Depression is a condition that affects millions and unfortunately many don’t see as an illness. There is so much more to it than just a feeling of sadness. I have invited my good friend, Bruce, to share his story and provide some insight about this potentially debilitating disease.– Christian Nocera
Hello, and Happy Holidays. My friend, Christian, asked me to write a blog post on the subject of depression, which seems so prevalent during the holidays. I can tell you from experience, that is definitely true for me; however, before we dive into my reflections on living a life with depression, I want to impress upon you the size and scope of the issue.
Depression is Trending
The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. That figure represents 7.1% of all U.S. adults. It’s higher in women than men and highest among 18-25 year-olds at 13.1% of that age group. The 2017 rate is even higher among adolescents ages 12 to 17 at 13.3% of the population of approximately 3.2 million people. The rate among adolescent females is a staggering 20%.
Unfortunately, a look at the trends indicated the rates of depression are on the rise. Columbia Unversity’s Mailman School of Public Health reported in 2017 that depression rates rose from 6.6% to 7.3% between 2005 and 2015. Most notably, the rate among adolescents rose an astounding 4% from 8.7% to 12.7% in that same period. The big thing to keep in mind is that these statistics are based on diagnosed cases, which means the actual number of those affected is likely much higher.
In association with the increase in depression rates, suicides are also on the rise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported in April 2016 that suicide rates in the U.S. were at a 30-year high. Furthermore, it is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 and the third for children aged 10-14. Sadly, it is 100% preventable.
Statistics are informative and portray the gravity of the situation, but they do not tell you the real story. What is it like to live with depression?
The Person I had Become
I was diagnosed with major depression in 2002. My life was out of control, and I hit bottom. I was angry at everything, and it was showing up in every corner of my life. The anger was only one of many symptoms, but it was the most prevalent.
The person I had become was not who I wanted to be. I was verbally abusive to my family and some co-workers – the complete opposite of who I was fifteen years earlier. It had to change, and on a friend’s advice, I sought out counseling.
Depression Diagnosis and Prescription
The counselor gave me the diagnosis and referred me to my family physician. I was prescribed anti-depressants. First Zoloft, then it was mixed with Welbutrin.
I clearly remember in one follow-up appointment when my doctor asked me if I felt normal or like myself again. I told him that I had felt anger, chaos, hopelessness, and immense sadness for so long that I did not know what was normal. He asked how long I had felt this way. I told him I had easily been in this hole for over ten years, but didn’t recognize depression was the issue because of all my anger.
I was ashamed of who I had become, and I felt weak. Why couldn’t I control this thing? Why couldn’t I change my mindset?
I hid the diagnosis and quietly started changing things in my life to improve me. It was complicated for me because putting myself first did not come naturally for me. I was a professional at putting everybody and everything else before me.
Over those many years, I contemplated suicide often. I never went as far as actually planning it or deciding on a mode, but it always seemed like an option. I prayed about it for years, and I just knew I could not do that to my kids.
Taking Control of Me
Things never improved, they only got worse until I began to take control of me. My (now ex-)wife was agitated with my changes. I begged her to go to counseling, but she refused. After explaining to her that I’m only staying in the marriage because of our dire financial situation, she finally agreed. However, she never really participated because she never wanted to admit there was anything wrong.
The marriage was a failure, and I had no choice, so I made the gut-wrenching decision to end the marriage. It was the only chance I had to find me again. I don’t know how, but I mustered up the strength and left. I felt so guilty about what this meant for the kids, but I had to move forward.
A Happier Life
Nearly fifteen years have passed since the divorce. All of my children are adults now, and although it was stressful for them, they finally understand why I had to do it. And they like the person I have become much better.
My story isn’t much different from many others. The divorce helped to reset conditions in my life, but I still struggle with depression. Why? Because it is a mental illness, not just a state of affairs. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Sure my life is much happier now, but that doesn’t prevent me from struggling with depression. Thankfully, I’ve dispelled my anger, and it rarely impacts me. Yet, I can’t put my finger on the exact problem and flip a switch to change my mood. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. I am a successful business executive with an amazing new wife, great children, and plenty of friends. Still, I get sad sometimes, and I don’t even know why. That is the damndest thing about this condition.
Codependency & Depression
In 2016, I had been functioning successfully without medication for about eight years, but I had a severe relapse. I once again sought out counseling, but this time we dug deeper to find a more substantial root cause. While the marriage was toxic and the situation chaotic, the real problem was more in-depth.
The counselor made a relationship to an ongoing behavior pattern, which is titled “codependency,” to my struggle with depression. The 2016 situation was attributed to a toxic work environment and significant stress. I had been promoted into an executive role, which has its own challenges. Still, many issues impacted me, causing me to revisit my old nemesis, depression.
One of the characteristics of a codependent is trying to control things out of one’s control. As I studied the condition, it was like I was reading a book about myself. I could identify triggers, causes, and results. It was wonderful to find some root cause, but it created an even more significant challenge – I had to change myself almost completely. Learn how to set boundaries, dismiss the anxiety over things out of my control, and how to stop over-extending myself. I had to learn that I could offer advice or guidance if asked but step away from taking on another’s problems. An individual must take responsibility for their problems. I can’t make a person do one single thing they don’t want to do!
I have worked on these codependency tendencies for the past three years. There is even a 12-step program adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous. I have a lot more work to do, but thankfully for me, I have a direction, when so many people with depression do not. They have no bearing and no compass. They cannot define it, and they struggle to figure out how to work on changing their mindset. Nothing about this is easy, and it will be a life-long challenge.
“I’m Doing Great!”
Oh, and did I mention how many of us are experts at hiding our condition? Ask us how we are doing or how we feel, and we’ll tell you “fine” or “ok” or maybe even “great.” Unfortunately, we’re not, but we don’t want to admit it, and often, we feel ashamed. There is still much stigma around people with depression or any other mental illness or challenge.
“What’s their problem?” “Are they an addict?” “Will they show up for work today?” “Are they volatile?” “How can they be depressed? They have it all going for them. They make tons of money.” “How can they be a Christian and so depressed?” “It’s all just between their ears!” “They’re weak!”
I’ve got news – some of the strongest people you will ever meet have a mental illness. They have to fight through the stigma, bullying, stares, questions, and name-calling daily – all while trying to fit into a world that doesn’t understand them.
Holiday Challenges and Depression
The holidays present a particular challenge for those of us with depression. It is “the most wonderful time of the year,” right? Not for many of us. And because of the expectation that everyone should be so jolly makes life with depression so much more challenging during the holidays. People mean well when they say “cheer up” or “have a cup of cheer,” but the reality is it’s not that easy.
Now a common misconception is that suicide rates are higher during the holidays; however, the evidence shows that it is incorrect. An article published on April 19, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal* points out that “a review of 113 academic papers published between 1979 and 2009…found that a majority confirmed a spring-time peak” in suicides. This is not just in the U.S. but worldwide. The article also states that “December typically has fewer suicides than any other month according to…the CDC.” However, the reality is that depression is a year-round issue for many people.
For me, personally, and like many others, the winter months are the most difficult. The cold weather, being stuck indoors, and the seemingly endless gray, drab days of Central Ohio can be a difficult struggle. I know many people who have purposely moved to a region with more sunny days to avoid the winter slump. Others, like me, sit in front of a “happy lamp” through the winter to help with the seasonal depression.
Mental Illness is REAL
Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many other mental illnesses are real and can be just as debilitating as physical issues. If you think you may suffer from mental illness, see your doctor, find a counselor, and start living. There are no easy outs, and it takes work, and each person has to find the formula that works for them.
As for me, I became a born again Christian, I’ve worked with different counselors, I am on anti-depressants, and am changing my career. I work daily at trying to follow the codependent 12-step program. However, the beginning of any road to recovery always starts with Step 1 – admitting you are powerless and your life has become unmanageable. Yes, every 12-step program puts a focus on a Higher Power. A supreme being that will work with you to get through your struggles. That may not be for everyone, and that is ok because there is always more than one formula. I happen to believe that I can only make it through each day with the help of God.
That’s the Power of Love
As for my career change – well, I am going into fulltime ministry. You see, steps 1-11 focus on you and how you break the cycle of codependency. The premise of Step 12 is to help others by sharing your experience and giving encouragement. I have read that the most successful people in any 12-step program become proficient at Step 12.
I believe firmly in the power of love that flows from a heart of gratitude. Kindness and encouragement should be humanity’s hallmark superpower. My purpose is to support and lift others up through my life and my example.
Happy Holidays and Be Good to Yourself.
Bruce W. Miller
* McGinty, J. C. (2019, April 19). Behind the Spring Suicide Peak. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-the-spring-suicide-peak-11555673400.