“Maybe you’re depressed because you’re not drinking”

Yep, that’s what a colleague said to me yesterday. To be fair, it was said in jest and after I turned down an offer to go for a drink after work, but still, it’s a good opportunity for us to talk about alcohol. In fact, we need to talk about alcohol and how it affects and perhaps even accelerates the symptoms of depression.

I haven’t had a drop to drink since I started my treatment in June, and it has truly changed my life. It wasn’t that I was a heavy drinker to begin with, but it was all in the how and that I was essentially self-medicating and not really putting boundaries in place when I was feeling low. I was happy to have a glass of wine or three if I was feeling low. Wine became a part of my grocery shopping. While I can handle a hangover, I can’t handle the crippling depression that follows two days after a bender, which is usually when my mind catches up with my body and which really does send me into a spiral that is very difficult to get out of. Things balance out and to be frank, you feel worse than you did before.

Health risks aside, drinking heavily and extensively will have major effects on your body and mind in the long term, including affecting how you age, and your general levels of productivity. In the short term you may feel better by grabbing a drink when you’re stressed or anxious, but over time it becomes detrimental in many ways, all of which are detailed in a host of Youtube documentaries you can check out, but which I am only more aware of now, having been a regular party drinker in my 20’s. Thankfully I haven’t carried that habit over into my 30’s and I’d like a celebratory glass of champagne to become just that – something to enjoy for the right moment and the right reason, rather than just because or because it is the weekend.

If we’re talking about depression, we need to talk about alcohol, as the two go hand-in-hand for me. I have seen a drastic change in my mood since I stopped drinking, and generally, in conjunction with the anti-depressants of course, my mood has lifted tremendously in recent weeks. I wake up with more energy, not only to make my bed, do some chores and get to activities like walking on the beach, going grocery shopping or seeing friends for a coffee, but my attitude shift seems fairly substantial and I have a renewed capacity to be able to manage my tasks and the emotions that go along with them. It has also had quite a drastic impact on my weight: as things stand, I’m down to 87kg again, having started this journey in the 92/3kg range.

So how long am I going to be off’ alcohol? If you’ve been following the blog since the start of my journey, you’ll know that I’ve committed to six months as a minimum, for two reasons. The first, is that I don’t want to mix medication with alcohol, and I am on a six month script for my anti-depressants, which is non-negotiable. The second reason relates to it taking six months for your liver to “self repair” so to speak, especially if you have been drinking for an extensive period of time and there may be considerable damage. We’re lucky that our livers are able to repair themselves over time, though it is only possible if you catch it in the early stages, when there are symptoms of liver damage.

As I said, I drank socially all through my 20’s, so would like to allocate this time not only to improve my mental health, but to reverse some of that damage if possible, while also seeing the longer term effects and benefits to my general health and mood (if any). I’m planning on getting a checkup at the doctor’s at the end of the year and will be able to get a better sense of how my health has improved over time and hopefully this part of my journey can become another tool to help combat my depression.

Conrad was here.

We set physical health goals, but what about mental health goals? These are mine.

All through my late teens and my early twenties I set a lot of physical fitness goals. Run a half marathon. Lose 10kg’s. Jog five times a week. Walk three times a week. These were all usually achieved, as I tend to be someone who gets almost militant about achieving personal goals. It’s a blessing and a curse, and part of the reason why I ended up being diagnosed with depression in the first place. I’m learning to be a bit less rigid and more adaptable, which is part of what I’m working on with a life coach at the moment.

I find it incredible that we’re always quick to set physical health goals, but that mental health doesn’t get the same treatment. I can’t recall once in my life – other than in the last two weeks – taking time to prioritise what is going to be important in terms of my mental health and wellbeing as someone who suffers from depression. I’ve always been happy to accept that you simply get over what you’re feeling or going through, the phrase “get on with it” usually rings in my head, and subsequently my depression has crept further and further into my life, causing chaos across all spheres.

There was a stage a few weeks ago, before I was diagnosed with depression, where I wasn’t able to see past my 30th birthday, essentially, past the end of this month. I was in a very dark, suicidal place, which I am glad I can talk about in the past tense.

A useful recovery exercise for me has been to map out some short-term (6 month) mental health goals, which not only assist in keeping my recovery on track, but also helps me to see past just this month, this day, and this very moment. In a lot of ways, recovering from depression is a day-to-day process, and I wouldn’t advise on setting up a new five year plan when you’re in this state of mind, but some short-term checkpoints can really help to keep you motivated and also help you to have something positive about your journey to share with loved ones. Your recovery doesn’t have to be all “yes mom, I’m doing ok today”. Your goals provide context and others will be encouraged to support you along the way.

So what are my mental health goals for the next six months? I’ve tried to highlight them as simply and clearly as possible.

  • Quit drinking alcohol while you are on anti-depressants, to give your body the best possible chance to settle and readjust. This is something I haven’t spoken to any of my friends or family about, and am waiting to talk about once I’m a little further into my recovery. I haven’t even had the urge to drink anything since I started the meds and quite frankly I don’t need another reason for my body to feel worse. Ironically, people like showing up at my place for support, bottle of wine in hand.
  • Meditate three times a week. This one is tough, as I usually struggle to prioritise even just 15 minutes for myself at the end of the day. I’ve learned that it doesn’t need to be rigid and for a fixed amount of time, sometimes simply sitting in silence, practicing mindfulness for a few minutes, can make all the difference. In the long run, I’d love to make this a daily practice, but I’d like for it to draw me in. No more swimming upstream to make it a part of my schedule.
  • Take anti-depressants for at least six months. The doctor did warn that after a month, when I feel better, I’ll get the urge to go off the meds. I’ve committed to following through with the meds for at least six months, with the option to extend to a year if need be. Slow and steady wins the race. I’ve given over to the fact that I can’t control how this disease makes me feel by simply hoping I’ll feel better soon – the meds are an important tool in this regard.
  • Go to 15 therapy sessions. My medical aid has approved 15 free sessions based on my diagnosis (a ‘severe depressive episode’), which I need to use before the end of the year. This is major, as I would not otherwise be able to afford the sessions. I’m starting with therapy tomorrow and will continue weekly through until October.
  • Keep talking about your mental health to others. This includes what I consider a new calling to be a mental health ambassador of sorts. This blog, coupled with ‘real world’ conversations, has the power to reach people from all walks of life, and hopefully will encourage others to start a real conversation about how difficult depression can be to navigate. I’d like to explore becoming a mental health ambassador at work, and will be talking about it HR and my line manager about it once I’m further along in the process.
  • Write three blog posts a week. I’m aware that I’ve had the luxury of writing more over the past week or so, considering I’ve been off from work. Writing is therapy for me, nothing else. I am however aware that things will not always be as simple and that life will happen, and things will get busy again. I’d still like to make my writing a priority, as this blog is a big part of my recovery process. I’ve prioritised writing three posts a week for the rest of the year as one of my goals and am going to do my best to stick to this (so stick with me, won’t you?).

Perhaps you can draw some inspiration from my list. I also believe it’s important to make them fluid. Life happens, so navigate them to the best of your abilities. That’s not to say that the goals should be taken lightly, but also remember to go easy on yourself.

Recovering from depression is a marathon, not a sprint. Some days the list will seem impossible, others it will be the only thing getting you out of bed. It’s all about rolling with the punches. What are your mental health goals? I’m rooting for you!

Conrad was here.