Here are two things that can be pretty rough about my human experience:
The first: when I go to a coffee shop, even if I’m only in there for, like, five seconds, I always leave smelling like stale coffee. There is something about my hair that takes on the smell of whatever room I’m in. I'm convinced that I am the only person I know who experiences this. By the way, the same thing happens at almost all Subway restaurants. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is the burden I bear.
The second thing: I struggle with clinical depression.
This second thing is far less unique. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 350 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression. Women are actually 70% more likely to be diagnosed with major depression than men. By these standards, my smelly coffee hair is certainly my far more interesting quality.
But even though so many suffer in the exact same way that I do, for most of my life it never felt this way. That’s kind of the thing about depression: it makes you feel isolated, singular, weird, alone.
When I think back on this last year, I will remember a lot of things. 2015 has been a doozy, folks. But the thing I will remember most is that this is the year I finally began receiving legitimate mental health help. 2015 is the year I truly, miraculously stumbled upon the resources I needed to start effectively addressing my depression. That said, it’s easily been the best year of my life. Here’s how it all went down:
For those who don’t struggle with it personally, perhaps it’s difficult to grasp what it really means to deal with depression. And in fact, those of us who regularly experience it often do so in vastly different ways. Clinical depression is generally characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness that interferes with your daily life. But here’s what it’s like for me:
For me, a depressive episode will typically last anywhere from 2-6 months at a time. During that time, I still show up places, I still eat, I still wear magenta. I still function on some level, but I’m not sure how exactly because on the inside I feel completely hollow. Numb. But not numb. It’s difficult to explain, of course. My body hurts. My shoulders ache and my eyes always feel strained. My mind swirls with really toxic thoughts, the most pervasive being that I am worthless and a burden to the people around me. I spend a lot of time in bed.
Hey, here’s a picture of a cat!
(just trying to keep things light)
So what triggers this sudden onset of despair? The simple answer: usually nothing. For those who don’t struggle with mental illness, I realize that this is a hard thing to grasp. In the last year, I’ve noticed a litany of articles written to explain this strange fact – that depression can arrive without notice, that it is an illness just like any other physical illness. Artist, Emily McDowell, puts it best: “Saying ‘What are you depressed about?’ to a clinically depressed person is like asking a person with cancer what they have cancer about.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t necessarily know the science of it. I just like to think that my brain juices are a little weird. And they’ve been weird for quite some time. It’s hard for me to trace how far back my depressive episodes stem, but I really became aware of them as a pervasive problem when I was eighteen-years-old, a freshman in college.
So why did it take me so long to seek help?
Well, for one, a depressed person is the worst person when it comes to helping themselves. Seriously, a toddler would be more useful. When I’m depressed, I lack the energy to do simple things like shower or get dressed, so researching mental health help feels far outside of my capabilities.
But still, I did try. In college, I went to my counseling office. In my initial consultation, I received a psychiatric referral, but I decided not to pursue that option. My reason: I was terrified of medication. I had known someone very close to me who suffered some major physical side effects because of their psychiatric meds, and I was convinced that my situation couldn’t possibly warrant drugs. I had a secret motto that I held onto like it was a badge of honor: “Never meds.”
But I did get involved with counseling, and I’m sad to report that my first experience was not great. My counselor and I didn’t click. I felt uncomfortable. So I quit.
The same thing happened three years later when I moved to New York and tried counseling again. The woman who did my intake literally almost fell asleep. I couldn’t imagine actually receiving real help from her. A year later a well-meaning friend suggested I see a counselor connected with a church network. In every session, this counselor would ask, “What would Jesus say to you right now?” and in the throws of some of the darkest thoughts of my life, that question just never felt useful. So I quit again.
I was discouraged to say the least. I had heard from so many people that therapy had been their lifeline, that it had been the catalyst for a total shift in their emotional state. After three failed attempts, I felt broken, like there was just something irredeemably wrong with me.
Still with me? Here’s a picture of the same cat from before, but funnier:
And this is perhaps the most dangerous part of having episodic depression: when I was depressed, I felt incapacitated, but when I felt well enough to take action, I couldn’t remember what it was even like to feel depressed. It felt like it had all been a dream. And besides, I was finally happy! Why go to therapy when you’re happy?! (lots of reasons, we’ll talk about it later)
So for years, that was my story: depression (sad, empty, mostly lying in bed) >> not depression (cool, fine, good, “It’s not that big of a deal”) >> depression again.
In July 2014, I fell into it again. Then came August. September. October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May. Almost a full year.
And by the way, in that year, I did some amazing things. I had some very happy times. But the undercurrent of every single moment was depression. I remember in May sitting with my husband in Paris, looking out over the Canal Saint-Martin, and thinking, I know this is beautiful. It’s supposed to be beautiful. But it just doesn’t feel beautiful.
So one day in May, after a lot of encouragement from my husband and the handful of friends who knew about my situation, I realized I had to switch my motto. Instead of “never meds” it became “whatever it takes.” I got on ZocDoc and found a psychiatrist who would see me that very same day. I paid $500 out of pocket. I talked for two hours. I left with a prescription for Wellbutrin.
Of course, this was really scary. I'd spent so much time avoiding this exact type of treatment, so if it didn’t “work,” then surely nothing would.
Just as my psychiatrist warned me, it took my body two weeks to adjust to my medication. And I won’t lie, those two weeks were a special kind of skin-crawly, stomach churning hell.
But then, one day – I can’t really even explain it – something was just different. The veil was lifted. I could feel things – happiness, sadness, anger – but in what seemed to be an appropriate way. It felt like I was, for once, getting the proper dosage of all of my emotions.
And suddenly, this gave me energy to start talking about what had been going on with me. Through this, a friend gave me a recommendation to visit her psychiatrist, who was in a resident program in which I didn’t have to pay out the nose for every single visit.
So now I go to therapy every week. I practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a treatment that essentially involves learning to separate feelings from reality. I read books about mindfulness and meditation. I work on setting routines and practicing gratitude and all kinds of dorky stuff like that.
And life is just different. So goddamn different, and more joyful than I ever dreamed it could be. Since starting this new phase, I’ve not once fallen into a depressive state. And that’s not to say that I won’t again. I’m still scared of that as a possibility all the time. In fact, it’s made writing this post incredibly difficult. Do I use present tense or past tense? I have depression or I had depression?
Something inside me knows that it’s present tense. I know that this is not the kind of thing that just leaves you. But even so, I feel better equipped to deal with it now than I ever have before.
That said, if you are presently struggling with depression or mental illness of any kind, here are some things I’ve learned from this whole ordeal:
It's so important to tell someone.
I was depressed for years, and virtually no one knew. I mean, of course, some people knew – really select people like my husband and a couple of others who passed an impossible litmus trust test. And I have to think that some really astute individuals probably figured it out too, sort of like how there are those people who can tell when a woman is a week pregnant because she’s “glowing” (what the hell is that about, by the way? I have never seen a person glow).
But when I copped to it with the few that I did, the response was always overwhelmingly, “I had no idea…”
And of course, they had no idea. That was my master plan. In depression, I have enough energy for one task and one task only: pretending I’m not depressed. I’m so good at it, it’s crazy. I laugh. I make eye contact. I don’t walk around with a comforter cloaked over my head. I act, by all accounts, normal.
And that’s what a lot of people who suffer with depression do, especially those of us who also struggle with anxiety. We mistakenly believe that the worst thing that could happen is for people to find out that we are broken.
But it’s not the worst thing; it’s the best. The only reason I was ever able to get any help was because I rerouted my energy from pretending I was okay to simply telling someone that I wasn’t.
Honestly, yes, it's hard to get help.
I remember one day googling how to find a therapist, and the first three things that came up in my Google search were articles about how difficult it is to get psychiatric help. There was literally more information available about the problem then there was about the solution.
This is a systemic issue, and I honestly hate it. Whether it’s psych websites that look like they were built in 1995 or the simple fact that many psychiatrists won’t take insurance, finding mental health help is a pain in the ass. It should be so much easier, and it’s not.
So if you are currently looking for help, then first know that you are doing something really brave and hard. And second, don’t be discouraged. There is help. Really good help. However, it might not be the first thing you find in a Google search. The best help I received was a referral from a friend, but I’ve also listed some resources at the bottom of this post that will be good places to start.
Routines are EVERYTHING.
I used to wake up at a different time every day. I would write a blog post when I felt like it. I would stay up working until 2 AM. I had absolutely no creative discipline, and each day was completely different than the day before.
And of course, I was miserable.
So much of depression involves a general sense of despair over the uncertainty of life. And by having no daily rituals, I was constantly piling on uncertainty and chaos into my already uncertain and chaotic life.
Now I have a morning routine, an evening routine, a workday routine, and regular creative practices. This has been essential for me, not only in fighting my depression but in establishing a more thriving creative life. It’s the reason I stress how to develop habit & routines so heavily in my new e-course, Do The Damn Thing. I know from personal experience how effective repetition can be.
You are not weak because you need help.
You just aren't. And anyone who treats you as though you are is either 1) ill-informed or 2) super not cool. In fact, from where I sit, you are profoundly brave.
There are SO many different kinds of help.
Remember how I saw not one, not two, not three, but FOUR mental health professionals before I actually started getting the treatment I needed (and actually five total)? I know, I know. It sucks so much. I am so sorry. But the truth is, what works for one person might not work for another. There are so many variables involved: your medical history, your family’s medical history, type of therapy, your personality, your therapist’s personality, etc.
Don’t get discouraged if the first bit of help you seek doesn’t completely work out. There are so many different types of treatment – antidepressants, CBT, psychoanalysis, support groups, online therapy – the list is endless. And while that can make it hard to sort through, it also means you are never out of options.
Keep trucking. There is something out there for you. And it’s so worth it.
Here are those resources I told you about (thanks to a sweet friend of mine who helped me put this together):
- To learn more about depression & anxiety, The National Institute of Mental Health has some good info here & here
- For TONS of information, professional help resources, and a confidential hotline, check out NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
- If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, check out ASFP (American Foundation For Suicide Prevention) or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255
Please feel free to share this post if you feel like it might help someone. I'm an open book at this point!