I usually write about the Habs on this blog. Typically a lighthearted affair, sometimes I get emotionally invested when it comes to the feelings sports can stir up in one’s soul.
Today I’m writing about something completely different.
Today I’m using this forum to discuss something uncomfortable to many, and yet many suffer through it. I’m going to talk about anxiety and depression.
“Woah, woah, wait a minute Z. Why the hell are we talking about this topic?”
Because I have struggled through it, and I want people to know they are not alone.
“Really? You seem like an easygoing, happy-go-lucky guy?”
I am, but I also fake it a lot of the time. Many people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses suffer in silence.
“What the fuck? Depression??? Anxiety!? What do you have to be so stressed about?”
Actually mental health issues can affect anyone from all walks of life. Often those who seem to “have it all” struggle the most.
“This is crazy…”
That’s ok…I felt like I was going crazy; you get used to it. (Poor attempt at a self deprecating joke)
I tend to use humor whenever I’m feeling stressed. Like Peter Parker bantering with super villains when he is actually a scared shitless teenager trying to save the city. I found that being funny and nonchalant hid my life long battle with anxiety pretty well.
As I got older I found that drinking helped mask the anxiety and bring out a more outgoing side of me. While I never abused alcohol on a daily basis or let it consume me. I found that whenever I decided to go out, alcohol helped take the edge off whatever anxiety I was feeling, and made me appear “ok.” When times were tough, and I was unable to pretend; drinking helped me forget and I would just brood. I’d be out with my friends at our favorite pub, and I’d get up and go sit at the bar by myself. To my friends, this became a funny quirk of mine: “there goes Z again.” Sometimes I really was just taking a timeout to enjoy a little break and a chat with the bartender. Other times my thoughts became so stormy that I just had to be alone. The good news about being a short, 200+ pound, hairy guy, with a perpetual scowl was that no one was going to bother me most of the time. After a few shots of whisky, or a few moments of repressing my emotions (often it would be both). I’d head back to the table, and sit amongst my friends as if nothing happened. I was a tough guy after all, I couldn’t let them know I was “weak.”
Unfortunately thinking you’re weak because you struggle with mental and emotional issues is one the biggest distortions you can put yourself through. I was never weak and perhaps if I had addressed it years ago, it wouldn’t have continued to be an issue in my life. Who knows…at the end of the day we can’t deal with “what ifs” only with “what can I do right now.”
About 7 months ago I experienced the greatest moment of life: my daughter was born. She has been my angel from the moment I laid eyes on her. Furthermore, I’ve written about my son on this blog many times – his birth was equally poignant. I often say that he is my soul, and my daughter is my heart. In the last 7 months, I experienced the difficulties of raising two kids instead of one. I was often warned that one kid feels like one kid, but two kids feels like ten. Sure enough that was true; all of a sudden my wife and I could not tag team situations anymore. We were divided and we were conquered. We did our best to manage and while our love and devotion was never in doubt, it was a struggle to acclimate. For some reason I decided this would be a good time to list our home and so we ended up moving twice in less than 5 weeks. Beyond that I felt stagnant at work and I felt distant from my life long friends. I was stressed and struggling with the thought that “things just weren’t the same.” I held it together by using a blend of Jameson, adrenaline, and bottling up emotions. I soldiered through until I simply couldn’t anymore.
It’s normal for a lot of new parents to struggle. Hell it’s normal for anyone to struggle. The key difference is that some people are able to handle it better than others.
Having an anxiety attack feels like being buried alive. The darkness creeps in slowly at first and then engulfs you in a heartbeat. Your heart starts racing; you can’t catch your breathe. All of a sudden, thoughts begin to cascade in your head like a building collapsing inward. These thoughts are like throwing gasoline on a small fire and when that explosion occurs…you feel like your life is ending.
Doesn’t sound pleasant, right? Well I was experiencing this multiple times a day. I spoke to doctors. I started working out more, and then stopped all together. I stopped drinking. I stopped eating junk food. I took vitamins…nothing was working. What happens after weeks of suffering from acute anxiety is not so different than knocking the leg out from under a table. It’ll lurch and collapse to one side. What’s left behind will be uneven and unstable.
Anxiety led me to depression. People hate talking about the “D” word and yet everyone goes through it. Literally everyone reading this post has experienced some sort of depression in their lives. That funk after your high school sweetheart dumped you? Depression. Drowning your sorrow in beers after failing a test in college? Depression. Struggling to get through the weeks after a loved one has passed away? Depression. In a lot of these instances the depression was directly related to a specific event, and most people will be able to move on after some time has elapsed. For some, however, there may not be a specific catalyst and/or they struggle to move on. That type of depression can take you down a path of darkness that is hard to navigate. That is where I found myself this year.
In my darkest moments I found myself trying to grasp on to anything that would shine some light on my situation. It would seem obvious that I would concentrate on my kids. The thing about depression is it can take your biggest strengths; your brightest motivations in life, and turn them against you. All of a sudden the pure joy of being the best father I can be became thoughts like “I’ll never be a good enough father,” and “I am letting my children down.” Every morning that I struggled to get up to play with my son was another shovel of guilt ridden dirt being thrown on me as I sunk deeper into a dark hole. The toughest thing to realize in that state of mind is that the person shoveling the dirt on me was me.
At this point, you may be asking yourself why I’m writing about this. The answer is actually quite simple. While struggling to believe I could ever feel better, I would seek out reassurance by reading stories from people who had struggled through their own bouts in the darkness; through their own dealings with their anxious demons. I drew strength from reading about their emergence from tough times and coming out stronger in the end. I decided then and there that if I ever felt better I would try to do the same for someone else.
I’m not going to sit here and go through the litany of things I tried to get myself feeling better. I will say that it’s worth trying to your hardest to feel better, because the alternative is giving up and sinking so deeply into the darkness that you lose yourself completely.
With that in mind here are a few (just a few!) things that worked for me. Please keep in mind what works for me, may not work for you and vice versa.
1) Seek professional help: there is such a stigma associated with mental illness, that so many people are reluctant to even go visit a psychiatrist or psychologist. That is bullshit. In discussing this with some of my closest friends, one of my friends said: “I think everyone can benefit from seeing a shrink.” It’s true. You don’t have to be in throes of a breakdown to see someone. Sometimes any sort of struggle in life is worth a visit, and you’ll be surprised how much it can help.
2) Get a physical check up: In line with the first point, professional help also means seeing your regular doctor. There are many physical illness that can result in an altered state of mind. There is a very strong connection between your physical and mental states. There is emerging data linking your gut to your brain. Furthermore, just general inflammation can affect your mental state as well as your joints. Our society has become so fast, so “on the go”, so streamlined, that we don’t eat right anymore. Whether you believe it or not many of us are lacking basic nutrients. While eating right will give you plenty of what you need. Here are some supplements I felt helped me: omega 3 (fish oil), vitamin D, vitamin B (specifically B12), magnesium, and a good probiotic. It is worth having a discussion with your doctor. In the end this isn’t some miracle solution, but it’s worth a try. The important thing is to find a right balance for yourself and stick with it.
3) Meditation: We often forget to breathe. Think about that, our lives are so busy – we don’t even have time breathe properly anymore. Simple meditation allows you to slow down and take a few moments to yourself and just breathe.
4) Work out: I’ve been an avid gym goer for the better part of 15 years. It didn’t stop my anxiety or depression from happening, but I also got away from it as I began to slide. There are literally hundreds of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of exercise when it comes to being a part of comprehensive recovery plan from depression and/or anxiety. For those who have never worked out; it is a real drag at first, but start slow and build up to a level that you are comfortable with. Remember it is different for everyone so don’t ever feel discouraged and go at your own pace! One thing I did change as a result of my depression is how I workout. I used to spend my time working on power lifts: low rep/high weight exercise. I’ve shifted into a more cardiovascular training regime. That doesn’t mean just plowing away on the treadmill (although I am running more). It still involves lifting, but now I am taking shorter rests, lifting lighter weights, and doing more full body exercises. In the end, do what works for you and stick with it.
5) Reach out: The hardest thing to remember when you are struggling with anxiety and depression is that you are not alone. Whether it’s family, friends, coworkers, a neighbor, or your significant other – you are not alone. Beyond that there are multiple organizations and groups you can reach out to for help. So many people struggling with these illnesses do so in silence. I’m sitting here as someone who has done that and I am telling you it is the single worst thing you can do. I don’t care how strong you are, how busy you are, how important you are…you must reach out. I know it isn’t easy, and one of the frightening things about these illnesses is that they rob you of energy and hope. They make you think you have no one.
I’m lucky…my younger brother is a doctor. He also happens to be the nicest, most generous guy I know. After I began sinking so low that I realized I couldn’t get out. I was able to reach out to him. While he couldn’t save me from sliding deeper into that hole, he threw me a life line while I was down there. He reminded that I will find my way out, and never wavered from that messsage. Despite my desire to keep this secret, he got my older sister involved. Her and I always had a great friendship; she reminded me who I am and why she’s proud to have me as a brother. I was afraid of my parents finding out. I didn’t think they would understand. I didn’t want to be “weak” in front of them. Parents always know when something is wrong, and when they found out all they wanted to do was help me. They never judged me; they only loved me. I reached out to a select few friends that I felt comfortable talking to about this. I cautiously expanded that to some other friends I trusted. We fear how people will judge us when we are depressed. Well 100% of my friends showed concern, compassion, and overwhelming support. Daily calls and texts filled with positive messages and offers of support became another lifeline. One friend gave me a small pendant as a token of hope and good prayers. I don’t go anywhere without it anymore. I’m lucky to know such good people and lucky to count each of them as friends.
I realize the last point became a “thank you note” to those people who helped me. With that in mind I cannot finish writing this without acknowledging the main reason I was able to get myself feeling better. As far as my kids are concerned: I wrote this on my Instagram account a few weeks ago. It goes without saying they are everything to me, and without them I have nothing. They saved my life.
Finally, I would never have been able to overcome this if not for my wife. She took on everything when I was at my worst and never complained. Her love and care gave me strength, and she reminded me every day to never give up.
You see, that’s the key…”never give up.” It’s obvious right? Yet, it’s largely ignored. It is that cliched, that hokey, that corny. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how dark you feel. No matter how many times you say “I’ll never feel like myself again” or “why me?” The nucleus of depression is hopelessness. It is a difficult feeling to overcome. You have to keep trying. You have to keep reaching to hold on to something…anything. Keep reaching out to people. Don’t suffer in silence – talk about it. It may not help, but it also may be the first step in feeling better.
Life can be brutal, but it can also be beautiful. It is always worth fighting for…there is always hope.
Never. Give. Up.