I've written about how my story of being diagnosed with Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) a number of times on this blog, but it's been a long time since I gave an update. If you're newer to my blog this post might be a surprise, but I come by my love of psychology, resilience, motivation, and unbridled positivity whenever possible honestly. In 2010, I was diagnosed, and since then my life has changed dramatically for the better.
If you'd like to, you can read about my initial diagnosis and a follow-up from later that year. Before I share the things that have helped make my life with Depression and GAD so much better, I wanted to share what's changed since that original post and my diagnosis as I've learned more about myself and what this means for me.
What I Got Wrong & What's Changed
A lot of my assumptions about what I was experiencing, in the beginning, turned out to be wrong. Strange right? This is the short list.
I thought I had GAD with an episode of depression
When I was initially diagnosed, my GAD symptoms were an urgent, all-encompassing and exhausting part of my daily life. It's like living life with your startle response and stress dials set to 7, and any more stress that would normally bother a normal person, like going to the grocery store, writing an important email, or going out with friends, would be interpreted by my body as dangerous.
As my symptoms receded and my medication became effective, I felt so much better. But in the years since my diagnosis, my depression symptoms have been just as persistent, difficult, and present as my GAD. Looking back at my teenage years and twenties, I can see that depression was always a huge part of my life, but until now I didn't understand that wasn't my natural personality.
In the years that have passed, my understanding of my mental health changed even more. Today, my doctors and I agree that I likely have have depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and bipolar 2.
I thought my depression was mild until it was life-threatening
None of us knows how it feels to be another person, so it's hard to know when what you're feeling isn't normal. But the slippery thing about mental illness is that it profoundly changes your perspective on how it feels to be you. I had no idea my depression was severe because as I became more and more depressed, I stopped being able to remember that I had ever felt differently.
When I was in the worst of my experience, I knew that I used to have more energy and feel happier, but the depression and GAD were such dampers on my perspective that I couldn't imagine or remember what feeling better felt like. At the end of my worst episode, I was too tired to be awake for more than a few hours at a time, and I would feel heartbroken like I was grieving an unimaginable loss, the whole time I was awake.
Even then, I only went to the doctor because in one of those moments I thought, “I can't imagine feeling like this for another week. Actually, I can't imagine feeling like this for a few more days.”. I thankfully had the insight to know that was a suicidal thought, and it terrified me. I shouted for my husband, and we made a doctors appointment.
I thought getting help would be scary
I hear this a lot from people experiencing what they suspect might be mental illness, and who are terrified of getting help. Speaking with a doctor makes everything feel so much more real, and when I was in the thick of my worst feelings, I just wanted these feelings to go away on their own.
The thing was, I didn't realize I was in the absolute worst part already. Knowing what's wrong doesn't hurt you anymore. It opens you up to help, resources, services, knowledge, and community. Knowing what's going on opens a window that lets all kinds of good flood in.
Your doctor won't force you to take medication. Your doctor will be a neutral outside party who can take your experience and objectively help you understand what's going on. When you're sick your perspective isn't reliable, so having someone on your team who has been there before and sees things clearly is the best time and money you can spend.
I had no idea how much of what I experienced daily wasn't normal (and was optional!)
I used to have a meltdown at least once a week. My husband and I would fight or get stuck in a misunderstanding about nothing, and it would end in tears.
I would play conversations over in my mind on endless loops, especially ones where I did or said something I regretted. I had repetitive thoughts or daydreams that I couldn't switch off. I spoke quickly (though I didn't think so at the time) and frequently caught myself holding my breath. I hated calling people on the phone or speaking to people I didn't know, I became tired out easily and needed to nap on the weekends and be caffeinated at all other times. If someone startled me, I had a huge reaction and couldn't watch any movies or shows with jump scares.
Thinking back through my life, I was younger; I would have crying episodes at least once a month where I would cry so hard I couldn't breathe. I would get extremely frustrated and angry at times, over what seemed like nothing. Going to new places or meeting new people was extremely stressful, so I invented workarounds like visiting a new place the day before so I could plan where I would park and how I would walk to where I was going.
I was still myself. I was smart, quirky, and had it together, but no one – myself included – had any idea something was wrong until it escalated out of control.
In Minneapolis with my friends & heart people, Mandy and Nora in 2010, when my GAD & depression were escalating. I was exhausted all the time, and while I was positive and tried to fit fun in my life, it took a huge amount of effort. I didn't do it to try to fit in, I did it because I thought everyone else felt the same way.
We can only know what we experience, and I didn't know that these are all symptoms of high anxiety, stress, or depression. And I'm happy to say most of my life is now completely symptom-free.
How I live (mostly happily) with depression and GAD
I know that I'm lucky. I'm sorry if you're reading this and your situation is harder right now. I'm extremely lucky that my illness isn't treatment resistant, that my symptoms aren't any more severe than they are, and that I haven't had to switch between meditations.
I'm also extremely lucky to have met the man I was going to marry when I was 19, as my illness started to escalate. Jesse was just as loving, observant, non-judgemental, patient and hilarious then as he is now, and because we moved in together in the first year of our relationship, I had someone close to me who could help me watch my symptoms change when my perspective on what was happening wasn't clear. (There isn't enough gratitude or thanks in the world for him!)
These are the things that have helped me:
1. I spoke to my family doctor and was open to medication as emergency help
When I had my first suicidal thought (Unwanted! Though I'm sure they all are) it frightened me enough to shock me into action, and for that, I'm forever grateful. My doctor completed symptom checklists with me, and I fit the profiles for both depression and GAD to the letter. Because I was in crisis, my doctor and I decided that a prescription was the fastest way to get me out of short-term danger. I tried Effexor, and after we got to a dosage that I started responding to and some time passed my life started feeling radically different.
Immediately, I was amazed by how much better I felt knowing that I was working on a solution with someone else in charge because I felt strongly that this was beyond my control. Within three months I felt better than I'd ever felt before, and was constantly asking my friends and family “Is this what you feel like normally? WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THAT???” and in six months I felt twice as good as that. Within nine months I felt even better, which was worlds beyond what I had ever dreamed of in my life, and when I started to truly appreciate how severe my situation had been.
I still have bad days every couple of months, and the stark Canadian winter makes my depression worse. I've been on a high dose (over 200 mg) of Effexor ever since and taking medication every day doesn't bother me for even a moment, even though I thought it would. It's what allows me to wake up happy, energized and excited for my life, being able to be there for my friends and family, doing work that I love and working for myself.
2. I started cognitive behavioral therapy & told my friends and family what was happening
After starting medication, I found a cognitive behavioral therapist and started going to regular sessions. I found the therapy approach profoundly interesting, but my therapist abrasive. There were some helpful pieces of what she worked with me on, like slowing my speech down and making sure I was breathing properly, but we weren't a great match after the initial few sessions. As I learned that cognitive behavioral therapy is all about symptom reduction, and dove into everything, I could read on it so I could start putting them into action without hefty therapy bills.
At the same time, I told everyone I loved and cared about that I was diagnosed with GAD and depression. At the time, I felt relieved that there was a solution but also mystified that I had lived alongside side people whose lives just felt completely different from mine.
I shared openly because I felt shocked and excited, but I unintentionally recruited a big group of caring friends and family and set the tone for how we would talk about depression and anxiety together. This wasn't frightening or emotional; it was a fascinating discovery that from that moment forward my life was going to feel better and better. I couldn't stop talking about how we could all be so close and still have missed that we were experiencing life differently.
My friends and family stepped in beside me, and as I stopped having to fight through the sadness and anxiety, there was a lot of celebrating to do. I was quick to laugh, more positive, curious, adventurous, and myself than ever before, and it was a joy.
3. I read upon how depression & anxiety happens in the brain and learned about symptom reduction techniques so I could feel better
As I learned more and more about depression and anxiety disorders, I took a scientific approach: this is about neurotransmitters. I learned how and why different anxiety disorders have different symptoms, what causes them, what treats them, why treatments that aren't medication based work for some people, what medication does for others, and anything else I could get my hands on.
I realized that if I had a broken leg, I would go to a hospital and that if I had diabetes, I would manage it. My family has a history of depression and anxiety, and I experienced some traumas as a young person, and my brain wasn't producing and responding to neurotransmitters normally, but once I understood what was happening, I could use that information to help myself.
These books have cheesy names, but they break down experiences and management techniques by the kind of disorder you might have. It explains what they feel like, and what works to stop your symptoms. Super helpful.
This is a fabulous online resource for information, worksheets, and an app. Everything on this site is extremely well researched and comes from a cognitive behavioral therapy perspective.
21 Tips to Keep Your Shit Together When You're Depressed (This! 100 times yes.)
Kristen Neff's TED talk about Self-Compassion has been transformational and helpful for me, and if you're in my life, I will basically force you to watch this at some point. Punch that card now, beautiful. ;)
Talkspace Archives: Talkspace is a way to access therapists affordably, anytime. Their depression category archive supplies a huge amount of free information and resources for people who need help with depression.
The You Effect by Dr. Kelsei LeAnn – I can't say enough about this amazing therapist! Dr. Kelsei has a free podcast and affordable DIY online self coaching program that is excellent. She teaches practical therapeutic exercises where you learn about how to heal yourself and move forward, all from the privacy of your home. There's even a book club and workbooks! It's not therapy, but it's an amazing way to grow between therapy appointments, and you could discuss anything she teaches with your therapist.
4. I started tracking my mood and built a routine that makes sure I strengthen what builds up my wellbeing
One of the best things about being alive at this the in the world is that there are so many diverse ways to help yourself! Aside from medication, the strategies and tools that have been the most helpful to me have all been books, apps, and technology pieces that help me build up habits that reinforce my having a great life.
A Digital Tool Kit For Feeling Better
Moodkit – An app created by cognitive behavioral therapists, this lets you put their strategies to work in your own life. Fill out self-assessment quizzes to find out what areas that add to wellness that your life is missing, and then accept challenges in those areas to increase your well-being. Track your mood and symptoms, and help you find distortions that make your interpretation of the world around you more negative so you can break the habit. [link]
Mind Shift – Another app created by cognitive behavioral therapists, focused on reducing anxiety. Report and track your symptoms, use their guided calming tools, and catch thinking distortions using their tools. [link]
Super Better – Recover from illness or injury! Super Better lets you be the hero in the game of your recovery, and through the game, you gain points from doing things that will help that. The concept is ingenious, and gamifying your life can inject any chronic illness with humor, playfulness, community, and make it feel a lot more manageable. How handy that those all build resilience, grit, and keep players motivated! It's backed by science and is pretty brilliant. [link]
Sleep Cycle – If you're not getting enough sleep, you're not going to feel alright- never mind feeling better if you're sick! Sleep is crucial to reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, so I started tracking mine and making sure I was getting quality sleep. Turns out, I wasn't! Now with concrete data, I can make sure I'm well rested and in the best possible position for what any day brings. [link]
Way Of Life – Way of Life is a habit tracking and creation app that I love. I used to keep this as a paper list, but the convenience of digital won out again. Way of Life lets you create habits to make or break, and then prompts you to report in daily. When I stopped using Moodkit daily, I started using this to track the habits that make my life feel amazing over a week or so. I mark down which I accomplish, and am much better at remembering to prioritize these important areas of my life every week. [link]
Insight Timer – Slowing down and taking time to sit with my thoughts so I know where my internal monologue is going on any given day is a huge help for me, and Insight timer is a simple app that lets me track my meditation practice. I love that it also has built-in guided meditations that you can listen to free when you want someone to guide you through the experience. [link]
5. I recognized that depression and GAD symptoms are things that happen to me, and trust that my feelings are not facts.
One of the most helpful decisions I made was to give myself some distance. I identify as someone who has anxiety and depression, but not as anxious or depressed aside for on days where my symptoms flare up. I think about my symptoms like the weather – they're not bad or good, they're events that come and go, and I can choose to react to them.
When my depression gets bad, my body experiences exhaustion and sadness, but I know that it's not because my life is exhausting or sad. The more practice I have with not buying into the feelings that my symptoms kick up, the less I suffer when I have hard days. Instead of getting upset about how I'm feeling, struggling against it, or try to fix what's causing it, I trust that it's just a weather system passing through and focus on being kind to myself and waiting it out. It doesn't make it the feeling less real, but it doesn't add to how much I suffer while I'm experiencing them.
I've also made an effort to wrap my mind around the idea that our society pursues happiness like it's something you can put on the shelf at your house, but happiness is fleeting, temporary and often outside ourselves. Tragedy happens to all of us, trauma happens, and we can still have full, meaningful lives without a lot of the uncomplicated, effortless happiness that we imagine other people experience when we're flipping through their social media accounts. Instead, I try not to fetishize happiness or even chase it, and I focus on cultivating a meaningful life, filled with great food, rewarding relationships, and a helping other people through my work.
I don't think that this is the end of my story or the definitive version – but it's a candid picture of where I am now, and what's helped so far.
Today: Seven years after my diagnosis! I'm a mom, business owner, family breadwinner, and I feel better than I ever dreamed I could.
If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or mental illness, or if someone you love does, you are in my heart and prayers. I can only speak to my experience, and what has worked for me. I've received hundreds of emails since I started sharing my story in 2010 from readers who finally got treatment or a diagnosis from reading my original post. I thought it was silly not to share what's helped me.
More than anything else, if anxiety or depression interfere with your daily life, please get help. Don't wait. Speak to someone. Stop robbing yourself of years that are half lived because you only have so many. Your whole life could be on the other side of the decision to get help.
You're never going to be completely ready, but it's worth taking the chance and finding out.