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Digging myself out of depression

Frankly, I’ve been debating whether or not to write about this. Why? Because there’s still a tremendous stigma surrounding mental illness (even these words are hard for me to type), and in a culture where social media has us all believing that everybody else is doing great, admitting that you’re struggling is pretty terrifying.

But what I know about depression, from my own experience and from what I have read, is that isolation and passivity only prolong the misery.

In any given year in the U.S., just under 7% of the population – roughly 15 million people – suffer a major depressive episode. In my lifetime I have experienced depression a few times. In my case, there has always been a trigger of some kind, some incident or set of circumstances that somehow pushed me from disappointment into overwhelming despair.

At the risk of scaring you away, especially if you’ve never suffered from depression and are perhaps under the impression that someone who’s feeling low should just shake it off and look at the bright side, I’d like to give you a glimpse into depression from the inside. And afterwards I promise I’ll show you how I’m proactively working to get better!

Just over six weeks ago I competed in my fourth bodybuilding competition in seven months. The preparation – especially the final six weeks – is grueling. Still, the work feels purposeful and certainly achieving that goal of stepping on stage feels phenomenal. 

(Here’s a peek … )

But in the months and weeks before my last round of competition my body was starting to push back. You see, as a result of decades of obesity, osteoarthritis and, more recently marathon running, I have no cartilage in my right knee. None. In June of 2012 I had arthroscopic surgery to remove the shards of cartilage that remained, and ever since then my tibia (shin bone) and femur (thigh bone) bang against each other with every step. Yeah, it hurts. And it’s getting worse. Though I’ve done plenty of swimming and cycling in the past, bodybuilding demands weight-bearing cardio. (When we’re in a cutting phase it’s twice daily, 7 days per week). The types of weight-bearing cardio I can do with my chronic knee pain are few, but by God I’m a stubborn old girl, so I do ‘em.

Over and over and over again.

When my last competition was done I didn’t care if I ever worked out again. I was exhausted. And the fact that our diet is meager, relentlessly repetitive and highly regimented didn’t help. Honestly, if I never eat white fish again in my life it’ll be okay with me.

So with knee replacement surgery imminent, my body and I decided to take a break.

“A break” meant not working out much at all, and when I did it was certainly without much intensity. It meant eating boatloads of “banned” substances. If you follow me on social media you may have seen photos of healthy meals – all of which I really and truly did eat! – but what you didn’t see was the piles of Oreo wrappers, the empty boxes of brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts, and the licked-clean containers of peanut butter that I’d sneak out to the recycling bin when my family wasn’t looking. At one low point I found myself eating mayonnaise out of the jar with a spoon. Definitely not something I’ll be putting on my resume as a proud accomplishment.

I managed to gain 35 pounds in six weeks.

As recently as three days ago I drove out of my way to obtain my drug of choice in the bakery department of the grocery store … just in the off-chance you’re thinking that I write here from the perspective of somebody who’s got all of her shit together and is simply gonna tell you how I did it.

No, I am definitely a work in progress.

And let me be clear: the binge eating and weight gain are just part of what has been driving this.

I’ve written before about how devastated I was (am) after my 30-year marriage ended in divorce last December. The grief that surrounds this loss seems to come at me in waves, where I think I’m staying afloat for a while, only to get pulled under again as new stressors surface.

At the same time, I’m trying to launch a personal training business, but I find that, even though I love what I do and I know I’m good at it, I kinda suck at marketing myself. At this point I’m not making enough money to support myself, so even though it’s less than ideal, I’m currently looking for another part-time job to help make ends meet.

What I’ve described here are just the circumstances that I believe triggered my depression, not what depression feels like. And that’s really the point I want to get across. I guess the reason it’s so important to me that people understand what depression feels like is that in the past when it has struck me down I’ve found it impossible to advocate for myself, meanwhile those closest to me were left baffled and frustrated by my behavior. And if roughly 15 million Americans each year are experiencing depression, it’s important that we know what we can do to help those who are suffering.

In simplest terms what depression feels like to me is futility.

It’s more than a lack of motivation. It’s more than hopelessness. Every item on my to-do list feels like an obstacle and every obstacle feels insurmountable. I mentioned the binge eating I’ve done, but there have also been days where I have simply not gotten out of bed except to do the most rudimentary tasks. On those days, hours would go by during which I stared blankly at the TV or my phone, not really paying attention to what was on or in front of me. I spoke to no one. I posted nothing on social media and I convinced myself that nobody wanted to hear from me anyway, so it was just as well. Physically I felt lethargic, heavy. Noises were muffled and distant, as if I was hearing them from inside a tunnel. My head throbbed, my joints ached. On those days, it was almost as if I couldn’t speak or even smile. As if the muscles in my face no longer remembered how to take such action.

Can you for a moment consider how absolutely horrible that might feel?

On one of those dark days where I found myself staring into space I had the good fortune of remembering that I have felt this way before. Twice before in my life I have experienced major depression. Both episodes were marked by a set of “perfect storm” circumstances that sent me plummeting into that same dark place.

So thank God I remembered that I have felt this way before and that there are things I can do to pull myself out. By no means is this a complete list of ways to overcome depression, and certainly if you or someone you know is experiencing depression I implore you to seek help, but this is what I am doing to dig myself out:

  • Recognize that depression is not permanent. I have felt this way before and gotten better. I will get better again.
  • Look objectively at my thoughts as flawed. Thoughts are just thoughts; they are not reality. That is to say, they can absolutely be wrong! Feeling that my situation is hopeless is just wrong. There are absolutely things I can do to improve my situation.
  • Call my doctor. As soon as I realized what was happening I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor to discuss treatment. We talked about my options and she put me on an antidepressant. Antidepressants work by affecting how neurotransmitters in the brain receive messages about our emotional state, and mine are notoriously temperamental. Relief from symptoms can take 4 – 6 weeks, so I’m still waiting to see if this helps.
  • Get outside. Gray skies definitely affect my mood, so whenever the sun is shining I vow to get outside and soak up the vitamin D.
  • Stop eating crappy food. My drug of choice (high-carb, sugary foods) is a double-edged sword: one bite and the neurotransmitters in my brain light up like a pinball machine, happy once again. Research shows that the sugary foods I crave when I binge eat provide a brief hit of pleasure but in the long run suppress the brain’s ability to experience happiness. That one bite never seems to be enough and before long it’s an hours-long overload of gut-busting carbs that leave me feeling bloated, sick and, worst of all, disappointed in myself.
  • Head back to the gym. While it’s true that I was exhausted after my most recent bodybuilding competition, I’m pretty well rested up now, and I realize how much I miss that sense of accomplishment I achieve from my daily workouts. While I don’t have an impending competition and I do have a chronic injury, there are still plenty of workouts I can do, and I know for a fact that I feel better when I exercise.
  • Break things down into small, manageable tasks. No joke, when I’m depressed, anything, everything, feels daunting. Yes, creating ad content for my business feels overwhelming, but so does changing the sheets on my bed. In this case, breaking things down and setting modest, achievable goals (first, just put on the fitted sheet…) is helpful.
  • Accept offers to help. There is a nurse at my doctor’s office who has taken it upon herself to help me navigate the process of getting approval from my insurance company for me to see a therapist. Left to my own devices I would undoubtedly have felt too overwhelmed to follow through on this. Having her help makes me feel supported and much less alone.
  • Seek comfort from empathetic friends. Let me be absolutely clear here: depression does not need your advice. Depression does not want to hear what you would do if you were in this situation. Seriously, this is not helpful and only serves to make the depressed person feel guilty that they’re not able to do those things. Depression longs for empathy and compassion. A friend who will sit with you and make space for your experience, without trying to rush you into a quick resolution because it’s more comfortable for them, is a friend you want to hang onto.
  • Let myself be seen. In my experience, depression is deepened and prolonged by isolation and silence. Talking about it publicly, reaching out to friends for support, pushing myself to see beyond the immediate bleakness; these are positive actions that I can begin to take in order to help myself heal.

As I write I am still digging out. But I find solace in knowing that I have tools at my disposal and that there is hope. And while my depression has at times felt grim, I have not considered hurting myself or anyone else. If you or anyone you know is considering doing so, please, please, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255.

Depression does not last forever. And no one should have to suffer alone.

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