Monday, March 28, 2011

The reveal - my life with depression

I have depression.

Ridiculously, saying so actually feels a little clichéd, passé even, with the growing number of public figures making such admissions in recent times. There is greater awareness and understanding of depression now, but it’s still a bloody tough thing to discuss on a personal level.

Once you bear your soul it’s out there for all to see and judge. I want people close to me to understand and, when necessary, support me but I don’t want this to define their perceptions of me. As Bruce Wayne told Rachael Dawes: “I am more”

My close friends have provided the most effective distraction from my ingrained negative thinking, so I’m wary about it being a prominent feature in those relationships. Also, through no fault of their own, many people cannot relate to depression and anxiety, so being open about it doesn’t automatically mean someone will understand you better.

My depression and anxiety has been the most pervasive aspect of my 28 years though, so I don’t want to hide it away, particularly now that I am dealing with it far more effectively.

Honest and courageous personal accounts by various people, including Mike Stutchbery, Jeff Bell (especially his book When In Doubt, Make Belief) and Clem Bastow, of personal experiences have inspired me and reinforced a sense of normality.

I’d like to think my experience can help at least one other person someday. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts like this, but the simple that fact it affects so many people is why we need to keep talking about it; and all sufferers should feel comfortable doing so.

A chronic worrier

I’ve been a chronic worrier for as long as I can remember. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder seemed to set in around the age of eight. My mind hopped constantly from one worry to another. Initially it seemed to be something different each day, soon particular worries began to stretch out across days or weeks before I moved on to something else; but there was always something. Any clarity never lasted long, awareness of it led to desperate attempts to maintain it, in turn setting off my mind in search of a trigger to anxiety.

I adopted compulsive rituals to deal with the anxiety and troubling thoughts, like checking, repetition, rumination and avoidance. I was highly sensitive to superstition and had ‘good’ and ‘bad’ numbers and colours.

You want examples…?

One of my most recurrent and embarrassing fears was of praying. Yup, praying. Going to church was not only painfully boring for me; often it led to self-inflicted distress. I feared having a ‘bad thought’ relating to the harm of myself or a loved one, and struggled to distinguish between what was general thought and what was prayer. I spent countless hours trying to determine the difference.

In my irrational, black-and-white state-of-mind, I felt certain I had prayed for something bad until I could prove otherwise, and therefore it was bound to happen. I have no reason to believe that any purported prayer was ever actually answered, but desperately tried to suppress and control my thoughts nonetheless. This simply intensified my anxiety and kept the thoughts I sought to avoid at the forefront of my mind. When I inevitably slipped up I would spend hours, days, even weeks, examining and retracing my thoughts to prove to myself beyond doubt that I hadn’t prayed. Rationality only crept back in once I’d exhausted myself, been sufficiently distracted or a new worry superseded the old one.

The praying fear wasn’t restricted to being inside a church. Any time thoughts of God coincided with a bad thought, anxiety hit. Therefore such thoughts had to be suppressed, which kept them constantly on my mind.

My family noticed some of my other odd behaviour in the early years: flicking my bedroom light switch on and off repetitively before going to bed; being excessively anxious about my parents safety if they were even 10 minutes late arriving somewhere; walking around in public with my arms up like a kangaroo’s paws to avoid germs (my older brothers lovingly nicknamed me ‘Skippy’ for this one); and, for a short period, refusing to swallow my saliva for a reason I don’t recall. Sometimes I worried about my health, convincing myself I had a disease of some sort, but never seeing a doctor because I generally knew my fears were illegitimate. Ironically, if I had maybe my anxiety would have been diagnosed earlier!

My parents tried to understand and explain that my worries were baseless, but since such worries had no rational foundation Mum and Dad’s logical reasoning held for me as well as water in a sieve.

I didn’t understand why I was the way I was – I just knew I was different from everyone else. I thought no-one thought and acted the way I did, so I tried to stop. Instead I became more frustrated, obsessive and anxious. I often hit myself repetitively in the head as a form of punishment. It didn’t seem to teach me anything, but might explain why I like Toto’s music.

Realising that such strange behaviours (my compulsions, not liking Toto … ok, maybe both) would doom me to social torture in the dog-eat-dog world of high school, my compulsions became mostly internal and thought-based. But they were still just as relentless, destructive, and excruciating. The checking, repetition, rumination and avoidance stuck, it just became well hidden.

Over 13 or more years, I developed a defensive, restricted process of thinking to avoid worry, bad thoughts and anxiety; it dragged me down into the depths of uncertainty, isolation and depression. My thinking was often painfully controlled and explicit, like saying every single word aloud in my head – which made reading veeerrryyy slow. It became norm, unless I was distracted enough to let it go and return to normal flow. I lost the faith in the general ‘background’ flow of thoughts, so that to feel sure of something I often needed to think it through in that explicit fashion.

I wasn’t socially isolated – I have always had loving family and good friends – but I often felt alone, dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that were too embarrassing to reveal to anyone (see ‘prayer fear’). And I was trying to stop this behaviour with little or no real understanding of what was going on. I was waging a war inside my head, and unknowingly providing weaponry to the other side simply by engaging in the battle.

So it has been for most my life – a private fight. Having left behind visible indications of my OCD, I seemed ‘normal’ enough to others. I was a shy introverted teen around those I didn’t know well, but lively and fun with those I did. I developed a good sense of humour to counter my troubled side and, seeking to avoid unnecessary conflict, was (am…) a pretty friendly person to anyone who made any effort with me. (It should be said though, that as a fairly passionate Scorpio I sometimes possess a harsh sting in the tail for anyone who I feel has done wrong by me, or the world in general).

I got through high school and university with good marks, but I do regret the fact that so much of my attention was wasted on irrational worries when I could have been soaking up valuable information. On the positive side, it demonstrated that I was rational enough to put my worries aside when absolutely necessary and get work done. Last minute assignments became a specialty.

The start of university also found me in my first relationship. In reality we were never destined to be life partners, but she was the most supportive and important person in my life for six years, particularly in April 2004 when it hit rock bottom.

Hitting rock bottom

By then my controlled, suppression-based process of thinking was falling apart, and so was I. During shifts at Dan Murphy’s, I would seek quiet, isolated space several times an hour to focus without distraction and direct all my mental energy into easing anxiety. ‘Just one more time,’ I’d tell myself, ‘then I’ll be assured and be able to get on with it.’ But every time I gave in to the anxiety for short-term relief, I made it more frequent and stronger. The worries themselves are of little importance but ranged from health related, to my own mental capability and sanity (and its decline), to being overly obsessed by everyday ‘normal’ worries, to superstitious and religious based fears. All of which I knew deep down were not worth worrying about. But if it was nothing to worry about, why was I anxious? Not understanding the true source of the anxiety was principally why I could not yet recover. It coloured how I saw my future – I felt like unless I resolved the source of anxiety quickly the problem wouldn’t go away, when really the opposite is true.

I was increasingly confused, uncertain, obsessed, detached, and scared. These worries had a stranglehold on my daily life, yet I managed to hide it from every single person I knew. There were undoubtedly signs, but I made every effort to hide them.

The anxiety finally reached a level beyond my hardened endurance. The mere thought of another day living this way was pure agony. Something had to happen.

At various stages over the last fifteen years I’ve had thoughts, even fantasies, of serious self-harm, but never believed I would or could physically bring myself to do it. If I felt more desensitised to the idea or life in general, perhaps I may have – I don’t know and don’t ever want to. This is a whole other discussion, but I understand to an extent what drives someone to that point and I’m grateful for whatever it is that has kept me from going there.

I do know that in April 2004 I didn’t enjoy being alive, and being unable to find anything to provide even momentary relief from the suffocating anxiety and fear was a new low. As often happens in moments of irrationality, I couldn’t see that feeling ever disappearing. I felt as though I’d ruined my life irreparably. I literally could not see any way out of the darkness that engulfed me. The tunnel had caved in at both ends, there was no light.

This is what it took for me to consider my problem from a new angle and take real action. I don’t know if I’d thought much about depression before, but I did some online research on a sleepless night and gave a self-diagnosis. I then spent the next couple of months trying to bring my parents and girlfriend around to the same conclusion, through subtle hints and a greater than usual expression of my true emotional state, so that they could help me help myself. Even at this low point I could not simply say the words to them.

My girlfriend eventually asked the right questions and drew out of me what I’d been desperate to tell her for many weeks. I didn’t go into detail, but just having someone finally know was a great relief, if not a solution. She was a wonderful support and encouraged me to do what I knew I had to – get help. Until we broke up three years later, outside of my doctors, only her and my parents knew and she was the only one I spoke to about it.

On a rainy day morning in April 2004 I took a rare sick day from Dan Murphy’s and went to see a community counsellor. She gave me the initial help I needed, and referred me to a GP and Psychologist, who turned me around and guided me back towards recovery.


Over the past seven years, I’ve been deconstructing negative habits and thought processes ingrained over 21 years; learning to think again. I’ve learnt to recognise irrational thoughts and effective methods of dealing with the associated anxiety, which I’m getting better at implementing. It’s been a long road, with no signage. Re-wiring your brain takes time, effort and discipline.

That it’s taken so long is frustrating, but I’m proud of how much improvement I’ve made and empowered by the fact I can use the knowledge I’ve gained to improve myself in many ways.

Even the past 6-12 months have seen significant improvement as I have integrated yoga and mindfulness into my cognitive-based methods of improvement. I feel the best I ever have, and am getting better.

The black dog probably won’t stop following me around. I’m still prone to mild anxiety, and don’t always deal with it how I know I should. After 20 years lacking faith in my free flowing thought process, I still haven’t quite cemented a satisfactory level of self-confidence.

I can get caught up giving everyday worries more attention than they deserve. I get down on myself, feel flat and unmotivated, procrastinate and worry. Everyone does, and my brain’s chemically more prone to it than most, but I can now deal with these issues far more effectively.

Calm and happiness are slowly seeping into my underlying state of being, rather than requiring effort or distraction.

It has cost me a lot of money, up to $500 per month on consultations and medication, and I am eternally thankful for my parents helping out with those costs when I’ve needed it – they’ve lent me more money than I’m comfortable admitting, which has allowed me to move out and travel over the last few years. I don’t really talk about it with them much, but I should. Nobody offers me so much love; the best kind too – unconditional love.

Taking charge of life

Getting out of a rut when I’m in the grips of depression is deceptively easy. It can feel impossibly hard, but just requires a jolt, a circuit breaker – something to passively or actively shift your focus onto productive activity or just the willpower to accept and endure anxiety. Easy is probably not the right word, but the point is I realise that I know I have the power to choose. Successfully turning a situation around is wonderfully empowering and in itself provides the energy to keep getting better.

Being locked inside your head, secretly trying intensely to rationalise or suppress uncomfortable thoughts, while those around you wonder why you’re distant, haven’t finished a task, don’t feel comfortable talking to strangers, or are emailing them for distraction so goddamn much, is still pretty isolating sometimes.

As well as my parents, a handful of friends know the basic fact I have depression. It’s not discussed much, as I said I don’t want it to define me, but sometimes I do feel like it would be nice for people to better appreciate how this has affected my life.

There’s no benefit in getting caught up in such sentiments though; rather I have to appreciate my fortune in having a pretty normal life with a loving family, sensational friends and opportunities many others can only dream of.

Perhaps the term ‘battling depression’ is not accurate. In practice, we sufferers have to learn how to live with and accept it; indeed this is how we diminish its power.

I hope this lengthy account comes across how I intended, particularly for anyone who hasn’t experienced depression themselves. I spent a lot of time writing, editing, cutting and rewriting, as is my way. I don’t believe words can convey just how hellish depression can be, but what’s more important is to convey hope to sufferers, because it always exists even when you can’t see it. I know that from experience.

And I think I’ll keep on trying.

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