On average 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some stage in their lives. That breaks down to 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men. It’s a serious condition that can affect both your physical and mental health. It can vary in intensity from minor to severe with all levels causing adverse impact on the individual’s health.
My experience with depression has been first hand and prolonged. It was happening a long time before I did anything to manage it – worse still, it had happened before and went unchecked.
I don’t think the above gives me any expertise in depression, nor does it make me an authority. What I can speak to is my experience with the condition, which will hopefully help others who may be earlier along in their journey. I am attempting to show that there is a positive path to be taken, although it may not be the right one for everybody.
Mental health issues were always a misunderstood subject for me. I am sure that holds true for the majority of people unless they have been touched by it in someway; either directly or through family and friends. I looked on any experience with ‘feeling down’ as a bad day, week or even month. Sometimes simply on a failure to keep my chin up and think positively. That, of course, was completely stupid on my part.
I find the easiest way to explain it is to equate a mental health issue to a physical injury. If I broke my arm, I would see a doctor. If I pulled a muscle at sport, I would see a physiotherapist. If I hurt my knee I would consult a specialist. In none of the above cases would I stick a band-aid on it and hope for the best. That is the way I approached my mental health issues – at first. I couldn’t see how talking to someone would be of any benefit to me. They couldn’t change what had happened, they couldn’t magic away my problems. Let me just say that all that still holds true, no argument from me. What they could do however, was enable me, give me the clarity of mind to tackle my problems head on. This step took away the debilitating effects of a condition that is with you every waking moment.
I was also naive about who I could talk to. I assumed it had to be a psychiatrist based on preconceived ideas, but then I decided to make my first stop a doctor so I could talk it through with him initially. We discussed three options for tackling the problem – exercise, medication or counselling. A combination of each – or the use of just one – is usually decided upon in conjunction with the patient, and is the first step only, not an end game to being cured. I chose exercise and medication because I had just started a fitness kick and the medication felt like it would give me a rest from the constant onslaught my own thoughts waged on me. Everyone is different, but seeking professional help should be a constant in any approach.
Never Truly Alone
When you are depressed, the world can seem like a pretty hostile, cavernous place. Everyday interactions become torturous, trying to maintain a facade so family, friends and colleagues don’t prod and probe. For a while, I shrank from others because there was no way they could understand how large my problems were. As well as that the last thing I needed was my impossible situation reinforced by another person, how could they have not seen it my way?
The truth is no problems were as large as the ones I had manifested in my fractured conscious. I had built towers of terror from manageable obstacles, forging them into a mental prison. Dramatic? Yes. Any less true to me at the time? No. This is where the power of perception trumps reality, as it does more than we care to admit. I believed my problems to be insurmountable so they were, my own manifest destiny so to speak. This pushed me to further withdraw from those that mattered, on all but a superficial level. What I couldn’t know was how widespread depression is and how it affects so many of us – with some of my friends no exception, fighting their own silent battle.
I remember a social occasion mid last year. I had reached a level of comfort speaking about my issues but an ideal moment hadn’t arrived as of yet to put that positive intent into use. I rarely drank alcohol at this point, so the question would tend to come up as to why I wasn’t drinking. I had mumbled excuses before, not ready to face the scrutiny, and perceived stigma, of my depression. Illness, antibiotics, health kick – they all worked at first. So when I was asked this time, by a good friend, I answered honestly. ‘It plays with my meds and I can’t handle the down days afterwards’. I purposely watched their face because I wanted to gauge the honest reaction. Our faces always give us away when caught by surprise. Mine was an open book at that moment – pure, controlled anxiety. My friend barely skipped a beat, and deadpanned ‘Which ones are you on? I had to switch three times before I got ones that worked’. It was one of the few times in my life I was speechless.
The point is I was never alone, I was only alone because I chose to be. First I opened up to those closest to me, then I took a deep breath and included select friends. It wasn’t perfect every time, but it was enough to keep moving forward.
Weak Minded, No Sir
There was a certain amount of self-anointed shame that came with my depression. You already feel pretty worthless when you are so down, and couple that with moments of high anxiety it became a breathing ground for self-contempt. Maybe it was old school prejudices of mental illness, that I had heard years ago, filtering back into my sub-conscious. Surely if I was tough enough, strong enough, adult enough I wouldn’t be having these problems? How could I not handle pressure or life’s problems being thrown at me? I must be weak-minded or soft, there could be no other answer. The only thing weak-minded was my thinking on the subject.
Again, comparing the mental to the physical helps in understanding. Let’s say a strong individual pushing a boulder up a hill will eventually struggle, have moments of doubt, strain against the great weight, but ultimately may push that big old boulder to the top. Now let’s imagine the same person pushing that boulder with all their might but the hill-top keeps moving upwards, rising the same distance they move each time. Not only are they using a lot more energy, they also can see no end in sight. Imagine the mental impact on an already exhausted person, to know it could go on, and on, and on. Regardless of how strong they are, they will weaken enough to a point that the boulder starts to push them the wrong way, with no reserves of energy left to fight back. Every person has a limit, where strength starts to ebb away and is depleted to a dangerous level. Having the strength to stay in the endeavor that long shows amazing fortitude, and that weakness is not even in the conversation.
Finding My Trigger(s)
I was now into that 4-6 week window where my medication had fully kicked in and I had gotten myself into a routine with exercise. The clouds were easing off ,and what I was experiencing most of all was clarity of thought. The wall of noise roaring through my mind for so long was mercifully lowered to a mumbling. With that clarity came recognition of what issues had caused me to end up where I had. These issues will be different for everyone and could run the gamut – work, love, money, living situation, bullying, stress, abuse, etc. – but regardless of what the reasoning, it had to be identified. For me, I discovered it was more than just one thing that had caused me to spiral into depression, but I did have one key factor rose above them all. Truth be known I knew it before I began my treatment, but denial is a deceptive bedfellow.
The clear-headed recognition of what was wrong in my life was a very important step in the process. Any treatment I undertook, or method of controlling depression was pointless if I didn’t kill all the sources at their very roots. This is where I had to accept a truth – life needed to change, not adjust. That seems an obvious point, one that is less easy to put into actual practice. It requires a discipline that is an ongoing learning process, that creates it’s own ups and downs. I didn’t take any drastic measures, I put one baby foot in front of the other and picked up small, easy wins. I made sure I got proper sleep, improved my diet, lived my life more by the 80/20 rule. Focusing on what I loved, taking time to figure out what I enjoyed and got rid of what I didn’t. All high level steps that were then reinforced by clear actions. Small wins were the key. Those small wins give you the momentum needed to hit the big targets even harder.
Action Before Planning
I like to plan things out. I am a planner, to the point were it can hinder me rather than help. That wasn’t going to cut it with the situation I was in because I needed to be in perpetual motion. Clear, measurable outcomes to feed the momentum, or else I would drift back in the wrong direction. Over-thinking problems was a hangover from the dark days and to counter this I started to take action before anything else. Anything my mind was resisting doing now – return a phone call, pay a bill, go to the gym, fix something at home, hit a deadline, talk about an issue – I did as soon as I could. I got it done and thought about it all later. It created a habit of being pro-active that was completely in contrast to how I was before my medication. Habits and routine are king when you are at risk of drifting back. They dragged me through some rough days just because I had a structure in place. I could almost go on auto pilot, and a pro-active attitude bolstered that defense even further.
Once I built the routines, they became habits and once they were habits, I needed little or no planning. I just did what I was supposed to most days. It sounds boring as hell but it isn’t really. It means you are freed up to spend time thinking about the spontaneous things you want to do, rather than the mundane. The mundane takes care of itself. I still needed to make certain achievements measurable, and to give myself targets to hit. My key goal was to stop any slipping into bad habits, or laziness, because I couldn’t afford to.
People Care, Mostly…
Let me be clear that this is not a criticism of people’s attitude towards depression or anyone who was part of my experience with this. It is more to inform anyone who is going through depression that not everyone will react the same. As I mentioned, I started to tell some who were very close to me and the reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. I was able to talk through what I should do next, and what I felt was right for me. It gave me a sounding board and feedback because I was not really of sound mind at that time. Your brain is your worst enemy during depression, it cajoles you, tricks you, lies to you, inflames you, and feeds any self-worth through a blender every chance it gets. You need to talk to someone for a normal perspective on what you may be thinking, just in case it’s not really ‘you’ thinking it.
Buoyed by my initial experiences of talking about the problem, I told some of my wider circle of friends and was met with mixed results. Some were supportive at first but lost interest quickly, some didn’t show any support more than a pause and change of subject, some gave me the ‘you need to think positive’ speech (just… don’t) but some let me talk, said they were there if I needed them and were true to their word. The friends who didn’t react as I hoped? Being honest that bummed me out at the time. I was, however, seriously over sensitive given my state of mind. I was still in the habit of letting emotions run riot and was only getting used to keeping them on an even keel. They didn’t do anything wrong and it didn’t mean they weren’t still friends. It just meant that they weren’t the right friends for the situation. They may have found it too much for them to discuss, they may have thought ‘what has he to be depressed about’, they may have been having their own issues at the time or they may simply not be good with situations like that. I just applied the 80/20 rule again and talked to those I knew would understand, and be there for me. The point is, it won’t all be roses and sometimes a friend will surprise you. Let it pass and have any future conversations with those who want to listen and discuss something else with those who don’t. The conversations get shorter as you get better, so it is not forever.
Here’s To My Health
I mentioned jumping into exercise and using that as a treatment tool. I found exercise gave me more energy, reduced my stress levels and made sure I slept like a baby! Weights and gym based cardio were my choice of weapons because they were something I had enjoyed many years before. The key was picking something that I knew I wouldn’t dread the thought of – I had spent too much of my time doing that in the months before. For others it may be a team game, or Crossfit, or running on an open road, or rock climbing – it doesn’t matter as long as it gets the blood pumping and gets you motivated. Going to the gym before work every morning meant I was primed and energised for the day. New morning, new start. No carrying yesterday’s baggage into the work day as it was all burnt away by the weights.
The other half of the battle was my diet. Out went processed foods and in came fresh vegetables, chicken, fish, steak and cleaner carbs like brown rice and sweet potato. Sugar was minimised right down to one meal at the weekend. Lastly, and most importantly, I cut drinking down to 3-4 times a year. No that isn’t a typo, 3-4 times a year. Prior to getting treatment I drank on Saturday nights like most people and the odd Friday night. It wasn’t the drink – or even the calories or sugar – it was the days afterwards. Alcohol is a depressant and I found it left me very down for 2-3 days afterwards. That is too big a chunk of my week to be feeling like crap when I am putting all my other efforts into getting away from that very situation. It was also leading to some dark, dark thoughts at my lowest points that I thankfully didn’t entertain. It just wasn’t worth it for me and it was also the easiest part of the changes that I made. I never really miss it and, when I do have a drink, it’s for a special occasion which only adds to the sentiment of it. It is different for everyone and a personal choice for the individual. I found what worked for me and it cost me very little sacrifice to do it.
If you have had experience with depression, what positive outcomes have you encountered? I would love to hear from others in similar situations. Otherwise, thank you for taking the time to read this.
Pics courtesy of 7-themes
Please see some links below for anyone looking to learn more about depression.
Australia: Beyond Blue