I may look 'fine,' but I'm dealing with depression and anxiety — the gift that keeps on taking
I might be wearing the mask of appearing OK. It's a skill many of us have developed
This isn't a feel-good article.
I'm going to candidly tell you about my personal experiences with depression and anxiety, how it has turned my world upside-down, and how my treatment and prognosis is progressing.
I'm normally a very private individual. My hope is that anyone reading this who feels like they may need help will take that first step and seek it out.
As a married man with a family, I had to shed the societal expectation that we never ask for help, that we're supposed to be the pillar of strength.
To steal a line from Star Trek, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
I am the few, and you, dear readers, are the many.
That day at my desk, when everything changed
My formative years were as normal as could be expected. My parents raised the three of us as best they could.
There were times when things were tough. This is not uncommon, especially in outport Newfoundland.
I was a curious kid, the type who would pick apart a school thermostat to see the liquid mercury inside, to the chagrin of the principal. I had a small group of close friends. Our weekends often included things like bombing around on a Friday night in a car that wasn't fit to be on the road.
We'd pool our money together and approach someone of legal age to beg them to buy us a case of beer.
When I was 15, I took my father's new truck for a joyride. It wasn't joyful. The truck ended up in a ditch on its roof. Good times.
Fast-forward to 2015. I'm gainfully employed in the IT sector. It's busy and stressful at times, but otherwise fulfilling.
One day, while I was sitting at my desk, nothing in particular was upsetting to me that day.
But I felt off. I couldn't put my finger on it.
I got up from my desk to go to the washroom. I made it halfway before I started feeling lightheaded.
My legs felt as if they could no longer support the weight of my body. I was losing my peripheral vision. I was sweating profusely. I thought to myself, "This is it, Dwayne. Here comes the ol' dirt nap."
So, it wasn't my heart
Foolishly, I drove myself home and immediately had my wife drive me to the emergency department. I was sure I was in the midst of having a heart attack. The staff checked my vitals, asked the usual procedural questions, and proceeded to hook me up to an EKG machine.
After 15 minutes, we were done. The results were in and, to my utter disappointment, my heart was fine.
I wasn't disappointed that I was physically healthy. I was gobsmacked at the realization that if this wasn't a physical episode that meant that it was a mental episode.
I had just experienced my first panic attack.
I discussed this with my family doctor, who prescribed clonazepam be taken daily. I haven't had such an experience since, and I don't ever wish to again.
This hasn't meant that I am suddenly the life of the party and routinely give lectures to packed auditoriums while wearing nothing but my underwear.
It means I am now aware that I may be prone to panic attacks and that I need to be mindful of my surroundings and recognize situations where I am feeling overwhelmed.
Let's move on to April 2018. Still working, still busy, still stressed, corporate cutbacks, doing more with less, waiting for the shoe to drop and be the lucky recipient of today's pink slip.
I left the office and went straight to the doctor
It's the way most multinational businesses operate these days.
It may help their bottom line. It does not help their employees.
I've often heard the mantra "Take care of your employees. They will take care of your business." I think that idea has long been forgotten or discarded.
I'm sitting at my desk, trying to do 10 things at once. I'm not feeling like myself; I don't have the same drive and passion. I'm struggling to get out of bed each morning. I'm just not feeling "right."
I stand up from my desk, shut down my computer, leave the office without speaking to a single person, and proceed directly to my doctor's office.
I had no idea what I was going to tell him once I got there.
I didn't know what the hell was wrong with me.
Finding a course of treatment
We chatted for a while, and he suggested I take some time off work, that I was likely experiencing a burnout.
I sent an email to my HR department informing them of my absence. They got the ball rolling and arranged to have me meet with a psychiatrist.
I've often heard the mantra 'Take care of your employees. They will take care of your business.' I think that idea has long been forgotten or discarded.
A psychiatrist? I'm not crazy. Why do I need to see a psychiatrist?
After that meeting, though, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. A list of medications were suggested and I was to begin a course of treatment.
The first drug was Wellbutrin. I was taking it in progressively higher dosages until the expected outcome was achieved.
I never achieved the expected results. We switched to Cipralex. Again, taking weeks to increase the dosage, trying to find that "sweet spot." No dice.
The third drug was Effexor. I've been trying various dosages, currently taking 187.5 milligrams daily. It allows me to get out of bed and function as a normal member of society. I say "normal" meaning that I can shovel the driveway, I can go to the grocery store, I can do a few everyday things around the house that I could never attempt before.
If you see me out and about and I look "fine," I may actually be having a good day.
I might also be wearing the mask of being "fine." It's a skill many of us have developed.
Robbed of some simple joys
Treatment results are not without their drawbacks. A few months ago, we had a leak in our kitchen ceiling. I cut a hole in it, found and fixed the source of the leak on the roof, and replaced the drywall that was cut out of the ceiling. At this point, I have yet to finish plastering and painting those repairs. I have mounds of clutter in the basement that I've been meaning to organize. Not done.
One of my favourite things to do was take my camera bag, hop in my car, and wander aimlessly around taking photographs. I haven't done that in months.
It's a shame because depression robs you of the joyful things in life, the things that would greatly help you if you could just get off your butt and do them.
Many days, I'm in a mental fog. I heavily rely on my phone to keep track of appointments and the like, otherwise I'd simply forget them.
Oh, have we talked about erectile dysfunction yet? You're really going to love this part! Many antidepressants have the fantastic side effect of taking your libido and chucking it out the window, like a skeet would toss a cigarette butt out of their vehicle. It's not that I don't enjoy having a physical relationship with my partner, it's just that the drive isn't there anymore.
And should the moment arise when I do feel up to it, let's just say the results aren't impressive. Try stuffing a marshmallow through a keyhole and you'll understand.
Before I discussed this with my wife, she was wondering if I had stopped loving her, or even worse, that I was probably having an affair. Hearing that was very difficult. She now understands but it doesn't make the problem go away.
Grateful for the support of others
So, yeah, it's been a royal pain in the ass going through this. I'm thankful that my family has been so supportive and understanding. My wife has been my rock throughout this journey.
I don't know if or when I'll get to the point where I can resume my normal activities.
I miss the old me. It takes a toll on everyone around you.
To those of you reading this who still believe that mental illness is "just in your head," technically you are correct. There are hundreds of chemicals floating around our bodies that impact each and every part of our mental and physical health.
I didn't wake up one morning and decide to be depressed. The next time you break a leg, perhaps you should just walk it off or try meditation.
As much as mental health is discussed these days, there is still a stigma associated with it. I hope someday that will change.
To those of you reading this who feel like something isn't quite right, please talk to someone, anyone.
Stop being the tough guy for a few minutes.
There are treatments available and while there is no magic pill for everyone, I never want to see another life cut short because someone couldn't or didn't get the help they needed.