Don’t worry, I’m not one of those annoying people who was once a bit depressed, then took a pill and got over it. No, my story is much, much worse than that. (For my 10 steps, skip to the end.)
I was a sad child. So sad that when a counselor once asked me to re-experience my emotions from that time I felt such terrible pain that I dissociated, unable to talk or look at her. I’d forgotten how miserable I had been.
I used to wish that I hadn’t been born. The unpredictable mood swings that were as shameful as peeing my pants in public didn’t help me enjoy my childhood more. I just wanted everyone to stop shouting and telling me what was wrong with me and give me a hug and say something nice. Thankfully I didn’t know how much worse it would get.
But first it got better. I was so terrified of going to high school I thought I would die of sheer anxiety before I got there. Instead an even greater miracle happened. I became popular. I made friends, got in the top class. I was happy.
Clearly something was terribly wrong. I knew I was a bad person who didn’t deserve any of this. I knew because I’d been told so. I had to set things right.
By the time I left I’d behaved so oddly for so long that I had only one friend left. She didn’t last a year after we both started work. She got fed up with my depressions, my self-hatred and my new solution –alcohol.
University saved me. I found focus, meaning, friends, success. Having ballooned up to over 200 pounds (15 stone, 100 kilos) I trimmed down to 140, and fell in love with a man who fell in love with me (not in that order). I still got depressed but not as much as before.
After university I got lost. I didn’t know what to do next. I travelled, smoked a lot of dope, saw some amazing things, then got too lonely and came home. So I tried the other way – volunteered at the local prison, worked at a girl’s home, lived with my folks for the first time in five years, got confirmed as a Christian.
Then two unexpected things happened. First I fell in love with a woman, not for the first time. Second, I went crazy.
I came home from work late one night in so much pain that I sat in my car in the driveway and howled like an animal. The doctor my father took me to at 8am the next morning confirmed what was wrong. Depression. It was like having a D branded on my forehead. I was defective, definitely and decidedly. I left clutching a prescription.
I had no way of knowing what would come next, ‘cos I’d never been this bad before. I stopped going to work, stopped eating, dressing, showering, talking.
I tried to sleep to avoid the agony, so dreadful it was the mental equivalent of someone trying saw my leg off without anaesthetic. But sleep was hard to find. Even when it happened, I would wake to find I was already crying. For the first time ever, I thought of killing myself. I even had a plan.
Finally the meds kicked in, after two weeks of indescribable suffering. I had a shower, got dressed, started doing the shopping for the family, doing the crossword, going out. My sister would say to me ‘come on zombie’, not unkindly, and take me for a walk, like a silent and dejected dog. I wasn’t happy, but I was functioning.
I figured now I had a diagnosis I could go and get therapy. I’d been looking longingly at the yellow pages ads for psychiatrists and psychologists for the past eight years. Now I picked up the phone and made an appointment. I was terrified of what it would be like.
Luckily, therapy helped. I started to do more, go swimming, go for walks on my own, encouraged by my therapist. Then I took a trip that changed my life. It took all of half an hour, from where my parents lived in the ‘burbs to my old university in the middle of the city.
I walked into the library, pulled out the drawer of the card catalogue at ‘e’ for ‘effective therapy of depression’ et voila. There it was. A book called The Effective Therapy of Depression. I almost ran to the stack where it was shelved.
Reading it I laughed, really laughed, for the first time in weeks. It was the chapter on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that got me. I could see so much of myself in it, and the idea that my negative thoughts might be wrong made me almost giddy.
Next I read Cognitive Therapy of Depression and started using the thinking and behavioral techniques it taught. I fired my lovely neo-Freudian therapist and signed on with a clinical psychologist. Then something amazing happened.
I started to feel happy. Really happy. Happier than I ever had before. I saw myself and the world completely differently as I realized my negative thoughts were faulty and started to challenge them, and built more enjoyable activities into my life. I went back to work, made new friends, had good times.
So that’s the end of my story. I was cured and have been happy ever since.
Ha, ha, as if. No, that took a bit longer to achieve. What happened next was conflict at work followed by a relapse. Back to depression. Looking back, relapse was inevitable, because my new habits just weren’t strong enough. But at the time it felt like paradise lost. I wish I’d known then how happy I would be again.
I staggered through to my 30th birthday having one relapse after another. Even in the good patches I wasn’t as happy as I had been after my big breakdown. I was starting to suspect that tricyclic antidepressants and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) were not the cures they were touted to be. I was starting to suspect I’d need more.
For my thirtieth birthday present I got a diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalitis, commonly (and misleadingly) known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It came with features – lethargy, nausea so severe I could feel it in my legs and arms, the need for an afternoon nap.
It was unexpected and derailed the slow progress I’d been making. With the help of new friends, a support group and a new home with people I liked I’d gradually achieved a better mood. But ME was one step on the way to undoing that.
The second step was my brilliant new career. After years of trying I finally got the job of my dreams – working on prison policy. It was unexpectedly dull and my new boss clearly hated me.
The third step was conflict in my close relationships. As months went by my fragile happiness disintegrated. But this time it was worse than mood swings and mild depression or dysthymia.
This time it was solid, painful depression day after day, week after week, with very little let up or variance. like a mental toothache. To cope, I started to fantasise in obscene detail about killing myself. I called it suicide pornography. It was the only thing that gave me any relief.
This went on for four years. I kept using all my cognitive and behavioral skills, which probably saved my life some days. I got outside and did exercise and did fun and social things, which all helped. I kept taking the meds, which didn’t seem to do much of anything. And I kept dreaming about death, my great escape from the pain of life.
What saved me was a fellowship to Canada and America. I felt well and happy for six weeks on end, for the first time since I was 30. I decided if I could be happy overseas, I could be happy at home. Once I got home I moved in with some fun friends, and started doing new hobbies and activities and waited to see if it worked.
I had the happiest year of my life. I just didn’t know it was possible to feel so good. I got a new boss, work was better, I made new friends, I went out and had fun and as I felt happier, my health also improved. I decided the only thing missing was a romance. Bad decision. Or at least the man I chose was.
WARNING: TRIGGERS IN THIS SECTION, CONTAINS SUICIDE ATTEMPT. Scroll down to see ‘Suicide section ends’
When he dumped me he said if I could just not show any grief or sadness we could maybe get back together. So I tried. I exercised, I got bright light, I did social things, fun things. I fought against the sadness, refused to let myself feel it or show it. I wouldn’t tell anyone. I stopped sleeping. I started crying, even at my desk at work where people could see me.
I started to feel so bad that death held out its beckoning arms again, promising relief. As I slipped deeper into agony I screamed ‘no, don’t make me go there’. But it made me go there anyway.
When I woke up after the overdose I couldn’t stand up, my legs were so weak. I lay in the bushes in the dark, shivering. Weirdly, I was filled with the conviction that my life had a purpose, that it wasn’t over for a reason, that I wouldn’t die until this purpose was fulfilled.
After I crawled up the hill and found someone to take me to hospital, I found the doctors there had other ideas. They said my liver was practically dead. I’d been unconscious for 36 hours, not 12. They would try the antidote but they didn’t hold out much hope. Family and friends started to gather to say good bye to me.
I really didn’t think I was going to die. What I was much more concerned about was how I’d got to such a bad place and how I could stop myself going there again. I lay in my bed, trapped by drips in each arm, and between visits tried to figure out what I needed to do differently.
Clearly, I knew something about how to be happy. I decided part of the problem was I hadn’t been doing the things that worked for me regularly enough to make them strong habits. Also, I suspected that if I accepted all my feelings and felt them rather than fighting them, I wouldn’t get so depressed. I also needed to monitor myself for signs I was slipping, and have a written plan of what to do if I went downhill.
I went home to two people who were so angry with me they moved out. I got depressed and suicidal again but I still put my plan into action. Guess what? It worked.
SUICIDE SECTION ENDS
The acceptance was like a magic trick – it really stopped the depression getting worse. The other thing that really helped was slowly – very slowly and carefully over a period of months, supervised by a doctor – cutting down my dose of tricyclics to nothing and starting on St John’s Wort. I started feeling emotions I’d forgotten existed.
The overdose was April 25. By December 25, nine months later, I was happy again. And I stayed happy, for many years.
For my fortieth birthday present I got a gorgeous younger man who looked a lot like Keanu Reeves and adored me. Just what the doctor ordered!
By the time April 25 rolled round after my 40th birthday I’d been happy for two solid years. I had the odd bad day, occasionally felt suicidal, but I put my Suicide Prevention Plan into action and it worked.
I went back to university and started a new job I liked a lot. After two years my partner and I finally moved out of the house where I’d been so suicidally depressed and into a place on our own. Then he had an affair. But I didn’t get depressed. I coped. He ditched her and came back to me and we had a great year.
But life doesn’t always have totally happy endings. My younger man decided he wanted to be a bachelor again, so I took our cats and moved to a place on my own. My hard work at university pushed me into a relapse of ME, so I had to leave my new dream job and work from bed. But I stayed friends with my ex, made new friends, had fun times and stayed happy. It really seemed like it would never end.
I didn’t have another relapse for eight and a half years, longer than ever before. What pushed me back over the edge were hormonal changes and another toxic relationship.
All the things that used to work didn’t work anymore. I was back to driving while screaming and crying, back to dangerously longing to kill myself, back to calling emergency helplines in desperation and fear I would try again to take my own life.
So it was back to the drawing board. Again. This time I looked at diet, especially protein and carbs, and also at vitamins and minerals proven to be important for depression in women. I also tried meditation, and went to another support group. And on the advice of a professional supervisor, I found another counselor.
It all helped. The counselor was incredibly supportive and warm, the support group a source of good advice and strategies, the diet and supplements seemed to make me less reactive, and the meditation calmed me down.
Oh, and I manipulated my toxic lover into dumping me when it was clear he wouldn’t tolerate me ending it. That gave me space to focus on myself and heal.
I had signed on for a positive psychology coaching course just before the meltdown happened, so I tried any techniques from that I hadn’t used before. My tool kit now had a whole lot of shiny new tools in it. Not all of them were a good fit, but the ones that were, I kept and kept using.
It took work and it took a while. But around 18 months later I was back to my good space. What is surprising to me now is that it took longer than after my overdose. I put this down to the powerful effect of the hormonal changes I went through, which really rocked all my carefully developed habits, and rendered some of them completely useless.
It seemed like things were finally coming right, with my mind, at least. But my body had other ideas.
For my fiftieth birthday present I got a relapse of ME so severe I had to sell my house, give up work and go onto state benefits. No gorgeous young man this time round, although maybe that was a blessing. I really didn’t have enough energy for hanky panky! I really didn’t know how long it would be before I got well again.
To save money I moved into a rundown old house my brother owned, far away from my friends. I struggled to cope on an income about a fifth of what I was used to.
My lovely townhouse with its sea views was gone, my successful career as a sought after researcher and writer earning $120 an hour was gone, my savings were gone, replaced by debts, and my health was worse than it had ever been. I couldn’t go for walks, couldn’t do my own grocery shopping, at times couldn’t get out of bed except to make a simple meal, and sometimes not even then. So a relapse of depression was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Except that it didn’t happen. Somehow all those years of trying things out, monitoring my moods, adding new tools to the toolkit, and using the tools that worked best for me on a daily to weekly basis had made me almost bullet proof. I had lost a lot, but I retained my most precious possession – happiness.
Did I mention the friend I supported through Motor Neurone Disease who died that year? Or my mother developing dementia? Or getting so desperate for money I had a screaming match with the family I’d lent $200 to, including their son who was famous for once almost having killed someone with a hammer and had to be held back from attacking me?
But none of it seemed to really have the power to knock me down any more. I had a few months of mild depression just after my 51st birthday, when it became clear I wasn’t going to miraculously get well. But I did all the things that worked for me and that passed, just faded away like mist in the sun.
I had the odd scary day when I desperately, dangerously longed for death. But again, I did all the things that worked for me, and those days passed too. But most of the time I was happy, even when I was bedridden for days on end.
All my hard work, all my trying new things, all my picking myself up when I fell down and white knuckling my way through the bad days/weeks/months had paid off. I had learned how to be happy, and how to stay happy.
That period has lasted – so far – for ten years, and shows no signs of abating. Conflict with friends, problems at work, being evicted, the death of my mother, financial stresses, getting so deeply in debt I had to rent out my bedroom and sleep in the lounge – I’ve weathered all this and more without another relapse. The most I’ve had is the odd bad day, which I can usually get over by going for a walk on the beach and having an ice cream.
My local beach
So this is my message: it is possible to be happy, even after years of depression, even after depression so bad it almost kills you. If I can do it, so can you.
Is this a happy ending? In my book it is. If you offered me a million dollars but I had to be depressed I’d turn it down. If you promised me a wonderful relationship with someone who adored me but I had to be depressed I’d say no thanks. If you said I could have my dream job but I had to be depressed I’d pass. If you promised me a new home, perfect health, to be slim and beautiful, but told me I had to be depressed I’d turn my back on all of them.
My ending isn’t happy for any of those reasons. It’s a happy ending because I am happy, and that is enough.
My 10 steps for transforming depression into happiness
- I looked for information on things that might make me feel better, in books, research papers, from friends and therapists, wherever I could find it. (Good sources of ideas are the free Happify app, positive psychology books like Learned Optimism, The How of Happiness, Flow, The Mindful Way through Depression and Positivity, mainstream books like Feeling Good, The Depression Cure and I Can if I Want To, books on physical approaches such as When Your Body Gets the Blues and Winter Blues and the youtube video I Had a Black Dog.)
- I tried a lot of different things.
- I kept doing the ones that worked for me, that I liked enough to do regularly, and kept adding new techniques until I was doing enough of them to achieve the mood I wanted (I had to use a lot of techniques because my depression was so severe).
- I built the techniques into my daily and weekly routines, often linking them with existing habits or activities (like having a bath at night or writing my to do list in the morning) so I remembered to do them and they became automatic.
- When I felt bad, I named the feeling, took a deep breath, felt it, reassured myself it would pass if I just accepted it, and focused on doing something constructive, rather than fighting or suppressing it.
- I found ways to motivate myself to keep active, even on the worst days, so I didn’t slip into doing nothing, which feeds depression.
- I saw therapists and went to personal growth and support groups whenever I felt the need, and also talked openly about my moods to friends.
- I made sure I got time outside every day, did exercise I liked, ate a balanced diet, spent time with people I liked, did fun things, and had goals and work I found meaningful.
- When I had a relapse, I kept doing the things that worked for me. If they didn’t work, I looked for new ideas and techniques and tried them.
- I developed a Suicide Prevention Plan where I identified triggers and stressful situations, listed warning signs and what I would do about them, and signed off on it with my therapist, doctor, friends and family.