Category Archives: Mental Health

Chapter 8: Part III: 10 Things That I Felt As I Recovered From Depression

10 Things That I Felt/Thought as I Recovered from Depression:

 

  1. I felt fragile, like I might relapse at any moment.
  2. I had been taking my health and happiness for granted for way too long… life is to be appreciated.
  3. Depression sucks more than I ever realized. I had my own misconceptions about depression, but they have been put firmly in their place.
  4. Many things that I did as I healed felt strange/different. Certain things felt like it was the first time I’d ever done them. Grocery shopping felt daunting and new.
  5. I spent a lot of time hoping that the depression would not come back. A fear that it would return lingered, but faded over time.
  6. I used to think that this could never happen to me. It can happen to anyone. I felt passionately about this point as I was recovering.
  7. I must use my experience to help others. I must share what happened and talk about it to those that were willing to listen. Of course, I still feel this way and hence I sit here typing away at night.
  8. Wouldn’t it be terrible if a child had to go through this… which lead very quickly to point #9.
  9. What is being done to help children that go through this?
  10. I was relieved that my suicidal thoughts had stayed passive and that I had never taken my own life.

Chapter 8: Part II: The Snow Globe Aftermath

WILL THOSE FLAKES EVER SETTLE?

So, my counsellor suggested a gratitude journal each night before bed. I would climb into bed, pick up my journal and write down three things that I was grateful for or happy about that day. Eventually, this became a habit and the moment I walked into my bedroom at night I began thinking about things I was grateful for.

“I had become nervous about going outside.”

I had become nervous about going outside. This happens to many people when they have been depressed or suffering anxiety. So my counsellor gave me weekly homework. This included things like going for a family hike in nature, getting groceries, or going on a date night with my wife.

“One by one, the flakes settled. It took a couple of months, but eventually most of the flakes were back on the ground. I could see clearly again.”

One by one, the flakes slowly settled. It took a couple of months, but eventually most of the flakes were back on the ground. I could see clearly again. One or two snowflakes still hovered around, but that is a normal human state. One of the problems with depression is that you spend a lot of time scrutinizing your moods and feelings. As you recover, this continual analyzing carries on. The reality is that everyone has good and bad days. We don’t experience a consistently happy and care-free mood 24/7 for the whole of our lives. If you’ve never experienced depression, then it is easy to dismiss the bad days as just that and wake up the next day ready to start again. After depression, you will question those bad days. Is my depression coming back? Is this a sign that I am not ‘cured’? You want to feel 10/10 everyday, but this is not realistic. Remind yourself that ‘normal’ involves good and bad days. It involves being able to deal with the highs and the lows that life throws at us.

If this is you, notice this point in your recovery and congratulate yourself. These feelings mean that you are getting better. You are travelling along the road back to health and you have made it far. You will never quite be the same again, but in many ways you will be better than before. You will have a new found appreciation for your own feelings and for the feelings of others. You understand brain health in a way that you never could have without going through it yourself. You are now better equipped to help friends and loved ones who may go through their own similar illnesses. Welcome to the club. We are glad to have you. Let’s change the future of mental health stigma.

Chapter 8: The Snow Globe Aftermath

WILL THOSE FLAKES EVER SETTLE?

So for me, my cure came in the form of a daily SSRI medication (Prozac). It took about four months to really get me back to anything resembling normal. I also took a non-addictive sleep pill to help get my sleep routine back on track. I went for weekly counselling to correct negative thinking patterns and I saw my amazing psychiatrist once every 2-3 weeks.

“Everything negative that I’d ever done or felt about myself had been stirred up, chewed over, added to, and digested as facts.”

In the months of January and February, when my depression was at its most severe, counselling had a very minor impact on me. However, I’m still glad that I started it at this point. It helped a little and I would recommend that a depressed person goes to counselling ASAP. When I say ASAP remember that you may need to shop around because the relationship between you and your counsellor is extremely important and a good match for one person may not be a good match for someone else. In my experience, counselling had its biggest impact in the third and fourth months of my depression.

“For at least two months I had gone to bed thinking terrible thoughts and woken up thinking even worse ones.”

By this point, my medication was starting to work. It was a surreal and confusing time. The anxiety attacks had stopped completely. My mood was generally pretty good. But in the two months that I’d been severely depressed, I had developed some very undesirable patterns of thinking. Everything negative that I’d ever done or felt about myself had been stirred up, chewed over, added to, and digested as facts. It was as if all these negativities were the snowflakes in a festive snow globe. For years, they had sat motionless on the floor of the globe. They were there, but largely ignored by my conscious self. During January and February, the globe had been shaken violently, causing the flakes to swirl uncontrollably in my head. Now, the globe was no longer being shaken, but the flakes were still floating around. Counselling helped the flakes to settle back down. It helped to correct the bad thinking habits that I had acquired. For at least two months I had gone to bed thinking terrible thoughts and woken up thinking even worse ones. This had become habitual. Thanks to the medication, I was now at a stage where I could begin to correct these patterns.

Coming Soon… Chapter 8: Part II…

Chapter 7: Part V: 10 Helpful Things That Friends Did When I Was Depressed

TEN HELPFUL THINGS THAT FRIENDS DID WHEN I WAS DEPRESSED:

  1. Assumed that I was generally feeling worse than I was letting on (this was nearly always correct).
  2. Checked in on me frequently.
  3. Answered messages from me the moment they got them – their response was more important to me than I cared to admit.
  4. Reassured me that the feeling was being caused by biological problems. It was real, not imagined. Many people experience it. It can be cured and it will pass. They told me that one day I would feel like myself again (they were right)
  5. Reduced my stress. Stress sapped my brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals. My friends picked up groceries, helped cook meals, and even tidied the house. I’m not saying a friend should do it all, just that they can help out and reduce your ‘load’.
  6. Ensured that I was not left alone any more than was absolutely necessary. This was especially true of going to bed at night and of getting up in the morning.
  7. One friend became my ‘Interweb Buddy’ (the helped research symptoms etc. while protecting me from too much negative information which my mind would have totally focused on while ignoring anything positive).
  8. Helped organize medical appointments and counselling sessions.
  9. Helped get me to my appointments and kept me company when necessary.
  10. Did their best to understand how I was feeling.

 

Chapter 7: Part IV: Warning Signs

When you have a toothache, you get yourself to the dentist as soon as possible, even if you hate going there. The clue is big and clear – your tooth hurts. You know that the early discomfort will continue to get worse and, if left untreated, could even kill you (just ask the Ancient Egyptians who often died from the infection of a decaying tooth). Yet, for some reason, we tend not to do this with depression. We try to struggle through it on our own. We don’t want to admit that something is wrong with this particular organ of our body. Is this the fault of society’s stigma? Is it our own fault for caring so much about how we are perceived by others? We often wait months before seeking any medical help. Why? Something is wrong with my tooth – I get it sorted right away. Something is wrong with my brain – I wait months without even telling anyone? Something is seriously wrong here. I brush my teeth twice a day, avoid too many sugary treats, and rinse with mouthwash before bed. I have been explicitly taught this by parents and teachers. In the grand scheme of things, our teeth are relatively unimportant (sorry dentists) and yet most of us take better care of them than we do our brains.

“In the grand scheme of things, our teeth are relatively unimportant (sorry dentists) and yet most of us take better care of them than we do our brains.”

My parents and teachers never explicitly taught me to look after my brain. I’m sure this is because they didn’t know we had to.  We need to stop thinking of our brain as this mysterious organ that will just take care of itself… a hinge that never needs oiled; an engine that never needs maintenance. We need to start looking after it, just like we look after our liver, kidneys, and intestines.

Let’s throw this into the mix… there are people who believe you should be able to reason your way out of depression, without seeking help! Years ago I was one of those people! “C’mon, snap out of it!” “You’ve got nothing to be sad about” Well, that’s what depression often is – sadness with no reason (although the depressed person’s brain often tricks them into finding false reasons for the sadness). We are talking about our brains! This is serious! Maybe we can talk our way out of that toothache while we’re at it. Or heal our broken leg with some positive thinking. Perhaps I wouldn’t have asthma if I had a rosier outlook on life? Hey, I’ll throw away those antibiotics for my kidney infection, and take this bottle of optimism –one teaspoon, twice a day and I’m sure I’ll be just fine.

“We need to stop thinking of our brain as this mysterious organ that will just take care of itself… a hinge that never needs oiled; an engine that never needs maintenance.”

I’m not saying that positive thinking won’t help. Seeing the silver lining is something from which all of us can benefit, at any point in our life. It is certainly helpful in dealing with any aspect of human existence, especially the hardships. I also believe that it helps release the ‘feel-good’ chemicals that keep our brains operating well and increases electrical activity in parts of our brain associated with feelings of contentment. But it’s not enough on its own.

This is our brain we’re talking about. It’s just like all the other organs in our body, but way more complicated and we know less about it. We cannot assume that it will just keep ticking over nicely for the whole of our lives (I have had to learn this the hard way). Why do we assume it will take care of itself and heal itself when we don’t expect this of our other organs? Unlike other organs, when something goes wrong with your brain, it can alter your entire perception of the world. It can change anything about you, including your personality and temperament – just take a look at Alzheimer’s patients, or someone who is drunk (the alcohol can do a great job of changing aspects of our personality until its effects wear off). Our brain is a finely tuned organ full of chemicals and tissues that even the best of scientists don’t fully understand. Small changes to these chemicals and tissues can have dramatic effects. The good news is that in most cases they can be fixed. Look out for the earliest of warning signs. Seek medical help as soon as you think something might be wrong. Waste no time. Act now. It’s your brain for crying out loud.

Chapter 7: Part III: Warning Signs

LOOKING FURTHER INTO MY PAST TO FIND WARNING SIGNS…

On their own, I don’t believe there’s any way I could be expected to interpret these signs and figure out what was on the way. In my mind, I had a logical explanation for what was happening. But there’s more, it’s just that I have to go back further. About fourteen years further into my past.

Cue blurry vision and a flashback sequence…

I was 27 years old. I’d been in a stable, common-law relationship for 8 years. In the last eighteen months of it, I had started to have second thoughts about the relationship. I had started drinking heavily. Binge drinking, mostly on the weekends. Not exactly unusual for a Brit, but somewhat unusual for me. Though I had gone through other phases of heavy drinking during my life too, this one was somehow different. I’d started going out without my girlfriend and drinking until I was sick. I relished the excitement of going dancing, talking to strangers, and losing control. I developed a narcissistic confidence during these nights and acted in ways that I would not normally act. It was a unique unit of time in my life. I lived for these nights out. The rest of my life felt ‘blah’ and empty in comparison.

“The rest of my life felt ‘blah’ and empty…”

I remember some specific conversations with my then girlfriend in which I expressed my frustrations with the relationship. I remember saying that I was feeling ‘flat’ and that nothing in the relationship (and consequently my day-to-day life) was interesting me anymore… sounds familiar. I blamed this feeling on the relationship and I left her. She was confused and so were our friends and family (who I suddenly wanted absolutely nothing to do with). Nobody else seemed to see it coming and I couldn’t understand why not. I distanced myself from everyone. I didn’t even call my parents, sister, or brother to tell them what I’d done. I had a few more weeks, maybe months, of craziness and then I crashed. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to go out drinking. I woke up crying in the morning. I cried in my car on my way to work. I cried in the washroom at work. I felt guilty for ending the relationship and believed whole-heartedly that I was a horrible, despicable person. I felt intense self-loathing. I began thinking passive thoughts. Close friends suggested depression. I was convinced that this was not depression. In my mind, depression was a deeper sadness that came for no reason. I believed that my sadness had a reason and that reason was the poor excuse for a human that was me (of course, I now realize that this itself is often a symptom of depression… it’s a cruel illness). At least that’s what I believed. Whether or not I was right is another matter entirely and not one I’m even sure I can answer. I remember that my girlfriend’s mother wrote me a very sensitive and caring letter in which she proposed that I might be depressed. Again, I dismissed this as her mistake.

“I never truly accepted that I was depressed.”

I’ll cut a long story short(ish) and say that I eventually ended up taking an antidepressant and going to counselling for depression. I never truly accepted that I was depressed. I always attributed the experience to breaking-up the relationship. While I don’t regret ending the relationship, I do look back now and believe that I had become depressed before the end. I see a cycle here in which this event closely mirrors what I found myself going through in the closing months of 2015 and the opening months of 2016. A cycle that may well have repeated itself between then and now, only with less extreme levels of melancholy.

Again, I’m not saying I should have seen this coming, or that anyone else should be able to see their own clues. I am saying that I now see these as signs as something that I can look for in the future. I’ve learned. I hope that these hints may now help me see this should it start to happen again. I know of them. My wife, doctor, family, and close friends know of them. Everyone will help look out for the cycle happening again and ensure early, maybe even preemptive, treatment.

Chapter 7: Part II: Warning Signs

IT FELT LIKE BEING HIT BY A BUS, BUT THE WARNING SIGNS WERE THERE…

I don’t exactly know where to start with this. As I mentioned, I was certainly keeping myself busy leading up to the anxiety attacks and depression. I’ve always been a person with many hobbies. I like to write. I like to play guitar. I enjoy reading and home DIY projects. I exercise regularly and love spending time with my wife and kids. I usually adore my hobbies and my life. The thought of having some time to do one of my hobbies after work or spending time with my family would typically put a spring in my step. But I had noticed a change. I had noticed that the thought of these things didn’t excite me in the same way as usual.

I know we all get tired and run down. We all have times where our job feels mundane and life becomes somewhat routine and hum-drum. However, somewhere an alarm bell was going off in the back of my mind. I wasn’t enjoying life as I normally did. Nothing seemed to be firing sparks of excitement anymore. Exercise, music, family time, DIY, reading, writing, none of it was working for me. I was not feeling sad, but I was not feeling happy. The people that work in the enjoyment sector of my brain had clocked out and taken an extended vacation.

“I wasn’t enjoying life as I normally did. Nothing seemed to be firing sparks of excitement anymore.”

I noticed the change. I noticed it explicitly. I actually went to my family doctor about it. I believe that I described it to him as feeling ‘flat’, like I wasn’t really feeling anything. He was concerned. He mentioned depression as a possibility. He said we should monitor the situation and that I should come back in 4 weeks. I didn’t. Mistake. Big Mistake.

“I was throwing myself into my hobbies like never before, but not enjoying them.”

During this time and in the weeks that followed this appointment, I now realize that I was feeling something. It was a rancid mix of emptiness and frustration. I was throwing myself into my hobbies like never before, but not enjoying them. Everything I did had to be perfect. I felt that I had to do a full workout everyday, even if it meant getting out of bed at 5a.m. I had to swim at least 3 times per week or I believed that I would not see any improvement. I would practice my guitar, but not for fun. I practiced to become a better guitar player and became irritated when I was lacking either the time or energy to rehearse my skills. My job was leaving me feeling unsatisfied, as was my marriage. It was like I couldn’t find anything to make me happy or maybe anything that would give my brain the dopamine reward that it craved. I attributed the cause to the activities. I told myself that I had just had enough of my job. It was bland and unfulfilling. I believed that challenges in my marriage were not my fault and were beyond my control. My unsatisfying job was leaving me with insufficient time to spend on my fitness, music and DIY projects. When I did find time for my hobbies, I was always thinking ahead, never enjoying the moment. I felt rushed and focused on what was coming next rather than what I was doing. Things were racing out of control. I was running from an avalanche that I couldn’t see, toward a cliff that I didn’t know was there. The glass was not just half-empty, but half-filled with a toxic mix of hollowness and despondency. My perceptions were altered and wrong. I can see that now.

Coming Soon… Chapter 7: Part III…

Chapter 7: Warning Signs

 

It Felt Like Being Hit by a Bus, But The Warning Signs Were There…

 

Wham! Should have been looking where you were going! When that bus hit, it hit hard. I had no clue where it came from. I was exhausted, confused, crying, riddled with self-loathing and regret. I was convinced that the world would be a better place without me. Where the hell did this come from?

 “I was convinced that the world would be a better place without me.”

I was fine last week, wasn’t I? I mean, in the weeks leading up to this, I was helping out with the school’s winter concert. I was working out. I was constructing a built-in desk in the basement of my home for a new music room. I was practicing guitar every day. I’d recently started writing again. I was writing humorous poems for kids. For the first time in months, I’d written a new song called ‘Bohemian Girl’ (you notice I say ‘new song’, not ‘great song’!). I’d been running regularly and entered a local 10km race. I was determined to improve my swimming skills and was trying to hit the pool frequently. And of course, I was being both father and husband in amongst all this. This self-imposed definition of ‘fine’ was actually a potential road sign as to what lay ahead for me.

My point is that leading up to this ‘crash’ I perceived that my life was going along just fine. Well, at least somewhat. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, that’s for sure. The truth is that if I take out my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, there were some clues lurking there that hinted at what was on the way. In fact, as I look back now, some of those clues were not so much hinting as they were screaming, whooping, and hollering.

Check out Part II to find out what some of the warning signs were.

 

Coming Soon… Chapter 7: Part II…

Chapter 6: Part IV: The Good, The Bad, And The Psychotherapy

…So is this all I did? SSRI from my GP and a bit of counselling? Heck, no! The big P was the best of all… My Psychiatrist.  For me, the word generates one of two stereo-typed images. One: of bouncing around in a padded cell while the psychiatrist, wearing a white lab coat, stares at me and recommends injections of various chemicals and varying degrees of electric shock therapy. Two: of lying on a comfy leather couch, in a room where the furniture is finely polished antique oak, and the walls are adorned with row upon row with highbrow books discussing the science of the human brain. On a seat next to the couch sits the psychiatrist, asking thought-provoking questions and providing deep insights into the workings of my mind. This may well be your experience if you also drive a Rolls Royce, have your own luxury jet, and holiday on expensive private islands in the Indian Ocean. However, this was not the case for me. Neither was image number one. My psychiatrist’s office was just off the emergency ward of my local hospital. She did not wear a white lab coat and nor did she have a leather couch for me to lounge on. I waited about six weeks for an appointment. Her waiting room was shared between herself and two other doctors (these ones were not psychiatrists). The waiting room was small – only three chairs for the patients! The other patients always seemed to have knee or leg issues and so were in much greater need of the seats than those of us with ailments of the mind. I assume that one of the other doctors was some sort of knee surgeon or leg specialist (does such a thing exist?) Anyway, none of this prepared me for what lay ahead.

“…she reassured me that I would get through this depression and I believed her.”

Clark Kent worked in a run-of-the-mill semi-open concept office and wore a bland combination of shirt and slacks, yet underneath it all he was Superman. Batman hid his superhero talents and paraphernalia in a plain old bat cave. My psychiatrist reminds me of these guys. She was a superhero hiding out where you’d least expect to find her. She rescued me and saved my life… well sort of. When it comes to a heart surgeon reattaching my aorta, I don’t really care about his/her personality. I’m just interested in their skill set. I want the best surgeon for the job, even if they’re grumpy and disagreeable! However, with a psychiatrist, you need both – personality and skill set. She had both, in abundance. Dr. K. (as I will call her for now) was my superhero. Hiding out in a plain old, slightly cramped office next to the busy emergency ward was a woman who I will never forget. Combining the medical understanding, prescription-writing super powers of the doctor, with the expertise of a counsellor, she patiently listened to my story and delicately asked sensitive questions to get all the information she needed. She provided logical, scientific explanations for the way I was feeling, expressed in terms that I could understand. She conveyed a sense of truly caring about my condition. She carefully explained her plan, and always included what we would do next time if I wasn’t significantly improved – the contingency plan.

She prescribed meds, adjusted doses, recommended lifestyle changes, health supplements, and local counsellors and psychologists. Most importantly of all, she reassured me that I would get through this depression and I believed her. My appointments with Dr. K. were full of plans and actions to address my situation. When I left the appointment, I always felt better informed and better equipped to deal with what lay ahead. I felt confident that I would get well again. Thank you Dr. K.

“Acceptance is hard and requires the patient understanding of everyone around.”

Indeed, I did continue to get better. The meds, the counselling, the lifestyle changes. They all added up. But the purpose of this chapter is to pass along what I learned through this stage of the journey. Firstly, you have to accept that something is wrong with your health – your brain health. This acceptance isn’t easy. If you are the friend of someone who is depressed then prepare yourself for some serious frustration, while they come to terms with what is wrong. Acceptance is hard and requires the patient understanding of everyone around. Secondly, have an open mind. Get rid of any notions you have that counselling and medication are for the weak. Would you suggest that someone with another life-threatening illness such as cancer try to get through it on their own? I didn’t think so. I tried my family doctor, psychologists, social workers, and my favourite, the psychiatrist. Accepting all of this help, enabled me to ultimately get through this. There’s lots more out there that I didn’t try – acupuncturists, naturopaths. You probably don’t have the time or energy to try it all, but keep your mind open to the possibilities. There is much out there that can help you and you should accept all the help you can get – you need it, trust me.

 

Chapter 6: Part III: The Good, The Bad, And The Psychotherapy

Was this SSRI all that I did? Was it my miracle cure? Heck, no! Though I would say that it did the lion’s share of the work. I also went to counselling. Did I want to go to counselling? Heck, no! Well, not initially. The idea of talking about seriously personal feelings and weaknesses with a complete stranger… not appealing. Did I do it? Heck, yes! Why? Because other people, smart people like doctors, said it would help me and I wanted to get better. I really, really wanted to get better. So, I accepted that other people knew more about this than me and I heeded their advice.

Finding a counsellor is interesting. It’s all about personality and knowledge. What’s a good match for one person might be a terrible match for another… and finding a good match is so important. I tried a couple of different counsellors before settling on one that I liked. She was also the cheapest, which I don’t mention because it was a factor in my decision of who to go with – it wasn’t. I mention this because I want to make the point that where counselling is concerned, more expensive does not necessarily mean better.

“…where counselling is concerned, more expensive does not necessarily mean better.”

Counselling sessions lasted an hour. The counsellor went through CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) strategies with me, helping me to identify distortions in my thinking that were either caused by, or contributing to, my depression. This includes things like only paying attention to evidence that supports the negative and ignoring evidence that supports the positive. Or, magnifying the negative to make small issues seems like major catastrophes in my mind. They also talked about learning to live with uncertainty, such as in the case of our health (we never really know exactly what is going on inside our own bodies). Mindfulness strategies and resources were introduced to me to help keep my mind in the present moment rather than thinking about the future or dwelling on the past. Issues were discussed from my past to see if any of these could be affecting me now. Sometimes our talk was useful and enlightening. Other times we explored areas that turned out to be less relevant.

“Sometimes our talk was useful and enlightening. Other times we explored areas that turned out to be less relevant.”

That’s the nature of counselling – not all sessions are created equally. Some will be more productive than others. I was given homework; things I should try to do before my next session to get me back to my regular daily life. Things like going on a date with my wife, taking a family hike in the countryside, or picking up groceries on my own.

Counselling helped. I don’t think it would have helped me before starting my medication, but it definitely helped speed-up and secure my recovery.

 

Coming Soon… Chapter 6: Part IV