Every story about depression is a little different. But when you can see the big picture, a lot of parallels start to appear.
Although I had gone through some rough spots here and there, my life was moving along alright overall until depression struck in my mid-forties. When I learned I was clinically depressed, I was devastated. I felt so weak. I never had an inkling that I could have such a condition, though I did feel a bit odd now and then. I remember feeling nervous, anxious or detached on some days, but I thought everyone felt this way at times. I didn’t give it much thought… until I crashed.
My symptoms showed up mostly at work, where the strains and stresses were growing daily. There was new management to deal with, sweeping changes, and a new and increasingly hostile boss. Workloads were getting crazy, and on top of everything was the endless corporate politics. Everyone was struggling, but my job was especially frustrating as I was caught between two feuding departments.
I began to feel that things were completely out of my control. Work was becoming impossible. By the end of a typical day I was drained and unable to focus on anything. Over time this sensation would hit me earlier and earlier in the day, eventually becoming my normal state. I had nothing left. Depression sapped all my energy. I thought it was a temporary kind of job burnout, and just tried to keep going. But it didn’t work.
My family doctor suspected depression and gave me some medication. Like many, my first reaction was denial. “Depression? No, not me. Impossible.” I didn’t know much about depression, but it seemed like weakness, failure, self-indulgence, things that couldn’t apply to me. For a man, it’s particularly hard to accept weakness. My health had generally been good and I always went to work everyday even if I didn’t feel great. But when the initial antidepressant failed to turn me around, I had to see a psychiatrist for stronger medication, and then a therapist. Everything seemed to be crashing down on me. Unable to work, I eventually had to go on disability leave. I felt useless, incapable. I was ashamed of myself for letting this happen.
Back then, I was totally ignorant when it came to these disorders, despite holding a masters degree in a social science, and from an Ivy League school. So I began reading about depression, that is, once I overcame the denial. One book led to another and another. I needed to learn why this was happening to me. I also learned a lot from my therapist and psychiatrist, mainly that millions felt the way I did and, more importantly, I shouldn’t blame myself. I wasn’t weak. It wasn’t my fault.
But it took a long, long time for this to sink in. I recovered enough to return to work after a few months, but I didn’t feel truly healed and I had a deep fear that depression could easily return.
This suspicion was proven out when I relapsed a few years later. Same kind of scenario, triggered by difficulties at work, and probably a bit of mid-life unease. And my symptoms were the same as in my first episode. I felt I hadn’t learned or progressed at all for allowing things to deteriorate again. I’m the kind of person who tends to blame himself, and that doesn’t help.
The therapists I was trying—I had to switch a few times to find one I liked— produced mixed results. They were focused on helping me cope with the present. But I was beginning to learn that mood disorders are often caused by unresolved issues from the past, especially childhood trauma. So I thought about my childhood, and yes, there indeed was what you’d call emotional trauma— quite a bit, and over an extended period of time– an alcoholic father who was distant and disapproving, but most importantly, who repeatedly exploded in uncontrolled rages when drunk. This happened from I’d guess age 5 or 6 up to my teens, probably hundreds of times. It generally wasn’t physical, but I can remember feeling terrified, sometimes for myself, but often for my mother.
To my shock, I actually had trouble finding a therapist who wanted to deal with these issues. Their attitude was, forget the past and move on. But what I was reading was telling me I had to treat the unhealed wounds of that early trauma. Young, vulnerable children cannot deal with continual uncontrolled rage from a parent. As a defense, you tend to seek shelter, and your feelings go into hiding. Repeated again and again, this becomes who you are. Distant, detached, numb, unfeeling. This is a formula for depression and related disorders.
What’s worse, unlike my twin sisters who could support each other, I was alone and unable to talk to anyone about these issues. So the wounds remained unhealed, for many years… until I learned enough to get treatment for the cause of my illness, not just the symptoms.
It was hard to believe at first– that I could fall into depression in mid-life as a result of my father’s drinking 40 years earlier. But it’s true. It happens to countless millions. Learning all this was beginning to make me feel better. I saw that it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t weak or incapable. I was just unlucky really.
Though this too took a while to sink in, knowing why I had fallen into depression was the key to my recovery. It relieved the crippling shame and guilt. And it allowed me to get treatment for those old wounds—true psychotherapy and trauma treatment known as ‘eye movement desensitization and reprocessing’ (EMDR), which causes the brain to reprocess memories and perceptions in a more positive light.
What’s tragic is that I had to suffer with depression for years before finding relief, and that so many sufferers out there aren’t getting proper diagnosis or treatment for old, traumatic wounds. They don’t know why they’re different or why they often struggle with routine things. That can be an unbearable burden.
I now believe—it’s hard to know for sure since the experts can’t even agree—that what I have is a type of PTSD. Depression may be more a symptom than an actual disorder. But make no mistake, these disorders are as real as it gets– they involve among other things, neurological effects that amount to brain damage. So it’s clearly not “all in your head” as many believe.
There is such ignorance and stigma surrounding depression, and not just among the general public but among caregivers as well. I had to put together the pieces to the puzzle of my illness largely by myself. So yes, there is definitely hope for recovery. But things need to change. The treatment most sufferers get is archaic and ineffective. Most people don’t know why they became ill and their caregivers don’t appear to know either. So how can they be treated properly? The latest knowledge developed from research is not making its way down to the people who need it.
I decided to do my small part to remedy this situation by writing a book to share what I had learned. The book would use my personal story to pass along new, critical information about depression and its causes, while also dispelling common myths. People needed to understand this disorder.
Over the last few years I also began to work in the mental health field, first as a peer educator, then as a survey researcher for a peer-collaborative mental health agency. I did this not just to contribute to a cause, but to be part of a community of people who truly care for one another. I think that’s vital. While I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, in some ways I’m actually happy that I’ve ended up where I am now.
Tony Giordano is the author of It’s Not All In Your Head: Unearthing the Deep Roots of Depression. Visit his website: It’s Not All in Your Head