Learned Optimism Thought #1:
I am grateful for beautiful daughters who made my 50th birthday a memorable one.
If you can’t take medication to combat depression or suicidal depression, how do you cope? Do you resign yourself to desolation, or do you fight back? Can you fight back? How‽ This was the dilemma I faced years ago when anti-depressants had failed me and my life was worse off because of side-effects. What I learned in my battle against depression not only changed my life for the better, but helped me change other lives, too. Fighting off depression seems like hard work, but when you break down the coping strategies into smaller steps, depression becomes easier to conquer. That concept can seem daunting at first. I know it was for me. I spent years learning how to overcome depression. I could continue living a miserable half-life, or I could make incremental changes and begin my recovery. I chose recovery and spent many years experimenting and analyzing my patterns of behavior to work out the best path forward. Now depression doesn’t define my world, but instead is a hinderance that I work around. The scale of its magnitude has diminished, and I spend less time managing it. Whether you treat your major depressive disorder with anti-depressants or not, the coping strategies I discovered should prove very beneficial, especially after you adapt them to your own needs.
Pills don’t teach skills. At some point, we have to make choices, and, as is often the case, we must make those same choices over and over again until we start to see true changes in our behavior. As happy and well-balanced as I am today, there was a time when clinical depression defined my entire world. My first marriage was developing issues, my career was stalled, school was a chore, and I began motor ticking due to a side-effect to ADHD medicine that I was prescribed. Although there were many joys in my life, such as my newborn daughter, family that loved me, and friends that visited me weekly, I was deeply unhappy. I felt justified in embracing my sadness to the point of suicidal ideation.
Depression settled over my life as a thick, murky mist, making the world around me almost impossible to experience without a negative bias. I was angry, bitter, jaded, but worst of all, I was pessimistic. I lost interest in drawing for a year, which until that time was a lifelong passion. I lost interest in people and withdrew from social activities. I wouldn’t even attend a club I had founded that met in my own living room! Video games, escapism through entertainment, and the brand new internet gave me false focus, eating up time, masking my feelings, and distracting me from the important elements of my life. I had lost hope.
I spent four years sinking deeper and deeper into the blackness, then nine years climbing out of it. Eventually, I learned to overcome depression’s influence. I trained myself to think optimistically. I developed a sense of gratitude for my gifts and blessings—an incredibly difficult task in the beginning. I embraced my stay-at-home life and fatherhood more. I smiled more. I blogged about my struggles, my victories, and the lessons I learned. I shared my insights with other depressives and eked out a small corner of success on the internet. My message was simple: You have the power within yourself to defeat depression. As with most things in life, that was easier said than done.
The Beast We Have in Common
Clinical depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, affects more than 15 million American adults¹. My experiences with clinical depression began when I entered High School. I had been shy and introversive through my early teenage years, but by the time I became fifteen, my feelings of isolation and sadness began to affect my social and private life. I began writing poetry. Yes, deep, dark, morbid poetry. Thankfully, none of it survives to embarrass me today. However, when my mother found it, I was whisked off to Boston Children’s Hospital for immediate analysis. Not much came of that experience because children and teens weren’t diagnosed with depression in the early 80s. One memory of the experience that I retain was that they gave me a nine digit number to remember, then asked me to recall it later. I was even able to recite it backwards when prompted. I would love to have that power of recall today! They assessed my intelligence thoroughly, but my sleep and depression issues weren’t addressed to our satisfaction. The whole experience angered me then. I was embarrassed to be forced to participate in such an indignity, but now, as a dad, I appreciate the love and concern that my parents had for me.
Fortunately, I had ADHD, and that impulsiveness helped me have fun in high school despite my pervasive sadness. The party ended in my mid-twenties just after I became married. Maybe it was debt, marital difficulties, stress from school, or all of the above. Maybe it was my terrible sleep schedule, or my life’s failures catching up with me. Whatever was wrong, my wife at the time and I knew I needed help. I was already aware that I had ADHD, and had been treating that medicinally all my life (previously diagnosed as Hyperkinesis), but when I was diagnosed with clinical depression at twenty-four, there was a part of me that sighed a little, “So that’s what’s wrong with me…” At last! I finally understood why I wrote all those terribly bleak poems in high school, and why I had created so many self-portraits with my face in agony. And here I thought I was just a little bit moody.
I had been on a wide variety of ADHD and anti-anxiety meds in the previous years, but my new doctor gave me Desoxyn for ADHD and Zoloft for depression. Thus began a three week period of unprecedented organization and productivity. “So this is what it’s like to be normal,” I distinctly remember thinking, but my personal paradise of productivity didn’t last long. Suddenly, I developed violent limb and body tics. My entire nervous system was in turmoil. The doctor immediately took me off Desoxyn, which many of you might know of by the name “Methamphetamine”, but kept me on Zoloft. I limped along for a while, though the ticking didn’t abate, and then the Zoloft began to affect me negatively, too: it made me suicidal—something that is a known side-effect now, but which wasn’t widely known in 1992. I was a mess, and everything in my life seemed to be going wrong. In fact, I wanted to die. After a failed attempt at suicide (which I stopped before causing myself serious harm), I realized that something had to change. If I was moody before taking the meds ( Oh, so many meds!), and the meds were making me disconnected, loopy, and suicidal, then I would just live with being moody without meds again. I didn’t taper off. I just stopped taking my meds cold turkey.
A few weeks later I met with my doctor again and gave him my update. He told me that I shouldn’t have stopped taking Zoloft that way because a high percentage of people get suicidal when discontinuing it. I said dryly, “Ah, that would explain why I had such a rocky month.” I was always cracking jokes of the gallows variety, so deadpan wry that people often took my jokes seriously. However, that experience taught me something. I couldn’t trust anti-depressants and ADHD meds to fix my problems for me no matter how eager or confident my doctors were. Some people are non-responsive to psychmeds, and I was one of them.
The School of Hard Knocks
By 1997, I was a stay-at-home dad with two daughters when I had a life changing epiphany. There were a convergence of influences that came together in that year. There was the therapist who suggested I had a perception problem. There was the title of a book (Learned Optimism²) that I couldn’t get from my library but which struck me as a brilliant concept. There were the friends who came over every Friday & Saturday to be with me despite my moods. There was the wife who stood by me, and the parents who loved me. There was the unconditional love and warmth of my daughters, too, that affected me deeply. I had begun to notice that my sadness and self-pity hurt them because they cared about me. They were two-and-a-half and four, but they were my world. So one day I decided to test my perception problem. Yes, I had depression, but did it cloud my judgement? Did it warp my outlook? I was skeptical. I had solid reasons for thinking everybody hated me.
I created two email folders: Flame Mail & Compliments. I published anime fan art online at the time for fun and to spur me towards more drawing. This was in the day when we didn’t fear to put our email addresses on our webpages. Spam was not the scourge it is today. At the time, drawing was becoming increasingly difficult for me because of all the ticking, which depressed me, thus making me less inclined to draw. I was worse, not better, as a illustrator, and, consequently, I was very discouraged, so I took criticism of my work to heart. In fact, I was certain that my Flame Mail folder would fill up in days. As the emails came in, I sorted them to their appropriate folders.
At the end of thirty days, I had thirty compliments and one hate mail, which obviously was a fluke. So I extended the test for another month. At the end of that time period, I had an additional thirty-one fan letters, and one more hate mail. The tally was a conclusive 62 to 2. I had a perception problem.
That test transformed my life as I embraced the truth of it and took a long, hard look at myself. Did clinical depression have to shape how I perceived the world? At that time, I managed my ADHD with a PDA and a quiver of quips to shoot out as fast as I made mistakes. I laughed at my gaffes. I managed my ADHD and stopped beating myself up about it. Shouldn’t I manage my sadness, too? My tic disorder qualified me for disability payments, but was my joke that I was now a certified loser really that funny? Nobody else laughed when I told that joke. Maybe I shouldn’t have been laughing at it either.
In the years since that Fall in 1997, I have trained myself to change how I think about depression, disability, negativity, and my own weaknesses. I rolled up my sleeves and began to take charge of my life again. I changed my outlook and called it “enforced optimism”. I even started blogging about mental health in 2005, sharing my struggles and discoveries with others. When people began to ask me how I managed my depression without meds, I wrote a blog post (“Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 1”)³ that became one of my most popular posts. It remains popular even after twelve years. There is a hunger out there for help with depression without the side-effects and costs of medications. Despite what some in the mental health community might have you believe, not everybody responds well to anti-depressants. In fact, many people are highly sensitive to psychotropics and, like me, experience many of the detrimental side-effects with none of the benefits.
Are Anti-Depressants Really That Bad?
The purpose of this book is not to replace your psychiatrist. It is not to denegrate your coping mechanisms. I write it for those who can’t use psychmeds, but it intended to benefit all people who struggle with clinical depression. I have been accused in the past of being anti-psychiatry because of my early stance against psychmeds. It is true that I was more hostile towards psychmeds when I first began my blogging journey, especially since I was still reeling from their negative effects, but I always have recognized the need for a good therapist, especially a Cognitive Behavior Therapist (CBT). As for my anti-med hostility, my readers quickly tempered that antagonism. I learned through their heartfelt stories that many people rely on psychmeds as a lifeline because the meds gave them a fighting chance. Anti-depressants weren’t as evil as I had painted them in my mind. For some, they are still dangerous, so I always advise caution, but if meds give you benefits and help you manage the black beast, then please keep using them.
What you will find in these pages is a much expanded version of my original blog post. These are explorations of the CBT techniques I use to put myself in a better frame of mind so that I can manage my depression without meds. Many readers either learned to use these techniques as well, or they found these coping strategies on their own and let me know how glad they were to see somebody validating their experience. I can’t count all the letters I have received over the past twelve years that have thanked me for writing that blog post. We’ll begin our journey together changing the way we think about depression. This will set the stage for the next section which covers various coping strategies and why they work.
¹ Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics ² Learned Optimism by X S. ³ “Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 1” – http://douglascootey.com/2006/03/depression-ten-ways-to-fight-it-off.html
If you want to read more about overcoming depression, you should read my book.