Throughout these harrowing days of quarantine, I have been thinking of those who are currently suffering from clinical depression. I imagine that the loss of control that Cov-19 has brought upon humanity weighs heavier on the depressed mind than on a healthier mind. With depression, our own internal anxiety is compounded with a generalized sense of despair, and being quarantined may increase these feelings of worry, isolation, lethargy, and fear. On the other hand, a positive effect of this lockdown may be a lowered expectation to function “normally.” Being forced into staying home may be an opportunity to address the illness.
I suffered from depression for over a year and fully recovered. Here are some of the things I did that helped me; perhaps some of them will be useful to you:
1. I admitted to myself, and then to others, that I was sick.
I am not talking about being sad or having the blues. I am talking about a major depressive disorder. Depression is a disease. The problem with depression is that it is (usually) invisible. It may start with a loss of energy, increased emotional vulnerability, or sadness. I never had suicidal thoughts; thus, I concluded I was not depressed. My depression was not severe, but it was nonetheless depression, and it needed treatment. It took me over six months to accept the diagnosis. Many experts told me I was depressed: a career coach that I consulted when I thought my problem was a lack of motivation at work, a therapist, my family physician, and two psychiatrists.
I fought the label as hard as I could. As a mother of three, working full time and traveling internationally for work, I was used to being in control. I did not want to accept that I was losing it. Depression is stigmatized in society. I feared the label would affect my career, my future employability. In my mind, “depressed” meant no longer reliable. Would I be trusted with future projects and responsibilities? I also worried about the impression my condition would have on my children. And I feared the disease enormously. My mother had several episodes of depression during her life and even attempted suicide when I was born. I feared the inevitability of genetics. I kept telling myself, “You are not depressed; you will not go down that route.” However, when I finally accepted the label, I was relieved. I could stop pretending that I functioned; I could take a break. As it turned out, admitting that I was unwell allowed me to start addressing the problem.
2. I recognized that I couldn’t will myself out of depression.
Ask a blind man to see, and he won’t be able to because that is precisely his problem; he can’t see. In the same way, you cannot will yourself out of depression. I had trouble thinking, strategizing, taking the simplest decision. With depression, your willpower breaks down. However, this does not mean that you cannot try to help yourself out of it. This is an important distinction. I believe that you can help yourself, and that is why I am writing these lines. But I realized that “fixing” myself was going to require external help. Well-intended friends reminded me of the beautiful, privileged life I led, three healthy children, a warm home, a loving, supportive husband, physical health. They listed all the reasons I had to be grateful for. I, too, was hard on myself. Thinking about starving children and suffering refugees, compared with them, I didn’t have a reason to moan. I repeatedly told myself to stand back up and carry on with my life. These discourses did not help. On the contrary, they hurt because they made me feel guilty. Depression is not a weakness of character. I realized I should not feel responsible.
3. I sought professional help.
I was lucky to find a great psychoanalyst and started therapy with her via Skype in 2017. (She was the third psychoanalyst I met with. Rarely do you find a good match on the first attempt.) Initially, I saw her twice or even three times a week. I know this is a luxury few can afford. More than two and a half years later, I still see her once a week. One of the things that I discovered in therapy was that I had many issues I had been too busy, or not ready, to confront. They needed addressing. Some pains were very old; the hurt child in me needed to talk. Other troubles related to more recent life events. I am still trying to make sense of- and gain more awareness of how my mind works.
4. I took prescribed drugs, and they helped me.
I hated the thought of taking antidepressants. I was afraid that if I started taking them, I’d be hooked for life. Plus, (see #2) couldn’t I pull myself out of this hole on my own? Also, there are plenty of testimonies of people saying antidepressants made things worse for them. I was negatively predisposed to a pharmacological treatment. One book made me change my mind on antidepressants: You Mean I Don’t Have To Feel This Way? In it, Colette Dowling defends the medical treatment of depression with a moving personal account. Before starting talk therapy, I saw a psychiatrist who medicated me. She made me commit to six months of treatment that I was not to interrupt beforehand. She told me, “Right now, you feel like you are drowning. The drugs will lower the level of the water until you can recover your energy and clarity.” I accepted. She was right. It worked. I took antidepressants for nine months, and the second time I tried to discontinue them, I succeeded.
5. I gave myself the time I needed to heal.
Recovering from depression takes time. I tried setting timelines and deadlines. Used as I was to living by them. Initially, I thought I’d give myself two weeks, then I extended to one month. Until I decided to stop defining a deadline, I was not meeting them, and they were becoming an additional source of stress. The truth is, I didn’t know how long it would take. I was lucky enough to have plenty of support from my husband and family.
6. I indulged in the activities that still gave me pleasure and/or appeasement.
I spent long hours in nature. It was tremendously restorative for me. My dog, Cali, taught me the healing power of contemplating nature. We walked for hours along the Rhone river in Geneva, where I live, I may have even crossed over to France on those walks without noticing. At times, I would sit down on the grass and observe Cali breathe in the landscape and the horizon, in silence and awe. I started to imitate her. It worked wonders.
Reading was challenging for me, especially at the beginning. My attention span had shortened, and I couldn’t focus; thus, I turned to:
Podcasts and Audiobooks (in abundance!)
I cannot overstate the healing power of listening to beautiful, inspiring, stimulating, well-told, and well-curated stories delivered directly into your ears like a whisper from a trusted partner. Many of them are free. Whatever your tastes or interests, I am sure you will find an offer. I first devoured 30 hours of the psychiatrist, and story-teller, Irvin D. Yalom (I recommend Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir; The Gift of Therapy, or Love’s Executioner). And then I turned to Esther Perel, emotional intelligence educator par excellence. I heard hundreds of BBC’s World Book Club (free) interviews with authors around the world. And as a daily pill, together with my antidepressant, I took Outlook, Extraordinary first person stories from around the world. I would not have overcome depression without the BBC. Thank you, BBC.
When I started to feel better, I began volunteering as a language teacher in prison. I saw eight students one-on-one every week. This experience was transformational. I have encountered men and women behind bars whose lives inspire me. Teaching has helped me feel useful and appreciated. We all need to give and receive, and while I receive no revenue from teaching in prison, I cash in with plenty of gratitude. During this time of quarantine, I have been unable to go to prison, but I will begin corresponding by mail with my students.
In my case, the creative activity has been writing. It has had a therapeutic value for me in helping to unearth the stories in me that need addressing. Medium has been a wonderful space for me to share my writing (you can see more here). For others, it may be pottery, or dance, or music or photography, or sport. It may even be practicing Marie Kondo’s decluttering and organizing kitchen cabinets.
Uncovering the roots and the causes of my depression (overtime)
In my case, depression was linked to an identity crisis. I felt like a snake that needed to peel off its old skin and grow a new one. My professional career had been good, but I wanted a change. I was more interested in being a social worker than in working in sustainable finance — the sector in which I had built a professional reputation. Modern job specialization and labour market rigidity makes shifting difficult. You experience a fear of letting go of your construed identity when you have not developed a new one yet. Not to mention, the financial insecurity that comes with letting go of a job, especially at the age of 50, is frightening. Regardless, I needed to give space to other sides of self-achievement. I am still working on this transition.
I returned to, and started to nourish, a selected circle of friends — mostly women friends. They are a safe space to talk and cry, test ideas, form judgments, and to bounce back from.
I also needed a space to write and be read and critiqued. Luckily, I found the Geneva Writers’ Group, a place that fosters writing. Shortly after, I was able to join a small critiquing group. We (modestly) call ourselves the Virtuous Writing Group. We are nine men and women from diverse walks of life with a shared passion for writing. They have helped me gain confidence in my stories and the value of sharing them.
Every depression is different; I trust you will find the courage to imagine a different you in the future and to bring it to life. Finally, help stop the stigma. Say it: I suffer (or have suffered) from depression.