For more than a year, my wife left for work at 6:30 a.m. and didn’t return home until 5:30 p.m. The teaching day is 8:00 to 3:00, but time in an empty classroom was easier to tolerate than time with me.
I wasn’t even aware. It was one of many times that I didn’t realize how forbidding I was when my mood slipped to the Dark Place, as Betsy calls it.
In my mind, depression was something that preceded suicide; an utter dejection causing near-immobility, heavy medication and maybe even hospitalization. A person would definitely know they had it. It wasn’t something subtle, progressive, mind-altering… sneaky, even.
And it definitely wasn’t something that I ever had.
But I did. And I do. Here’s what I’ve learned about my particular brand of depression so you can learn from my steps (and missteps) to work toward better mental health.
Looking through my “depression scope”
When I’m having an episode, I inhabit a place that looks like this when viewed from the outside looking in:
And from my view in the tower, people look like this:
I see and hear people, especially those closest to me, who are intent on seeking out fault in what I’m doing. They even seem to relish pointing out my stupidity in everything I say.
“Angry depression land” is not a fun place to visit and it’s hell to live there, especially when you don’t even realize where the hell you are. It’s worse on your spouse, partner or someone else who loves you, especially if they have never suffered from any level of depression.
Depression is, well, depressing to be around. Other people in your life love you but they can be torn between wanting to help and wanting to stay (far, far) out of your way.
Depression is living days and months at a stretch wondering why life sucks, of feeling worn out, tearful and fragile, when a good mood is an aberration or something I fake for anyone but Betsy. All while having no awareness of my altered mental state, thus no search for understanding of what was causing it.The closer you are to a person, the harder depression makes their life. Click To Tweet
Angry depression. Let’s take a closer look at how it feels, how it manifests, and how I found my way out.
Depression defined: my medical history
I’m not suicidal. But I’ve been at the top of the slope-of-hopelessness and I can easily understand sliding down it to the bottom.
I’m not on medication, although I should have been and maybe should still be. I’m not proud of this. It likely would have helped, but it also might have kept me from discovering the actual sources of my depressive moods.
I talked to my doctor about this only after writing the first draft of this article. This reluctance was a combination of three things:
- When I was depressed, I didn’t know that was the problem. As I said above, there was something wrong with the world, not me, and doctors can’t fix that.
- When I felt good, I minimized the problem and wanted to forget it so there was no need to make a big deal out of it.
- As understanding as I am with anyone else who has depression, I still had a self-stigma about it. Depression was OK for other people to have, but me? No, not one of my issues. I’m all right. If it never makes it into my medical records, I don’t have it. Right?
My unacknowledged stigma of mental health issues
The world is more accepting now than when I grew up, at least on the surface. Then, having a mental health concern defined you if anyone found out about it.
One of my elementary teachers once took an extended leave from school due to a “nervous breakdown.” Everybody in town knew about it because her symptoms had been public and it was great gossip. “Mrs. Smith, the one who had the nervous breakdown” became her full description in my mind.
The only other people I heard of who had mental health issues were suicides. There was never anything between; in my mind, either you were completely fine or you were depressed and committed suicide. Hearing that Mrs. Smith had a breakdown meant that she must have been on the brink of suicide.
This is a difficult association to shake: the notion that while it’s OK for someone to have depression, it still means that they are unstable and unable to endure under stress. When you are not familiar with the nuances of depression, you walk on eggshells for fear of causing an episode that might lead to a downward slide.
This approach dramatically oversimplifies a complex issue, stereotyping of a vast number of people who all have unique symptoms. I’ve only recently come to understand that I held this belief, even though I would never have admitted it, even to myself.
Video: Your depression variables
4 minutes, 24 seconds | subtitles available
The journey into darkness
On a graph, the range of my depression would look like this:
The first signpost on the road to the Dark Place is acute sensitivity to joking around. Something that would roll off my back five minutes prior suddenly makes me a little peeved and takes a while to get over.
I flip from assuming positive intent to assuming negative intent, from enjoying give-and-take in a conversation to feeling slighted as if the other person has an agenda of making me feel bad about myself. I become overly sensitive to tone of voice.
Next I clam up. When I’m in a good mood, I’ll be talkative, often goofy. This ends, sometimes like turning off a light.
If this continues for a few hours, I’ll find myself feeling tearful, barely restraining an urge to cry. I won’t be able to identify any reason for it.
As the hours stretch to a full day, the bad mood slides into actual depression. Plans that held promise 24 hours before now seem doomed to fail. I won’t have any thoughts that I feel like talking about. I’ll try to act normally, but it will be obvious (to anyone but me) that I’m not.
If the mood lasts for a few days or more, I’ll settle into a dogged slog through life. I never quit, never check out completely. I just joylessly get tasks done, feeling on the verge of being overwhelmed. During this phase, Betsy fervently hopes that she doesn’t have to ask me to take on any extra work, such as a broken dishwasher.
If the depression lasts for a couple of weeks, I will become fatigued to the point of exhaustion. Productivity declines.
Repeat for days, weeks, months or – sometimes – years.
If you aren’t my wife, you won’t notice. I continue to perform well in public, even while resenting the need to do so.
Living on the edge of darkness
Let’s update the graph:
Notice where I’m standing: on the edge with one foot over. There’s a reason that there is not much white space; it’s not possible to put “happy” distance between myself and depression. I can’t work my way up through the “happy scale” from content to giddy, then have to slide all the way back down before entering the darkness. No, I can go from anywhere on the light side over to the dark in an instant.
The long, slow road to self-awareness
It took years for me to understand that my moods were not normal. Our brains have an enormous capacity to be single-minded about things. When we are hungry, it’s difficult to think clearly about our diet. When we are depressed, we are not disposed to be self-analytical about our mood. It just is, and we wrap ourselves in this cloak of darkness without a second thought.
I’ve had hints for years that something wasn’t working well for me, usually by comparison:
“Why am I in a bad mood today when yesterday I felt okay?”
“I had so much more hope for this project two months ago and now the result seems doomed to failure even though it’s on track.”
Putting it all together and giving it the correct label only happened within the last year.
Depression: In Search of Solutions
This is it: “The line.”
When you cross this line, you are acknowledging that you are a mature, thoughtful adult who is responsible for making your own health decisions no matter what anyone else does… including not-a-doctor Scott Weigle. You also promise not to be dumb about self-medicating or using stuff you find on the internet as an excuse not to seek professional help.
This line is like one of those tire-puncturing strips that you can only drive over one way. Once you cross, there’s no going back… so let’s keep moving forward.
Uncovering the causes of depression
There’s one huge advantage to my depression: since it has a seasonal component and is aggravated by poor health practices, I can control it by making proper choices. Every time I don’t maintain a foundation of good health, I slip into the zone where minor things become a depression trigger. Here’s the full list:
I only made the connection with the seasonal aspect during the last winter. I was three months into a long-term depression. Things had improved by focusing on my health, but I wasn’t completely OK. Had this happened in past winters? Probably, but I’d never been thoughtful enough to make a connection.
Short of medication, there was nothing left for me to try except light therapy, which I discussed with my doctor. The impact was evident within two days and morning light is now part of my daily schedule.
This is huge for me. More below.
My sleep is highly variable, which seems to be one of the consequences of aging. Sometimes I need eight hours, other times I can’t get back to sleep after five. The one thing I know is that my brain needs to sleep as much as it wants to. I can handle a night or two with less, but that’s it.
Anything that makes my sleep less restorative diminishes my resistance to depression. That’s one reason I’ve worked to eliminate snoring with a dental device. 1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Caffeine is the surest way to trigger deep depression that I have found, but it was tough to figure this out. The immediate effect of caffeine is positive and the negative effects don’t show up for hours so it was difficult to make a connection. Using caffeine for more than one day can trigger deeply-depressive moods that last for days.
I often wish I could use it, since it’s the only thing that will get rid of a bad headache. But it’s simply not worth the consequences.
I’ve made the astonishing discovery that consuming a depressant doesn’t help depression. Who’d have thought? A few minutes of a buzz isn’t worth hours of feeling hopeless. I haven’t drunk alcohol for several years, but recently had some beer with lunch while on vacation. Yep. Still not a good idea. Vacation depression is really depressing.
I love to work out (at home, alone). It’s one of the top activities I look forward to. The problem is that I love high-intensity workouts. This makes me feel great for a while 3 but usually drives me across the line to depression within a few hours and that state can last for up to two days. This happens no matter what kind of recovery nutrition I use, and I’ve tried every protocol there is.
I finally had to admit that I have to back off and moderate what I do (exercise more often but with much lower intensity). It’s just not worth it. It takes a conscious decision to let go of poor habits, no matter how good they feel at the time.
Eating and depression
Humans are machines devoted to an enormous extent to eating. A lot of physiological processes occur when we eat, including alterations in our blood chemistry and brain chemicals. These changes are enough to push me over the line on even my best days.
It’s one of the reasons why I skip breakfast and don’t eat until afternoon. 4 I can more easily maintain my mood when I’m not eating, so this allows me to remain stable for most of the day. 5
Long-term dieting (which I do a lot – see my article on binge eating) puts me halfway over the line all the time.
But food can also be a solution. In general, I do much better if I eat sufficient (but not excessive) calories and avoid all junk, desserts and binges. I focus as much as I can on “real” food prepared at home and make careful choices at restaurants.
So long-term, food helps. Short-term, it can make things tough for me. Eating intentionally with foresight about consequences has become a (sometimes inconsistent) habit.
Narrowing down depression triggers
How does one figure out causes? Once you have full awareness that the way you feel is not optimal and have accepted that you want to feel better, it comes down to constant awareness.
Everything listed above I learned by trial and error over the course of years, even before I accepted that I had depression. Moods were a guide, as well as my general sense of wellbeing. Once you learn to recognize that you’ve slipped over the edge, you learn to ask yourself questions: “What have I been doing – or not doing – in the last hours or days?”
It can take a long, long time because we don’t live in a laboratory where only one variable changes at a time. It’s not hard to connect a down mood to poor sleep when you’ve just pulled your first all-nighter since college, but it’s difficult to find subtle connections.
You feel depressed after eating lunch. Is it a sensitivity to the wheat/eggs/milk in the bread you’ve been eating for years, or a delayed reaction to the coffee you drank six hours ago? Are you coming down with a cold as well as suffering from a recent breakup? Are you entering male or female menopause and your hormones are changing?
It’s hard and it takes patience and a willingness to change your routine to see what happens.
Slowly the puzzle comes together.
Short-term depression fixes
I’m talking with my doctor 6 about long-term care. Still, in spite of my best efforts, I still slip over the line quite often. When I recognize it, there are a few things I can do to stabilize if I’m just at the beginning of the cycle.
First – being assertive with myself
“Calm down… you were fine ten minutes ago and nothing has changed. You’re OK now. Breathe. Don’t make big decisions. Don’t perseverate on other people’s tone of voice and don’t open your mouth if you can’t say something nice.”
Second – taking some Tylenol
I know, weird. But when I felt down, I often noticed a vague muscle soreness and so would take some Tylenol. About 45 minutes later I would feel a little better. After a year of this, I finally Googled “Tylenol and depression.” Some studies show it helps in certain scenarios for some people since the brain’s sensation of physical pain run through the same neurological pathways as emotional pain. For me, its effect is subtle and likely related to removing an aggravating factor (aching) that exacerbates my emotional state.
Just one more piece of the puzzle, but not a big piece.
Tylenol has dangers from overdosing. Be aware.
Third – faking it until bedtime
Yes, I cautioned about the dangers of long-term faking above. But when I know I just need the reset that sleep will provide, maintaining a facade of normalcy for several hours can keep me from sinking too far, too fast.
I’ll admit I’m down a little if someone asks. Betsy knows what I mean when I say, “I’m just tired.” Then I consider any missteps I might have made and vow to do better while trying not to be too hard on myself.
Accept yourself, accept help, and help yourself
The point is not to go all “lone wolf” and assume that you can – or even should – work on your depression alone. There’s nothing to prove to anyone; there’s only a need to feel better for both yourself and those close to you.
The point is to accept that you have a role to play. Even if you seek professional help, you have an obligation to be the best patient possible if you want the best care possible. Physicians can only work with the information they’ve been given. Compare these two statements:
Person one: “I feel depressed most of the time. Just sad almost every day, no matter what I’m doing.”
Person two: “It’s hardest for me to let obsessive worries go in the morning, although coffee helps a little. I’ve never been one to eat much breakfast, but I make myself have some kind of protein and a piece of toast. I generally feel despondent and a little hopeless until mid-afternoon. For some reason, I pick up a bit until after dinner, but then I’m exhausted and asleep by eight. There’s not much variation between workdays and weekends.”
The second approach says, “I’m self-aware, I’m taking responsibility for my health.” It provides diagnosing clues for the doctor. Almost as important, it signals that you are a patient who will be involved in your own recovery, someone who will track symptoms and report back with some precision. This speeds the trial-and-error process of medication dosing.If your doctor won't listen to details of your depression, you’ve got the wrong doctor. Click To Tweet
I wish this were the approach (seeking help) I had taken years ago. But I didn’t know I needed it, and then wasn’t comfortable with admitting that need.
We can learn to be OK together
I’m lucky that I live most of the time in the light, so to speak. It’s a fluke of brain chemicals that I do. You or someone you know may live mostly over the line…
… with only a toe sticking into the light. Or no toe in the light at all, immersed in a perpetual gray that stretches off into darkness.
It’s who you are, the way your brain is built. I understand – truly I do – that you can’t just “snap out of it” no matter what anyone thinks. And I know that it hurts, even physically hurts.
I also know that you can feel better, even if it takes a long time and a lot of changes and hard work. And a willingness to accept help.
That’s who this website is for: people who are working hard at getting better at life, no matter how long it takes. I think my roadmap (above) will help.
Let’s not do this alone.
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.