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UPDATE: This post ended up preparing me to tell the full story. I hope it helps: 2019+
Hello, my name is Wogan, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 13. It’s taken me more than 15 years to start dealing with it, and I’ve learned a bunch along the way. Part of my process in de-fanging this monster is to talk about it in public.
Most of the conversations I’ve seen relating to depression frame it as something you “have”, or “suffer from”. There’s you, the person, and then there’s this foreign invading entity, the depression. Through a combination of therapy and medication, you can exorcise the demon and return to health.
That hasn’t been my experience. It’s possible that I’m an even-more-abnormal case: my depression was diagnosed at age 13, but went largely untreated until my mid-20s. My mother, unable to deal with her parental failure, passed it on to me by pretending I was totally OK.
Humans are essentially moist robots: We have leanings inherited from our genetics, but a great deal of our socialization and behavior is programmed. Sometimes passively (by observing and imitating), sometimes actively (by deliberately trying to learn new attitudes or skills).
My formative years (6-18) were a combination of positive influences and absolute trauma. I owe a lot to the positive male role models (uncles, church leaders) that, through example alone, set good examples for me: Being honest, constructive, taking responsibility, etc.
My trauma: Being ripped away from all of that, over and over again. My family moved around a lot: I attended 7 different schools in 6 years. This, again, boiled down to a parental decision: My mother didn’t put my well-being first, so I was forced to constantly adapt.
That constant adaptation destroyed quite a few things. I went from a normal, healthy, happy boy to a depressed, overweight, socially awkward teenager. Through my entire high school career I made no friends. I missed out on crucial formative experiences.
My depression formed quickly: through my 12th birthday I was still doing relatively OK. By my 13th, being dumped in a boarding school 2000km away from anyone or anything I knew, I was already starting to break. A few months in, I had self-mutilated for the first time.
Later that year it was my stepdad who noticed something was wrong. If he had his own shit together (and didn’t defer to my mother for fear of ending up divorced) I might have gotten the treatment I needed the following year. That didn’t pan out, and I had to fend for myself.
That prolonged depression, exacerbated by constantly denying treatment and moving around to new places, eventually changed me in a way that I’m still dealing with today. The depression went from a potentially-treatable illness, to a chronic reprogramming of my personality.
Most people who know me think of me as a hard worker – for many years, I’ve put in really long hours, and achieved quite a few things in my career. What they don’t know is that it’s an unhealthy obsession with being infinitely adaptable and socially useful underpinning that.
That’s one of the things I figured out really quickly after my mother kicked me out of the house (another star parenting move): By being useful to others, I didn’t have to focus on anything about myself. Fantastic trait to have in a new hire, desperate to not be fired.
Over my first few career years, that became integral to my personality. It eroded my social and romantic skills (not that they were fantastic to begin with), and replaced my entire worldview of one consisting of work. Work (and earning income) came to define everything.
How bad did it get? After 6 years, having earned several increases and promotions + on a solid career track, I still woke up every morning thinking I might get fired. One morning I was unable to log on to my email (temp glitch) and my first thought was “They’ve just fired me”.
When I mentioned that to my new manager (about 2 years later) he was taken aback. He knew what I could do, and couldn’t conceive of a situation where I’d be summarily fired like that. That was the conversation that made me realize something was horrifyingly broken inside me.
There are a lot of “worst” parts to consider here: That it got so bad, that I got so good at hiding it that people didn’t think anything was wrong, that I hadn’t even noticed how far down the hole I was. Mostly, though, that I started taking anti-social behaviors as normal.
And that’s the truly pernicious part about depression, especially untreated: You stop thinking of it as a thing you have, and start thinking about it as the person you are. You even learn to live with it – laugh, smile, have friends, present a picture of normalcy to the world.
That’s how you get Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Avicii: People who appear to be top of their game, likeable and successful, relatable and entertaining, while their own brains destroy them from the inside out by constantly telling them the wrong “truth” about themselves.
That’s where I started dealing with it, though. Within another 2 years, I had worked up the courage to do the unthinkable: Resign from my first job and go freelance. I drafted that resignation letter at least five times, and put it off for months, hoping I could defer entirely.
And even though I recognize I’ve come a long way since then, I still have a long road ahead. The most basic things (like deciding not to work) is still really difficult. Acknowledging people’s basic positivity and learning to trust external feedback – still a challenge.
Having dreams, creating the time and space to work on them, and then not following through for fear of everything falling apart – that’s my real struggle right now. Every piece of creative work I do is preceded by days (weeks!) of internal emotional wrangling.
So how to fix any of this? I always, openly, and loudly recommend seeing a mental health professional. A few, even, if the first one doesn’t really work for you. Your brain is the most sophisticated computer you’ll ever operate – there’s no shame in maintaining it.
But that’s not your day-to-day: when you’re faced with hundreds of decisions and some incredibly powerful conditioning that tells you all the wrong things. I’ve lived in that headspace for decades, and to this day, I still make occasional, unconscious, self-destructive choices.
Relaxing and “taking it easy” aren’t going to cut it. What you really need to do to yourself is deprogramming (look up any cult documentary). You need to consciously, directly challenge the things you believe to be true. You need to find people who will help do the same.
You need to give your best self a fighting chance against your depressive self: Diet, exercise, hobbies, time spent with friends, all of it adds up. You’re basically a houseplant with emotions: get water, get sunlight. Consciously put yourself in better environments.
A big part of those better environments: Better people. For years, I made the mistake of seeking out people that accepted me for who I was. That’s comfortable, but it’s your mental health at stake here. Find responsible, honest people that want to help you succeed.
Finally: Writing. Even if you don’t do it every often, take some time every once in a while to record your thoughts and feelings. Save them all up. Look back at older ones every now and then. If you’re doing this right, you’ll notice how your mindset shifts over time.
I normally try to end long posts like this on a positive note, but honestly, that’s not the space I’m in right now. Instead, I’ll point out that 0800 567 567 is the SADAG Suicide Crisis Line, and that there’s no shame in seeking help for the issues you’re facing.