Even today, in an open-minded 2019, depression has a dangerous level of stigma attached to it. Back in 1985, when I first suffered my serious bout of depression, it was a very taboo subject indeed. As a 17-year-old, I had no idea what clinical depression was, and I certainly did not know that I was afflicted by it. The hopelessness, anxiety and insomnia, without any significant catalyst, were classic symptoms, but I was totally ignorant about mental illness; wasn’t everyone back then?
Friends and family knew me as a bright and happy young man, but the dark truth lingered just below the surface. Even my own parents, with whom I have always been wonderfully close, were ignorant of my struggles. Like many mentally ill people, I did not understand my condition, but I felt that I wasn’t “normal”, so I put on brave face and tried to fit in. At that time, my dark days were intermittent, and I was not suicidal, so I managed to “soldier on.” I did not seek help, and I remained undiagnosed. I suffered in silence.
Years turned into decades, and my mental health and emotional resilience slowly degenerated. By the time I was 35, as a church minister working long hours and dealing with high levels of stress, I was very unwell. Things had become dangerous. The emotional load of counselling and other ministerial duties had taken its toll, and I was not coping at all. I developed a disturbing and unhealthy habit of isolating myself from friends and family. I became preoccupied with death, and entertained occasional suicidal thoughts. Like many with depression, I was my own worst critic, often railing upon myself in own mind, even to the point of cursing myself in the most vile and vitriolic language. I despised myself, hated my life, and wanted to die. In my own warped evaluation, I was a catastrophic failure – in my family, at work, at life.
Thankfully, it was around that time that I met a man who deeply impacted my life, a man who was the first person with whom I opened up about my condition. I attended a ministerial conference in Brisbane in 2005, and heard Doug Fisher speak on the subject of depression. He candidly shared his own story, one that almost ended in tragedy, and encouraged others in a similar boat to seek help. We spoke openly afterwards, and so began a friendship that lasted until this day. Truly, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17)
Unfortunately, I did not seek medical help, and the “storm in my brain” grew darker and deadlier. I began to plan my escape – either from my current circumstances, or from life altogether. I had detailed strategies for both, and either plan would have had disastrous consequences for friends and family. I wound up in a very dark place, distancing myself from loved ones, turning off my phone for days, and begging God daily to kill me.
I had no hope, no joy, and do desire to live.
In 2014, I had a total breakdown. I was a mental, emotional, and physical wreck, and my cognitive world was one of complete entropy and despair. Precipitated by several serious traumas, including my wife’s scary encounter with malignant cancer and my son’s diagnosis with autism, this was the darkest time of my life. However, it forced my hand to finally seek medical help, in the form of two very gifted and compassionate professionals – my doctor, Jimmy, and my psychologist, Troy. Along with spiritual counsel, physical recuperation, and moral support, I began the slow and arduous climb out of that terrible abyss.
I am not cured. I am not healed. Many people with serious mental illness never become fully well – but, then again, is anyone altogether sane? However, I am in an infinitely better state of mental and emotional health today than I was for most of my adult life. Thank God! I am enjoying life again. I have a great job with an amazing team. I am not planning my escape. I am not regularly depressed or anxious. I am not angry at the world. I do not want to die!
Why am I sharing my story?
Perhaps the person who reads this is someone be like me, suffering in silence, and they need hope and help. Someone else who reads this has a loved one who endures depression, and my story could be passed on to encourage them. Or, simply, this is another reminder to treat hurting people with patience, kindness, and compassion, rather than glibness, ignorance, and judgment.
On a practical level, for the one who struggles even occasionally with a malignant melancholy, I have some thoughts to share, as one who knows how you feel.
First, you are not alone. You are not the only person ever to face the dark demons of depression. There are others out there who do understand, who know how you feel. Many of these fellow sufferers remain silent, so you may never know, but there are millions of victims out there in a similar boat to you. By the way, feel free to reach out to me online if you need to someone understanding to talk to.
Second, talk. This is far easier said than done – trust me, I know. However, if I could point to one day where the long journey to wellness began, it was the day when I opened up, made myself vulnerable, and spoke freely about my battles. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, and it was one of the best things that I have ever done.
Third, look after yourself. It is not selfish to make yourself a priority; it is the sensible thing to do. Get the sleep that you need. Take breaks. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Do things that you enjoy. Be lazy on purpose. I am not advocating hedonism or narcissism, but I am promoting a healthy balance. When I took four months off of work and focussed on getting well, I wasn’t being selfish. God knows that I should have looked after myself much better and much sooner than I did!
Fourth, get help. I do not believe I would have ended up suicidal and broken if I would have sought help earlier. As a Christian, I had long sought help from God, and that is wise, but it never dawned on me that we are given wise counsellors and doctors to help us to get through the dark times and start along the road to health and happiness. I understand that there are horror stories out there about misdiagnosis and mistreatment. I have loved ones who have endured such agony. However, I have been greatly helped by counsellors and physicians, and I doubt I would be here today if not for them.
Fifth, change. That is, have the courage to make tough changes for the sake of your health. In 2015, I resigned from my position as a Christian minister, the only profession I had known for 24 years. It was the scariest decision I have ever made, but it was the right decision. Although I am still active in church, I embarked on a totally new career in the Salesforce ecosystem, and the change has been great for my mental and emotional well-being.
Last, be open to taking medication. If you are prescribed psychotropic medication (*) by a competent health professional, you should seriously consider taking it. It might be seen as an evidence of weakness by some, but who cares? I have taken antidepressants for years. I am on Lovan, a strong SSRI that is designed to help people with major depression. I did try weaning myself off of my meds, but it wasn’t pretty. Will I have to remain on medication for the rest of my life? I don’t know, but if I have to, I will.
You are not alone. There is hope. There is help.
(*) Psychotropic: drugs that affect a person’s mental state.