Surviving Depression: A Personal Story

Contributor Amy shares her story of survival in academia. This story was originally published on http://iwasadepressedpanda.tumblr.com/

I want to write about something deeply personal that I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time. This is the story of how I plunged into depression, survived (after months of stubbornness where I refused to seek help), and what it taught me about how to live – not just to survive another day, but to actually feel grateful that I am alive. 

Before I proceed, I must emphasize that this is my personal experience with depression. I am not a doctor and I don’t claim to have all the answers. I realize now that I was incredibly lucky in the grand scheme of things – depression is never easy to deal with, but it was less difficult for me than it was for some people because I was fortunate enough to have the social support that I had and that my body responded well to the first and only medication that I tried. Other people’s experiences with depression may vary, as with what might work for them.

You might be wondering why I would disclose something so personal in such a public way. Depression is like a muthafucking ninja that sneaks up from the shadows and fucks all your shit up (pretty sure that’s in the DSM somewhere), and that is without the stigma our society has towards mental health issues which makes coping with depression even more difficult. In the past, I have “come out” as a feminist and as bisexual, and while I am glad that LGBTQ identities are generally more accepted in society today (than it was, say, a decade or two ago), it saddens me that mental health issues are still very much taboo.

comic1
A 4-panel comic is shown. In the 1st panel, the heading reads “When we break a bone:”, and in it, a smiling person with a broken arm gives a pen to another and says “Sign my cast!”. In the 2nd panel, the heading reads “When we get a bad cut:” and in it, a smiling figure says “Check it out! 12 stitches!” to a dubious-looking friend. In the 3rd panel, the heading reads “When we get the flu:” and a fictional status update reads “I just threw up all over everything I own. I need an old priest and a young priest.” In the 4th panel, the heading reads “When we struggle with mental health issues:” and one person simply says “Hey” to another person.

The idea of “coming out” as a survivor of depression is kind of terrifying. Maybe I’ll lose friends. Maybe some people will want nothing to do with me because I’m “crazy” (cue *eyeroll*). Maybe I’ll come to regret posting this for whatever reason. But at this very moment, I’m choosing to do this because this stigma is just fucking stupid and if I can do a very small part to break the silence, even with just one person who might be struggling with what I’ve gone through, then it would be worth it. Let’s break some stigma about the most common mental health issue.

If you are experiencing depression, I hope that my story can at least let you know that you are not alone and you don’t have to fight it alone.

The “perfect” shitstorm: How my depressive symptoms manifested

At this point I should mention that I’ve always known that I was/am a negative person. I’m not a person with a sunny disposition. (I mean, who are these people who are ALWAYS happy and WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM??!!) I’m neurotic and have low self-esteem and I am the best at being my worst critic. I’ve just never been a “happy” person. I always seemed to see the glass as empty, no matter how full it might actually be. I remember, even as a child, that my dad would often ask me: “Why do you have to be so stubborn and insist on looking at the bad side of things? Why must you make yourself so unhappy all the time?” Depression is much more sinister than the sadness or pessimism I had always known, but having been a negative person my entire life I couldn’t see it coming, and things were about get much worse than I could have ever imagined.

I really don’t know how my depression started because it wasn’t any single event or situation that triggered it. It was as if a hundred tiny things were happening in the background and depression just appeared out of nowhere, suckerpunched me, and left me writhing on the ground wondering WTF just happened. If anything is to blame, it would be the negative thought patterns I’ve pretty much had my entire life, which were exacerbated by the circumstances at the time.

*          *         *

In the fall of 2012, I started my 3rd year of grad school. With the typical (slightly ridiculous) workload and deadlines of fall term and the related (and inevitable) decrease in social activities with friends, I was definitely feeling the stress but didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Like many grad students, I felt insecure about myself and whether I was cut out for a PhD. As a result, all the grad school activities like writing thought papers for classes, having class discussions, and giving presentations were a great deal of stress for me. At the start of the term, I remember being very anxious about the upcoming scholarship deadline, since my last 3 applications have been rejected by the university and not passed on for external review. I somehow convinced myself that if my application got rejected again, it would surely be a sign that confirms my suspicion all along that I am a fraud and don’t belong in grad school (seriously, FUCK YOU IMPOSTOR EFFECT!) I’ll return later to this illogical, negative thought pattern.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my living situation was likely an additional contributor to
my depression. I was living in a basement apartment which desperately lacked natural

photo-1429117237875-aa29229d99f0
An unmade bed sits in a very dark room under a window with closed blinds.

light – it wasn’t great but I’ve lived there for the first 2 years of grad school, so I figured it wasn’t a big deal. What I failed to realize until later was that right before the fall term
started I had moved into a windowless office at school (I used to sit right next to a giant window). When the hectic fall schedule started, I didn’t even realize that the only time I’d ever see the sun was during the 5 minute walk from my house to the bus stop in the morning (by the time I left school it was already dark).

So, there was probably a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder tossed into the shitstorm that was about to happen.

I also had the worst birthday of my life (which coincided over Thanksgiving weekend). I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say that a small misunderstanding with my family coupled with our inability to express emotions (it’s an Asian family thing) actually strained our relationship for the next few months. I don’t blame my family, as I could have handled the initial misunderstanding better and I’m sure they wish they had as well. But there is pretty much nothing worse than being told by your parent – on your birthday – that they can’t stand to look at you and that you make everyone unhappy when you come home to visit. Looking back, I know that my family loves me and would take back the hurtful words said in the heat of the moment if they could. But at the time, I believed that I was so worthless that even the people who brought me into this world hated me and wished that I didn’t exist.

Between the mounting academic pressure, the isolation I felt with friends, and the conflict with my family, my negative thought patterns just kind of swept it all up into one giant shitstorm. My usual sadness and pessimism were gradually replaced by apathy. I just felt empty. I didn’t even seem to loathe myself or be self-critical. I just didn’t care. It got more and more difficult to wake up in the morning. I felt burdened every morning when I opened my eyes and saw the very weak daylight coming in through my tiny basement window. I’m still here. Here’s another day to get through. I would just lie still in my bed, for hours, because the idea of getting up to face the world was too daunting and pointless. I started showing up at school later and later, and eventually I stopped showing up unless I had to be there. I had no energy. I even stopped caring about food (SERIOUSLY, HOW FUCKED UP WAS THAT?!) Soon, all my dishes were piled up in my sink, and I’d wash only what I needed if I actually felt like eating. Cooking and eating became a chore. I’d eat just one meal on most days (usually instant noodles, because I didn’t have the motivation or desire to get groceries), only to shut my body up and to stop my hands from shaking. Existence was a pointless pain in the ass. I didn’t want to kill myself – I simply wanted to not exist anymore.

*          *         *

Things I wish I had known

A couple of close friends soon recognized that I seemed even more down than my usual self. I told them about how difficult it was to wake up in the morning and to get myself to eat. They were very concerned and urged me to see a doctor… which I eventually did two months later. Looking back, I’m very grateful that they didn’t give up on me and kept poking me to get help – I can’t imagine how frustrating it was for them to hear and see what I was doing to myself while refusing to seek professional help.

My depression worsened in the two months that it took me to finally get help. If I have a time machine, I would go back in time to tell myself the following (right after riding a dinosaur and killing Hitler, because priorities):

#1: DO NOT PUSH PEOPLE AWAY
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A teddy bear sits on the ground with a cardboard sign in front of it that reads “Looking for a friend”

I distanced myself and pushed friends away whenever they offered to spend time with me or offered to help me (like with cleaning the disgusting and overwhelming pile of dishes in my sink). I told myself that they only offered because I was so fucking useless and pathetic that they pitied me. I was clearly shitty company and the only reason anyone would want to spend time with me was because they felt bad for me. I soon convinced myself that my existence was not only a drag for me, but it was a burden for those around me. I felt even worse about my existence because another human being has to take time out of their day and busy life to worry about me.

Soon, I started thinking about how the lives of my friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers would actually be better without me. I did not have plans to end my life, but I spent more and more time thinking of how I’d tie up loose ends if I were to end my life. After all, the last thing I’d want is to create more burdens for those around me. I thought about how I’d pack up my apartment and label boxes for home, friends, and charity donations so that my family wouldn’t be overwhelmed with my stuff. I thought about which friends would enjoy my various feminist and psychology books, cookbooks, and travel guides. I thought about how I’d write a letter to every friend and thank them for everything they’ve done for me and for being the wonderful people that they are, and let them know that my death was in no way their fault and that I just wanted to be free from the burden of my own existence. I thought about which school friends I’d send my publishable data to so that they could continue the fight against sexism and potentially add a paper to their CV, and I would apologize for giving up because I just couldn’t fight anymore but I believe in them. I thought about apologizing to my advisor, who is the kindest and wisest mentor a student could ask for, for being undeserving of his mentorship and for being a drain on his time and resources for several years (time and research funding that could’ve gone towards more promising students). I thought about how my life insurance plan covered suicide and that I could actually do more for my parents and repay them in my death than I ever could if I continued living as a measly PhD student with an uncertain future. I thought about how I could even benefit strangers by signing up to be an organ donor and how many people I could potentially save (and how they probably would get more out of being alive than I would). That was some fucking elaborate shit. Apparently depression destroyed my love of food but left my tendency to plan shit out intact. It was absolutely fucking terrifying to type all that just now, knowing that at the time I truly believed all of it. Every word was fact and just as indisputable as the existence of gravity.

*          *         *

I’m sorry that this is so hard to read. I wanted to lay out what my depressed mind was like so that if anyone reading this actually feels the same way, you know that you are not alone. Please don’t push people away even though you feel like you are scum of the earth and should quarantine yourself so you don’t contaminate those around you with your vortex of negativity. As a dear friend told me in frustration of trying to help me: You are not doing anyone any favours by refusing help or pushing people away. People offer to hang out or to help you because they genuinely care about you, even though right now you can’t fathom why they do. If you feel bad about being a burden, you are actually more burdensome by pushing people away because it is frustrating for people who care about you and desperately want to help you but couldn’t. It is difficult, but try to reach out to people and accept their help – you will make yourself and the people who care about you feel better.

#2: Antidepressants are NOT “happy pills” that give you false happiness or make you a fraud. Medication may have potential side-effects but don’t rule them out without serious consideration.

After I was diagnosed with depression, I met with a doctor to discuss the possibility of taking an antidepressant. When she told me about the potential side-effects that some people experience during the first month (e.g., I could feel even lower in energy and my mind could feel foggy), I immediately flipped out and refused to even think about medication. After all, my productivity was already suffering – I couldn’t stand the thought of it getting worse before it got better (if it could even get better, that is).

But another issue that I didn’t tell my doctor was that I also thought medication should be a final resort – if therapy didn’t work then I would consider it. Now, I recognized that there are people whose depression only responded to medication and that medication may be the only way to improve their symptoms. I did, however, also believe that in North American culture people rely too much on “quick fixes” and that often there is an over-reliance on medication as the sole method of dealing with issues like depression and children’s ADD/ADHD. I disliked that medication was often prescribed as a means to an end, when mental health problems are much more nuanced and additional options (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy and other behavioural interventions) should be explored. I resisted the idea of trying medication right away because it seemed lazy and inauthentic. It seemed like wedging paper under a wobbly table leg instead of actually trying to fix the damn table first. I wanted to rely solely on therapy to treat my depression and only consider medication if it didn’t work. (Spoilers: this was not my best idea.)

As a result, it actually took almost a month after finally seeing a doctor before I decided to start medication (so by that time I’d been dealing with my depressive symptoms for 3 months). I didn’t start because I somehow managed to convince myself that my preconceptions were incorrect. I started because my depression kept getting worse, and every time I thought I’d hit rock bottom I kept falling further, until I was so desperate that I felt like I had nothing to lose. So on Christmas Day 2012 I finally decided to give medication a try (because really, celebrating my favourite holiday and having Christmas dinner should never feel like such a difficult struggle). Looking back, I wish I had started sooner. Medication didn’t magically make me a happier person like putting on a pair of rose-coloured glasses. It did, however, combine with therapy over time to help me recognize the warped view of the world that had become normal for me. It was like my nearsightedness increased too gradually for me to notice, until I finally got proper prescription glasses and suddenly I realized that my vision and perception of the world were warped the entire time. I could finally see clearly and the world around me started to make sense again.

Medication isn’t necessarily for everyone. Some people need to try different ones before finding one that works. Even then, not everyone responds to medication. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to try other methods first – I just didn’t have much luck with that and didn’t get actual therapy sessions until January due to the short-staffed clinic on campus. However, I’d urge you not to rule it out solely because of potential side-effects or any negative preconceptions you may have about it. Talk to your doctor and work with them to find out what works for you.

#3: Try therapy and be patient about seeing results.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but having regular therapy sessions actually helped me a lot. At first it felt like I wasn’t making any progress, but it took time to learn to recognize the negative thought patterns that I’ve adopted my entire life. I still remember a session in particular where my therapist basically spent an entire hour challenging my firm belief that I was a lousy daughter, a bad friend, a terrible grad student, and a generally worthless human being. Eventually I learned to recognize the irrational, negative thought patterns I had. I learned that thoughts are just thoughts, and do not represent objective reality no matter how real they feel. I learned that I did a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, and that making a mistake can simply mean that I made a mistake and not indicative of my failure as a human being. Even good people can do bad things sometimes. Just because I showed poor judgment and hurt a friend unintentionally doesn’t make me a terrible person or friend. Sure, it’s a really shitty feeling, but it is irrational and unrepresentative to base my value as a person or friend on a single instance (like, what about ALL the other times when I wasn’t shitty?) I still have my bad days and I still fall prey to my negative thought patterns from time to time, but I’m much better at recognizing them now.

#4: A little self-compassion goes a long way.

We are our worst critic. Sometimes I’m still astounded by the negative thoughts I could have about myself. How can we think and accept horrible things about ourselves that we wouldn’t dare to imagine saying to another human being? Reading about self-compassion helped me treat myself with more kindness. It helped me understand that the person that I am now is not the person I’ll always be. Instead of seeing my weaknesses as a sign of my inadequacy or failure as a person, I began to see them as challenges that I could overcome because I am a person capable of learning and growing. Being compassionate to yourself is not a sign of weakness or lack of personal accountability. You can be self-critical in a more constructive way if you are kinder to yourself and actually believe that you have the capacity to become a better person. (Thank you D.N. for telling me about research on self-compassion!)

#5: It’s hard, but force yourself to go out and do things.
mountain-climbing
A silhouette of a mountain range has clouds across the sky illuminated by weak sunlight. There are small silhouettes of people walking across the top of the mountains.

After starting medication and regular therapy sessions, my energy level increased ever so slightly but it still took me a long time to get out of bed in the morning and finally face the day. My therapist urged me to go to school every day, even if I didn’t have to be there that particular day and could just work from home. She explained that it’s not that I couldn’t get out of the house, I was simply making a choice not to. If my house was set on fire, I’d have to leave the house. Making a routine and forcing myself to go out actually helped. It was really difficult, don’t get me wrong. I just made myself take small steps. Instead of waking up and thinking of all the things I had to do at school that day, I just forced myself to get out of bed (which still took longer than I’d like). Once I got out of bed, I forced myself to wash up and get changed. Breaking down tasks in my head made it easier than being completely overwhelmed with the all the things I had to accomplish that day before I even got out of bed.

I signed up for art classes and started volunteering for the local Planned Parenthood again (something I stopped doing when my depression drained my motivation for even the most mundane tasks). I still had difficulty getting myself out of the house, but I always try to remember how great I felt the at the end of my last art class. It helped that I had something relaxing to do, which also helped me focus on the task right in front of me and took my mind off other things. Dragging my ass out of the house for a volunteer shift was hard too. But it helped to know that somehow, somebody out there depended on me and I was accountable. It was also nice to step out of my head and focus on someone else for a change. At the end of shifts where I had provided options counselling to clients, I was always glad that I was able to give them information and support them through making life-altering decisions. It was hard to tell myself that I was a useless person who contributed nothing to society when I actually did something to make a difference in someone’s life (TAKE THAT, scumbag brain!) It was also good to do something that is consistent with personal values that I hold dearly and feeling like a part of something much bigger than myself. It took some time, but the more I forced myself out of the house, the better I felt, and eventually it got less difficult.

*          *         *

Light at the end of the tunnel

I didn’t know it at the time, but I started doing better gradually over the course of the year. There were still many bad days, but eventually they became less frequent and less bad. I moved from my dungeon-like basement apartment that summer to a lovely place full of windows in every room, which improved my mood immensely. Just as it wasn’t a single incident or thing that landed me into a pit of depression, it wasn’t a single incident or thing that helped me get out. Bit by bit, all the small, positive changes I was making slowly snowballed into something bigger. By the next fall (2013) I was in a much better mental space. I still worried about the school year starting up again and that the stress might throw me right back where I was. But it didn’t happen and I seemed to be coping with stress much better, thanks to the combination of medication and therapy and my social support network.

Soon the fall term came to an end and I was met with exciting news right before Christmas break: I received the Australian research fellowship that I applied for over the summer! I was absolutely thrilled that I would be funded to do research in Australia for 6 months. At the same time, I was terrified of leaving and being by myself for 6 months. I’ve had tons of experience travelling alone and have worked in Malaysia for 6 months and Korea for one year so I know didn’t have a problem with culture shock and uprooting my life in the past. However, being away from my social support was a very scary concept. After all, I felt like I was FINALLY starting to get back on my feet. What if I have trouble adapting in Australia? What if things don’t go well and I can’t turn to my friends for support? What if I plunge right back into depression and I’m all alone in a foreign country?

I’m very grateful to say that none of those things happened. I met very wonderful people and made new friends in Australia. I am grateful that they made me feel so welcomed and I am sad that I won’t see them for a while. I’m also grateful that many friends back home kept in touch with me online: you might not realize it, but I really appreciated the time you took to chat with me or even to send me the odd message to let me know you are thinking of me.

I even got to take a trip to New Zealand and did something that’s been on my bucket list since about 8 years ago – I went skydiving for the first time at my dream spot with frigging awesome glaciers! I had two weeks of solitude as I traveled through NZ, with plenty of long bus trips that gave me time to reflect on everything I’ve gone through in the past year and a half since the start of my depressive episode. For the first time in a very, very long time, I finally felt that I was going to be okay. I wasn’t apathetic about my existence anymore. I felt happy about the things I was seeing and experiencing, and passionate about other things I want to see and do in the future. I felt fortunate that I survived depression. For the first time in a long time, I finally felt truly grateful to be alive.

Since my trip to NZ, I’ve been telling everyone about how amazing skydiving felt. I’d tell them that it seemed like all my other fears were put into perspective. For example, the idea of giving a talk seems a lot less daunting then it used to be (even though I may never be comfortable with it or find it enjoyable). If I can force myself to jump out of a plane at 12,000 feet then I can do anything. But really, skydiving isn’t the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced – depression is actually much scarier (and also much less fun) and I’m grateful to have gotten through the worst of it. I still have my bad days, sometimes even weeks, and I still fall into the same negative thought patterns from time to time, but I’m learning to be better at handling them.

If you are experiencing depression, please know that you are not alone and you don’t have to fight it alone. Please talk to your doctor and reach out to those around you.

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