I have clinical depression.
Despite all social stigmas to the contrary or people accusing me of being "crazy," I'm not ashamed to admit that I have depression. Just like I'm not ashamed to admit that I have asthma.
The first time I experienced depression I was in seventh grade. I think it had something to do with the onset of puberty coupled with my entire life changing. After seven years as a stay-at-home-parent, my mom went back to work full-time and I was suddenly responsible for caring for my 6-year-old brother after school until my parents got home from work. I started junior high this year and didn't cope well with changes in friendship and harder classes.
The way I dealt with it, because I had no idea why I felt so sad all the time, was to stop eating. It wasn't a conscious decision on my part. The stress and anxiety of my life made me lose my appetite. I remember going through the lunch line at school and getting my tray and turning right around and throwing everything on it away. After a while, one of the lunch ladies caught on and scolded me. So I learned it was best to take my tray, sit down, mess with the food but not eat anything, and then discard it. After seventh grade I asked my mom not to buy school lunch anymore.
I don't want to make it sound like I had an eating disorder because I didn't (if you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237). Not eating was a coping mechanism I unconsciously used when the stress and anxiety was overwhelming, and it wasn't overwhelming all the time.
Sometimes when the depression got really bad in junior high, I would come straight home from school and change into my pajamas. My dad caught on and he said something to me at dinner time about being in my pajamas several days in a row way before bedtime. I learned it was better not to change into my pajamas until bed time. People who are depressed like to hide their problematic behaviors because they are so ashamed of the way they feel. I was very ashamed and yet I didn't have the words or life experience to voice what I was going through.
For most of junior high and high school I didn't know that what I had was called depression. And that's not to say I was depressed all the time. I was able to function and get good grades. I just had a few overwhelming bouts off and on and when it got bad I would stop eating and wear my pajamas every chance I could get. I also couch-potatoed with reruns of The Real World (this was back in the '90s when the show was good).
That hardest part about dealing with depression as an adolescent, for me, was that no one seemed to notice. Research has shown that depression can stem from genetics, and I watched both of my parents struggle with depression. I think both of them were too depressed to notice that I was also depressed. There were many nights I had to make dinner for the family, make sure my brother did his homework and practice the piano, and put myself to bed. I don't blame my parents... I think they did the best they could with what skills and knowledge they had at the time. I know what it's like to barely have the energy to get through the day that any additional problem seems insurmountable.
I struggled with bouts of depression until I was 20 years old. That is when my fiance (now husband) and caring roommates interceded and got me help. I learned that a lot of my depression stemmed from a hormonal imbalance because it often got worse when my hormones were at their lowest levels during my menses. Since that time I've either been on birth control or pregnant and my depression abated for a very long time.
For 15 years I was depression free. Even when I lost my mom to cancer I can't say I was depressed because I didn't experience the same symptoms. Yes, I was unbelievably sad and grieving. But grief is not depression and I sought ways to cope with my grief so that I didn't become depressed. I attended a grief support group, went to a few counseling sessions, and let myself feel every sad emotion I had when I had it. It's actually very emotionally healthy to let yourself feel sadness instead of repressing it.
What I didn't know was my depression was lying in wait ready to take over my brain chemistry at any time I was not vigilant. In September 2013 my husband, along with 30 percent of his company, was laid off. He was out of work for four months, which in retrospect doesn't seem like very long, but at the time it was the longest four months of my life. I was in a constant state of panic wondering if we were going to lose our house and end up living in a van down by the river. Not that we could have even afforded a van. We depleted our savings and racked up some credit card debt, but with the unfailing support of family members and friends we pulled through. And we were treated to some of the most humbling displays of generosity and love our family has ever seen. We survived it and now he has a great job and we're in a much better place.
It was after my husband went back to work that the depression hit. I was in full-on survival mode for four months and I didn't allow myself to process what I was going through, which I think is fairly typical. I couldn't understand why getting out of bed and taking care of my children was harder than ever when I no longer had the threat of a van and a river hanging over my head. It wasn't until a good friend interceded, who could tell what I was going through, that I finally admitted that after 15 years of keeping my depression at bay, it was back. Thanks to her I started taking a supplement that improves the serotonin levels in your brain and now I finally feel like I'm back to my regular self.
What is absolutely infuriating about depression is other people's perception of it. I hate it when people tell me when I'm depressed to just think happy, positive thoughts. Having depression is not the same as having a bad day and a picture of a fluffy kitten will NOT lift my spirits. Depression is more than being sad. Or when people tell me I need to forget about myself and serve others and that will cure my depression. I hate to break it to people, but most people with depression are able to function in life and they are serving others and the joy from serving others doesn't fix chemical imbalances in your brain.
So let me tell you what depression is like for me. It is debilitating. It makes mundane, ordinary tasks like taking a shower or making the bed seem impossible. It is soul-sucking. It breaks you down into a person who no longer feels anything but apathy. It also makes you feel completely worthless and unlovable. When I'm in the throes of depression my brain lies to me and tells me that I am worth nothing. No one cares about me. The world would be a better place if I died. And when you have all this negative self-talk running through your head all day long, no amount of fluffy kitten pictures is going to take that away. No amount of weeding your neighbor's garden is going to take all that negative self-talk away. If anything, you just tell yourself how worthless you are because you could have weeded that garden better and/or faster. Another thing that happens to me when I'm depressed is I isolate myself from others. The internet and Facebook has made it super easy for me to be social without ever having to leave the house, and well, never leaving the house when you are physically capable of it is not healthy. Every human being needs real-life human contact and SUNLIGHT!
So what do you do when you suspect a friend is depressed? I would say the best thing you can do is reach out. One of the first lies our brains tell us is that no one, absolutely no one, cares about us. You reaching out and expressing concern proves our depressed brains wrong. Once you've expressed your concern, don't offer them dumb platitudes ("the sun will come out tomorrow"), don't try to minimize what they're going through ("some people have it way worse than you"), just listen, listen, LISTEN! If they express their negative self-talk to you (I'm worthless and no one loves me) validate that what they are is experiencing is real but what they're telling themselves is not true ("If you were worthless and no one loves you, why would I be here reaching out worried about you?").
I think I'm pretty lucky that my friend reached out when she did. I was in a swirling vortex of despair and didn't even realize it. Most of the time I can recognize when my depression is coming on and combat it with exercise, going outside for a walk, talking to a friend, reaching out to my husband and letting him know what's going on, or watching a really funny movie and laughing my guts out. Once I'm in a full-on depression those things don't work anymore, so it's best to head depression off at the pass. Like when I start to feel like my asthma is acting up, I start using my rescue inhaler more and resting.
To those who are currently clinically depressed I would ask that you reach out -- to a friend, neighbor, family member, spouse... anyone you trust. Sometimes medication helps, sometimes it doesn't. I just want you to know that you're not alone. You're not worthless. And there are people who love you deeply.
This post originally appeared on Iron Daisy.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of...Read More
A recovery story is a messy thing. It has dozens of beginnings and no final ending. Most of the conflict and drama is internal, and there’s a lot more inaction than action. The lead character hides in the shadows much of the time, so you can’t even see what’s going on.
I joined up with depression around the age of 8. There are snapshots of me in the shabby brown jacket I liked to wear. My mom took beautiful photographs, and there are lots of me in moody shadows, looking as down as could be.
She had her own depression to worry about. My typical memory of her from that time brings back a couch-bound, often napping, mother. She explained her sleep problem as a condition she called knockophasia – a term I’ve never been able to find in any dictionary. A few minutes after lying down, snap! Sound asleep. No one mentioned strange emotional problems or mental illness in those days. My parents occasionally talked about someone having a nervous breakdown as if they had died. There was no hint of a need to get help for my mother, much less for me. No one worried about me since I was a star in school, self-contained and impressive to teachers for being so mature, so adult.
Migraine headaches started then, and increasingly intense anxiety about school. I missed many days, felt shame as if I were faking, and obsessed over every one of my failings. I spent long hours alone in my room.
Through my teenage years, depression went underground. Feelings were dangerous. There were too many angry and violent ones shaking the house for me to add to them. So I kept emotion under wraps, even more so than in childhood. Nothing phased me outside the house and even at home I showed almost no sign of reaction to anything, even while churning with fear and anguish.
It was in my 20s that I broke open, and streams of depression, fear, panic, obsessive love and anger flowed out. In response to a panic attack that lasted for a week, I saw a psychiatrist. In one marathon session of 3 hours he helped me put the panic together with frightening episodes from my family life. I was cured on the spot but never went back to him. It was too soon to do any more.
It took another crisis a few years later to get me back to a psychiatrist and my first experience with medication – Elavil. But I had no idea what it was. I took something in the morning to get me going and something at night to help me sleep. I took it short term, got through the crisis but continued in therapy. From there I was steadily seeing psychiatrists in various cities for the next 8 years. But no one mentioned depression.
I first saw the word applied to my condition in a letter one psychiatrist wrote to the draft board during the Vietnam era. But I wasn’t treated for that problem. Therapy in those days was still in the Freudian tradition, and it was all about family life and conflict. Depression was a springboard for going deeper. Digging up the past to understand present problems was a tremendous help, and it changed me in many ways. But depression was still there in various forms, reappearing regularly for the next couple of decades. There were wonderfully happy and successful times as well, but I had these ups and downs through marriage, children and a couple of careers.
Gradually, depression became so disruptive that my wife couldn’t take it anymore and demanded I get help. So I finally did. This was the 1990s. Prozac had arrived, and I started a tour of medication over the next dozen years that didn’t do much at all. Nor did therapy, though two psychiatrists helped me to understand the more destructive patterns in my way of living.
Depression pushed into every corner of my existence, and both work and family life became more and more difficult. The medications only seemed to deaden my feelings and make me feel detached from everyone and immune to every pressure. It was like having pain signals turned off. There was no longer any sign coming from my body or brain that something might be wrong. I felt “fine” but relationships and work still went to hell.
The strange thing was that after all these years of living with it, I didn’t know very much about depression. I thought it was entirely a problem of depressed mood and loss of the energy and motivation. As things got worse, I finally started to read about it in great depth.
I was amazed to learn the full scope of depression and how pervasive it could be throughout the mind and body. I finally had a coherent, comprehensive picture of what depression was.
That was a big step because I could at last imagine the possibility of getting better. I could see that I wasn’t worthless by nature, that there were reasons my mind had trouble focusing and that the frequent slowdown in my speech and thinking was also rooted in this illness. Perhaps the right treatment could bring about fundamental changes after all.
There were still traps ahead, though. I became obsessed with the idea of depression as a brain disease. I studied all the forms of depression, the neurobiology and endless research studies. That was a good thing to do, but after awhile I was looking more at “Depression” than the details of my own version of the illness.
I wondered how many diagnostic categories I fitted into. For sure I had one or more of the anxiety disorders. Perhaps I fit into bipolar II instead of major depressive disorder. What about dissociation? I read the research study findings as if they were announcing my fate.
It was comforting to know I had a “real” disease. Not only could I answer any naysayers about the reality of depression. I also had a weapon to fight my internalized stigma, the lingering doubt that anything was wrong with me. I used to think that maybe I really was using the illness as a way to avoid life and cover up my own weakness. Here was proof that depression wasn’t all in my imagination but in my brain chemistry.
Neurobiology was far beyond my control. I couldn’t recover by myself. Doctors had to cure me through medication or other treatments, like ECT. However, that meant my hopes were pinned on them, not on my own role in getting better.
When the treatments failed to work, I got desperate that there would never be an end to depression. Hope in the future fell apart. My life would continue to run down. Could it even lead to suicide, as it had for friends of mine?
Fortunately, as I learned more, I listened to the experts who had a much broader view of the causes of the illness. Peter Kramer’s overview of research in Against Depression made it clear to me that contributors to the illness could include genetic inheritance, family history, traumatic events and stress as well as the misfiring of multiple body systems. No one could point to a single cause or boil it down to a few neurotransmitters.
So I went back to basics and looked much more closely at the particular symptoms I faced. I tracked the details in everyday living and saw that I needed to take the lead in recovery. Medication – when it had any effect at all – played a modest role in taking the edge off the worst symptoms. That bit of relief gave me the energy and presence of mind to work on the emotional and relationship impacts, to try to straighten out the parts of my life I had some control over.
I was determined to stop the waste of life in depression. I got back into psychotherapy and tried many types of self-help as well. Many didn’t work at all, but something inside pushed me to keep trying, despite setbacks.
One of the most important efforts was writing about my experience with depression. Writing is one way I discover things, but a deep fear had blocked me from doing it for years. I can see now that the real reason I got stuck was that I had been trying to write about everything but depression. When I could finally take that on directly, writing came naturally.
Blogging turned out to be the right medium. It was manageable even when I was down. The online community of people who lived with depression gave me a form of support that I had never had before. Another decisive step was getting out of high-stress work that I had been less and less able to do effectively. Taking that constant burden away restored a deep sense of vitality.
After all this, recovery finally started to happen. It took me by surprise, and for a long time I didn’t trust that it would last. But something had changed deep down. I believed in myself again, and the inner conviction of worthlessness disappeared.
I had found a deeply satisfying purpose in writing, as well as the energy and humor to do what I wanted to do. I regained the awareness and emotional presence to be a part of my family again, instead of the hidden husband and dad.
As anyone dealing with life-long depression will tell you, setbacks happen. There’s no simple happy ending. But if you’re lucky, an inner shift occurs, and the new normal is a decent life rather than depression.
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