My Secret Weapon Against Depression

Some of the memories of events in my life that others recall as exciting, happy or fun always seem to be recalled in my mind with at least a little bit of emptiness, sorrow or a “blue” feeling.

Not all of them, for sure, but enough for me to recognize a pattern as time passed.  I’ve lived with depression for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, I just didn’t know it at the time. I wasn’t treated for it, and it was never mentioned, until I was in my late 20s.

Since then, I’ve tried therapy.  I’ve tried meditation.  I’ve tried so many different types of antidepressants over the years that I felt like a study subject. SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, and MAOIs. If you can throw three or four letters together, I’ve probably taken an antidepressant in that category.

They all worked about the same. Great at first, with side effects following soon after with most of them, while others seemed to do nothing at all. In fact, I was even one of the unlucky seven percent of people who went through what is called “paroxetine withdrawal syndrome,” which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Months of tapering off a medication that had side effects during use, and sometimes worse side effects as I tried to stop using it.

I’m not saying paroxetine or any other kind of medication is bad.  It just wasn’t good for me. I’ve known people who it has worked well for and had no side effects.  I just wasn’t one of them.

I’m not a doctor, and I would never tell anyone what they should do regarding depression or anything else. I can only share my experience.

The “great at first” parts of medications or therapy, for me, surely could have been the placebo effect, as much as it could have been chemical changes in the brain made by a pill.

Webster’s dictionary defines the placebo effect as, “improvement in the condition of a patient that occurs in response to treatment but cannot be considered due to the specific treatment used.”

A few examples might be sugar pills for pain management, or to relieve anxiety.

Therapy was another avenue I tried, with mixed results. Sometimes I saw a therapist while prescribed antidepressant medication, and sometimes independent of it. Either way, seeing someone seemed to help while I was there, but I wasn’t able to take some of the things outside the appointment. Again, maybe it was the placebo effect. I was talking with a professional who was trained to help people and make them feel better. They were non threatening and most of their offices were comfy and cozy. It was a good environment in which to believe that things were going to be okay.

But that only lasted for so many hours after leaving the appointment.

To emphasize, this went on for years and coincided with a battle with addiction. My experience wasn’t a one-and-done conclusion. I saw many professionals who tried to help with my version of depression over a span of several years by all sorts of means. I’ve gathered real world data for the only case I have any experience with, and that’s my own.

I’ve read articles and studies. I’ve tried to break down research papers and collaborative works of groups of people with more sets of initials after their names than I could make sense of.

I tried self help books.  At one point I had a pile of them. From Peele to Robbins, to Frankl and Covey. Religion, spirituality and meditation. Existentialism. CBT, REBT and all kinds of behavior modification.

They all worked, to some degree. But they only seemed to charge my battery, so to speak, while I was in the moment, reading or working hard at it.

What I realized after years of working to not feel depression and the anxiety that accompanies it, was that I was putting in so much effort without much return. Self help was tiring me out.

Ups and downs are natural in life. Good days and bad days string together due to foreseen and unforeseen events. But I was tired of the extreme lows and I was just as tired putting in all the work to prevent them.

I am grateful that through the years I have managed to live long enough to have had the exposure to the many sides of treatment for depression, even with the less than stellar results I gained from it all. I use some of the techniques and exercises I learned years ago to navigate the day. It’s been a little like a psychological and physiological salad bar. A lot of the stuff isn’t all that appealing, but there are a few things that are really good. I have learned how to use these weapons with practice, and a lot of trial and error.

Depression is a condition, I’ve often heard, where your brain works to destroy you. If nothing else, that makes for a complicated relationship with oneself.

I had become worn down over time from trying so regularly to change what always has been, and seemingly will always be, a large part of me. I got to a point where I wasn’t really sure who I was anymore, to an even greater degree than was the norm prior to all the work. I was tired of self help, positive thinking, buzz words and catch phrases. I was tired of smiling. I was sick of being grateful for what I had, when it didn’t feel like I had time to enjoy it all.  I was tired of reading books from transformational gurus who were late on a rent payment one month, contemplated suicide due to that one hardship, and then were delivered from the abyss miraculously from a shift from the Universe. After all, suicidal ideation for a depressed brain is child’s play.

I apologize if it seems as though I am making fun of someone’s life-threatening ordeal, and, honestly, that last part was made up. There is a place for motivational people. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. But, again, learning how someone went from dead broke to living with power and influence, which could be guaranteed with $497 and a three hour seminar, just wasn’t for me.

I was completely sick and tired of things not working, and with the situation I was stuck in.  So, frustrated by it all, I finally got angry. I developed an attitude. I was fed up. I wasn’t going to take another day of the same old dark, empty garbage.

I didn’t act out. It’s not like I became a bully with this change in attitude. I didn’t start going around giving people wedgies or throwing rocks through windows. The change was inside, and what I received from that experience has become my favorite weapon in the all out war I wage on depression.

That weapon is defiance.

It was incredible, that instant in my life. Defiance. Who would have thought? It was then that I went from reacting to acting. Instead of always trying, usually with the skill of a novice Whac-A-Mole player, to stop the downward cycles and ever changing pits of emptiness, I went on the offensive. Instead of defending the battered castle, waiting for the next attack, I went out and looked for the enemy, which was that part of my mind that controlled the constant, everyday shit show that is depression. I didn’t figure I had anything to lose.

Not in a thousand lifetimes, and not with a thousand armies.

In my practice, defiance is simple. I have a healthy respect for what depression can do, but I am not afraid of it. Under no circumstances will I bow down to it.  Ever.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period. 

When I’ve shared this with the few people over the years I’ve talked to about it, they sometimes react as if my answer is the product of a previous psychotic break. I’ve had some supportive and inquisitive responses as well.  I had a counselor tell me years ago that my idea of defiance may actually be hope masked as such.  I’ve often thought about that, and it’s an interesting way to look at it.  For what it’s worth, although I like hope, somehow defiance seems more assertive and battle-ready.  Whatever it takes…

Defiance has been defined as open resistance and bold disobedience. After decades of playing defense and often being woefully unprepared for the next barrage, the mind shift of taking taking the fight to the enemy has been liberating.  I follow the “open resistance” and “bold disobedience” parts of defiance in cooperation with the other weapons I have at my disposal in the battle against depression.

Self care, hope, resilience, gratitude and self awareness are some of the other things I practice and work at today, day in, day out. It’s a system that often works well in solving conflict, challenging thought patterns and checking reality with the information coming from my brain.  When I use them.  When they are working in unison, things seem to run more smoothly.  When they don’t, defiance kicks in and I put on my armor and fight until I can get the system up and running again.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period.

A Sunny Thing Happened on the Way to My Demise

The July sun glared through the living room window and onto the wood floor. I sat in a puffy old chair, leaned forward, elbows on my knees.  I counted the floor boards that were bright in the sunlight.  Twenty-four.  Right to left.  Twenty-four.  Left to right. Twenty-four. Over and over.

On the outside it may have looked as if I were daydreaming, peacefully enjoying travels in my head to some far away place as I stared blankly at the floor. But on the inside churned chaos.  My mind was a mess.  My body was a wreck.  Emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, I was a disaster. 

While I counted, every department in my brain was assessing damage and calculating my next move.  Each department was giving information at the same time, with no organization or priority.   Critical thinking and linear thought were abandoned in favor of  haphazardly throwing information onto a growing pile in the center of my brain.  The overall message amidst all of the chatter was that my current state could not, and would not, continue.  I was battered.  I was tired. Twenty. Four.  I stopped counting.

I stood up and continued to look mostly at the floor as I walked back and forth on the boards I had just spent the better part of an hour counting.  The frenzy of information whirling in my head had finally ground to a halt.  Chaotic and disorderly as it was, the information was in.  It was time to make a decision.

This day was the end result of a three day drinking spree after a year of dry time.  Dry, in that I didn’t drink or drug during that year, but I didn’t do anything else, either.  There were no meetings, there was no self care, no counseling-  no recovery plan of any kind.  I just stopped using.  I was hard to be around.  I hated everything.  I was frustrated, angry, and miserable.  I was so miserable after that year that I returned to what I knew. I knew how to drink.  I went back to it just as I had left it the year before, fully understanding the probable consequences.

That three days led me to sit in a chair, to count floor boards, and to arrive at an undeniable conclusion:  Not only could I not live clean and sober in recovery, but I also couldn’t live anymore as a practicing addict.

As I paced the living room, in and out of the sunlight, the idea that I had failed so miserably at both addiction and recovery weighed heavily on me.  I no longer felt the euphoria that chemicals once provided.  I could no longer use to feel, or not to feel, and it was clear I couldn’t abstain from using in a consistent or predictable manner. 

I could no longer even temporarily escape the mundane, painful, or scary.  Earlier relapses had often lasted months, but not this time.  In the past I would drink, use, and dig deeper holes, but there was always some relief.  There had always been a trade off, in a completely irrational way that only an addict can truly understand.  Of course, my using or drinking would almost certainly hurt people, especially those who cared about me. But it was all written off as collateral damage in the master plan of textbook insanity that is addiction. 

For me, using was a self-medicating, self-absorbed break from anxiety, insecurity and the constant, consuming emptiness of depression.  Even the partying portion of my using was smoke and mirrors; what was genuine was the disconnect it afforded.  Substances provided a diversion from reality, and I was willing to pay an often considerable price for chasing a distorted, chemically enhanced version of peace.  But even that was gone now, and it took only three days to arrive at the deepest, darkest place I’d ever been, and this time I couldn’t find a way out.  I didn’t want to do it anymore.  I’d had enough.  I sat down and leaned back into the old chair.  It was over, and I knew it.

It was then that two familiar inner voices stepped out from the shadows of my mind and joined me in the living room.

****************

The easiest way to explain it, I guess, is perhaps you’ve seen a movie or a cartoon where a little devil pops up on a character’s one shoulder, and a little angel appears on the other. The appearance of those additional characters signals the back and forth battle between good and evil, hope and despair, and so on. These two sides of struggle and conflict are as old as life itself. For the sake of simplicity, and with apologies for sounding silly, I’ll just call them Sunny and Rainy.

In my head, Sunny is the quiet, patient, empathetic one, with the emphasis on quiet. Sunny never yelled.  Sunny had never argued with Rainy, and never forced his views or acted in haste.  It was because of these traits that I came to believe Sunny was weak.  In fact, I blamed Sunny for not speaking up during some of the most crucial events in my life to that point.  Sunny was more abstract.  Parables and feelings, dreams and memories, rainbows and sunshine, all in the hushed tones of a whispering librarian.

On the other hand, Rainy had a tendency to be impulsive and easy to provoke.  Rainy was the bull in the China shop.  Where Sunny was a fine-tipped brush used to put the final touches on a beautiful oil painting, Rainy was the guy throwing gallons of paint at a huge canvas, buckets and all.  Rainy possessed little patience, was quick to judge, and rarely used diplomacy during times of conflict.  In a crisis, Rainy was the one who showed up first, and I could always hear him coming.  But to be fair, and for all his faults, Rainy had served me well at times, and actually saved my life during a few dangerous situations I had walked into over the years.  But on this day, Rainy was different.

“No,” Sunny said firmly.  “This isn’t the way.  Think about what you’re proposing.”

“Well, well, you finally left the circus.  The other clowns must be heartbroken,” Rainy said, sarcasm on full display.

“This is absurd, you can’t be serious about this,” Sunny said, looking at me, and then to Rainy.  “There is so much left to do.  There is so much left to see.  You have a lot of life to live.  I won’t be a part of this.”

“You’ve been filling his head with this garbage for years,” Rainy began.  “Sobriety and relief from depression and the beauty of life and all that other crap.  When does that finally happen, Sunny?  Never, that’s when.”

I sat quiet in the chair.  Sunny stood quiet in the corner.  Rainy stood in the middle of the living room like a speaker at center stage.  The debate was on.

Rainy continued, “What would you know about anything, Sunny?  What would you know about life?  Haven’t you seen the suffering, the mistakes, the failure?  When you finally say something, it’s always the same old nonsense.  It’s over.  This will never, EVER get better, and you have only yourself to blame.  Leave.  We have a job to finish.”

Rainy then turned to me while Sunny stood, still quiet, in the corner.  “There is no shame in admitting defeat.  This has gone on far too long.  You’ve hurt everyone you know.  You’ve tried this addiction stuff for fifteen years only to get your ass kicked.  You’ve been depressed your whole life.  You have been thinking about this for a long time and it’s not coincidence that we are in the same goddamn spot today that we’ve been countless times before,” Rainy went on, his voice becoming more stern and his body language more aggressive.  “What you’re doing is not living.  You, my friend, have been dead for years, you’re just too stubborn, or too dumb, to admit it.  Today is the day.”

“That’s just not true,” Sunny said.

Rainy spun around and stomped toward Sunny in the corner.  “Sure it is, and you know it as well as he does,” he said, now almost nose to nose with Sunny while pointing back at me. “How many times have we followed him to treatment?  How many times have we gone to detox?  Psych wards?  How many tickets?  How many nights in jail? How many times have we gone days without knowing what the hell was going on? How many times have we been talked to by cops, priests, counselors, doctors, neighbors, friends and people we don’t even know?  Do-gooders, well-wishers and the like?  Sob stories, calls to arms, pep talks, threats and a boat load of other advice and care, and here we sit.  It’s time to get this over with.”

As Rainy finished with Sunny, he maintained eye contact as he backed away.

Turning again to me, he said, “Too damn many.”

“What?” I asked.

“You heard me.  Too damn many.  That’s how many times you’ve been to treatment,” he replied.  “That’s how many times you’ve been to detox.  That’s how many times people from all walks of life have tried to help you.  And for what?  It makes me sick.  Doctors and lawyers and counselors and hurt friends and family.  Bad relationships and dead end jobs because you can’t get your head right.  We could be living the good life, but you insist on messing things up.  You’ve taken beds at treatment centers that others could’ve used.  You’ve been in detox so many times they know your name.  You know every cop in the area because of the crazy things you’ve done during your career in the lunatic business.  You aren’t even trying anymore.  This is over, and if you don’t follow through with this, so help me, I’ll do it myself.”

Rainy sat down on the arm of the couch on the other side of the room.  He took a deep breath and paused, trying without success to calm himself.

Leaning toward me, he said, “I think you’re making the right decision.  Life is hard.  It’s unfair.  You’ve done your best.  All that pain?  The depression?  The disappointment?  It will end today.  It’s time.”

Rainy wasn’t wrong about a lot of what he said.  His delivery was harsh and crude, but he was quite accurate about it all.  We had been at this crossroads together before.

It was hard not to admit what I at least half-believed most of my life.  It was time.

For what it’s worth, I never really used the word “suicide” in my head. For me, suicidal ideation had never been a constant cycle of thought, but more of a nosey neighbor that occasionally stopped by unannounced.  I always used words like “escape” or “relief” or something more comforting and less… final. But the idea, complete with planning and attempting to project the resulting fallout for those left to deal with the aftermath, was a subject that was visited more often than I’d ever felt comfortable admitting to anyone.

It’s not a smooth subject to talk about, ending one’s own life.  There’s just no easy way to make it comfortable or attractive, because it isn’t.  In fact, I struggled a lot with not only the idea of writing this, but during the writing itself.  Not because I’m afraid of my own demons, but because it is such a heavy subject, and due to concern over how it may impact those who read it.  It is always final.  It is always tragic.  It’s more common than anyone wants to recognize or admit. And no matter what, those left behind are always, always, always, left with questions that will never be answered during our time on Earth.  There are some things we just don’t talk about, yet each of us knows someone…

I walked over to the secretary and shuffled through the drawers to find a suitable paper and pen, and went back to sit down on the old chair.  Rainy stood up to come closer, while Sunny remained in the corner.

As I looked down at the paper, Sunny asked, “What if?”

It was a quiet, almost unnoticeable question, as if he had mumbled it to himself.  Rainy looked up from the paper to turn and smirk at Sunny, rolled his eyes, then turned back to focus on the paper.

“What if?” again Sunny asked, a little louder.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sunny, don’t complicate this with your silly, hypothetical bullshit,” Rainy snapped.  “You’ve had your chance.  For years you’ve had your chance.  Today’s the day this ends.  Sit down and shut up.”

Again, “What if?” Sunny asked, calmly.

“Stop it, Sunny,” Rainy said.  “All you’ve ever done is delay the inevitable, trying to sell hope like there’s a market for it here.  Hope is for fools.  Hope is for those with nothing left, and we are beyond nothing now.  You are grasping at straws and you sound like an idiot.”

I looked up from the still blank paper to Rainy.  “Hold on.  What did you say?”

“Inevitable?  Fools?  Grasping at straws?  Idiot?” Rainy recited the bullet points from his rant.

“Hope,” Sunny said, stepping out of the corner.  “You said hope.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, this is a joke, right?  Are you serious?”  Rainy was beside himself.

“Do you mean to tell me that this is your solution?  That somehow all of this can be solved with something so intangible?” he continued.  “What in the hell is hope against the fact that much of your life has been a miserable, lonely, messed up experience? A miserable, lonely, messed up experience, may I remind you, that will continue until you’re a miserable, lonely, messed up old man?  This craziness needs to stop. Don’t screw this up.”

“The least we can do is hear him out,” I said. “It’s not like we have any place to be.”

“This should be good. Sunny the motivational village idiot.  Perhaps we should print up posters and sell tickets for this,” Rainy said, dripping with disdain.  “Two minutes.  Do you hear me, Sunny? You’ve got two minutes, then we get on with what we should have done years ago.”

“What if,” Sunny repeated, “What if you could learn to ride a bike, or to swim?”

“This is just embarrassing,” Rainy cried dramatically.  “He rode a bike when he was five! He swam across the lake in middle school!  Big deal.  Since then it’s been pretty much downhill.  What’s next?  First tooth?  First pee on the big  potty?  Hell of a pep talk, genius.  Can we just finish this now?”

Sunny ignored Rainy and continued, “What if you could memorize multiplication tables or learn how to high jump?”

“Have you lost your mind?” Rainy yelled at Sunny.

“What if you had to get your driver’s license,” Sunny said, “or climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood with the older kids?  What if there is a reason you have lived long enough to become a father?  What if you’re supposed to stay around to help people who need you?”

“This dreadfully random trip down memory lane has been brought to you by the letter S, as in SSSSSTUPID,” Rainy snapped.  “This is so dumb, it’s painful.  Are you done?”

“Please let him talk,” I said, feeling more now like a referee than someone in the middle of trying to make life’s biggest decision.

“What if there is a reason you survived long enough to make it to detox?  What if you needed each and every treatment, each and every talk, from each and every person, to get you to this point,” Sunny asked.  “What if these are not failures, but lessons or cornerstones?  What if every other time we’ve been at this point, you’ve chosen to go on?”

The items Sunny mentioned were all things that at one point in my life I never believed I’d be able to do, or get through.  I never thought I’d be able to ride a bike.  At one point, I stood on the shore of the lake or the side of the swimming pool believing that I’d never be able to do the things others were doing.  Living through addiction as long as I had was against the odds by almost any measure.  The tallest tree may as well have been a never ending tower to the heavens, at least before I climbed it.  And there was a time in my life where I believed I would never live long enough to become a father.  Hope surely must have played at least some part in it all.

I began to believe that when I listened to Sunny, there was hope.  Hope, at least in part, made some of the good things in my life possible.  Hope also made some of the not so good things bearable.

“What if,” I sighed, shrugging my shoulders. 

“Maybe it’s just that simple,” Sunny replied.

“So that’s it?  Hope is the magic plan and the cure to all our trials and tribulations for the infinite future,” Rainy exclaimed in disbelief.  “We just hang our hats on hope and all will be okay?  Where is the resolve?  Where is the defiance and the declaration that life, and all of its baggage and wreckage, is just not worth it anymore?”

“It’s not infinite, Rainy,” Sunny replied.  “In fact, maybe it’s just this moment.  Maybe it’s this hour or this day, one little piece of time connected to the next.  What if we miss something great?  What if this can turn around?  What if?”

“I give up on you guys.  Next thing you know,” Rainy said, “you two will be singing praise songs, selling all our stuff and leaving to join some cult.  It is my hope that when you do, they shave your heads and make you sell beads at a mall.”

Rainy then stormed off, back to the corner of my mind from where he came. I listened to Sunny talk about the plan of continuing the journey that is life.  We discussed the role hope could play in another attempt at recovery from addiction and in surviving depression.  I came to realize that Sunny was always there, and that he wasn’t weak.  Sunny just wasn’t as loud as anger, despair or frustration.  Sunny was more subtle, but not any less present.  I just had to be willing to listen and patient enough to hear what was being said.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

That July day was almost 19 years ago.  I talk to Sunny a lot more now than I did before that day.  We meet first thing in the morning, and agree that we will see this day through to the end, come what may.  We make that commitment daily, even if we don’t talk about much else.

That’s not to say that Rainy doesn’t still show up now and then.  He has to, he is a part of me.  But if he’s around too long, there’s always some kind of trouble.  Admittedly, some days I seem to spend as much time with Rainy as I do with Sunny.  It’s not a perfect system, and I don’t fool myself into believing it ever will be, but I work at it.

Hope is a powerful thing, if sometimes more quiet or less visible than anger, frustration or despair.  For me, hope has been an invaluable tool in my recovery from addiction, an irreplaceable weapon in my war against depression, and a consistent companion in the now almost two decades of life I wouldn’t have had without it.

In memory of warriors at rest, In honor of those who still fight.