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.

A few learnings from the first 40 days of depression recovery.

Today marks 40 days since I was diagnosed with depression, and this weekend I’m planning on celebrating 6 weeks of this new lifestyle, marking a milestone in the recovery process and congratulating myself on the progress made so far! I’ve discovered that usually I’m more than happy to be overly critical of my choices, but I never take the time to celebrate the victories, no matter how big or small. All that is busy changing and it’s starting this weekend, when I’m planning on doing something for myself as a small pat on the back for the progress.

In lieu of this, I wanted to share a couple of lessons and learnings from the first forty days of being on anti-depressants, being in weekly therapy and generally starting to open up about my diagnosis and reaching out to others going through the same things:

  1. How you navigate life’s curveballs plays a big part in the recovery process. Life doesn’t stop when you get diagnosed with depression. If anything, things continue to move forward, but making an active decision to keep on your path, not getting distracted by the happenings around you, however difficult they may be, you keep going a single day at a time. It has helped me a lot to stay focused, and I’ve proved to myself that my willpower remains strong, even through some tough adversities, like retrenchments at the office, or even turning 30, and having to turn down multiple requests for a “bender on the town”.
  2. Life will continue to teach you lessons and you need to continue to be flexible and adapt. Since I got sober and started taking my meds, I’ve become far more self-aware and have noticed where my day-to-day behaviour needs a bit of work. I’ve become acutely aware of being quite insecure in my work (wanting to prove myself, when I don’t need to) and have always been a bit of an overachiever – something I’m starting to work on now to maintain a bit better balance. I’m a successful marketer and business owner, and I need to start owning and acknowledging that.
  3. Friends and family will see you getting better, and forget to check in with you. This is not a negative reflection of them, but rather an impression that you are starting to get better, which is obviously a good thing, but they may assume that you don’t need to be checked in on anymore. This is not always the case. I wanted to share this, so you don’t have the expectation that people will check in with you too much as you go through your process, but be mindful (and take note) of the people who were there at the beginning, and always draw on that strength and support, especially on low days. I don’t need to be checked in on daily anymore, but I still love getting a random message from a friend, even just saying “hope you’re doing OK”.
  4. Recovery will mean getting to know yourself in a way you can’t understand when you start the journey. As I slowly regain my confidence, and gain clarity on the decisions I made in my 20’s, I’m learning so much more about who I am now and starting to look reflectively at my life, pondering where I want to continue to make changes, and also work more actively to keep certain negative influences (selfish people) at bay. It’s an evolving process and I’m happy for the clarity and the ability to distinguish between situations that are good for and ones that are detrimental to my recovery.
  5. My mood is drastically improving from this week. The doctor did say it would take 6 weeks for the SSRI’s to really do their thing, and I can feel it this week. I’ve started having spontaneous good moods in the evenings, and also found myself dancing, singing and just enjoying myself day-to-day a lot more from this week. My cheek muscles are starting to hurt again in the evenings, from laughing so much with friends and colleagues in the day. I’m compartmentalising my problems from a much healthier foundation, and saving dealing with them for therapy, choosing to focus on some of the smaller joys and pleasures in my day.

I’m thankful to be approaching week 7 already. I wanted to take a minute to show some gratitude for my friends, family, colleagues and readers of the blog, for helping me to keep motivated and to keep going on this journey. I’m only 20% into my six month treatment, and there is a long road ahead, but I’m feeling optimistic about the process and the changes taking place in my life. They’re starting to feel big for some reason, they’re starting to feel life-changing, life-altering in fact. I still have a feeling something big is coming and that I’m preparing for, and I’ll be ready as a result of facing my depression head on. Hope you can get the strength to do the same, and remember, you’re not alone in this.

Conrad was here.

 

Maintaining personal boundaries for the sake of my depression recovery, regardless of surprise retrenchments at work last week.

On Friday, ten people at the company I work for got called in and told that their positions had become redundant. While I’m relieved that my position was not one of those, it obviously sent shockwaves throughout the entire office and anxiety levels across the board increased tenfold. As I’m typing this I have very sweaty palms, and am still trying to make sense of the decision and all the implications it has to the team as a whole.

While my reaction to the news was shock and disbelief, I knew that my response and how I would go about dealing with the news, especially as we approached a weekend, would be crucial and important to my recovery journey. The first instinct for a lot of people was to hand beers around at the office. I politely declined, and found myself turning my attention inward, boiling the kettle and making some Rooibos tea. This might not sound like something spectacular, but it was a big win for me in the moment.

When I got home, I was still in disbelief and shock, especially as two of my close friends had effectively been told they had just lost their jobs and they now needed to start making alternative plans. I knew that while I would need to support them through this process, I would need to make sure not to derail any progress I had made regarding my depression recovery in the process of doing so. This is very tough for me, as my natural reaction is to try and support and assist, and to put my own needs aside. I knew that self-medicating would not be the option at any stage during this process. On Friday night, while I only managed to put a bowl of cereal together for myself (at least I ate something), I decided to call it a night relatively early, ignoring any impulses to reach for a glass of wine or beer.

I did a lot of writing on Saturday, mapping out what this change means in the greater scope of my career, and also reminding myself that I should reprioritise my own business, which I’ve been working on for almost two years, but which hasn’t taken centre stage (and has been part-time) for a while. It got me to ask a lot of questions right now as I explore my next move and consider what I would have done had I been one of the unlucky people losing their permanent employment. Explore being the key term here – as I’ve been told by my therapist we’re in an exploration phase, not in a decision-making one, which is vital to remember. It’s nice to dream a little again, and to see where my thoughts will take me in the weeks ahead, but I’m not meant to make myself anxious and to pull my usual stunt, which is to react quickly, set some serious new goals, and then struggle to live up to them in the long run. Short and sweet is the only way to go.

I spent the rest of the weekend focusing on positive coping activities like walking on the beach with my sister, listening to a lot of music, cleaning the apartment (man, I gave it a great scrub) and cooking a really nice meal last night. I tried my best to maintain and keep working with some of the systems I have put in place, which are there for the very reason they need to be, to make sure the depression recovery ship doesn’t veer off course now. I went to visit two of my colleagues on Sunday, provided an ear where possible, but also forced myself not to take their struggle onto myself or my own shoulders, but rather just to be there for them and to show up for them as they had showed up for me in the past. It’s a fine balance and it remains a challenge to maintain the boundaries you set for yourself.

This was the lesson and the true test, in my opinion. Life is always going to throw curveballs, and this is a big one, but there will be more, and things continue in their usual ebb and flow. It would have been an easy reason for me to pick up a drink, or take my anxiety medicine, which I had been taken off’ from my GP visit last week, but I still have a few tablets left. For me, self-medicating is not the option, and I managed to remain rather level-headed throughout the whole weekend. It set me up well to be able to support the people coming in today for their retrenchment consultations and this was also a big victory in a way. I’m able to be level-headed today and clear about spotting where I need to help others cope with this.

While I’m definitely upset, I’m choosing to redirect those thoughts to a formal place (a therapy session tomorrow afternoon) and to simply take things a day at a time as we navigate through the week. It’s somewhat of a blessing that my best friend is visiting this week (see my previous post for more details about that) and I’m going to work through this time to the best of my ability, as we look towards the 6 week depression recovery milestone, which I’d like to celebrate in some productive way too. Baby steps.

Conrad was here.

Having a friend visit and stay with me for the first time since my depression diagnosis.

My best friend, who lives a two hour flight away from me, was supposed to come visit me the weekend of my 30th birthday, but we postponed the trip, considering my breakdown ten days prior and because I really wasn’t sure whether I would be good company to anyone at that time. I had just started taking medication and my body was (and is) still adjusting, so I’m really glad we made that decision, as hard as it was at the time and as much as it would have been great to have her around for a celebration. As my mom put it: my recovery was supposed to take centre stage at that time and I’m glad it did.

Two nights ago she let me know that she was travelling to my city for work next weekend, and that she was hoping to stay with me for a night or two. Usually, it would be a quick and easy YES and under “normal” circumstances it wouldn’t be something I would have to think twice about, but since my depression diagnosis, there are a couple of considerations to make and a few things that I had to consider before committing.

Firstly, I know she’s going to want to see other people who live in this area, and there will likely be networking commitments for her over the weekend as well. As I’m living day-to-day, it’s really hard to judge how I’m going to feel when I wake up and as I navigate my recovery, so I wouldn’t be able to just “up and go” and take part in spontaneous plans as in the past. Setting personal boundaries means I need the people in my life to understand that I can’t just be the “yes guy” jumping at each and every plan. As a result of this, there is definitely a bit of anxiety around navigating plans with someone who is more flexible and in fact has just started a new job, so also needs to still impress and show up to plans made by the MD of the company. Just last night she let me know that he had invited us to dinner on Friday night, which I am open to going to but still unsure of how I’ll be around a bunch of new people, but I figured committing to it would be good, as it would mean we have Saturday to spend some quiet (alone) time together. We’ve only seen each other for 4 days in pretty much the last 10 months and we used to live together and see each other all day, so it would be awesome to get a bit more dead time in, but I’m also aware that life is very different than it was a year ago for the both of us and our friendship has to readjust in certain ways as well.

The other consideration with regards to someone coming to stay with me is that it can be quite disruptive to the new routine I’m trying to establish. I’ve tried to systematically work in a healthier routine, which I’d like to carry all the way through to the end of the year and beyond, which will hopefully make it easier for me to get off’ the meds and help me to place some good coping mechanisms in place to deal with life’s upcoming ebbs and flows. Having someone come to stay is not an issue per se, but there is also a consideration to be made for the fact that this friend will have certain expectations and an understanding of how things usually were before my diagnosis. We usually enjoyed a glass of wine or three together when we saw each other and now that I’m off the booze it will be a different dynamic. It will be an adjustment and a test of some sorts to maintain my sobriety over the weekend too – something she would never make a fuss about – but something that I know will be a bit of an adjustment. Being out in town last weekend and staying sober was a big test and it showed I can do it and still have a good time, but I really can’t let anything – not even my best friend visiting – derail my efforts and get me back into that “self medicating” space which landed my mental health in hot water in the first place. Simply put, depression truly is disruptive in the simple and complicated aspects of your life, and you have to make constant considerations and rethink your old ways, if you’re looking to propel yourself into a new direction.

I think it’s going to be key for me to communicate my fears, to talk about the new lifestyle changes I’ve been making (for one – getting healthy groceries on a Saturday morning, followed by a delicious cappuccino at the place across the store, which I don’t think should fall away just because I have someone staying with me). She has to essentially fall in with my plans and my routine, and I have to navigate it so it’s as enjoyable as possible, without disrupting any personal progress. Feels a bit selfish but it’s what needs to happen. The upside? When she comes, I will have been on the anti-depressants for 6 weeks, which is when they are supposed to start “levelling out” (according to my doctor) and when the serotonin levels in my brain should be at their highest. This means my mood should be pretty decent and hopefully we’ll just have our usual fun, late night chats and we can speak openly and freely about what we’ve both been going through for the last while. I’m excited, a little anxious and generally aware that it will be a bit of a test, but life is going to keep throwing things at me, and I’ll need to learn to navigate, and what better way to pull off the bandaid than with someone who knows me inside out, and will be understanding regardless of what I do. Let’s see how it goes.

 Conrad was here.

Recommitting to my mental health and pondering the future 28 days into my depression treatment.

The doctor did say that I would be tempted to go off the meds after a month. She said everyone goes through this, as they assume that feeling better means they can kick the medication and cope on their own. I’ve learned that overcoming depression is not something that happens overnight and I’m not really up to taking that chance at this stage.

Things have changed quite a bit in the four weeks since I saw my GP and received the depression diagnosis. I can certainly say that I’m starting to feel better and looking at the future with optimism once again, but it certainly hasn’t been solely because of the medication. I can now understand more than ever that your medication is meant to be one of the tools that assists you in recovery, and helps to make the process more manageable in general if you are on the correct dosage and able to continue with day to day functions. It gives you the extra push to keep going and to start setting new goals, however small they may be. This morning I celebrated four weeks of treatment with a walk on the beach, which I have to be honest, was absolutely exhausting, but I’m glad I did it, and glad I took the time to do something for myself. A month ago this wasn’t even an option as it felt like I was paralysed or glued to the bed, with no real hope or enthusiasm about anything, so it’s a welcome change and I am starting to look at my mental health getting better in increments, slowly but surely and with each passing good decision.

I’ve got at least five more months of taking the anti-depressants, which is something I have told myself is non-negotiable, regardless of the improvements in my mood. I made a commitment to my own mental health recovery when I told the doctor I would stick it out for at least six months, and I owe myself that. I’m taking a second today to recommit to that for my own future and general wellbeing. I’m continuing with weekly therapy until at least October, having monthly coaching sessions lined up too, and will soon start to actively look for more ways to keep having conversations with people about depression and anxiety. While the support group I went to initially didn’t quite pan out, I’d like to get to a point where I’m actively looking for a new group to go to, especially for the second half of the six months and for when my free therapy sessions run out. Looking ahead, I’d like to slowly start working in more activity into my week – as exhausting as the walk was this morning, I know that the endorphins from the activity are really good for my mental health and I haven’t had that release from activity in quite a while now. We’re not talking about running a marathon here, we’re just talking about working in two activities a week and taking things from there.

I’d like to continue having conversations with people about depression, anxiety and their mental health and wellbeing, not only to learn more for my own recovery, but to hopefully help others seek treatment if they are at the same state I was in last month. There are so many of us struggling with the same thing, but not open to speaking about it we fear we will be ostracised for it. It’s time to be brave and to prioritise our mental health. Own the disease, own that it is something you have to learn to live with. Talk to friends and family, I guarantee you it will bring you closer to at least one other person. I am reaping many new rewards just from talking to my family about it. I want to keep the conversation going and also continue to share my journey, with hopes that others will be able to draw parallels and actively start tackling those small increments I mentioned, just one day a day at a time.

 Conrad was here.

Five things I know for sure on my 30th birthday.

I got up this morning at 03:30, if you’ll believe it. Perhaps my mind was racing a little because I was coming to terms with the fact that – when I went to bed – I said goodbye to my twenties and ushered in a new era in my life. I’m sure I’ll look back at laugh at myself for feeling this way, but then again, every hit sitcom in the two decades or so has made a fuss about at least one character turning the big 3 0, so in a way I’ve been amping myself up for the experience for years and years. I’m thinking in particular of the episode of Friends where Joey chants “Why God, why?” and where Monica gets blackout drunk before her surprise party. Happy to report I haven’t done either of those today!

The first thing I did this morning was grab my notebook – the one I’ve been scribbling in feverishly each day since my depression diagnosis – and what came out of this was a list of five things I know for sure, having lived through my twenties. I can’t take full credit for all of these, some of them have been passed down by my mom (we had a 20 minute conversation about life this morning) and others I’ve learned the hard way, through living life, being in love, going through tough times and generally navigating what is considered a tumultuous period for most people.

  1. Nothing is supposed to be any which way. As much as Rachel has a five year plan on the Friends episode where she turns 30, and as much as I’ve navigated the last fifteen years of my life with serious five year plans, I’ve learned that things are not supposed to happen in any order, in a straight line, or in the way that you hope they will happen. You don’t need to be married by a certain age. If you want to be a parent, it will happen when it does, and it may not be in the way you thought it will be. You don’t need to be earning a certain amount of money by a certain age. You don’t need to start a business just because your parents did (which is pretty much what I did two years ago). Learning this has helped me cut myself some slack, and given me more room to try to go easy on myself. It’s a work in progress.
  2. The rug can be pulled out from you at any time, and it will happen again and again. Life will be full of moments that toss your world upside down. The death of a friend or family member, losing a job, being scammed out of most of your money, the end of a friendship – these can all happen to you at any time, no matter whether you’re in a good or a bad place in your life. It’s all about how you navigate things when the rug does get pulled out from under you, and how you respond in that moment. I’ve gotten good at wallowing about it and feeling sorry for myself in recent years – another byproduct of depression. I find though that each time it happens, I respond a little bit differently (and better for that matter). You learn, adapt and go from there.
  3. Life’s pleasures come from the simple things. Maybe I’ve been watching too many Florence Welch interviews, but this is something I’m slowly starting to appreciate and understand. No amount of external influences will bring you long-term happiness, you need to turn your attention inwards. Sure, money makes life easier in many ways, but it will not solve your problems. For me, having a cappuccino at a coffee shop while listening to a new album from one of my faves, watching the sunrise on the beach, or even just a 5 minute conversation with a colleague over lunch, gives me a great deal of pleasure. It has taken me a long time to realise and appreciate this, perhaps I’m only coming to terms with it now that I’m writing it down. Usually we are so focused on the “big things” not going your way, that we forget about all the precious things that happen in your day, particularly when you’re not paying attention and operating on autopilot. My new goals include taking more time to observe and appreciate the things that are happening in my life. As my therapist said yesterday, “you have a lot going for you” and I’d like to start listening.
  4. Know yourself and stay true to that. I spent my twenties experimenting with pretty much everything, and making hundreds of mistakes along the way, I might add. I questioned my values, my hobbies and even my sexuality, in order to get a clear picture of who I was as a person. I have a much clearer picture now than I did when I was twenty. Depression tries to make you forget who you are, and it makes you act out in ways that you can’t even comprehend. I can’t tell you how many friendships I squandered because of drunkenly blocking someone without giving them a chance to respond to my anger. It was almost surgical in a way, cut it off, don’t deal with it. It’s not fair to anyone, regardless of what they did. Funny thing is, I’ve been told that compassion and empathy are at the core of my being, so whenever my depression tells me otherwise, I have to work on implementing new tools to remind me of this. This is an ongoing struggle and I get the feeling that most people struggle with something similar. I’m trying to write more letters to myself, trying to show more kindness to myself, using positive language and getting a few examples down of where I acted from my core.
  5. Nothing is certain, except for change. Change is certain. Things will evolve, regress, and generally happen in what I like to call a spiral. How resilient are you going to be? I will ask myself this all through my journey of recovery and as I go into this new decade from today. Embrace change and the growth will be monumental.

Conrad was here.