Six months into my depression recovery, what have I learned?

This morning I’m off to see the doctor for my six month checkup, armed with renewed confidence, thanks to a voicenote from a friend, who decided to sing “Happy Six Months, Conrad” to the tune of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” (in Marilyn Monroe fashion) to start off the day. I fully embrace the wonderful weirdness of the people I have in my life these days and she is someone who is so very special to me.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a year since my breakdown, and while challenging, these have been incredible personal learning months for me. I’ve made some big decisions, which I’m in the process of putting into action, including moving to a new living space in October, prioritising my inner circle over interaction with a broader crowd of acquaintances, and generally working on actively practicing self care and self love as regularly as possible. Man, is it bloody hard to do! You’d think it would be easy to be as kind to yourself as you like to be to others, but some days it is a real struggle. I’m working on it and it remains a daily practice.

The main lesson I’ve taken from this period is that recovery really is a day-to-day process and that you will go through cycles of feeling good, and cycles of feeling awful, based not only on life’s daily challenges, but also related to your sleep pattern, and how well you’ve been eating. Some days I feel stronger than others, some days I can take on more, but altogether I have definitely realised I have less capacity to take on and handle as much (or as many daily tasks) as I used to be able to. This was tough to come to terms with as I am known for being an overachiever. It’s hard to be gentle to yourself knowing what you used to be capable of doing, but my friends remind me that it’s like comparing two completely different people, which is so true. I hardly recognise the person I am today, compared to twelve months ago. I feel like I have progressed into a version of myself I recognise as someone more authentically me; less of a version I felt an expectation to be throughout my twenties.

This more authentic me does need a regular talking to though, and a regular reminder not to try to take on too much. When I get anxious, I get busy. I’ve had to learn how to draw a line in the sand with work, social and other life commitments. I’ve had to start saying no, even when it was very difficult to do so. My reasoning may have nothing to do with the request or the person, and everything to do with working to uphold my recovery boundaries. If a social setting is going to compromise my sobriety, you can guarantee I won’t be there. If a friend calls me only to offload their struggles, I have to gently remind them that I don’t have the capacity to take on any of their problems on top of my own. I can be an ear, I can’t be a solution. This is something that people are getting used to, as I used to be a yes man, and used to agree to anything and everything just for the sake of pleasing others. And here I wonder why I burnt out completely in June – clearly it was a long time coming! My life is far less complicated now because of this and quite frankly, it works for me.

Something else I’ve learned over these past 180 days, is that recovery from depression remains your journey, and yours alone. Yes, it helps to have a support network and to have access to resources. At the end of the day however, you are still responsible for getting yourself up in the morning, honouring your commitments, and you are equally responsible to consider how you would like to respond when you notice that you’re starting to spiral. I do some really stupid shit when I spiral, but I’ve learned that it’s not about being judgmental to my actions in those moments, but rather stopping to reflect on it as soon as possible, slowly working to navigate myself back to a healthier headspace, hopefully a bit sooner than I did last time. It’s very difficult but it has gotten easier over time. The best advice a friend gave me during a spiral day recently, was simply looking me square in the eyes, and saying “STOP IT”, with a cheeky smile. Another friend has reiterated that I “shouldn’t be so mean to her friend”, i.e, if I’m mean to myself, I’m essentially mean to her friend, which is a very sweet idea. These might not apply to and work for all relationships, but it’s helped to have a couple of people who can tell it to me straight when I need a dose of truth tea and when I start going down a rabbit hole of emotions. Similarly, I think I’ve gotten better at being direct and honest with people, which is always a positive.

I’m not going to sit here and say it’s been an easy road so far, but I definitely know myself better than I did six months ago, and for that I’m very thankful today. I’m taking a moment to pause on that and to reflect. My plan moving forward is to continue with the anti-depressants for at least another three months, and to re-evaluate where I am at in March. Let’s see what the doctor says and take things as they come.

Conrad was here.

Drawing closer to six months of depression recovery & sobriety this month.

The end of the year is here and I am inching ever closer to the six month checkup with my GP. I’m happy to report that since taking a break from the blog to focus more energy on my day-to-day recovery, I’ve stuck to my guns and and continued to take my meds each day, while also maintaining my sobriety, though I will say that it has been incredibly challenging, especially in the last month.

Call it a plateau, call it a dip, call it life throwing me a few curveballs in quick succession (To give some context: a work agreement with the first client I signed to my business ended abruptly, I slipped in the shower, hitting my head, arm and cracking open my toe, I got dumped out of the blue by someone I was starting to care about somewhat more than usual, two friends went through serious health scares, one of my housemates’ pets passed away unexpectedly, someone close to me made a life altering revelation to me and me alone, plus, I received a damn traffic fine for R2000 – this was yesterday in fact). No matter what you want to call it, dips remain a part of this thing we call life and I’ve made peace with that. Still pretty shitty to go through.

Like the waves of the ocean, things happen in ebbs and flows, and while the past month has been challenging in terms of external circumstances (essentially, adulting), I haven’t worried about dealing with these events, but rather been more concerned about potentially dropping my guard with regards to important self care boundaries I set up at the start of this journey in June. I have to admit did in fact drop a lot of the boundaries as a result of the external events, but I’m happy to report that with support from friends & family, coaching and therapy, as well as practicing saying no to people, I’ve gradually managed to navigate back out of the rumbling strip and am pointed back in a more positive direction: reaching 6 months of recovery, on December 17th.

For some reason, I managed to get it into my head that sobriety should make the recovery process “easier” or “faster”, make the meds work “better” than usual and would essentially mean that my mood and general energy levels would gradually improve until I was “fixed” from this whole depression experience, so to speak. To be fair, my mood changes were so drastic between months 2 and 4, that I could be forgiven for thinking so in the first place. My doctor was quick to correct this when I saw her regarding the slip in the shower, remarking that in cases with someone who has a family history of depression, it was important to note that a breakdown tends to require at least nine months of treatment, and even then, there are no real guarantees. Would have been useful to know this upfront and before I set my own expectations, but nevertheless, she got the information across without me throwing a fit.

She encouraged me not to assume that after six months everything would be miraculously better, and it did get me to rethink my approach to all of this. It was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow at the time (perhaps because deep down I already knew this, or because she was busy dressing my cracked toenail and I was having a mini meltdown), but I swallowed the pill nonetheless and have once again been reminded of something that has been central to this journey: you can really only take things one day at a time. There is no timeline, no rulebook, no right way to guarantee success. Nothing is promised and that’s ok. This perspective has allowed me to be more appreciative of the little pleasures in my day (which my Instagram has clearly been reflecting in recent weeks).

I also recently came to the realisation that mental health is a tremendously personal thing for everyone, depending on their journey and life story. Sobriety and taking your medication as prescribed naturally doesn’t hinder recovery and is encouraged by healthcare professionals, but I have realised it isn’t possible to apply general recovery principles to large groups of people, or to attempt to give advice to others that should be considered a ‘guaranteed solution’ for the other person, simply because it may have worked for me or made things a little more comfortable for me. I therefore now find pleasure not in giving advice, but rather in learning to be a better listener to the journey of others. I can only share my story and hope that it encourages others to take a step in the direction of mental health prioritisation once they are ready to do so and in their own time.

No other person on this earth can take responsibility for your mental health. Each person has their own journey to go on, and the best I can hope for moving forward is to have as many conversations about mental health as possible, in the process detaching from the self appointed title of “advocate” and essentially just allowing myself to be open to connecting with people who are brave enough to be vulnerable, and from whom I can learn a great deal too.

– Conrad was here.

It’s impossible to be everything to everyone. How I bounced back from a tough week by defining new personal boundaries.

If you’re a goal-oriented person, you’ll understand the internal struggle that ensues when things in your life start to slip and you realise you can’t juggle as many plates at the same time as you may be used to or have been able to do in the past. There are many factors that contribute to this feeling, but naturally being in a negative headspace (or working through depression) compounds these feelings and could result in you dropping all the plates altogether (been there, done that, got the T-shirt many times).

This week was quite a tricky one in all senses: I was being pulled at all angles from friends, family, work, in my love life and more. We all go through times like this, where navigating our happiness starts to feel like a bit of an impossibility and it just seems like there is too much going on to be able to cope as we normally would. I felt like this all through the week and knew I wasn’t coping as early as Monday, when I had the infamous Squillos relapse, something I’ve made peace with and forgiven myself for (go kindly, go gently, Conrad). I kept trying to convince myself that I could scrape through the week of course, and I did, but only because of a couple of cups of “truth tea” from my friends, colleagues and of course, my therapist. A bunch of people approached me privately about seeming out of sorts this week and I must say I appreciated them noticing, though it didn’t make me feel any closer to that ultimate goal – making it to my annual review meeting at work at 3pm on Friday. I eventually crawled there, only to have the sentiment I had heard all week echoed: Conrad, you’re taking on too much. Not everything has to happen right now. Not everything has to happen on your timeline, Conrad. This is a lesson I constantly have to remind myself about, and I push back to it so feverishly, as naturally I like to control things. I’m trying to appreciate it more when things are in the natural flow and where it feels like there is a good balance between the various aspects in my life, but if I’m honest, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like I’ve had full control over all aspects of my life. I think the very idea of it is a farce, and a source of great shame for myself and for many of us.

I don’t want to simply brush past the most important lesson and learning from this week, which I reflected on quite a bit on the beach this morning. I’ve been taking on too much, and even went as far as to request more responsibilities at work in my review feedback(!), even knowing that I needed to scale down. My therapist says that when I’m anxious, I get busy, and this is so true. I’ll say yes to everything, everyone and ultimately shift and lose all focus on my personal wellbeing. It is so important to know your limits; to be weary of the signs when things start to slip, and to try to not get too far ahead of yourself. I constantly have to remind myself that not everything has to happen on the same, single day, and that there is often a trade off between making time for friends and family vs. time for my business, for example. Its not an exact science and you constantly need to engage in an exchange of your time, managing relationships and dynamics as you go, and you walk a tightrope, hoping you’re making the right decision at that particular time (cue: living on a prayer). It doesn’t always work and isn’t always emotionally convenient. I look at my business like a baby for example – it’s two years old after all (terrible two’s? hope not), so does that mean it needs more attention than my family does? Sometimes the answer is yes, because I am responsible for it and myself, and that’s OK. I try not to beat myself up about prioritising certain parts of my life when I need to but am also constantly trying to be everything to everyone. This is not sustainable and something I should consider tattooing to my forehead, as I seem to forget it more often than I remind myself of it.

So what did I actually do this week, in order to scale back on all the commitments, you ask? I started by defining some new personal boundaries, including:

  • Not arriving at work earlier than 9am, and ensuring I leave at 5:30pm. I failed at this on Tuesday, for which I was called out by my colleagues who know what I’m trying to do, though I will say I stayed longer for something fun at least (a cupcake decorating competition at the office). On Monday I was there for 11 hours and I felt the burn when I got home. It’s not a good look (#boybye).
  • Committing to not adding more social commitments to my schedule this week. That included telling my work wife that I couldn’t do dinner with her after work on Friday, even though we haven’t spent much time together for nearly two weeks. That of course, after I asked her to get together! I was simply getting busier when I should have focused on resting. I’m happy to report that last night I ate copious amounts of popcorn and watch half a season of Friends, something which gave me great joy and something I want to do more of.
  • Postponing the gym classes I wanted to attend this week until after I have moved next weekend. I figured a change in routine would be best once I’m settled in my new environment after October. I’m also exploring going to a yoga class as a meditative activity, and having never done a yoga class, I’m quite excited about it. While physical activity is important, I do make sure I walk 5km on the beach each weekend, so I told myself that the time simply wasn’t right for me to increase my physical activity and that’s ok. One day at a time.
  • Leaving all my daily prep and organisation for early in the morning, when I’m awake and productive, rather then stressing myself out to get organised when I get home after a long day of work. Nothing is going to happen if my lunch isn’t packed the night before. I can also get home and relax and that’s cool too.
  • Deactivating most notifications on my cellphone, so I don’t get so distracted and consumed during the day. This has been a growing concern since I got a new phone and started getting active on social media again. I was quiet on social media for almost 2 years (I used to have accounts with thousands of followers, which I deleted at the peak of my depression), so it’s a new change for me to be back out there so to speak and telling a new story about myself.
  • Another genius boundary I set, was implementing a daily “do not disturb” setting on my cellphone which silences calls and messages between 22h00 and 06h00, so I can try get 8 hours of sleep. I haven’t been sleeping so well, which has meant that my mood and energy levels have been suffering. I’m also switching my cell off for an hour a day, from 6 – 7pm, so I can enjoy dinner in peace and reflect on the day, rather than feeling pressured to get back to friends, family or a love interest. I can only do so much. Thankfully, with the iOS 12 update this week, I’ve also been able to start tracking screen time, to see just how many times in a day I pick up my phone and how long I spend on which app. I must say it’s kinda scary seeing the stats from the last couple of days, but it’s something I’m keeping an eye on! The feature allows you to disable apps for certain times during the day and I’m hoping I can stop myself from checking social media as the first thing I do when I get up in the morning. What would be better? 10 minutes of quiet time in bed (#goals).
  • Sticking to one cup of coffee a day, knowing that it affects my anxiety levels if I consume more than that. Yesterday, I broke out in a sweat from a single cappuccino (I had a good chuckle with some of my colleagues about this), yet another indicator that caffeine really isn’t good for me on a day when I’m feeling anxious to begin with.
  • Deactivating my Tinder card and letting my matches know that I’m taking a bit of time to myself this week, and that I would be more quiet than usual. Of course this meant people thought I unmatched them and that I wasn’t interested anymore, but quite frankly, I can’t be bothered and they can stay pressed. This was a liberating exercise, as it has felt very overwhelming managing so many new relationships and interests (I liken it to holding a flower in your hand for each match, and readjusting as the wind blows it around your palm, while you have very little context what the hell they’re feeling or busy going through). It has made me more anxious than ever. This can be a fairly emotionally draining process in many senses too as I am a romantic at my core. I love hard, I connect easily and invest quickly, something that is a work in progress and something I am trying to manage to the best of my abilities.
  • Committing to 3 solo lunch breaks a week at work. Recently I’ve discovered that I’m spending my lunch break with someone else pretty much every day of the week, which can be fun, but also draining, depending on who it is and what we talk about. I’m naturally inquisitive and like offering advice, but I forget that I sometimes take on the burden of someone else sharing with me. This is part of a gift of connecting with people which I am so appreciative of, but I also know that I have to be careful. Being Cancerian (i.e the crab), I know that I often need to “go into my shell” so to speak, and need some time to myself to reflect and write, so I’m making a new commitment to myself to only spend two lunch breaks a week with other people. As for the rest, I’ll take my friend Kate-Lyn’s advice, and simply “do whatever the fuck I want to” that day. I’ve also earned to right to do what feels right and to go with the flow where possible.
  • Learning to say “I’ll do my best to try do that for you”, rather than “yes, I’ll definitely do that for you”. Thank you to Alice, the head of the marketing department at work, for giving me this inspirational advice yesterday. I am so used to overcommitting and over stretching myself and wanting to get to everything and everyone. I don’t have to say yes and am also allowed to think about things. This is not something I need to explain extensively as a lot of us struggle with it, but it remains something I need to remind myself of and put into practice daily.

Are you feeling like your batteries are running a little low? If so, have a think about some boundaries you can set in your day, that will help to simplify things for you too. They can be as rigid or strict as you allow them to be, as long as you show yourself some kindness along the way.

As for the rest of the weekend, I’m happy to do whatever brings me the most joy, and also to spend some time focusing on the fact that I made it through a difficult week, with a couple of big personal victories.

Conrad was here.

 

How drastically different my life is 8 weeks after seeking out treatment for my depression.

Two months ago I spent almost an entire weekend in bed, unable to get up to do something as simple as throwing in a load of washing a couple of steps from my bed. I had hit rock bottom, hiding my depression from my family, friends and colleagues and pretending that I was OK and coping with the pressures of modern life.

This morning my day started completely differently: I woke up and cleaned the apartment, went for a walk on the beach, grabbing a cappuccino at a local cafe, and yes, it’s 10:27 and I’ve managed to throw in my washing already. I’m giving myself major points for that one.

My life has changed drastically since I realised I needed to get help, and I wanted to share the things that feel different now compared to then, with hopes that it will encourage you to get some help if you feel like things are getting too heavy and you need a change in your life. I know we all have a different journey and that depression affects people in a variety of ways, but this has been a part of my journey, and perhaps you can draw some similarities in your experience too.

Firstly, therapy has completely changed my outlook on life. I’ve done 7 sessions so far, and I am at a point now where my therapist is challenging me on specifics that I need to deal with. It’s wildly uncomfortable and exciting at the same time, as I am gaining greater insight into myself and feeling like I am developing a strong set of mental heath coping mechanisms in the process. While it doesn’t work for everyone, CBT has always been a winner for me and I am lucky to have a therapist I have a strong connection with – she is able to put me in my place (very few people are) and it’s exactly what I’ve needed these past few weeks to change my attitude and to keep going on the recovery journey.

Since the SSRI’s kicked in about two weeks ago (week 6), I’ve started feeling spontaneously happy during the course of my day. I’ve started noticing the small treasures in life again, been able to show gratitude for creative pleasures like a flower blooming in the garden, found myself singing out loud for the first time in many years (sorry neighbours), and I love dancing; in fact, I do so much dancing these days I’m wondering if I shouldn’t join a class! Perhaps that’s something for once spring is here.

I’m closer than ever with my family. Having gone through two or three difficult years with them, opening up about my depression and reaching out has changed the entire dynamic between us. I’ve also learned that long term relationships (be it love, friendship or family) require a constant process of forgiveness. I’ve learned to let things go, appreciate my family for showing up for me during this dark time, and also am developing a genuine interest in their lives again. When I was at the peak of my depression, I couldn’t even be bothered to answer calls from any of them, let alone ask them about work and life and express just how important it is for me to see them happy too. My love and admiration for them grows daily, especially as I see them tackling the challenges in their lives too, and I am more able to provide support for them now than anytime during my twenties.

I have energy to do things again. A few weeks ago, if someone asked me to a spontaneous coffee, I would decline regardless of whether I was busy or not. Depression just doesn’t give you the option to get excited and do something on the fly. Yesterday, a friend messaged me out of the blue (perhaps it helped that she started the message with “Hey my sexy friend”), and I decided to take her up on an offer to get together an hour later, and we had a lovely time at a cafe next to the beach. We spoke about mental health and she shared part of her journey these past few months too. Once you open up and show vulnerability, you will connect with people in a way you never thought possible and it has been one of the biggest blessings of this journey so far.

I’m optimistic about my career and business again. In September, my company will be turning two years old, which is something I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate. There was a time I wondered if I would make it through even one year. I have a new drive to look at ways for it to continue and to grow in the years ahead. Before I started treatment, while I was in a really dark place, I deleted my expensive company website and told people I was going to close the business. I’ve changed my mind (something I have recently learned is ok!) and I am opening myself up to new opportunities. I’m also starting to plot my next move for the company, and explore additional business ideas – specifically, one where I would like to approach providing coaching services to other millennials (I’m calling the idea DDC: Delve Deeper Coaching for now). Everyone always says I am a good listener, easy to talk to, and easy to connect with, and I’d love for my journey with depression to be a catalyst to help others (hell, that’s why I started this blog in the first place)! Let’s see how the idea grows in the months ahead. One thing I know, is that it needs to be a natural progression, an obvious next step, and I don’t want to force an idea or make something happen that is going to derail my progress and add more strain to my life. It’s a daily process of exploration, which I am rather excited about.

These days, I laugh and joke a lot more. Not only at home, but at work and with friends too. Someone once told my that my sense of humour was priceless and beautiful; something I took for granted back then and definitely lost as my depression hit its peak. I’ve always portrayed a very serious image to the world, but like all of us, I love a good laugh, and better yet, love making people laugh. I have been in far better spirits now that I am dealing with my issues, and even went as far as to attend a comedy show on Friday night: something I would have avoided earlier in the year (and likely gone to, been offended by, and moaned that the show was boring). I laughed so much my face hurt the next day. My attitude has changed tremendously and I am very proud of myself for that. Here’s to more laughing in the months ahead.

Lastly, the most drastic change for me, is that I haven’t had a single drop to drink in the last two months. This has been difficult, especially in a culture of drinking and because there is temptation all around us and almost daily. While I haven’t given up drinking indefinitely (and still want to drink a glass of champagne when there is a celebration of sorts), I have noticed a dramatic improvement in my energy levels, mood and general outlook on the world since I got sober. I often tell people that I wouldn’t get depressed on the day I had a hangover, but I would get cripplingly depressed the day after, almost like my body was returning to “normal”, though I always felt way worse than I did before I took the first drink. All of that has since gone away. I now wake up early without an alarm, I sleep a normal amount of hours, I’m able to prioritise self care activities (like cleaning, washing dishes, listening to music, engaging with friends) and just feel like a different person. I have only been tempted to have a drink once, when my best friend was visiting and we had had a tough day of work, but I opted for a Rooibos and I am proud of myself for maintaining my boundaries in lieu of my recovery journey.

Cutting out the alcohol has had a dramatic effect on my weight. In February, I was around 95kg’s, feeling bloated, tired and out of sorts. Yesterday, I weighed myself and astonishingly, I’m down to just under 85kg’s (-10kg’s). My confidence levels are up dramatically, so much so and to the point that I decided to get a haircut yesterday to celebrate and I am feeling so much more comfortable in my skin again. After the haircut, I was feeling particularly fresh and decided I should use that energy to put myself back out there, and am now exploring casual dating once again. I am moving to a new house in October, and am excited to host a few dinner parties and to show off my wannabe Masterchef Australia skills to friends, family and perhaps a potential romantic interest, should the cards fall that way. Baby steps, and not in a way that derails my progress. All in the name of fun and starting to enjoy my life again.

I can honestly say that my life has done a complete 180 since I started opening up about my struggles with anxiety and depression, and each of the steps I took – therapy, coaching, consulting a GP, getting an anti-depressant prescription, taking some time off, starting to do weekend walks on the beach, listening to music, connecting with family, dancing etc. has all played a part in me feeling exponentially better.

I’d like to take a second to acknowledge the progress and appreciate that things have turned for the better. As fellow depression sufferers know, it remains a daily tussle, but these baby steps really do provide you with the momentum needed to keep going and to keep pushing yourself. I’m living my life one day at a time: I almost see each day as a point in a tennis match. Monday may be bad, but that only means the score is 0-15. Tuesday things could turn around, and we’re back at 15-15. It’s all about riding the wave. I’m starting to tell people that turning 30 has really been the best thing to happen to me and I am proud to be writing this post with a smile on my face. Let’s hope I can carry on and keep going to maintain this level of clarity. I’m thankful that the fog has started to lift.

Conrad was here.