An Essay about My Struggle with Mental Health and Depression

A Depressive’s Guide to Not Letting Depression Control Your Life: Strategies for Overcoming Life’s Challenges

Trying to recall what it was like to be inside of my head when I was a child is difficult for me, beyond having few memories of my childhood, my mind—as best as I can tell (and to only some degree feel), after watching home videos that my family had converted from VHS to DVD—was not only scattered, but incoherent, and making sense of what little I can remember is bizarre. My childhood seemed to have a great deal of pointing, and stomping, and desperately trying to articulate thoughts I seemed more than capable of comprehending, but that I was unable to express. I was often off in my own little world, although my own little world was the real world in the only way that I knew how to experience it. I didn’t see or understand things in a conventional way, and I didn’t pay attention or care about the conventional behaviors of others; I think I was happy living my own life, as a six-year-old, and couldn’t understand why other people might be compelled to intrude. In a lot of ways, I wish that I would have grown up maintaining the perspective I had as a child. Although I didn’t know how to maintain, let alone to nurture that childhood purview—perhaps because my family is very conventional—which became clearer to me once I started to recognize how depression affected my family, and the different ways that we would deal with our depression.

            My dad struggled with depression, and because depression may not be present until certain conditions are met, his depression went unchecked for some time, and would affect things between him and my mother, and my sister and I when we were young. I saw only the frustration. That’s how my dad’s depression presented to me and my incoherent mind—although my family were only, and even during my childhood, minor characters in my own muddled narrative, only occasionally cohabitating my account as they passed in and out of my elbowroom—my dad had no idea how to relate to what was, perhaps, an unrelatable son, and so he didn’t.

I came to learn, later in life, the extent that depression would affect my sister. She, and my dad, would devote a good bit of time to psychiatrists, and sampling different cocktails of medications. For them it worked, and for my dad especially. Finding means to cope so that they might continue living a traditional enough lifestyle made complete sense to them. My worldview didn’t include depression. I often felt, and more so in retrospect, that while I might exist here, in a pragmatic sense, my mind—and my spirit—existed in a place similar to here but less, uh, orthodox. At a young age, and throughout early adulthood, if I was depressed, it didn’t occur to me to seek outside help, to speak with a therapist, to explore medications; the problems existed inside of me, and therefore the remedy would also exist inside of me—that was my conclusion, and any alternative to that conclusion never once crossed my mind.

             I was already in my early twenties when I would first consider even the possibility of broaching depression in a conventional way. I remember the moment exactly—well, almost exactly. I was living in Idaho, I had only been in the state for a few months, and I had found myself there almost entirely by chance. In the months before moving to Idaho, I dropped out of college, quit my jobs, packed my car, and started driving aimlessly westward. I had only been living far enough away from my family for it to be notable for those few months, and it was the first time that I really started considering that I would have to make my own way in life. Well, at least that’s when I started thinking of making my own way as a hardship, and not a thing to enjoy and to look forward to. At the time, I struggled to tell the difference between the safety and security of being alone, confidently navigating the waters of adulthood, and waking up while wading in the middle of an ocean, completely isolated, thousands of miles from anywhere. I started to believe that I would need to accept, somehow, that I would have to get comfortable with the notion of being alone in the middle of an ocean for the rest of my life. I was always excited about growing up, but the older I got the more I believed that I was supposed to think adulthood, and life in general, was difficult, and this idea, once adopted, and especially at a young age, is a very difficult one to unlearn.

I remember calling home, and this next part of my memory might be a little bit of an indulgence, I honestly couldn’t say for sure, because what I remember when I called home is that I was calling from a payphone in Idaho, and that I was standing in the rain; I remember even the taste of salt of my tears invisible among the earthly vein traveling down my cheeks, ah, and the cold, and how in one instant a shiver would rise through my spine, increasing in intensity as it surfaced before shaking it off, and in the next moment feeling almost warm before I would feel the shiver again begin to rise. I called home that night, having either submitted to some invisible pattern of conventionalism or simply feeling too alone to continue not expressing myself, my dad picked up the phone, and being too embarrassed to open up about anything, it took me some time, and a little creativity looking for the segue that might direct the conversation toward depression.

It was during this conversation that I would learn about some of my dad’s history with depression. After talking to him about the subject for several minutes he urged me to see a psychiatrist. A short time later, I started taking Citalopram. On and off for the next few years, while I juggled with whether I wanted to continue taking medication, I tried and errored with a small variety of prescriptions, as well as a couple of natural remedies. The prescription that I disliked the least was Wellbutrin, which also happened to be what my dad had been taking for most of his adult life. I tried SAMe and 5-HTP too. However, after a few years I decided to stop taking medications of any kind. I was doing well developing systems that alleviated my symptoms without medications. I do like 5-HTP; 5-HTP is a chemical our bodies convert from an amino acid, which is then converted to serotonin. Even today, if a depression sits with me longer than I’m used to, I will sometimes take 5-HTP for a few weeks to help me to rebalance my serotonin levels.

The thing about medications is that they are a tool, the purpose they serve is to help manage symptoms while we work to resolve, our bodies regenerate, and/or we learn to manage our symptoms on our own, without the need for medication. For a number of bad reasons and thoughtless excuses, most of us would rather reject the actuality that medications are not a cure-all—which is one of the many pillars of indifference that the weight of our society is crumbling under; we’ve mutually agreed to show greater concern for the cancelled private lives of people who just so happened to work in an industry that arbitrarily distributes celebrity. On the higher end of the ironic scale, we focus our time on resolving the fabricated symptoms of our social decay, while ignoring the manageable issues that are at the root of our symptoms; meanwhile, the number of people claiming to suffer from depression and anxiety is increasing, as is our dependence on medications to hide and slow the decay.

There are things in life, other than medications, that will not only manage our depression (and other mental illnesses) but will also improve our overall quality of life. These things might require us to sacrifice some false comforts—comforts such as sugars, complacency, indifference, and exorbitance, that many of us have become dependent on—but, and again, the benefits far outweigh the withdrawals. At present, we are living in extreme absolutism, and are remarkably unconditional, and these symptoms too are affecting us at a subconscious level—and our depression.

I am not vegan, a CrossFit junky, a freemason, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t sell supplements in a pyramid scheme (and it’s not really a pyramid scheme anyway…). I do, however, exercise moderately—because I like the way that it makes me feel—and I have taught myself the benefits of discipline and conscious living—because I like the way that it makes me feel—and I practice measures of meditation that work for me. I have discovered that a benefit of acknowledging and developing my subconscious mind is a more balanced, receptive, and developed conscious mind. I have learned how to recognize feelings as they present; feelings like depression and anxiety, fear and anger, and guilt and shame, and I am, more often than not, able to acknowledge these feelings, and to explore them, and then to let them pass. The difficult part was learning how to recognize when I might be depressed as the depression was beginning to take hold. With practice and a little discipline, the skill did eventually come, and will for you too. I am able now to acknowledge that I feel depressed rather than being depressed—which is to say, that my depression no longer controls me.

         And to address the more vulnerable, and uncomfortable moments of my depression, I have been through the same internal struggles and debates weighing the merits of suicide as many of you. Considering suicide as a symptom of depression is a counteraction to the devil whispering in your ear, it is deceptive. I have been in the position to sympathize with the pull of suicidal thoughts from different angles: as a reprieve from the illusion of a senseless life brought on by depression, and as a reprieve from what felt like a very real and seemingly inescapable circumstance. In either case, I was graced with a thought that seemed to come from a candlelit place deep within my soul that reminded me, and would continue to remind me that, “although I may not want to be around now, I might tomorrow,” and this thought would guide me through a number of very difficult, and very dark times, as well as through the process of developing the habits to curb depression on my own.

At the peak of the most difficult time in my life, I was in a relationship with a woman who would gradually strip me—or at least create the very real illusion of being stripped—of choice. I didn’t see what was happening to me as it was happening. She had manipulated me so that she might control every aspect of my life; somewhere in the midst of the worst of it—standing in a “turtle suit,” in a jailcell on suicide watch—I found a sliver of possibility in the idea that although I didn’t want to and didn’t see the point even in continuing to live, I very well might tomorrow.

I know what it’s like, I have lived with it, I continue to live with it, and I’m very aware of the grave outlook that depression instills. I have trained myself to not only live despite my depression, but to experience depression in a way similar to a passing train. I notice the depression coming, and adapt accordingly, acknowledge it in the moment, and allow it to pass with little effect save an eddy of dust, leaves, and discarded refuse.

If you have ever seriously questioned the meaning of life, you are most likely aware that life has no universal meaning—for us, anyway. It’s our responsibility to create our own meaning through our passions, however, because of the way that our society is structured, to call the process of exploring meaning “complicated,” is a bit understated. The American convention introduces behavioral decay into society like a bear at a candy store. Which, of course, only figures into the seemingly inescapable abyss that is depression. The world to a person experiencing depression already feels neither big nor small enough, and manifests, in either case, as whichever might be the most paralyzing in that given moment. Most people don’t actually know that they’re depressed when they’re depressed. They know that they’re sad, inasmuch as one can compare “being sad,” to feeling consumed by a shattering hollowness, while life in general feels ineffectual and aimless, but when you don’t realize that you’re depressed, and you believe that your nature, beaten in by senselessness, is simply who you are, life can feel inexplicably hopeless. It’s also difficult to ask for help if you’re not consciously aware that you need help or can be helped. After a while, once you have lived with depression long enough—without taking the time to understand or work through it—depression can start to feel comfortable, because at least depression can feel familiar when little else does. The weight of depression can come to act as a comfortable blanket; letting it go, and trying to imagine life without it, can be terrifying or bare (which can seem worse). When depression might be at least one thing that you can rely on, suicide might then become an absolution.

Most people who struggle to relate to someone who has considered, attempted, or followed through with suicide believe the act to be selfish. And because we cannot relate to depression from an emotional purview, we attach our own understanding and reasons to it (as we do with everything), although I know most of you will struggle to accept this, coming to the conclusion that suicide is selfish is wrong. The only thing you have accomplished is to add an additional weight to the spiritless thoughts of the depressed, and now they have nowhere to go, and because you believe their thoughts to be selfish, they sure as hell are not going to be turning to you.

In recent years, depression, and other forms of mental illness, have taken on the illusion of being, “cool.” As if depression were a symbol of status while setting some sort of social precedent, and this has influenced the narrative and stigma surrounding depression. Mental illness isn’t an exclusive country club, membership isn’t reflective of artistic intrigue or life experience. We have enough social and behavioral issues in our society as it is, and the challenge of depression doesn’t need to be more difficult, so please explore who you are without wearing depression on your sleeve as if it were a fashion statement.

On the rare occasion now, when depression does dull my senses, if I am unable to curb it before it begins to consume me, I demand and might sometimes even coerce myself to actively do something. I might do push-ups, write, and go for walks, often simply changing my surroundings has a profound effect; to recognize something unique or beautiful in the mundane helps me to redirect my thoughts; on a walk I might take extra note of the wind, and the way the leaves rustle in the wind, and the sound of the earth beneath my feet, and the way that wood benches or concrete walls might feel splintered or coarse in contrast to my skin. I have learned not to watch television or read when I’m starting to or am already depressed. And that’s because neither requires the use of your body. It’s important to escape the solitude of your mind, and to demand cooperation of your body and mind together. The object is to restore balance, and that might mean ripping yourself from what, in some respect, feels comfortable—the heavy embrace of depression.

Depression doesn’t have to be difficult to manage, even without taking prescription medications, but managing your depression does require some effort. Managing your depression demands that you teach yourself to recognize the symptoms of depression as they are setting in, and then to make the conscious decision to actively develop the habits to control it. The process is going to take some trial and error, there are going to be times when you won’t catch the depression coming on, and it will consume you. Make the effort to at least acknowledge it, and then take action, it’ll be more difficult once your depression takes hold, but the more often you’re able to, even at the very least, acknowledge that you are depressed the easier it’s going to get.

In the process you may very well start to develop parts of yourself that you have always wanted to, as well as develop other qualities you didn’t know you could. I’ve been through a lot in my life, more than most will experience in a lifetime. I have learned the difference a single day can make, inasmuch as if we are not who we want to be it’s only because you’re not allowing yourself to see that person. Figuring out who that person is and then shifting your mindset to see yourself as such is a great strategy to redirect your focus if you’re beginning to feel depressed or anxious, it won’t happen instantly, but you’ll start noticing that you are becoming that person, in the meantime you’re also giving yourself tools to help work through your depression.

Personally, I found meaning in writing and photography, and specifically in the act of writing—the process, as many artists will infamously refer to it—regardless, writing has meant a great deal to me, and it has for my entire life, and yet I have only now started taking it seriously. Find your passion, eagerly and excitedly explore who you are, find something that inspires you and do that. It’s not about the result because it’s the act of doing that is fulfilling. This has been one of my longer writings, because it matters to me, and I hope reading it has meant something to you!

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