Depression is such a bitch…


Depression (Photo credit: Gingertail)

I don’t need a book or lecture to remind me that depression is a physical illness, and not something that is just made up in my head or a weakness on my part.   I don’t choose to battle this demon over and over again.  I know exactly what has caused this latest bout, but I won’t get into it on this blog because I really don’t want to pull anyone else from my personal life into something so public.  But even though I have come miles from where I was three years ago, just a mild cruelty from another person can cause me to spiral.

I am fighting back as best I can, but again I know this is biological in nature because I can actually feel it deep in the core of my being.  Depression feels like a physical ache, a dullness, almost like a heavy suit made of lead that the universe forces me to wear and walk around in.  Depression isn’t just feeling sad, it is the inability to feel joy.  It affects everything I do, everything I see and everyone I interact with on a daily basis..  I have difficulty concentrating, I lose my appetite and have trouble falling asleep, mixed in with the dark moods are bouts of anxiety that arise seemingly out of nowhere.  The constant battle of highs and lows is like riding the world’s most unpleasant roller coaster.  Sometimes looking at pictures of friend’s babies on facebook, or seeing a loving couple walking down the street will reduce me to tears.  The subway tends to bring on bouts of sadness.  I don’t know if it is something about the stillness, the anticipation of getting home, or that I have to sit and deal with my brain but I tend to fall down the rabbit hole on long late-night trips.  Or maybe it is that while sitting there I have a tendency to notice everyone around me, and little things remind me of what I lost.  I honestly don’t know, but those long late night commutes will cause all sorts of negative thoughts to swirl in my head.

But I fight back with every tool in my arsenal.  I write, I do all the cognitive behavior therapy techniques I know to dissipate the dark clouds that want to engulf me.  I silence the what if, what if, what if narratives that play out like a bad repeated record.

What if I was still married?

What if I was working more?

What if that last date had worked out?

What if I wasn’t so damn broke?

I know these things aren’t rational and I there is no point in dwelling on anything that is hypothetical but the thoughts linger nonetheless.  I know I am not alone and that there are millions of others out there who fight with this monster.  For some of us we have been at war with it our whole lives, maybe its is partly genetic, or from whatever traumas we have endured but we still have to fight a mental illness on top of our every day obstacles.

I write this piece with no answers, no quips or nifty conclusions at the end.  I write this for release as it tends to inexplicably help me when I do it.  Maybe one day the medical community will develop medication that actually works without so many side-effects.  One day doctors will find the biological mechanism that causes depression, and the stigma towards patients who suffer from it will disappear.

I have to remind myself how far I have come, and how much better I will be in the future.  To my fellow suffers of this disease I say…hang in there.  Whatever is troubling you shall pass, and you will survive it.    Avoid the temptation to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and try to not fall into the trap of  self-destructive behavior.  We are all loved and cherished by many, never forget that.  We will get better…we are just battling a disease that doesn’t have an easy way out.

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Growing up with Depression

First Day of School

I guess it has always been there to some degree since childhood.  I would love to say that my childhood was happy and that everyone around me was loving and supportive.  But who has that childhood?  I have met a few who have been fortunate enough to at least have strength in their basic foundational relationships.  The lucky few who are supported by both their parents, have a secure and safe environment, and a steady predictable routine. My upbringing was relatively stable in most respects but emotionally I would describe it as volatile.

I don’t blame my parents, and at my age I would feel a bit silly putting any blame on them considering my circumstances.  I wasn’t abandoned or left to starve and I wasn’t neglected or ridiculed.  My parents got married young and had four children in five years.  We didn’t grow up with much, and money was a constant source of stress and anxiety.  Their marriage wasn’t perfect and they were not ideal parents but they always made their children their primary concern.  So with all of their faults I knew the did the best they could consider the obstacles they were up against.   I may not have had a father I could have tender moments with, but he worked overtime, marched on picket lines and lived with very little material wealth for the sake of his children.  My mother was in over her head with four babies and a husband who worked all the time but she always made us the center of the universe.   She constantly took us to trips to the library, bought us every educational toy or game we could afford and made sure we did our homework.  She may have been too obsessed, but I would rather grow up with her than an indifferent mother.

School wasn’t much of a solace as I was awkward and socially withdrawn.  I found children my age to be a bit of a mystery and found more enjoyment reading a book than playing with other kids.  There is much more I could write about, but I won’t because I cherish relationships I have with certain family members.  I don’t want to dredge up old traumas for the sake of this blog.  Some things need to remain private, for the sake of my siblings and my immediate family.   When things got bad I literally hid in a closet in our basement.  I would shut the door and wait for my world to stop spinning out of control.  To this day I don’t think anyone in my family knew I would go down there, I guess they might know now…if they read this blog.

Depression has always been there.  The dread that will sometimes wash over me that I can’t shake.  It causes me to overreact and panic and lose faith in others.   My divorce made it much more pronounced but depression has been with me for as long as I can remember.  I had no idea how bad it would get until post-divorce I became suicidal and nearly completely lost my sanity.  Clinical depression is nothing to joke about or to shrug off as just the blues.  I realize now that I suffered from a mental illness that is quite common but extremely frustrating to manage.  But I fought back with traditional therapy, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy and eventually my situation greatly improved.

Although now, I can feel the seductive pull of the dark clouds sucking me back in from time to time.  At first it feels comfortable to give in to the black moods and collapse in tears but they soon take over.  And instead of having a quick therapeutic moment of release the dread wins out and starts to devour me.  I find myself lying on my bed looking straight up trying to fight back a panic attack.  I haven’t had one in over a year, and I am so proud that I have been able to stop them but when things get bad it is a constant struggle.  At least now I know I have some control, I don’t have to huddle in a closet until it passes.   And just knowing that I have some control has been paramount to my recovery.  As a child I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t understand why I wanted to retreat by myself, why I had difficulty dealing with other and why I constantly had crying fits that were nearly inconsolable.   I couldn’t understand why things got so black in my head, and why hope was such a hard thing to imagine.  My Catholic upbringing caused me to look for a supernatural source but now I know the real demons live inside my head.  If it is brain chemistry or some genetic defect I don’t know, or if repeated trauma caused something in my brain to develop abnormally.  The source of my depression doesn’t really matter, at least that is what therapy taught me.  What matters is management, and trying to live with and fight against this affliction.

For the most part I do alright.  I am so much better off than I was just a year ago, but I still struggle.  And I know from the amazing feedback I have gotten from this blog and from fellow sufferers of depression that this disease is a tricky one.  If you are reading this and you have struggled with depression since you were a child, don’t give up hope.  You can and will beat it.  Some of us aren’t as lucky in life as others, some of us are born with more obstacles that the average person, and some of us are born with the biology that causes depression.  But it doesn’t mean that we can’t beat this disease and we can’t overcome it.

I wish I knew what I know now when I was six years old, if I could I would go back to that little girl with the ice blonde hair and the rosy cheeks and tell her that God isn’t punishing her when the gloom overtakes her mind.   Whatever is going on in her head is not pay back for any sins she committed and it is not a battle between good and evil.  The dark moods are just a slight flaw in her wiring, and that flaw is depression.  And everyone has a flaw, no little girl is born perfect.

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Life After Divorce: The Emotional Prism

English: Human Experiences, depression/loss of...

One of my most popular blog posts is about the illness of depression. A well-meaning friend just posted something on Facebook basically with the following sentiment, I will paraphrase for length

Don’t be negative or sad, we have all had tough times.  And I have had a lot of tragedy in my life but I refuse to go down that negative path. I will keep it positive.

A nice straight forward message really but it just struck me as overly simplistic and naive.  I know someone else who commonly expounds a familiar message yet is usually sedated with alcohol or marijuana for most of his waking hours.  So I don’t know how well the philosophy is working out for him if he is always drunk or stoned in order to “keep it positive” especially since both of his drugs of choice have a sedative effect.  What really stuck in my craw though in the statement was the assumption that somehow since he had also had tragedy, his pain and life experience was somehow the equivalent of another person’s experience and that his “power of positive thinking” was keeping him from going down a spiral.  For the most part I would agree with him completely, except in the example of the mental illness of depression.

As a person who struggled with a massive reactive depression (due to my divorce) a sentiment like that just rings hallow. I wish it were that easy, and all it would take was to “keep it positive” and that every person out there could be helped with nothing more than a pep talk.  But human beings are like snowflakes in that no two of us are alike. We might be similar in that we all desire food, comfort, companionship and safety and we would all react similarly to basic stimulus or dangers. But even in my immediate family each of my siblings, with similar DNA, raised in the same home by the same parents do not respond to crisis or stress in the same way. We see the world through the prism that our life experience has created for us.

For instance if you had two identical twins, one who grows up as an abused child in a poverty-stricken family and another brought up as a privileged child with a healthy and supportive family.  Neither experience guarantees that one person will necessarily be more positive or negative than the other, but since their formative years were so vastly different they will evolve into two very different adults.  We are all made up of a patchwork of pain, scars, joys and accomplishments with different traumas and experiences so of course issuing a blanket statement such as

I have had it rough too, so I can relate to your pain…

Well maybe, but you aren’t me and I am not you so you don’t really know what I am going through.  We can try to understand each other but no one really can see inside another person’s head.   And that is without even mentioning the mental illness of depression.  The words depression and depressed are thrown around so often in our culture, that the real disease of depression is mitigated to every day blues.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Getting some bad news and mulling over it for a few days is not depression.  Clinical depression is a biological disorder that impedes every bodily function from eating and sleeping to getting basic every day tasks accomplished.  It is why people are sometimes hospitalized for it, and why some even receive successful Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression. ECT is actually quite effective for patients with extreme cases of depression.  So if positive thinking could over come it, why does it take electrical currents inducing a seizure to help cure the patient?   Depression is a type of brain sickness that is not cured by simply snapping out of it or thinking positively.   It is also why so many people commit suicide while struggling with the disease, as it completely takes over them and they can’t see logically, they can’t see hope.

As the brilliant Dr. Sapolsky says in his lecture on Depression

Depression is the inability to feel pleasure

And that is pleasure in anything, food, comfort, a pet, music, any activity that used to be enjoyable ceases to bring joy.  Now that I am two years out of my personal hell I know exactly what he is talking about.  I still struggle with anxiety and mood swings but I am able to feel real joy now in any number of things.  I didn’t know how bad off I was until I was completely healed from it.

We can have empathy for each others struggles and we can relate to another’s pain but the only person who really understand their suffering is the person going through it.   I am not one to argue that no one has any control over their moods and emotions, or that clinical depression is a hopeless malady.  And I would agree that run of the mill pessimism and negative thinking is counter productive to leading a happy life.  However it is foolish to assume someone struggling from a major depression simply has a case of the blues or is just feeling sorry for themselves.  The fine line between the two does exist, and there are many that wallow in their own misery committing acts of self-destructive behavior rather than get help.  But after I went through a major depressive episode I will never be so blithe as to accept that a person is choosing their illness or emotionally weak as a result.

And here again is the lecture that I believed put me on the path to recovery.  For the first time I realized what was happening to my brain was medical and not something I could just snap out of.  Just as it would be insensitive to go to a person with schizophrenia and tell them to “Stop hearing those voices” it is just as cruel to tell a depressed person to simply “Get Happy“.


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