My good buddy Jay Shipston, who happens to be one of the hilarious dudes who host the breakfast show on Mackays’ Sea FM, asked me to write about my depression for his new venture. Jay and his partner, Jamie, have started a fantastic initiative called “Change Tee” and its’ goal is to help eradicate the stigma that comes with being diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s a really amazing idea and I support what they are trying to do 100%. I know I have talked about my depression and anxiety before, quite openly, but I don’t think I have ever gone into too much detail about it so when Jay asked me to do this, I thought I would write my story as a blog post. It’s gonna be cathartic, messy, honest and real so you should be warned; read ahead at your own risk! On that note dear readers, and in all seriousness, there are some things I will write about here that might be triggers for some of you so if you are easily triggered or feeling fragile, perhaps this article is not for you to read right now.
The reason I have not done a post like this before is pretty simple (and selfish). I like the idea that my blog/Facebook page is funny. I love it when people come up to me and say, “Oh you had me in stitches last night with your post!” and let’s face it, by definition, writing about depression is not going to be a side splitter BUT… I also believe in authenticity and honesty and so, for the people who are expecting to laugh/snort coffee out of their nose reading this blog, you should probably stop reading now too, safe in the knowledge that the next blog I write will be a hoot, I promise.
For those of you still reading, this story is for you… I ask that you read it without judgement or condemnation. I made choices in my life that I am not the proudest of and I am going to share some of them with you here. It might change your opinion of me and if it does, all I ask is that you be respectful of my story and understand that it was my path to walk. Your choices would have been yours; these were mine.
I was diagnosed with depression in my early 20’s. For those of you keeping count, yes that was almost 20 years ago. I had met a guy that year (my first year at university) whom I had fallen madly in love with. Four months into our relationship, I fell pregnant. Let me be clear, this was not by choice but rather, an unplanned accident. We reacted the way any two teenagers would have if they were faced with the same situation; we panicked. You see, I was raised in a very religious household and to have a child out-of-wedlock with a man I’d known for 4 months was not an option; not for me anyway and it certainly didn’t seem to be an option for my boyfriend either. We talked it over and decided, through tears, that our best choice was for me to have an abortion. We both had our lives ahead of us, we were both studying, we were both broke and we were not sure where our relationship would end up because it was such a new one. (PS we ended up dating for another 14 months or so after this before he cheated on me and we broke up). Anyway, broken hearts aside, this is when I became aware that something was not right in my head. I would vacillate between being frenetically happy and catastrophically sad. I would think horrible things about myself and manifest them in awful, self harming ways. I remember one time, I wrote “FAT” on my stomach in sharpie and then got dressed for the day and wore my label like a secret shame badge under my clothes. It stayed on for days.
In terms of self-harming behaviours, I am also a “burner”. I would burn myself as I didn’t like the idea of cutting and I remember doing it as far back as high school. I once burnt a boy’s initials into my leg because I had a crush on him. At the time I thought that I was being terribly romantic but I now know how fucked up that was.
I would have been in my early 20’s when I was formally diagnosed with “moderate clinical depression” and put on Zoloft. I can’t say that the Zoloft helped too much but I was also getting some counselling at the same time and I found that to be truly helpful and healing for me. Actually now that I think about it, the Zoloft must have worked because I remember feeling better after about a year and thinking that I would just stop taking my meds and try life “on my own”. P.S, if you have just started your medication journey, never, I repeat, NEVER, do this. It was horrible. I went straight back to my doctor and she got me back on track and within a few weeks I was back to “normal”.
The thing with mental illness is, you learn more about it and yourself when you are knee-deep in it, experiencing every agonising day of it. So the first bout of depression that I had, post-diagnosis, I was only just starting to put names to things and identify the root causes of emotions as they happened. I had no idea about things like triggers and “manic” days; I had no idea that there were other medications I could have tried or how to advocate for myself or even identify to others what was going on for me. When I did try to tell people, I felt clunky and disingenuous and I copped many “oh really?!” eye-rolls, from my boss to one of my best friends. It was really a tough time to navigate the waters as I also did not yet know the value of reaching out and asking for help from trusted people so I did the bulk of it alone. I felt embarrassed and broken and I made some shitty, shitty choices in that time that contributed to my continued feelings of worthlessness. I slept with a lot of men in an attempt to find “love” like somehow being “loveable” would validate me as a person. Let me cut that long, slutty story short; it didn’t work. Shock and horror, if you sleep with men really quickly, they tend to lose interest pretty quickly. Yeah! Who knew?! Anyway, after about 2 years on medication, under the guidance of my GP, I came off the Zoloft successfully and went on to live happily-ish for quite some time, before the Black Dog bit me again.
The next bout of depression was a slow burn; a long time in coming. Actually it was more like a long time before I acknowledged that it was a relapse if I’m being brutally honest. The dark thoughts that had popped in and out of my head over the years were staying around longer, becoming more vivid and more real. I had been able to push them away as I’d had lots of lovely distractions and things to be grateful for. I had gotten married, moved to Canada and had my first child but a few years after he was born, I felt that dreadful veil of despair begin to glide over the filter through which I was seeing things. This time, I did not hesitate to get back to my doctor. She got me on a mental health plan and started me on some new meds. We were off and running. This was a longer and more drawn out period of depression for me that included an awful reaction to the new medication that made me feel like my brain was being “zapped” anywhere from 10-50 times a day. I was taken off those meds as soon as I told my doctor and I was put on diazepam to help deal with the side effects as they continued long after I had stopped taking the medication. All up I had the “zaps” for about 3 months. I learned to live with them despite it making life very uncomfortable. Once they stopped I was put on a new medication that worked really well for a few years until a flare up in my depression that turned out to be anxiety (yay!!) and so my dosage was increased and once again, I “evened out”. All together I would say that struggle went up and down for a few years and only really began to improve consistently when I began to see my new counsellor, Jo.
Jo was UH-mazing. I credit Jo with a huge amount of the strategies that I use even now to hep control my moods and my panic attacks. She brought me through so many healing, cathartic realisations and confessions. I have to give myself credit here too as even though I had done counselling many times before, you only get as much out of it as you are willing to put in. In previous sessions with prior counsellors, I had not been prepared to be as honest as I needed to be. I was very deeply in “victim” mode and wanted a lot of my issues to be somebody else’s problem/fault. With Jo, she was very good at her job and I was so ready to get honest and “fix” myself as I was sick of feeling so broken. I won’t go into detail on the therapy itself as that would mean we’d be here all day suffice to say that Jo has seen my “ugly cry face” complete with snot pouring, unchecked from my nostrils. She has let me yell at her (well, near her anyway) and she has helped me to deal with some very deep-seated issues that go as far back as my childhood. I will forever be in debt to Jo for what she helped me to do. I know a lot of people who say therapy isn’t for them but I hope, for all of them, that they change their minds and try it. The right therapist will hold you as you go down into places that hurt like fuck and then they’ll help you heal back up again from the smouldering depths. Trust me when I say, I have dragged myself out of some sessions feeling like a giant, exposed, raw, nerve-ending and then floated out of the session the following week feeling like a goddess of love and light. Therapy is a trip and I loved/hated every dirty, filthy, tear-wracked session of it. The moral of this story? Therapy rocks and nobody can tell me any different *grins*
Cut to now and I am currently going through the worst bout of depression I’ve experienced yet. After “coming good” with Jo and meds, I was pretty confident I had this thing beat. We had both agreed I was ready to take the therapy “training wheels” off and try living life unassisted apart from my medications. It felt awesome. I felt invincible. Until one day a few months ago when I went to my doctor for something entirely un-depression related and while I was there, she innocently asked me how I was. I began to tell her how I’d been struggling with some big issues in my life (physical, tangible issues) when suddenly, out of the blue, the worst panic attack I have ever had, hit me like a truck; a giant, shaky, throat-closing-up, not-breathing truck. It took me completely by surprise and the severity of it shook me hard. Thank goodness I was with my GP! She took control of the situation and I left about an hour later, shaking like a leaf and clutching a prescription for more diazepam. I was so freaked out. I hadn’t seen the black dog coming and yet after the panic attack, it was so clear that it had been stalking me for some time and I was just so convinced that I was “cured” that I hadn’t seen it.
That was one of the biggest lessons for me in my struggle with depression and anxiety; that you are never fully “healed”; that you have to remain vigilant for the signs even if you feel great. I am not saying that means sitting around in a bunker with a raincoat on looking for clouds but to simply be present in your body and instead of “trying to be happy” all the time, to just monitor your emotional state and be honest with yourself about where you are at. Another thing I learned was the value of a good support network and I mean real support. People who you feel safe telling about your fragility. People who you trust and people who know you well enough to know the signs to look out for when you are too busy being “fine” to see them for yourself.
I am an expert at being “fine”. I am a mountain of a woman; in all aspects. I am 5’11” and I weigh over 120 kilos (told you this was going to be honest). I have huge, unruly hair and a mouth that cannot stop talking. I have a personality that is every bit as big as my body and my emotions are just as massive. I have been told I come across as “confident” and “capable” and like I’ve “got my shit together” but let me tell you right now that despite my larger-than-life appearance and how I might come across, I am as vulnerable as they come. So many of us that suffer with mental illness do this. We find a way to make people believe we are “just-super-thanks-so-much-for-asking” because the alternative is so terrifying and too much of a personal risk. PS this is why what Jay and Jamie are doing is so excellent. Removing the stigma attached to mental illness removes some of the risk in being vulnerable and honest with people about it.
My personal experience is that people who have not grappled with mental illness personally, cannot properly understand what it is like to deal with these huge emotions and feelings. This is not a criticism by the way but merely an observation. I mean, how do you explain to a person who has never experienced suicidal thoughts, what it feels like to want to end your own life? Not necessarily to kill yourself, but to just not exist any more. How can you explain to a well-meaning friend, what it feels like to want to take a lighter and heat up a bobby pin until it is scorching hot so you can slowly burn yourself until the mental pain and anguish subsides? Honestly, very few people who I have talked to about this have known how to deal with the information. I get why too. It’s a lot to take in and would be terrifying to hear. That’s not their fault, they just cannot understand because they are wired differently to me. My point is, make sure you are talking to the right people so you can get the right kind of support but here’s another big lesson I learned this go ’round on the depression ferris wheel (and I warn you, it’s a scary-ass lesson); that at the end of the day, it is just you and you alone who is left battling the demons. You can talk to everyone on the planet but when push comes to grudging shove, the only person in your head and therefore in control of the way you see things and the way you choose to behave… is you. It’s a big deal you guys. Ownership of your illness.
I didn’t own mine for a very long time. I was projecting my pain onto anyone that would listen. I was blaming my meds, my childhood, my partner, my kids (pretty ashamed of that one let me tell you) and it wasn’t until I admitted that I alone was going through this experience and that all roads ended up leading to Rome (i.e. me), that I began to find peace. Ironic really, the one thing that I would’ve thought would me make me implode was the very thing that gave me a foothold in the abyss. Once I realised there was no “fix” outside of me and that the only way I was going to get through the darkness was by becoming my own light, it was a whole new ballgame. It was when I committed to myself, that the possibility of my own power and strength began to reveal itself and like I said, I found something firm to stand on in the mire of my own emotional swamp.
So, am I through the woods/swamp? Hell no! Not even close and I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I may never fully get out of the bloody swampy fucking woods BUT; I am slowly learning to embrace my illness. Rather than fear it and look for it around every corner as if it’s waiting to jump out at me like a naked man under a trench coat, I shall greet it with a chaste yet familiar kiss. In the meantime, I will do everything single thing I can to prolong the time between visits because make no mistake, the “chaste yet familiar kiss” comes from knowing what that bitch is capable of!! What’s the old proverb? Keep your friends close and your mental illness closer *grins*
To those of you out there struggling, whether you are a first timer or a seasoned vet in the same; I feel you. There is truly nothing like finding a kindred spirit who sees your pain because they too have walked through the very same fire and share the very same scars.
I feel you.
I mean it.
Take that in.
I. Feel. You.
Good luck in your own woods. Try not to be afraid. Know that you are capable of lighting your own way. May your path through them be a mere detour in a long and happy life.