I have a secret to share. Well… it’s not really a secret, but it often comes a surprise when I share it. The reason why this secret surprises people is because they usually see the side of me that’s positive, upbeat, and living life to the fullest. I’m generally smiling, laughing, and joking around. It’s how I am most of the time, and it’s how I earned the nicknames “Happio” and “Happy Appio.” What a lot of people don’t know however, is that my naturally upbeat disposition is a fortunate counterbalance to a condition that has followed me around my entire life. That condition is known as depression.
That’s right. Depression. I’ve battled depression for as long as I can remember.
I was born in the late 1960’s, when society viewed depression as an emotional problem rather than the serious medical condition it is. When I was growing up and through my teenage years, I had no idea why I would go through periods – often lasting weeks or months – where I had no motivation and the only thing I wanted to do was to stay in bed. I couldn’t understand why I would entertain thoughts of killing myself, even when life was pretty idyllic compared to many other teenagers. I just thought that I was being an “ungrateful, lazy, good-for-nothing.”
I spent almost two decades battling myself, my beliefs, and the attitudes of a community that embraced modern medicine, but that looked at anyone who visited a psychotherapist as being wacko or crazy. My own family wasn’t immune to that perception, so the depression that plagued me went undiagnosed until I was in my early 20’s. When I discovered that I wasn’t crazy, and that there was a medical explanation for why I felt the way I did, it was as if a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
I didn’t take any medications at first – mostly because I was resistant to the idea – but as I aged and the condition grew worse, I reached the point where I could barely function and suicide started to look more and more appealing. Lucky for me, the thought of how suicide would affect my family prevented me from acting on those thoughts. So, at my doctor’s urging, I started taking anti-depressants. I’m glad that I listened, because between the medication and therapy, I was able to crawl away from the dark place that almost ended my life.
I have to say that while the anti-depressants were helpful, they turned me into a zombie. I didn’t feel sad, but I didn’t feel happy either. I simply didn’t feel. I felt cut off from everything that I felt made me who I am. I felt separated from my natural enthusiasm, my natural exuberance, and from my connection to Source. I felt completely detached from everything and everyone, and to me, that was scarier than the peaks and valleys I experienced when I could feel. After much internal struggle, I decided to wean myself off the anti-depressants. I preferred to face the depression head-on, with full knowledge of what I was dealing with, than to live disconnected from everything that made life worth living.
I knew my doctor would have a fit if I told him of my decision, so I said nothing. I merely took what I learned over the years and developed my own coping strategy, after which I stepped down the dosages of my medications until I stopped taking them entirely. I have now been medication-free for more than 10 years, and I can honestly say that I’m stronger and happier now than I’ve ever been.
Before I continue, I should make clear that I am in no way suggesting that anyone currently taking anti-depressants should stop taking them. There is a place for those medications, and they serve a purpose. What I am saying is that I made a decision that felt right for ME. I wanted to feel the ups and downs of life. I wanted to feel connected to my true self. I wanted to feel. By choosing to follow the path that felt right for me, I put myself on course to be where I am now.
Since I got back from Chicago two weeks ago, my life has gone through some major changes. Parts of my family moved to Florida and I moved back in with my mom (that’s a story I’ll tell another time). The changes were disruptive enough that I felt the first bout of major depression in over a year. I recognized the symptoms immediately, and I was so surprised when they surfaced I spent an hour wondering, “How the hell did THIS happen?” Fortunately, I had become so adept at coping with the “down times,” I quickly switched to survival mode and I can say that I’m doing well. I may not be my 100% best, but I’m able to smile, to laugh, and to keep moving forward.
So what is the strategy I developed that gets me through the depression? What are my coping mechanisms? Here is what I do:
- I acknowledge how I feel. If I ignore my feelings, or if I try to suppress them, I only feel worse. It’s like trying to paddle a boat upstream against a heavy current. My muscles ache and I get tired quickly. So, I just let myself go with the flow. The natural state of our feelings is flowing anyway, so I acknowledge that I feel like crap, and then I let myself feel like crap.
- I find something for which I can express gratitude. While I let myself feel like crap, I’m also searching for ways to feel better. The fastest way I know of to do that is to express gratitude. It can be something as simple was being grateful that I can watch a sunset, or that my dog loves me no matter what mood I’m in. I look for ways to laugh, and then I express gratitude for whatever it was that made me laugh. My point is that if I look for little, simple things, I quickly discover that I have a lot to be grateful for. That moves me through the Valley of Depression faster than anything else.
- I keep moving forward. While passing through the Valley of Depression (which I jokingly call the “VD”), I keep moving. I don’t stop to go sight-seeing, I don’t allow myself to be distracted by the vendors along the road who want to sell me I Heart Depression buttons, and I most certainly don’t buy real estate there. I used to own whole neighborhoods in the VD, but when I realized that being a landlord didn’t suit me, I got rid of all my property and I moved out as fast as I could.By the way, I occasionally run across what I call a “wallow pond” on the side of the road. Those wallow ponds are very inviting, and they’re a lot of fun to play in. I’ve found that it’s okay to wallow a bit – just as long as I remember to keep moving. If I wallow too long, that pond turns into quicksand, and then I get stuck.
I take long walks. I swear my dog loves it when depression hits. That’s because I pay a lot more attention to him, and he gets to take much longer walks than usual. I can see the compassion in his eyes, but I can also see his unspoken question, “Soooo? Are we going for another walk? Are we? Are we?”
Truthfully, the walks benefit both of us. I may be alone with my dog and my thoughts, but I use the walks to be fully present in the moment. Rather than focusing on my thoughts and my mood, I focus on everything around me. I see my dog’s lolling tongue as he trots beside me. I see his happy expression. I see the mountains that surround the city where I live. I see the variety of trees in my neighborhood. I see the interesting ways people landscape their yards. I see the birds as they fly overhead. I also hear the birds as they sing, and I hear the cars as they go by. I smell fire pits, and I smell barbecues. I feel the breeze at it passes over my skin. I feel the sweat on my back if it’s hot. I feel the pattern on the silicone shell protecting my water bottle, and I taste every molecule of water as I drink it.
I use all five of my senses, and I appreciate every experience. Not only does this distract me from how I feel, but it reconnects me to everything I value. Renewing that connection is a powerful way to speed up my journey through the VD.
- I remind myself that the sadness I feel is only temporary. The truth is that in spite of my lifelong relationship with depression, I’ve felt exuberance and joy far more often than I’ve felt lousy.
- I forgive myself. One of the most common things I do when depression takes over is to beat myself up over the simplest things. So, when I’m in that place, I use a little technique called “flip that thought.” When I start to criticize myself, I flip the criticism around and I turn it into praise instead. I then forgive myself for not being perfect, and I remind myself that I have nothing to be ashamed of.
- I love myself. I complete the process of forgiveness by loving every part of me. And I mean every part – from my missing abs to my zest for life. I love myself unconditionally and completely. After all, if I can’t love myself, how I can I love the people around me?
I have other ways of coping, but the ones I listed above are those that have proven to be the most effective for me. The point I want to make is that those of us who face depression don’t have to do it alone. We have many, many tools at our disposal – including medication and therapy – that can get us through the VD. My experience has taught me that it takes some trial and error to find the right combination of tools that work, but once you find the tools that work for you, use them. And yes, it’s okay to switch it up if you find that tools that once worked aren’t as effective as they once were.
Before I finish, I want to leave you with this thought: Everyone’s default setting is happy and thriving – and that includes those of us who face depression. Rest assured that we’re not meant to live in survival mode. When we’re forced employ our coping mechanisms, know that they serve as a bridge to get us to a better place… and that is the place where we exist naturally.
About the Author
Appio Hunter is an author, speaker, spiritual guide, and self-described champion for living joyously. He uses his seminars and workshops to facilitate conversations about authenticity, alignment, and the daily experience of community, connection, and joy. Appio is also a weekly columnist with The Good Men Project and co-host of the Real Men Feel Show along with his good friend Andy Grant.