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.