I don’t read Wil Wheaton’s blog, but a post he did yesterday was retweeted by a friend. The post was called “depression lies” and in it, Wheaton admitted to his rather substantial blog audience that he has depression and anxiety. For those that have never experienced this, you’ve no idea the kind of courage it takes to admit that. And, in my opinion, you can multiply that courage by a factor of 10 if you’re a man in our society and you’ll be starting to get close to having an idea of knowing how hard it is for men to admit to that.
I’ve talked a lot about my own struggles over the years with depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety kind of ruined my college experience – a regret that even at the age of 40, I’m not completely over. I don’t know that I ever will be, but that’s kind of a good thing because it makes me acutely aware of not allowing depression and anxiety to sully other life experiences. That’s easier said than done sometimes, but I think that there’s success even in the failures. It’s kind of like how success in meditation is finding your way back to the breath after you’ve found that your mind has wandered, realizing that anxiety is driving the bus and asking it to please take a break while you drive for a while. I’ve spent plenty of years in various talk therapies with several different therapists (a word I really don’t like but try as I might, I can’t find a better one.) I have been on antidepressants and off antidepressants. As a pharmacist, I’m stubbornly resistant to taking drugs. You can ask my wife. I can be complaining of this or that ache or pain and when she asks me if I’ve taken anything for it, the answer is almost always no. That’s just how I roll.
It took a pretty crippling tangle with anxiety a couple years ago to convince me that I’m better off on medications than I am being stoic and stubborn. As a physician friend of mine says “better living through chemicals.” I’m reconciled to the fact that I will probably never be off the one med that I do take. I have a devil of a time remembering to take it. I can’t imagine how some of our senior citizens remember to take six or seven different meds when I can barely remember to take one. And I always can tell when I don’t take it. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but if I let 48 hours lapse between doses, I can feel a noticeable uptick in my level of general anxiety. Once I take it and allow it to get into my system, I feel myself go back down to baseline. So I know what Wheaton’s talking about when he talks about how his life changed once he started taking medication.
Wheaton says that what caused him to seek treatment was no longer being able to “reconcile my awesome life with feeling terrible all the time.” I recognize myself in that statement, and I think a lot of folks (although certainly not all) with depression and anxiety would as well. By their very definition, anxiety and depression make no sense. It’s like looking at your life through the bottom of a broken Coke bottle. And for years, I was convinced that I had to change something – anything – to make it better. I’ve learned over the last few years that trying to change those thought patterns if pretty fruitless, if not impossible. Rather, a more successful approach (at least for me) has been to recognize anxious thoughts and feelings for what they are – feelings. And as is my mantra, feelings aren’t facts. They may seem like it, but when you can step away from them and view them from a more mindful vantage point, you can see them for what they usually are – a reaction to old fears or a response to a very ancient internal monologue that you’re so familiar with you don’t even hear it any longer.
Of course, this approach may not work for everyone, but it’s the one that’s been most successful for me. I find that owning the fact that I struggle with this is the first step in being stronger than it. I spent years hating it, but now I realize that it’s just another part of me and who knows what good things it has given to me. Maybe it kept me out of trouble, reacting to the saber toothed tiger that our prehistoric ancestors were constantly worried might be around every corner.
In any event, every time another man admits to his experiences with depression and anxiety, I feel like we’ve made progress as a gender. As a commenter on Wheaton’s post said, “these sorts of revelations and stories of getting through are like the blazes hikers paint on trees along a trail. They leave it to you to get there, but point the way with assurance that others have made it.” It’s for that reason that I’ll continue to talk of my own experiences because I figure if even one person is helped just a tiny bit, it’s worth all the uncomfortable self-disclosure that I have to go through. And each time I talk about it, it gets easier.