I am a person who lives with depression. One of my early therapists believed it started when I was four and my thirteen year old brother, Richard, passed away from cancer and that event’s effects took hold of the family. I accept that as a starting point. The depression got worse along the way as traumas piled up. Children repress most traumas until the child grows into an adult and is capable of mentally processing the trauma. In my thirties the effects of new and repressed trauma depression forced help upon me after I physically collapsed on evening.
I am anti-depressant free since 2007. My experience with anti-depressants was quite poor, in one case life threatening. But I know from the experience of friends and acquaintances anti-depressants improve their lives. I suggest to anyone with depression to work with your therapist to determine what works best for your individual case.
At age sixty and looking back, what do I see?
Until six years ago, I had five to ten panic attacks per day. A good day was only one or two panic attacks. As you guess, this made life difficult. There was no predicting when a panic attack would show up and no stopping it with will power. Getting past a panic attack is like giving rein to a spooked horse while you hold on, hoping not to fall off, until the horse slows and things go back to a calmer state of being. When I was school aged, because our view of the world is centered on ourselves, I thought everyone went through panic attacks just as I did and wondered how they managed to function so well, be so successful and productive. Upon learning, as a 30ish adult, that only a small part of the population has panic attacks, I thought, wow, Kenneth, you made it a long way through university to a B.A. degree and functioned well enough in society, though not in the standard post graduate blueprint to success manner.
The panic attacks were an manifestation of Postraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My understanding is that when you participate in or witness a traumatic event the brain goes into an overdrive stress reaction and when the event concludes a brain chemical fails to turn off the stress reaction, so you never return to normal brain and body function. The conscious mind will deflect the stress for periods of time as you go forward, but you are susceptible to triggers. Example: a person bitten by a dog when young, may be frightened of dogs all their life, because the trauma of the original dog bite never got set to rest, sent to memory—the fear and pain are still present and active for them in all of their dog encounters.
For me, my twenty-five years of talk therapy and life skills therapy allowed me to find all (most, go with most) of the locked closets in my brain and revealed the hidden traumas. Yet, the panic attacks did not go away as I was lead to believe would happen. The PTSD did not go away. The sense of maximum danger could show up for no particular reason. When you are a 6′ 5″ adult male, weighing 240 pounds, maximum fight-or-flight responses showing up for no apparent reason does not help your social relationships or work environment, and are potentially dangerous for everyone involved. Happily (Successfully?), I had only a couple fist fights when young (back in an era when fist fights were considered normal for growing boys) and none past the age of nineteen.
It was not until I found a therapist who practiced Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that the panic attacks subsided one by one as we dealt with them. Somehow the EMDR system of visual, tactile and audio sensory input releases that long ago missed brain chemical that tells your mind and body the trauma is over—it takes the long ago trauma that is hanging around as if it just happened and places it into the past as a simple memory of an event. With EMDR my panic attacks are not all gone, but down to one a month or one every couple of months. Very livable.
Science recently revealed Toxic Stress. Basically, childhood stress when large enough and long enough in duration alters the development of the child’s brain and some internal organs and body processes. Over the years enough people have told me to my face how odd or strange I am, I accept that my oddness is real. My sense is that I process experience a bit different. This may have been divined by every English Lit professor I ever took a class from by the volume of red ink they placed on my great-books-of-literature analysis papers, as I totally missed the message the professor thought I should obtain from the books.
You might think, how horrible to have lived life with depression so long.
Thanks for the sympathy. Recognition for navigating something difficult is nice. But my depression was not all bad experiences.
Imagination. My mind in its attempt to distract me from the traumas as they got triggered or when they tried to break out of their childhood protective brain closets, became incredibly creative. My university degree is in art—I took up poetry in my thirties. I love the surrealists, science fiction, fantasy, and the unusual. I love puns and juxtapositions and things that never were on which to wonder why not (an oblique reference to Kennedy’s speech [okay, that was Kennedy quoting G. B. Shaw in a speech]). Also, I developed a love of patterns, especially natural patterns like leafy-tree shadows upon the ground, and mathematics.
Empathy. Due to my active and practiced imagination, my ability to hear a person’s story and walk in their shoes for a proverb mile, I think, is developed better than empathy is in most people.
Exercise. I developed a love of physical activity. I could get out of my own head, the emotional black hole of depression, through physical activity. My body, by way of those wonderful endorphins and natural dopamine, created a great space, a joyous space for me to be in. My favorite activities were bicycling, hiking, running, and baseball. The greatest thrill of my life was bicycling with a friend for thirty days from Seattle, WA to Caspar, WY with our camping gear on our bikes.
Sobriety. Because depression caused a regular (or steady) inward analysis of myself, I became practiced at body awareness by my teens. One of the things I learned early was my body did not care for being drunk or being high, even if a pretty girl encouraged those behaviors with sexual prompts. My awareness spoke louder than social pressure or the call of a non-feeling oblivion, so it allowed me to miss the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol that many depressed or traumatized people fall into.
Things that cut both ways.
Loner. I never learned to feel safe being part of a group or part of a group for a long time. I could be part of a group with artists, poets, and musicians—or a baseball team. Creative people tend to be misfits and we took solace in knowing each other, but we maintained twice-arms-length friendships that had the juxtaposition of sharing of very intimate life details in telling our trauma stories to each other. We did form loose communities that looked out for each other and fed and supported the creative spark in each of us.
Odd thing: I am very comfortable on stage in front of people (3,000 is the largest audience I have performed poetry in front of). And I become quite uncomfortable being part of the audience (so much for attending TEDx Albuquerque—I tried it once and fled at the noon break).
Flight. I moved a lot, about once every three years until meeting Dianne. (From time to time she has to convince me not to move when the feeling to do so wells inside me.) Depression fed this moving desire. So did low self-esteem. I knew I had closed down, became too inward and was failing, so I moved for a new start. There is great joy for me in getting to know the new community, investigate the arts scene, the poetry scene, the nearby wilderness or national park trails. But moving means you are never anywhere long enough to really set in, become a moving force or pillar of the community or earn a reputation that builds into larger community responsibilities and accomplishments.
Some difficult things that persist.
Fraud. I am one of those people who goes through impostor experience. Despite my poetry publishing accomplishments (over 750 published poems and 8 books), I have periods of time where I doubt my writing is good and worthwhile. Based on what I have read, even if I won the Pulitzer prize in poetry I might feel inside I am a fraud and undeserving of the award. When I am in the middle of the imposter experience, I do not want people to get to know me, because I fear they will discover my life is counterfeit or only imagined and otherwise without value. This can play into being a loner.
The Slows. When my efforts to live with depression are less effective, the energy drain is difficult to deal with mentally-spiritually and psychically, especially as I age and have less energy overall. Andrew Solomon stated that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality (see Andrew in his TED talk on depression). I agree with his assessment.
Shame. I feel shame more often than I perceive is normal in the general population. And deeper. I have trouble letting go of mistakes I feel I should not have made. A mistake is when you do something wrong, apologize and things get back to normal. Shame is when you feel yourself to be the mistake, not your action, and wonder why does the world suffer you. (Brené Brown’s TED talk on Shame.)
Did I ever get suicidal?
I would answer, No. My modus operandi is to walk away when things get too much or I feel stuck or trapped and then start anew. At the worst point of my life, newly divorced and a year removed from the death of our daughter, with many childhood traumas breaking out of their mental hiding places, I had decided to sell everything and hike the Continental Divide Trail from South to North. I was going to change my name before hand. I wanted an ordeal that would transform me (a fire for the phoenix to rise out of) from the depressed person I was at that time into someone better. Something akin to the story in the movie “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon. All this planning took place before I started therapy. Unintentionally, my sister intervened with a phone call offer to help me past the divorce, if I moved to her city. I took her up on the offer. During those first few years of dealing with depression through therapy, my sister’s aid was stellar and a blessing to the nth degree. Thanks, Jean.
What can you, the reader, do?
Support systems of friends, neighbors, family are important for a person with depression. To those friends, neighbors and family I request you are present more often than when things are bad (crisis) for your depressed companion. I, we, need you to be there when things are everyday, common, normal (quote unquote) as well. Coffee talking about sports or politics or fashion or bullshitting. A ballgame together. A walk in the woods to enjoy the leaves, flowers and birds. Doing chores around the house. Everyday things. My friends who were there only when things were bad (crisis), I fear, unintentionally taught me to languish in the depression, because that was when I received the reward of their time and attention.
If you decide to aid a depressed person through friendship, be sure to set clear boundaries to protect yourself and the friendship. Explain your boundaries to your depressed friend and change then when you require a change. We understand. Depression and stupidity are different things. Don’t be afraid to ask us to help with your problems, if you feel like sharing. We may have insight and good advice that will help.
I advise against asking the question, How are you? Ask something specific like, Will you help me weed the garden? Or, Do you want to go to the Museum for the Picasso show?
Reader, if you suffer depression, it is my earnest wish that you seek out help. When you do seek help, I urge you to be picky about your therapist until you find a good fit. It was not until my 7th therapist that I found someone who I was willing to trust and work with to the depth of my need.
Therapy is a long term thing. In my opinion that is because in many of us, the childhood traumas do not break out of the subconscious closets until our thirties and have had twenty to twenty-five years to fester and grow. As you read earlier in this entry, twenty-five years of therapy for me. In the beginning it was constant: a two month stay in the psych ward, twice a week therapy appointments, then weekly and eventually worked out to monthly. I am not actively working with a therapist at this time, but I return to therapy when something bubbles up and I require help processing the issue.
It would have been easy to go on and on about depression. I chose to stay away from a laundry list of my traumas. Some where big and obvious. Many were subtle and difficult to reveal and understand the full nature of their toxic impact.
Love & Light