Aztec Press staff writer Liza Porter won a 2010 first-place regional Mark of Excellence award in feature writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.
The series advanced to national competition and was named a national finalist — one of the top three feature series in the country.
The Aztec Press placed third at the regional level for all-around general excellence for a two-year community college student newspaper.
Here is a reprint of Porter’s award-winning series:
Depression: Talking back to ‘the Big D’
Illustration by Isabel Cardenas
Story by LIZA PORTER
Editor’s note: This series portrays one woman’s personal experience with depression, with a bit of advice thrown in. Please note that her shrink made her do it.
It’s been a Tilt-o-Whirl ride—moving in and out of depression most of my life. My brain chemistry leans toward the bipolar side of the spectrum, but mostly it is the doldrums I struggle with.
It’s hard to describe depression when you’re in the midst of it; it’s equally as difficult to describe when you’re not. I have never tried to live with my depression and write about it at the same time.
The Big D is what I call my depression. The Big D convinces me I’m an imposter, that I have no place in the world. It brainwashes me into believing I am a piece of gum on the bottom of someone’s muddy cowboy boot.
When the Big D speaks, it sometimes sounds like Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. “Who do you think you are?” it cackles in its horrible Hollywood screech, as it skips outside to smoke a cigarette and yell at the neighbor’s dog.
The Big D pulsates like a poorly drawn sci-fi character, blue and green and sometimes red. All the colors have a few drops of gray mixed in. The landscape is dull and monotonous. There is no neon. Only disembodied voices and gray clouds.
Sometimes the Big D is an imp calling my name from the bottom of a dark pit that it has furnished from the Goodwill store of excuses and melancholy. Not quite the Devil, but one of its attendants.
The Big D speaks in generalities and clichés. “Life is a bitch and then you die.” Or, “Forget about it. Don’t even try.” I lean closer to make sure I’m hearing it right. Yes, that was it: “Why bother? Who cares? Who really gives a shit?”
I listen to its orders like a good little soldier and give up on whatever I’m doing—a writing project, a school assignment. I close down Word, double-click into Firefox and escape into instant Netflix.
The dust bunnies continue their travels on the kitchen floor. The car remains unwashed. Cook dinner? Hah.
The Big D can be a seductress, a romantic. It lives down in that pit with the imp. It crooks its ugly little finger and says: “Come on, honey, you know you like it down here.”
It winks at me, but its eyes are hard. “We belong together,” the Big D-pretending-to-be-a-lover says. “We were born for each other.”
Sometimes the Big D tries to impersonate God, all those booming pronouncements it makes. It thinks it’s omnipotent. But you cannot seriously tell me that God would actually say to someone: “You suck.”
Until about 10 years ago, when I started getting proper treatment for Big D, I thought my moods and thoughts and the actions (or inactions) that resulted were something I should be able to control.
I should be able to pull myself up by my bootstraps. Work hard. Suffer. Keep on truckin’. If I just kept doing and moving and going and doing, I could outrun the Big D.
I did that for a long, long time. Tried, tried, tried. For far too long. I used alcohol and drugs and danger to avoid the truth. The Big D. The imp. The screaming banshee that lives to destroy me.
No longer. There was help for me, once I admitted defeat. There is lots of help out there. Asking for help was hard, but it worked. And it still does, most of the time. What more can I ask for?
Next: The shrink says, “Do anything, anything at all, except listen to the Big D.”
Depression: Don’t listen to ‘the Big D’
Editor’s note: This series portrays one woman’s personal experience of depression, with a bit of advice thrown in.
By LIZA PORTER
My shrink told me a few weeks ago: “Do anything, anything at all, except listen to the Big D.”
Well, he doesn’t use the term “Big D.” He calls it depression or, sometimes, a mood disorder.
But I do listen to the Big D. It is a voice that is so familiar it is like family. It is family. It is my voice at its worst.
Take yesterday, my first day off after three full days of classes. I didn’t wake up until 8 o’clock because I was up in the night for no rational reason.
This is one thing the Big D does to lots of people, one of the symptoms of depression. Insomnia.
It’s not my fault I have insomnia and it’s only 8 a.m. and the voice is already jabbering. “You slept too late. The day is wasted.”
Now, come on, 8 a.m. and the day is wasted? What normal brain would believe that? Or would even think it to begin with? I don’t have a normal brain. I probably have never had a normal brain.
How do I counteract that “wasted day at 8 a.m.” crap? By telling my husband what I’m thinking. That is one thing I have learned to do to counteract the Big D.
This is so very important. Don’t hang out alone with the Big D. Talk to someone.
If I leave myself to myself, if I let the voice make its stupid pronouncements without counteracting them, it’s Tilt-o-Whirl time—self-destructive thoughts, confusion, the inability to make decisions.
I have believed the Big D voices so long, so much longer than the helpful ones—which on a good day sound gentle and caring like this: you have plenty of time, you have three more days after this to get things done before going back to class—it is a modern-day miracle when I can short circuit the negativity.
Speaking of circuits, it is almost all about the circuits in the brain. Brain chemistry.
It took me decades to believe there was something wrong with me. It was my fault. I should be able to fix myself, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
It took decades for me to admit my powerlessness over my own brain. I had to let go and get help. I had to start taking medication.
For a recovering addict/alcoholic, letting go was a lot. When I first got sober, the word was “no drugs, no drugs at all.” At least the way I interpreted it.
God, I was so stubborn. But I let go.
Eight years ago I gave up and went to a psychiatrist. I have a treatment-resistant depression, he said. Some medication works for a while, then doesn’t. New ones are added, then taken away. I feel like a guinea pig sometimes.
But there are more good days than bad. When I take the medication and do other things such as take walks, eat right and talk back to the Big D, there are many good days.
When the shrink told me to do anything except listen to the Big D, I had to ask him this: “Does that mean, like, even, watching ‘Law & Order, C.I.?’”
I love Vincent D’Onofrio. He’s a hunk, he’s a little crazy like me, and he always solves the mystery.
“Yes, even Law & Order, C.I.,” my doc said, with that twinkle in his eye that I love.
How many doctors prescribe television as a way to fight a disease? God bless him.
Next: Talking about rape.
Help available from PCC counselors
By LIZA PORTER
“Depression can be like gravity pulling you to yourself,” says Teresiana Zurita at her desk in the PCC West Campus Counseling Center. “It’s not necessarily negative.”
It’s a quiet Tuesday morning in the first floor Student Services Center. Zurita, counseling coordinator for West Campus, says getting help for depression can be a way to discover a “more authentic life.”
Most students come for counseling at PCC because they’re not doing well academically, not because they think they’re depressed. “They’re struggling with classes,” Zurita says.
But sometimes when she sits down to talk with a student, she realizes academics are not the only problem.
“The academic issues are really a result of the emotions that are going on, that the student feels out of control of,” Zurita says.
That’s when she might start suspecting depression. It could be a matter of helping students take steps to take better care of themselves. Eating more healthily. Getting enough sleep. Managing their time.
There are also PCC courses students can take.
“We have STU courses, Student Success courses,” Zurita says. “One is called Stress Management and Wellness.”
Another is Making Career Choices. The STU courses are listed in the schedule of classes on the PCC Web site.
Many of the courses incorporate a psychological component. Students discuss their motivations, how their feelings impact their ability to achieve goals.
Counselors are trained to recognize if a student’s problems are more serious than self-care or goal-setting.
Though they don’t have the resources to help someone who is seriously depressed and perhaps suicidal, the counselors use a model called “stabilize and refer.”
They will take action if they suspect a student is planning to harm himself. “We will definitely get them connected with mental health agencies in the community,” Zurita says.
Since counseling can be expensive, there are several resources that allow payment on a sliding scale. One is SAMHC Behavioral Health Center (see box for information).
It can be scary to ask for help once, and sometimes the second time is even harder. Zurita hopes to help students feel safer making the new connection by helping them with the call.
When she refers a student, Zurita will call SAMHC, put them on speaker phone and say “I have a student here I’m really concerned about, what kind of services do you have?”
Zurita knows it can be hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed. “You may want to talk to a counselor for a session,” she says. “Just to help you know what you can do to help.”
She realizes that mental illness still has a certain stigma in our culture.
“I really want to stress that depression is not a weakness, that it’s treatable,” she says. Sometimes the first place to seek help is with a friend, or a minister or rabbi. It doesn’t always have to be a counselor.
But the Counseling Center is there to help. “You don’t have to suffer alone,” Zurita says.
If you feel any of these, especially if they get worse over time, it’s time to get help.
- Been feeling low in energy, slowed down?
- Been blaming yourself for things?
- Had poor appetite?
- Had difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep?
- Been feeling hopeless about the future?
- Been feeling blue?
- Been feeling no interest in things?
- Had feelings of worthlessness?
- Thought about or wanted to commit suicide?
- Had difficulty concentrating or making decisions?
Source: National Depression Screening Day—College Screening Form
by Screening for Mental Health, Inc.
Counseling centers on campus
- Community Campus, 206-6408
- Desert Vista Campus, 206-5030
- Downtown Campus, 206-7260
- East Campus, 206-7662
- Northwest Campus, 206-2200
- West Campus, 206-6699
- SAMHC: 2502 N. Dodge, #190; 622-6000
Available 24/7 by phone or walk-in.
- Information & Referral help line: 325-2111 or 888-575-2111
Sexual assault contributes to depression
Editor’s note: This series portrays one woman’s personal experience of depression, with a bit of advice thrown in.
By LIZA PORTER
I’m going to talk about a difficult subject.
Better to just say it out loud than tip-toe around it. Which is what I’ve been doing for too many years.
I’m pretty sure I can say that being raped contributed to the depression of my teenaged years and beyond. I know that not dealing with it did.
I interviewed a staff member at the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault and learned that many sexual assault victims aren’t ready to get emotional help for six or seven years after they have been raped.
They go on with their lives as best they can. They survive it.
Survivor. That’s a better word than victim.
And I am one. I am a survivor.
But it’s been a lot longer than seven years since it happened. More like 30.
I didn’t even realize it was rape. There was no such term as acquaintance or date rape back then. Out of ignorance, I thought it wasn’t rape because I knew the guy.
I thought because I was drunk, it was my fault. In my habitual self-destructive way, I chalked it up to me getting what I deserved.
And because I blamed myself, I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I hadn’t even told my husband of 23 years about the rape until the topic came up for the investigative reporting I’m doing for the Aztec Press and for this column.
It’s about time he knew. But more than that, it’s about time I dealt with it.
I was 17. Joe was a high school acquaintance who came to a party my sister and I put on one Friday night. A big pot of spaghetti and a gallon of Gallo wine. And probably several bottles of cheap whiskey.
I got drunk, as usual. Joe and I flirted all evening.
After everyone left, my sister and her boyfriend went to bed. Joe and I made out on the living room floor, and he raped me. He got up, pulled up his pants, tucked in his shirt and walked out the door.
For decades, I didn’t remember struggling under him on the floor. I didn’t remember the helplessness and pain. I didn’t remember the blood stain on the carpet.
The SACASA Web site says 73 percent of female victims are raped or sexually assaulted by people they know.
An American Association of University Women research study on sexual assault found that 20 to 25 percent of women will be raped or experience attempted rape during their college career.
If you have been raped, don’t wait as long as I did before dealing with it.
You don’t have to keep it a secret. There is help.
Tell someone, but only someone safe. Watch the video on the SACASA Web site: http://www.sacasa.org/aboutus.htm. Call them when you’re ready.
I’m dealing with my rape now. It’s worth the pain.
Next: Talking back to the “fat” voice.
Depression: Don’t listen to ‘Fat Voice’
Editor’s note: This is the final story in a four-part series portraying one woman’s personal experience of depression, with a bit of advice thrown in.
By LIZA PORTER
The Fat Voice is back. I hadn’t heard it in years, until the other day when I heard it say: “Don’t eat that. You’re too fat.”
That voice is part of my depression.
I’ll bet I’ve gained and lost several hundred pounds during my life. And that’s probably a low estimate.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve used food to help me deal with my depression. Binging on sweets made me feel better, for a while.
Dieting and starving, especially over a period of days or weeks or months, also felt good. There’s a high that comes with denying yourself sustenance. Just ask the yogis in India.
So, food has been a mood changer for me.
Even now, pushing 54, I’m known to “use” sugar and caffeine to get me through bad days.
When I was younger, I obsessed on my body and everything that went into my mouth.
I’d start on a diet, usually on a Monday, and stick with it for a week or so, if that long. I’d lose maybe five pounds and then “cheat” on my diet because I was always so—grrrr—hungry. Pretty soon, I’d start binging again.
Craving food and denying myself became an addiction.
Sometimes I’d binge and vomit every night when I got home from work or school. That became its own sort of addiction.
I even used to exercise compulsively. For a while in my early 20s, I swam so hard every day that standing up from a sitting position was painful.
When I deprived myself of food or exercised too much, I thought the world was a better place. I was on top of everything. I’d set a goal. I was following through, my stomach felt flatter, my insides were hollowed out. I could feel the weight stripping off my “fat” body.
The problem was, I wasn’t even fat! During most of the time I spent on diets, on the compulsive binging and vomiting, I didn’t even need to lose weight. My view of myself in the mirror was warped. The bathroom scale ran my life.
The National Institute of Mental Health’s guide for eating disorders says one in five women struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating.
That’s 20 percent of women who are right now obsessing about food, about their body weight, about their looks.
With me, it was a full-time addiction. If I multiply all the years I spent dieting and binging—well, I don’t want to! It’s too much of a waste to think about.
We are supposed to eat to fuel our bodies so we can do what we need to do in the world. Eating is supposed be a pleasure, not some shameful, secret activity.
We are not meant to worry about every little thing that goes into our mouths. Or go exercise for two hours because we ate a donut.
And yet 70 million people worldwide have eating disorders. Thirty-five percent of “normal dieters” (whatever that is) progress to pathological dieting.
The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that a young woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than other women her age without the disease.
Time Magazine stated that 80 percent of all children have been on a diet by the time they have reached the fourth grade.
These are some horrible statistics. That last one makes me want to scream! Children ages 8 and 9 dieting!
Anorexia is a killer disease. I am lucky to be alive.
And none of this obsessing over food and body ever helped my depression. Feeling better lasted for a few hours, if that.
I hereby refuse to listen to the Fat Voice. I’m disgusted with it. Sure, all the compulsion and obsession probably got me through some tough times I might otherwise have used for something worse (like drugs or dangerous decisions) to get through.
And maybe I’ll forgive the part of me that wasted all that time, some day. Be a little gentler with that young girl inside me.
But today I’m pissed about it.
This is what I say to counteract the Fat Voice: I’m OK the way I am. A little overweight. Trying to eat healthily. Exercising regularly, sometimes. Trying to accept myself the way I am.
If you have problems with food, please ask for help. Anorexia is a serious illness. And your eating disorder might be masking chronic depression.
You are not alone.
See below for some places that can help with eating disorders: