Six years ago I entered a depressive episode lasting the better part of four years. Emerging two years later—chastened by the experience and filled with regrets for how my situation adversely affected many people I care about—I gained a greater understanding for people coping with mental illness along with a healthier appreciation for my own imperfections.
I’ve struggled with some form of anxiety or another since I was little. In elementary school, I had a lot of social anxiety due to a combination of shyness, awkwardness, and the seeming inability to feel at home in large groups. I absolutely hated high school. In grade nine I was bullied the entire year by a grade 12 student. I’ve never understood why people have to go out of their way to be mean to others. Hell truly can be other people as the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre observed. For some reason society finds ways to devour the most sensitive of us. I’ve honestly hated myself at times for being so sensitive; it makes me feel weak or less of a man. I’d tear it out of me if I could. To gain an appreciation for the scope of my situation, consider the following: when I was six years old, I’d come across a gum wrapper lying on the ground all by itself. I’d feel sorry for it and then find a stick or a rock for the wrapper to be beside so it wouldn’t feel lonely. We never entirely escape our genetics, and so I turned a bully’s aggression into an expression of self-loathing and self-harm. I was so happy I survived high school.
Sometimes we unleash hell on ourselves: after a period of extensive reading and study at university, I entered a two year existential crisis brought on by a loss of faith in God. My understanding mother helped me appreciate the importance of nuance when it came to the apparent conflict between science and religion. Although she helped me navigate a dark period, I’ve never quite escaped those uncertain waters. Not really. Nonetheless, I survived by finding constructive outlets for my doubt eventually abandoning any need for certainty.
Faith became less about believing (fide) in doctrines and more a matter of trusting (pistus), in that, promises made would be promises kept.
I continued pursuing what some call living a life of the mind by pouring my energy into reading books. I fell in love with knowledge and I fell in love with the people I met through and in them.
Yet, we aren’t frozen creatures, any of us; we don’t hit a “good” spot and stop changing; instead, we’re sculptures constantly shaped by our circumstances, experiences, and temperament; and there was something different, even life threatening, about my most recent bout with depression. I won’t go into specifics but suffice to say the pressure of the school I work at possibly closing, along with the confluence of some other factors, nearly destroyed me.
I remember waking up one morning feeling something was different, like someone had turned a switch off. I physically couldn’t get out of bed. My brain is usually fixed on philosophical, logical or ethical problems. My mind was empty. When I finally did get up, I felt a physical weight and pressure on my chest that remained for four years.
That was just the beginning.
Music lost its allure. Books gathered dust and remained unopened. I started eating food in large quantities as a sort of way to medicate myself. I gained weight and didn’t really care. I had zero energy for my kids. Normally, when my kids hugged me I would feel so alive. I no longer sought their affection. I was a complete bear to my wife. I didn’t enjoy playing hockey. I quit playing drums. I quit laughing. I un-successfully tried hiding what was happening to me from others. I didn’t think my kids noticed anything was different but one day my son Alec wondered aloud at supper why his dad seemed to be sad all the time. The thing about depression—at least in my experience—is I’d be perfectly happy one moment and then inexplicably teary-eyed the next. Why are potatoes making me cry? Like what the fuck? I’m certain students and co-workers noticed something was not quite right with me. Admittedly, I did get energy from teaching but eventually even that became an almost unbearable source of stress for me. What used to give me joy no longer did. I just couldn’t seem to pull myself out of a cycle of unhealthy thinking. I was stuck in something outside of my control and I was acutely aware and powerless to stop it. I was residing in a sort of living death.
That’s the best way I can think of describing it: living death.
As the years passed, and things didn’t seem like they were going to turn around, I started feeling I was running out of time. Then something unexpected happened. During a hockey tournament I met someone I hadn’t seen in several years. He was a fellow teacher, about ten years older than me. He’d lost about 25-30 pounds. When he started putting on his equipment I noticed he had a six pack and looked ripped. I asked him what he did to look the way he did and he said he completed an extreme fitness program called P90X. I resolved to try the program myself. So, the next day I ordered P90X online. When the program finally arrived it sat on a table in the living room for about two weeks. I’d look at the large white box and say to myself…not yet, not yet. Eventually, I quit procrastinating and completed my first work out.
Oh my God.
When I was half-way through the first workout, I was so tempted to quit. I could barely complete a pull-up. Dripping in sweat, I could tell push-ups weren’t exactly my bag. The thing about lifting weights, pull-ups, push-ups, plyo-metrics, and yoga, etc. is exercise acts like an anti-depressant; it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. I was super stiff, and could barely walk at times, but I eventually started feeling much better. I had an outlet for stress.
I resolved to give the program two solid weeks. I needed the program to work (and work it did). After 30 days of P90X I lost 20 pounds (going from 215 to 195 pounds). I felt so much more energy. I also started getting some counseling, too. The counseling helped me break the cycle of defeatist thinking I was stuck in. (I did try medication for a time, as well. I abandoned pills though because I didn’t like how they made me feel. I’m not against someone using medication though. Not at all; it’s a personal decision and people have to do what’s right for them.) By the end of 90 days my weight dropped to 173 pounds. I looked a lot better and felt more confident. I still had, and continue to have, issues with anxiety and depression yet I have found a life-affirming way to address it: now when I feel like the black dog of depression is returning I don’t try to sleep or eat it away; instead, I’ll complete a workout like the one called “The Challenge” and complete over 230 push-ups and 100 pull-ups in 30 minutes.
I believe fitness saved my life.
Again, I still struggle with things at times. I don’t always eat well. Yet, I’m thankful for finding a way to deal constructively with the stress and pressures life throws my way. The funny thing about life, really, is it can take you on unexpected turns—sometimes life’s turns don’t take you in positive directions but sometimes they do. In my case, I was fortunate to discover someone capable of inspiring me and giving me a means of turning things around. One thing I can honestly say about depression, though, is I’d never wish it on my worst enemy. The people I know who struggle with this daily, you are my heroes. If I might have one word of advice, don’t try to stick things out or go it alone. Seek help from others if you need it. Confide in the people who love you; and above all, be patient and love yourself; and if you’re looking for a training partner, or you want to talk about fitness or life or whatever, I’m as close as an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).