By Camellia Carbonaro
Studies have shown that one out of four people in the general public consider depression to be a sign of personal weakness. One in five have said that if they had depression, they would keep it hidden.
But then, there’s Carol A. Kivler.
Kivler stepped into the Library Auditorium last Tuesday, Sept. 30, with a smile on her face. Her friends sat in the first few rows and cheered her along as she cracked jokes about the lighting. At first glance, one would not consider this high-spirited person as being a victim of depression. And yet, for the past 20 or so years, Kivler has been struggling to keep her bad thoughts out of her way.
In 1990, Kivler was teaching at Mercer County Community College as a part-time professor when she began to suffer from joint aches, severe headaches, loss of energy and slurred speech. She was having a harder time concentrating and was feeling as if she were trapped in a fog. She consulted some doctors about what the problem may be and was subsequently tested for lupus and multiple sclerosis. These tests came up as negative. Kivler was advised to go see a psychiatrist.
It was there that she was informed about her clinical depression. But Kivler could not understand. She was a 40-year-old mother with three healthy children and a wonderful husband. How could she be so sad about such a beautiful life?
Over a course of four to six weeks, they found that Kivler had what is known as “drug-resistant depression.” Other symptoms had emerged, including anxiety, irrational thoughts, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. Kivler felt she was wearing a mask for the outside world even though she was dying inside. She was losing weight at an alarming rate, and all of her self-confidence was gone.
It was on one Saturday night before Mother’s Day that she recallled sitting in her office, staring at some pictures of her with her children. She wanted to be like she was before but felt that person was lost. She felt hollow inside and the hopelessness was just too much. With tears in her eyes, she tells the audience that, on that night, “the beast had won.” She could not stand to live anymore.
Yet “the beast” inside her told her that she should not do this alone — she would have to take the lives of her family with her. So, on the morning of Mother’s Day, she stood over the bed as her husband was just waking up and told him of her plans. She explained that she wanted to take her husband and children to Washington Park where she would then drive them all off a bridge. She felt that what she was saying made sense and that “he just had to come with me.”
Her husband took her to the hospital soon after, where she was put on suicide watch. The doctors made her take a cocktail of anxiety and antidepressant meds, but for the few weeks she was held there, all she could think of were ways in which to kill herself. She would daydream about breaking the window glass and cutting her wrists or taking one of the garbage bags and pulling it over her head until she suffocated.
During her stay, a nurse suggested that Kivler try shock therapy to treat her depression, but Kivler was worried — not so much about the actual treatment, but rather how others would perceive her afterward. Would the dean at her college let her keep her job? Would the neighborhood mothers ostracize her children? She was worried that once she received this treatment, her sanity would forever be in question. However, she was willing to try anything. She wanted nothing more than to get better.
She underwent shock therapy and was delighted to find that it was actually working. During visitation, her husband would even note how the light in her eyes was returning.
She stayed in the hospital for about 32 days, where she had dozens of shock treatments. She continued her medication and all seemed well except when “the beast had her on her knees” again. Since 1990, Kivler has had four acute episodes, each occurring in four-year intervals and requiring hospitalization and additional electro-convulsive therapy treatments. It was only when she began to incorporate her own mental health recovery boosters into her regimen that she found these episodes to stop. Kivler has since been living in recovery for the last 14 years.
Her mission has been to eliminate the stigma associated with mental disorders, as well as champion a society that views individuals living with mental illness as “courageous survivors who want to be accepted — not rejected, respected — not pitied, admired — not feared.” The media creates a negative image of mental health problems, mainly by associating them with violent people. She hopes to educate the public about these disorders and project a better image for those afflicted.
In terms of recovery, the first step is to focus on mental wellness rather than mental illness. Kivler explains that we must all live under the metaphysical law of “you are what you think.” We tend to slide back to our old way of thinking and often miss out on the miracles that the optimist attracts. Researchers have studied the impact attitude has on longevity and have found that you can add 10 years to your life by focusing on the positive versus the negative. Kivler suggests that you write three things you are grateful for every night to remind yourself. It also helps to be around positive people and avoid the naysayers, identify your negative triggers and stray away from them.
The second step is to adopt lifestyle changes that enhance wellness. Lifestyle change means adhering to new behaviors, even if they were formerly foreign to us. Unfortunately, many people who begin to get into recovery with medications go off these medications and land up in a relapse. The same happens when nutritional changes and exercise regimens fizzle out before they have a chance to take hold.
The third step is to choose peace and contentment. One of the symptoms of many health disorders is that your ability to like yourself disappears, especially when you are comparing your life with others. Kivler advises trying not to dwell on past misfortunes or your future fears and, instead, being content with what you have and who you are.
And finally, Kivler wanted listeners to never lose hope. Recovery is more than a possibility, she said — it’s a probability.