Thursday, 6 October 2016

An Arduous Journey: Depression

About a year ago I was diagnosed with a moderate depression and anxiety.

It was one of those things that did not come as a surprise as the symptoms had been obvious enough, but for too long I had been too stubborn to admit that I might need more than a weekend of good sleep and some "me time" to feel better. Every person has capacity to deal with life's adversities and in most cases rest is enough to recover - up to a point. There is a vague threshold and when one steps over it everything changes. That feeling of being in a funk would no longer go away on its own; a new state of normal has been set both mentally and physiologically.

The Slide

It is a long slide to depression and what finally did me in was a period of two years during which just about everything went to shit. My marriage ended; I got a burn out in a death march project that was ultimately cancelled as soon as I got it done; I was unjustly fired and the three months of unemployment put me deep in debt and I almost ended up homeless; I got sacked from the next job for not belonging to "the top 10 %", as the case was so eloquently explained to me. Finally, just to really rub it in, my dog died.

Sure, there was more but you probably get the idea. It was just too much to deal with; a threshold was crossed, a switch was flipped, and I was no longer the same.

The Hole

At the end of the slide there is a hole, and it is deep and dark. It is sometimes hard to say if one falls into it or if one tries to hide in it, but it is a bad place to be.

One might crawl into a bottle, another seeks to escape the world by taking drugs; people react differently when life goes off the rail. I gained weight. I gained a lot of weight as I found comfort in junk food, sweets, snacks and the like. If I wasn't eating, I was unhappy. After I had eaten too much I felt nothing, and that was a good thing.

I became socially isolated. I slept but I was so very tired. I ceased to be creative as the spark in my grew dimmer, and I become afraid to start anything new for the fear of not seeing it through. I no longer laughed. Neither did I cry - until on of my two dogs died; I did a lot crying that week.

I was in a deep, dark hole. I could no longer see the horizon; I had nothing good to expect or wait for. It would have been easy to just lie down and wait for the inevitable cave in, but I suppose I was just too stubborn: As a teenager I fought a lot in school and even at home, and I came to embrace a deep conviction that has kept me moving ever since: in the end it does not matter if one wins of loses as long as one does not give up.

I hated that hole. I had to get out.

The Pride and Denial

In the past I used to look down on people who complained about being depressed, and who talked about taking pills to feel better. In my eyes they were weak persons for whom depression was a convenient excuse to stop trying. I considered anti-depressants to be a false solution that merely hides the problems instead of fixing anything. So I clinged to my pride and resolved myself to figure things out on my own.

I focused on my obesity. I reasoned that I had not become obese just because I ate too much; overeating was a symptom of some deeper underlying issue(s). If I truly wanted to regain control over my eating, lose weight and reclaim some of the things in my life I had lost, I needed to identify the underlying problems: if I fix them I should be alright, right?

I focused on finding solutions to problems in my life, and in process began to regain some of the control I had lost. When I lost a job, I searched until I found a new one. When I ran out of money I sold what I could and when that was no longer a realistic option I dug my financial hole a little deeper just to keep my nose above the shit I was in; I played for time to while searching for more permanent solutions. I absorbed the blows life dealt me and pressed on; weakened by each blow, but never stopping even when I had to slow down. The straw I was clutching to as I was about to drown was the thought that everything ends; just as good times are followed by bad times, hardships must also come to an end if only one keeps the momentum going for long enough?

This was all part of the long slide into the hole. The metaphor isn't perfect, but let's just agree that one tends to slide from a smaller hole into a larger hole through a slippery tunnel of misery.

Here's the catch: my stubborn focus on solving external problems kept me moving, and true enough I did manage to turn my life around in many aspects. I even lost good deal of weight! Unti I reached the point when there were no more problems to fix or issues to resolve; I lost my momentum, and my inner demons finally truly caught up with me.

The Anxiety

My belief had been that by fixing what was broken I should get better. Except I didn't. Not really. As soon as I lost my momentum I got worse. A lot worse.

It started as vague restlessness. A tension that built up so deceptively that it felt like normal, but an iron fist was reaching from my inner depths, grabbed me by the heart and lungs, and began to squeese. I had difficulties to go to sleep. I began to lose my ability to focus. I started to doze of during work and even while driving my car. My work suffered and my home was a mess, and I stressed about it but somehow I seemed unable to get stuff done. Whenever I started to do something I would think of all the other things that needed to be done, so I ended up moving from one thing to another without accomplishing anything. In the end I would just lie on my couch and think about things I should do without doing any of them. Eventually it felt like almost too much just to breath.

In the end I was forced to admit defeat and admitted to myself that this was something I could not fix on my own; I needed help.

So I asked for help, and I got it. I understand this makes me fortunate as there are countless people for whom no help is offered even when they beg for it. I was referred to a psychologist and over five weeks and five meetings she evaluated me and determined that I was a borderline case: clearly I had issues and I would benefit from therapy, but I was still mostly functional. She referred to me to a psychiatrist for further evaluation who finally determined that I was obviously suffering from anxiety, and the depression diagnosis quickly followed.

The psychiatrist convinced me to accept anti-depressant medication by explaining that it would not affect my personality and it was not a "happy pill"; if anything it would help me be more of myself. It would help me to cope with my anxiety, and after that iron fist that had been ceaselessly squeesing my chest releases its grip I would be more able to deal with my underlying issues.

(Admittedly it also helped when she pointed out that the medication she was about prescibe increased brains's plasticity which would also enhance my ability to learn new things; "say no more!", said the geek in me.)

Two weeks went by until one evening I got off the couch, looked at my kitchen and thought I might as well clean it up a bit. Half an hour later I had cleaned my kitchen for the first time in over four months. After that things started to get a easier.

That was a little over a year ago.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward

The psychiatrist's parting advice was to be patient; there would be setbacks along the way. I thought I understood and sure enough it wasn't always easy, but I handled it. After a year on the anti-depressant I was on the minimum dosage and felt great so last June my doctor agreed that I could try to stop taking it altogether when I went for my summer vacation.

I was good for the first two weeks. I felt great and life was good, but deep down that iron fist was reaching up again and regained its grip on my chest. It started gently, but soon enough the pressure and the pain was once more undeniable.

Trivial mishaps happen all the time in everybody's lives. One strikes a toe and it hurts for a few moments until it gets better and goes away. For me that didn't happen. If something happend it kept hurting like a bell that would not stop ringing after it is struck: a false hope for rekindling an old friendship, annoyance for not knowing if that flash on the traffic camera was for me or for the car in front of me (it wasn't for me), getting calls from ex-girlfriend, and so on. It all piled up until it all I could was to lie on the couch and keep on breathing.

Four months later I'm back on the anti-depressant and I'm doing good once more, but something has changed. In some way the depression got under my skin this time. I have come to accept that this isn't something that I can simply figure out, fix and put aside. Neither is the irony lost in me that I've become one of those people that I once looked down on for being weak. Funny how one's perspectives change when the tables turn. I may need to make some apologies to few people.

An Arduous Journey

There are good days and there bad days. The good days are beginning to outnumber the bad ones, but there will always be bad days as well. Just not as often as before. I keep reminding myself not to make excuses and to take better care of myself for the bad days are quick to replace the good ones.

I suppose this is one the reasons why I'm writing this now; to process, and to remember. It is an arduos journey to deal with depression and anxiety, but in the end the thing that matters is that one does not give up.