Relapse

Coming out of a single depressive episode is one thing, but coming out over and over again? That’s a ball game I never thought I’d be playing.

I’m hard pressed to find someone who has never experienced depression in one form or another.  Sometimes it comes from a huge external trigger like grief, job loss, physical health issues, etc. Most of the people triggered by an event are able to recover using a method personal to them and can return to wellness once the trigger has been handled.

Sometimes I feel envious of those who can recover after an external event because I am not one of them. Being triggered every month or so is really hard.

I can understand why chronic depression may feel foreign to someone looking in from the outside. There is no way that your experience is the same as mine or the next person’s. Whether it’s a light brush or a full-blown mop to the face, everyone’s experience of mental illness is different.

Depression runs in my family. I was told at a young age that sometimes it never goes away and that lifelong medication is necessary for some people. I have been battling it since I was a child, even though my childhood was pretty awesome.

When I was 12, I was stuck in bed for a few weeks with glandular fever. The doctors at the time had told us that it was puberty, so we didn’t really think much of it. When the actual puberty hit, my mood plummeted and I fell into deep depression. Going from being a fit and active person to a slow and sedentary one wreaked havoc on my mental stability.

In total, I was off school for three years. I managed to keep up with the curriculum because my mum, teachers and friends provided great support by bringing me schoolwork, which I completed in my bed. I remember days when I would go to school for only one period a day; then I would be slowly working my way back to a full day, only to be hit by a cold and go right back to where I started. This up-and-down struggle during my teens was just the beginning of my long journey into self-awareness.  

I had many rocky patches in my early adulthood and I still can’t quite put my finger on what caused some of the extreme lows. On reflection, I can only say that it was a mix of external triggers, my state of mind and my brain chemistry. I would be triggered externally and then the old gramophone recordings of my inner voice would start turning and vibrating, thus destroying my inner space. I had days when I could not focus on anything around me because my head was so full of chaos and hate. It was like I was constantly teetering on the edge of the abyss and the only thing I had to hold onto was a single thread of dental floss, just strong enough to keep me from jumping.

External triggers included a couple of nasty break ups, loneliness and the hardest one of all: being diagnosed with endometriosis – an incurable disease that causes unexplained pain in the abdomen. It felt as though nothing could go right for me. Illness had dominated my life and when I finally felt like I got back on track, this huge diagnosis changed the whole game. I became full of self-pity and held onto the “why me?” mentality for as long as I could.

When my partner and I decided to try get pregnant, we thought we’d be trying for years because endometriosis often causes infertility. Miraculously, I fell pregnant within six months. I knew I’d be prone to post-natal depression (PND) so I saw a counsellor before I gave birth and put some plans in place for when my mood would dip. I’ve always been proud of my all-or-nothing personality, but when it came to PND, it was a curse. Those first few months after my son was born were the toughest in my entire life. I had never felt more alone even though I had an incredible support system. All of my contingency plans flew out the window and I felt lost.

After a long time of trying to “go it alone” (I can be a stubborn b-word sometimes), I bit my pride and sought medical help. Again.

For a fiercely independent person, admitting that she needed help was a tough step to take. But I’m glad I did it! I was so tired of feeling defeated that I cried many times about it in my doctor’s office. I’m not averse to medicine, especially because I felt that it had helped me and so many others in the past. But the fact that I couldn’t fix this on my own had left me feeling defeated. When the medication finally kicked in, it helped for a while. But I still wasn’t helping myself yet. I fell back into my old habits and slowly masked my pain by numbing it with detrimental coping mechanisms.

Just when I tricked myself into thinking I beat this thing for good, my endometriosis flared and I had to go in for surgery again. I woke up and there I was: stuck in bed and being revisited by all the crappy thought patterns that I was so sure I had left behind.

Being back down the hole I had dug for myself again felt devastating. I mean, how much of this can one person take?! It made me feel like I wasn’t strong enough to fight this or that maybe I didn’t deserve to be well. That was one of my absolute hands-down darkest times, because now I had “mother” in my job description, and I just couldn’t do it. So much of that time consisted of just going through the motions.  

My mindset got a kick up the bum when an amazing woman showed up in my Facebook feed one day. She was offering a six-week intensive personal development course for women to reveal their true power. I was surprised to discover how alike Shrek and I were. The number of layers I peeled back during this course was truly onion-like! And my biggest takeaway? Self-awareness comes from genuine acceptance of the person you really are, underneath all the crap of your past.

There is something really powerful about being able to notice your own thoughts and patterns, and not take them personally. It’s taken me a huge amount of work to get to where I am today and I am by no means finished, but the difference between who I am now and the person I was 10 years ago is inconceivable. I am finally able to take a step back and see the trees for the forest, so to speak. I am noticing patterns and hear the self-criticism before feeling it. I’m not saying that the course was the be-all-end-all, but I honestly believe it was a major turning point for me.  

It feels weird to say “the best thing” about relapsing, but in all honesty, the best thing about relapsing is trialling different ways of coming out of a depressive episode.

Every time I sink into that world, I come out stronger. Being present and having the courage to step back and observe what’s happening in my head has become an asset. I’m still working on making it a habit, but I know that practice makes progress - not perfect.

A lot of it also comes with the strength to skip the denial part and get straight to the healing part. I no longer numb myself with coping mechanisms that ultimately damage my emotional health. I haven’t dropped all my bad habits at once – that would’ve been a recipe for disaster. But each year I make progress by dropping a habit that I used in the past to deny myself the awareness that I needed to heal. I no longer smoke, I don’t get obsessed (as much) with TV shows that take me away from my present, and this year I’ve decided to quit alcohol for a while. During the month of not drinking (social or otherwise), I have seen an immense change in my emotional health.

Another huge factor is the decision to practice yoga daily. I know it sounds all airy-fairy with the breathing stuff, but nothing else has ever had an impact this fast on parts of my life that are not related to yoga. Instead of the default combative setting, a general sense of calm has become my new demeanour.  

The last time a trigger pushed me down was only a couple of months ago. I’m proud to say that my hard work paid off. I had put so much effort and time into my mental health that it only pushed me down so far this time. The trigger came in the form of not getting a job that I really wanted. Although I wallowed for a couple of days, I never got to that super dark place where I would need a helping hand to get out. This time, as I was declining, I noticed it.

That has probably been the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt over the last few years. Observing my inner space without judgement has enabled me to recover faster, and sometimes not even go down far enough to call it recovery.

For someone with a chronic illness and a family history of depression, the odds have always been stacked against me. Somehow though, I have come out on top every single time and I will continue to do so as long as I am putting in the work it takes to create wellness inside me. I will continue to be consistent with yoga and my personal development and stay away from those detrimental activities I used to apply in order to cope. I’m sick of just coping, hanging over the edge of that metaphorical abyss, holding onto my thread of dental floss. It’s finally my time to step away from the edge and carve a path towards a more permanent sense of wellbeing.  

My ultimate goal is to help others consistently strive for wellness by watching myself do it, even when it feels like there’s no point. There’s always a point. Your record of getting through bad days is 100%. I don’t think I’ve had a perfect score on anything in my entire life, except this. And I can promise that the record will never, ever change.

-Jen W