An Essay about My Struggle with Mental Health and Depression by James Bonner

Depression, Consciousness, and the Power of Self-Awareness: How My Experience with Depression Can Help You

People are capable of more than we know. More than many want to acknowledge. We reduce ourselves to the scope of our embittered mindsets. But we are phenomenal creatures. We can power through as long as we can imagine some end in sight. Nevertheless, depression is a multifaceted oppressor that exerts a profound and immeasurable grip on us. My experience with depression unraveled slowly throughout my late teens and early twenties. Depression seemed to observe me, probing my weaknesses and exploiting vulnerable moments. When I graduated high school, I started experiencing self-doubt about my life’s direction. And as if depression had been waiting in the shadows, as soon as it saw its moment to trespass on that weakness, it did. The first time that depression took hold of me and lingered, I was twenty. I had just left home. I was living in Idaho, on the other side of the country. My experience was new and different. Being on my own in an unfamiliar place and also learning to relate to the uncertainties of a lingering depression challenged my limits. Before then, depression affected me, but only intermittently. I hadn’t even connected what I felt with depression yet.

The longer we live with undefined depression, the more we believe we are the problem, not depression. Our unconscious brain begins to believe it too. Our subconscious brain influences our conscious brain. So, as we develop mistrust, fears, and defenses, we start building walls that inflate depression and can evolve into different conditions and disorders that affect other areas of our personality and behaviors. It feels impossible to manage. It’s hard even to know where to start. Settling into depression without being aware of its presence can have lasting consequences. After a while, once you have lived with depression for long enough and without taking the time to understand it, depression starts to feel comfortable. Chronic depression can begin to feel familiar when little else might. The weight of depression acts as a comfort blanket. Letting go of something familiar, even if it’s the root cause of your pain, can be like letting go of a trusted friend. It can feel terrifying and bare. We become abused and the abuser; we’re too scared to let go of depression because we’re worried that without depression, we may not feel anything at all. Depression, however, doesn’t have to control and manipulate us.

When it occurred to me that I was experiencing depression, I was reluctant to tell anyone and expressly to call home; 1.) because it can be hard to admit when you’re suffering, especially to your family. As we grow up, we develop an idea of who our parents want us to be. When we’re anything but that idea, we feel shame. Besides the shame we feel, People like to explain and understand everything. We commonly construct theories and present them as certainty, rather than embracing uncertainty. Depression is hard to communicate, especially to family, because trying to articulate depression is like chasing rainbows. And 2.) because I felt like I was letting myself down too. I studied psychology at the university. I was going to be a clinical psychologist but decided against it because I’m against medicating psychological conditions. People tend to rely on medications as a crutch, so they don’t have to make an effort to work through their issues (whatever those issues might be). I called home because I needed help. I knew that my family would encourage me to take medication, but I had no clue what else I could do. I had little life experience and little understanding of where to look to earn life experience. And so, I made the difficult phone call.

I called home from a payphone. It was dark; rain slapped at my forehead. Pit pattering on the silver rims of my glasses and sliding glacially down my cheeks. When I spoke, I could sometimes taste the salt from the warm tears streaming down my face and between my lips. Tears that weren’t washed away by the rain. Tears that never seemed to stop. The night was cold. I was cold. My clothes felt like an appended skin fused to my body. My dad's voice sounded so far away. And in that moment, I was more vulnerable than ever before. The description is my memory of that phone call. That’s probably not a realistic account of my environment when I called home to talk about depression. Nevertheless, that is how I remember that conversation going. I spoke with my dad. I called my mom because it has always been easier for me to open up to her, and when she passed the phone to my dad, it was uncomfortable at first, but she knew something I didn’t. I am and have always been the black sheep of my family. And it’s solely because I unconsciously assume people already know most of what I’m thinking. So, communicating my thoughts seems redundant.

I was surprised to learn, after speaking with my dad that night, that he and my sister both suffered from depression (depression is genetic). I was a much older child than I knew before he started to get his depression in check. I never noticed my dad’s depression. I learned that, besides speaking with a psychologist, he started taking medication, even exploring several different medications before finding one (or a small cocktail of some) that worked for him. I couldn’t afford to see a psychologist or pay for medications on my own. That’s part of the reason I called home. I needed help. But I also needed help to get the help I needed. I felt uncomfortable being in that position. Being embarrassed about the position I was in influenced how I talked about it, and that only supplemented my depression. Because of that, I let it go on longer than I should have. It’s not easy letting go of the judgment we fear might come with opening up to someone; that’s true about anything we suppress, regardless of the reasons we may or may not have. But remember, people want to help. Not asking for help deprives a person of the pleasure of being able to help you.

I agreed to meet with a psychiatrist. Depression is a strange case when talking to a professional. It’s hard to know what, if anything, triggers depression. How do you talk about that? Knowing where to start can be stressful. I wanted to talk about my depression to help the psychiatrist help me, but I didn’t know where to start. After the conversation, I not only felt more depressed, but I also felt stressed and worthless. I already knew the talking points. I felt like I could have the conversation on my own. Again, I felt embarrassed, and again, that only reinforced my depression. But I walked out of the office with a prescription for Citalopram. I filled out the prescription immediately and started taking the drug daily. Citalopram helped. I continued to take the drug throughout my year and a half living in Idaho and until I moved to Utah. In Salt Lake City, when my refills expired, instead of finding a new psychiatrist, I went off the medication. The depression came and went (never completely gone but softened), sometimes lingering for weeks, and I mostly ignored it. Shortly after, my depression started worsening to the point it was previously, and before I called home, I moved to New York City. The move curbed some of the depression.

As I navigated these challenges, I began to realize that this mild, unchecked depression was affecting me in another way. Depression left me in a state of limbo. I wasn’t truly living. I was merely coasting. And I continued to coast for years. I didn’t feel like an active participant in my life. I was watching my life unfold, much like I was watching a movie. I wanted to find meaning in life. But even what I found most gratifying felt like trivial gags to while away the time. Maintaining even my most important relationships was challenging. My relationships were important to me. I didn’t know how to express that. I wanted everything to slow down and to stop. I knew that if they could wait for me to work through some things. I would be better. I needed time. My relationships suffered. I know I don’t need to describe the feelings as much as share my experiences. Those of you who struggle with depression already understand. And if you don’t, there’s nothing I can say that will clarify the effects of depression. Depression isn’t something you can interpret or translate. It can only be confronted. I thought a lot about what would make me happy. But focusing on happiness when you’re depressed is relatable to the ongoing campaign between Sisyphus and his boulder. Happiness isn’t the objective. You have to go through neutral first.

After I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, And while in an abusive relationship—during the darkest period of my life. I started once again going to a psychiatrist (in addition to a somatic psychologist). My psychiatrist prescribed Wellbutrin. The same depression medication my dad was taking. I preferred Wellbutrin to Citalopram. There were fewer side effects and they affected me less than the similar effects of Citalopram. It had been a decade since I was last on medication for depression. My feelings about medicating psychological conditions hadn’t changed. However, I acquired considerable life experience between then and now. I felt better prepared to benefit from my use of Wellbutrin. Medications were never intended to cure psychological conditions. Nor are our medications intended to allow us to ignore the conditions we’re trying to medicate. Self-healing is a natural process in our physiology. Medications allow us to manage while we assist in the recovery (whatever that may be). That’s equally true of psychological conditions, in collaboration with introversion. So, I started exploring my depression internally. Medications keep the symptoms at bay, stalling for time while we explore insights that lead to improvement.

A year after escaping my abusive relationship, I moved back to the Texas Hill Country. I stopped taking Wellbutrin. I wanted to understand what my body was feeling and what it was trying to tell me without the drug in my system. What I learned is that depression slides over you. Most people never recognize when depression envelopes them. Even after depression comes into effect, people cannot acknowledge the difference between an inherent state of being and a depressed state of being. That’s why a person’s depressed perspective and purview are so damning. A life without meaning, significance, or intermittent amusement is uninspiring and senseless. I also realized that depression and sadness are not the same thing. Sadness isn’t synonymous with depression; it’s an inference. The sorrow we feel is a reaction to the depressed purview. Depression is more closely related to meaninglessness. The belief that life is inherently meaningless makes us sad. The more I explored depression, the easier it was for me to recognize that what we are experiencing is the feeling of depression as opposed to being ‘depression.’ Depression is an emotion. We are separate from it. And that means we can control it.

I wanted to learn to identify when depression was creeping in so I could intentionally create distance from it. And then actively work through depression with exercise and meditation. Anything that would allow me to replace depression with a healthy habit. Of course, I would have to develop the habit of acknowledging when depression was starting to affect me first. And I would have to regulate that in real-time. Progressing a habit takes a while. I was prepared for and allowed myself to overlook the onset sometimes, especially early in the process. I wasn’t always going to catch it. But I couldn’t let that possibility overwhelm me. Depression has a way of discouraging you. Set little goals for yourself. My first goal was to realize when I was depressed. My second was to do so more often than not. I started acknowledging other, more basic feelings. “I’m stressed.” “I’m angry.” “I’m tired.” I was teaching my conscious mind to acknowledge my unconscious experience. When I started feeling depressed, I professed, “I’m depressed,” and I compelled myself toward action of some kind. I did push-ups and sit-ups, focusing on my breathing and counting. I walked outside, noting consciously how the wind felt in my hair, the crunch of gravel under my shoes, birds singing, and the glint of sunlight dancing with the leaves. Doing these things also re-educates your brain to find beauty in the mundane. You have to retrain your actions and your reactions to bad habits.

After a few months, I realized that while I still felt depressed, it wasn’t affecting me nearly as much. I was also seeing the effects in other areas of my life. I was working out more, and because of that, I looked better and had more energy. I craved better and healthier foods. I was becoming more familiar with my surroundings. I was talking to people more, developing new (and better) friendships, and discovering new things I enjoyed doing. I also started meditating. The effects of meditation have been immeasurable. While meditating, I ask myself questions like, “What’s the root of my depression?” “Am I angry, sad, afraid...” and “Where does that come from?” Our brains sort through our memories for these answers first. I was exploring my memories and eventually my subconscious, and there I rediscovered the things I had been passionate about in my youth. I revisited those passions. I started working through emotional issues that I’d been harboring for decades, many of which I’d forgotten. After a while, I felt confident enough to confront my depression head-on. Instead of evading or recoiling from depression, I squared up and met it. I allowed it to come. Now that I could separate myself from it entirely and untangle it, Once it’s been named, like an exorcism, the demon no longer has power over you.

          Depression will always be with me. But it doesn’t control me anymore.  It’s not easy at first. But it does get easier. The benefits of any positive substitute you employ will improve your life beyond your expectations. I know that it feels far away and hopeless. Honestly, it’s just right there. So, please find that buried trace of encouragement and let my story be the stepwise process you haven’t yet discovered. Get started. In sharing my story, I hope to offer encouragement to those struggling with depression. My journey has taught me that depression is not a life sentence but a challenge that can be overcome. By acknowledging its presence, seeking help, cultivating self-awareness, exploring who you are by asking yourself questions, and forming new habits, we can learn to manage and even triumph over depression. Remember, you are not alone, and your feelings are not a definition of your worth. Depression may be a part of your story, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story. Take the first step toward healing and know that a brighter tomorrow is possible. Let my story be a testament to the power of resilience and the human spirit.

 

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