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Taming the black dog of depression

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I was inspired to write all this in light of the many unexpected suicides I’ve witnessed this year, ranging from the recent high-profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, to the suicide of a high school friend a few months back. I refuse to continue giving in to the stigma of mental illness, and today I’d like to share my story about my depression.

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In doing so, I will be sharing my experiences of dealing with an ailment that affects millions of people daily, as well something that many well-known individuals have struggled with and overcome, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Michael Phelps to J.K. Rowling. Former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill famously described depression as his black dog. I had unknowingly been living with chronic depression and anxiety for the past decade, but things really went downhill during the past two years. I remember watching many awareness videos about depression over the years, thinking that it’d never happen to me, until I realized that the black dog that Churchill had alluded to was present in my life this whole time.

Depression, especially in men, can be a thorny issue to tackle. Men are often expected to be stoic, resilient bastions of strength by society, and we don’t often openly talk about our feelings with others. This societal pressure is often even more pronounced amongst members of various visible minority groups, where men are culturally seen as the sole breadwinners and heads of their respective households. Members of conservative cultural and religious groups tend to also be dismissive of mental health issues. For example, as a first generation Chinese-Canadian, my family doesn’t believe depression is a legitimate health issue. It’s already hard enough to admit to yourself that you have a mental illness, but it’s even harder when you fear your family, friends, and society in general will look down on you because of it.

This leads many to ignore the warning signs of depression, which we often attribute to other reasons such as stress, challenges at work, or relationship troubles and shrug them off, leaving it untreated. Men with depression tend to have different symptoms from women, often appearing selfish, argumentative, and aggressive with others, often blaming loved ones for our problems. This damages our personal relationships and can further isolate us. For many people, the rational part of their mind is in a constant struggle with their depression, telling them totally opposite things about themselves. Depression often takes over at moments when you’re most vulnerable, the same moments where rational thought is most crucial, which can often lead to tragic consequences.

For me, many symptoms started becoming noticeable in middle school. I had just entered the gifted program at this time. I went from being one of the smartest kids in my class to being somewhere in the middle to bottom-half of the pack. It didn’t help that I was constantly comparing myself to others. My self-confidence started eroding away, and I started feeling inadequate about every aspect of my life, including my academic achievement, social life, and personal appearance. This behaviour continued into high school and university.

Anxiety is commonly associated with depression, and it would cause me to have occasional mental breakdowns as I struggled to figure out where my life was going. I had no passion in any particular field and no long-term goals. I didn’t like the university program I was in nor did I find my courses interesting. I was upset at how poorly I performed in co-op job interviews and disappointed in myself when I struggled to find co-op positions over the years, when friends and others in my program seemed to find them so easily. I grew increasingly anxious and lost the incentive to work hard. There were many things I wanted to do, such as getting more involved in extracirriculars, learning how to code, or meeting new people, but I was never able to dedicate the concentration, time, and effort to achieve these things. Depression is the world champion at deceiving you into believing that you’re not good enough, or that you’re destined to fail anyways.

The combination of feeling isolated, inadequate, and not knowing where my life was going are the root causes of my depression. However, I attributed all of these feelings to puberty and the typical “teenage angst”. I wish I had known that I had a mental illness that could be treated. I wish I had known that I didn’t deserve to feel bad all the time.

Starting in high school, I occasionally had trouble sleeping. However, after the stress of university set in, this became a daily struggle, with my mind often being unable to stop overthinking about my life until after sunrise. Thus, I started taking melatonin pills regularly to fall asleep. Unknown to me at the time, they made my depression worse. I started having mental breakdowns twice a week and suicidal thoughts. I became more easily irritated and would say mean and hurtful things to people I cared about, just because I wanted them to know the pain I was feeling. I became increasingly dependent on others for emotional support. This neediness, coupled with my hurtful actions, caused me to lose a number of friends, including the one that had initially led me down the path to change.

Even though I was fully aware of how wrong this all was, I had totally lost control of my emotions and actions. My life had been hijacked by the black dog of depression, and I wasn’t myself anymore. At work, school, or social gatherings, I may have appeared as the cheery and talkative person that many people believed me to be, but in reality I was in self-destruct mode. I remember being at a friend’s party having a good time, then suddenly feeling sad and empty inside. I was thinking to myself, “wait, what the heck is wrong with me?” I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. And because I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how to ask for help.

Now, back to that one particular friend. They were the first person I openly talked about my feelings with. As I opened up to them, they started noting the issues with my behaviour, which we both assumed was due to my pessimistic mindset. I kept comparing my perceived failure to their successes and grew resentful, often getting mad at them for minor issues or blaming them for my problems. I always felt ashamed after doing this, but no matter how much I apologized and committed to change, the behaviour repeated itself even as I started gaining a more positive mindset and getting over my anxiety about where my life was going. I stopped comparing myself to others, and inspired by them, I applied to be a Year Rep at my program’s student association. This is a decision I’m truly happy with, as I’ve met many great friends from being a part of this fantastic team. However, eventually, there was a time I lashed out at them, and that ended the friendship.

My behaviour truly shocked me and served as a wake-up call, as I scrambled to figure out what had caused me to act that way. I booked an appointment with Counselling Services, and at the intake appointment learned about the side effects that melatonin pills can have. However, I never followed up with subsequent appointments, thinking the pills had been the root cause. Though my symptoms eased a lot after I stopped taking the pills, they still periodically came back. It didn’t help that I felt extremely isolated during this time.

One day in March, I was feeling really lonely and depressed, and then suddenly felt really lightheaded and indifferent to everything in life. I could barely feel my footsteps as I was walked. I had never experienced this feeling before, and got scared that if I had been alone, I would have committed suicide, so I immediately accepted an earlier invitation from another friend to study with her group. I felt a lot safer being part of a group. It was at this point that I accepted I had depression, and this was confirmed after I completing a bunch of online tests. It was later confirmed that I had persistent depressive disorder, a chronic form of depression that can worsen during stressful times.

Recognizing that I have a mental illness and that it isn’t something to be ashamed of has been a boon for me on my path to recovery. Knowing about the presence of the black dog means that I can tame it and not let it control my life. I was fiercely against taking antidepressants before, but I started doing so a few weeks ago and is has definitely made a huge impact. I’ve found it easier to get through a day and realize I can genuinely be happy again. I haven’t shed a tear ever since, a far cry (no pun intended) from before where at some points I reckon I’d tear up on a daily basis. After returning to university in fall, I plan to undergo cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and go to the gym on a more regular basis with the aim of becoming myself again.

Looking back, it breaks my heart to think that over the years, there were many things I wanted to do but was too hesitant to, simply because depression and anxiety kept telling me it was destined not to work out. I wasn’t actually living my life; I was merely existing and drifting through it. All the colours of my life had seeped away, and I was left with a dull, grey palette. However, I’m glad that I eventually realized a mental illness is not a weakness; it’s simply an illness like any other. Depression is a biological condition, a chemical imbalance in the brain, a struggle of the mind.

I’m happy to finally have the opportunity to make the most out of my life. I’m getting back into photography and plan to post more content on Instagram and YouTube. I also intend to do more travelling, something I really enjoy but had no motivation to plan while I was depressed. I’m also proud and happy to serve as the Co-President of my program’s student association in the fall. It’s a role that a year back I never would have expected to be in, but I look forward to planning lots of fun events for the community.

I’d like to thank all those people that have been there for me over the years. From those that actively gave me advice on my issues to those that unknowingly brightened my day with their company, I truly am thankful you were in my life. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how understanding friends have been when I’ve opened up to about my depression. I am thankful to my loving mom, who has always been there for me. Even though she cannot fully understand my depression due to the generation gap, I don’t blame her for it and am happy with the immense support she’s given me. Perhaps the person I’m most thankful towards is that one friend for seeing the good in me and opening themselves up to me when no one else would, and eventually leading me down this path to change and recovery. I’d like to apologize to them, as well as anyone else, that my actions may have hurt over the years.

I hope that by sharing my story, I can help end the stigma around mental illness. I hope that more people will be comfortable sharing their own stories about their mental health. It takes time and an ongoing dialogue for us as a society to transform this once-taboo topic of discussion into normal discourse, similar to talking about any other health issue like cancer or diabetes.

If you know someone that’s struggling with depression, please be there for them. It can make a world of difference for them to know that people care about them and recognize depression as a valid illness. If you feel you’re unable to be their primary support system, then please guide them to someone else that can help them, like a counsellor or therapist. For those also suffering from depression, I encourage you to open up about it, whether it’s to a close friend, family member, or counsellor. Never be afraid to talk things out and seek help, because I truly wish I had swallowed my pride and done so earlier, so I wouldn’t have had to endure years of unnecessary torment. Suffering in silence allows for depression to eat away at your soul until nothing but emptiness and sorrow remains. I also believe that by telling friends, they can keep me accountable on my commitment to put this dark phase of my life to a close.

The road to recovery won’t be fast or easy, but I know that I will be myself again, and that the black dog will never hold me hostage like it did before. Thanks for reading and best wishes to you all.

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