I am a depression survivor. I have had it since I was 12. I’m now 49.
It’s possible that my depression is a “gift” from the universe. It has brought me to where I am for a reason. Perhaps I was placed on this planet to endure depression for this long so that I might help others who are affected.
I’m no mental health expert. I’m not a psychologist or counsellor. I’ve simply lived with this debilitating condition for a long time – and learned a lot.
Almost everyone in my life didn’t know I had depression until I declared it publicly. Most of my friends and acquaintances know me as someone who won an international barbershop quartet championship, as a singing coach, and as the author of a book about singing. They’ve seen me crack jokes and make puns on social media. I have a lovely family. Outwardly I seem confident, well-adjusted, and happy. No way they would think I had depression.
However, since 12, it’s been difficult for me to form and keep long-term friendships. I don’t mix well in social situations unless I know the people well or I have a specific purpose. I leave early from events or sometimes avoid them altogether. Therefore I’m not even close to being the first person invited to parties or to go out. Many people over the years have regarded me as aloof, even arrogant. And yet, when I’ve needed to for work, I can be outwardly friendly and welcoming for people. Sometimes I’m playing a role. It’s a bizarre mixture.
It’s quite common for depression to develop around the age of 12. At that time, my family moved 2,500 kilometers from my childhood home in a very open, supportive community. It devastated me. My father accepted a big church leadership position and I suddenly had to live under a microscope of other people’s expectations in a society where judgment of outsiders was rife. My oldest brother (six years older) was life-threateningly sick, as he had been throughout his life, and my mother’s energies were split between him and settling us in an unfamiliar place where the family had to reflect well on Dad, who already had his hands full and was away a lot. Meanwhile, my other brother (four years older) remained in my home city for six months to finish grade 12. Therefore I felt utterly isolated and alone. I knew nobody. I didn’t know how to express my emotions. I had nobody checking to see if I was OK. I left behind a gregarious co-ed school to attend an all boys private school where students were referred to by their surnames only. I was bullied at my new school and didn’t want to be there. By age 13, my attendance was poor. On top of that, some earlier childhood experiences and conditioned expectations compounded with this situation to make me believe that I sucked, that love and happiness had been taken away, and that I was powerless. I had no identity other than being my father’s son. (And don’t get me wrong. He’s a lovely man, not a tyrant.) All I knew was to do as I was told. I started to mull in solitude. I withdrew into movies and music, or anything that could “numb” me out. I became jealous of other people’s success and happiness. I generally reflected well on the family but deep down resented doing so. Dark thoughts grew and repeated. I began to believe that I deserved bad things, that others were imposing on my life, and that I had been robbed of happiness. I wasn’t told I could do or become anything I wanted, merely that image was important. I became sullen, despondent, angry, lost, vengeful, and much more. In time, I became skilled at acting polite and projecting a facade. (That’s part of where the tags of aloof and arrogant came from.) Our family hosted many luminaries and attended many functions, none of which I wanted to be around.
I had depression. Plain and simple. Sadly, my parents didn’t know enough about it and my school had no counselling or support. In fact, my head of school actively didn’t care that I was being bullied. Therefore I received no professional help until years later. By then, many behaviour patterns and negative beliefs about myself were entrenched. They remain in my mind to this day.
But… here’s the clincher… this event was NOT the cause of my depression. It was a trigger or catalyst, for sure. But I found out recently that the conditions for me to develop depression had been set years earlier during my early childhood. Whenever I’d done something “wrong” as a child, I was sent to my room. Isolation bred negative thoughts. “What’s wrong with me? I suck!” I ruminated in shame and anger. I wasn’t taught how to deal with these emotions. And after the punishment was over, all that was discussed was obedience. I learned from this that isolation meant I was “safe” from being hurt. I isolated myself for years after that, sometimes physically, always emotionally. I was labeled aloof by many people. Fair enough. In my isolation, I fooled myself into thinking I was safe and that everyone was wrong. I expected my relationships with people to go wrong. So they did. And all the childhood feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing resurfaced – without me being conscious of them.
My causal situation might not be as bad as others have endured, but the result is the same. I didn’t have to endure physical abuse, sexual abuse, violence, death, serious injury, sickness, war, or a host of other traumas. My heart aches for those who have. Some might find my story “weak” and tell me to harden up. (Whatever I may have “lacked” in the cause of my depression, I have made up for in the sheer number of years where I have mulled over negative thoughts in isolation.) But it’s the depression that matters. The feelings are the same. The effect is the same. It’s not a contest about who had it worse. The point is that we’re here in this situation. Nobody deserves to be judged or mocked for having this condition. If I had been 16 or older when we moved, I would have been better able to adapt. But at the age of 12, as the massive changes of adolescence were about to begin, I was still just a child and the move felt like my entire world had collapsed.
Through my mid-20s and into my 30s, I sought help from doctors, especially because I had divorce to contend with after my first marriage died. Most were very nice and much of their help involved antidepressant medication (an important element in working on depression), which I took on and off into my 40s. Still the depression lingered and festered. I felt shame and guilt for having it, and for being unable to “conquer” it.
In late 2016 and early 2017, things became very bad for me. Certain events triggered old memories and horrendous depressive episodes. I was transported back to my childhood emotions and lack of identity. It was so bad, I couldn’t believe it. The ferocity of it all hit me out of the blue and I saw no way out of the funk. It has definitely been my “midlife crisis”.
Then I did something I hadn’t done for some time… I looked for a mental health professional. I had to fight like hell against the repeated thoughts that swirled before my first appointment: “It won’t work… there’s no point… he won’t understand… it will just be talking… he’ll just tell me to use antidepressants… I’m stuck with depression for life…” But I went. I’d had enough. There HAD to be something better out there.
The first psychologist was pleasant and I could see what he was driving at. Nonetheless, I felt like I was getting nowhere or that it would take too long. I stopped seeing him. My reservations became worse.
Somehow I fought back the doubts and almost overwhelming despondency to try a different psychologist. She turned out to be enormously helpful. But she didn’t do the work… she had me do the work and showed me how. In fact, I had only seven appointments with her. She quickly helped me discover the events and patterns that were the root cause of my depression. It was hard. Very hard. I cried more in a few weeks than I had in my entire life. Sometimes I wailed like a possessed person. I even gave up singing and making music, something I had done all my life. But I realized I had taken up singing at age six because I saw the praise my parents gave my brothers for doing it, so as a small child I had developed the mentality of looking for validation from others. Then my psychologist provided tools that focused on releasing, forgiving, healing, and renewing. It was still hard. My depressive patterns fought me every time.
I must continue the work for years to come. After all, a few weeks or months of “reprogramming” help will not undo decades of mental habits. I must continue striving to make myself anew.
I am working every single day to change my beliefs and mindset in a bid to put my demons to rest. I have believed very poor things about myself for over three decades. I have new tools to help me grow. I am learning to trust the idea that the quality of my life is a reflection of the quality of my beliefs. I am doing my best to discover my purpose, to forgive, to be thankful, and to surrender to the will of the universe so that I may listen and follow that purpose.
I am lucky my parents loved me (despite anything I said above) and I have achieved much in my life – moving overseas, marrying an amazingly wise and loving woman (still married since 2003), having three amazing children, winning an international singing championship, and more. Others have had things far worse than I. People tell me I should be grateful, and they’re right. But poor self-esteem, fear, hurt, and distrust continue to shape my thinking and life. The mental patterns run deep and have prevented me from achieving my real potential and purpose.
Over the years, I have argued too much, fought unnecessarily, isolated myself, avoided risk, and lost many people from my circle by pushing them away, writing them off and holding grudges. I held onto my hurt for so long and unleashed it on others. I’ve said terrible things about people. And it’s all because I was fighting the ghosts of what caused my depression and fighting against what my condition was trying to tell me.
Yes, depression and depressive episodes are the universe sending me a message: that some beliefs or principles I have long held are no longer useful and must be discarded so new growth can occur. The same applies to you. The more we refuse to listen for what that message is saying, the more our depression will recur.
What’s the message? It’s different for everyone. I recommend this incredible book to help you hear yours and learn your purpose.
Just know that you are not your traumas. They do not define you. You do.
No challenge will ever be as great as the work I have done to identify the root causes of my depression and to try releasing them. My depression has fought me every step of the way. It’s been ugly. But it’s also been a period of growth. And it’s not over.
I don’t have an answer to depression. I have a pathway that I follow, and I must follow that pathway every day. If I don’t, the depression will follow its pathway and send me where I don’t want to be. Mine is not a perfect pathway. There are rocky patches and wrong turns and rough moments. There are times when I feel like the pathway is taking me somewhere I don’t want to be. But ultimately if I trust this pathway and surrender to the will of the universe, I know that it leads eventually to where I need to be and am supposed to be.
Hardest of all, I am learning to look within for happiness. I cannot find happiness from things outside of me. I cannot find happiness through others. The one person responsible for my happiness… is me. For someone with decades of self-esteem problems, it is phenomenally difficult to change and to make myself happy.
If you know someone with depression and want to help, I thank you. May you find some wisdom in these pages, or at least be inspired to find out more.
It sounds corny to say this, but the answer is love. It is enormously scary for a depression sufferer to submit to the power of love. To accept. To release. To forgive. The fear of being hurt is overwhelming, as is the desire to protect one’s self. It takes the greatest leap of faith to trust in a simple concept…
I am loved and I am love.
So are you.
May we both absorb love, express love, and be love. It is our only way forward.