On Depression and Burnout...

Preface: Screw the taboo, I'm gonna talk about this! Rarely, if ever, are we able to talk about "uncomfortable" topics like depression, but they're real, they're serious, and I would wager that if we would just talk about these things a little bit, then others who are going through (or have gone through) similar experiences might find some comfort.

There are few things that feel so good as returning to a normal life of happiness after suffering through a bout of depression. Thankfully, for me, such things are a rare occurrence, but I know that for some it's an ongoing struggle. The last time (prior to this Summer) that I dealt with depression was 2002 when I moved across country from Montana to Harrisburg, PA, leaving my wife behind because we couldn't afford to make a full move, seeing her once in ~5 months. Back then, it might have been the loneliness, the constant state of being broke, or maybe just general diet and exercise issues (or a combination of them all), but it was my first time dealing with depression, and it wasn't really until some months after emerging from that dark state that I even realized what it was I'd been going through.

This Summer marked a return to that dark place, and lemme tell ya, it was not enjoyable. Thank goodness for a tolerant and understanding wife and a handful of amazing friends who didn't give up on me and helped me find the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know what it was that put me into the funk. I had returned home from 4 weeks on the road, 2 of which being spent on vacation with the family. I came back to an empty house, having left the wife+kids behind in Minnesota to visit with the extended family. I was absolutely dreading the 2nd week of that 2-wk period because I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep myself busy. I digress...

As I said, it's unclear what the trigger was... Was it the prospect of loneliness? Was it exhaustion from all the travel? Was it exhaustion as I recovered from pneumonia (diagnosed in late June)? Was it a result of no exercise and a complete breakdown in my diet? Was it work stress? Was it something else altogether? I'll never know for certain, but what I do know is this: It sucked, it was miserable, and it happens to more people than you might realize.

For those who don't perhaps know me all that well, I'm an extrovert. I thrive off being around people. I need socialization for my energy. I also try very hard to be a nice guy. I like joking with people, teasing people, and just generally trying to be fun and funny. While I'm not obsessed with being liked by everyone, I am cognizant of the emotional aura people project toward me, and - depending on the day - that may influence me one way or the other in terms of general happiness.

The point here, though, is that I'm not naturally a frump (despite what some might think after pointed email exchanges). I'm generally full of energy and try to push forward through concerns, challenges, etc, etc, etc. So, when I fell into the pit of despair, suffice to say that it swallowed me whole and threatened to keep me forever.

If you've not dealt with depression, then here's an idea of what it's like:

  • You have no energy whatsoever. Even the most minor/trivial of tasks (including eating and sleeping!) are exhausting and often seem insurmountable. Getting out of bed is nearly impossible. You want to sleep all the time. Yet, contrary to this feeling, you can't sleep, or at least your sleep is incredibly uneasy and non-restful/non-recuperating.

  • Everything is shit. If you've heard the phrase "viewing life through rose colored glasses," then shift that to being "through black-death-tinted glasses." All the positives in life? Gone/forgotten. Ever had fun? Can't recall. The job? It sucks. Life? It sucks. Friends? Meh. Family? Meh. You believe, truly and deeply, that your life has been a waste, that you're just taking up space+resources on this planet, and you just don't think you belong anywhere. (If you're not seeing where this line of thinking potentially goes, then you're not trying hard enough.)

  • Everything is a failure. Related to the last point, but noteworthy... nothing you do is good/successful/worthwhile. Reaching out to friends? Fail. At best, they tolerate you, and at worst they hate you. Trying to relate to family? You're misunderstood and unloved. Trying to do your job? You suck and are on the verge of being fired. Note that this all applies to perceptions and not to reality. Perception is so much more important and powerful than reality... as we see time and time again with depression, politics, and mass marketing...

The key points to all of this is that the harsh, dark feelings are very, very, very real to the person experiencing them, no matter what reality may actually be. And, no matter what you (as friend or family) say, there's really no changing these feelings, which can be /incredibly/ frustrating for friends and family. For more on what it's like being depressed, see this excellent article on Huffington Post, "9 Things Only People With Depression Can Truly Understand," which perfectly captures some of the feelings and challenges associated with depression.

Soooo... how did I finally snap out of it? Honestly, I don't know for certain, but I have a few ideas...

  • First and foremost, my wife and close friends continued to provide support throughout the episode without deriding me.

  • Second, I got my diet and exercise back on track (this was hugely important with the 2002 episode as well).

  • Third, work-related stress abated (a little bit, anyway). In part, this came from a former manager telling me "Ben, you're a good analyst." Just being told this phrase (backed by performance numbers) did a world of good as up to this point I'd felt like I was failing completely. I also finally broke-through on a project that had been plaguing me the entire time, though the breakthrough could arguably be linked to my recovery, too.

  • Fourth, better quality sleep returned. I think this relates significantly to diet and exercise.

  • Fifth, my T levels bounced back dramatically (see this article about the impact of low T in men, often contributing to depression). This may seem like a trivial thing, but it plays heavily into energy levels, at least for men.

Breaking free from the funk is a wonderful feeling. Sure, it hasn't been all sunshine and puppy dogs since the initially breakthrough, but for the most part things have been fine. There are still down days, and I feel very vulnerable to getting tipped back into the pit of despair (as nearly happened on Sunday/Monday after receiving a rude email at work). But, for the most part... things are better.

It's really a hard sensation to describe. I quite literally feel like a switch flipped and overnight I went from dark depression to elation (which, in itself, is a dangerous shift, since extremes can swing both directions). My goal is to get onto and stay with my diet and exercise, and to work diligently to find the positives in life. And, to quote Dylan Thomas, I hope to rage against the dying of the light... to push forward toward those positives that make my life good, and try to steer clear of those things that detract from that goal.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"Do not go gentle into that good night"

Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

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