I’ve suffered from depression pretty much since adolescence. I paused for some time before finally using the expression “suffered from”. I feel like there is a better choice of words I could employ. Endured? Experienced? Whatever. Anyway. Back when I was a teenager, I briefly went to a psychiatrist and took some antidepressants (I don’t know which one, but I don’t recall it having any effect), but I didn’t really take the therapy process seriously — which is kind of ironic, given that I am pretty sure I’m the one who suggested I go to a psychiatrist in the first place. I don’t really remember for sure, though. I also don’t clearly recall exactly how my depression manifested itself. And it’s hard to say how much of it was just normal adolescent drama, and how much was the underlying chemical depression that I still have. Not really important to this blog post (although in truth, I don’t really know what the point of this post is or will be — I’ve just felt like writing about this for a while). Eventually I remember kind of deciding that I didn’t need the antidepressants or the therapy. I can no longer remember exactly what my thought process was, but I don’t remember my depression really re-surfacing until around my mid-20’s.
In my 20’s I did a lot of self-medicating with alcohol (not that I always considered it that at the time). That was only partially effective, though. Sometimes it would distract me from feeling bad, but I would almost always end up feeling worse afterward. I don’t mean a hangover. I would feel bad about the fact that I felt like I needed to drink in order to cope with things. And so maybe I’d decide not to drink for a while, but inevitably when I did drink again, I’d feel bad for giving in. It was a vicious cycle. Given that pretty much all of my immediate family has had severe drug and/or alcohol issues, I eventually decided to stop drinking altogether. I won’t say it was effortless, but it was pretty easy. I had difficulty limiting or regulating my drinking, but it’s not so tough when I just forbid it altogether — then there’s no opportunity for me to talk myself into it. This sort of strategy works well for me in many situations. Back when I would go running, I had to decide ahead of time how long I would run (either distance or time). If I allowed it to be variable, then I’d always try to convince myself to stop early, and I would end up feeling tired well before I should, just because of the whole internal mental conflict. But if I decided on the length of the run ahead of time, then there was nothing to think about — I could just turn my mind off and run. In many parts of my life, my mind can be a strength or a weakness. And in cases like this, I have to prevent my mind from getting in my way. But back to the topic at hand, I stopped drinking in 2009, at age 32.
Stopping drinking did not make the depression go away. True, I no longer had the cycle of unhappiness and regret that centered around my drinking. But I still was depressed. What do I mean by that, exactly? Well, back then I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it particularly well. I would have been able to tell you that I’d be going along fine and suddenly become sad, without clearly understanding why. I also found life to be overwhelming in a lot of ways. Now you may be saying “Sure, Mitch, everyone has those moments.” And I don’t doubt that’s true. But I would feel overwhelmed by stupid things. For example, I’d see I was out of soy milk. Just the thought of going to the grocery store to get it would make me tired. If I actually forced myself to do it, then it would be fine, but if I allowed myself to think about it ahead of time, it would seem daunting. And I often would want to sleep when the sadness descended or when things felt particularly overwhelming. I would also have a very hard time convincing myself to get out of bed unless I absolutely had to, because it just seemed more comforting to retreat to sleep rather than face the world.
In 2009 I went to a psychiatrist who put me on some antidepressants and recommended that I begin seeing a therapist (which I did). The antidepressants mainly helped me with the issue of not being able to get up in the morning. They didn’t cure the underlying thought process which would make me want to go back to sleep, but prior to being on the drugs, I often would not even allow myself to wake up enough to consciously think about whether I should get up or not. I would be mostly asleep and decide to stay asleep. The drugs allowed me to insert my conscious mind in there. I would still feel the urge to go back to sleep, but it gave me enough control that I could override that urge and get up anyway. This may seem like a small thing, but it helped a lot.
I think the therapy helped me a lot more than the drugs did, though. I’m not sure how therapy is supposed to work or what parts of it help most people, but in my case, I don’t think it was a case of me explaining my problems to my therapist, and her telling me what the solutions were. For me, I think the single biggest benefit of therapy was self-reflecting out loud, to another person. Even before I had been in therapy, I engaged in a lot of self-reflection. I considered myself intelligent and thought that I could figure myself out with enough thought. But I really needed to see myself through the eyes of another person, which I hadn’t been doing. So before therapy, I might have made an observation about myself, and then tried to see what it implied. But in therapy, I would make that observation out loud, realize how it must sound to someone else, and… well, it’s kind of hard to describe, really. Especially if you’ve never been in therapy. But a lot of my sessions would involve me saying something to my therapist, maybe even something I had thought to myself in the past, but just the act of saying it to another person made me learn more about myself. Anyway, really the point I am trying to make is that after I went to therapy for a while, it really helped me learn how to be my own therapist. Because now I can often just imagine myself being in the office and telling her something, and just imagining it is helpful.
Among other things, the therapy allowed me to better understand my mind, my emotions, etc. So for example, prior to therapy, one of my sad moods would descend and I would try to figure out what had caused me to be sad. But some strategies I’ve learned in therapy help me identify when these sad moods aren’t caused by anything real, and thus I don’t waste my time and energy trying to figure them out. And I don’t assign the emotions undue significance. That said, I still do experience the random sadness, and while being able to identify it does help, it still isn’t fun to experience.
I’m losing my train of thought here. I want to talk about my latest medication change, which has had mixed results. It has done very good things for my energy levels and motivation and tendency to be overwhelmed. But it has made my sad moods much more intense. Not suicidal intense or anything, but markedly worse than before. I kind of feel like Adam Sandler’s character in Punch Drunk Love when he says he sometimes cries for no reason. No, I’m not ACTUALLY breaking down crying. But when the moods descend now, I definitely feel the urge to. It’s pretty weird, and not fun. And I think that’s what made me want to write about this stuff in the first place, although now that I’ve created this rambling monstrosity, I’m not sure it has helped me for writing it, or you poor readers for having read it. :) However, if history is any indication, this unfocused monologue will probably bounce around in my head for a while, after which I will be able to come back and write a more concise entry to sum things up.
April 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm
When I was reading about your way of forcing yourself to do stuff (like the running) I identified with it a lot – that’s totally me.. I do the same thing with running by making myself a schedule and aside from injuries, if it’s on my calendar, I am compelled to do it, no talking my way out half way through. And I have a very bad problem with snacks and eating random stuff, so.. I just don’t keep any candy, sweets, or snacks of any kind in my house. and it’s not a problem. It becomes easy. Oh yeah and the not being able to leave the house is me too.. I don’t know why, it’s annoying.. but sometimes it’s just.. hard. I usually have to write up a plan and then I can get stuff done but otherwise I’m glued to the computer/couch.
I had few rather bad years in my very early twenties, and I wish that I had gone to talk to a therapist to help myself deal with myself better – I think you’re right about how being able to gain a better/different perspective on yourself is a valuable tool.
And don’t worry about writing rambling blog posts – this is your blog, you can write whatever you want! :)
April 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm
I’m glad to find someone else who knows what I’m talking about when I describe that strategy for running (and other things). Apparently quite a few people have no problem just deciding on the fly whether to run or not, how far to run, etc. Not me! :)
Seeing a therapist has definitely been helpful, but I only think it helps if you’re totally on board with the process. People in the past had suggested I see a therapist when I would tell them a bit about my problems, but at that time I was convinced that I could figure things out on my own. I don’t think it would have helped even if I had agreed to see a therapist back then, because I wouldn’t have approached it with an open mind.
That said, I think pretty much everyone could benefit from seeing a therapist, even if their heads aren’t as, um, interesting as mine. I think it can help a lot with relationships, friendships, and life in general, even if there are no obvious problems. I think a lot of trouble in the world is caused by people who don’t engage in much self-reflection and don’t consider how their words and deeds appear from a perspective other than their own. Not that therapy has turned me into some enlightened saint or anything, but now when I’m a jerk, at least I’m more aware of it. :)
And it’s a good thing that I needn’t worry about the rambling, because it’s way too much work to, you know, actually think about what I am going to write before I write it. :)
Apparently I am required to end every paragraph with a smiley face. EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE
April 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm
Also, thank you for taking the time to comment — it means a lot to me.
January 9, 2013 at 2:41 pm
I know you wrote this a while ago, I was actually looking for some of your posts on food (I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now, and it’s really convincing) and saw your “depression” tag. I was recently put on some meds that are the first to stabilize my mood without zombifying me, and for the first time, I have hope. I also have extreme guilt and regret. 27 years? I’m certain I’ve had these issues my entire life, and for the first time – ever – I feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I never thought finding a solution would bring such a mixed bag of emotions.
Am I alone in that my depression has actually HURT people, though? I want to apologize for my past actions, but how does one apologize for something caused by a chemical imbalance they have no control over? I feel pretty helpless about it. Was wondering if you could relate.
January 9, 2013 at 4:15 pm
I do understand what you mean. I don’t think I’ve experienced it quite to the extent that it sounds like you have, but I definitely regret some things that were caused, both directly and indirectly, by my depression. So I think I understand where you are coming from.
My first response is that you have to be careful about beating yourself up too much over this stuff. I think it’s healthy to feel some amount of guilt or regret, but not to the point where it’s causing you problems. There are many things in my past which I wish I had done differently, for a variety of reasons. For example, I spent many years eating meat before becoming vegetarian. And when I was younger and less mature, I was less considerate of the feelings of others. And there are countless other examples. Just like in the case of depression, it’s not like I made conscious decisions to do hurtful things. But I did do hurtful things, and looking back I regret them. I think there is value in recognizing past mistakes, so we can avoid repeating them in the future. To that extent, the guilt and regret are healthy and useful. But you don’t help anyone by being consumed by these emotions. It causes you problems and it doesn’t take away the pain you caused in the past. So I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to forgive yourself. Acknowledge that you are human, that you make mistakes, and that you cannot change the past. Sometimes I think of it as making a deal with myself. I allow myself not to dwell on the guilt and regret, provided I am committed to avoiding the bad behavior in the future. In the case of depression, this means taking medication, seeing a therapist, monitoring your mental state, etc. I think as long as you are doing those things, then it’s okay for you to try and let the guilt and regret go. (Easier said than done, of course, but it may help if you view it as a bargain with yourself, rather than just as you forgiving yourself outright.)
Okay, so that’s one thing. The other thing you mentioned is apologizing. I don’t think it’s weird to apologize for something that you didn’t have control over. I mean, addiction is kind of similar. People who are in the grips of a chemical addiction do a lot of things which they would not ordinarily do. Part of the recovery process often involves making peace with those who were hurt in the past. I think people often apologize for actions over which they had only limited control. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. I think the purpose of an apology isn’t necessarily about assuming responsibility for what happened. I think it’s more about expressing remorse or regret for what happened. It is about acknowledging that you know how your actions hurt the other person, that it makes you unhappy that you hurt them, and that you wish you could have done things differently. I think that can make you feel better and make the other person feel better, especially if you’ve never really talked to them about it before.
I think there is another benefit to apologizing/atoning/explaining/whatever. Presumably part of the discussion would be an explanation of your depression, how it affected you, and why it made you act the way you acted. I think this sort of conversation is important, because people who have never suffered from depression often have no real concept of what it is like. I think there is value in sharing these experiences. It could help that person in the future if they encounter someone else with depression. And if you tell them that you were eventually able to get help, then they may pass this message of hope along to someone else. So even apart from making peace with yourself and with this person, I think there is value in talking to the people that you hurt.
Depending on the other person, they may not be very gracious in the conversation. They may take it as an occasion to vent to you, especially if their feelings of hurt are still raw. I think you should be prepared for that, and try not to get defensive. You don’t have to be their punching bag, and you should end the conversation if you think they’re just being vindictive. But if they are just sharing their feelings, then after they are done, it may bring you closer together.
Anyway, I’m just rambling at this point. I hope some of this made sense or was helpful. The older I get, the more I am convinced that open and honest communication is crucial. I used to be very ashamed to talk about my depression, and it led to a lot of problems and hurt feelings, because people didn’t know how to interpret my behavior and moods. But now I am a lot more open about it, and so even though I still experience depression, it doesn’t have the same negative effects on my relationships. I think in general it would be good if people with depression would be comfortable discussing it openly and honestly. That way people could more easily recognize it in others, and people like you and I might have gotten help earlier than we did.
January 9, 2013 at 5:57 pm
*sigh* I wish I had gotten help sooner. I mean, I was “getting help” but it wasn’t all that effective. Most of the time I was “doing well” I was pretty much just faking it because I was so exhausted, with the process, the people, the medication. I had actually really given up this time, I was going to accept that I would just live my life as a sad, sad person, and for some reason I thought “why not just TRY the pills?” Luckily they’re apparently fast-acting because I felt different that day. And now that I’m feeling better, instead of looking FORWARD, to how much better my life will be with my depression at bay, I find myself looking back. I suppose this is just an old habit that dies hard, huh? I am one of those “spiral depression-ists,” I sit there and think about things that make me sad, and I keep thinking about them until I have a panic attack, or go to sleep. Sooo healthy… *facepalm* being able to think about it rationally makes it even worse, but I guess it’s better to get a wrangle on what I can do to be better now than it is to think about how awful it was then.