How I Came Back From Severe Depression
I've been thinking a lot about my life lately, and how vastly different it is now than it was only a year ago. Last spring, I was isolating and struggling in every aspect of my life--financially, emotionally, physically and mentally.
As humans, we have a tendency to blame the condition of our inner world on the circumstances of our outer world. I did this for years. I call it victim mode.
The Black Abyss
Since 2010, following my divorce, I had descended into a dark, lonely world. I felt like I was experiencing some of the worst luck a person could endure. My little family I had waited for until my mid-thirties had fallen apart, resulting in a nasty divorce. Along with that, I also lost the lucrative business my ex-husband and I had created together. But the worst was that I lost my two, young sons to the custody battle that ensued, that simultaneously ripped out my heart and reduced me to living at the poverty level.
I sunk further and further into a deep depression. I developed a life-threatening sleep disorder. I had to drop out of law school. I got evicted from my apartment. My car was repo'd. I stopped going anywhere or doing anything. I slept and cried all day. I become suicidal. When I finally did come across a person whom I allowed into my world, he was the wrong person. He was a sociopath with two major addictions who abused me physically, emotionally and financially.
It wasn't just that I was sad or didn't like my circumstances. It was much, much deeper than that. I had lost "me" completely. I no longer listened to music, which has been my gateway to sheer joy my whole life. I stopped taking care of myself. I felt completely lost, unmotivated and hopeless. I called this "the black abyss."
I started researching depression and the brain to understand what was wrong with me. What I discovered is that the brain has a certain number of receptors that receive chemicals that bring us joy, comfort, pleasure and excitement. It also has a certain number of receptors that bring us sadness, frustration, angst and discontent. Just like the muscles in our bodies, these receptors become more robust when frequently used, and start to dwindle and shrink when not utilized.
ThIs Is Your Brain On Depression
My divorce and custody battle had set me on a course in which I was experiencing so much emotional trauma and sadness, that over a couple of years, my brain was reprogrammed to receive these negatives more efficiently while no longer able to process and register the positive experiences equally. I believe this is the heart of true depression.
This makes sense to me, because depression can be either genetic or can start and expand from an event, or series of events. If you inherit depression, perhaps your brain's biological makeup just naturally has more robust negative receptors and less robust positive ones.
But in my case, I had never been depressed. So I believe my depression was brought on by life events. My once positive, sunny outlook on life had slowly deteriorated into a position in which my brain was overly registering negative signals and under-processing the positive ones.
Just Don't Be So Sad! (Yeah, Right.)
I've talked to a lot of people who truly have chronic depression. They aren't just sad about their circumstances, they process most every experience with a negative veil over it. I understand, because I was there. Even things that should have brought me joy, like soaking in a jacuzzi on a starry night, listening to the sweet, little voices of my sons sing to me over the phone, hearing one of my beloved, favorite songs, loving my sweet dog Jawea, triggered no spikes in joy for me. In fact, I found these experiences would often make me even sadder.
Here's how the depressed mind works, using mine as an example. Sitting in a jacuzzi gazing at a perfect, starry night made me think of how alone I was and how I was probably never going to experience this with a man that I loved. Hearing the sweet voices of my sons made me think of how I was missing their childhoods and that I'd probably never get them back. Playing with Jawea brought up feelings of guilt and despair because of the perceived suffering I imagined her in, having to live with depressed me. Favorite songs would trigger memories of sad moments in my life rather than the happy times.
And so I spiraled deeper and deeper into the abyss. Many well-meaning people try to help the depressed person by suggesting things that actually would help, if they weren't actually too depressed to do them. Things like getting more exercise, doing activities that are loved and enjoyable, talking it out with a close friend, etc. are all great.
The problem is, when you are depressed, you have no capacity to do any of this. You are in such a dark place, that even potentially positive experiences you could engage in seem out of your reach. There is no motivation. You just want to be out of the mental pain, and that is how people get to the most drastic, horrifying choice of all: taking their own lives.
At A Loss For Words
I was recently talking to a dear friend of mine who suffers from depression and who has mentioned multiple times since I've known him that he is often suicidal. Everything in me wants to fix this for him and keep him from committing suicide. When we recently spoke about this, and he told me he often just wants to escape the constant mental anguish, I found myself at a loss for words.
I understand that there really is nothing I can say to him when he is in his depressed state that will really make a difference. And who am I to tell him, "No! You can't commit suicide!" That is a selfish wish on my part, because I don't want to lose him. But if he's in that much anguish, who am I to tell him what he can or cannot do to relieve his pain?
When he posted to Facebook recently asking for input on how others handle suicidal thoughts, hundreds of comments poured in out of love for him. Reading them I realized that people were not equipped to help, despite their good intentions. In fact, their opinions could potentially cause him more harm than good.
"Go surfing! Get your shit together! Smoke some good weed! Go to church! Read this book! Follow this mantra! Adopt this way of thinking! Don't get on anti-depressants, just change our attitude!"
Well Meaning, But Not Helpful
Here's the problem with these suggestions. When you are so far gone in your depression, these actions can rarely make a difference, because your brain is just not registering the joy you would normally get from them. At the same time, it continues to register every little, negative occurrence with a robust passion. In this type of situation, I do feel that antidepressants are often the only possibility to turn things around.
Antidepressants have a negative stigma in our society, but really, they are life savers for many people. Me included. When my depression was at its worst, you could have surrounded me with all of my favorite people and taken me out to do a month of all of my favorite things and I still would have been severely depressed. The only thing that finally got me on my feet enough again to start healing was changing my brain chemistry by way of three, very powerful antidepressants.
Often Times, The Big Guns Are Necessary
I started with Effexor and Wellbutrin and my intake was raised over two years to their highest possible dosage. Still, no help. Then the doctor added Abilify. Within one week I woke up, and for the first time in years, I saw a glimpse of light. It was just a small ray of hope, more like a quick memory of what I used to feel like before the depression.
Psychotherapy didn't really help me. In fact, it made it worse. Sitting in front of a stranger discussing over and over all of the situations in my life that were making me depressed, without being able to change any of it, just made me more depressed.
But the antidepressants, once fully kicked in, did actually start to rebalance my brain chemistry so that I could at least start to slowly and minimally register happy things again, and not receive the negatives through such a loud, constant megaphone.
It's A Very Personal, Gritty Journey
From there, the rest was up to me. I slowly and methodically started to focus on the little things that brought me peace and joy and tried the best I could to stop obsessing over the sadness and anguish in my life. I was still broke, still isolated from my sons and still in an unhealthy relationship. I still didn't have the capacity to make major changes. But I had that ray of hope. At least I could see a glimpse of the light from my position in the abyss.
After about 8 months, my brain chemistry slowly started to rebalance, day by day. I no longer viewed neutral events as negative or negative events as catastrophic, and I started accepting and feeling the joy from positive things in my life again.
I started listening to music once again, getting out in nature with my dogs, spending time with loved ones. Each time I did one of these positives, it boosted my happy chemicals and subdued my negative ones.
Slowly, my positive receptor cups opened up again, as my negative ones started to become less active.
Think Of Your Brain As A Muscle
Your chemical balance in your brain is just like the rest of your body. If you work out only your left arm everyday, and never use your right, what would happen? Same with our brains. If you are bombarded with sadness and hopelessness, your brain gets more robust in processing the synapses associated with these emotions and gets lets capable of processing positive ones.
After about a year, I ended up weaning myself off of antidepressants, which is dangerous. I don't recommend it. But I knew when I reached the point that I no longer needed them, and I haven't needed them since.
It's been three years since I took my last antidepressant and since I felt any actual depression. I've been sad, extremely sad, but not depressed. There have been incredibly trying times since then, but now I am out of victim mode. That has made all the difference in how I handle and process things.
Excise The Negativity. All Of It.
I've kept the depression at bay without being on any antidepressants or utilizing psychotherapy. The way I did it was by first realizing that the human mind is not a safe place to wander around in for any length of time by yourself. So I forced myself to get out of my head and out of my room. I walked on the beach every night with my dogs. I forced myself to smile at and engage in quick, positive exchanges with passers by.
I stopped reading negative content on the web, stopped watching negativity on TV. No more news, no more forensic files, no more LIfetime movies about tragedy and human suffering. No more commercials on distressed and neglected animals and children needing my help. I shut all of that down and wouldn't watch or read it if it wasn't positive and up-lifting. I also detoxed off all of the medically prescribed Opiates I was on, but that's a whole other story!
Once I released myself from that heavy, dark veil of depression, I could see that a big part of the problem was my deep-seated outlook on my life: Victim Mode. I realized that as harsh and cut-throat it is, the reality is that no one is responsible for my happiness except me. I cannot blame others or hold circumstances responsible for my discontent. It's up to me, every, single morning, to decide what kind of day I'm going to have.
Don't Feel Guilty About It. The Oxygen Mask Must Go On You First.
In the last four months, I can honestly say I have never been more completely, deeply content. Things in my life still aren't perfect. I am still not getting to be in my sons' lives, and I remain increasingly concerned about their well being, especially now as they head into adolescence. I'm still single, and that's perfectly okay.
My finances are still a hot mess, but I'm making money again and things are on the upswing. I discovered that my talent, expertise, knowledge and education I've accumulated over the years is meaningful and needed by people, and that they will happily pay me for it. This has brought me an unexpected joy, pride and sense of accomplishment.
I make my self-care a daily, sometimes hourly, priority. If I'm tired or in pain, I stop and take care of it by lying down, stretching or meditating. I make sure that getting out into this beautiful forest and hiking with my dogs is a daily occurrence. I also make sure I do my yoga and meditate each day. Getting out of my head and connecting with the energy of the Universe settles me, brings me peace and makes me feel a part of something much higher and more powerful than myself.
You Can't Control Everything. But You Can Take Control Of You.
I have adopted the serenity prayer as my hourly mantra. I realize now what I do and do not have control over. I accept the things that, no matter how hard I want to, I cannot change, like the situation with my sons. All I can do is keep myself healthy and ready for them, keep loving them from afar, and take a leap of faith that if I continue to take good care of their mother, the Universe will bring them back to me.
And it is happening! I got to spend a magical, completely unexpected week with them last October. I continue to have faith that this trend will continue. I am manifesting this to happen. I am getting their room prepared in my home and continuing to make the money I need to be able to support them when the time comes. I also stopped battling my ex-husband for them. It was doing nothing but causing stress in his life, my life and theirs. This was the hardest step for me, because for so long I thought that this court battle was the only way.
It Is A Journey, Not A Destination
It has been a journey, no question. But what I have done in my own life can be done by anyone. Now, I simply do not allow any negativity around me, whether that be negative people, negative songs or especially negative thoughts.
When I find myself in my own head, fretting and playing out the worst outcomes I can imagine, I stop it.
I stop the thought process and aim my thoughts down the alternative route: that things are going to be just fine, they are going to work out, and even if they don't, I'll be okay.
Managing Your Daily Inner Chatter
Managing our own thoughts is tricky and challenging. Realizing we are not helpless victims of our circumstances is key. I am 100% responsible for my own life as a whole. Each moment that I experience, it is up to me how I am going to perceive it. I understand that shit is going to go down that I'm not going to like. But I also understand that how I process that information will make all of the difference.
Nothing can ever take me back down into the black abyss again. I've been through it all. I've been through the darkest night of my own soul and it was not pretty. There is no one guiding this ship but me. It's solely up to me to get through the worst of my storms and into the bright sunlight waiting on the other side.
I can't control the weather, but I can control how I react to it. A friend of mine shared with me a great quote that I have since put on my outgoing phone message. People comment on it all of the time.
"The wind blows the same on us all. It's how we set our sails that determines our outcome."
Achieving and maintaining a deep level of contentment, despite what happens to me, is something I've named my "State of Grace." I even had these three words printed on a bumper sticker, which I put on my car, so I am reminded of it everyday. Just like with anything worthwhile, it takes constant diligence to hold onto. It is, above all else in my life, my number one priority.
Be well. Get professional help if you are depressed. Know that it can be flipped and you can heal. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, because until you are better, you can't help anyone.
And always remember that tomorrow is another day in which we can write our own story however we choose.
You just never know what fantastical thing is awaiting you around the next corner.
JM, this one is for you. I love you and am pulling for you.
© 2018 Elisa Fortise Christensen