in General

Depression, and the fight of my life

I’ve never really been sure how to say “I have depression”. It’s not like I have it. It comes and it goes, and usually it has me, not the other way around. I’d say, “I’m depressed”, but right now I’m not. Do I say, “I’m prone to depression”? The word “prone” seems appropriate on a number of levels, but no.

Today, I’m fighting depression. And winning.

Every experience of depression is different, but for what it’s worth, you might find this story worth reading. I hope it helps you fight depression in your life, be it yours or that of someone close to you.

When you’ve got to feel it in your bones

Some people refer to feelings associated with depression as anthropomorphic avatars, such as their black dog, stalking shadow, or dark passenger (hopefully without the Dexter connotation). For me, it has always been an insidious evil, a cancer within, and rather like my arthritis — both conditions arrived at about the same time, with roughly the same effect.

One night in my late teens, I awoke to the most intense pain I had yet experienced. My left knee and ankle were roaring emergency signals back to my brain with such ferocity, I couldn’t even tell you if it was dull or sharp. Tears were spurting from my eyes, and I didn’t have enough breath to scream. Unable to move, I banged as hard as I could on the wall behind my head.

Soon enough, my father and stepmother woke and came downstairs to my room. Dad was asking questions, but I still couldn’t speak. My knuckles were white, face contorted, right leg out straight to the toes, left leg raised and bent at the knee. I pointed at my left knee and let out a whimper.

My stepmother decided to take control of the situation. She bent down to forcefully straighten my left leg, completely smashing my record for the most intense pain I had yet experienced.

I had the classic fairytale stepmother: Jealous, duplicitous, manipulative, evil. I don’t say that lightly. By comparison, my stepfather was merely a violent alcoholic. (So now you’re beginning to see some contributing family circumstances…)

I have had a few acute arthritis attacks like this over the years, but more recently it is just an inconvenience. I have to be careful not to provoke it. Sometimes get the vague sense that I should take an umbrella.

The first cut is the deepest

My first experience with depression was similar. During my last two years at school, I felt a growing, previously unimaginable, newly inconsolable sadness. There wasn’t any one reason that I put my finger on. Plenty of correlation, very little causation.

I was well off, went to a good private school, had lots of friends and things that I loved to do: What right did I have to be unhappy?

As it got worse, friends would say, “Why are you so quiet?” and “You’re no fun to be around” and “You should just snap out of it”. But it’s true: I wasn’t fun to be around. I was a morose motherfucker. I went to fewer and fewer gatherings, and received fewer and fewer invitations.

Then I stopped going to school altogether. For weeks. Months. No one called. Not even the school, which prided itself on “pastoral care”.

One day, during the trial HSC exams, I got a phone call from one of my friends. Had I heard the news? One of our classmates had taken his life. Was I okay? I got another call, and then another. Suddenly, with one student gone for months and another gone forever, the “school community” was taking notice.

I wasn’t close to Lucas Wood. We didn’t share a circle of friends, but knew each other through cadets and music. It seems almost absurd to say that Lucas “saved” me, but right at that time I was closer to giving up than I have ever been since, and his actions prompted the intervention. In part, I am here because Lucas isn’t, and that’s hard to forget.

I returned to school for the rest of the year, mostly to shoot and edit the Year 12 leaving video and visit the counselor. There wasn’t much to say to my friends. I was charitably invited to a post-school getaway, which was fun, but we didn’t stay in touch.

This experience (plus a massive, negative culture shift with an awful new principal and head of music) is why I rarely talk about my age, or where I went to school. Few of my friends know at all, let alone first hand. Not talking about it eventually became a habit.

But things are changing: I went to Barker College, graduated in 1996, and I’m 32 years old.

I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control

Since my first experience of depression, I’ve had some fantastic ups and awful downs, and managed to achieve some great things despite periods of nothingness. But I functioned, performed and achieved only at its mercy.

Instead of fighting, I declared surrender, ceded authority, and allowed it to define my choices. I don’t say that to lay the blame for my actions (or, more often, inaction) on depression as an external force. It is part of me, and I was complicit. My worst failure was to let depression (and contributing factors) become habitual.

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

After a long bout of truly awful depression, becoming seriously non-functional in the process, things are looking up. The change began in the middle of last year, as pinholes of light in the darkness. I finally kicked open the door in April.

The key, for me, was two words: “I can”. I can fight this. I can adopt better habits to fight it long term, and stop it from owning me again. I can feel better. I can sleep better. I can eat better. I can lose weight. I can talk to people. I can beat this.

So, step-by-step, I did.

I started waking up at the same time every morning. Making the bed. Going for a walk. Having a shower. Getting dressed. Eating breakfast. Maintaining a to-do list. Getting out of the house at least once a day. Cooking dinner. Not looking at computer or TV screens late at night. Going to bed at a sensible time.

If that sounds ridiculous to you, then imagine how bad it was before. Most of the time I didn’t want to get out of bed. I’d rather sleep than hurt all day. If I did, I wouldn’t dress. I’d distract myself with things that might have felt slightly productive. I’d eat total crap. I’d go to bed only when absolutely exhausted, usually in the early morning, because laying awake in bed meant letting my brain run without distraction.

I didn’t give up, and it started working.

Months later, I exercise every morning, keep my apartment neat and tidy, have a wonderful morning routine and a proper place for everything (using my mild OCD for good, not evil).

I cut sugar out of my diet (almost entirely by not consuming huge energy drinks, which come with all kinds of other problems). I eat breakfast and keep to sensible portions most of the time. I drink lots of water.

I’m 30kg lighter. I’m wearing 36″ jeans, down from 42″. I threw away my old belt, and have already moved a belt-hole down on my new one. I’m wearing clothes I haven’t for years.

I’m slowly apologising to the people I failed while I was very deeply depressed over the last few years. This is probably the most “12 step” part of the journey, but it’s important to me. It means I’m taking responsibility for what happened, and taking responsibility for not letting it happen again.

I am even deriving satisfaction and enjoyment from activities and people. That was a distant memory and unlikely fantasy only 6-12 months ago.

Not to mention that I moved to Sydney for a great job, which I pretty much asked to be created for me. “I’d like to save you a recruiting fee: Let me tell you more about why I’d be good for your company” are not the words of a man in the depths of depression!

Now it’s not so much “I can”, as it is “Holy shit, I fucking am!”

Show me your teeth

I’ve hinted at the social anxiety involved in my depression, but here’s an appropriately ludicrous example: my teeth.

Until a few weeks ago, I had large, visible holes on two of my right teeth. I felt hideously self-conscious about them. So every time I’d smile, cue the internal monologue.

Have they noticed them, or are they just being polite? Maybe they hadn’t seen me recently and just thought it was a piece of spinach. But if they saw me this week, then they’d know it wasn’t spinach. But I can’t do anything about it because I’m worried about going to the dentist, and I don’t have enough money, and what else will need to be done? Why can’t I pay for some stupid holes to be fixed? Why can’t I provide for my family, and why can’t I deal with this shit, and why am I so useless?

Immediate un-smile. That’s a crazy negative feedback loop for a half-second smile.

But for $350 and an hour sitting down, now I just smile… and I’ve returned to the dentist since. :-)

Marriage

Not having much faith in the institution of marriage, it surprised me when I decided I wanted to make that commitment. The risk of my depression breaking things meant I had avoided all kinds of commitments over the years. So should it be a surprise that depression was a contributing factor to the end of our marriage?

I don’t think it’s particularly respectful to discuss the end of a marriage publicly, but there’s two things to say which relate to my depression:

While I’m profoundly sad (and, frankly, embarrassed) about our marriage ending, the grief isn’t all-consuming. It almost was, but my own changes have given me room and strength for compartmentalisation. I can weather grief and sadness without depression. That’s a new thing. It’s pretty amazing, all things considered.

If you see me, and I appear happier than you’ve seen for some time, it’s because of what I’ve found, not what I’ve lost. Please don’t confuse the high of rediscovering my strength for the faux freedom offered by the end of a relationship. It would not offer due respect to either situation.

R U OK?

Though I’ve been planning and writing this post in my head for a while, one of the reasons I chose to post it today is R U OK? Day: “It’s so simple. In the time it takes to have a coffee, you can start a conversation that could change a life.”

Asking is a big deal, even if you don’t get an entirely truthful answer. Merely having the concern and taking the time to reach out might be significant and helpful in itself.

I’ll try to answer any questions in the comments.

Write a Comment

Comment

Comments will be sent to the moderation queue.

47 Comments

  1. Your honesty is touching Jeff; battles with depression are rarely shared.
    It takes brains and balls to dissect oneself on this level, publicly especially.
    I’m really proud to associate with you and inspired by your insight mate. Thank you!

  2. The sudden nature of your arthritis attacks sound more like gout to me. I suffer from gout also.
    Do you experience swelling in the affected joints?
    Cutting down drastically on sugar will have had a dramatically positive impact on that.
    Have you tried regular vitamin C? It has pretty-much eliminated gout attacks for me since I started 2 years ago.

  3. We’ve met up at events a couple of times, and it would have been before April this year – but I immediately thought you were a cool, smart guy. Depression can be a weird, irrational place that totally skews your view of reality – so if that was a low period you probably didn’t realise that was my impression :)

    Something that you said to me at Media 140 is still in my head – and I recall it often. We were talking over a beer at the end of the day and saying that we need to get to these types of things more often. Your comment was something like ‘its just great to be hanging out with my tribe’. Since then I’ve upped my own involvement in gatherings of all sorts and I try to help out where I can in creating new opportunities to gather and form tribes.

    As geeks – I think this is something we should all be trying to do – especially if we normally spend 12 hours a day with a screen in front of us. Its good for our mental health, good for our skills and knowledge – and you get to meet cool people too :). For some of us – it can take a few goes before we build up the strike up conversation with new people – but being in a room with people that share your interests, and using tools like twitter to make a connection can help.

    Thanks for sharing your story – you’ve come along way in the last year and I hope things keep getting better for you.

  4. Thanks Jeff for this honest, open and remarkable personal story.
    The thoughts, experiences and insight you relate are extremely powerful, and I know will be most valuable to all who read the post. I am sure every reader will get something out of this well written post – I know I did.
    I have bookmarked this page for future reference, I am sure it will be of value in the future. Could I be so bold to suggest that you also remember the thoughts you have written here, and refer to them again, in future times when you may need to delve into your inner strengths, which are so obviously displayed here.
    Cheers
    Robert

  5. Thank you…

    So much of what you’ve described, I know all to well.

    I’m not going to go into details, it’s your blog, not mine.. but the past couple of weeks I’ve been sliding back into the old pit. I’m not at work today because I can’t cope with people. I think I’m about to lose my job because of it.

    I’m trying to sort it out, same as you. I’m just not good at self motivation. I’m still trying though.

    But thank you. I’m glad to see people understand. It’s nice to know that we’re not alone and that people do get it.

  6. Wonderful post. I personally found tremendous support when I opened up about my challenges. It’s a brave act and I applaud you. Wishing you the best!

  7. What a fantastically honest post, thank you for sharing your story! Beating depression is such a personal journey. Antidepressants and medication can help but only go so far. Even professional counselling only goes so far. At the end of the day it’s something you have to dig deep to find the will to beat it. Good onya Jeff, stay on top!

  8. WOW! Such an incredibly open and honest sharing of your story. You’ve come such a long way and I think its awesome that you shared this with us. Mental illness is far more common than we know, all because we’re too scared to put our hands up. But I think, when you share such a story, it can only touch the hearts of those who know you, and for those who may have suffered, or still be suffering similarly, it can be a life changing gift. Depression is such a difficult thing to overcome. Yay for you!

    And I’d also like to take this opportunity to put my hand up :) Maybe I too should share my story in case it helps someone?

  9. It is no easy thing.

    Someone once said to me about depression: if it’s too close to your face, it blocks out the sun. You have put it down and seen it for what it is.

    Awesome!

  10. I heard about this idea that a project without bug reports means that folks are not using it(Karl Fogel). But in this case, a FLOSS person to not blog is an indication of something gone off the rails. So it was with a similar thought that I did note your absence in the blog rolls and thought: what’s up with Jeff? I’m never met you as I dont think you get to the my neck of USA much but maybe some day I’ll get to see you speak or such. I saw the recent posting of your S.O. about some songs that suggested darkness somewhere and the impending split with you and put 2+2 together. But I’m happy to see you being the bold person you project and have gotten back on the horse and holding on for dear life. Stay with us Jeff, we need folks like you to curse the darkness and light a few candles.

  11. Jeff, thank you. Your exposure of yourself had to be painful. I appreciate it. My long respect for you just went up a bunch of notches.


    MC

  12. As someone who thinks/hopes that she has finally arrived at the point of beginning the process of having more good days than bad ones, I need you to know that your bravery could not have come at a more opportune time.
    You’ve afforded me a glimpse into how it could be if I truly believe myself worthy of the struggle, and stay the course.
    A million times, thank you.

  13. Hi Jeff

    I don’t know you, so tell me to butt out of your blog if you want.

    I came here because I have a google alert for depression blogs, as I have a site on the subject (TooDepressed.com.

    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that what you’ve done is inspirational. It’s exactly what we all have to do – drag ourselves by force of will out of the deep. What’s more your story is superbly written.

    Looks like you’ve got some great supportive friends too which is vital.

    If you’d like to contribute a piece to my site, you’d be welcome any time.

    All the best and keep well.

    Martin

  14. Hi Jeff
    Thanks for sharing your personal story. I remember seeing you present at BarCamp Canberra last year, and was captivated by your communication skill and obvious deep knowledge of the subject of WordPress performance (even though I did not understand much about it! :-) I would never have imagined you would suffer depression. It is not obvious that people suffer the disease because it does present as a typical disease with outward symptons. This is why I am thankful you and others share their stories, and why it is so important to ask the people in our lives “Are you ok?”

    Best to you,
    Tony Hollingsworth

  15. I’m pleased to see you back – I’d wondered from time to time, wish I’d made contact.

    I’m glad you posted what must’ve been a difficult article to write. Very helpful, too.

    KUTGW

    Liam

  16. Jeff,
    U r very brave to put urself out there like this.
    Happy to know ur in a good place n keep ur head up n positive thinking.
    We all have struggles in life n u have confronted them and there is only one way out of this n that is UP UP UP.
    Throwing happy energy hugs ur way Jeff

  17. Congrats on working out a strategy to beat depression. Far too often we think it’s too hard or something of the sort, and just give up on ourselves.

    FWLIW, I spent five years after a traumatic brain injury fighting an organic onslaught of clinical depression, without drugs. I remember using my repulsion at the SDI to benchmark my resistance to the onslaught – I’d give up and die when I’d finished SDI off, and not before – Space for Peace.

    So it is possible to survive it on will-power alone – even though at times it feels like crawling on bare hands and knees on a plain of scoria.

    It pays to be bloody-minded at times.

  18. I just noticed your blog and I appreciate this post as I’m going through some of the same things, well…to say that is an understatement. I’ve been dealing with this since I was ten…started slowly at first, but over the years things have snowballed and I am now in a position that I can’t describe. Depression is awful and I know full well how it feels when you can’t get out of bed or be…productive.

    Depression took me from being an almost straight A student, to barely passing classes, if I could even get out of bed to take the tests. I went from being a bright 16 year old taking his math and science classes at a local college, to staring at basic problems for hours.

    Depression made, and makes me so anxious that I can’t be around people sometimes. I’ve always liked going to bars with the couple friends that I have, but sometimes, that becomes impossible due to the anxiety and the complete lack of confidence.

    Relationships have been terrible, I end up pushing my girlfriends away. I push friends away for small reason.

    I feel a lot of your pain, well…a lot of the pain you felt? From an unsupportive family (huge understatement), to losing friends at school for melancholy (never told them my best friend out of state had recently died…) to the self defeating habits.

    Like you, I feel that this is something that has to be conquered within, the pills won’t fix the circumstances that got me to this point, the therapy I’m doing, isn’t fixing the circumstances that got me to this point…I have to.

    We can’t change yesterday, but we can work hard today to make tomorrow a better day.

    I started my own blog documenting my process climbing out of the hole, having recently hit rock bottom, well…it might be an interesting read and I’d be honored if you took a look.

    alifedepressed.com

  19. Jeff,
    I first met you while you were deep in the hole of depression. I didn’t get to know you very well and I guess that bitch called depression was involved.
    I am very moved by the bravery and depth of personal insight of this post. I don’t judge you, I respect you and wish you all the best this crazy world has to offer.
    Cc :)

  20. Jeff-
    I came to this blog just looking for some contact info, so I could write you an email asking you about the GNOME Thank You Pants award. (I’m tasked with writing an article about that in the GNOME Annual Report.)

    Little did I know, I would get to read such authentic post as this. Your understanding of depression as an internal force, and your willingness to take responsibility and follow the “steps” out of this darkness is so inspiring. Thank you so very much.

  21. Just bumped into you on Twitter because of a total different subject, clicked the link to your website and this was the first post I read.

    Thank you so much for writing it, it’s a very brave act and seeing the comments so far I think you inspired and/or helped already many.

  22. Thanks heaps for sharing this Jeff!

    What you say about getting up and actually doing things, despite the strong will not to is really good. Need to be reminded of that periodically.

    Keep keeping on!

  23. Awesome post – glad to have come across it, if belatedly!
    I also know the effects of arthritis, but I’m a lucky one who with medication is able to avoid the aches and pains most of the time.
    I also struggle with forming those habits that get you away from the small screen (where there is always more to be done and nothing is ever “finished”), and spending time achieving what needs to be done to look after yourself and the ones who care for you IRL.
    Thanks for sharing so much with so many.
    Andrew

  24. Hey mate.

    I remember you from your involvement in GNOME and today found myself thinking “I wonder what happened to Jeff”. So I googled your name and found your blog with this post.

    Just wanna let you know that in spite of a depression I think you did great things, and with the beast under control… I guess the sky is the limit :)

    Rock on.

    Jacob

  25. Before my job was eliminated I actually felt it was going to come. I felt my boss wanted to get rid of me but didn’t want my condition to get worse. I believe people at work noticed my depression, my inadequate relationship interactions, my crying spells at my desk. So I was let go but given 60 days to find another job but nobody wanted to hire me. I am now 100 x more depressed, I dont want to look for another job in fear of repeating history. I want to die but I also am trying to do everything to heal. I just can’t beat it and I don’t have health insurance for medications. I feel the worst when I wake up in the morning, I can’t function at all. Thank you for your story, it does help in having hope that things can get better. Now that I feel the need to go cry again this is just about all I have to say.

  26. I really enjoyed reading your post Jeff.

    Thanks for sharing your story with the rest of us.

    I’ve suffered depression on and off (mostly on) for about five years now and prior to that, anxiety almost my entire life.

    Unfortunately it’s not something a lot of people understand, but when people are brave enough to share their stories; like you have, it makes it easier for others to ‘get it’.

    All the best with everything.

    - Paul.

    Founder & CEO of half a dozen companies and daily fighter of the black dog(s).

    • Thank you Paul and Jeff for keeping me inspired in the fight: the Black dog may sometimes have me down, but i’ll never be out: fight back i will – always!

  27. Thank you…

    I know this is an older article.. but I typed “Fighting Depression” into my computer and found this post.

    I really needed to read this. I like the idea of establishing a routine. I lost my job about 8-months ago and it’s been horrible. I’ve always been prone to night pains and depression, but things have just gotten so bad.

    I’ve started the anti-depressants and they are helping. But I’m still laying about in bed all day. And I mean all day.. it’s horrible. But I”m also doing a lot of what you are saying, staying up too late, watching T.V. all night.

    I hate it.. and I’m going to change it. Thanks so much for the tips.

  28. Thank you. This is years after the fact, but… thank you. I got here by typing “save me from depression” in my search bar. I don’t want to put details of what I’m feeling online. I’m too embarrassed. I don’t have your courage. But if you still check these comments, please understand that you’ve really helped me, even all these years later.

  29. Hello Jeff. I just found this post while searching for some insight on getting and holding down a job while dealing with my depression? I don’t think I have ever read anything that struck me enough to respond. What you write about and how you explain your feelings and symptoms really touched me. I can relate to so much in your blog, I just wanted to thank you. Its a continuous battle to try and explain what I deal with to others. Getting the ‘look’ when I use the word depression really makes me feel even shittier, so avoiding others is so much a part of my life. But alas, I have kids and need to work, so its not always an option to isolate. I respect what you wrote in the beginning about the schedule you put yourself on. I find it embarrassing to even write down some type of daily ‘to do’ list for myself for fear someone will see that I need to remind myself to shower, dress, etc.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing and if you have any insight on which direction to go in terms of work, I would be grateful. I have worked on and off since college, but haven’t found anything meaningful or creative enough. The fact that I’m constantly worried about disappointing others keeps me from committing to anything too stringent.
    Thanks again,
    Elizabeth

  30. There was a Nike commercial where a kid pored blood from a steak on a soccer ball and then went out side and started running down the back ally as all the mean dogs chased after the steak covered ball. Then the catch line: “What are you training for?” And all I could think for an answer was “To stay alive.” You have to keep ahead of that black dog. Some days we trip and we get mauled, and some months. . . years. Thank you for posting, and everyone else who has posted. It is good to run with someone, and see others running, and to help each other up when we trip, and thank and remember the ones who never get back up (Lucas). And when you have someone to run with, at some point you run not to stay ahead of the bitch behind you, but to enjoy the life before you.

  31. Hi Jeff,

    I randomly came across your blog. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your courage to share had helped someone in this world today. I’m inspired by your “i can” attitude and will adopt this method now.

    You’ve came a long way, don’t ever give up and keep on living!!

  32. Jeff, I’m just a stranger who happened onto this past because @ particularly bad morning led me to seek inspiration. Your piece, and all of its responses, feels like a huge hug capped off by a swift but gentle kick in the rear. At 57, with a virtual
    lifetime of depression punctuated with both stunning successes and equal failings, I must wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is a part of you that you never shed or cure but, like your arthritis and my 35-years of degenerative, scoliotic spine, it is something we “own, ” and with that ownership comes the responsibility to care for it, love it (sounds nutty, I know, but no less true) discipline it and encourage it (to behave, that is) and let it be the constant companion, tormentor, humbler and misguided truth-teller that it is. And that probably includes knowing when those occasions come when for both of “us” (ourselves and our depression) succumbing for a bit to the little brat is a temporarily wise course of action.

    Good on you for what you’ve written and more, for what you’ve achieved. Thanks for giving many of us that hug + boot to the rear :)

  33. Thank you. This article was so well written it had me yelling “I CAN!” in my head by the end of it.
    I felt something change inside of me during, and after, reading this.
    Just.. Thank you. Ten fold.

  34. Thanks for sharing this – I have battled with depression for 12 years and it has cost me everything, job, wife, happiness, focus etc. I am currently in a Specialist Clinic and am was becoming extremely frustrated as I was waiting for them to wave the magic wand sort me out and come up with a Plan to cure my Depression – The penny has just dropped and IT IS ME WHO HAS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY as they have told me here and seeing your story has been the baptism of fire that has today kick started me on my journey of recovery over the next weeks and months – Thank you so much for sharing your story

  35. Hi, just read your post after Ive gone to bed feeling low, Ive suffered with depression on/off for over 13 years. Hope you are still is strong and positive xx