Last year I was diagnosed with depression.
Was it the first time I’d experienced life with the ‘black dog’? Probably not. I suspect I grappled with it in my early 20’s but was never diagnosed so battled it alone. And once I came out the other side, I thought and hoped it was behind me forever.
But last year, deep into my 40’s, it was back.
It is difficult to explain what depression feels like. And I’m not sure my experience of it is what everyone else faces. But for me, it was like the switch that controlled hope and joy was flicked off somewhere inside of me.
While I was aware of how good my life was on many levels — I found myself in an ever-deepening black hole that I couldn’t seem to drag myself out of.
I felt huge guilt at feeling so dejected when I had so many positives going on in my life: a wonderful wife, three healthy boys, a profitable business, great friends, opportunities to travel and freedom to pursue my dreams.
Yet I was miserable and unable to pull myself up and out of spiralling negative thinking, sadness and a feeling of hopelessness.
Thankfully, I saw my doctor. And when he diagnosed me with depression it was actually a huge relief. I hadn’t suddenly turned into a person who couldn’t see the bright side of life. I was experiencing a mental illness. And with a diagnosis came the ability to treat that illness.
I didn’t talk a great deal about living with depression while I was in the midst of it. But late last year, as the fog started to lift, I decided to share a part of my journey with my Facebook friends.
The response was so encouraging.
Initially, I was inundated with wonderful messages of support. But then a few weeks later I began getting private messages from friends, and friends of friends asking if I would share what I’d found helpful as I adjusted to living with depression.
Most asked because they too were facing depression and/or anxiety and wondered if something that worked for me might work for them too.
I was always more than happy to share. And, at first, I just rambled through the things I’d been trying. Eventually, I was having the conversation so much, I turned my ramblings into a firmer list to make for easier sharing.
Each time I shared my ‘list’ the person I talked with told me I should really share it more widely — with a blog post or podcast about the journey I was on.
And, while the blogger part of me is naturally inclined to write about my experience, I hesitated in this instance.
Firstly because I’m not a doctor and I don’t want to be seen to be giving advice.
Secondly, I’m still working out how to live with depression and my list is constantly evolving!
Having said all that — I know one of the things that helped me start working through my depression in the first place was hearing the stories of others who had done the same.
I know I get encouraged by hearing of other people’s experiences.
So, I decided to share my list.
Initially, I nervously shared it to Twitter account in a series of tweets. The reaction was encouraging so I expanded upon it and put it in a private Facebook group that a friend and I have started for people finding their spark.
The feedback was again so positive, I decided to expand it further and share it in a more public forum. This forum.
Here’s my list (in no particular order of importance):
11 Things That Have Helped Me With Depression
1. Talking to my Doctor
This took considerable courage. But it helped so much and was one of the important first steps I made.
While I know meds are not for everyone I found a small daily dose has helped me to find my feet. Medication allowed me to reason with myself more and talk myself down when I was in a dark place.
Now that the fog has lifted somewhat, and I feel I’m coming out the other side of this dark time, I’ll be working with my Doctor in the coming months to slowly reduce (and then hopefully stop) my meds.
If I was looking for one thing that ‘triggered’ my depression, I can only really point to the fact that I’d recently injured my neck and was unable to exercise for a couple of months.
I’m not sure if that is THE reason — but I do know that exercise is a huge part of the mental wellbeing equation for me. My mood noticeably improves and worsens as I exercise more or less.
Today, I walk for an hour(ish) most days and train with a trainer twice a week.
Update: I just found and read this article on walking and depression and can really relate. There’s something about walking that not only gives exercise but takes you out of that small dark lonely sphere that depression can often push us into.
4. Getting a dog
Ironically she is a black dog.
The unconditional love and adoration help a lot.
The company and physical touch are great too.
Having another creature with needs helps focus my mind outside of myself.
And she gives me a reason to go for a walk when I don’t feel like it.
5. Telling friends and family
This is something I did slowly at first because I was nervous about people’s reactions.
My wife provided incredible support in the early days and I have a good group of guys I meet with regularly who I shared it with shortly after.
Gradually, as I’ve shared it with more and more people, I’ve been amazed at how many others have experienced similar battles.
6. Improving my diet
My approach to diet is not rocket science. I’m trying to eat more ‘real’ natural food and less sugar and processed crap.
As with exercise — I can definitely see a connection with how I feel and what I eat. I am discovering sugar is particularly a big part of the equation for me!
I’ve tried a number of things in my journalling including gratitude, affirmations, visualisation, processing feelings, mindfulness and being intentional about the day ahead.
I’m sure there are many reasons journalling helps but for me two of the big ones are that it has helped me to:
- slow down — previously I’d get up and get straight into the craziness of my day. Setting aside time to be still, listen, think and prepare pays off big time.
- be intentional — previously I wouldn’t put the time aside to plan my day. This meant the other ‘important’ things on this list would be crowded out by the ‘urgent’ things that the day presented me with.
I’m trying to read every night before bed and most mornings before the kids get up after I journal.
I’m reading fiction (for fun) and non-fiction (for learning). I find occupying my mind with the words and stories of others means I have less time to wander down dark rabbit holes.
9. Creating new projects
This wasn’t something I could do in the early days of my most recent bout of depression (I found it hard enough to get out of bed some days). But recently I’ve slowly taken action on some new creative projects.
These have included writing more on ‘passion’ topics, starting our Sparks Facebook group and even starting to write a book. I find having something new to work on has helped build anticipation, motivation and has again given my mind something outside of myself to focus upon.
Another way to get myself thinking about something other than myself has been to be a bit more intentional about putting myself into positions to volunteer and serve in the communities I’m a part of.
Again — this has been a more recent thing as I’ve begun to find my feet but it’s brought a lot of joy. It’s started slowly by offering my photographic services to organisations I am a part of, volunteering to go as a parent helper on a school camp and even some speaking opportunities in my local church.
This is connected to many of things I’ve listed above and is something I do as I journal and at times when I meet with friends.
By no means am I ‘recovered’ or feeling 100% and I hope the above list doesn’t make it sound like I’m hitting home runs at every turn.
There are more good days than bad but I still have ‘those’ days — but thankfully they are fewer and further between.
The battle continues but I’m finding myself in a better place.
Where I Took My First Small Step
If you’re struggling — you’re not alone.
So many others struggle with these things. As I said above — one of the illuminating things from this journey is just how many people have a similar story (or have someone close to them who does).
Sadly though (and perhaps as part of what we’re living through) many of us tend to isolate ourselves when we have these struggles.
This was my experience in my 20’s with depression — I faced it completely alone and as a result, went to some dark places.
I look back on that time and wonder how I ever came through it.
If only I’d had the courage to share the journey.
So, if I had to pick a place to start from the above list it would be to tell someone. A doctor, family member or friend could be a good place to start.
There are also many services around the world where you can ring or chat online to get support. Here in Australia, there’s BeyondBlue (who also have some fantastic articles on their site) and Lifeline.
I’m sure there are other services in other countries — feel free to add those you know of in responses below.
I found that telling someone and having them share the burden with me put me in a slightly better place to take another small step… and then another… and another.
I’m so grateful to my friends, family and doctor who supported me in those early days and for the many messages of hope in more recent times as I’ve shared more publicly about the battle.
I hope something in this is of encouragement to you or those you know who may be struggling with depression or anxiety too.
What Has Helped You?
I’ve shared this list (in numerous forms) with quite a few people who are living with depression (or anxiety).
Almost every time I’ve shared it the reaction I get from the person is that they have their own ‘list’ of things that have helped them.
Most times there are a few similarities between our lists — but more often than not there are also other things that the other person shares that they’ve done that has helped.
No two people’s life with depression are the same and I guess we each have to find our own path — but one thing that has helped me a lot is hearing from others about their experience.
If you have something you have done that helps you with depression and/or anxiety I’d LOVE to hear about it with a response to this article.
And if you know someone who needs to read this — please pass it on.
As with my previous recent posts, I’d like to thank Kate Rolfe who created the custom illustrations for this piece.