From May to September 2015, I went through severe clinical depression. Below, I share my journey, the things I’ve learned and some information to help others going through this experience, as well as those who have a loved one experiencing depression. While some of this information was derived from conversations with therapists and research, it is collectively an expression of my personal experience, hence, should not be considered medical advice.
Also, it’s one of the longest pieces I’ve written on this blog, so feel free to bookmark and return if you don’t have 15 minutes to spare.
Even if you wanted to, it would be very difficult to escape the discussions of mental health and depression that have been so prevalent on social media for the past year or so.
Initially, was easy to ignore and pass off as just another activist trend. But once the passive comments become screams from thousands, you began to realize that these issues have affected way more people than you had realized.
Then soon it became a war of two factions: the folks who have experienced or had someone close to them experience severe depression, who fully understood what it meant versus the one that didn’t, some of whom wanted to understand while others just believed it was much ado about nothing.
I fell into the latter group. I didn’t understand, but I wanted to know more. Little did I know that the information I was soaked up during that time was actually preparing me for my own bout with severe depression only a few months later.
There are few things people try to explain about depression that you can never fully understand until you go through it yourself.
Like a disease, severe depression does not care how smart or educated you are, how much you understand your body, how great your life is. None of that matters. It’s like an attack on your body, and, while you can’t see the perpetrator, the presence is overwhelming.
There were days I lay in bed crippled with fear, crying endlessly and feeling so much pain emotionally and physically. With my limited knowledge in psychology from an introductory university course and my readings, I tried to reason with my body and mind. I tried the good cop approach: it’s okay, Stacy, you’ll be fine, it will be over soon. I tried the bad cop approach: stop this foolishness, you have work to do and you have absolutely no reason to be feeling this way! Nothing worked. I just had to let my body purge itself for as long as it demanded, and then get back to life when it let me.
And there were periods where it let me. For the majority of the time, most of the people around me had no idea what I was going through. Luckily, since I work from home with a very flexible schedule, I could afford to hide myself away and take a day off when required and no one would question it. I can only imagine that for persons with families, strict schedules and day jobs, it would be a lot more difficult to cope.
The worst moment came towards the end when, during an episode, I found myself relating to those who became suicidal during depression. I realized that the advice people give like reaching out to someone and getting out of the house, were a lot more difficult than they seemed to be. And I thought that if I had no control over this, it probably wouldn’t end, and there was no point in continuing this way. If that sounds completely mental, it totally is.
You’re probably curious to know what triggered my depression…
This is the reason I think most people keep depression to themselves. In the beginning, I was never really sure what was causing me to feel this way. Some days it felt like everything, other days it felt like nothing. Not understanding why your body is doing what it does is very scary, and almost impossible to express in words.
I don’t have a technical term for what I’m about the explain, so I will make up my own: micro-triggers and macro-triggers. Micro-triggers were the tiny incidents that caused me to sink into a temporary depressive state, and macro-triggers were the underlying issues which caused depression overall.
My micro-triggers were anything that caused me to feel overly emotional. For women, think of it as four-month long PMS. If I saw a rather touching moment in a show, or if someone screamed at me or said something hurtful, the moment my emotions went out of bounds of ‘normal’, it triggered tears and the tears just wouldn’t stop flowing.
Some morning I’d wake up okay. Others, not so much. If I thought about certain specific things that were bothering me, those could trigger it too. There were so many different elements to work with that shutting out the world just seemed like the easiest option most of the time. A few triggers I can remember were a friend cancelling plans last minute when I really needed to go out, watching this video from Meghan Rienks talking about her own depression, and the entire week before and after my best friend moved halfway across the world to Germany. That last one got me good.
Later, after a discussion with a clinical psychologist, I was able to dig deeper to figure out what my macro-triggers were, and you are not going to believe this! Here’s just a short list of the things that were fucking up my brain for the past 5 years or so:
- Men! Of course, this is number one. A few years ago, back in university, I fell in love. The relationship ended terribly, but I eventually got over the guy. As it turns out, you can be over someone, but not over the situation you were in or the feelings you felt. I began to seek validation from the men I dated after and for several reasons, things never worked out. I tried so many things that did not work, and only now do I realize why. I’d give more info, but this would turn into a Young and the Restless season of epic proportions.
- Body issues. I am overweight, and I have been pretty much all my life. In my late teens, I lost a lot of weight (for all the wrong reasons and without any effort) and promptly learned that being 50 lbs lighter did not automatically translate to higher self-esteem. Everyone around me was ‘proud of me’ and had nothing but compliments on how much ‘better’ I looked, but I was more insecure than I had ever been. Then my worse nightmare came through. I gained back all the weight and then some, and then it began to feel like that’s all people saw. I fought hard to lose weight but it just wasn’t happening, until I learned to stop checking my weight altogether. I haven’t been on a scale in about 3 months. Instead, I am making gradual changes to my overall diet, doing exercise I’m comfortable with and simply learning to accept my body at whatever size it is, no matter how much of it jiggles.
- Time-based goals. When I was 16, I outlined where I wanted to be at 25. When I turned 25 and realized I had accomplished none of those things, I cried endlessly. But the truth is, there is absolutely no way a 16 year old can know what a 25 year old’s life will be like. And even if they could, it makes no sense holding yourself hostage to a proverbial bucket list. If you feel tethered to goals that don’t necessarily reflect who you are, or you can’t possibly achieve given a change of circumstances, go ahead and wipe that board clean and start over. This time, set goals, but don’t put a time limit on them. Just work a little each day until you get where you want to be.
- Work. As a solopreneur, things can get really sticky when you make all your decisions alone. I have experience in several areas and quite a few passions, but I’m also a firm believer in the marketing strategy of picking a niche (specific audience) and narrowing your focus. I started out in social media but found I wasn’t too comfortable, and then became crippled with fear for choosing any particular path for fear that I would hate it and seem like a huge flip flop. Marketing is my life, and I really like working with solopreneurs and small businesses, and I couldn’t very well tell them to do something I was having a difficult time with myself. I also thought I could be doing a lot more work and earning a lot more income than I have been. With a reality check I realized I was earning enough to pay my bills plus some, I might not be working 40 hours a week but that was the reason I quit my day job, and most importantly, I just needed to cut myself some slack and proceed a little at a time, rather than throwing a pity party.
It’s important to note there was no one specific moment that triggered this phase. In the months prior to my depression, everything was pretty much the same yet I felt exceptionally happy. But then, it was like a switch just flipped in my brain and everything went south.
So after identifying my triggers, I was able to cope a lot better and eventually, bring myself out of depression…
You know how all the depression blogs and ads recommend ‘talking to someone’ and ‘reaching out’. Well, that’s the first thing I did. Admittedly, it took me a long time to get there. For months I suffered in silence thinking I was simply upset with life and not actually going through depression. But the more I suffered alone, the worse it got, so I decided to tell a friend about it.
Here’s what they don’t tell you. Your friends, unless they’ve been through depression before or they are trained psychologists, will have absolutely no clue how to react or cope with your depression. Some will simply pass it off as a temporary phase, others will think you’re being overly dramatic. The friends that didn’t ignore it altogether just kept telling me “everything will be okay”. And when your body keeps shouting, “you will never be okay!” this kind of advice isn’t much help.
Which brings me to one of the main reasons I decided to write this post…
Here are a few pointers to keep in mind if a friend or loved one ever tells you they are experiencing depression:
- Listen to what they are saying. Don’t shut them down. Don’t change the subject. It takes immense effort to just share this with someone, and it can be really difficult to explain how they are feeling in words, so just take a moment from your day to hear what they have to say.
- You don’t know what to say. That’s okay, and completely understandable. Tell them that you’re not sure what to say. Ask them what you can do to help. Offer to get them out of their current environment (if you can). For me, I know I didn’t expect my friends to cure me, I just wanted to share my thoughts. Just speaking with someone actually helped me to get out the depressive state.
- In their heads, everything will not be okay. Everything is going down in flames. And you don’t actually know that everything will be okay. So stop saying that. For everything, not just depression. Everything will not fucking be okay.
- Encourage them to get professional help. I avoided the idea of therapy for a while because I hated the idea of it, thought it would be prohibitively expensive, and just getting out of the house seemed like a task. After a particularly gruelling episode, I googled and found Dr. Susan Lowe, who offers online sessions for as low as US$35/half hour. After just one session, I gained so much clarity that I can definitely say it was the turning point towards recovery. There is no match for professional help, so if you can just encourage them to try one session, it could mean the world.
- Be there when they call, and watch out for signs of worsening symptoms. During the episode where I started to gain a way too intimate understanding of suicide, I reached out to several of my friends but none of them picked up. I got desperate and just started tweeting about it, just so I could get the thoughts out of my system. Seeing persons retweet and respond helped me to cope that day, but I would have much preferred having my friends around.
- There’s a time to be selfish as a friend, but this ain’t it. If your depressed friend says they need some space or time alone, give it to them. If they can’t make it to a pre-planned event, it’s highly likely because they are crippled up in bed and can barely move. Don’t make them feel guilty about it. In one situation, a friend all but called me a horrible friend for taking a social media/WhatsApp hiatus and being only accessible by phone call. How dare I leave just one channel for communication? Blasphemy! (PS. I’m not saying give your lazy, unreliable friend a pass just because, but if your friend is usually positive and upbeat and gung-ho about doing stuff, and now they aren’t, adjust accordingly.)
I’ll close this post by adding a few key points that didn’t quite fit into the dialogue above:
- Depression is different for everyone and can be triggered by various things. Sometimes it can even be a sign of a physical problem (it has been linked with thyroid issues). I understand that my experience was not the same as everyone else, but based on the things others who had been through it shared with me, I can definitely say there are similarities and it can help tremendously to speak with someone who has experienced depression.
- If you have no other choice, don’t underestimate the power of reaching out to your social network. They can be surprisingly understanding and helpful, and I’m really grateful to those who took the time to share a tweet, reply or jump into my DMs to check if I was okay.
- Depression was painful, but I don’t regret the experience. I feel like it was my body’s way of purging all the confusion and turmoil that was affecting me emotionally and the path to recovery was one that provided me a level of clarity I’ve never experienced before.
- Have I really ‘recovered’? It sure feels that way. My body is back to normal. I’m no longer scared to shed a few tears, for fear that it will become an avalanche. I haven’t had an episode in several weeks. And as for those four problem areas I mentioned above, I’ve come to understand and accept them at a much deeper level and now have a clear direction I want to move in, that puts me and my sanity as priority number one. I can’t say what the future holds but I do know that if I ever fall back into that mode, I’ll be much better equipped to handle it.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading, and I hope this gave you some insight or helped you cope in some way. If you have gone through depression and you can relate, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @stacyannhayles and share. If you’re going through depression right now and you feel like I can help you, send me a message using the form below, and include a number if you’d like me to call you.