with Dr. Kerris Dillon
My second year of teaching high school in 2003-2004, didn’t prove to be much easier than the first. At some level, I knew I had depression, but I didn’t want to get on any medication for it. I was raised in a family where anti-depressants were feared. I heard my mother say, “You know, she’s on anti-depressants.” My father would say, “I don’t need pills. I’m not crazy.” To this day, I still believe my mother, oldest sister, and two brothers believe that taking anti-depressants makes a person weak. At the most recent Christmas (2018), my younger brother had a moment alone with my daughter (who was 18 years old at the time) and she happened to share with him that she was on anti-depressants. Instead of finding out why, my brother began telling her that she needed to get “off those things” and that she could simply think her way through bouts of depression. My daughter left the conversation feeling deflated, unsuccessful, and that she wasn’t good enough. I was pissed when she told me what he said.
When I started my first year of teaching in 2002-2003, I was very optimistic. I double majored in sociology and political science at a 4 year college, only to have no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up in a nuclear and extended family of public school teachers. Holidays were spent with relatives talking about school administration, funny answers students gave to questions posed in class, and different curriculum ideas that aunts and uncles had attempted in their classrooms. In college, I had met my future husband whose name was Mike and he was a perfect fit for my extended family. He was striving to be a high school mathematics instructor so when I introduced him to the family, he instantly found allies among them. It was during Mike’s student teaching, that I began to substitute teach and realized the talent I had for explaining hard concepts to students. I heard students say, “I wish you could be our teacher. I learned more in this one day than I’ve learned in the last month.”
I substitute taught for a couple months before I returned back to school to earn my teaching license. Social studies had always interested me so I decided to get a third major, which would be called a Social Science Comprehensive Major. I earned this degree at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, which greatly prepared me for the classroom. I can’t understate my preparedness for the classroom also came from my nuclear and extended family, though. Being raised in an extended family with 17 public school educators provided me with a plethora of classroom management techniques, curriculum ideas, and many role models that I could seek out if I needed help. I took to teaching like a pro. I definitely wasn’t the best instructor at the school, but I was much more prepared than most first year teachers that enter the classroom.
My husband and I took jobs as educators with a small rural school district in the northeast portion of Iowa. The district had taken a risk on hiring a husband and wife to teach within the same high school, but we were committed to excellence and giving the most we could to our occupations. It wasn’t long before we got involved in extra-curricular activities beyond teaching full-time. Small school districts often have teachers fulfill the role of sports coaches, speech teachers, musical directors, prom advisers, student council directors, math teams, mock trial coaches, and field trip coordinators. To say that I worked from 8-3:30 P.M. would be a joke. Those were the contracted hours teachers were expected to be present. Often times, I didn’t leave the school until 6-9 P.M. In 2002-2003, my first paycheck (take-home-pay) for 1 month of teaching was $1,450.00. My husband’s paycheck was nearly the same. Getting involved in coaching or advising extra-curricular activities helped to earn extra money for our family. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
It was during a high school basketball game and in a small concession stand that I started to notice strange changes in my body and my thinking. My husband was the junior class adviser at the time and I had to wait for him to finish running and closing the concession stand before we could go home. It was 8-9 P.M. before we could begin to head home. It is hard to describe (even to this day) what that bodily thought process looked like. It was almost like a casting out or a rejection of all events related to the school. It was so confusing because I had worked so hard to get my teaching license. Why was I now starting to reject being at school and teaching? As the days moved on, the feeling inside my body and mind became worse and worse. I started to reject driving to extra-curricular activities to direct and coach on the weekends. Couldn’t I have 1 or 2 days to myself?
The minute that we were home, my daughter needed my time, but it felt like I had nothing left to give. I resented her. I resented my husband. I just couldn’t get my body or mind to get excited about “going to school” and I began to sit on the couch at home and stare at the television, although I realized I wasn’t watching it. Each day my legs and arms felt more heavy and I wondered how I was ever going to get through the school year? I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel anymore because there were still over 100 days left of the school year. If I called in sick too many days, students and community members would begin to talk. The town that I taught only had 2,000 citizens and they seemed to know everything about the teachers at the school as well as aspects of their personal life.
My body refused to care what the citizens of the school district, thought, though. What made the matter so much worse was that I had Celiac Disease and after seeing over 30-40 doctors within the last 10 years, no one had figured out the diagnosis, yet. It wasn’t abnormal for me to throw up once or twice a morning before heading to school and feeling nauseated throughout the day. Feeling terrible with no energy was more my normal than my exception. During my student teaching, I had to hide my throwing up from my cooperating teacher. There were times where I would head to the bathroom or even throw up in the wastebasket next to my desk. No doctor seemed to want to believe me. Even when I arrived at the emergency room and almost passed out in the bushes next to the hospital doors and the doctor found only scants of water in my system, he still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
It was time to send me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN where if they couldn’t find out what was wrong with me, no one could. My husband and I went to the emergency room, were steered to another room, met more doctors and were shifted again, until finally they put me in the hospital so that endocrinologists could look at my case. Mike and I had brought all my records and scans with me and I was told that they would look at these and talk about my case. They attempted to feed me and I picked at a hamburger they had brought and swallowed it, trying not to vomit it up and knowing this food would give me the important energy that I needed to try and get better. The next morning, I was told by a doctor that they had looked through all my records and scans and had decided that I probably had some psychological issue that I needed to see therapy for. Are you kidding me?
We left the Mayo Clinic without any answers. I ended up seeing a psychologist and getting a psychological evaluation only to be told that I was normal. There didn’t seem to be any answers left. This was my normal. I was going to be nauseated, dizzy, and throw up almost every day of my life. When my body began rejecting school, my daughter, my husband, and all other aspects of my life I couldn’t get up anymore. I couldn’t get out of bed or off the couch. My legs were in pain. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt like I was 500 pounds and it was exhausting to get up and go to the bathroom. I thought I was going to die. And this whole time, I couldn’t get over the need to just rest and relax my body. I had to provide for my family. I was going to lose my job. We lived paycheck to paycheck and I couldn’t lose my job.
My husband didn’t know what to do. I begged him to stay home with me because I worried that I would kill myself if left alone for too long. I think many men wouldn’t have lasted what Mike did. He did his best to balance everything out. It became obvious that we were going to need to move closer to the town in which we both worked in order to get through all of this. I finally decided to make one more doctor’s appointment with a local guy that I had heard was extremely good. I knew that something beyond mental illness was wrong with me, but at this point…I couldn’t take it anymore. “Do you think I might have Depression?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer. The doctor smiled and asked, “You might. Do you think you have Depression?” I explained to him all the tests that we had been through and that there was no answer. I was truly at my last straw. I asked that doctor a million questions before I took my prescription for an anti-depressant that truly changed my life and its meaningful pathway.
Within 3 days, I could get up from my bed and carry a load of clothes from the washer to the couch. The doctor told me it would take 6 weeks for the medications to fully get into my system, but I was feeling it already. I didn’t know anything about antidepressants other than the negative things my family had said about them. I couldn’t believe that something my family had said was so bad, could be helping me this much! Little by little, I started to move again and not feel the heaviness of my body in everything that I did. My mind seemed to have hope again. I started to have goals and wanted to go back to school and to teaching. I was still nauseated and throwing up almost every morning, but a little bit of strength could take me a long way. I was finally going to go back to teaching and was starting to feel an enjoyment toward it again.
In the 6 weeks of teaching that I missed, I also lost 40 pounds so it wasn’t hard to convince the staff or administration that I had been ill. I wasn’t a big fan of the principal at this time, but he seemed to have an innate knowledge of what was going on. Without saying that he thought I had depression, he asked me to come back half days and then had a teacher within the classroom with me when I started back in case I needed to suddenly go home. I know that he got it and he was amazing with helping me back and feeling comfortable and confident. I don’t know what it was about this time that I started to get really serious about figuring out why I was throwing up every day. Maybe it was the hope that this antidepressant had given me about the future.
It was a couple years later when the doctors finally figured out why I was so nauseated and throwing up each day. I was in LaCrosse, Wisconsin visiting an endocrinology specialist about my wonky thyroid that didn’t seem to want to balance itself. My numbers were all over the board. I remember telling the doctor, “I’m not taking that damn thyroid medicine. It is making me sick!” The doctor rolled his eyes and snapped back, “Fine! We’ll do an absorption test if that will make you happy.” It didn’t. Visiting the doctor for any reason didn’t make me happy. I didn’t have any faith in them anymore so I avoided them at all costs.
I knew that the test was going to be worthless, just like the hundreds of other tests they had conducted on me. From spinning me around in a chair to investigate my vertigo to drinking awful substances for a variety of scans, nothing was conclusive. I was surprised to get a phone call the next day from the endocrinology specialist saying that my absorption blood test was a little off. “What does that mean?” I asked, praying for an answer to three decades of feeling awful. “Well, it means you could have Celiac Disease, but I doubt it is the case. Your blood test showed it was just a little off. We would like to put a camera down your throat and check your duodenum to see if you have Celiac Disease.” I agreed to schedule an appointment and then looked on the Internet to see what Celiac Disease was. The symptoms made too much sense. “Oh my God, Mike! I think I have Celiac Disease!” A week later, the doctor took one look at my small intestine and I remember him saying, “Positive. Celiac Sprue.”
It took another week to meet with a physician assistant who gave me the official diagnosis and was so caring and empathetic that I could have cried. He told me that I would have to follow a gluten free diet and would be meeting with a nutritionist to find out what I could and could not eat. I would now need to avoid wheat, barley, rye, malt, and oats. Excuse me? What the heck was I going to eat, now? I would also need to be concerned with cross-contamination. What the heck is cross-contamination? I dove head first into understanding my own disease. A pencil point of wheat could damage the intestines?
It took many months to learn about my disorder, but I was determined to feel better again. I told Mike that I wanted 1 more dinner of gluten before I went completely gluten free and that I was going to celebrate a gluten free birthday each year to feel better about my situation. I had Chinese food on my last night of gluten and I never looked back. I wanted to see what feeling healthy felt like. My friends were the first to notice the change. “You are so different. I can’t believe it! You don’t get grouchy anymore and you have so much energy, now.” What do you mean grouchy?
I didn’t want to admit that sometimes I couldn’t handle having people around and would lie in bed and not answer the phone because I thought I was going to “lose it” if I had to talk to anyone. They were right. I did look and feel so much better! The energy was the biggest shift. I couldn’t believe the lack of pain in my body. My legs were the biggest change. It had always felt like I had the flu 24/7 in my legs and the pain was completely gone. I basically now had zero depression and no anxiety. There was no longer any tightness in my stomach or in my neck. I couldn’t believe it! It was hard not to feel so angry, but so blessed. I didn’t realize that I would have to mourn the 32 years of my life that were somewhat stripped from me because of food that I thought was healthy. I was angry, but now I finally had answers. I wanted to share my story with others, but was quite angry with my family’s reaction. “We really thought you were faking all the illness,” they stated matter-of-fact. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, furious. I knew I was getting nasty looks from them each time I told them I didn’t feel good and no one seemed to have any empathy. Nothing is worse than feeling like crap for years only to have those closest to you, not believe you.
I don’t wish this disorder on anyone, but many years past my diagnosis my sister was diagnosed with the same disorder. I got a phone call from her, apologizing for her behavior and stating that she just didn’t understand how I felt or what I was going through. I was glad to have the apology and maybe some much needed empathy, but not in a manner that she would have to suffer. My sister has asked me questions about whether or not cross-contamination brings me anxiety or depressive symptoms and I answer her, “Yes, absolutely.” The most important part of the whole story is that I always believed myself and I always believed the signals that my body was providing me with. I had to fight hard for myself and my needs and it wasn’t easy, but I am proud that I can now help others navigate their journey. I have an empathy for physical and mental illness that extends way beyond what most doctors have and I have given my life to teaching about mental illness and helping to prevent its stigma.
I teach psychology at the community college level, now. I have had soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq each semester that are struggling with their own depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I do not tell them to get on medication as a solution to all their problems. I teach about the physiology of the human brain and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Then, I tell them about my story and how medication changed my life. In a world where media, some healthcare establishments, and the general public still see antidepressants as “pill pushing” and not dealing with your own problems, I teach about the biopsychological aspects of depression and that it is no different from having Type 1 Diabetes (which my youngest son has). A person cannot think their pancreas to produce insulin just as an individual cannot think themselves to produce more serotonin or dopamine.
My life’s purpose is in direct contrast to what most of society attempts to say, but antidepressants saved my life. I believe they have saved the lives of many of my students and has opened the door to an understanding of the disease that doesn’t seem to be covered accurately. I have recently started a YouTube channel to help spread the truth about mental illness and its stigma. If you are interested in learning more about the human brain, Major Depression, various anxiety disorders, or any other mental illness please check out my YouTube channel below. If you like any of the merchandise below, please consider purchasing it as it helps me to continue my blog and YouTube channel through affiliate marketing. It is greatly appreciated!