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October 7, 1999

Author: Darryl E. Owens of The Sentinel Staff

The teenager lay in her hospital bed dazed and confused.The last thing she remembered was the cool water on her lips that she had gulped to chase the cocktail of prescription pills borrowed from her mother’s medicine cabinet.

Judy Edwards had thought about, wished for, and now courted death.  She wanted to give the ones who had hurt her emotionally as good as she got. To make them see what they had done to her.

As she regained her senses, she noticed the streaks of black on the sheets from the spilled activated charcoal doctors had forced into her stomach to sop up the drugs. Like oil slicks on fresh snow. The tubes snaking across her body, the beeping machines, that familiar hospital smell – trappings of the living.    Even death mocked her.

It was not the first time nor the last time Judy Edwards would look to the medicine chest for something permanent to free her from a life colored by the darkness of depression.

To be a sufferer of depression in America today is to be misunderstood. It means being viewed as crazy, lazy, and perhaps, most of all, weak.  These are people, after all, whose troubles hinge on sadness. Most of us cannot comprehend why they cannot put on a happy face. It should be easy to yank yourself up by the shoelaces and tough it out – everyone is sad sometimes.

But those who know that depression is to sadness what pneumonia is to the common cold know better.  Depression affects between 17 million and 20 million Americans each year, and women suffer depression at twice the rate of men. Up to 25 percent of Americans may be affected sometime during their lives.

The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the first full week in October as Mental Illness Awareness Week, and 3,000 sites across the country and Central Florida will offer free depression evaluations today during National Depression Screening Day. Participants will have access to information and mental health counselors. Last year, more than 90,000 people took time out to check their mental health.

Most people presume to know what depression feels like: being blue, feeling low or down.  But those who are depressed say the illness is a lingering fog that rolls in, makes life seem bleak, daily tasks and passions seem meaningless, and can graduate from a wish to be asleep to a wish to never awaken.  Depression eventually lifts, experts say, though clearer days may come weeks or decades later.

Although more than 80 percent of those who suffer depression can be successfully treated – many show improvement in as little as eight weeks – many shy from therapy, afraid they might be thought crazy.

“If you have the flu, everybody understands when you call in and say you’re not coming to work,” says Dr. Eduard Gfeller, medical director of Behavioral Health Services for Orlando Regional Healthcare System.  “But if you call in and say `I’m depressed’ you’d probably be fired.”

For 20 years after that night when her mother rushed her to the emergency room after finding her slumped on the floor, Edwards wrestled with periodic bouts of what she later came to realize was depression. She would feel sad, useless, unmotivated.

Edwards, a nurse specializing in critical care and recovery, managed, she says,  “by the grace of God” to hold jobs. She collected self-help books and tried therapy, hoping to discover what apparatus in her was broken, why life to her so often seemed empty.

Then she met John Edwards. Clean-cut, charming, low-key, and mostly a homebody, he was just the tonic she needed. They married in 1984. She had found a measure of happiness.

Then, four years later came the seven-year fog. Judy suffered what is commonly called a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized, medicated and out of touch.

Judy Edwards fell into a deep depression.  She took all the best medications – Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Luvox – six pills a day.  She did therapy.  Nothing seemed to work.  Nothing seemed to matter. Some days she slept all day. Some days she wouldn’t bother to shower or change clothes. On many days, she trooped to 7-Eleven for candy and ice cream. She put extra pounds on her medium frame.

Hospital costs had devoured their savings. And to numb the pain ripping through her soul, Judy often swallowed a pill or two more than was safe. Three times, John returned to their Casselberry home to find her unconscious. Each time doctors drained her stomach and sent her home. Each time John wrestled with leaving the next morning for work.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says.   “I could get a call [from the hospital] at any minute.”

In church, Judy would sit and stare, and ignore congregation members who fumbled for the right words to say.

John too was at a loss. Before they married, Judy was powerfully attracted to him for his spiritual convictions. John vowed to love his wife come sickness or health and he meant it. He just hadn’t bargained on this.

“We just kind of co-existed for a number of years,” says John, 56, a jeweler at Miller’s Jewelry in Casselberry.  “There wasn’t anything I could really do to help.”

Doctors are unsure what causes depression. One popular notion is that chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine, play a major role. This theory led to the use of antidepressants such as Prozac, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, to treat mild and major cases of depression.

The accepted course of treatment for depression today is a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy, which, Gfeller says, tends to be more effective than a singular approach. But getting depression victims to seek treatment is difficult, he says, because victims feel beyond help and many view  “seeing a psychologist as the first step to going to the state hospital.”

Edwards resisted therapy at first, embarrassed to talk to anyone about her depression. She wasn’t crazy, she knew, but she didn’t want anyone else to think she was.

She gave in eventually. Through therapy and a prayer to God “to heal my damaged emotions” she began to confront her issues. She recognized her feelings of abandonment and rejection owed to unresolved issues with family members.

“I felt like a whipped puppy dog emotionally,” she says, her fingers tightening around the armrest of her chair.   “When you hurt that desperately, it’s remarkably scary to change and risk being hurt again, to change your thinking and grow.”

She chose to change. She took responsibility for her own emotions. She pardoned those she felt had hurt her. And gradually, she came to pierce the fog.

“I have issues to deal with that come up daily, but the good thing is they don’t sink me into depression like they used to,” says Edwards, now 50. Her hands gather at her heart. Her nails are manicured, painted a fresh shade of mauve.   “Now I deal with them in a healthier way. I feel I have a new life.”