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I have been clinically depressed for nearly 20 years. Depression used to kick my ass, but lately, I feel I’ve turned the tables. This post is not a victory lap, but rather an opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences on the topic. Take it or leave it, share it or ignore it – I’m writing this in hopes that others benefit from my perspective.
For context, both my mother and my wife are clinical psychologists, I minored in psych in college, I’ve studied depression quite a bit, and I’ve been in therapy for 10+ years (on and off), so I consider myself a “semi-qualified, amateur authority” on the topic. That said, I am NOT a medical professional and all of the below commentary should be taken with a grain of salt.
Depression is a disorder that is rooted in genetic and environmental factors. You can find plenty of statistics online about prevalence, but when you’re the one depressed, you don’t necessarily care about numbers. Frankly, when you’re in the depths of depression, you often don’t care about much at all. In fact, things that previously brought you joy fall flat (a concept called “anhedonia”) and the simplest tasks seem arduous. I will never forget how I used to intensely rue the “chore” of simply brushing my teeth twice a day.
You don’t “catch” depression, but there may be factors or events that can catalyze a depressive episode. And you can be plenty privileged and plenty depressed at the same time. For me, I suffered my first major depressive episode when I was deferred from my dream college my senior year of high school. I was a privileged kid from a loving, financially-stable family that had given me everything I had ever wanted. The takeaway here is that depression is particularly dangerous because it is an invisible affliction and can affect those that have objectively enviable lives. Kate Spade had an estimated net worth of $150M. Anthony Bourdain was a cultural darling with a self-described dream job. Suicides that result in collective head-scratching are indicators of a continued awareness gap surrounding the issue.
Throughout my career, I’ve been taught to be “solution-oriented.” So how have I handled depression? I think there are five main ways I have succeeded in navigating and stabilizing my experience:
1. Psychotherapy – I have been seeing a Psychologist nearly every Monday morning for the past 4 years. I find it’s a great way to start the week, and whether I’m feeling good or bad, it’s an opportunity to understand what’s on my mind. One important note: don’t be discouraged if you start therapy and don’t feel a connection with your therapist. It’s ok to keep experimenting until you find someone with whom you are comfortable. But the willingness to even make an appointment is the critical first step. It can feel like an intimidating chore – consider asking someone you trust to help you book an initial visit.
2. Medication – Many experts believe depression is rooted in chemical imbalances in the brain, and psychopharmacology is a critical lever in helping to correct those imbalances. If you had a cut on your finger, would you consider using a band-aid? In the abstract, there’s no difference. Better living through science. Personally, I used to take both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications for years. After working with my therapist, I successfully weaned myself off of my anti-anxiety dosage a couple of years ago, and I’ve recently (successfully) reduced my anti-depressant dosage, with a medium-term goal of eliminating medication entirely. That said, there is no rush and no shame in taking (medically-prescribed) pills – I have been doing so for 15 years straight, and they’ve changed my life for the better.
3. Exercise – The brain is a curious tool, and brain chemistry is complex. That said, researchers know enough about the chemicals in the brain to know that exercise helps stabilize mood and limit both the mental and physical debilitation associated with depression. When you’re in the depths of a depressive episode, the last thing you want to think about is running a 5K, but even just getting outside and walking around the block represents progress. If you know me well, you know I exercise a ton – in full transparency, the effort to battle my depression was the single-biggest catalyst in driving me to establish my fitness-oriented lifestyle today.
4. Finding Support in Others – I was so, so lucky to have my now-wife by my side the last time I went through a depressive episode. I also leveraged frequent conversations with other members of my family and friends to keep myself afloat. Going through something like this alone is terrifying (I’ve done it), and being able to discuss your depression with others is critical both to understanding it yourself and to reminding yourself of the good you have in your life. If you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, call 1-800-273-8255, which is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
5. Marijuana Avoidance – While I haven’t smoked in several years (and may never smoke again), there were times in my past when I was basically medicating with marijuana while on the prescription regimen I mentioned above, all in an effort to “feel better.” Through the lens of overcoming depression, this was a disaster. Biochemically, the active agent in Marijuana (THC) effectively “competes” with anti-depressants to occupy the receptors in the brain that help control mood. If you are depressed and you are smoking marijuana to cope, your pharmaceutical medication’s efficacy will be drastically reduced, and you are very unlikely to make progress. I know how hard it can be to quit a bad habit, and all of the other tools listed above are critical to maximizing your chance of success here.
I want to say thank you to my former boss Dave Kerpen, whose recent call to #destigmatizedepression (and touching article on Inc.com) inspired me to speak my truth here today. I want to thank my wife for being an absolute rock – partners of depressed individuals are often asked to meet well past halfway, and Katie has been the single largest driver of my recovery and success over the past eight years. And mom, I love you.
Finally, I want to thank my work family for creating an environment where I feel supported and able to be my authentic self. I think it says a lot about a company’s culture that one of its newer employees would have the confidence to write a blog post referencing some pretty sensitive stuff, but I know that my leaders have my back, and it motivates me to do my best work every day.
Today, I consider myself to be happier than I’ve ever been. It has been hard work, and I feel it paying off.
There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Written By: Will Morel