You’re on a trail winding deep into the forest. The sunlight casts a radiant light into the treetops; setting them aglow with rich greens and deep yellows. The air is crisp and fresh and with every deep inhale your lungs are filled with the energy of the world around you. Birds dance and sing in the tree tops and the branches move rhythmically with the sway of the wind. You feel alive, grounded and soaring. The world shines down upon you and you feel safe and loved.
As darkness falls and the last slivers of light disappear from the tree tops, the wind becomes cooler and stronger as the night air creeps slowly over your skin. The birds have stopped singing and the energy in the woods has dulled.
Suddenly you don’t know which direction you came from. With every step forward you descend further and further into the blackening woods. You try to turn back but nothing looks familiar; the trees are distorted and offer you no hope of finding your way out.
The longer you roam in the darkness, the colder you become. Your sense of reason becomes questionable and feelings of hope drain slowly from your body.
You are lost. You are alone. There seems to be no way out of this darkness and each time you run towards what you perceive to be the right direction, the violent sway of the wind pushes you down.
Exhausted, cold and vulnerable, you collapse onto the forest floor. There is little willpower left inside you to peel yourself from the dirt. Instead you shrivel into a ball to protect yourself from the wind.
The only thing left to do is wait in sheer desperation for a faint light to cascade over the forest and show you how to get out. The problem is, there’s just no telling how long it will take for the light to shine in.
Picture yourself in that forest. Picture how difficult it would be to endure this experience. Picture how much resolve you would need in order to survive. Would the sunlight ever come? Of course. But when you were lost in that forest you may not conjure up the strength to fully believe that.
Now imagine instead of that forest being a physical place it was a mental one. Imagine instead that your mind had created this place and by the end you were lost so deep in the cold and darkness of your thoughts; desperate for the light but unsure if it would ever arrive.
This is depression.
It’s taken me years to write this. Sure, there are hundreds of pages in my journal that describe my frantic search to get out of the woods, but never have I publicly shared my experience.
Why? I don’t really know. Perhaps I was afraid of the stigma. Perhaps I was afraid no one would understand, relate or connect to my thoughts. Perhaps I was afraid of being judged. Or perhaps it was simply because I was unwilling to be completely honest with myself.
Whatever the reason, I’m finally ready to share this part of my life. My only hope is that this resonates with at least one person who can take solace in the fact that they are not alone.
So here it is:
I’ve struggled with depression since I was in high school. Was it because I grew up in an alcoholic home? Was it because of the tension and anger that dwelled constantly within those four walls? Was it because of painful experiences I hadn’t dealt with? Or was it because I was a teenage girl; raging with hormones and descending into anarchy on a desperate quest to figure out who I was.
All of the above.
Yet beyond my physical surroundings there are also my genetic ones. I have a predisposition to depression and everyone in my family tree starting with my grandparents and continuing down was or should have been treated for their symptoms.
As I left my painful teenage years and graduated into adulthood I tried to run away from my pain. I went on trips, moved far away, bought countless things I didn’t need; I even bought my dog in a desperate attempt to fill the void in my heart. It was to no avail.
Moving to the Middle East pulled me deep into a realm of depression I had never experienced. I systematically went about my life in perfect order with a compulsion to dictate my external world. It was the only thing I felt I had control over.
When my commitments had been met I would lose myself into the darkness of my thoughts. I screamed onto deaf ears and clung desperately to the encouraging words of my family and friends to try and keep me afloat.
The magnitude of my depression overcame me one winter morning. I was in a hotel room in Washington, DC and I felt I could no longer take this mental and physical pain. I thought about how I could silently leave this world and release my soul from suffering. Could I take pills? Could I drive my car into a wall? Could I wrap a rope so tightly around my neck that I would exhale despair for the very last time?
Then I thought about my family. I thought of never seeing my sister again. I thought of how my leaving would tear out a piece of her heart. Could I really cause her that gut-wrenching sorrow? Did I want her to suffer even an ounce of this pain? No.
I realized in that moment that I wouldn’t get rid of my suffering; instead I would just give it to other people. As a person who has always put the needs of others before my own, I couldn’t fathom the hurt that my leaving would bring to others.
I flew back to the desert that night. The depression flew back with me but at least I didn’t die with it in that hotel room.
I’d like to tell you now that I am cured; that I had some beautiful epiphany in that hotel room and vowed to never again succumb to my dark thoughts, but that wouldn’t be true. Not all all, not even a little.
I still suffer from depression and since that moment there have still been really dark days when I have thought with sincerity, “what the hell is the point?”
The difference now is that I have a few more tools in my toolbox to help combat my feelings of darkness and despair. I can’t make claims to have all the answers to restore hope but I can offer suggestions for things that have worked for me.
Take these with love and use whatever ones resonate with you…
1. Find a counselor: As someone who has utilized this resource for years, I can’t say enough about counselling. Having an unbiased third party to offload your frustrations, worries and fears onto is cathartic. You set the pace for the conversations and there’s absolutely no pressure. Many places offer a free 15-minute phone consultation in order to understand your needs and place you with a suitable therapist. There are options for differing or reducing costs so even if money is an issue, you still have access to this valuable resource.
2. Exercise: This is proven to increase your endorphins and dopamine levels which are the “happy receptors” in your brain. Not only does working out improve sleep quality, the commitment to a routine helps formulate habits that create positive shifts. Plus, the added bonus of getting in shape is a huge confidence booster. Check out free online classes. Many don’t require equipment and can be done in as little as 30 minutes.
3. Write a gratitude list: Write down five things (or more) that you’re grateful for each day. By beginning to cultivate a more grateful mindset, you’ll teach your brain to focus on what is good in your life. This shift in perception can generate more feelings of happiness and contentment. Try this out for a month. You will be shocked at the impact this can have on your mood.
4. Go to a meeting: Al-Anon and AA may be branded for alcoholics and family but they are actually quite therapeutic rooms to communicate underlying emotions with an unbiased audience. The issues may differ but the feelings might have more similarities than you think. There are open meetings you can attend to get a feel for it. Many are currently being offered online so test out a few and see which one resonates with you.
5. Supplementation: Oftentimes there is a correlation between depression, vitamin deficiency and gut health. If you plan to explore supplementation, be sure to purchase high-quality products. Big box store brands don’t necessarily have optimal absorbability and you end up peeing your hard earned dollars down the drain. Consider the following:
B Vitamins: B12 deficiency can cause almost any psychiatric symptom, from anxiety, and panic to depression and hallucinations. This is because B12 deficiencies trigger symptoms in the nervous system and red blood cells. The B vitamins (specifically folate and B12) help the brain convert amino acids into mood-boosting brain chemicals such as serotonin.
Vitamin D: Canadian researchers reviewed 14 studies involving 31,424 participants and found a strong correlation between depression and a lack of Vitamin D. The lower the Vitamin D level, the greater the chance of depression.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): This molecule increases levels of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin. Studies find it significantly improves mood compared to a placebo.
S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe): Like prescription antidepressants, SAMe boosts levels of brain chemicals involved with mood. It works about as effectively as prescription medications and tends to kick in faster (within 1 to 2 weeks) than prescription drugs, which may take 3 or more weeks to begin working.
Zinc: Low zinc levels may trigger a drop in immunity that affects your mood. In one study of 14 depressed people, those who took a zinc supplement in addition to a prescription antidepressant were significantly less depressed after 6 weeks than those taking only the antidepressant.
As a gentle aside: experts don’t advise shelving traditional treatment, such as medication and therapy, in favor of focusing on supplementation instead. Rather, it’s suggested that deficiencies be addressed as part of a well-rounded approach to improving overall wellness. Always consult your doctor before making any major health changes.
6. Get in nature: Nature boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness. So hug a tree, talk to a squirrel or lay in the grass. It helps to be connected to the earth. Being barefoot is an added bonus as it’s said to improve mood and ease inflammation and insomnia.
7. Meditate: Relaxing your body helps reduce stress, promote mental clarity and evoke feelings of happiness. Follow a guided one on YouTube and give your mind a much-needed rest. Here’s a few more reasons to get into the zen zone:
Promotes emotional health
Lengthens attention span
May reduce age-related memory loss
Can generate kindness
May help fight addiction
Helps control pain
Can decrease blood pressure
8. Journal: Journaling can offer a therapeutic escape from an overactive mind. When you put pen to paper, you’re allowing your thoughts to manifest into words. This can offer clarity or an outlet to vent. Don’t attach to your current perceptions or place a judgement on yourself for feeling them. Simply permit the feelings to flow. Write in point form if it’s easier. Follow up with a few notes on things you appreciate and why. Again, don’t qualify your thoughts, simply observe them.
9. Medication: This isn’t one I have explored myself however, I know others who have found that it gave them the support they needed to get through a rough patch. It doesn’t have to be a long-term plan. Speak to your doctor and discuss something you're both comfortable with.
10. Volunteer: Giving back to others evokes feelings of positivity. There is truth in the words, “you have to give it away to keep it.” Find somewhere that resonates with your values and beliefs and share your time. Many opportunities are currently available online.
If depression were an easy fix, I wouldn’t be writing this article. It’s hard and it’s scary and it can be so isolating and exhausting. Part of overcoming depression is recognizing how it affects you and seeking assistance to move forward- be it from within yourself, your family and friends or God as you understand him.
There will always be ups and downs on this beautiful, heart-wrenching, glorious and wonderful journey of life but having the tools to successfully manage the ebbs and flows is an empowering place to come from.
Let me close with a gentle reminder: You are not alone. You are strong beyond measure. You are healthy. You are beautiful. You are capable. You are brave. You are love and you are loved. You are perfect.
With Love and Light.