Clinical depression is something I was first diagnosed with in late 2003 – just after graduating from high school. I was recently asked if there was an event or situation that could have been the “trigger”. The short answer is, maybe.
I can trace the possible signs or symptoms forming around 1999 or 2000 – within a year or two of moving to Calgary from White Rock. However I can’t say with any certainty that this was a trigger or catalyst. I’m just not entirely convinced it is that simple. I think I adapted to that change pretty quickly. In fact I remember being kind of excited to move at the time.
This Post Is Risky
By writing about and sharing my experiences with clinical depression, I realize I am taking a risk. It is entirely outside my comfort zone to talk about it on an open platform for anyone to read. It opens me up to inevitable internet trolling or worse – some people seeing it as a “red flag” not to work with me, hire me, or form a relationship of some kind with me as it can be seen as a major weakness in me, or risk to them.
I’m really not sure how people will take this. I’m still not even sure if this is a good idea. I expect it to be somewhere in the middle between people appreciating, or being supportive of this post, while others thinking this is the stupidest thing I could have done.
I guess time will tell.
Expect Updates & Modifications
Lastly, this post will either grow in size, or I’ll make additional posts as I try to touch on all the points I want to. However, it is long enough as it is and I think there could be useful information for others already in it. So I will continue to chip away at this post over the next few weeks or months. I don’t consider it complete yet. Along with adding more content, I will likely reorganize some things for clarity, readability, and flow.
My Motivation to Talk About Clinical Depression
My reasons for talking about it openly like this are deep and complex. However, I will simplify it as best I can. I am sharing this because:
- I know I am not the only one who has dealt with clinical depression, and I think I might be able to offer some insights that could help someone else. Learning to manage and cope with depression and depressive episodes is a never ending battle for me. There is no one thing that solves the problem. However, the right combination of several factors at the right time can make a big difference. I will try to share what some of these things are in hopes someone else can benefit from it.
- It’s another way to step outside my comfort zone, take a risk, and possibly learn something new.
- I want to try and be more vulnerable as I think it helps build relationships and trust with people.
- After my most recent episode – which started around July or August of 2018, peaked (or tanked if you will) in December, and didn’t begin to show signs of improvement until mid January 2019 – I decided I was getting really tired of hiding and privately battling it. It’s just another way of bottling up thoughts & feelings. In fact I am writing this during what I would still consider to be “recovery mode” from this latest depressive episode.
- I finally found a medication that I have responded positively to. For quite some time I was not convinced I had a medical condition. I had either no response or a negative response to other medications over the years. So I want to emphasize that medication can help, but you may have to be a guinea pig for a bit like I was before you find something that works… and it still may not work for everyone.
What is Clinical Depression?
Sometimes called Major Depressive Disorder, the Mayo Clinic has the best definition I came across. You can just read that. However, I’ll mention that when I read it, especially the symptoms, I was ticking all those points going down the list. Another useful page is from Wikipedia.
A Brief Summary of My Medical Experiences
I share the following details because it might give some credibility to my experiences, suggestions, and insights. I’m not sharing this because I want your sympathy. Also, it does not mean I have all the answers. For me, learning to manage and cope with my depression never ends.
Medication (earlier dates are approximate):
- Paxil (2003 – 2004)
- Effexor (2005 – 2007)
- Citalopram (2007 – 2009)
- Luvox (2014 – 2015)
- Wellbutrin (2017)
- Viibryd (current as of late December 2018)
- Ativan (as needed)
- Fall of 2003 (4 days)
- Spring 2004 (22 days)
- Fall 2014 (7 days)
Plus countless hours of psychologist & psychiatrist sessions ranging from Calgary Counselling Centre and private practices, to Alberta Health Services (AHS). I am currently finishing up a two year weekly program run by Psychiatric Adult Services (PAS) through AHS. When PAS is done, I don’t know what will be next.
What It’s Like Living With Clinical Depression
This part is more for those who don’t have clinical depression, but perhaps know someone who does… or they are just seeking a better understanding of it. This is an attempt to explain what having clinical depression might be like. I will pick out some things that rang true for me and try to explain them.
This is my personal experience with clinical depression. Please be aware that these things are written from the perspective of being in the depths of a depressive episode, and these are not necessarily my normal day to day behaviors or thoughts. People with clinical depression can go for long periods of time without having an episode.
Normal Activities Are Not Enjoyable
As some of you already know, I am pretty passionate about music. It’s something I’ve always done and I generally get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it – as long as I am challenging myself and making progress.
In fact that is usually how I feel about a lot of things. I need to see progress.
However, in the midst of a depressive episode, music is right at the bottom of the list. Along with… everything else. I will have no desire to play music, golf, or ride my bike. My sex drive will be non-existent, and I will not want to pick up a new hobby. You can also bet I don’t want any social contact.
If The Fun Stuff Isn’t Even Fun, Then The Other Stuff Is Agony
Now considering that, imagine trying to do laundry, shower, brush your teeth, cook a meal, or go to work. Basic things that most of us always just seem to be able to do without overthinking too much on it are torturous. Going out anywhere is extremely difficult because I inevitably feel like I have to pretend everything is okay.
I pride myself on being honest, dependable, and punctual with everyone I meet. That’s the normal me. This other side we are talking about finds those things almost impossible.
I tend to like a bit of routine too, so personal hygiene, eating decent meals three times a day, as well as waking up and going to bed at consistent times are all usually signs I’m in a stable place, mentally.
… But when I’m down in the dumps, this stuff can be absolute agony.
It doesn’t matter whether I had three hours of sleep, seven hours of sleep, or twelve hours of sleep. Depressive episodes are mentally and physically exhausting. Nap time feels like the best friend in the world.
Any time I can actually fall asleep is the happiest I will be in a depressive episode. I am unconscious and numb to the outside world – as well as the thoughts in my head. Unfortunately, the second you start to wake up and realize your sleep is over, reality hits and you’re back to having thoughts and feelings. It starts all over again.
Sleeping can be a really nice escape from the daily agony – if you can actually fall asleep. Personally, when I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, being unconscious feels like the best thing. I imagine it being the closest thing to non-existence. Or to put it bluntly, death.
Low Self Esteem & Worthlessness
This is a big one – for me at least because I’ve always had issues with body image and confidence. I’ve rarely felt anything I’ve done has been noteworthy. I’ve always wondered why mirrors or cameras didn’t break when I looked into them. The reality is I often feel like a complete f*ck-up more than anything else.
Some people may disagree, and yes I’ll admit the vast majority of those thoughts are probably mine and mine alone.
Self esteem and worthlessness really do play into my life. For example, if I’m in the midst of a depressive episode I will not go on dates. I will not look for work if I need a job or a contract. You can also bet I probably won’t go to any kind of social gathering.
Why should you hire me if I don’t even think you should hire me? Why should you date me if I don’t even think you should date me? What do I even have to be proud of?
What Am I Even Proud Of?
I remember being in the midst of a depressive episode about two or three years ago. I forced myself to try to write down all the things I was proud of. After 15 minutes of staring at a piece of paper all I could write was, “Finishing university”. And it was very forced.
It feels like the fact that that’s all I could write says more than I can possibly even begin to explain. I didn’t really feel that proud of it either. To me, it was always something I just was “supposed” to do. It felt like I was seeking credit for something I was supposed to do.
If you see me wearing my engineering ring, it’s usually because I’m trying to remind myself that I’m allowed to be proud of that and I earned it. I maybe only wear it for about half a year at a time… at most. Otherwise it lives on my key chain in my pocket.
The “regular” Spencer is confident and knows he has something to offer people. However it’s impossible to believe, and therefor portray that I have something to offer anyone when I’m in that deep, depressed state.
When I am in that state of mind, it’s like trying to sell something to someone you know is garbage and would never even consider buying yourself. It makes me feel like a scammer.
Motivation & Hopelessness
When I’m feeling “normal”, I’m extremely motivated. In fact when I set my mind to do something, I do it. For example:
- being active,
- eating healthy,
- web development,
- and more recently aviation.
I have burned myself out several times to the point where I have to take a little time off and completely disconnect from everyone and everything. In fact I think that can be normal for some people. But if I don’t recognize the burnout coming and back off fast enough, I think it can lead to my depressive episodes… and that is when motivation dies and hopelessness sets in.
For me motivation and hopelessness are deeply tied together. If I’m not motivated, it is almost always because I’m feeling utterly hopeless about what I’m doing, what I’ve done, or what I’m trying to do. Especially when I inevitably start counting up all my perceived failures and unable to think of anything to be proud of. It’s a vicious circle that is extremely hard to break out of.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I am pretty good at hiding how irritated I can actually get sometimes. At least when I’m out with friends or in the work place. Probably not the healthiest thing.
I’m generally known for being quite patient with people. In fact I think that can be both a strength, and a weakness – but I don’t think I have a good balance between the two. As a result, when I’m in that dark mindset it can lead to small things really getting to me.
In my case, I don’t really lash out at anyone. I don’t explode on people, I implode on myself.
However, before I implode I do have small micro-eruptions, if you will. My irritability will show by just being generally short with people – and it’s usually the people I’m closest with. Probably because it’s easier to deal with the aftermath in my mind.
That being said, I do know that some people with clinical depression do lash out and probably more obviously than me. They probably explode as opposed to implode.
One of my defense mechanisms to prevent lashing out at people leads the the next point. Isolation.
A very small group of you may have noticed I occasionally fall off the face of the earth. When I’m in that negative head space long enough, I will start to isolate myself.
No internet, no phone, no communication whatsoever. I’ll spend most of my day in bed with the curtains closed and the lights out if I can. Sometimes I’ll even walk out the door for an entire day not knowing what I’m doing or where I’m going. I won’t tell anyone and I won’t have my phone on – if it is even with me. I’ll just start driving.
There are many reasons this happens. However, generally it’s because:
- I can’t stand myself and don’t want to be a burden on other people.
- Boredom is finally getting to me and I need to get out, but alone.
- I don’t even have a shred of confidence to have a conversation with anyone including my closest friends or family.
Dealing with people in any capacity is mentally exhausting.
- I want people to go on with their lives as if I don’t exist.
- I’m trying to escape life.
Difficulty Thinking, Making Decisions, & Taking Action
This is another big one. When I’m going through a bad episode, you can’t expect me to make any rational decisions or take much action on anything in my personal life. If I have to take action that involves dealing with someone, I will put it off as long as possible. If a person requires a decision from me on something, I will probably default to something that will enable isolation… Or the decision with the quickest result so I won’t have to deal with it longer than I have to.
Focusing on anything for any lengthy period of time can be impossible. Imagine sitting at a desk for 8 hours and you are only able to focus for one hour… If you’re lucky. Within seconds of finally thinking you are going to be able to focus, your mind is off navigating the dark depths of your brain. All you can think about is how miserable you are just being conscious – or alive.
I’ll be so exhausted from pretending everything is okay at work that when I leave the office, I need to completely turn off for the night, every night.
This is also when my anxiety starts to become an issue. I’ll have small anxiety attacks compounded with a generally heightened constant level of anxiety. When I’m having an anxiety attack, I can barely say my own damn name, let alone form coherent sentences.
I have learned that when my anxiety is consistently high over a prolonged period of time, I’m about to take a nosedive.
That being said, if I’m working for an employer, I tend to do everything in my power to prevent that. The idea of my depression affecting my professional life really bothers me. I don’t want to let people down and I will view having to take time away as letting the team down. Furthermore I will see it as a major personal & professional failure on my part.
Generally, I will force myself as long as possible to pretend everything is okay and do my job at work. The problem is this makes life so exhausting every day that I’ll start to slack on things in my personal life. This is a another sign when things are really going downhill. Then I just might have to take some time off anyways, and it’s worse than it would have been had I recognized it earlier.
Things I’ve Learned About Fighting Clinical Depression
Below are some key things I’ve learned over the years that help me fight depression. I will elaborate on these in more detail at a later date, or in another post.
- Medication can help, but it might take a while to figure out what you respond positively to.
- Don’t just go to therapy, participate in therapy. Do the work.
- You can’t just ask for help. You need to want the help. Asking versus wanting are two different things.
- Do some form of physical activity regularly.
- Routine is important when you are trying to pull yourself out of a depressive episode.
- Have some social contact.
- Don’t use depression as an excuse. Take responsibility for it.
- Having a constructive hobby helps a lot.
Having clinical depression does not mean I am depressed all the time. I have actually gone as long as three years without having a major episode. Sometimes they last as little as a three weeks. Other times (like this latest one) they last several months.
What this means is the frequency, duration, and severity of my depressive episodes vary.
There is a bright side to all of this though. I don’t think I have to live with clinical depression the rest of my life. I do think it is possible to completely recover from it. It’s not easy, but I truly think it can be done. Here’s why:
- I was not born depressed and I was not depressed as a kid. I think my depression developed by having certain thought patterns that were learned (consciously or unconsciously). If not corrected early enough, these thought patterns can become a serious problem. I think this is a contributing factor in my situation. Which means with therapy and work, I can develop healthier thought patterns to correct the bad ones.
- I don’t see myself as someone who is mentally ill all the time. It’s kind of like getting sick with a cold or flu. It is treatable, and dare I say – even preventable.
- Medication is a tool that can be used to improve your mood or prevent your mood from getting too low. This is why I don’t think it will ever solve depression, it’s just something that can help. We’re talking about drugs here, and there’s no shortage of drugs (legal or illegal) that are known to alter peoples moods.
If I were to simplify my observation and experience with clinical depression, it would be like this:
Depression is not always a medical condition. However, when circumstances and thought patterns are such a way for a long enough period of time, it can become a medical condition. For me it might be like catching a cold or flu. It happens sometimes and there are ways to treat it and prevent it.
In other words, for me I think depression was learned… and if that’s the case then I find myself thinking:
If depression can be learned, then it can be unlearned.
- Heads Up Guys: “… a resource for supporting men in their fight against depression by providing tips, tools, information about professional services, and stories of success.”
- Heads Up Guys Article: 10 Ways To Cope With Depression
- Medium.com Article: Practical Advice on How to Help A Depressed (Possibly Suicidal) Friend