This week I take the opportunity to share a client’s journey through depression with you, through their eyes. The writing process itself was part of our therapy and provides a poignant reflection on the ups and downs of living with depression, or as she says, ‘Snakes and Ladders’. I will let her words do the talking and would like to thank her immensely for giving me the opportunity to work with her. It has been a priviledge.
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre
View Hazel’s Profile here:
Snakes and Ladders
It’s a splendid winter day—perfect blue skies, dazzling sunshine. People rush past me, all of them seemingly with specific destinations in their heads. I stay at a small intersection amid the hustle, my feet glued to the ground, limbs lead-laden. My mind is in pain. My jelly-like brain is wrestling with a simple decision. Should I go to the weekly yoga class, have a long over-due haircut, see my GP or head back home and straight to bed? Have I slept two hours or two minutes last night? I can’t tell.
Less than a year ago, I was diagnosed with moderate depression, which soon became severe enough to cause anxiety attacks at work, disrupt my sleep, deplete my energy reserves and erode my motivation and joy to live. I was functioning (‘being on autopilot’ is a more precise expression): looking after my family, barely managing the very minimum of regular chores, and appearing at work, pressured to maintain the crumbling ‘façade’.
I had just returned from overseas visiting my parents and sisters. Nothing went according to plan during this much-anticipated trip. I was sick with severe sinusitis for the entire time, and we needed to organise citizenship papers for one of my daughters. Most of the four weeks was spent sitting in endless queues at public clinics, hospitals and institutions, taking in the suffering of ill elderly people and confronting bad-tempered bureaucrats. Out came my magnifying glass of negativity. Everything I saw and faced was blown out of proportion. In hindsight, I could clearly see the mechanism of my undoing: the physical challenges of travelling with two children while feeling unwell, the separation from my extended family, guilt, massive disappointment, changes at work that occurred during my absence and the relentless carrousel of family life as well as negative thinking. This is the default mode my mind operates in during challenging times.
Initially I put the overwhelming tiredness and lack of motivation down to jetlag and the recent infection and tension. However, a few weeks elapsed. There was no sign of improvement. The symptoms I experienced were severe enough for my GP to prescribe antidepressants. In combination with Buddhist meditation, which I discovered in my search for mental peace, half a tablet of the lowest dose did the trick. Within just a few weeks, I regained control over my life, and things improved at work and socially. Fortunately, I was already on the way up when my father passed away, two months after our return to Sydney.
After less than half a year, I concluded that a new, confident ‘Me’ had emerged from the dark just as a phoenix from the ashes. I felt invincible pleading with my doctor to reduce the dose (to a quarter)…and relapsed.
This time, nothing out of the ordinary preceded the new episode. On the contrary, my mum had come over to visit us for the first time. On my days off work, she and I would stroll through a museum, have a cup of tea taking in magnificent harbour views. Then out of blue an overwhelming sadness and vast emptiness would hit me. Such moments started occurring more frequently gaining intensity. It is possible that I felt stressed before my mum’s arrival – organising her visa and worrying about how she would manage a long trip without speaking a word of English, trying to make her feel comfortable, planning outings, feeling guilty about not doing enough and, deep down, being already afraid of her departure. We also talked a lot about my dad as well as my mum’s plentiful problems and concerns, which I soaked up like a sponge.
After she left, my thinking became increasingly irrational: even the simplest decisions like what to cook for dinner were agonising. I was helplessly sliding down the depression spiral, in disbelief that it was happening to me again. I felt tearful, empty and very raw inside. My reflection in the mirror said it all: dull eyes, the worry lines on my forehead, a sorrowful tight mouth.
Positive words deserted my vocabulary. Food tasted bland, colours lost their vibrancy, sounds their volume, as if all my senses went on a simultaneous strike. In weeks, I didn’t open a book—once one of my prime pleasures—or listened to music. Even going to the movies with a girlfriend felt like hard work. I felt detached from my family, as if separated from them by a thick glass wall. I could see their expressions, make out their words but felt miles away.
Needless to say, my sense of worth (shaky in better times) nose-dived again, undermined by self-defeating thoughts and self-talk. Absolutely nothing felt right. Life started appearing pointless like the Sisyphean labour. Insomnia plagued me, leading to further exhaustion and bleak views and becoming a vicious cycle. I was struggling to open my eyes in the mornings, let alone lift my head from the pillow. Soon I was dreading every day, every minute of interminable days that were presenting insurmountable challenges. I lost interest in the world around me – there wasn’t any need to follow news. All I wanted to do was to curl up in my bed, to be cradled like a baby, relieved of all obligations and chores.
I was fortunate to have love and the great support of my husband, children, other family members and close friends. I was also fortunate to find a caring psychologist at Alpha Psychology. This time around, the ‘magic pills’ didn’t do the trick, at least not instantly. I have developed much deeper appreciation of the healing process, which has been gradual; a battle or a ‘journey’ in my psychologist’s words. Hazel pushed me to scrutinise and challenge my negative thinking patterns and deep-seated beliefs, to force myself to do things that I didn’t feel like doing including swimming outside on a chilly winter day, to appreciate small joys and to focus on positives, to not write off whole days as bad and to be kind to myself. Buddhist meditation showed me how important it is for one’s inner peace to accept our imperfect world including oneself and to live in the moment. My Buddhist teacher once compared life to the snakes and ladders game: one moment you cruise along, so close to the end of the board, and the next you come across a ‘snake’ and slide down, needing to start over again from scratch.
I’ve just managed to come up to the surface, and the medication I’m taking daily is still niggling at the back of my mind. I’m also well aware of my emotional frailty, of how one negative thought leads to another forming a never ending train. Depression is so adept at tricking you, incessantly whispering in its sufferers’ ears nasty ‘truths’. But for now, I am glad to be rid of the horrible whisper that made me doubt every decision, every step and ultimately myself. ‘Great’, ‘awesome’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘beautiful’ are in my vocabulary again, and I want to proclaim that life is worth living after all. I look at my children feeling gratitude and joy. It’s a work in progress but I view it as a great challenge, not a tedious chore!