Start Climbing: When Major Depression Takes Hold
by Martin Clemens
I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story about survival in a world of darkness and fear. There are no heroes in this story, no villains. There are no castles, or dragons, or damsels – distressed or otherwise. It isn’t an exciting story; it isn’t romantic, or even tragic. It’s just my story, and I think it’s important for me to tell it to you.
It begins at the beginning, as all stories do. But it’s hard for me to tell you exactly when that “beginning” was. You see, I can’t remember a time when my brain was free of this fog of depression. In fact, until my first real experience with psychiatric medication, I didn’t know there was any other way to feel. That first moment of pharmaceutical relief came as a shock. It was a feeling so alien that I was unable to find the words to describe it to my physician, and I kept stumbling over the word manic at every attempt. That, of course, caused some confusion at the time, since mania isn’t typically a symptom of major depression. Nor should it be a side effect of its treatment.
An inadequate term, I’ve always thought. It carries no real gravitas, owing to our general misuse of the word depression to mean feeling a little down. When you tell someone you suffer from depression, most times they look at you with a sort of contrived pity in their eyes, mixed with an unspoken criticism that, if spoken aloud, might sound like your parent telling you to “stop being lazy, get out of bed and do your chores.”
I’ve seen that “do your chores” look a thousand times. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve stopped telling people I have depression, opting usually for terms like mental illness as a catch-all reason for why I am where I am today. It should be noted that there’s a strong possibility I’ve made a lot of that up. Not that people give me that look, or that I’m decades into my struggle with depression, but that the look I’ve described means what I think it means. I’ve certainly encountered my share of people who understand so little about my condition that they blunder through conversation, equating a debilitating disease to having a bad day. Some also comment that my life, to them, looks like a holiday compared to their own. But they can’t all be that naive, can they?
I should probably explain a few things at this point. I’m not crazy. Well, no more so than you are. I’m not a dangerous wacko, though my neighbours would probably describe me as a quiet loner to a news crew, if things came to that. I suffer from major depression, as well as generalized anxiety disorder. I’m unable to work because of my condition, so I receive disability benefits from the government. I’m basically a shut-in. There are months where my only human contact is online, through social media. Usually, I prefer it that way, but it wasn’t always like this.
Like everyone else, I’ve had my normal ups and downs, I’ve had occasion to smile and reason to cry. I’ve been married, twice. I even have two wonderful children who’ve grown into smart, capable adults. I had a career; careers, in fact. I was respected as a father, and a husband, a coworker, and friend. I was loved and I have loved, as passionately as anyone else. I lived a “normal” life. But, like far too many others, my mind was poisoned by a disease. It coloured my every thought. Everything I said, everything I did was filtered through a mask of depression. My world view, my attitudes, and my choices were all at the mercy of my malfunctioning neurochemistry. At one time, this was something I could hide. I became adept at fooling everyone around me into thinking that I was a well-adjusted human living a normal life of domestic bliss. I learned how to steer people around my moods, and to make everyone think that everything was alright. I even fooled myself.
Unfortunately, mental illness isn’t the kind of thing one can ignore forever. It became clear to me, perhaps fifteen years ago, that there was something very wrong with me. I wasn’t happy. Now, that’s a deceptive statement. “Happiness” isn’t a well-defined word. It’s fleeting and elusive and, when it runs from you, it doesn’t hide where you think it should. Like anyone, I found happiness in the usual places; my family and my friends. I found it in the things that I did; my hobbies, my connections with the world at large, and those ever popular small joys of life. But what do you do when those joys stop harbouring happiness? How do you cope when happiness becomes a fugitive? I can tell you what I did. I pretended to be happy.
It’s a relatively easy thing to do, watching those around you and copying their mannerisms, tone, and actions. Learning when to smile, when to laugh, and when to add a certain inflection to your voice. Making everyone think you’re just as happy and full-of-life as they are is about denying, to yourself at least, what’s really going on in your head, and tailoring your outside self to the situation at hand. But it makes you a liar.
Everyone does that to some extent. Living in a social world like ours, there’s no way to avoid finding yourself in situations where your true self doesn’t match your outward self. The difference is, when you wear that mask of normalcy to hide the disease of depression, you eventually start wearing it all the time. You start lying to everyone, even and especially to those you love most, because their eyes are the ones looking closest. It begins innocently enough; turning down social invitations because you’re “too busy” becomes avoiding social obligations because “the kids are sick”. These little white lies become commonplace, they become routine, and things start to snowball until you suddenly hear yourself saying the words “I love you, too” and you’re not even sure it was you who said it.
I thought, like far too many others, that I was doing life “wrong,” that my character or my personality were to blame for my failure to be normal or happy. Things started going wrong. The difficulties of life, those false-start tribulations experienced by the young, became chronic problems for me. One job after another was lost because I couldn’t get along with colleagues or supervisors. Bills piled up, and stresses piled up on top of them. I started letting anger get the better of me. I started blaming the world for treating me badly. Ultimately, I started giving up on finding happiness again. And finally, I started to push. I pushed against everything and everyone in my life. I pushed it all away from me, the good and the bad, in the same way one guards a wound.
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You might be asking, at this point, why I didn’t reach out, why I didn’t seek help from those around me, or from doctors. There’s no easy answer to that. In fact, there isn’t even just a single answer. I’m a man, and men don’t admit to silly things like being depressed. We endure. We stand firm in the face of adversity, and we take our licks…like a man. And if that doesn’t work, well then that’s just how life is. I didn’t like going to the doctor for physical reasons, I certainly wasn’t going to go asking for help finding happiness.
It’s important to understand one of the more crucial and insidious ways depression acts on the brain. It’s a trickster, but not like a fun prankster friend who tosses a pie in your face once in a while. No, depression tricks you in some of the worst, most nefarious ways imaginable. It makes you start to believe you no longer deserve happiness. It tells you, by a constant whisper in the back of your mind, that admitting you have a problem is going to make things worse, and that actually trying to get better is pointless. It makes you afraid of normal. It makes you fear connection. It can even make you believe that happiness is the enemy.
The worst part of that futile circle of fear and loathing is that you’re not the only one getting hurt. The people around you will notice, despite your best efforts to hide it, that you’ve let apathy take the wheel because, eventually, you’ll give up on hiding that too. And that’s one of those few moments when truly life-changing events are close at hand. You have a choice: face facts and get help, or lose it all. I made the wrong choice. When I began to push away all that there was in my life, I caused my children to seek the love I should have given them somewhere else. I made the love of my life doubt my devotion to her. I laid to ruin every last bit of my life by giving in to the fatalistic ideation of depression. So, when I looked around at all the damage I’d caused, to myself and to those around me, I chose suicide.
Were it not for the doctors and nurses at my local ER, and the secure mental health ward of that same hospital, I wouldn’t be here to tell you this story. The day my world came crashing down around me marked the lowest point of my life. In comparison to other people, it may not have been as terrible as all that, but in the context of my life, I was alone, sitting on the proverbial rock bottom in a pit of despair, and as far as I was concerned, that’s where I deserved to be.
Life gets pretty simple when you’re in that place. You really only have two options: stay there and die, or start climbing. After several weeks of confinement and round the clock psychiatric care, and a cocktail of what turned out to be badly needed pharmaceuticals, I began to climb. I’ve only lifted myself by a few meagre handholds. As I said, I’m a shut-in, but I’m alive, and I no longer want to change that. I’m relearning my passions – cooking and baking, reading, and writing. I’m reacquainting myself with me. I’m learning to live in spite of that nagging jerk of a voice that will never go away, even with the best medications. I’m figuring out what I need to bring along on this new quest to track down happiness and wrestle it into submission.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear here though. That climb, the effort it takes to lift yourself off of that rocky shelf and out of oblivion, that’s a Herculean task. It might be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. But can I tell you a secret? There’s a trick to it.
One Step at a Time
I know, I know, you’ve heard that meaningless platitude more often than you’ve changed your socks. But I don’t mean it like that. I don’t mean it the way a motivational coach does, I don’t even mean it the way your therapist does. I mean this:
It’s okay to take one step and stop there. It’s okay to take your time getting back on your feet before you even take that first step. It’s okay to feel miserable for a while and to wait until you’ve got solid ground under you before you reach a hand up and pull. This is no small thing. This is your life. There are no rules here. Not a one. But you’ll find, I’m sure, once you start it’ll get easier and easier.
It’s been five years since I tried to take my own life, and from the perspective of some around me, I’ve made very little progress in my recovery. My children, now young adults, still refuse to see or even speak to me. My second ex-wife has, to my great approval, found happiness again in another relationship. Though we do still speak, the conflict of my happiness for her new found love and my own memories of our relationship make it difficult for us to be anything but strangers. Those I once called friends are now little more than acquaintances and my world is now much, much smaller than it once was. There are reasons for this, of course, reasons that still feel like excuses. For one, psychiatric medications are fickle, and often require a great deal of fiddling and tweaking to find the right recipe. And though there are resources available to help us cope with diseases like depression, it remains up to us to seek them out and avail ourselves of their benefits.
So you have come to the end of this story, but not the end of my journey. No heroes, no villains, no romance. A daunting road lies ahead of me, as my journey has only just begun, but it is crucial to remember one thing though…progress is progress, and I am making progress. Just the simple fact that I no longer want to end my own life is reason enough to celebrate my recovery as a success already. And even small steps can take you further than you were before. Perhaps there are castles, and dragons, and damsels yet to appear in my future. Time will tell that tale, as it has told this one, too.