Late sister’s life-saving advice: treat depression like the disease it is

This First Person column is the experience of Lynne Bereza, a Portage la Prairie mother and grandmother, who has lived with depression since her teensFor more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I’ve taken a small pink pill every day for the past 27 years — exactly half my life. 

My struggle started well before that, though. Throughout junior high and high school, I often felt hopeless and at times had suicidal thoughts. 

When I was 16, I told my doctor. She scribbled the name of a counsellor on a piece of paper and sent me on my way. I felt dismissed and I never went to the counsellor. I was not comfortable talking to a stranger about my feelings. 

Broaching it with my doctor had taken every ounce of bravery I had. None of my friends or family knew. I was too ashamed to tell anybody. 

The thing about depression is you’re least able to ask for help when you’re in the throes of it. I had summoned the courage but didn’t get what I needed; thus I was left believing it was just something I had to live with, no matter how painful. 

Getting married and having kids in my early 20s compounded my depression. I was busy and broke and exhausted but figured, what new mom isn’t? 

Lynne Bereza, right, and her sister Laurie on Lynne’s wedding day. Years later, Laurie invited her out for coffee and urged her to seek help: ‘She had started taking a daily antidepressant, she said, and felt it might help me, too.’ (Submitted by Lynne Bereza)

In early 1994, my sister, who was 10 years older than me, invited me out for coffee. She was noticeably happier, calmer, and more ‘herself’ than I’d seen her for a long time. She had started taking a daily antidepressant, she said, and felt it might help me, too.

I slowly began to feel a sense of well-being I couldn’t remember having since childhood.– Lynne Bereza

We both believed our depression was hereditary, but she was at a place in her life where she was ready to seek help.

I wasn’t there yet. My response was basically “nope, not for me.” She asked me to give it some thought, but didn’t pressure me.

Not long after, she was killed in a car accident. What followed was the worst year of my life. 

Grieving for my sister, helping my brother-in-law care for my niece and nephew (who were six and four at the time), worrying about my parents, trying to raise my own kids and working full-time was hell. The days went by in a blur.

It wasn’t until about a year and a half later that I gathered the courage to ask my doctor about medication.

The overwhelming sadness, anger and feelings of hopelessness simply weren’t lifting at all. I knew it was more than grief I was feeling. I had even tried counselling, but my counsellor and I didn’t connect, so medication felt like my last hope.

Thankfully, my doctor understood that grief and depression are two different things. He also reassured me that I wasn’t alone — he had many patients just like me who were finding relief. He prescribed a drug used to treat depression and anxiety.

After a couple of weeks, I slowly began to feel a sense of well-being I couldn’t remember having since childhood. I no longer woke up in the morning with a dark cloud hanging over my head. 

Feeling joy

To someone who has never suffered from depression: that dark cloud is omnipresent. You get up, face the day, go through the motions … but there is no relief from the unrelenting sense of doom. 

I still grieved for my sister and what might have been, every day. I still do. But I was also able to feel moments of peace and even joy, for the first time in many years. 

Lynne Bereza, centre, sits with her daughters. Today, Lynne is ‘able to feel moments of peace, and even joy.’ (Submitted by Lynne Bereza)

And yet, from time to time I’ve tried to wean myself off of my medication. I still felt that I shouldn’t need to take a pill every day just to feel ‘myself.’ It’s part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Each time I stopped was, predictably, a disaster. After a time, the feelings of heaviness, of sadness, of dread, would inevitably return. 

My doctor would encourage me to get back on my medication, patiently explaining — again — that my depression is a disease that requires treatment just like any other. 

Eventually I came to believe him. 

Please, if you are feeling like things will never change, consider this your invitation to coffee.– Lynne Bereza

Sadly, there are many, many people who don’t have the kind of support I had. Or they feel dismissed by someone they trusted and are afraid to seek help again. Or they don’t have a family member to take the first steps and encourage them to follow. Or they stop their medication too suddenly and relapse into even more crushing depression. Or they can’t find a medication that works for them. Or they are ashamed. Or they are simply too sad and tired to ask for help. Or maybe they feel things will never change. 

I often think that my sister’s greatest gift to me was that invitation to coffee. What if she hadn’t told me? Without that gentle nudge, from someone I trusted implicitly, I honestly don’t know where I would be today. 

Please, if you are feeling like things will never change, consider this your invitation to coffee. 

There are many of us who are living happy, productive lives because we have accepted that we suffer from an illness, and we are treating it. 

You aren’t alone.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170), or contact Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone), 45645 (text, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. CT only) or

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