Trying to Explain Depression

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When I was a junior in high school, I was hospitalized for depression.  This followed two previous hospitalizations for anorexia when I was younger.  I was placed in the Adolescent Unit of the hospital, which contained mostly troubled kids from foster families.  They could not understand why I was there. “I don’t get it,” one kid said to me. “Your family has money, you’re cute and athletic” (I had just starred in a basketball game.  I’ve never been good at basketball, but most of the other kids on the Unit smoked instead of doing sports), “and you’re smart.”

I didn’t understand it either.  It did seem like I had a pretty good life compared to most of those kids.  I did well in school and my parents were decent people, still wanted to live with me and didn’t beat me up.  They divorced when I was eight and that was when I started to have mental health issues, but many of my friends’ parents were also divorced and they were okay.  

More recently, I confided in my neighbor Steve that I spent a lot of time anxious and depressed and worried about the future.  Steve, who grew up in poverty without a father and has worked in a paper box factory for over forty years, told me, “You have nothing to worry about.”

And he’s right. I don’t have many rational reasons to feel bad or worried.  I make a decent living, I have three wonderful kids, take nice vacations, etc.  Not that my life is perfect.  My wife and I are separated, and that has been tough.  My kids are leaving the nest.  Basically our family is all separating.  But other people go through these kinds of things without becoming despondent.  Why me?

Of course, I can explain in a number of different ways why I might suffer from depression. There is no shortage of theories. Insecure attachment. Childhood trauma. Inherited genes. Insufficient neurotransmitters in my brain. Not enough sunlight. Not enough vitamin D. Not enough friends nearby.  Long winters without sun. Too much stress. Inability to let go. 

My guess is that all these things factor into the depression equation. I try to address as many of these things as I can. I use a light box, talk to friends and family, exercise, and take medication. I meditate sometimes. I even pray – which is a habit my girlfriend encouraged. I’ll try anything.  

I know it can be very frustrating being around someone who is depressed. My depression and anxiety certainly contributed to the breakdown of my marriage. My wife felt unable to help with my mood swings, and my anxiety made her more anxious. We both sought comfort elsewhere.

Depressed people are often sad or angry even when things seem to be going well. We complain that nobody cares about us despite abundant evidence to the contrary. We feel like we are failures and burdens when we’re not. We complain about feeling bad but often seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

It’s even more frustrating to be the depressed person. You may know that the outward circumstances of your life might seem okay, or even great. In fact you feel guilty about complaining or feeling bad, because you know that many people have much harder lives. You feel ashamed of yourself for being so self centered and negative. You may compensate for feeling lousy by telling yourself that happy people are just dumb, or willfully blind to how bad things really are. You try to justify your depression by telling yourself you see deeper or feel deeper than most people. Feeling superior becomes a substitute for feeling good.

I’ve felt and thought all these things. I’ve fallen into all the mental traps and cognitive distortions caused by depression. I know many of the thoughts I have aren’t true but they FEEL true.

Trying to figure out how to get out of a depression is frustrating too. I’ve gone through months and years where I’ve been depression free, so I try to figure out what made that time different. Why did I feel better? Can I replicate that somehow?

When I’m depressed I drive myself crazy thinking thinking thinking about how lousy I feel, trying to figure out why, wondering how to make it better, and worrying how long it’s going to last.

My girlfriend the therapist tells me that what I think of as “thinking” isn’t even really thinking when I’m depressed. Thinking takes place in the most advanced part of the brain – the frontal cortex. What I and other depressed people do is ruminate and worry, and that mental activity takes place in the same part of the brain as anxiety and worry. It’s fear generated by fear, repetition and rumination that masquerades as thought.

And yes I’m afraid. I’m afraid of continuing to feel bad because it just sucks. It’s painful. And I’m afraid I won’t want to do anything or see anyone. That my work will suffer because I’m not motivated. That I can’t be the loving, positive, and energetic person I want to be. That I won’t be able to sleep, which will make me feel worse.  That I’ll want to end my life, even though I’ve never actually tried to do it. 

Often the only way I can stop all the anxiety is to take medication. I’d love to be able to meditate and feel better. Or just tell myself that my fears are not rational. But that stuff doesn’t work as effectively as re-configuring my brain chemicals.

My drug of choice right now is Klonopin. Years ago, during a previous depression, my old boss recommended it to me. He said it helped his anxiety tremendously and allowed him to function. I was surprised because he is a very accomplished person. He and his wife run a successful consulting business and are lovely caring people.

So I took his advice. I’ve used Klonopin on and off – along with antidepressants – for years.

Klonopin greatly decreases my anxiety. I am able to relax and sleep and eat, and feel way less scared and worried. I feel lighter and more social. I feel less lonely. I don’t feel like I’m constantly scared something bad is going to happen. I feel okay basically. Like there’s not too much to worry about, and if something bad happens I can handle it.

I love feeling like everything is okay. However, sometimes I can take that feeling to an extreme as well. 

For much of last year I felt unworried without the help of drugs. Life was good and happy. I felt free and did what I wanted to do which was eat, sleep, see my girlfriend, travel and buy things. I started working only in the mornings. I would just leave for lunch and not come back. I’d take a nap and then take my son for a ride in my car. Put the top down and feel the warm sun on our faces.

I’d spend time (including at work) planning vacations or visits to my girlfriend, working out, eating and sleeping. I spent more money than I was making. It didn’t matter – I figured my business would keep making money even if I barely worked on it. After all, it had made money for over 10 years and I’d worried about it all the time. So why worry?

At some point last Fall, though, I started to worry again. The company I work for was having a tough year, and I started to worry that I was going to be fired because I hadn’t been doing much work. I also worried that if I kept spending more money than I made that I would run out. These were rational fears.

Maybe I’m bipolar. That’s what my girlfriend thinks. She, and my therapist, have helped me become more aware of my moods and how I try to “regulate” my emotions via various coping mechanisms. They are big advocates for mindfulness and self-compassion, and I think they’re spot on with that focus. I often feel guilty that I’m often not a very good practitioner of these techniques, but then I tell myself this is just more internalized self-criticism (mindfulness) and that it’s okay (compassion).

There’s just a lot going on in my head when I’m depressed and anxious. But a lot of it is the same old stuff. Forty years of greatest hits, over and over. It’s boring. But what can i do? I’m sure it’s both terrifying and boring to deal with any chronic medical condition.

I put this out there mostly to help myself. Writing makes me feel like I can do something besides worry. And the feedback I get from sharing is overwhelmingly positive.  It makes me feel loved and worthwhile. 

I’m also sharing my experience so that other people who suffer from depression know they are not alone. Even though the quality of the pain is different for each person, the symptoms are mostly the same. And even though there are a ton of books and articles and videos and Instagram posts about depression, sometimes it helps to know that someone you actually know is going through the same thing you are. You may feel less crazy or less broken to realize that I suffer the same way you do. It may make you feel less isolated and separate. Depression isolates us. Fear and anxiety isolate us. Depression is a disease of isolation, making us feel disconnected from other people.

It will get better. I’ll feel better. I always do eventually. And until that time I’ll deal with the symptoms like I would for any medical condition. Rest. Take medication. Talk to friends.  Get enough food, sleep and exercise..

Several books I’ve read recently say that love is all around us, and inside us, and that sometimes we just have trouble feeling it. I like that idea. Love and joy are what connect us, and when I feel good it seems like they are boundless. But I can’t always control whether I feel love and joy, so I just have faith they are there and I will feel those emotions again.

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