the dark clouds of mental illness.
Nowadays, at 60, the former businessman-turned-writer says he’s feeling pretty good. And he’s a whole lot to celebrate — being a grandfather, an effective marriage of 34 years to his own wife Wendy, and his new book, David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression (Hatherleigh Press, March 2013). In the publication, Blistein shares his very personal experience with depression (his own personal inferno), and in addition offers very practical insights and guidance for anyone living with major depressive disorder.
“The whole Divine Comedy is a strong reference,” says Blistein. “More compared to the hellishness of the encounter itself, it’s the manner that the book reveals the process that each major life disaster goes through. You get lost in the dark wood, stumble about in limbo. The pain generally seems to keep getting hellishly worse. You strive to ‘purge’ yourself of the pain regardless of the effort demanded. You reach some sort of peace. I wouldn’t call that last one heaven, but it is definitely a relief! And then the method of life begins again. That is the Divine Comedy! But perhaps you don’t have to endure the next time around. In addition, I make use of the reference because, for me, the book shows that Dante was just another man trying to find his way. And, by the same token, each one of us is living their very own heroic/mythic journey.”
Blistein offers insights into getting diagnosed, taking prescription medicines, dealing with doctors, and considering complementary approaches to trying to recover balance that may be helpful to others. And he bravely reaches out a hand to others who might be suffering to say: “it’ll pass. Be kind to yourself. Request help.”
We talked to Blistein about his lifelong experience with depression, the episode he got himself back on your way to recovery, and that he says almost put him over the edge.
EH: When did you understand you were depressed and what symptoms did you have?
Blistein: For nearly all of my entire life, I suffered from mild bipolar — cycles of manic imagination and existential angst — which I dealt with at various times with exercise, nutritional supplements, alcohol, smokes, coffee, and alternative treatments. But, by the conclusion of the 1990s, I was having real difficulty coping with average life. The burden of running a company was almost more than I could tolerate. I never understood which David would seem — the one who could not wait to rush home and pull the covers over his head, or the creative one. In those days, I used meds to stabilize.
The depressive episode which is in the heart of David’s Inferno describes a span between 2005 and 2007 that went beyond anything you’d ever experienced.
I endured a severe nervous breakdown — which was characterized by extreme dysphoria (emotional state of stress, depression, or unease).In other words, I was depressed. And then I had been crying, wailing depressed. The phrase “nervous breakdown” is inadequate, however. It is an ever-present agitation that careens from hopelessness that is whole to gut-wrenching, dry- heaving
Were you able to operate?
I was able to “hide” my symptoms for an hour or so or two before going off by myself someplace that I could holler, shout, or take a sedative powerful enough to knock me out for some time. I did find that actions which combined some sort of light movement along with a bit mental focus, were the most soothing. These ranged from building a big labyrinth out of branches in the woods behind our house to volunteering to shelve books in our local library. They gave my brain something to do besides obsess over my state and provided an exit for many of my agitation. Being able to do these things whenever I needed to — i.e., without anyone depending on me — was also critical. At that time, I did not have significant life stresses. I’m blessed with supportive network of family and friends, and a determined will. That helped me operate.
You always tried to walk it away and shared in the book that you’d wake up in scares. What else did you do to deal with these feelings?
Every thing I possibly could think of! As well as the walks, I worked out hard every day and had regular bodywork — massage, craniosacral, etc. The mornings were, by far, the worst. From the conclusion of the day, my wife Wendy and I possibly could talk together about the day, and see a little TV. I was too distracted to read. I never had. I had been too exhausted in the conflict.
Some people might be hospitalized with such serious symptoms… but you went on a road trip.
About half a year after my breakdown, I didn’t seem to be getting any better and didn’t understand where to turn next, so I just got on the road and headed south, thinking maybe a little sunshine and heat would help; and, if nothing else, give Wendy a small break from this shadow of a husband she was residing with. While my state did not actually alter, it did give me a certain confidence in myself — that I could face the road
Did it help to maintain your sense of humor?
Comedy is part of my nature. Even at my worst, good one liners and double entendres frequently appeared within my mind. It did help release some much needed endorphins in the procedure — and clear away some of the darkness in my head while it could have been a sort of wry, helpless humor which did not do much to relieve the agitation in my torso.
Looks like you did a great deal of self-help. At what point did you seek medical help?
Actually, I first sought psychiatric help at my wife’s encouraging. And, I was still seeing a doctor when I “insane” in 2005, because we were in the method of trying to rebalance my meds.
What was your analysis and what did it take for lots of tests — one look at you, or your doctor to arrive at it?
Doctors differ about my diagnosis. Some physicians say I was suffering from a form of bipolar others leaned toward more classic major depression. While I did have blood tests at various times — generally as a precaution when going on a new drug — my investigations were primarily according to questionnaires and observations. If I had to pick the best identification for that interval, I’d say Melancholic Depression-Serious with Hypomanic Episodes. My official identification is: Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, in Partial Remission today.
Did allopathic medicine work for you?
I’m am taking and quite open to telling people what I Have taken. My only caveat is the fact that treatment and everyone’s experience is different. For almost any drug that helped me, I will find someone for whom it made their symptoms. That’s why it’s so important — whether you go the allopathic or complemental course (or both) –it’s crucial that you have a practitioner who’ll hang in there with you to discover the best treatment for you personally. What eventually brought me into equilibrium was a blend of occasional Clonazepam, Cymbalta, and Lamictal. I’ve successfully stayed on that regimen for the past six years. But, again, that is me. Other people’s experiences will likely differ. It is can frequently be excruciating for depressives to locate something which works. If it works, I accept it entirely: pills, diet, exercise, herbs, massage, meditation…whatever helps. As the famous song goes: “If it makes you happy, it can’t poor.” Although, we’re not asking for delirious happiness. We are happy simply to really have a small stability.
Did you attempt psychotherapy or complementary medicines?
Yes, virtually every kind it is possible to imagine — acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, meditation, nutritional supplements, and a broad variety of bodywork including Rolfing and shiatsu. All helped for a while. None “held” for very long. I did not do any classic one on one treatment at the time, although I continued to do the kind of treatment and group meditation since I was 18, that I Have done. My breakdown was definitely chemical — my life was almost worry-free at the time and, while I certainly had many insights about myself during that span, none had any actual impact on my encounter.
How did melancholy impact your union?
A major depressive episode is a crucible for almost any marriage. Whether you end up together or apart, your relationship is transformed. Wendy and I ‘d already been married almost 30 years and, since she’s had her own encounters both in herself and family and friends — she had a good sense of what I was going through. She certainly never tried to “save” me or tell to “just get over it.” She also had a good sense of when I needed to be alone and once I needed to be with people. Just as significant, she was careful never to take on any more of the caregiving than she could handle without driving herself crazy! At the same time, I did what I could to keep the most extreme manifestations to myself. The fact is, we are still together. And our relationship proceeds to evolve. That’s a big thing.
Your pal of 40 years Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, wrote the foreword to your own book. Other than him, were you in a position to inform your friends how you were feeling?
Merely several close friends understood how intense it was, although many individuals may felt I was a bit away. I’ve joked that if someone “feels your pain” that is twice just as much pain. There did not appear to be much point in “enduring my soul” to anyone who couldn’t take an active role in supporting me. I did, however, swap e-mails that are regular with a couple of close pals who lived far away. Something concerning the distance made it easier for me to stand back and say what I was going through and, I think, for them to listen without feeling compelled to attempt to “fix it.”
What were the most effective things you did to help yourself out of “hell”?
The first thing was taking the advice of a friend who insisted I see a different doctor. Collectively we found the correct mix of meds. During that time of healing, I kept working out consistently (but more fairly), did not drink, and learned to roll with the two-steps forward and one-back procedure. Towards the very end, I took another road trip to find out that I could now manage areas and odd people having a grin.
How do you maintain balance now?
While the diagnosis above says “partial remission,” I would say I am in nearly complete remission. After I do sense the darkness coming on, I try to not panic. I just take it easy and am extremely careful about what I do. Those episodes, however, happen less and less often and are way more avirulent. In once, we always live in the shadow of depression.
Parting words of wisdom for folks going through major depression?
You did not do anything wrong to be the way you are now. In reality, perhaps you are playing a vitally important role in the attempt to learn more about the frontiers of the brain of humankind. You are definitely playing an important part in the lives of all those around you. They, too, possess the opportunity to understand about themselves by living through it along with you, and to grow. More just, I’ll leave you with the “depressive’s mantra” that someone gave my friend Ken many years ago and he passed on to me: “it’ll pass. Be kind to yourself. Ask for help.”
Picture by Beowulf Sheehan