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Learning to

Live Life

COPYRIGHT Š 2013 by Celeste Azure Tan All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without prior consent from the publisher. Printed in Singapore School of Art, Design & Media Visual Communication IIl Nanyang Technological University Fonts used Helevetica LT STD Ultra Condensed Akkurat Assisted by Nanci Takeyama

Learning to live life

Learning to live life

Most people who meet me now would not believe that two years ago I was so depressed that I would spend hours scraping the paint off my bedroom wall with my fingernails. I would say my life probably was not much worse than most peoples’. The problem was, I was sick with depression. I thought my life was worthless and pointless. I had this voice in my head telling me over and over that I did not fit in, did not belong here.

with positive ones that were actually based in reality. It took a while but I got better. I still get depressed sometimes, and occasionally thoughts of harming myself comes back. At least now, I know how to deal with it and I know the difference between depressive thoughts and ones that are based in reality. It seemed hopeless at the time, but I am glad I did not give up.

Once, I was walking along the street actually feeling good. Then, something clicked. Nothing spectacular happened, one moment I was fine and the next I was not. The tears came and they would not stop. When I got home, I remember thinking it was time to end it, but my rational mind fought these depressive thoughts. I could see that it was my depression that had spawned those thoughts. I knew they were ridiculous. I knew then that I needed help. I went to a counselor a few days after that and told her what happened. With a combination of medication and cognitive therapy (changing my thought processes), I learned techniques to quell the irrational thoughts my depression was bringing up, and how to counter negative thoughts



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

I first realized I was depressed when I was about 8 years old. I have written in journals all my life and one day started reading some journals from when I was about 8. I was constantly writing about wanting to die. I wanted to kill myself or I wanted someone else to kill me. It did not matter how I went, I just did not want to live. At that time though, no one would have even guessed that I had such thoughts because I was involved in everything and loved by everyone. Now fast-forward to about 15 years. Here I was, involved in everything and still loved by many. I was very active in my sorority, recently engaged, working and just having a great time. Then there was a tragedy which made me spiral out of control. Before this tragedy I knew I was never really in control. I was always in a limbo — as long as I ate right and worked out and kept busy, my depressive nature went unrecognized even by me. This tragedy affected victims of depression and took them away. All of a sudden, I did not have a desire for anything. I did not want to eat, sleep, go to school, work, plan my wedding — nothing. I just could not focus on anything because it all seemed pointless. I kept thinking that since we were eventually all going to die so what was the point of all this? I started going to counseling. I was doing better but then something else set it off. I started


planning suicide. The only thing keeping me from it was that my fiancé made me promise not to and I never break my promises. Some days I could not get out of bed but even when I could, I was a zombie on the inside. It is so easy to fake happiness when I have been doing it for years and this was no different. Now, I am on meds and am doing better. I still struggle everyday. But not like I did in the past. I now struggle with accepting that I am mad about something, not knowing why, figuring it out and then addressing it rather than just blowing it off. Now I simply struggle with accepting me, all of me, the good, the bad and the ugly. And finally, I struggle with not laughing everything off but allowing myself to cry. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a very loving household, with two happily married parents, two younger brothers and a younger sister. I went to a small Catholic school, situated within a close-knit community. I was intelligent, participated, with my family, in the local church, and had supportive friends my age both in and out of school. I had no qualities that made me popular and I felt under enormous pressure to conform. The education I was receiving was pointless and boring. I was frustrated by religious talk that


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

seemed to be coming at me from all sides. I felt like my tendency to be “counsellor” to my friends meant that I had to be superhuman and could not ask for help . Looking back, I think I was frightened that if I ever cracked, I would lose the one thing that people liked me for. And, I was deeply in love. You know, that desperate, abandoning first love?. He was a leader, a thinker, and he didn’t seem to fit in. I felt we had a mutual relationship of identity, understanding and trust. Unfortunately, my vision of love rattled thoroughly when he outrightly and arrogantly rejected me. Not being your typical teenage ‘babe’ or even a parent– pleaser, I felt very isolated in my humiliation and pain.To cope, I blamed my mum. Her strength seemed to make fun of apparent weakness. I felt like no one understood me: I was not what my parents expected, I felt different to my friends, and my teachers just gave me useless advice most of the time. In essence, I felt alone and scared and needed to let the emotional pain out. I felt like I had no right to be feeling like this with such a privileged life, that there must be a way to balance or something. On one particularly tear soaked night, I ended up hurting myself.


It took two incidents when people noticed something was wrong, before I started to wake up to things. I realised that I felt isolated from the world and hurting myself was a cry for help. Thankfully for me, people listened, mainly my friends, then my school counsellor. My friends and parents had mixed reactions. Those friends who had seen hard times were sympathetic and had some hard-hitting advice. A few were angry with me, and some were just shocked. Getting angry with me as I was telling my story just made me feel worse, because it was then that I was at my most vulnerable. It also did not help when I was treated like a nut case. I talked with the counsellor who helped me work out the things I needed to do to help me through tough times (like joining a youth group, playing music and doing yoga) and the things that did not help (like keeping problems to myself, hurting myself and binge drinking). I learnt that I did not have to go through pain alone. This was three years ago now, and I feel a lot better than I did then. I now seek help if I need it. In counseling, I was given some tools to cope with my depression and stopped feeling like a victim all the time.


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

Probably the most valuable tool I was shown was talking – not just to a professional like a counsellor but also to my family, friends and other people in my life — if I was not feeling the best. I learned that tough times are part and parcel of being a teenager, and feeling depressed does not mean you have a strange disease. I know I am not the only one who has benefited from getting help to deal with emotional problems, and I will encourage everyone to do the same.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

I had my first depressive episode when I was 15. I did not know what hit me. I just no longer had any purpose. I felt completely lost to the world. Now when I think about that period of my life, it seems like a dream because it is so hazy in my mind, I do not remember being alive that year. I just remember how dark it was. Since then I have had two more depressive episodes and have been admitted to the hospital twice. Feeling depressed is like being trapped in a small, black claustrophobic box, where the sides are sharp and stick into you but you continue to struggle against the walls of the box trying to escape and sometimes it just seems too hard.

taken steps towards getting better and I think of that as an achievement. In addition to my medication, I also see a psychiatrist and psychologist who I find really helpful and I have very supportive family and friends. So while I may suffer from this horrible illness, I am lucky I have so much help and sometimes just remembering I have people to turn to makes me feel better on my darker days. I still feel terrible most of the time, but every now and then I have a great day and I look at those days as signs of recovery.

I would not kill myself but sometimes it just seems like the best option because life was just so terrible. I want life to be more than this. I want to feel like I am living. I am twenty years old now and feel like it is time things got sorted out. I need to start living, I need to start coping with the challenges life throws my way. It is time for things to improve. I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life but if it helps me to exist then I will be happy to take it. I have work to do but I am proud of myself for the work I have already done, I have



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

My parents divorced when I was two, and I essentially lost my father. My mother, sister and I moved across the country to live with my grandparents, and I only saw my father once every few years when I was growing up. My mom remarried when I was almost four to the wonderful man I consider my real father, and who has always been there for us. However, the loss of my biological father had profound effects on my personality. I do not know if I would have suffered from depression without that early loss; perhaps my depression was wholly chemical. I do know that the only picture of me as a child which shows me laughing was taken before my father left. Every picture taken afterward shows a solemn child who smiles only indifferently. I was a painfully shy child. I had very few friends, was terrified of talking to strangers or a group of people, and was careful never to draw attention to myself. I was afraid that if I was the center of attention, I would look stupid or do something wrong. As a child, I thought my father’s leaving was due to me behaving badly or doing something wrong, so I was always afraid of doing that again, and making my mother leave. I sought refuge in reading, confident that in books I could never say or do the wrong thing. That served to cut me off even more from the rest of the world. As a teenager I was moody and self–absorbed.


Of course, that was considered to be common for teenagers, so my behavior was written off as normal. Unfortunately, I also had no interest in school, sports, clubs, etc. Part of it was the fog that was beginning to descend over my mind from time to time and part of it was a fear of failing in anything new. The only time I felt good about myself was when a boy was chasing after me. Of course the flip side of that was a rejection from a boy I was interested in. It sent me into a black mood, unable to do anything but cry. Occasionally I thought of going to a psychiatrist and saying, “help me” but in that scenario I also saw rejection. I pictured the doctor saying, “There’s nothing wrong with you – why are you wasting my time when I could be seeing people who really have problems?” My college years for the most part were relatively free of depression. I was much more social, and with the exception of being expelled for one semester due to a lack of interest in my classes, I was more motivated academically. Until what I think of as the “black hole time” – what was probably my first major depression. I was in my last semester of school, worrying about finding a job in time so that I could stay in Boston with my boyfriend, and panicking over the prospect of being entirely on my own. The semester before I had been raped by a male friend. My moodiness got worse and worse, and I was constantly fighting


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

with my boyfriend, through no fault of his. In my mind, I vividly saw myself teetering on the edge of a bottomless black hole. I felt that if I fell in, I would never stop falling. In desperation I went to the walk-in clinic of a local hospital and told the doctor that I thought I had very bad PMS. I described my symptoms, and he told me to keep a record of my moods. I promised to do so, but I was in no shape to follow through. I could barely get my schoolwork done, and certainly did not have the energy to keep a log on top of that. I found out years later that he had made a notation concerning possible depression in my file, and that he would follow up with me. He did not get in touch with me again, probably because I graduated a few weeks later. The next few years I went in and out of major and minor depressive episodes, although I did not recognize either for what they were. I remember a few periods of doing nothing but dragging myself to work and, in my free time, reading romance novels. My roommates would try to coax me into going out and bar-hopping (which I normally loved), but I just did not feel like it. In the summer of 1990, as I have said, I read Styron’s Darkness Visible. As I read it, I kept saying to myself, “This is me; I’ve been feeling all of this.” However, I still hesitated to see a psychiatrist. Not that I was not seeing a doctor. I was overwhelming


my family doctor with visit after visit, sure that I had this disease or that ailment. I think I was in his office every two weeks on average that year. My hypochondria was not the only problem, my memory and concentration, which had always been excellent, were completely shot. I could not retain anything I read. I lay in bed every morning, trying to think of a reason to get up and go to work. When I was not at work, the only thing I had the energy to do was watch TV. I was dating a man for a year who was not only depressed, but also an alcoholic. I had been pressuring him to make some sort of commitment to me, without understanding why it was so important to me. Finally, the morning after a particularly nasty argument, as I lay in bed, the sound of his car driving off made me crack. I started screaming and could not stop until I was hoarse. Shaken, I called my family doctor and asked for the name of a good psychiatrist. I saw the head of psychiatry at the local hospital a few days later. I remember sitting in his office twisting my hands together in my lap as he asked me about my family history and my symptoms. At the end of the hour he told me he thought that they could help me (the most beautiful words I could remember ever hearing) and that he would set me up with a therapist and a psychiatrist at the hospital’s mental health clinic. He also mentioned that they might want me to go on medication, an


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

idea which I negated immediately. I hated taking medication since I was put on tranquilizers for migraines when I was a teenager. The next few weeks, during the Christmas period, were horrendous. I went to a dear friend’s wedding, but was only able to endure half an hour of the reception before escaping, crying on the drive home. I kept a hold of myself all Christmas Day, but started crying hysterically as soon as I left my parents’ house, and cried all the way home. Things got slightly better after the holidays, and I was going to therapy once a week. I was gaining insight into what made me tick, which was helping me to a great extent in my relationships. However, it was not alleviating what was steadily growing into a shrieking storm inside my head. In early spring I sat in my bedroom and decided that if this was the kind of pain I was going to live with for the next fifty years, then life would hold absolutely no appeal for me. Strictly speaking, I was not thinking of suicide, but I am sure it would only have been a matter of time before I sought that relief. I told my psychiatrist that I was ready to try whatever medication they wanted to give me. He put me on Norpramin, which is a type of antidepressant. The side effects were unpleasant, but I was determined to stick it out for the six weeks they told me it would take for the medicine to take effect. This was my only chance at having my life back.


Not only did I get my life back, I got a new life. At first I noticed the noise in my head was fading, and I was beginning to take an interest in things around me again. But as the weeks went on, a whole new personality emerged. Instead of the classic clothes in smoky colors I had always worn, I now gravitate toward flashy clothes in bright colors. I want to draw attention to myself – I loved the attention! I, who had always been so shy, was now smiling at strangers and eagerly entering into conversations with them. I was suddenly interested in everything: food, clothes, science, sports, history, etc. Not only did I have a thirst for knowledge, but I also had the energy to follow through on it. I read voraciously, but for the first time I was not trying to escape into a make-believe world; I was fascinated by the one I already inhabited. I felt that for the first time in my life, my “real” personality had emerged. Going on the medication did so much more than I expected. The only thing that marred this rebirth was the thought that I had wasted so many years living in the fog of depression. I mourn all the years lost, all the opportunities missed, and all the friends that I had alienated. If I had understood more about this illness, if there were not so many misconceptions about it, I probably would have gone to a doctor years before.


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

Now, over twenty years later, the only time my depression has come back has been when I went off my medication or the level of medication in my blood has become too low, or when I have taken certain generic antidepressants. I have high and low moods like everyone else, but the low moods are always of short duration, a day or so, and always in reaction to something negative or stressful happening in my life. In other words, my moods are normal. Depression is a terrible, soul-stealing illness. I do not know if we will ever be able to eradicate it, but from my own experience I know that the tools to defeat it are there. You owe it to yourself to give those tools the chance to rescue you from the pain and emptiness of depression. I have always been involved in sports and exercise from a young age.

it be playing rugby, running or training in the gym. To put it simply, exercise is the best form of medication I have found to help me cope with my mental illnesses. Exercise has really helped me to channel my emotions and keep me focused. I am extremely grateful that I am able to exercise to the extent I can, as mental illness can be so utterly debilitating at times. From just a bipolar point of view, if I’m feeling high, exercise can help exhaust the nervous, uncontrollable rush of energy I would otherwise not know how to contain. If I am feeling low, the exercise can really enhance my mood and alter my outlook on my day as a whole.

Throughout all the endless doses of medication, group therapy sessions, one–to–one chats with professionals and general health related interventions, exercise has been the one constant thing that has kept me feeling sane and safe. With all the ups and downs I have had in my life, taking me through depression, alcohol and drug abuse, anorexia, anxiety and finally being diagnosed with bipolar in 2009, I’ve always found myself involved in some form of exercise, whether



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

I have been battling with an ongoing health issue that, while not being life threatening, leaves me quite depressed about my life and really has an effect on my overall motivation and the willingness to get up in the morning. I found that physical exercise clears my head, gives me perspective and a sense of achievement. All this amounts to me being generally happier and more positive. As you can imagine, making that first initial effort to get off your posterior and actually do something is not easy. Especially when you are already feeling low, had a break because you were unwell or the weather just makes you want to curl up in front of the television with a hot drink. What I find helps me then (apart from the hot drink of course) is a routine. I have everything pre-prepared (I am a bit of a control freak) and I set my mind on doing the exercise when I come back from work, for example. And it works. Having had an operation recently, I cannot do any exercise at the moment, and I already feel the gloom is setting in. I try to overcome it but going for walks with my dog, walking to work and at lunch time – little things to keep me moving. I can feel those little things making a massive difference. You really do not need a lot.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

“I am an unemployed single mum of one. I have suffered with back and shoulder problems for nearly 10 years, from a couple of years before becoming pregnant with my daughter until now. A year after giving birth, my physical health deteriorated dramatically when I developed a chronic pain in my left foot, for which I was given an unsuccessful steroid injection.”

much better health than I really was and parents at my daughter’s school would often call me super fit mum and were envious of my healthy ‘lifestyle’.

This is the beginning of around three years of chronic pain in my left foot, ankle and knee where my whole left leg felt like a dead limb but immensely painful, making a good night’s sleep, impossible.

Today, my foot has fully recovered and although I still suffer with periods of depression, I would never allow myself to get to a stage where I would need to rely on antidepressants. I cope by going to the gym, swimming regularly and cycling.

In pain and desperation, I started seeking alternative therapies and discovered a good acupuncture practitioner who made the first ever positive difference to the pain.  Apart from relying on the short term alleviation from some problems that acupuncture was effective in treating, I also exercised as much as I could manage, going to the gym, Pilates and yoga classes to try and get my aching muscles and joints back to health.

Acupuncture mainly keeps the worst physical symptoms at bay and being active helps keep me mentally strong and healthy to tackle life with its many ups and downs.

My health problems put a strain on my relationship and ultimately caused it to end, which brought with it a string of emotional and financial difficulties.

I also began cycling with my daughter strapped into a child seat on the back, which was a lot less painful than pushing a buggy around. Even close friends and my partner felt I was in



Learning to live life


Learning to live life

Depression became my constant companion early, about age eight. I suppose I had as dysfunctional a family as most, although children are often not aware of the level of dysfunction till much later. They then realize much of what goes on in life is affected by their childhood. I am not seeking to place the blame on anyone. Depression happens.

something like this? And, “Honey, you do such lovely artwork — why these horrid things that no one would ever want hanging in her house?” Much art is not meant to merely hang on the living room wall. It is a picture of the artist’s soul and must be appreciated as such. I went on to get a degree in art. And met my husband in college.

By age 12, I knew something was wrong and thought I just was not trying hard enough to get Daddy’s approval. He was a difficult man to please. But trying harder only led to more disappointments and those binding elements of worthlessness and hopelessness that set depression in cement shoes and throw you overboard. I was on my way down and had no idea what to do.

As it turned out, Tim was beset by stranger demons than my own — cross-dressing, pornography, and all the characteristics of a mastermind control freak. I hit an all time low after 13 years of putting up with his problems. I was suicidal again…and homicidal. I ended up in the hospital many times and finally lost my marriage (with ensuing loneliness), my job, my house, my car, and my independence.

At 16, I took an antidepressant (Tofranil) for the first time. It helped for the few months I took it, but I did not know how to convey to my doctor or others the real despair that had submerged my life. Suicidal thoughts became the norm. During these early and teenage years, did I do anything to combat these horrible low times? I wrote poetry but rarely let anyone read it. I painted grotesque masks that no one else realized were really self– portraits. While these exercises in self–expression helped to a degree, they of course did little to solve the problem. My mother kept saying, “But you can write such beautiful poetry — why write

For several years, I lived with my parents and tried one low-wage job after another, failing time after time. Depression almost dragged me all the way under. But my psychiatrist helped me apply and get approval for Social Security Disability Income. A chance at last to regain my independence. My own apartment. I must say at this point that I was not idle. Yes, stymied at times, sleeping in my clothes, neglecting basic hygiene, gaining weight, unsuccessful at finding an antidepressant or mood stabilizer that worked. But I decided to start


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

doing something. Once again, I turned to writing. This time, it was a journal that kept me occupied and focused. A key for me in journal writing was to simply go with whatever was on my mind that day — childhood memories, adult experiences of sexual abuse, aspirations, feelings of the moment, etc. Cataloging all these things helped me learn to separate the positive from the negative. Depression had lumped everything together. I began to see there were good moments among the bad. Of course, I had a personal therapist, was on medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, tried ECT, attended inpatient and outpatient mood disorder group therapies and tried all the usual courses of action. But to ever get beyond the immediate mood, I had to step forward and do difficult things. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to be with people. But I had been raised to believe that helping others is necessary to achieving any happiness in life. So volunteer work 4–5 times a month was added to my routine. It was not easy. I did not want to be around anyone, especially those who were needy in any way. But their neediness made evident the things I had to be thankful for. I had a bed, a warm coat, a loved one who was still healthy, food, family, money, and a spiritual foundation. Now, before I say anything else, let me add that


each person must find his own path to recovery. Volunteer work may not do it for you, medication may not do it for you, mindfulness may seem like malarky. But you have to try all the options in order to know what does work for you. So along with volunteering, medication, therapy and keeping a journal, I added exercise for just 15 minutes every morning. Something calculated to help my foggy brain and body wake up. I started saying “no” to things that made me uncomfortable (a key element to my recovery) like social events/ parties. It was okay for me to have recuperation time. I began to help my mother with housework. I did things for fun, like watching my favourite TV shows and reading true crime novels. I stopped trying so hard to please everyone else. I began instead to appreciate myself for who I was and what I did for others. One other strategy I advise — educate yourself about depression without becoming infatuated with it. Read about the medications so you can make informed decisions. Read blogs by those who have recovered so that you can chart your own path. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you when it comes to making commitments. Be willing to employ Tai Chi, mindfulness, hypnosis, nature hikes, running half-marathons, hospitalization when necessary, dancing, music, whatever helps you. And do something on a daily


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

basis that might move you toward recovery. It is almost never easy to recover. But I have had a pleasant after–effect: I am a better person for having gone through it. I have plumbed the depths of my soul and found strength and much courage. I have traveled to the edge of suicide more than once only to return with more compassion. I have lost friends to the battle and have learned to cherish my time on earth. That may sound trite but is the honest truth. One last caveat. For me, ECT did not work. I had to try many different mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics before finding the right mix for me: Saphris, Trazodone, Wellbutrin, Zoloft and Klonopin. And I may (with gratitude) take them the rest of my life. For me, finding God was also a key component. Helping others has lifted my own spirits and increased my sense of self–worth. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, grounding, and progressive muscle relaxation allow me to get a good night’s sleep. I try to eat a healthy diet. All the things you think might work. Some will and some will not. But I will say that on “the other side” of depression is a life worth working towards.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

Through my teens, I suffered from depression. It became so bad that I had to drop out of college, abandon my A–Levels, and end my pursuit of becoming an artist. At first, my depression seemed manageable. But as I sought more counselling, it soon turned into a mental health problem that was out of my control.   Soon after dropping out of college, my secondary school heard about my situation. Knowing I have a passion for art, they began to support me and help me complete my A–Levels and Honours in Art and Design at my own pace. Through the school, I also began working with their Special Needs Unit, and this was when I began to really develop and use my art as a means of overcoming my depression. It became an outlet for my thoughts and ideas, and soon my art evolved and my depression began to subside. Now 19, I have completed my A–Levels, and have overcome depression without the need for medication.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

A recovery story is a messy thing. It has dozens of beginnings and no final ending. Most of the conflict and drama is internal, and there is a lot more inaction than action. The lead character hides in the shadows much of the time, so you cannot even see what is going on. I met depression around the age of eight. There are snapshots of me in the shabby brown jacket I liked to wear. My mom took beautiful photographs, and there are a lot of me in moody shadows, looking as down as could be. She had her own depression to worry about. My typical memory of her from that time brings back a couch–bound, often napping, mother. She explained her sleep problem as a condition she called knockophasia — a term I have never been able to find in any dictionary. A few minutes after lying down, snap! Sound asleep. No one mentioned strange emotional problems or mental illness in those days. My parents occasionally talked about someone having a nervous breakdown as if they had died. There was no hint of a need to get help for my mother, much less for me. No one worried about me since I was a star in school, self–contained and impressive to teachers for being so mature, so adult. Migraine headaches started then, and increasingly


intense anxiety about school. I missed many days, felt shame as if I were faking, and obsessed over every one of my failings. I spent long hours alone in my room. Through my teenage years, depression went underground. Feelings were dangerous. There were too many angry and violent ones shaking the house for me to add to them. So I kept emotion under wraps, even more so than in childhood. Nothing phased me outside the house and even at home I showed almost no sign of reaction to anything, even while churning with fear and anguish. It was in my 20s that I broke open, and streams of depression, fear, panic, obsessive love and anger flowed out. In response to a panic attack that lasted for a week, I saw a psychiatrist. In one marathon session of three hours he helped me put the panic together with frightening episodes from my family life. I was cured on the spot but never went back to him. It was too soon to do anymore. It took another crisis a few years later to get me back to a psychiatrist and my first experience with medication – Elavil. But I had no idea what it was. I took something in the morning to get me going and something at night to help me sleep. I took it short term, got through the crisis but continued in therapy. From there I was steadily seeing


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

psychiatrists in various cities for the next 8 years. But no one mentioned depression. I first saw the word applied to my condition in a letter, one psychiatrist wrote to the draft board during the Vietnam era. But I was treated for that problem. Therapy in those days was still in the Freudian tradition, and it was all about family life and conflict. Depression was a springboard for going deeper. Digging up the past to understand present problems was a tremendous help, and it changed me in many ways. But depression was still there in various forms, reappearing regularly for the next couple of decades. There were wonderfully happy and successful times as well, but I had these ups and downs through marriage, children and a couple of careers.


more and more difficult. The medications only seemed to deaden my feelings and make me feel detached from everyone and immune to every pressure. It was like having pain signals turned off. There was no longer any sign coming from my body or brain that something might be wrong. I felt “fine” but my relationships and work were not. The strange thing was that after all these years of living with it, I did not know very much about depression. I thought it was entirely a problem of depressed mood and loss of the energy and motivation to do anything. As things got worse, I finally started to read about it in great depth. I was amazed to learn the full scope of depression and how pervasive it could be throughout the mind and body. I finally had a coherent, comprehensive picture of what depression was.

Gradually, depression became so disruptive that my wife could not take it anymore and demanded I get help. So I finally did. This was the 1990s. Prozac had arrived, and I started a tour of medication over the next dozen years that did not do much. Nor did therapy, though two psychiatrists helped me to understand the more destructive patterns in my way of living.

That was a big step because I could at last imagine the possibility of getting better. I could see that I was not worthless by nature, that there were reasons my mind had trouble focusing and that the frequent slowdown in my speech and thinking was also rooted in this illness. Perhaps the right treatment could bring about fundamental changes after all.

Depression pushed into every corner of my existence, and both work and family life became

There were still traps ahead, though. I became obsessed with the idea of depression as a brain


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

disease. I studied all the forms of depression, the neurobiology and endless research studies. That was a good thing to do, but after a while I was looking more at “Depression” than the details of my own version of the illness. I wondered how many diagnostic categories I fitted into. For sure I had one or more of the anxiety disorders. Perhaps I fit into bipolar II instead of major depressive disorder. What about dissociation? I read the research study findings as if they were announcing my fate. It was comforting to know I had a “real” disease. Not only could I answer any naysayers about the reality of depression. I also had a weapon to fight my internalised stigma, the lingering doubt that anything was wrong with me. I used to think that maybe I really was using the illness as a way to avoid life and cover up my own weakness. Here there was proof that depression was not all in my imagination but in my brain chemistry. Neurobiology was far beyond my control. I could not recover by myself. Doctors had to cure me through medication or other treatments, like ECT. However, that meant my hopes were pinned on them, not on my own role in getting better. When the treatments failed to work, I got desperate that there would never be an end to


depression. Hope in the future fell apart. My life would continue to run down. Could it even lead to suicide, as it had for friends of mine? Fortunately, as I learned more, I listened to the experts who had a much broader view of the causes of the illness. Peter Kramer’s overview of research in Against Depression made it clear to me that contributors to the illness could include genetic inheritance, family history, traumatic events and stress as well as the misfiring of multiple body systems. No one could point to a single cause or boil it down to a few neurotransmitters. So I went back to basics and looked much more closely at the particular symptoms I faced. I tracked the details in everyday living and saw that I needed to take the lead in recovery. Medication — when it had any effect at all — played a modest role in taking the edge off the worst symptoms. That bit of relief gave me the energy and presence of mind to work on the emotional and relationship impacts, to try to straighten out the parts of my life I had some control over. I was determined to stop the waste of life in depression. I got back into psychotherapy and tried many types of self–help as well. Many did not work at all, but something inside pushed me to keep trying, despite setbacks.


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

One of the most important efforts was writing about my experience with depression. Writing is one way I discover things, but a deep fear had blocked me from doing it for years. I can see now that the real reason I got stuck was that I had been trying to write about everything but depression. When I could finally take that on directly, writing came naturally.

again, instead of the hidden husband and dad. As anyone dealing with life–long depression will tell you, setbacks happen. There is no simple happy ending. But if you are lucky, an inner shift occurs, and the new normal is a decent life rather than depression.

Blogging turned out to be the right medium. It was manageable even when I was down. The online community of people who lived with depression gave me a form of support that I had never had before. Another decisive step was getting out of high– stress work that I had been progressively inefficient in. Taking that constant burden away restored a deep sense of vitality. After all this, recovery finally started to happen. It took me by surprise, and for a long time I did not trust that it would last. But something had changed deep down. I believed in myself again, and the inner conviction of worthlessness disappeared. I had found a deeply satisfying purpose in writing, as well as the energy and humor to do what I wanted to do. I regained the awareness and emotional presence to be a part of my family



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

“As a police officer of over twenty years I’d seen just about everything. I’d dealt with death and distress, riots, assaults and every manner of inhumanity and I’d coped with it all. I was considered reliable and the one to be able to deal with any situation.” What tipped me over the edge into depression was a punctured tyre. In truth I have been suffering stress symptoms for some time, palpitations, sweating, heavy breathing, sleep disturbance and above all irritability. When the flat tyre arrived, I just could not cope, I lost control and was unable to deal with an everyday setback, my reaction was out of proportion to the size of the problem. I knew something was desperately wrong and I sought help and within a few weeks I was placed on anti-depressants. Instead of recovering, I found myself tumbling into a dark hole of despair. I woke up each morning feeling anxious. I spent my time doing the absolute minimum possible, dreading the day ahead. I suffered intense fear but did not fear anything tangible. Days passed without me even washing or brushing my teeth and I retreated into myself, hardly venturing out of the house. I resorted to alcohol as an escape but this merely led to confrontational situations which could have ended in tragedy as I was not in control of my actions and reactions. I could sit in a room full of people


and feel lonely but also feel overpowered by the presence of relatively few. Above all, I could not cope with no longer being able to be relied upon. My whole life I had been strong for others and now I had no trust or belief in myself. I felt worthless. At my lowest ebb, I thought long and hard about taking my life but the idea of others having to cope in my absence brought me to my senses. I suppose my arrogance saved me, thinking that others could not cope without me but I prefer to think that it was their love which helped my mind to refocus. I received wonderful support from the medical services, including my GP, a psychiatrist who was open and honest with me and especially a therapeutic counsellor. They all contributed a great deal and helped me to understand that it was not only acceptable to have and admit weaknesses but it is expected of any normal person. This was an epiphany for me. I always felt I had to be strong, to never show my weakness. It was the way I had been brought up and it had been perpetuated by the job I did. Ironically, my illness ultimately cost me my career and I grieved over that for a long time but slowly, ever so slowly, my condition improved until 18 months ago when I was taken off my anti–depressants. Now I view myself as the new, improved product. For the first time in my life I know what empathy


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

feels like. Not a coping, professional façade but actually sharing the pain and joy of others. I find it to be a wonderful gift. I do still have the occasional setback, periods of anxiety, but I know that they are not permanent. An hour, a day or a week long and they do pass. I do not cope with stressful situations very well anymore and I recognize that the episodes of anxiety usually occur when I am outside my comfort zone but you can not avoid every situation which makes you feel uncomfortable. I know that depression is a life long condition, I am never clear of it but I can control aspects of it. Above all I now put myself before others. Not in a selfish way but I inwardly ask myself  “Is this in my best interests?” I have found it hard to say no in some situations but my priorities have changed. I am not ashamed of my illness. It was not lack of moral fibre. It was not my fault, just a chemical imbalance. I take medication very much the same way as a diabetic takes insulin. Why should one be accepted and the other stigmatised?”



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

I have always had issues with low self–esteem, for as long as I can remember, it has been a demon I have struggled with. Even in primary school I can remember thinking “I do not deserve to be happy.” A mantra that shadowed me all through my life, only recently was it challenged. Despite this I managed to do well in school, I submersed myself in a world of mathematics and equations. Looking back now, it is easy to see that the real decline of my mental health began in 6th year of high school. I was coerced into a career path against my choice. Suddenly the solace I found in learning was replaced with a dull tedium. I was only 16 but before I arrived at school each morning, I would be drunk or hungover. Increasingly, I became dependant on alcohol. At the end of the year I managed to scrape the results required to take medicine. Once I was there, everything deteriorated rapidly.On top of drinking everyday, I started taking more and more illicit drugs. I was trying desperately to numb myself, anything to stop the deep seeded self– hatred. Of course, that failed and that summer I made my first attempt on my own life. Thankfully I did not succeed but instead woke up in a pool of my own vomit and covered in shame. Shame clung to me, preventing me from discussing it with anyone.


I ended up failing my Medical degree, not that I particularly cared at that point. Luckily, I managed to charm my way into an engineering course, which I enjoyed. For a short time I thought all my issues were behind me, something I could brush off and forget about. But soon the same self–hatred, same self–destructive behaviour remerged. This time however I was stronger, and was able to ask for the help I desperately needed. I spoke to my university’s counseling service, who advised I should contact my GP. He encouraged me to find my passion— a passion for stand-up comedy. I have been performing regularly for over a year now. I may not be very good. But I enjoy it. I love it. It has given me a new confidence. A confidence to seek help, and now after six long years I finally see a future. I have a long way to go but for the first time, I am looking forward to it.


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

My name is Claire, I am 22 years old and I have suffered with mental illnesses since I was 16 years old. I was diagnosed with severe depression and post–traumatic stress disorder after being raped shortly after my 16th birthday. I have struggled with self–harm ever since, taken numerous overdoses and have had many hospital admissions. I buried the pain deep inside and felt so ashamed that I despised myself and destroyed my body. In January this year, I received a phone call informing me the person who raped me had been accused again of the same crime on someone else. I decided to do what should have been done long ago. I sat for three hours doing a video statement and it was the hardest thing I had ever had to do.

Eventually I learned to open up to staff on the ward and I had the most amazing named nurse who explained my new added diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. I started new medication and I learned how to cope with overwhelming feelings. I am now out of the hospital and have a brilliant support network that help me every day to come to terms with what has happened to me. I smile again, I am working to a promotion and I have learnt to be kind to myself and have so many future ambitions. I want to help others who feel they have nowhere to turn and have applied to work with Samaritans. If you fight hard enough you can feel happy again. I promise you.

I broke down. I ended up in a psychiatric ward for three months whilst the case was on–going. After being discharged for a week, I was told the case would no longer go further as there was insufficient evidence. Victim support tried to console me but I was inconsolable. I had gone through it all for nothing. I blamed myself for leaving it for so long. I spiralled into the deepest depression and tried to take my life. I ended up in the hospital on a drip. I was then admitted to a psychiatric ward for another three months. I could see no hope, I wanted to be gone.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

Growing up an adopted child, I was insecure. Having been told my mother died in childbirth was a heavy burden to carry in life. But I was loved and told that God had made me. That played a vital part in my survival on the day I found out the whole truth.Molested at six by a teen neighbor and never feeling like I was worth anything, I learned to hide my pain with humor. In 1986, I turned my life over to Jesus Christ and never looked back. Shortly afterwards, my world fell apart when my husband divorced me. I remarried in 1989, but that was extremely tumultuous. I thought of suicide often in those times. Since I had two small children, I could not kill myself. I also did not want to put shame on Jesus. That same year, I was given new information about my birth mother, who, in fact, had not died. She had been 22 at the time of my birth. No father was mentioned. But now I had hope of possibly finding my birth mother. At that time, the agency refused to release any other information. Years later, I obtained a court order to get the rest of the information. As I sat across from a social worker in 2003, ready to receive my adoption records, the woman said, “Since you’re going to find your mother, you need to know about the father.”


I had not given any thought to him, except that he might have been a hit and run. Without any preparation she bluntly said, “Your mother was raped.” I immediately started crying for my mother, but by the time I got to my car, I was crying for myself. The woman I was with offered no comfort. Now everything I had heard in my head all my life, about being worthless and unloved, came back blasting me: “God didn’t have anything to do with your birth. You’re worthless, and the best thing you can do is slash your wrists and let all of that nasty rapist’s blood flow out.” This was the hardest thing I have ever been through. The thoughts of suicide were overwhelming. I was numb, but I heard my mouth say, “I can’t kill myself because I belong to Jesus.” At that very moment the voices were gone. But I still felt like the walking dead. Fifteen hours later I was with a composer to work on my song. She knew nothing about what was happening, and I was not going to tell her. She wanted me to listen to a song she had just finished for someone else. The only words I heard were “using and losing women” and I went nuts. I screamed for her to shut the music off. I put my head between my knees


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

and saw a vision of myself falling into a deep, dark abyss. It felt so real. The woman jumped off her piano bench and came to me saying, “I don’t know what’s going on, but God knew you before you were conceived.” Right then in my vision, I saw a hand reach down, grab my arm and jerk me into the most brilliant light. I knew it was God.

first. Knowing there is a greater joy in the end is worth fighting for and worth telling others. It was Jesus that made the difference.

Looking up at the woman I said, “I believe it! I believe it!” The Scripture verse is Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart ...” From that moment on I knew my purpose for being here was God’s purpose. Today I speak worldwide, I have a book, Hostile Conception, Living With Purpose, and a music CD, God is Faithful. The Lord has allowed me to share truth that sets people free, including opportunities to speak at Harvard, the United Nations, and even in South Africa. I never would have known such joy had I committed suicide on that horrible day. All of this happened in less than five years. Jesus saved me at the cross and at my deepest, darkest hour. He is always able if we turn to Him. My greatest joy in seeing others set free was derived from the extreme pain that I went through



Learning to live life

Learning to live life

It was the hardest battle I had ever faced. I lost all hope and faith in God. I rejected all comfort and advice given by my family. I started isolating myself from the world, my family, and especially from God. The fear of being blind caused me confusion and anger. My world turned upside down. I began to think of suicide — endlessly it rotated through my mind every day. My dark thoughts of death were all I hoped for. Seeing myself as a person with a disability bought shame and low self–esteem. My personality was shy and modest, and I was also filled with pride, which made it even harder for me to ask for help. I started blaming myself. I felt God was continually punishing me for losing faith in him. My heart, broken as a child, now felt impossible to mend. Life became endless darkness, each day living in a world unknown. There were tears of sadness, anger, and frustrations. It was literally a hopeless barrier that felt impossible to conquer. As a person who never showed my emotions in front of anyone, I was severely broken in spirit. Hiding my depression from family was something I became very good at. Secretly, I broke down every single day. It truly felt like millions of thorns were piercing through my heart. I was at the edge of a


breaking point, ready to jump, ready to tell God that I had chosen my path—to give up. Today it has been 21 years since the passing of my father, and 12 years since being visually impaired. The reconstruction of my spiritual walk with God started about two years ago. My mother is a faithful servant of God who always attended church. I know she endlessly prayed for me, but I was too stubborn to even care. During this time, I began to go through some personal problems. Something inside reassured me not to give up. It took a split decision, and I am not even sure how I came to this conclusion. I guess only God knows, but I finally decided to give church another go. Praying for the first time in years, I opened up to God. I shed tears of a person so damaged, of one whose heart had been severely crushed. I gave all that I had inside of my shattered soul. Each day I would cry out to God that I was tired of living, and I was too weak to go on. As I continued to abide in the Word of God, I started noticing a change in my attitude toward life. A vision of hope in my heart was beginning to grow each day.


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

It took a while for me to realize how much God loved me. As I attended church and received advice from my priest, the burdens and every day struggles became lighter. A word I had ignored from my priest a long time ago, started to reappear in my heart each day. With the strength I had now, I finally acted upon that advice. Swallowing my pride, I went and saw my family doctor and told him about my situation. I was then diagnosed with the post–mortem depression that I had suffered in childhood. And I was told I had become clinically depressed after losing my sight.For the first time I had medical terms for the things I was told long ago. But back then I did not know how serious it was. I never trusted in anyone or anything. I was oblivious to the help God tried to show me all along. The Word of God, advice from my local priest, counsel from my therapist, and my family’s boundless support were all answers to my prayers. The overwhelming support of everyone in my life and organizations that have lent their services for me to use was more then I could have ever ask for. I learned about God working in mysterious ways through this process of becoming who I am now. I realized that in order for us to grow, we need others for comfort and strength, and to always have connections with humanity.


2 Corinthians 1:3–4 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” At last my faith became stronger, and I no longer felt alone. An overwhelming feeling of relief and peace entered inside me. My heart slowly healed. I understood Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” My life is not perfect. I still go through the normal stresses of life, but I thank the Lord for the outpouring of peace that I have now. God’s guidance of mercy leads me to discover all his promises. I now believe Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I have found my purpose in life. I have begun to acknowledge my strengths, and with courage I am taking on life in an assertive way. Despite losing my sight, I am hopeful I will see again. In the meantime, I am blessed and contented to live life as God has planned it to be. After all, God


Learning to live life

Learning to live life

knows best. I am now a student at university, studying for a bachelor of human services, majoring in disability. I’m hoping to do a post–graduate for counseling psychology. Things would have been easier if I could have felt a miraculous force of the divine Spirit come upon me and change my apprehensive way of thinking and living. But, if that had happened, then what would have been the point of my afflictions and struggles? The death of my father and losing my sight was not in vain. If I had never gone through these tribulations and adversities, I would not have the privileges I now have. My passion in life now is to give back to others all the blessings I have experienced—to assist or inspire anyone who is struggling with hardships in life, to offer them hope in themselves and hope in God. I am proof that God exists and actively works in our lives.



Learning to live life

Learning to live life


Greene, Amber. “How I overcame post-natal depression”. Brisbane Times. Fairfax Media. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Sep. 2013. au/federal-politics/how-i-overcame-postnataldepression-20120228-1u0g6.html#ixzz2ivV4X0Y0 “My Experience with Depression”. Wing of madness depression guide. WordPress. 15 July 2010. Web. 20 Sep. 2013. www.wingofmadness. com/my-experience-with-depression/ Schwarcz, Ben. “The Journey from Darkness to Light”. Art Therapy for Depression. SBI. 25 Sep. 2013. Folk-Williams. “John’s Recovery Story”. Recovery Stories. 30 Sep 2013. recovery-stories/john-recovery-story/ Naomi. “Naomi’s Darkest Times”. Physical and sexual abuse. 5 Nov 2013. christianity. naomitestimony.htm

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