Canadian Rebecca DiFilippo did not relate her dark thoughts to depression when she finally accepted that she was ill, she felt ready to die - and found herself driving her car through a red light more than once.
Every morning Rebecca sneaks into her office without greeting her staff and sits down to stare at her computer screen. The dread of making decisions is paralyzing: what if she makes a wrong one? She has not been able to concentrate for months. Her employees must despise her, there is no doubt in her mind. A supplier recently let her know what her production manager told him when asked where she was. “Probably running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” was his reply. Behind her closed door she agonizes about staff stealing from her: Postage stamps. Pens and customers.
It has not always been like this.
Ten years earlier, in 1988, Rebecca was 30 years old and well on her way to building a successful prepress company in Toronto. A new world was opening up for her. “The printing business is a man’s world and you need to be smart. I knew the process down to the last detail and I was good with people, good at motivating them,” she relates. It was also at this time that she got married. “Carlo adored me and we wanted a lot of children. He was a kind, gentle and patient man.” His large Italian family showered her with a warmth that she had never before experienced. The couple had a daughter, Gabriella, and Carlo quit his job to work as director of sales and technology at Rebecca’s company. “I felt secure,” she remembers. “I felt that they all loved and depended on me. It was O.K. to be who I was.”
Rebecca had success. Or rather: success had Rebecca and nearly drove her to the brink. Up at six to bring Gabriella to Carlo’s aunt for the day, at the office by seven-thirty, and the last to leave at nine or ten in the evening. “I didn’t want to be the kind of boss who rests while others work. I wanted their respect,” she says. When Carlo joined the company she enjoyed working with him. “I was always bubbly then, always a doer.”
But if she on occasion thought she might have been “too spontaneous” or “too clumsy” it would make her cringe. “I felt so bad if I did something unprofessional. I’d stew about it for days.” And her real purpose in creating the company had been to eventually let go of it and have Carlo take over. “I wanted to quit, have more children and be a stay-at-home mom.”
And then in the summer of 1993 an unexpected event upended all of her plans.
I kept the face
Carlo fell. On his way to a client meeting, he got out of his the car with an armful of presentation boards, lost his balance, and slammed his head into the asphalt with such force that his doctors did not believe he would survive. He did. But the fall injured the 36 year-old’s brain so that he could walk only with difficulty, was deaf in one ear, and was so visually impaired that he could not work. He suffered from seizures and his diabetes got worse over the next few years. Then there were a couple of heart attacks, followed by a bypass operation. His kidneys were failing.
Above all, Carlo had turned into a stranger. The brain damage changed his personality so that he flew off the handle without warning and was careless about his diabetes. Low blood sugar may provoke violent, uninhibited behaviour and then life-threatening insulin shock in diabetics. Carlo could devour a bag of potato chips even though they exacerbated his condition and sent his blood sugar plunging. Rebecca had to call for an ambulance on several occasions.
Rebecca continued to run the company while taking care of her husband and child. “I kept the face. I never complained.” When she sank into the sofa at Sunday dinners with Carlo’s family, no one seemed to notice how hollow-cheeked she had become. They were too busy with Carlo and Gabriella.
In 1995 she went to her family doctor because of heart palpitations and dizziness, which she believed to be signs of early enopause. But the doctor suspected anxiety and referred her to a psychiatrist who diagnosed depression. This made no sense to Rebecca. “The psychiatrist didn’t explain the symptoms of depression and I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t argue. I just took the prescription and left shaking my head.” She threw the prescription away.
For the next few years Rebecca pushed on. In 1998, five years after Carlo’s fall, she received a prestigious award for Business Excellence. A photo from the award ceremony shows Carlo and Rebecca smiling.
It would be my fault
“Things really started to go downhill for me after the award,” Rebecca recalls. A smouldering anger simmered within, looking for reasons to explode. She did not associate her dark emotions with illness. “For me, mental illness was schizophrenia or retardation. Depression – that was just another word for having a bad day.”
She exploded in shops. Shouted at her staff. When she and Carlo were vacationing in Rome, and Carlo wanted to save money by not buying a guidebook at the Colosseum, she was tempted to abandon her blind husband on the spot. “I flew off the handle and told my niece and daughter that we were leaving without him. I felt so hostile towards him, enraged over a guidebook. My niece, who was twelve, refused to leave him by himself, and I felt embarrassed. But I couldn’t shake off the anger.”
Carlo wanted to save on the guidebook because the company had lost a perilously large amount of money on a customer’s bankruptcy. Rebecca was tempted to throw in the towel, but Carlo would not hear of it. The company was their only source of income, and she had to find new customers. “Carlo told me: Go out and sell! It would be my fault if the business failed.” But she could not muster the strength to set up calls with new clients, and could barely even remember appointments with existing ones. In her office, behind closed doors, Rebecca heaped reproach on herself; at home, the conflicts with Carlo boiled on.
All the while the company’s orders were dwindling. One of Rebecca’s competitors offered to take over the ailing company, and the deal went through in 1999. The sale brought the family a measure of economic respite, but the breathing space was short-lived.
An argument about money once got so out of hand that Carlo began to lash out wildly, roaring “Let me die, let me die!” Gabriella, then twelve, was beside herself with fear that he would kill them. Rebecca shared her daughter’s anxiety and started to call 911; she then reconsidered and asked her brother-in-law for help instead. She left her husband in the summer of 2000.
I already felt dead
Carlo’s family was outraged. They pulled away from Rebecca, who had no one else to turn to. All contact with the outside world seemed to hurt. “I felt a huge guilt for not being able to cope with my husband’s inability to look after himself. A failure as a mom, as a businessperson, as a wife and as a human being. I didn’t belong anywhere.” Nonetheless, she managed to land a job with a media-publishing house where she was able to give the impression that everything was all right.
Carlo died the following year from another heart attack. His parents refused to speak to Rebecca, holding her responsible for their son’s death. She was not even sure herself, and was defenceless against her in-laws’ behaviour at Carlo’s funeral. “The family stood in line for the reception, but I stood at the end. Everyone hugged and kissed, and no one hugged me.”
One morning she could not gather the strength to get out of bed. “The business and family life had given me an identity, and it was all ripped away. It was as if I had never existed. I just saw one very small empty world and no end to the vacuum. Every day felt like a year, time was so slow and it tortured me so.”
A psychiatrist diagnosed her with major depression, and this time Rebecca accepted the diagnosis. But she fought against being hospitalized. What if Carlo’s family took advantage of the situation and took Gabriella away from her? Arrangements were made for her to receive outpatient treatment at the local hospital’s psychiatric ward, but she had to wait three months to get in.
Rebecca now understands her condition and can describe it. “I slept much of the time during the wait. When the sun was shining on my skin, I couldn’t enjoy the warmth. I didn’t notice the smell of freshly cut grass.” Her senses were shutting down. “Anyone who doesn’t know what depression is seems to think it is simply sadness, extreme sadness. It really wasn’t that for me at all. I already felt dead. That was one of the reasons I wanted to die.” Her ability to perceive traffic lights and stop signs was oddly affected. “I drove through red lights and stop signs several times. I never told anyone.”
Rebecca cried for the first few days of the hospital’s outpatient programme. Then she began to embrace the task of learning to change. One of the exercises she received was practicing how to say “no” – for example saying no to feeling unwelcome when she and Gabriella visited Carlo’s family. Her daughter was free to visit, but Rebecca allowed herself to stay away.
An idea for a new business venture occurred to her during treatment at the hospital. While there she met many people who suffered from relapses because family and colleagues showed no understanding of the illness. “People are ignorant about depression, and I knew we needed an educational venue,” says Rebecca. This was the beginning of Moods Magazine, which she began publishing in 2003. The first editions were small, but the magazine was well received by both patients and psychiatry professionals. The publication has now grown enough to provide a modest livelihood – and more. “The magazine was a healer for me, and still is,” she says. Rebecca received another accolade in 2006 when the Canadian Mental Health Association gave her its Award of Achievement in Media for outstanding contribution to public awareness of mental health issues.
The old Rebecca longed both for recognition and to be a stay-at-home-mom with many children. What does the new Rebecca dream about? About being part of the community in an Italian village. “It’s a big dream to live in Italy half of the year. In some little town off the Amalfi coast.” She talks of her dream so often that Gabriella teases her about it. “But why not?” she smiles. “I could do the magazine from anywhere in the world.”
Rebecca owned a prepress company from 1988 to 1999, which at its peak employed 17 people and had an annual turnover of CAD 1.8 million.
She began treatment for major depression in 2001.
In 2003 she started Moods Magazine, a lifestyle publication that provides information on depression and other mood disorders. It is published four times a year with a circulation of 30,000.She exercises five times a week and has changed her diet in consultation with a nutritionist.
She enjoys painting, reading and going out with friends – pleasures that were unthinkable in her old life.
A few too many tears are her warning that a relapse may be on its way. It has happened a few times, most recently when her former father-inlaw passed away. She has managed to nip her relapses in the bud.