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Facing My Personal Dragon: Depression

I can’t stay in my darkness alone.

It’s a bit risky, all this talk about depression. By writing about my struggles I might, for example, give anyone googling my name access to my personal medical history. I might be limiting the future of my career. I might be scaring away potential employers, lovers, friends.

Yes, Depression is a Word We All Use

Depression is a disease of isolation and fear. I have courageously embarrassed my illness, though I’m not ready to admit to the actual diagnosis that is now part of most job applications. I have a disability. Hard to swallow sometimes, but real.

In my teens, I experienced this major depression for the first time in my life. Sure, I’d been a moody kid, but a lot of that mood had been creatively fueled optimism. But when I moved away from home to attend a prep school, my foundations crumbled under the intellectual rigor of the school and swept me into a hopeless and airless place. I could no longer think straight. I was failing Spanish for the second time. And I was depressed and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Not a good period of my life.

Since that first breakdown, I have struggled 4 or 5 times with utter and complete darkness. Darkness so dense that it has wrecked every project, job, relationship in my life. And I know I will be depressed again. It’s a crippling diagnosis when you hear your therapist or psychiatrist say, “You will probably deal with varying stages of this your entire life.” How would you share that with a potential girlfriend or employer? Hard to stay positive in most circumstances. It’s frightening as a lifepath, this whole depression thing.

The Stopping Power of Depression

While the discussion about mental illness has come a long way, the real darkness and power of depression are not well depicted in our popular culture. TV shows have “manic” or “depressed” characters, but seeing actual depression is nothing like popular media scenes and conflicts. Quite simply, when a person is depressed, even if they “want” to write about it, purge it, let it come out creatively, it’s as if a power switch has been turned off in your creative brain.

My last depression was triggered by the loss of a new job. I knew I was headed into a depression, but I was powerless to stop my slide into despair. I could feel myself starting to sink, starting to think about the catastrophic disaster just moments ahead. I asked my talky doctor and my meds doctor for help. I pleaded for help. I committed to writing it out and staying present with my sad-ass self. It simply was not possible. Stringing a few sentences together while in full-blown depression is… well… nearly impossible.

Here Comes the Darkness

So, headlong I went, tumbling, into despair. I was fully conscious of what was taking place as my creative and emotional faculties diminished. I was front and center as my 2-year relationship crumbled under the weight of my illness. And ultimately, I was left to face my dragon alone. Utterly alone, homeless again, and defeated. And yet, not defeated.

Somehow, I kept going. I kept walking 5 – 7 miles a day. I kept eating and sleeping well. I kept making and keeping appointments with my care team. I kept going to work and to my appointments spite of feeling like ending it all.

There is no time to slay the dragon. The dragon is your friend. — Reshad Feild

I have been forced into accepting my fatal flaw. I cannot escape my dragon, I have to live with him. I cannot fight with the dragon when the dragon is a part of my DNA. As crushing as it is, I have to befriend my own depression, learn to accept my limits, and continue to work on forgiving myself for succumbing to the madness that is depressive illness.

How Depression Feels

Let me describe for a minute the experience I had three weeks ago, as a new medication came online and vanquished my depression. From the pits of isolation and self-pity, I kept working on my program. I kept taking the meds and made constant demands on my psychiatrist that we try something new. I was not satisfied with survival. I was going to thrive again. And while I wasn’t confident in my plan, or in my doctor’s ability to offer me a fresh torch inside the deep cavern of my shame and sadness. And, even in the absence of confidence, I had to walk on.

And then an amazing thing happened. It always happens. I always come out of it. But this time it was so dramatic, this switching back on of all my facilities, this return of hope and confidence, that everyone around me noticed the change. My inner confidence became bright again. I began writing, even though I was dealing with a major breakup AND depression. This new drug, somehow, lifted the sleep-like fog that had suffocated me and my loved ones for the last 6 months. Like night and day, I was writing, contemplating new songs for my band to rehearse. I was imagining myself back in a relationship, with a good job and plans for the future. I was reborn.

And that type of swing is scary as shit. It’s horrifying for the people around you to see the lights go out. Their happy friend (me) vanishes down the abyss of sadness. In depression my thoughts become so heavy, my very existence becomes so tentative, that I simply STFU (shut the fuck up). When I’m suffering, I can’t tell you how I’m feeling, so don’t ask. If I told you it would freak both of us out. I can’t express my utter rage and disappointment with my life or my illness. Raging at this potent enemy that routinely rips all the joy out of my life. So I get quiet. And for someone who writes daily, and someone who loves to talk and laugh, this transition becomes obvious and dramatic for the people around me.

Acceptance Is the First Step to Recovery

Okay, so I have this illness. I have this diagnosis that isn’t ever going to change. I might have long periods of stability and progress, but in the shadows is ALWAYS this prospect of losing it all in a wash of bad chemicals in my brain. It’s no joking matter. My family and a very select group of friends know or have seen my loss. For everyone else around me, I just seem to disappear. Sure I’m still ON Facebook but I’m not posting anymore. I’m lurking and feeling sorry for myself. Watching from my pity party while so many of you are going on with your normal, amazing, everyday lives. I’m stuck in the asylum of my mind, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to stay out of bed in the afternoon, and struggling with simple tasks like shaving and getting dressed every day.

Once again, I’m hopeful. Once again I have the confidence to look for a high-powered marketing job. Once, again, I’m open to looking for a new relationship, even though my last one was crushed under the weight of my sadness.

That’s the part that I’m more in touch with than ever. Okay, doc, so I’m going to go through cycles of this the rest of my life? I’m not sure how to plan for that or tell prospective mates that they might lose me at any moment, but I’m willing to take the steps to keep moving forward.

The Dragon Is My Friend

The dragon, my depression, is with me. He’s not going anywhere. And to fight him is to fight and destroy myself. So instead, I’m going to love and befriend this dragon. And while this beast of depression has the power to destroy my life again, I have hope, I have confidence. I press on with the belief that understanding will make the cycles less potent and the next depression less debilitating.

Still, I know I’ve got to talk to any prospective mate about this dragon before we begin making future plans. And while I’m not ready to check the box on job applications that says I have a disability, inside I know I do. Inside I know the fall is just a slight tweak of my brain chemistry in the wrong direction.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to about depression or relationship issues, check out my coaching page.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image:  my temporary tattoo, creative commons usage allowed

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