how to overcome depression

My Depression Nearly Killed Me. Here’s How I Survived.

I’ll be honest – this is a post I never thought I’d have the courage to write. However, in light of the sudden and tragic depression-linked suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as reports this week that national suicide rates increased by 25%, I knew it was time to tell my story.

After all, if I don’t share the story of how depression nearly ended my life, I’m officially part of the problem with mental health in this country. Because the problem of mental illness is far more complicated than just a lack of support or access to treatment for the 18% of adults with mental health issues in the United States. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of positive media attention on mental health issues, as well as the lack of positive role models.

This week has sharpened my resolve to being part of the solution to America’s increasing and often deadly mental health problems. That’s why I’m finally ready to share my story of battling and overcoming depression.

Where My Mental Health Problems Began

Let’s start by flashing back to my freshman year of high school. I was captain of the cheerleading team and dating the quarterback of the football team. I was a fashionable size 00 (thanks to consistently throwing up all my food) and taking all honors classes. At least in the eyes of others, I was beautiful, popular and successful. What more could you want as a high schooler?

In reality, my seemingly “perfect” life was just a mask to hide the inner darkness. In my head, I was 1000% sure that I was the most unbearable human being on the planet – and it was really just a matter of time before other people found out.

Why was I depressed? It’s hard to say. Depression runs in my family, so maybe my genes just kicked in during adolescence. At that time, my parents were also getting a divorce, my hormones were changing and I felt extremely out of place in my new school. So, maybe all of these big life transitions were the trigger. Looking back now, I know my daily diet of chocolate chip muffins for breakfast, cheese pizza for lunch and tons of white bread and pasta with Ragu sauce for dinner probably did a number on my mental health, too. The specific cause didn’t really matter at the time, though. All I knew was that sleeping was better than being awake, and that every day felt like the hardest day I’d ever had to live.

My Experience with Traditional “Treatments” to Heal Depression

When I started having suicidal thoughts, my mom took me to a therapist. I was officially diagnosed with depression and put on dozens of medications. Paxil. Zoloft. Wellbutrin. Xanax. If you’ve ever had depression or know someone who has, I don’t have to tell you how many medications are available nowadays…

…or that, sometimes, none of those medications work, no matter how many of them you try.

Over the next few years, I quit cheerleading (and all my hobbies, for that matter), isolated myself from almost all my friends and even missed 30% of school days my senior year of high school. By the time I left for college, my depression wasn’t any better – and things continued to get worse. I didn’t fit in with the University of Virginia’s Greek-life school culture. Without anyone forcing me to go to class, exercise or socialize, I just, well, didn’t. Plus the cafeteria offered crazy amounts of crappy food, like pepperoni pizza that was so greasy, it almost stuck to the plate, and I spent most nights in bed with the only friends I had, Ben and Jerry.

Perhaps worst of all, both my mother and therapist told me never to tell anyone that I struggled with depression, saying things like:

“You don’t look depressed, so nobody will know. You’ll make friends a lot easier if they think you’re a fun person to be around.”

“What if the information gets out and some potential employer learns about it? You’d never get a good job.”

My mom and my therapist had good intentions, of course; they didn’t want me to be marginalized by others.

But what they didn’t realize was how their advice made me internalize my depression as something to be ashamed of. Something that was my fault. Something other people wouldn’t accept about me. All of that meant there was nowhere and no-one to whom I could safely show my “real self.”

When My Depression Spiraled Out of Control

As a result, I kept all of my bad feelings and doubts locked inside and tried to self medicate with my drugs of choice: antidepressants, alcohol and aloneness. Yet none of these “coping mechanisms” could fill the enormous void in my heart or treat all the negative opinions I had of myself. So, I just got worse and worse. I gained 25 pounds. To further isolate myself, I moved to a single dorm. I even began experiencing psychotic symptoms like hearing voices and painful, loud noises inside my head, possibly from all the meds I was taking.

Eventually, I decided to end it all. I couldn’t tell anyone about what I was going through (They’d judge me! They’d feel burdened by my secret!), but I couldn’t keep it bottled up inside of my any longer.

That’s when I wrote the suicide note. The letter was to my family, apologizing for all always being so negative, for never being fun to be around, and just being my awkward self. And then I wrote a long portion to my younger brother, telling him that “he’ll turn out much better if he doesn’t have a role model like me.“ As I wrote the letter, every single instance where I had let them down flashed through my mind, and I felt the pain I was sure I had caused them by just…existing in their lives. I knew that getting out of their way (and my own) now was the best decision for all of us.

The Conversation That Saved My Life

I planned to die alone in my dorm room on a Friday cold, dark night in February. Only that afternoon, my dad called, saying he wanted to come and spend the day with me that Saturday. I didn’t want him to know what was going on in my head, so I agreed, mentally deciding to see him one more time before I took “the final step.”

When my dad arrived at UVa, I asked him about something we’d only briefly talked about once before: his own father’s suicide when my dad was seven years old. I’d first found out about it on Christmas Eve when I was a junior in high school. However, our conversation about it only lasted about 15 seconds before my dad changed the subject. This time, we really talked. My dad told me how hard he and his family had to work not to blame themselves and to find some explanation that they could live with. He even said that his dad’s suicide still affected him and his siblings, fifty years later.

That’s when the guilt hit me about what I was planning to do. At that time, I genuinely believed my family’s lives would be better without me. However, I didn’t want them to blame themselves.

Then my dad said, “I just wish my dad had known there were other options. Abraham Lincoln battled depressive symptoms. Jim Carey still struggles with depression. When you find the right support, you can live a pretty good life, even with depression.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.”

The Turning Point in My Journey to Overcome Depression

I went home that evening and began to research famous people who struggled with depression. For the first time in five years, I felt a slight sense of hope. “These people have had the same thoughts as me, the same lack of motivation for life, and the same self-hatred,” I thought. “Yet they seemed to do pretty cool things for the world. Maybe I can do just as much good.”

So I became obsessed with volunteering and working on issues of global poverty. I signed up for service work in Guatemala. While there, I saw that, despite lacking reliable sources of food or water and losing land and loved ones, those people were, as a whole, fundamentally much happier than I was. They weren’t on meds or in therapy, either. They were happy because of their beliefs, lifestyle and close-knit communities. (Johann Hari elaborates on this idea in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions).

I remember asking a Guatemalan colleague if anyone she knew struggled with depression. She told me about her sister, saying, “‘There are days when she doesn’t get out of bed. But she will call one of her family and friends, tell us what she’s going through, and we handle it together.”

How I Applied This Mindset To My Own Life With Depression

That blew my mind. There were people who were okay with telling others about their depression? And their friends and family didn’t mind being told? It sounded so liberating, I decided to try out this strategy myself. I started with one of my closest friends and college hallmates. She immediately responded, “You too? I’ve been going through the same thing for the last three months, and I was sure I was the only one!” We hugged and bonded for hours over our experiences.

Then I told a few more friends. Some of their responses were helpful and some were awkward, but nobody made me feel ashamed or treated me differently. Perhaps the scariest moment was telling a teacher whose class I had barely managed to show up to all semester. He, too, was empathetic and supportive. He even told me I was brave for doing everything I was doing.

Fueled by the connection and understanding I kept receiving from those around me, I began to develop the confidence that I could truly beat this. I enrolled in Columbia School of Social Work. There, I studied Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and learned how to systematically challenge the negative thoughts that contributed to my depression. After grad school, I received a fellowship to move to India. In India, I studied a lot of natural healing systems, especially yoga and ayurveda. By this point, I’d already gone off all of my antidepressant medication. (The side effects were terrible and I felt more numb than happy on them anyway). Slowly, I began using my new knowledge about how food and movement affected mood to change my diet and lifestyle. Over the course of about two years of these lifestyle changes, my depression finally lifted.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that my life or mind was – or is – perfect or persistently positive. However, for one of the first times in my life, I felt full of optimism, self love and intrinsic motivation. For the most part, my mental health has continued to improve ever since.

My Tips for Overcoming Depression

I am extremely thankful that depression did not take my life. However, I also know that it came very close to doing just that, if not for the divine intervention that caused my dad to call me that Friday in February.

My biggest hope is that this post will be that phone call for someone else, whether by just reminding you that you aren’t alone or by giving you some tips for overcoming depression based on everything I’ve learned in my journey.

If you’re fighting depression right now, there are four main skills I’ve found to be extremely helpful in processing and overcoming your negative thoughts. I’m also listing four actionable steps you can take to incorporate these skills into your own life:

  1. Hope that there is and will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that this challenge will end, that we can grow from the experience and that soooo many people become stronger than ever from their struggles can give you the motivation you need to keep pushing through your bad days. Action step: Find the stories of at least five people you know who are managing depression well, or who came out of it. Learn about their stories and intentionally look for ways that you can see yourself in them.
  2. The ability to be honest and open about what you’re going through, both at work and at home. This doesn’t mean that you have to talk about your depression all the time or let it be the core of your identity. However, you should be able to talk about it with as much openness as you can talk about having heart disease. Bottling up your negative emotions won’t help you heal in the long run and reinforces the idea that you should be ashamed about your depression, that you’re a burden, etc. Action step:  Make sure you find your people. Human connection, love and support are incredibly healing tools, and it’s critical that you spend the vast majority of your time with people who you can be yourself with, whether you’re happy, sad, numb, etc.
  3. The ability to work with your thoughts. When you struggle with depression, the frequency and intensity of negative thoughts can be overwhelming. When you’re able to objectively analyze each thought on their own, you can diffuse their power. Action step: Begin a mindfulness habit and once you’ve identified some of the recurring negative thoughts, start practicing working with them.
  4. An understanding of how your body works, and how depression is linked to various biochemical factors. Action step: Learn what foods, workouts, environments – heck, even essential oils and daily routines – will actually make you thrive by attending my Mind-Body Connection MasterclassWhether you realize it or not, your body is messaging you a billion times a day about what it needs to be healthy and happy. The problem? You haven’t been taught how to listen. That’s why this 1.5-hour workshop is all about giving you the tools you need to hear what your body is saying and use those insights to heal yourself. No more wondering if that new diet or yoga routine is actually right for you, or relying on doctors or therapists to reignite your inner spark. Become besties with your body and listen your way to true healing by signing up for the online masterclass today.

What I Hope This Post Taught You About Mental Health Problems

When I was a freshman in high school, I never could have imagined being as happy as I am today. No, my life is not perfect. Yes, I still have my days. But now I’m deeply grounded in hope, connection, mindfulness and a healthy lifestyle, and those 4 skills add tremendous meaning and joy to my life.

Let’s create some new stories around mental health together. Together, we can really make a difference.

[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources]

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