I was first diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 18. My parents had separated the year prior, and shortly thereafter my father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. All of this transpired before my senior year in high school.
When my doctor wrote me that first prescription for Prozac, I remember her saying, “I can’t imagine anyone in your shoes not needing some extra help. You’ve earned the relief.”
Keep in mind, this was 2001. The shame surrounding these types of medications was overwhelming, as was the stigma surrounding struggles with mental health. I had a close, supportive group of friends, but I don’t recall confiding in any of them about my diagnosis – other than talking to one friend who was taking the same medication.
I was beyond ashamed. Even when the meds began to take effect a few weeks later, and I felt some of that heaviness begin to lift – I felt weak for needing medication to feel better when there was nothing physically wrong with me.
Fast forward a few years. My mother and I had moved 2,000 miles away from my hometown – the only home I’d ever known – and began an entirely new life. Even though it was a positive change, and the place we’d moved eventually became my second home with a wonderful tribe of friends – that initial transition was traumatic in its own right.
I went through a dark period in my early twenties. I was on and off different anti-depressants here and there, but I was very resistant to any kind of cognitive therapy. That’s the caveat with these types of meds – they can make a huge difference, but in many cases, it’s only half the battle. The other half is diving into the root causes for why you’re depressed in the first place, connecting the dots, and processing those experiences and emotions.
When you’ve been on medication for an extended period of time but haven’t added the therapeutic piece to the puzzle – you tend to reach a point where the meds no longer work as well, if at all. But for many, myself included, admitting that you need even more help (i.e. the help of a professional), can be the scariest part of the process.
So, I avoided. For years. I developed severe insomnia, began to self-mutilate, and became extremely angry. I often walked around in a fog of resentment, and there were days where I wouldn’t speak to anyone or leave the house. I numbed out with alcohol more often than anyone suffering from depression should.
All the while, I was actively refusing to accept that my present reality had anything to do with my past experiences. It had nothing to do with my father’s illness. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was literally waiting for him to die and I hadn’t dealt with that at all. It had nothing to do with the two sexual assaults I’d lived through (thus far) that I hadn’t acknowledged or processed.
Late one evening, I was driving home after meeting a friend at one of our usual nightlife locations. I didn’t have an exorbitant amount to drink, but combining alcohol with insomnia-induced sleep deprivation + getting behind the wheel = just plain stupid.
I fell asleep while driving.
It couldn’t have been for more than 5-10 seconds – enough time for my own life, as well as the lives of others, to be at risk. I’d managed to stay in the same lane; and because it was so late at night, there were no other cars around me.
I don’t have to explain how many ‘What if?’ scenarios are attached to an experience like that. They are endless.
I was very, very lucky.
To this day, I profoundly believe that Jesus took the wheel and gave me another chance.
Over the next few years, life improved significantly. I dedicated myself to being a stellar college student, landed a fantastic job, and I was focused on sturdy goals.
But – I also had to compartmentalize the shit out of everything that had been weighing me down. Those experiences and the corresponding pain were locked tightly in a box and buried deep. If I caught myself drifting towards awareness of anything locked in that box, I distracted myself immediately.
My father passed away a year and a half before I graduated from college, and while (of course) I was sad – I didn’t grieve the loss. My feelings of relief and gratitude that he was no longer suffering were my primary emotions following his death… Before I knew it, over two years had passed, and I had reached the end on Avoidance Highway.
I was back to being a total mess, and even though I was still as resistant as ever – I decided to give therapy another chance.
I walked into my new therapist’s office for the first time on a cloudy November afternoon, seething with skepticism. Truthfully, I had very little hope of anything being any different than it had in the past.
I’d been to several therapists over the years, and it had never felt right. Some of them didn’t understand me at all, so sitting alone with them and attempting to communicate was awkward and uncomfortable.
Some of them didn’t practice compatible methods – I am not one of those people who will just start talking about myself without provocation. I need to be asked questions – specific questions – and when a therapist sits there and waits for me to start the dialogue, it’s not going to work. I once sat in complete silence during a session just to prove a point.
With this new individual, I remember feeling a trace of ease almost instantly. I was still uncomfortable, but something about her presence – it just spoke safety and peace. She was much younger – early thirties – than I’d grown to expect in my years in and out of various counseling settings, and I think this was a comforting change.
She asked me the standard introductory question – “What brings you here today?”
I told her that my father had passed away about two and a half years prior, and that I had a lot of unresolved grief, guilt, and anger surrounding his death.
There was a sincere expression of sadness on her face as she said, “I’m so sorry you lost your dad. May I ask how he died?”
I explained that he’d been diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma on his frontal lobe. After his first surgery in August of 2000, he was given an 18-month prognosis. He finally passed away in April of 2007.
The look on her face was one I will never forget.
She paused a moment before speaking, then said, “I lost my mom to the exact same thing.”
That was the moment that everything changed for me. Lightning struck. There was instant, deep trust. Instant, mutual empathy. There was no other person on this earth that I wanted to take my therapeutic journey with.
I didn’t have to explain a single thing to her about my father’s illness, what his battle had looked like, what it meant that he’d lived for seven additional years with that kind of tumor (this was NOT a positive thing), the hell he’d gone through, or the hell I’d gone through as his child who had to stand by, powerless, and wait for him to die.
She already knew.
In that moment, I committed to the process.
I had no idea what was in store over the next four years, and at first that was daunting.
I remember her telling me how she could see the fear in my eyes when she asked certain questions – questions I was afraid to answer, because of the repressed emotions that were lying in the answers.
I answered them anyway. I was in her office every week, and the constant dialogue eventually became easier. The corresponding emotions that rose to the surface – they were the challenge. But she was there, guiding me with love, encouragement, and occasional (gentle) force, every step of the way. My sentinel, and the voice in my head.
As we continued, I understood why many choose to quit therapy. When you’re in the midst of processing decades of heavy shit, it’s REALLY fucking painful and grueling. You start to feel worse than you did before you began, because you’re essentially re-living everything – this time through a magnifying glass.
The emotions are more intense, and the wounds you’ve likely spent years ignoring are ripped open and exposed.
It’s much, much easier to withdraw from the process, compartmentalize those tough emotions, and go along with life as you knew it before.
With this therapist, I was not going to settle for giving up. I believed that ‘better’ was on the other side, if I could just persevere.
I was right.
I’m still amazed at how much I learned. Not only about myself, but about what it means to truly awaken.
One of my personal illusions was that once I was done with therapy – I’d never be affected by the past again.
First, I don’t believe any of us are ever ‘done.’ Ever.
Second, just because I’ve acknowledged and processed my baggage, doesn’t mean it magically disappears. It just means I’m now self-aware. I’m aware of what my triggers are, why they exist, why it’s my inclination to react certain ways, and why specific emotions are linked to specific events.
The good news? I now have a choice. I can choose how to respond, instead of just being a slave to trigger reactions and ingrained behaviors.
It also becomes easier to cope. Truly. I used to be one of those people who questioned the therapeutic process. I didn’t believe that talking about anything would make a significant difference in how I felt.
Especially talking about such deep, personal emotions and experiences with a stranger.
I’m here to tell you, though… It can make all the difference in the world. Again, it takes time and patience – but speaking those words out loud, acknowledging the experiences and life impacts, and accepting that I was NEVER going to be the same person again… all added up to releasing those experiences from having power over me.
I now have power over them.
As far as a therapist seeming like a stranger – I’m living proof that when you find the right individual, magic happens. The connection and the trust are instant, and you will know it’s time to stop hiding.
The journey is never an easy one – but my goodness, is it ever worth taking that leap of faith.
There’s a quote by R.M. Rilke that illustrates this perfectly:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us, in its deepest essence, is something helpless that wants our love.”
What a powerful message of truth.
Every demon in our shadows, even the most frightening and insidious, they are all pieces of ourselves that are desperate for us to acknowledge – and especially – to love.
What I learned, is that my demons were only terrifying because I was running from them. When I decided to face them – to run towards them – I regained my power and realized which versions of my past self I needed to embrace.
Even to this day, I still refer to my demons as my ‘dragons,’ and I try my best to run towards them with the courage of a warrior and embrace them with all the love in my heart.
My battle with depression has been an epic dragon. Towering, imposing, looming, menacing.
But you know what?
That dragon is the girl who was bullied as a child.
That dragon is the girl who chose to let go of childhood dreams when she realized that some things are indeed unobtainable.
That dragon is the girl who lost her father much too soon.
That dragon is the girl who experienced three separate sexual assaults, at ages 8, 18, and 28. She’s the girl who once refused to acknowledge the trauma caused by those experiences, because she felt selfish, stupid, and weak. She had close friends who had experienced much, much worse; and because she was never actually ‘raped,’ she believed she had no right to be traumatized.
That dragon is the woman who awakened to the realization that this had impacted how she’d approached romantic intimacy (emotional and physical) her entire life. She’d avoided it with unnatural fervor, and resisted men who genuinely cared about her out of fear for the ones who wouldn’t.
That dragon is the woman who lost an uncle she loved more than life itself… A man who had become her surrogate father. She is the woman who fears that every man she loves will die too soon.
That dragon is the woman who worries about her mother’s health.
That dragon is the woman who has been to the depths of hell and somehow managed to claw her way back – and as a result, she will always be exhausted. But that does not mean she is not strong.
That dragon –
I used to be ashamed of her. I used to hide her behind a fortress of self-imposed walls. I used to worry that others would judge her for suffering from depression, and therefore perceive her as weak.
Now? I don’t give a shit who knows or what they think.
I AM an individual who has struggled with depression and anxiety since late adolescence, and I will no longer be shamed into silence.
I still encounter ignorant people who spew the usual, predictable crap –
“Taking medication is the worst thing you can do for yourself. Just go outside. Eat well. Exercise more. Practice daily gratitude. Pray. Be positive.”
Wow. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of that. I’ll totally flip a switch in my brain and just ‘be positive.’ Thanks so much for the life-changing advice.
Seriously, folks. If it were that easy, none of us would be struggling in the first place. We can’t wave a magic wand and alter our brain chemistry, no more than we can control the weather or prevent time from passing.
Do these things improve quality of life and reduce depression and anxiety symptoms?
I exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, take my dog for long walks every day, remind myself of what I have in my life to be grateful for, and I have an intimate relationship with Jesus.
Check, check, check. Yup, still depressed and anxious.
These things help, but they do not eliminate.
If I didn’t take medication, my daily battle to show up and navigate life would be significantly more difficult. This has been evident during sporadic periods when I’ve gone off the meds for one reason or another, i.e. losing my insurance, or wanting to see if I could function like a normal human without chemical help.
I’ve been forced to accept, reluctantly so, that I may always need the extra boost.
As my therapist once said, “You have been through an inordinate amount of trauma and loss, and the marks left behind are part of you forever. There’s no need for you to resist something that will help you feel those burdens lift.”
I’ve been very fortunate in that my symptoms – even when at their worst – have never prevented me from functioning. I’ve still been able to get out of bed, go to work, perform well, and do the other ‘adult’ things in my routine. It’s EXHAUSTING AS HELL, but I’ve been able to do it. Maybe because I’ve never really had a choice? I honestly have no idea…
I just know that when I’m on medication, everything feels a tiny bit easier. I don’t have to fight quite as hard to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t start sobbing because I dropped my keys or spilled my coffee. I smile more. I feel joy. I have energy to be social and spend time with friends. I’m not as hard on myself. I don’t spend every evening dreading the next day. And when I do feel sad, anxious, or depressed – I’m able to acknowledge that it’s not a permanent resting place. I know it’s going to pass; and like everything in life, it’s a constant ebb and flow.
Others have symptoms that are truly debilitating, preventing them from basic function – I feel enormous compassion for these individuals.
And, I do empathize.
I’ve wondered on occasion, if I didn’t have to function in order to survive – would my depression have overtaken me by now?
Whatever the answer may be, that just hasn’t been my story.
I was chatting with a friend recently, someone who fights similar battles. I told her, “I’m just waiting for a break from the hard. Even though things are going ‘well,’ I’m exhausted and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. It always does.”
She replied, “You may never get a break from the hard. Life IS hard, but we are so fucking strong. Instead of waiting for the shoe to drop, find pieces of joy and hold on to them. Every day. Just keep going.”
She’s right. For people like us, it’s more difficult to accept that life may never get any easier… We struggle enough, and want there to a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
So, we just need to see the light anyway. We can’t choose whether or not we suffer from depression, anxiety, or both… But we can choose what we focus on. Will it be things that coax us further into the darkness? Or, will it be things that remind us that we deserve to remain in the light?
I stand with others who fight this battle – past, present, future. I see you. I know your fight. I believe you are stronger than you realize. Even in those moments when the pain is consuming, and you’re curled up in a ball, lying in bed, on the couch, or on the floor, and you are wishing for it all to end…
You are stronger and brighter than the darkness. You. Are. Worthy. Of. More.
Keep running at your dragons. Embrace them. Learn to love the parts of yourself which you perceive to be the most unlovable (this is a tough one for me), and nurture those past versions of yourself who need to heal.
When you find that you’ve drifted into the darkness, remember to reach out to those whom you’d trust to lead you back into the light. Or, even better – the ones who will sit with you in the dark, patiently loving you, until you are ready to stand up, breathe, and walk back into the light on your own.
You are here for a reason, and I believe in you. You’ve got this.
Should you ever need someone to remind you of the fierce, beautiful, strong, and powerful warrior that you are – you know where to find me.
All my love to you.