Category Archives: Mental Health

The Difference

I have had many episodes of depression, but two of them stand out among all the others. These two put me out of commission for about six months each. They both involved suicidal thinking, complete loss of appetite, and a general ability to carry on with everyday life. There have been other episodes in between them, but they were not as significant.

While both of these major episodes of depression were similar in severity, the more recent of the two was a much different experience. Overall, I felt more supported during it, I made a fuller recovery from it, and most importantly, I learned more from it. The following points highlight why I think this latter episode was the more positive of the two experiences:

  1. I accepted that I was depressed.
  2. People close to me understood that I was depressed.
  3. I started medication earlier.
  4. I went for more extensive counselling.
  5. I told people around me that I was suffering with depression.
  6. I talked about my experience to anyone that I thought would listen and potentially understand.
  7. I took time off from work to help me rest and recover.
  8. As I recovered, I actively made time to engage in activities that I usually enjoy such as writing, drawing, exercise, and music.
  9. I saw a psychiatrist (OMG we need more access to them!).
  10. I had already had the first/earlier experience, which helped to build acceptance and increased my determination to pursue treatment.

 

It’s too bad that I couldn’t have arrived at where I am after just one experience. There have been many, but this highlights the difference between my two most major episodes. Good luck. Hang in there and feel free to get in touch. #depressionsucks… more than people realize.

Dear Self…

Hey there little guy. You look pretty full of promise right now. You are at an age where the ability to live ‘in the moment’ comes naturally. All of those years ahead are of no concern to you.

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School is ahead of you. It has its good points. You’ll discover writing and art. Bullies suck and there are plenty of them at your high school. You’ll meet some great friends. Some of those friends will still be by your side when you are 42. You’ll learn some stuff, including how to calculate the missing angle in a triangle (just in case you ever see one that is missing), a second language (that you’ll never use),

You’re a happy introvert. No one is ever going to teach you about being an introvert, so for a long time, you are going to aspire to the extrovert ideal. This will make some of your teenage years tough. You will find yourself aspiring to be something that you are not. I wish I could tell you right now, what your strengths really are and make you happy to be yourself. It’s a long and slow lesson. One that I cannot help with.

“No one is going to tell you that things can go wrong with your brain.”

Acne is on the way. It sucks, but it will get sorted out. The real doozy that’s on the way is depression. No one is going to teach you about this. No one is going to tell you that things can go wrong with your brain. Your stomach – yes! Your heart – yes! Your tonsils – yes! Your teeth – yes! But no one is going to mention the brain. Only ‘crazy’ people have problems with their brains. WRONG! The first few times you encounter depression, you aren’t going to know what the heck is happening. You will know that you are unhappy and that you want this to change. You will experience it like a puppy living in the moment with no concept of what is going on. During these times, you will view life through an altered perception. You will make significant life changes. You won’t understand it. People around you won’t understand it. Many of them will try to help. Some of them will make a difference. Depression will go away, but it will come back.

Eventually you will find people that understand. People that will stay by your side during these tough times. They will help you to learn about what is happening. You will find ways to control and even prevent your depression. Medication will help. You’ll meet some wonderful doctors, some amazing psychiatrists and counselors. You will learn much, but much of it you will learn the hard way. Perhaps it is the only way.

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“You will learn much, but much of it you will learn the hard way. Perhaps it is the only way.”

So right now, hug the daylights out of that cuddly panda bear. Make the most of that thick auburn hair (it’s here for a good time, not a long time). Reassure your family that you love them and then buckle up because it’s going to be one hell of a ride. The battle is inside, so not everyone will see it, but you are going to live every second of it. Good luck. I don’t know how it ends, but I can say that at age 42, things are looking pretty good. Well, even better than ‘pretty good’, but let’s not tempt fate.

Driving and The (Im)Perfection Factor

I’m not a perfect driver. Simple fact. Luckily, I haven’t had any major accidents to date. I try really hard to drive safely. I drive 20km to work and 20km back five days a week. I drive for groceries and other things on the weekends. Sometimes I take a three hour drive to my wife’s parents’ cottage. It’s a lot of driving and sometimes I make mistakes. Plenty of people drive a great deal further than this. Is it fair to expect someone to drive for so much of their lives, without the slightest mistake ever? I think not.

I’m not encouraging careless driving and I’m not referring to accidents that ruin or take lives. I’m not talking about fender benders.  I am talking about completely honest mistakes. Mistakes that harm no one. Mistakes that although harming no one, somehow seem to result in unnecessary, disproportional anger in other drivers.  I’m talking about a time you were carefully watching a cyclist while sitting at a red light. You momentarily missed the light turn to green and received a prolonged and angry horn honk from a car somewhere behind you. Or, the time you took a few attempts to safely reverse park and held up a couple of other drivers in the process, only to have one of them angrily yell out of their window at you as they drove by. Have you honestly never once forgotten to check your blind spot? Driving requires a lot of skills. It requires a lot of our attention. We are all human. Mistakes will be made.

“We are all human. Mistakes will be made.”

Armed with this knowledge, let us all drive the roads expecting to see mistakes. Our logical brains know that they will happen. Let us drive as a team, not as one person against the rest of the world. We can look out for the imperfections in our own and other people’s driving. We can try our best to help them recover safely and with as little stress as possible.

“Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for stress, frustration, and unhappiness.”

I hypothesize that at least some amount of road rage comes from expecting everyone to drive perfectly and becoming enraged when this expectation is not met. Yet, the expectation is not realistic.  Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for stress, frustration, and unhappiness. Expect imperfections. Look out for them. Be the person who helps another driver during their mistake. Be the person who helps make our roads a friendlier place to drive on. Be the kindness in someone else’s day, from the comfort of your car.

By expecting to see mistakes on the road, we can adopt the attitude of looking out for each other. Be kind, not rude, to other drivers. Help make the roads a safer place by supporting the other drivers out there.

Kindness is the most precious commodity that we have in our possession. Use it freely, even from behind the steering wheel of your car.

The (Im)Perfection Factor

Practice makes perfect? Maybe for some, but for most of us, it just makes us better. Should we only practice things so that we can get better at them? Why do we always want things to be better? Why should we strive for perfection all the time?

There’s something that has helped my day-to-day mental health. I’m calling it ‘The (Im)Perfection Factor’. It’s related to a way of thinking that stuck with me through much of my early life. It was a way of thinking that stopped me from getting much done and likely reduced my overall enjoyment of life.

I used to have a desire to have things as near to perfect as I possibly could. When things weren’t perfect (and the reality is that nothing I ever did was perfect), I saw the imperfections loud and clear, screaming out at me above anything else. If I didn’t think that I could do something close to perfect, then I would not do it. I’m not sure if this was some kind of ‘fear of failure’, with failure being rated according to the number of imperfections, but it interfered with my enjoyment of life and with the amount of things that I achieved. It filtered down to every little thing I did. If I was going to get a T.V. it had to be the best that I could afford, I wanted the picture and sound to be as near to perfect as possible. When my car needed cleaning, I cleaned every last part of it inside and out. If I didn’t think that I had time to fully clean the entire car then I would not clean it at all (a quick spot-clean was not perfect enough and so never happen). This did not mean that my car was always clean. While these are things did not have a major impact on me, I believe that this is how the imperfection factor manifested in my day-to-day life.

I know that for some people, this striving for perfection is part of what drives them to achieve greatness. However, my life has become better without it. I like to create. I write music, poetry, draw, and love building things from wood. However, there are many times that I did not complete a song because I did not think it would be ‘perfect’. There are many times that I did not embark on a piece of art because I did not think that the idea was perfect or that I could execute it perfectly. There is so much that was not created because I was hung up on the outcome being ‘good enough’. I would never just draw for fun and see where it went.

“…love the process not the product and cherish the beauty of imperfections”

What I have learned, that has significantly improved my enjoyment of life, is to love the process not the product and to cherish the beauty of imperfections. Instead of focusing on the quality of a final drawing, I focus on the process of drawing – which I love! I love to draw, I love to colour. When I finish a piece, I no longer see the imperfections as mistakes, but as things that add to the individuality. Because I am no longer solely focused on the quality of the end result, I create much more freely and my enjoyment of the process has increased ten fold. After all, who am I creating for? If for myself, should perfection matter?

By setting more realistic expectations, I no longer expect perfect behaviour from students. I accept that they are young children and I have learned to enjoy their quirks and approaches to life. This in turn has greatly improved my relationships with the students I teach. I’ve always loved the artwork of seven-year-olds and now I realize that it is because of the individuality of their work. They are creating because they love the process and are not hung-up on the perfection of the end result. It is so often us adults that point out the ‘flaws’ that we perceive in their work. We even go so far as to teach them to look for flaws and attempt to ‘correct’ them.  I choose not to be critical of others. Instead of critiquing our differences, I admire and expect the variety of character traits in people I meet.

Years ago, I could never have written this blog. I know it isn’t perfect. I know that it doesn’t get my point across quite as well as I would like. But, I have enjoyed writing it. I’ll probably enjoy tweaking it from time to time. It reflects a little bit of what I believe in – a little bit of who I am. I’m glad that I have written it, despite any spelling errors, grammar issues, and clumsy phrases that might exist. I hope that someone else will read it, relate to it, and maybe even learn what I, like Jane Austen and so many others before me have learned…

…it’s our imperfections that make us perfect.

Chapter 10: Part II: A New Outlook

Moving On From Depression…

I will do all that I can to prevent it from returning. I will eat healthy (within reason… no need for all those chocolate chip cookies to go to waste), exercise within reason, do my best to focus on the present, and for the time-being, take my SSRI each day.

When you are not depressed it is almost impossible to imagine that you will ever feel that way again. Even on the good days that happened during my period of depression, I could not imagine that the feeling would ever come back. It did. My perception was that I had way more control over it than I actually did. The truth is that it can happen to anyone and it can have a devastating effect.

“Depression changed me. It was awful, but it ultimately changed me for the better.”

The good news is that for most people, depression is curable. The challenges lie in accepting what is wrong and then getting the necessary medical and therapeutic help. In many places, Mental Health Care is still grossly underfunded so the quality of help available to individuals varies considerably.

So, as I heal, what next?

I felt fragile for a many months as I recovered. I felt that something could easily make my depression come back. Thankfully, it didn’t and the feeling of fragility gradually faded. Twelve months later and there’s still a tiny bit of that feeling, but it only wakes up for a few minutes of each day. With it comes an appreciation. An appreciation for the life that I have. We take our health for granted? I believe that most of us do. But, in the aftermath of something like this, it is so wonderful to wake up and realize how fortunate I am to have the life that I have. There’s something special there when I see my family. It’s something that wasn’t there before. It’s a love of the simplicity of being alive and having each other. Am I saying that I’m glad that I went through my depression? No – I wouldn’t wish depression on anybody. I’m just saying that there is some good to have come out of it. I would not be who I am now without depression and in many ways I feel better than the person I was before. When I teach children, I am so much more aware of their brain/mental health. When I hear of others experiencing mental health issues, I am so much better equipped to be helpful and supportive. When I interact with those around me, I do so with a belief that my words and actions can affect the health of their brains. Depression changed me. It was awful, but it ultimately changed me for the better.

I don’t intend this book to be ground-breaking – I know that it isn’t. However, I do hope that it will help someone. I know that hearing about the experiences of others was a great help to me. The unfortunate thing was that people weren’t very willing to open up about the topic because of the stigma still attached to it. I had to go through all this to learn what I learned. Surely there is an easier way? Hopefully we can change this for our children.

If you’re out there and suffering, hang in there. If you’re out there and talking about your experiences then keep going. Together we can change the way things are. Together, we can make mental health stigma a thing of the past.

THE END.

FOR NOW.

Thanks for reading.

Justin

Chapter 10: A New Outlook

A NEW OUTLOOK AND CONTINUED DIAGNOSES.

Is this over for me? Did I have a terrible experience, get through it, and manage to learn something from it to help make me a better person? Yes, no, and maybe to all of the above. I did have a terrible experience. I think that I am through it. I do feel like I’m a somewhat better person for it. I have no idea if it’s completely over. My psychiatrist has talked of a potential bipolar type 3 diagnosis. From what I understand, bipolar type 1 is extreme mood swings in a very short amount of time. You wake up in the morning, feeling great, but arrive home at the end of the day feeling the exact opposite. Bipolar type 3 is similar swings, but they happen more slowly – over periods of years. Type 2 is somewhere in between. I’ve greatly over-simplified, and mostly due to my own lack of knowledge about Bipolar, but the idea is there. (Maybe one of my awesome Twitter friends will help me with this part.)  Bipolar type 3 is very difficult to diagnose, but if that is the best description of my issue then it means that there is a cycle to it and that I will likely go through the cycle again.

“Alas, the litmus test for depression and related disorders still eludes us and so I am left uncertain as to the reasons for my experience.”

The cycle can often be seen with periods of high productivity, either at home, at work, or both. These are followed by the periods of depression. As I mentioned earlier in the book, I was feeling very creative and being very productive leading up to this ‘crash’. I was writing, building, raising my family, being husband, working on my guitar skills, my swimming skills, and working out to a point where I was no longer enjoying any of this. I also remember this from ten years ago when this happened before. Through discussions with my psychiatrist I have also identified at least two other similar cycles between these two depressive episodes. In these ‘intermediate’ cycles, the highs and lows, were not as pronounced, but I can certainly identify them and link them to similar feelings, such as health anxiety.

Alternatively, maybe it was a reaction to the antibiotics. Perhaps that was the trigger. Perhaps it was also the trigger ten years ago when I went through something so similar.  I don’t remember being on anything back then, before it happened, but it is certainly possible. Maybe the cause was negative life experiences and stressors? Environmental? Dietary? Genetic? Developmental? Maybe it will never come back. Hopefully.

Alas, the litmus test for depression and related disorders still eludes us and so I am left uncertain as to the reasons for my experience. I’m left listening to the expert opinions of others and ultimately arriving my own conclusions. I wonder if, in years to come, we will have many more ‘names’ for what we currently describe as just a few related conditions? Maybe what has happened to me is an as yet undiscovered/named disorder with a specific cause and cure? Time will tell? Hopefully.

 

 

Chapter 9: Part V: 10 Things That I Learned From Depression

10 Things That I Learned from Depression That I’d Rather Have Learned Another Way:

  1. Depression is a life threatening illness. It is more than just feeling sad.
  2. It is not something that you can just talk your way out of.
  3. We should seek the help and advice of medical professionals at the first sign of depression.
  4. Our brain is a ridiculously complicated and finely balanced organ.
  5. Life is fragile.
  6. Mental/Brain health issues are both real and serious. They can affect ANYONE. Depression does not discriminate.
  7. We are a big bunch of chemicals. When those chemicals get messed up, we’re in big trouble.
  8. Life is too short to spend it regretting what has happened and worrying about what might happen. When you have the choice (i.e., when you are not depressed), choose to live in the moment as much as you possibly can. Stop and smell the roses. Taste your food. Hear the music. Hold and cherish your loved ones. I’m too conservative to truly believe in living each day like it’s your last, but maybe live each day like tomorrow is your last.
  9. Depression is so torturous that thoughts of suicide can start to seem like a legitimate way to obtain relief. For the first time, I understand how people can have thoughts of suicide.
  10. Thoughts of suicide, if you survive them, can pass and there will be a time that you are glad you didn’t take active action.