Depression is an illness, but it’s mental, not physical. Of course you can experience physical symptoms associated with it such as anxiety or panic attacks, the former of which I have and continue to have from time to time due to certain triggers.
The biggest problem with it is that it is an invisible illness that people who haven’t suffered through it simply have no concept of how hard it is to bear. Someone telling you to “keep your chin up”, or “you’ll be alright mate” - these just won’t cut through the utter despair that depression is.
Unfortunately, my brain simply couldn’t ‘do’ a positive attitude because it was being directly undermined by low serotonin levels ie. I had a chemical imbalance in my brain that physically prevented me from being “up”. And for someone like me who loves life, who 99% of the time generally has a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile, not being able to pull myself out of a constant state of despair was an absolute nightmare.
You can’t possibly comprehend how bad it is, the depths you hit, until you’ve had it…it has been a HORRIFIC experience.
I’m one of the luckiest people I know, with a loving family, a business I absolutely love being involved with; I live in an amazing city with incredible outdoorsy adventures that I am passionate about, all within half an hour’s drive – surfing, mountain biking, trail running, beaching it, hiking – Auckland is just the most amazing place to live. How could I possibly be depressed, when I have so much to be thankful for?
Well, in my case, it was triggered by an event. For others, it creeps up on them slowly. I broke up with someone I’d become intensely smitten with over a very short space of time, and losing her was what triggered a downward spiral that led to my depression.
It was the "trigger", but it was only a small part of the cause - I’d also lost my mother to a terminal illness 15 months before, and my ex-girlfriend who was also (and continues to be) one of my best friends returned to the UK 6 months after Mum’s death, so my support network (the person I turned to for cuddles!) was no longer available. These were the main underlying reasons for my depression.
Well, for starters, I was badly heartbroken – pretty normal stuff you’d think – except it persisted for weeks, together with constant rumination and analysis (and I mean persistent, 24/7, every minute of the day, for over 6 weeks – an ongoing madness) over the situation I’d found myself in.
It was an irrational reaction that was off the chart to an event that millions of people all over the world must experience all the time – but mine was total and utter despair that I simply could NOT pull myself out of.
I lost my appetite, became an insomniac, and started suffering anxiety attacks, breaking down in tears, often in public places. It was RELENTLESS.
It was like I was a different person, someone who did not appreciate the things I used to love – trail running, small things like the wind on my face, a beautiful sunset – none of it brought me any joy or pleasure anymore.
There was just this layer of heaviness over my entire being that negated any rational ability to appreciate the beauty of simply being alive, or to gain any rational perspective on the situation and what had lead up to it.
It was like I’d lost the twinkle in my eye, my smile, and I physically could not get them back, no matter what I did.
I exercised liked crazy, I went to grief counseling, I visited an aura-soma (colour) therapist, I started taking all the right foods for depression and brain health – B-complex and super-strength multivitamins, fish oil, magnesium – I even went to a hypnotherapist, but NOTHING could shake the despair.
Most importantly, I could not THINK my way out of it. The harder I tried to think my way out of it, the more demoralized I became – I started beating myself up for having what I perceived to be irrational emotions and feelings about my reaction to the situation I’d found myself in. My over-analysis was quite literally driving me insane – I thought I’d gone mad – and there were times when I thought: “I can’t cope with much more of this”. I felt like I should have been sedated and sectioned…
It was like someone had slipped me a bad acid trip, and I was on it CONSTANTLY for 2 months, in a whole different, nightmarish reality.
Well, for starters, I admitted I had a mental illness, which is incredibly hard to do, given the ridiculously unjust stigma it has – it is SO much more common than you think. My family, who I flew back to the UK to be with for some unconditional love and support, made me realize this.
I started taking anti-depressants – in my case Fluoxetine (Prozac) – which take at least 2 weeks to start kicking in. This means that once you start taking them, you know you’ve still got at least 2 MORE weeks of mental torture to go through before anything starts to happen.
About 10 days to the day after I’d started taking the anti-deps, I woke up one Sunday morning and it was like the fog had lifted – I suddenly had RATIONAL PERSPECTIVE on the situation I’d found myself in, the break-up with someone I’d only known for a very brief period, the compounded grief for my mother which I’d never properly dealt with, and an acceptance that I’d had a very stressful 18 months, during which I’d also started a new business with a couple of good friends.
The up didn’t last – I crashed that afternoon and had possibly the worst low of the entire 2 months that evening – lying on my bedroom floor in tears, quite literally yelling that I could not cope with the irrational thinking and madness any more.
Recovery is not a simple process, and it’s not in a straight line like healing from a cut – it’s all about ups and downs. That first up was now 3 weeks ago– but I’m still experiencing both, although the ups (or rather, a simple sense of normality) are tending to get longer in duration, and the downs a little shorter, less intense, and more manageable.
I take Diazepam to help me sleep and for anxiety, which is still triggered by certain thoughts, and which helps to relax those thoughts and general wellbeing.
But alongside the right medication, you’ve got to make an effort to take other steps that help you recover - mostly importantly for me the TALKING THERAPY.
Make sure you’ve got a good counselor – if you don’t vibe with the first one, try another one, and another if you’re still not comfortable with them. They need to help you UNPACK the issues that have lead to your depression slowly, sympathetically, and gently…and help you digest them, get a healthy perspective on them, dissolve them…
…and it may take time – you might nail it in 6 sessions, it might take a whole lot more, but keep going back until you feel you have closure on whatever issues have lead to your depression, or can deal with them healthily under your own steam.
Eat healthily and make sure you get enough sleep – as noted above I’m taking Diazepam both for the anxiety AND to help me sleep – you NEED sleep to help you recover and retain healthy perspective. Tiredness mitigates that ability. I’m not worrying about being addicted to it right now – I’ll wean myself off it in good time if I am in fact addicted (which I don’t even think I am because some days I don’t take it at all), but I do need it now for sound sleep and to allay some of the heavier anxiety attacks when they do occur.
A brief word on alcohol; I now COMPLETELY understand why people drink to help with emotional pain – it masks it brilliantly. I’ve found that the odd single glass here and there to help lift my spirits has been ok, but would not recommend more than a single glass. More than that has caused me problems, and I drank to excess in one instance which set me back at least a week in my recovery. If you don’t think you can limit yorself to one glass a couple times a week, I wouldn’t drink at all.
If you’re feeling despair for more than a couple weeks, talk to someone, quickly – if you’re not comfortable sharing it with friends and family, then definitely a doctor or community support organisation who can steer you in the right direction as regards medication (which you NEED if you do in fact have depression and want to pull yourself out of it), counseling, and other guidance as regards exercise and diet.
If you are comfortable doing so, then talk to friends who are sympathetic to your plight (ideally those that have themselves experienced depression before), who “get” you, not those that simply tell you “You’ll be right mate”. You need friends who you can really trust, who will listen to how you are feeling, and be empathetic and caring for you; who are happy to have you tell them the same woeful tale over and over without judging you: you’re just getting it out of your system. Surround yourself with those kinds of people – those are the friendships worth cultivating.
If you think you or anyone you know may be suffering from depression, PLEASE feel free to email or call me to talk and share the experience – as someone once told me, the more light we all shine on this very common affliction, the less dark its spectre will become.
The reason I published the original article was the suicide of someone I’d heard about through a fried. Apparently he'd suffered from depression, and could take no more, deciding to end his nightmare. He left 2 young children and a wife behind.
Many would say, "How could he have been so selfish?"
Well, unless you've experienced the horrific, alternate reality that depression is, the all-encompassing negativity, the biologically-imbalanced state of "deadness" inside, the emotional pain that can manifest in physical symptoms, and the seemingly self-induced (and therefore circular or self-perpetuating) mental torture, you simply have no idea how bad it is.
Without wanting to sound condescending, you cannot possibly comprehend the lows you hit, the tangible drowning in despair. Unfortunately, or fortunately in retrospect, I have. So I know exactly how he could have taken his own life.
If people don't talk about it, if they don't get help and support, if they don't get the counselling or medication they need, they sometimes kill themselves. It's that simple.
So please, share these notes with others you think may need them, or with everyone you know, in an attempt to shed light on what depression actually is – a mental illness that requires treatment.
I don't care who knows I was once a looney tune - if my story helps others get through it, as I have now done, then it's been worth it.