“On the outside, what could possibly be wrong? Yet On the inside, everything was wrong”
It was March 2001. I woke up in my bed completely paralyzed. I could barely move; tears were streaming down my face. That was my low point. That’s when I accepted my depression. I had always been depressed, I just never did anything about it.
I was single and could afford to live in a 1 bedroom apartment in Pacific Heights in San Francisco with a parking garage. I was working for one of the coolest publications in San Francisco, I could get into any bar or club simply by flashing my business card. On the outside, what could possibly be wrong?
Yet on the inside, everything was wrong.
I was working 12 hour days because I had convinced myself that’s what you do. I had no social game when it came to dating or even making friends. The people I knew and hung with at work were my only friends. Fortunately, it was a social culture, but that actually became a big part of the problem. We worked hard and drank hard- a lot! Drinking with work friends helped me to mask all my challenges, but I was lying to myself. At work my confidence was 110%, while in the real world it was 0%. Ultimately my work was my life. I didn’t know where ‘WorkRicky’ ended - I was always ‘WorkRicky’.
So back to being in bed. I did what every sick little boy does when the chips are down, I called my mom. And of course, she was there for me. Her first suggestion was “why don’t you come home” (Savannah, GA). But I couldn’t do that. I’ve always been independent, doing everything on my own. I left home for college when I was 18 and went across the country to Arizona not knowing anyone. I was so independent I wouldn’t even let my mom drive cross country with me or fly to meet me there. In the immortal words of my hero, Bruce Springsteen, “I was a tramp, and I was Born to Run”. So when she said, “Why don’t you come home.” I told her I couldn’t . She asked why, and I remember this vividly to this day.
“If I come home, then the city wins. I can’t let the city win.” I was Born To Run, not Born To Run Home. Unfortunately, it took a long time to understand that’s a love song, not just a song about being defiant and independent.
She did give me some amazing advice:
Call in sick, you are sick and you need a mental health day. (It was 2001, the peak of the first .com bubble and there was no such thing as a “mental health day”) I did call in sick though.
She reached out and found a therapist through a friend here in the Bay Area. I still see my therapist to this day.
She told me to call my college roommate and see if he can meet me for a beer after work. He did.
And thus began my long journey to understanding mental health, depression, facing my fears and working on rebuilding myself one day at a time.
In some ways I am lucky. While many people have thoughts of suicide, I can say that I never was serious about it.. I know others can go down this dark hole to varying degrees, yet fortunately, I just see the hole and can step to the side.
People have asked me to describe what depression feels like for me. These are the best examples I can come up with.
In my chest and stomach, there is a string that hangs straight down from my neck to my stomach. And it feels like someone or something is pulling hard on that string which pulls the entire weight of my body closer to the ground. It makes lifting my feet to walk feel like there are extra 5lb weights on each foot. I’m not stuck, but it's hard for me to move forward.
In a social situation, I could be standing and talking to someone or a small group of people from about 2 feet away, yet I actually feel like I am having an out of body experience and watching the conversation from outside a house, looking through a window. I am watching me speak, but because of the wall and distance, I cannot “feel” the emotions or connections of a conversation.
When my parents told me they were splitting up, my recollection was that it was no big deal. I was going to be moving next door to my best friend, so I was excited about that and completely ignored reality. I was 10, how could I know any better? It was the early 1980’s, my parents didn’t know any better either. The house I was “standing outside” of, was the house my mom, sister, and I moved into when my parents got divorced. I was living next door to my very best, life long friend and his 2 brothers who are still like family to this very day. I thought I was happy back then, but clearly, these are the defining moments of childhood that stick with us our entire life.
Now it’s 2019.
So 18 years later, countless individual and group therapy sessions I am happier. I have a wife who understands me, two amazing kids, a fantastic house, a job I love, and of course a dog. And yet, I am still depressed. Not like “movie depressed,” but still not what I think people would call “normal”. My therapist and I have called it “functionally depressed”. It’s not a deep sadness, but there is still a sense of “grey” hanging around. Some days it’s not there at all, other days it’s just 1%-2% and other days it’s a deep sadness.
Here are the steps I’ve taken over the years to help me:
The stigma is real but you can get through it. Here is what it felt like for me:
Personal- When I first started therapy I was scared. I was scared people would judge me. I was scared it would be held against me. I was so scared that when I started therapy, I asked my parents to help me pay for it even though I had insurance. I was concerned the insurance company was going to hold it against me. Just like they hold your car accidents and tickets against you when you have too many and raise your rates, or in some cases drop you.
I had friends who I confided in who simply could not understand it. They didn’t understand the constant sadness I felt. That was weird for me because now that I was admitting it, I assumed everyone felt it. Not everyone does and that’s ok. But I learned by sharing this with people that some will stick with you, while others will try to empathize, but their lack of real understanding comes out as pity. I didn’t need their pity. Don’t get me wrong, they are still some of my closest friends and I am happy they don’t have to deal with this the way I do. It’s not their fault, and it’s not my fault- it just is what it is.
Family- When I first asked my Dad, he was very supportive. But one day he asked me this question, “Have you asked your doctor how many sessions you will need until your better?” Well, after 18 years and probably 800+ hours of therapy, I still don’t have an answer. That question from my father made me confused, angry, feel broken, and ultimately sad that he couldn’t ask how I was feeling, only how long until I “feel better”.
It’s not his fault though, he didn’t know. No one really understood this as well as we do now. I’ve spent many sessions talking about my parents. I have healed a lot, but even those wounds have scars that can resurface from time to time. Ask me about the tickets to The Masters my dad had for years and I didn’t find out until the day he died. Ask me about the Superbowl tickets he had and wanted to make me pay “at market rate”. Yeah, healing happens, but the pain doesn’t always go away. At least not for me.
Work- Well, of course, I didn’t tell anyone at work about this. I was in sales. I was a Director of Sales, we worked hard and played harder. Any talk of therapy in my mind meant I was weak and not “able to cut it”.
“Mental health day? WTF is that? Only losers need that shit.” That was the belief system, or so I thought. It was so bad for me that when I started therapy, I refused to turn off my phone in case work called. Over time I was able to reframe these thoughts in ways that helped me, instead of holding me back. I was able to recognize when these kinds of thoughts happened, and learned how to retrain my brain to find the positive and not simply hear the negative.
Willing to accept depression is a part of me and it may never go away entirely. I think this was one of the hardest things to accept. But the good news is I can spot triggers.
After several years, I actually told my therapist I needed a break and she supported me fully. A few years later, I met the lady who was to become my wife. So I decided to go back to therapy, because I knew a big life change was about to happen and I wanted to be healthy.
After a few months I stopped going again, then my wife got pregnant. Again, I recognized that life was going to change in a big way, so I called my therapist and started going to see her. It was equally valuable when my Dad passed away and lots of other things surfaced.
Medication- There will be good days and bad days. For me, medication has been a huge help. I understand how the brain works; I understand that my brain acts differently than those who do not suffer from depression. It’s not better or worse, it’s simply different. Kind of like how some people are right-handed and others are left-handed.
I’ve gone so far as to take a “medication vacation”, with medical support of course. And while I never went off the deep end, I did notice the difference. I went back on them happily, and now I need the medication. Medication isn’t for everyone, and while I am definitely not a “pusher” for meds, I do see the value. Ultimately it’s up to the individual. I suggest doing research, good and bad. Start slowly and adjust as needed. Depression is not quite like a headache where two Tylenol will help.
You first have to be willing to explore the idea of medication and then decide on the amount of research you want to do. Finally, talk to the doctor and take their advice into consideration. The one thing I would caution everyone is to not just focus on the negative. Medication research is very different than Amazon research. Yes, go read the 1-star reviews on Amazon but don’t let that make up the bulk of your decision. Your decision needs to come from an internal place of “Do I think this can help me? Am I willing to try this? And the moment I recognize something is off, will I let my doctor know?”
Partner- When my wife and I were dating, I was very clear about my time with a therapist. I felt she needed to know all of me. I told her stories, and to this day, she says, “I don’t know that version of you. If you need therapy go for it. You have my support.” She genuinely wants me to be happy as a person, not just happy with her.
One of our favorite stories about each other is when we first started talking about therapy, she shared about her own therapy work. We agreed if we ever felt like one of us needed help we could go and seek it. This is what I wish for anyone who’s thinking about marriage or a life-partner. Find the one who supports you as an individual, and can support you as a unit together.
Therapy- This is my holy grail. This is my place of zen, peace, and ultimate happiness. There are days I get to my therapist’s office and don’t have much to say, or at least that’s what I think. I sit on the sofa and just simple exhale, breathe, and I feel good. It’s a room of no judgment, a place where I can say anything, and believe me, I do. And it’s a place where no matter what I say, my therapist can help me find my patterns, and in many cases call me out on my bullshit.
I absolutely LOVE going to therapy. I know some don’t. But I want to embrace myself. All of myself. My happy self, my sad self, my angry self, and my jealous self. I want to own my thoughts and feelings- good, bad, and everything in between. And no matter what happens in that room, I always come out feeling better.
For whatever reason, my therapist has been the right one for me. I know that is not always the case for everyone. Find one that works for you. That may mean you have to go to more than one, and that’s ok.
Meditation- In the last 8 months, this has become my new happy place. I discovered a service called ‘Headspace’ and signed up for their free trial. Using it every day has made such a difference- It’s calmed my mind, created greater space for me to think, improved my focus, and garnered me greater patience professionally and personally. It’s done so much for me that even my wife and kids recognize a difference, and one of them loves “listen to Andy” at night as part of bedtime.
All of these benefits come from just a 10 minute session each day. It’s now 8 months later, 248 sessions, 35 hours of meditation, and I’m currently on a 45 day streak.
So how does all of this equate to a Superpower? For me it’s simple. Once you know the problem you have, once you admit it’s a problem, and once you accept it as your problem it no longer becomes a problem. It becomes a part of you and something you have to deal with. I certainly do not want to trivialize depression or mental health. I see it this way. Once when I was a kid, I broke my right arm. I write right handed.I had to adapt and for a while I used my left hand. Eventually, I learned a new way to hold a pencil in my right hand while wearing a cast. I just adapted, and for me, that’s what I do with my depression.
I have adapted. I have accepted that for me, I have shit in my closet, just like everyone else. And of course mine, is “much worse” than everyone else’s, at least in my head of course. But because mine is worse than yours and I can “handle it”, it means it takes a lot for someone or something to put me down.. I am confident in my capabilities to just get things done.
The other way I have made this my super power, I talk about it. This is the first time I’ve written about my experiences with depression so publicly, but I am more than happy to tell friends, co-workers, strangers, and even my kids I see a therapist. Of course the kids don’t understand the whole story of course, but they know I go talk to someone because it’s nice to have someone to talk about life with.
I hope those who have read this and struggle with depression find some solace in knowing you are not alone. It’s ok to acknowledge, it’s ok to be afraid, and it's ok to feel good, and yes, it’s even ok to feel depressed.
For those who don’t have this challenge, perhaps you know someone who does and you can be supportive to them. Maybe where you didn’t understand before, you understand a little bit more now.
My depression is no longer my “burden of shame”; it’s my superpower. I use it to drive me towards success. I let it remind me of places I don’t ever want to go again. I allow it to create deeper connections with my friends, family, and colleagues, and yes, even my clients.
I wish you well on your journey, and if you need to talk to someone, I will always make time for you.