Self awareness

I’ve been thinking about writing something about my experience with depression for a while now, but it’s such a wide-ranging topic with almost infinite interesting facets that I’ve struggled to know where to start. Rather than dwell on it any longer — dwelling on things being a common trait of depression in people, in my experience at least — I’ve decided to just put fingers to keyboard and see what happens.

I don’t know if my doctors over the years will agree with me here, although maybe they’d have no choice but to (something else I’d like to write about soon), but I believe I’ve been depressed on and off since I was in my very early teens. Possibly even before, but I can’t form coherent enough memories to decide one way or another. So, for more than half my life I think there have been extended periods where a doctor or psychologist would have diagnosed me as such. I think it’s risky for mental health professionals, especially just general practitioners, to make the diagnosis with young people, but it does generally get easier as patients get older because they’re (hopefully) able to describe the symptoms more eloquently. Maybe the innocence of children actually makes it easier, I don’t really know.

Twinned with the problems the mental health professional has in diagnosing the patient is the much more serious problem of the patient diagnosing themselves; you can’t help someone that doesn’t know they need it. At least in my case, acknowledging something was wrong was the first step to doing something about it. The difficulty for me was that the mental models and tools I needed to develop, to allow myself to reason about how I was feeling, didn’t come until I was into my late 20s, and it would have been even longer coming if I hadn’t had certain life experiences in my 20s to speed that up. Life experiences that help me now, but that were terrible at the time and often cause me pain when I think about them.

That ability to inform myself, by understanding the patterns and signs to my depression, is now the number one tool I have to deal with it. In short, I’ve become self aware when it comes to knowing I’m about to enter a depressed cycle, giving me options and methods to try and do something about it, and hopefully make whatever changes I need to make to avoid it. It’s commonly understood that at least certain kinds of depression follow somewhat cyclical patterns of feeling and behaviour, so being conscious of those patterns and being able to understand how they run their course has been invaluable. If nothing else, it’s allowed me to understand that the cycles have finite duration and that I’ll always emerge from them and feel better eventually.

These days, it even allows me to avoid the periods entirely or at least significantly minimise their impact. I used to find myself wallowing in the middle of a depression without even realising something was wrong and it burns a lot of mental (and physical in many cases) energy to climb out. Now I can mostly tell what’s coming and try and make some changes to avoid it. I’m not always successful — sometimes life just throws too much at me and I can’t always cope — but even if it’s still overwhelming I’ve almost always taken some of the edge off.

I don’t know how to easily help you recognise that you’re about to head into a downturn; for me it was repeated exposure to the same kinds of life events and experiences that led me to, painfully at times, put 2 and 2 together and realise that certain things would inevitably lead to an episode. If you get depressed but you still don’t have a handle on it, I bet you already have a subconscious understanding of what’s going on, you just haven’t joined the dots (or don’t want to, I know it’s easier to just ignore it).

I joined the dots in part by keeping a written — well, typed, I am a child of the computer age after all — diary of things that happened and how they made me feel, being as introspective and detailed as I cared to, and then had a cautious look for patterns. It took me the better part of 3 years to really get a good idea, so I can’t say a process like that for you will reveal obvious and immediate insight into how you feel.

Lastly, I should clarify that it’s not specific things that happen that trigger my depression (and trigger is wooly, it’s never completely predictable that anything will actually happen), it’s the feelings and thoughts about the things that I invariably dwell on and let take hold in my mind. Learning to just let things go and move on has been a big help.

The upshot is that I spend a lot of idle time just running through self checks to make sure I’m feeling OK and doing something about the times that I’m not, if I can. I learned to do that before I started taking anti-depressants. It was important for me that I learn something about myself and became self aware about my depression before I added chemistry into the mix.