Earlier this week I received this email from my brother who lives in Nashville. I’m sure it’s as relevant in the Talbot community as anywhere else in the country. Maybe it will help you, or help you help someone you love.
I would like to share with you my long history with Chronic Depressive Disorder, hoping it might help initiate meaningful and open dialogue within our extended family.
Genetics is an important component of this disease. Out of our combined 21 grand kids and 1 great grandchild, the odds are that as many as 4 or 5 may suffer from its effects. Also, this generation may be more at risk because of the cruelty of social media, the never-ending images of mass shootings and threats from climate change. It is a serious disorder that is hard to measure, understand and treat. Like other serious diseases (i.e., diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, etc.) it is treatable with medication and therapies.
“Disease” is a good term because if I go 1 or 2 weeks without my medication my thoughts slowly and automatically become highly self-critical, negative, ruminating and distorted. These thoughts provoke strong physical responses (i.e., nausea, dry heaves, fatigue, nervousness, sleeplessness, exhaustion, irritability and regrettable anger). Not to simplify it, but having these physical responses validates the truthfulness and accuracy of the distorted thoughts, therefore making them true. The prolonged rumination of distorted thoughts and physical responses lead to more self-critical thoughts and worse physical reactions. This perpetual vicious cycle can be so painful that one simply wants to die – literally.
I never attempted suicide, but did spend a lot of time during my major episodes thinking and planning it out. When you’re depressed, ideation (thinking of suicide) feels kind of good. It’s an escape into a fantasy that seems like a reasonable and understandable solution. It is extremely dangerous because there’s a fine line between reality and fantasy in a depressed state. Suicide in all age groups has increased significantly in recent years and is now epidemic.
I unquestionably felt for decades that depression was a personal weakness, a character flaw and a negative trait that needed to be hidden. This belief was engrained in my early childhood and adolescent psyche by the culture of the 1950’s and 60’s. In many American families raised at that time, stoicism was not only a virtue but an essential quality for a guy.
I tried to hide my depressive disorder my whole life. I just recently told my daughters (now 35 and 37) about the details. Perhaps this disclosure will help others to open up sooner and feel less alone.
Here is my history with depression from the inside out:
My first severe depressive episode came when I was 19 and a sophomore in college. It was 1970 and I didn’t know what I was experiencing and neither did anyone else. I was spinning down into a very dark place. There were little or no mental health options to turn to in those days, even if you knew what was bothering you. My friends and family were agitated and perplexed by my moodiness. In response I began to develop some life-long avoidant personality tactics, like spending hundreds of hours alone learning to play the guitar. Solitude became safer and more comfortable for me. It still is.
I remember Dad driving me back to College Park demanding that I better “snap out of feeling sorry for myself or else”. I took the “or else” as the stoppage of him paying for tuition, room and board. I would have to drop out, lose my deferment, get drafted and go to Viet Nam. My draft lottery # was 20. I tried to snap out of it.
The effects from this episode lasted another 2 or 3 years, but I did “pull myself up by my own boot straps”. I recovered without any interventions and made it through PT school.
After graduation and a move to Nashville for music, things were going along swimmingly for 6 years. I was working as a PT and playing in a band. We recorded an album and went on the road for 18 months, including the month of May in Holland!
However, back in Nashville in the summer of 1980 at age 29, I had my 2nd major episode of “psychotic” depression. It was even worse than the one I had 10 years earlier. I was hospitalized for 6 weeks.
Afterwards, I recovered slowly but quickly went back to work. We started a family and I continued playing music with the band. Ever since (almost 40 years!) I’ve been on one type of antidepressant or another, along with intermittent psychotherapy. Depression ebbs and flows with its own underlying current and never completely disappears. It’s a difficult thing for someone to fully accept.
In the mid to late 1980’s I felt good enough to complete a graduate program in developmental Psychology at Vanderbilt. In part I was interested in the curriculum because I thought I could find that golden nugget of knowledge that would free me. I was wrong about that, but did learn more about it.
In 1995 I had a great idea and started a small software business. With the help of many talented people and investors the company grew over the next 19 years. It was acquired by a larger software company in 2014. “All is well that ends well”, many benefited and the American dream lives on. It was quite an adventure.
However, since depression doesn’t care about that, I relapsed in 2015 at the age of 64 into another major episode. We managed this time to receive all necessary treatments on an outpatient basis. This included a combination of genetically targeted medications and psychotherapy. I’m feeling better these days, but now accept I have a condition that needs continuous management.
Please don’t think my life is nothing but gloom, despair and agony on me, it is not. Depression is a disorder that needs to be openly discussed and confronted at an early age. Feel free to share this email or the attached version with anyone who would be interested or might benefit.
One more important thing – I’m an avid believer in prayer. I have prayed thousands of times over the years for relief. Now I think there might be a bigger reason I had to experience it and I hope this email is part of it.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.