About a year ago, I was admitted to hospital. I stayed there for 15 days as doctors tried to get me better. It was difficult, but I knew that I was safe and that these people were going to help me. My diagnoses led to me missing 5 months of work and having to do therapy for 9 weeks (I was supposed to do 12, but I progressed well enough that I was able to cut it short).
You see, for about 4 1/2 years now, I’ve been suffering from depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. And it has affected my life greatly. I’ve missed out on things because of it. Worse than that, it tore my marriage and family apart. I loved (and still love) my wife, but I couldn’t communicate effectively or even nicely. In fact, many times, I could not communicate at all and even the smallest problems in a marriage become big ones when they are not dealt with in any way. I could hear a jumble of words swirling around inside my head, but I couldn’t open my mouth to let them out, no matter how much I wanted to, no matter how much I didn’t want to let any issues fester. Not only that, but I was not the parent I had always proudly been before – not to any of my 3 wonderful and amazing children
If you have not experienced severe depression and anxiety, or any other mental health issues, I hope for your sake that you never do. It’s a lonely experience, and sometimes, it sinks you to new depths before you really understand what’s going on.
Depression physically hurts. I ached everywhere. It also drains you of any energy. This leaves you exhausted and in pain every day, no matter what. I could sleep for 12 hours, wake up, and still need more sleep. In fact, if I got on the floor to play with the kids, I could simply pass out. I never meant to – I just couldn’t help it. The pain and exhaustion leaves you frustrated and, at times, angry. At everything. Nobody had to do anything wrong for me to get upset because I was perpetually on the knife’s edge of those negative emotions.
It can also rob you of many things. For me, it was humour, reading and writing, performing, playing soccer, and a relationship with my wife…all things that were/are an integral part of me. When it wasn’t making me fall asleep unexpectedly, it robbed me of my sleep, invading my dreams, waking me up, keeping me awake.
With anxiety and depression together, the worst things are the very real feeling that you are not understood, that nobody truly “gets” you, and the uncontrollable emotions. You isolate yourself because you don’t want to explain yourself, don’t want to be in social situations, and you have no energy for anyone else. And when you are in social situations (at least, this was my experience) you’re nervous, shaking, trying to avoid people, feeling very out of place, and very alone.
After we battled this together for a few years, it came to a head about 13 months ago. My wife was unable to deal with it any more – it was never ending and exhausting and taking a toll on her – and we separated.
I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. I couldn’t tell anyone and I couldn’t go home because we simply couldn’t live in the same house. I spent the next 3 days sleeping in my office to avoid anyone knowing. When I finally started to tell people (my family) what had happened, I started to really fall apart. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think clearly, I couldn’t even remember things that had happened less than 24 hours prior. I was a jumble of nerves and emotions. My doctor gave me 2 weeks off work. Nothing changed. Well, something changed – I got worse.
It continued to get worse until one night I called my wife and asked her to take me to the hospital. I had nothing left. I was exhausted. I was drained. I was begging for someone to help me. I was having what people commonly refer to (or used to refer to) as a nervous breakdown. A doctor saw me and I was admitted to the Mental Health ward.
I was scared. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know. And then my anxiety ran with every possible thing that could go wrong: What would people think of me? Would I lose my friends? Would I lose my job? Would I ever be normal again? Could it actually get worse? What if there was something more wrong with me? What if I never got out? What if my wife had an accident on the way to the hospital to visit me? What if everyone in theatre knew – would I be able to show my face there again? What if…what if….what if….
I don’t remember much of the first week in the hospital – I got up to eat and then slept. That was my average day. People apparently visited me. I don’t remember that, really. I met with my doctor daily. I remember a couple of those meetings. I had my dosage of meds increased, and a new one added. The meds that they had me on prior were apparently helping my depression slightly, but not enough, and not my anxiety.
I was there for just over 2 weeks before they discharged me. I saw other people come in after me and leave before me, even though they were there for ostensibly the same things. But I didn’t mind – I felt safe there. I felt understood. I didn’t want it to be permanent, I just wasn’t ready to leave.
When they did discharge me, they got me into a 12 week programme aimed at dealing with mental health.
I attended the programme every day from 9-2 for the first 6 weeks, then shorter days for the last 3 (because I cut it short). We learned about “automatic thinking”, “catastrophizing”, “mind-reading” and cognitive behavioural therapy.
It was work. The meds helped me function, but they didn’t heal me. To heal, I have to retrain my brain, establish new neural pathways to avoid those thoughts and worries, to avoid falling into depression again.
I went back to work in the middle of August, and I am still working on my health. I am still learning about my illnesses. Every day seems to bring some revelation, but I am getting better. It is a long and arduous journey, but it can be done. I recognize now the things I was doing, the mental processes that were leading me to the dark places. I see my depression and my anxiety for what they are – illnesses. (I will do my best to always call them what they are, because the term “mental illness” has such a negative stigma attached to it, and we don’t say, “He has a physical illness”, we say, “He has cancer” or “He has diabetes” etc.)
These illnesses affect every part of your life – work, family, social. Everything. Life, however, can get better, just not on its own, and not just with medications. The illnesses tear you to tiny pieces and it is up to you, not the medications, to put everything back together, to not be the Humpty Dumpty of the story.
On my last day in the program, I was asked to share my story of what had changed for me in the time I was there. The first thing that came to mind was that, when I entered the hospital, all I could see was darkness. I had no hope. No joy. But after the work I did, I could see the light starting to peer through the darkness. I heard a song in my head (and it was not just sad songs anymore that I would hear), and I told them all how true it was, how real and how good it felt to find a song that really encapsulated what I was feeling at the time. I still like to listen to it because it is such a positive message. Escaping from the depths of these illnesses really is like realizing that, yes, “Here comes the sun”.
I hope you never encounter these illnesses, and, if you have, I hope you never encounter them again.
But in the end, like other illnesses, they can be beaten. I’m going to be proof of that. I’m not there yet, but I will be. I will rebuild my life, in whatever form that takes.
Just do me a favour – if you feel yourself starting to struggle, starting to withdraw, get help. And if you are not feeling any better after that first dose of help, ask for more. Ask for more until you get what you need. There is no shame in asking . No shame at all. Don’t let your illnesses consume your life and destroy what is good. Don’t be like me. Don’t let it take your greatest possessions. Don’t let it rob you of what and whom you love.