On Past and Present Struggles with Depression (and Using Meditation to Cope)
So, I’m having a hard time writing lately. I have some topics I want to write about ASAP, Quantified Self, for example – especially with the conference coming up soon, but my head just hasn’t been in the writing game lately. Part of this has been a never-ending cold I’ve had for the better part of three weeks, part of it is too many things going on at one time, but the biggest part of this is just being in a slump (as I mentioned briefly last time).
TL;DR I’m struggling with depression and started meditating as a way of coping.
I’ve been hesitant to write about this lately because of my ongoing job search, which is ironic because the reason I want to write about it is to drop the negative stigma behind it. I used to write pretty vocally and openly about depression on a former blog and had a lot of people write to say that having someone speak so bluntly about it made them feel more normal or okay with how they were feeling (and more likely to speak openly about it and get help). I liked that, and I do think that people shouldn’t be ashamed of depression but, unfortunately, many people are. The recent situation with the Germanwings pilot and the media’s reaction to his potential mental illness didn’t help anything and some think it may have set back progress in destigmatising depression. Reading articles about this lately made me decide to just buck up and write about my own experience with depression and what I’m doing to help it.
My Background with Depression
I’ve suffered from depression for about seventeen years now. I wasn’t really able to identify WHAT the problem was when I was younger, let alone communicate it, but I started having depressed thoughts and bad anxiety in middle school. I had my first massive anxiety attack in a gym locker room freshman year of high school and that’s the first time I saw a therapist (the anxiety is a story for another day). I kind of always had issues, and there were signs of it to the people closest to me, but for the most part I didn’t talk about it and kept it hidden. I learned to mask my depression with humor, a skill I still use to this day. This is both good and bad because I can make myself laugh when I am feeling down, but I’ve gotten so good at it over the years that unless I tell someone what is going on, most of the time you would have no idea.
It’s hard to be a depressed person because unless someone has experienced depression they can’t really understand or relate to it. It’s frustrating to watch naturally happy people go on being happy without effort while you exhaust yourself just trying to LOOK happy (fake it til you make it, right?), let alone feel happy. It’s stressful to feel judged for being sad, and it’s more stressful that there is such a negative stigma associated with something that is (for the most part) out of your control. It stinks knowing there are people who automatically label you as “crazy,” and it stinks more when some of those people are related to you. One of the hardest situations I’ve had as a depressed person is when friends who don’t understand depression say things like “Just get over it,” and I’ve had to remove more than one person from my life because of this. One of the most frustrating parts of depression is that during the rare moments where things are going well you can barely enjoy them because you’re bracing yourself for shit to hit the fan again (Self-fulfilling prophecies, perhaps). I read the following quote and it described perfectly how it feels when I do have good moments. This is a habit I am actively working to break though recent events have made that difficult.
“She said ‘I’m so afraid.’ And I said, ‘why?’ and she said ‘Because I’m so profoundly happy. Happiness like this is frightening.’ I asked her why and she said ‘They only let you be this happy if they’re preparing to take something from you.'” – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
It’s difficult not ever being sure if your sadness is normal or a result of your depression. I spend a lot of time asking myself: “Am I sad because this is a normal sad thing, or am I sad because my brain is an asshole?” I had to work through this in therapy because I was beating myself up for being so upset over some situations which turned out to be totally justified things to be sad (and anxious) about.
My depression was at it’s worst when I was in college. After some really hard times and at the insistence of a boyfriend I saw my first therapist since middle school (college students: take advantage of the free mental health services on campus!). The therapy really helped, but I still had some trouble and was put on Zoloft for a while. It helped but it also made me feel like a zombie so eventually I quit. I spent a lot of college alternating between taking care of myself by working out/making art to feel better and drinking too much/sleeping for days on end when things were more out of control. I made it through relatively unscathed, but there were some pretty dark times.
The time between college and the present has been a roller coaster. I’ve suffered from varying levels of depression from “literally cannot move from this bed” to “sort of bummed out but functional.” The way I describe it is that sometimes really great things happen and I get really happy or excited, but they don’t ever seem to “stick” and the happiness fades really quickly. That’s sort of where I am now and what I am trying to actively work on.
My Current Depression Situation
I started using Quantified Self to track my moods two years ago and try to find specific triggers for my depression. This is a project I am still tweaking and working on. What I have discovered is that my depression is definitely cyclical, and a large part of it is related to hormone fluctuations (just one example of how you can use QS to find relevant health information and solve problems). But I also finally admitted to myself that there is a chemical imbalance going on and decided to try medication again recently (I’ve taken Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, and Wellbutrin over the past ten years and had bad reactions to all except Wellbutrin which I was on for a year a few years ago).
I started seeing a new therapist back in September to try to get a proper diagnosis to make sure I was taking the right type of medication. I had spoken to a close friend about what was going on knowing she had similar issues in the past and she’s the one that suggested I may be suffering from something different than I thought (borderline personality disorder, etc) and it may help to be diagnosed again before starting any medications. So I went and after a few sessions I was diagnosed with Dysthymia (aka chronic depression or persistent depressive disorder). The way my doctor described it was that a cloud kind of always follows me around and doesn’t ever really go away. It’s not general run of the mill depression because IT NEVER GOES AWAY. We worked with my primary care physician and I’ve been on Wellbutrin for seven months now and it’s working well (it’s also been really helping my ADD!).
What I’m Doing Now To Cope with Depression
I’ve gone through periods of really good and really bad self-care in the past few years. Good self-care has consisted of frequent yoga (Wake Up Yoga in South Philly has changed my life), other forms of exercise (Aerials, Spinning, Zumba), open communication about my feelings with close/trustworthy friends, journaling, gratitude journaling, etc. Bad self-care consists of all the usual suspects: excessive drinking, isolation, unhealthy diet, laziness (I credit my Fitbit with keeping me moving during my worst bouts of depression), etc.
In addition to medication and therapy, I signed up for Life Book 2015 this year to re-boot my art journaling. I’ve also been regular journaling every day since last May (this helps tremendously), got back into a steady workout routine recently, and have made it a point to cut back on television/internet and read instead to help stimulate my brain more. If I do watch TV/Netflix/etc I have a rule that I have to be doing something productive at the same time (painting, stretching, whatever). I recently started running (I stink at it but it feels good to be making the effort) and am one week into meditating, the thing that sparked this entry today.
My Recent Re-Introduction to Meditation
Meditation has been floating around in the back of my mind since both a very close friend and my recent ex (both named Phil oddly) tried to convince me to give it another try. They both spoke wonders about it, but I had tried in the past and it didn’t work. The only time I’ve felt successfully meditative and as though my brain has totally turned off has been during shavasana at the end of my yoga practice at Wake Up Yoga.
I mentioned earlier this year that I was interested in learning about Transcendental Meditation after hearing about it constantly on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. I attended an intro talk in January and I am still interested in TM but haven’t been able to take part in any of their courses yet. It’s on the never-ending list of to-dos. What I HAVE done is tried the Headspace app for a third time.
Headspace has a free ten day introduction program you can try to see if it’s for you (then you have to pay for more). Each day there is a ten minute meditation prompt and every few days there are some animations to teach you more about mindfulness. I first tried Headspace a little over a year ago, at the time ten minutes felt like AN ETERNITY. I tried and couldn’t do it. I also got disrupted both times I tried Headspace day one in the past, and never made it to day two. Last week, after finishing Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier about his introduction to meditation, and after reading how meditation helped a friend cope with his divorce I decided to give it another try.
I started on a Sunday when no one was home to distract me. It had finally warmed up so I opened the window and sat in my room to try again. As usual, my back hurt like hell during the process but I pushed through it. I was shocked to find that this time Day One went really fast and wasn’t nearly as difficult as it has been in the past. I continued for five more days in the middle of the day (2pm) and found that the ten minutes flew by every time. I also calm down so much during the ten minutes that my Fitbit keeps thinking I’m asleep! Between the meditation and my recent running I’ve felt a lot calmer and better. I missed both for three days because I was sick and there was a definite difference in my mood. I made the decision to pay for a year’s worth of Headspace today because I feel like it’s a good investment for my mental well-being. I’ll definitely be blogging about the process as the year progresses.
Social Media Hiatus (again)
In addition to starting to meditate, I also decided it was time for my bi-annual Facebook hiatus. In addition to being totally addicted and posting way too often, I am definitely guilty of comparing my life to others’ and letting it get me down. I recently unfollowed 90% of my Facebook friends and it’s made Facebook GREAT and way more tolerable, but after a rough weekend I decided it was time for a complete break. It took me two days to stop instinctively picking up my phone every two minutes to check, but now that I’m used to it again I noticed that I barely touched my phone at all yesterday. This is good, because I definitely need some undistracted ME time right now (I mentioned my ex and I tried to do that let’s be friends thing and it went horribly and I’m really sad about it, right? Ugh. Not the cause of depression, but not helping either.). I’ve also been using the “Do Not Disturb” phone feature a lot over the last few days.
Sometimes it’s nice to check out. The original purpose for starting this blog was to talk about social media and phone detox, though it changed direction along the way. You can read the original post with tips on detoxing here.
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs the past few weeks and this past weekend was mostly down, but I’m ACTIVELY working on it and trying to acknowledge my feelings, find the triggers if there are any, and push through in healthy ways. Hopefully, as these habits begin to kick in you’ll see more entries popping up more frequently!
References and Further Reading
- The pilot, depression, and the salacious headlines that feed stigma
- Countering the Social Stigma of Depression
- Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness
- Depressed Doesn’t Mean Dangerous
- Working Through Depression: Many Stay on the Job Despite Mental Illness
- On Journaling
- Transcendental Meditation
- The Tim Ferriss Podcast
- 10% Happier by Dan Harris
- Free eBook: How Meditation Helped Me Get Through Divorce by Mike Doyle of Paleoriot
- Beginning my journey to use social media positively and productively