Thursday, 18 March 2021

How to live a happy life with depression

I still remember the first time. I was 18, had a boyfriend whom I loved and who loved me, a group of friends that I hung out with every weekend, enough money from my two after-school jobs to buy all the clothes my heart desired, and a waist so small that even my intensely critical teenage eye couldn't find much fault with.

But suddenly, my world had lost its colour. Things I used to look forward to didn't mean anything to me anymore. Going out on Friday nights, rollerskating with my friends, being invited to go to the coolest girl's house? Meh, who cares.
TV shows I adored (Friends was big in the late 90s) couldn't hold my attention. Nothing was funny. Nothing made me smile. It took almost more strength than I could muster to get out of bed in the morning. The future scared me to death: what to do after school? Where to go? Who with?
I started skipping school almost daily, taking off with the resident bad boy who smoked weed and was more often absent than present. We would drive around, or go to the lake, or start drinking at 11 in the morning. (This was Germany, and we were legal at 18). 

There was no romance between us, no mutual attraction, not even the hint of sexual longing. What drew us together was a shared desire to get away from it all - to escape reality for a while. 

It came to an abrupt and unpleasant end when one of my teachers tattled to my parents about my frequent absences and all hell broke loose at home. It snapped me out of my depression (of course it was depression -  even though I wouldn't know that until 14 years later) because suddenly there was an emergency to deal with. 
Their combined disbelief, disappointment, and pressure to figure out my future over spring break (no joke) was dramatic enough that it got my fight-or-flight-response going. We weren't addressing the why of my highly unusual behaviour (I had always been an exemplary student), but only how to fix "the problem", which involved me promising over and over that I would stop skiving off and making a decision right now what I would do after school. Is it any wonder that the choice I made during a time of severe mental and emotional upheaval was a poor one? Of course not. 

What happened after is well known to many of you. In case it isn't, here is the short version: I dropped out of school, moved to Canada for a man, became a stepmom of 4 at the age of 23, ran away for 6 months to Wales, returned to Canada to get married to said man, worked in retail for a while and then went back to school at 28 to become an x-ray technologist at 30. 
(The detailed version can be found here, in the book I wrote about it all.)

I found my footing and made friends and enjoyed my job and had many small and big adventures, some losses but more wins, and I loved my life: my husband, the kids, our animals, where we lived, the twice-weekly sushi lunches, drinks under the willow tree, movie nights and occasional parties and walks with the dogs and reading all the books, making new friends and getting dolled up and having bonfires at home every day for 4 months straight because we could and I love a good fire.    

But they wouldn't stop. My "episodes", as I referred to them in my mind, never out loud (I tried very hard never to talk about them if I could help it), refused to go away. They didn't happen all the time: sometimes there would be months in between them, sometimes only weeks. The only thing I could be sure of was that they would return, no matter how happy I was or how well things were going. 

And then, 14 years after that first bad, school-skipping-and-hanging-out-with-bad-boy episode, I had one that would change everything for me. 

It happened in Hawaii, of all places. If you thought you couldn't be unhappy on vacation in Hawaii, think again. It was one of the darkest times of my life. I cried every day, couldn't see any beauty, or happiness, or colour. Yes, there it was again: the colour had leaked out of my life, right there in one of the most colourful and fragrant places on earth.

My husband insisted that we seek help, and my doctor at the time was amazing. He was kind, patient, supportive, and so very, very understanding. I will forever be grateful to him for making my first, terrifying confession of my "condition" so painless and positive. 

That was in 2012. Ever since my first official diagnosis of depression, and then my secondary diagnosis of PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) in 2019 I have been very open about being a person with depression and PMDD. Why?

Like many people who have a mental illness, I didn't have a positive experience when I first encountered it. The people in my life didn't address it; instead it was something we didn't talk about. They didn't ask why, or offer help, or give me unconditional love.
Instead it was treated like a dirty secret. The only conclusion I could draw was that it was something to be ashamed of. So I was ashamed for years. 

I'm not anymore. I lead a happy, fulfilled, quiet-but-exciting-to-me life that I love. 
But I still have dark days. I still get irrationally angry, or sad, or - the worst of them all - listless. (That emotion when your life loses colour.) I have accepted that I always will. I don't know what exactly is wrong with my brain, but I'm not fighting it any longer. I stopped listening to the self-help gurus who promise to "help to get rid of what 'depresses' me". I don't pressure myself into feeling like a failure if I can't simply "let go" of my demons.
All it did was make me feel like a failure even more, which is counterproductive to the healing process.

Instead, I put together a list of everything that's helped me live - and thrive - despite my depression. 
Are you ready? Here it is!

10 steps to live a happy life with depression and PMDD:
  1. Embrace it. I know, it sounds insane. But seriously, if you can't beat them, join them is solid advice in this situation. There isn't a dead-sure cure for mental illness yet, but there are many, many techniques that can help you live a joyful, beautiful life despite mental illness. But in order to do that, you have to acknowledge it first. 

  2. Talk about it. The worst for me was the isolation I felt. I thought I was the only one who was screwed up the same way I was, and that's a very lonely feeling. The horrible catch-22 is that because of the shame you feel, you never open up to other people, which prevents you from realizing that, far from being the only one - you are one of an army. That first look at all my fellow sufferers was provided to me by my GP at the time, who told me that one-third of his patients had mental health issues. I was completely bowled over by that. Whaaat?? I never knew!  I thought I was the only broken one. It was a powerful eye-opener. Talk to anyone: a friend, therapist, co-worker, even a stranger. Just putting it out there and hearing that this is common will make a world of difference! 

  3. Anti-depressants can be life-changing. I know that there will always be people who will demonize pills. You don't need that negativity in your life. Don't even engage with them in a discussion: they will never be open to hearing your opinion. All they want is an audience that agrees with their point of view. Bottom line: if meds work for you, keep taking them. That's what they were made for. I tried to wean myself off last year, but I didn't like myself without them, so I'm back on the old dose I was given in 2012. If it works, don't knock it. 

  4. Krill Oil supplements. I added krill oil to my daily routine after a particularly rough weekend about 5 months ago. I ended up talking at length with a nurse who had a similar history, and she recommended taking krill oil. I've been taking it ever since. She explained some scientific connection between female hormones, a lack of fat in the brain and how this could affect our mental health, but I honestly can't recall it in enough detail to share it with you. All I know is this: it seems to make my antidepressants work better, I have more energy, and it has anti-inflammatory benefits. That's enough for me.   
     
  5. Daily walks. I've always loved going for walks; it's kinda my thing. But even though I like them, I didn't go every day. If you don't schedule it in, who does? There's work, and house work, and cooking, and relaxation time (aka Netflix), and the blog, and working on the novel, and not feeling like it, and thinking of a million excuses not to do it ... you get it. We all have a shit-ton of stuff to do every day.

    But over the past 9 years of living with my eyes wide open with depression, I've noticed that I feel all-around much better when I walk daily. They don't have to be ambitious walks: I aim for 15-30 minutes only. If it's more, good; if not, also good. The main point is that I get myself out into nature and moving every day. I make a point of scheduling it into every single day, no matter what else I have planned; it's that important to me. It makes the difference between full-on black-out mode and lesser grey-scale, but still discernible colours of my episodes. 

  6. Enough sleep. Everybody is grumpy when they're sleep-deprived. I never had a baby, so I know that I'm very privileged on the sleep-deprivation front - mine has been mostly due to personal choice or circumstances I can't influence. However, this is not a competition between who can survive on the least amount of sleep (I would never win that one in a million years), and all about how sleep deprivation is bad for us. Simply put: I can tell you from many years of experience that my depression thrives in a sleep-deprived environment. As a natural counterattack move, I have sworn to give her as little of that ammunition as possible. It's a no-brainer.   

  7. Say no when you need to. Just the other day I decided to stay home instead of going to a friend's (very low-key) St. Paddy's day shindig. There were several household tasks I wanted to complete, my social battery was low, and I knew that, by going, I would a) deplete that battery completely, leaving nothing for the 2 more days of work this week, and b) I wouldn't be able to check off a single item on my list. I recognized that tending to my plans at home would be more fulfilling to me this time than socializing with other people. So I chose that.
    Take stock of what you need, do it, and don't apologize for it. You don't owe anyone to show up to their party; you only owe showing up for yourself. 

  8. Be kind to yourself. Eat food you enjoy. Watch movies and shows that make you laugh. Stop referring to things that make you happy as "guilty pleasure". Stop censoring yourself. Stop making excuses for being who you are - you are beautiful and perfect the way you are!

  9. Stop protecting the people who have hurt you. You don't have to publicly shame them; but you have to stop making excuses for them. It doesn't matter if they "meant well", or "had your best interests at heart", or "didn't know any better". These may all be arguments towards redemption; but first: STOP PROTECTING THEM. It's important that you acknowledge the hurt, pain and damage they have caused you. Without that, you won't be able to move forward. 

    First, you have to acknowledge it; second, you release it. Without facing your demons you will never be able to free yourself from them. It's not about casting blame; it's about liberating yourself from, sometimes decades-old, shackles that have bound you. They don't serve you anymore; so break them open by letting all of that old hurt and shame go! 
     
  10. Hide when you need to. Maybe we are more fragile than others. Maybe we are just more in tune with our needs? The reason doesn't matter. If you need a little break and can arrange to have the necessities of your life taken care of, take the break. I will always find the strength (or someone else) to feed my animals - but I'm more than happy to let everything else go for a day or a week if need be. You are not weak by resting; you are wise by listening to your body's and mind's needs. 

There have been two or three times since my diagnosis 14 years ago when I thought/hoped that I had "overcome" my depression. They proved to be false. 

I have accepted that I will probably always have to deal with my dark episodes. But with the tips I shared above I've been able to live a joyful, happy, fulfilling life. Depression and PMDD are just a small part of me; they don't define me. 
If my years working in the hospital have taught me one thing, it's this: we all have something. We all have suffering, illness and sadness in our lives, in one way or another. But we also have a choice: we can choose to focus on the dark - or the light. 

I choose to focus on the brightest, most colourful rainbow there is. 
Life in colour is beautiful.  


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4 comments

  1. I like those 10 ideas.. and l think we are very lucky to have anti-represent meds these days. I sometimes wonder what happened to people in past centuries, but l suppose my people would have turned to alcohol and opiates.. and probably had fairly short ─║ives.

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    Replies
    1. I agree, my antidepressants have been one of the most life-improving tools ever. I know I can survive without them (I did for many years), but my happy pills help me thrive. We are very lucky to live in the times we do. ♥️

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  2. Wonderful blog, Miriam! You are wise beyond your years.

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