One Road Out of Depression
I understand you. Most people don’t.
When most people say “I don’t belong here”, they’re talking about a situation or a place. Maybe they went to the wrong college, or took the wrong job.
They don’t realize that when you say it, you mean you don’t belong in your life.
You didn’t choose to be born, and you feel like you don’t belong as a human being on planet Earth. You resent that some force brought you here without your permission, and now you’re stuck here. You don’t know why.
Maybe you spend time thinking about sad things. Talking or thinking about your death usually draws unwanted attention. People will tell you you’re depressed and that you need to be medicated. Ironic, given that everyone has to die.
I know how it is to feel like you’re living in an emotional hell most of the time.
But I’m here to give you hope. There is a way out of it.
“Forgive the intrusion, but I was under the impression that I was digging towards the outer wall.”
Abbe Faria before bursting into laughter when he realizes he’s spent the last 5 years digging out of prison in the wrong direction.
– The Count of Monte Cristo
I was melting down.
The last 2 years were a blur. I had quit my job at Google, and I had broken up with my 3 year girlfriend whom I thought I was going to marry. I was dumping my energy into a startup tech company that I had co-founded. And it wasn’t going well.
Sales was hard, and the technical hurdles we faced were insurmountable. We were building too much with too few resources.
I’d take long walks around my neighborhood where I felt like I was negotiating with a mad man. “If only I can make it a few more months,” I’d tell myself, then maybe we’d get some traction in our company, and I’d start feeling better.
But it seems a non-negotiable law of the universe that if you need something too badly, you’ll only drive it further away. Nothing got easier. No tech company magically materialized to buy us. I had read about acquisitions so many times, it seemed inevitable that it would happen for us too, but it didn’t. Nobody arrived to save us. We were on our own.
I had quit the pinnacle of engineering organizations to pursue fame and fortune, but all I had found were feelings of loneliness, depression, failure, and constant anxiety about the future.
What’s worse, I was living an unbalanced life. I had no friends because I was new to the area, and I spent most days conversing with my dog. I didn’t go to work because I worked from my house, and the only human contact I had was with my co-founder a few times a week.
I read about the IQ loss of prisoners in solitary confinement while simultaneously beating myself up for feeling so unbelievably lonely most of the time. I told myself I was worthless because I had no friends and no girlfriend.
Even though I knew I was living unbalanced, I told myself I couldn’t go out and socialize. Joining a running club or a board game group would take too much time away from running the precious company. I had to feed the demon of ambition. Working on the company was the single most important thing I could do. I wasn’t good enough as I was, and finding startup success would make all my problems go away.
I couldn’t go on dates. If we liked each other, I’d have a panic attack because I was so happy to have social contact again. I’d latch on like a man dying of thirst in the middle of the desert looking for water, and I’d inevitably drive any woman away with my neediness.
Women would slowly stop talking to me with no explanation. In retrospect, the explanation was obvious, but back then it wasn’t.
After the 4th or 5th date that went nowhere, I remember thinking I couldn’t go on with my life. How the fuck had I gotten myself into this situation? Here I was living in the wealthiest country in the world in the wealthiest time in all of human history, and yet, I found myself completely incapable of dealing with my life.
But I hate to admit, this wasn’t the first time I’d had dark ruminations. Depression and suicidal thoughts were the story of my life for about a decade all during my teens and early 20’s.
I suppose it all started with obsessive compulsive disorder when I was 10 years old.
I had to lock the doors around my house multiple times. The exact number was important. If I missed one or did too many, someone was going to break into my house and kill my entire family, and it would be my fault.
When I rode on airplanes, I had to tap specific patterns, otherwise the plane would crash and everyone would die, and once again, it’d be my fault.
I also had the stereotypical OCD behaviors. I washed my hands obsessively, convinced that bacteria everywhere were trying to kill me. Even if I only touched my foot in something dirty, I believed the dirtiness would crawl up over all the connecting tissues in my body and consume me.
My hands eventually dried out and bled profusely because I was washing them too many times each day. If nothing else, the people around me noticed all the hand washing. My parents and friends told me what I was doing was not rational.
But, believe me, I knew it wasn’t rational. That’s the problem with OCD. Part of your brain knows you’re going crazy and hates yourself for it, but the other part is so convinced that terrible things are going to happen that you can’t help yourself. Each time you indulge in a compulsion, the pattern for those crazy beliefs gets etched deeper into your mind.
The perceived ability to control the fate of your family or the fate of an entire airplane is one hell of a responsibility for a 10 year old. So naturally, between the ages of 10 and 13, I was one of the most stressed out and anxious kids you would meet, although you wouldn’t know it from talking to me.
Years later, I read about a 19 year old OCD patient who attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, and cured his OCD in the process.
I know how he felt.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to attempt something so drastic to solve mine.
But a couple of years later, the depression hit. I remember it starting when I was 15, and it lasted all the way until I was 22.
I was never loud about my depression. If you knew me back then, you would have seen a happy go lucky guy, always with a smile on my face, and seemingly always in a good mood. I never “acted out”, and I was never a problem child. I never did drugs or skipped school. I got good grades in highschool, and I was an All American swimmer.
But inside, I was roiling. I took “teen angst” to another level.
I’d listen to depressing songs on repeat:
I never thought, I’d die alone. I laughed the loudest who’d have known.
I’m too depressed, to go on. You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.
– Blink 182, Adam’s Song
I never told anyone about how I felt. Not my family, not my friends. Honestly, I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I thought I was pathetic.
I had been handed the keys to the kingdom of life. I came from a privileged situation. My parents were still together, and I never suffered any tragedies when I was a kid. I grew up in the upper middle class where nobody beat me, nobody died or suffered from a serious illness. Nobody was on drugs, and our neighborhood wasn’t torn apart by violence or war.
And despite all these advantages, I was not capable of feeling good and being happy for any length of time. So how could I tell anyone about it? I hated myself for it. My parents were great, loving people, who always tried to do the right thing. Despite this supportive household, I was miserable.
I never wanted my folks to feel like they were bad parents, so I kept everything to myself. I figured it was more “responsible” that way, as long as I was the only one who had to deal with it.
I’d overhear my family talk about depression or people going through “psychotic breaks” as if they only happened to other people. They would never happen in our Perfect Family™. Little did they know that there was a liar sitting among them. That’s what I was, a liar. I lied to myself about who I was. I lied when I was presenting myself to other people. I lied to my family and to my friends.
I hate when I can’t hold in my loneliness.
Again, relationships during this period were not my forte. How can you have a relationship when you’re disconnected from who you really are? When you hate yourself, you look for love outside instead of from within.
A feeling of pervasive loneliness was my constant companion. I had never told anyone about the details of the OCD, or the depression. I was too afraid they’d see me as I really was, coming apart at the seams. And I hated that part of myself. I needed to appear happy and successful at all costs.
I’d go from crying, to feeling lonely, to feeling enraged, to feeling insufficient and hating myself for it.
I’d gravitate to musicians like Eminem. I was attracted to anything dark and melancholy. Anything that talked about insanity or being inexplicably angry.
During college, I’d daydream about cars hitting me as I crossed the street. On flights back to St Louis, I’d imagine the plane going down. Somehow everyone else would survive, and I’d be the only victim.
That way, my life would be over, and it wouldn’t be my fault. It would be out of my control. Nobody except me would get hurt.
Every year I’d grow a little more cynical, a little more hopeless, and a little more lonely. I never sought therapy until years later – I thought that was for “weak” people, and I was never medicated although I probably could have used it.
Ok enough about me. I just wanted to prove that I understand where you’re coming from. If you’re depressed or even suicidal, I’ve been there too.
Looking back, I’m often surprised I’m still here. I was stuck in such a deep psychological pit for so long, and I never had the wherewithal to ask for help. None of my friends or family even knew there was a problem.
And that gets me to wondering how I made it out of that situation. I have friends who were in a similar boat, but a decade later, they’re much the same. They’re the same, depressed, cynical people they were 10 years ago. So why me?
I don’t consider myself to have any special abilities in this area; actually, I’ve been consumed by self loathing for most of my life.
But I did do a few things that other people didn’t, and I learned psychological tricks that might help someone in a similar situation.
So here they are.
Making a Choice
Don’t take life seriously. It doesn’t take you seriously. The Cosmos is laughing at you.
– After the Absolute by David Gold
At this point, I’ve put thousands of hours into self help books, therapy, trying new-age treatments like float tanks and meditation, and learning how to interact with people, so I can actually be in a successful relationship. In retrospect, it seems like a lot of effort, just to enjoy a quality of life that a lot of people don’t have to work for.
So why bother? Is living a normal life worth the cost and effort?
When I was 20 years old, I was at the bottom of one of my depressive episodes, and I made a choice.
I remember looking in the mirror one day that summer, and I told myself I was going to try. I couldn’t go on living how I was living, so I either needed to commit suicide, or I needed to try to change something. I felt too guilty to go through with suicide – I knew that my family would be devastated, so I opted for the other option. I figured that if my parents had taken the time and effort to raise me, that I was going to believe in myself, at least for awhile. And I was going to do whatever it took to live a better life psychologically.
Because why not? We’ll all be dead soon enough anyway. What difference does it make if you spend the intervening years trying to change things?
It still took me years to take real, positive action, and it wasn’t for years after that that I began to see results. But that one choice gave me the fuel I needed to persevere through everything. Because why not?
Let’s say you decide to try. What’s the worst that could happen? In my mind, the worst is that you die. But everyone has to die anyway, so you’re not saving yourself from anything.
Most people are stuck asking “Why try?” Their situation seems too challenging and requires too much effort, and they don’t think they have any hope of succeeding.
But just as valid of a question is “Why not try?” Because why not? What else will you do with your time?
A Liberating Perspective
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
– The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
One of my largest issues was that I spent years as a victim feeling sorry for myself, and refusing to lift a finger to try to change my situation.
As the years ticked by, this strategy proved largely ineffective.
Here I was missing experiences left and right. Relationship in highschool? Nope, never got to experience that. Relationship in college? Nope, never got to experience that either. Marriage was looking increasingly unlikely. Falling in love? Impossible.
And then, when I thought about these things, the self loathing would surface. What right did I have to complain about my lack of relationships when I was living in such a privileged situation?
Most days, I was usually sad, but occasionally spouts of anger would boil up as well. You would have never known because outwardly, I was unbelievably controlled, never losing my temper about anything. I would only let it show when I was alone and listening to music.
I was angry over the OCD when I was younger. I was angry over having anxiety all the time. I was angry about having spent most of my teen and adult life in emotional misery. I was angry about never being able to tell anyone about anything. I was angry about feeling so unbelievably lonely most of the time.
But at the core of the anger was an entitlement issue. I thought I was entitled to a happy, sane life. It wasn’t until I started thinking that the universe didn’t owe me anything, that I was actually able to change.
I realized there was no reason why I was entitled to a “good” life. Because who makes the rules? Who says that’s a valid perspective? Maybe all I was entitled to was one filled with anxiety and sadness.
When I adopted the perspective that I wasn’t “owed” anything, it gave me freedom. I could feel grateful for what I had, instead of focusing on what I didn’t. I had OCD, anxiety and depression, but at least I wasn’t hearing voices, at least not yet.
With my perspective shifted, I could accept my situation for what it was, take responsibility for it, and then proceed forward. Thoughts like “I shouldn’t have to do anything” because “I deserve to be happy” used to block me. Once they were removed, I was able to take action to change things.
One of my heroes, William James, the “Father of American Psychology” came to a similar conclusion. In his late 20’s, having failed at everything and on the verge of suicide, James decided that before he was going to commit suicide, he’d spend a year taking responsibility for absolutely everything. That served as the foundation for everything he went on to achieve, and the rest is history.
You can’t do anything until you admit there’s a problem. Once you see the problem, you have to take responsibility for it. It might not be your fault, but it’s part of your current situation, so it’s your responsibility nonetheless. Once you take responsibility, then you can take action. And once you take action, things may actually get better.
The Power of Belief and Faith
The term “faith” in our technology and science obsessed culture has become a dirty word. But I’m not talking about anything based in religion. I’m talking about the human ability to choose what we believe.
OCD is a condition defined by false beliefs. You believe that you have the power to control things that you don’t. You think checking or re-checking the locks in your house affects the fate of your family. You think the number of times you wash your hands will prevent you from dying. You think that tapping on an airplane seat will prevent the plane from crashing. You’re stuck believing things that have no basis in reality.
Bad beliefs can make your life miserable, but choosing good ones can change everything.
One of the biggest psychological dilemmas I encountered was how to believe I could change when I had no proof that any change was possible.
So for example, how could I believe that I was ever going to be happy when I had spent a huge percentage of my young adult life, almost a decade, living in psychological turmoil? I had no evidence that I was ever going to feel better. In fact, extrapolation showed that things were only going to get worse, not better. They had been getting worse for years. Same with relationships: how could I believe I was ever going to have a relationship when all of my experiences had shown the exact opposite?
The answer is that I took a leap of faith. I decided to believe that being happy was possible, despite having no evidence to support it. I decided to believe that a loving relationship was possible, even though again, I had no evidence to support it.
It turns out, this was a significant development. If I could convince myself a good outcome was possible, I could justify exerting effort towards that goal. The key was realizing I didn’t need any hard data to back up the beliefs I was choosing. If they served me, and made me happier, I was going to use them. If they made me miserable, I was going to abandon them.
Because who knows if you’re actually capable of something like a relationship? Believing it’s not possible is the exact same as believing it’s possible. You can’t objectively “prove” either, so you might as well adopt the one that serves you the best. And in my experience, when I’ve allowed myself to have faith, whatever I believe has a way of popping into my reality.
Belief can lead to a wonderful cycle.
You believe that you’re capable of something, which allows you to exert effort. That effort leads you to occasional success, and that success builds self confidence.
In my case, I began to realize I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was, that I was capable of occasional happiness, and eventually, I was capable of relationships as well.
Living Someone Else’s Life
Hell, in my opinion, is never finding your true self and never living your own life or knowing who you are.
– Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw
I come from an achievement oriented family. My whole life has been a story book of achievement. I got good grades all during elementary, middle, and high school. I scored well on my SAT’s and ACT’s. I was an All American swimmer. I went to a good college, where I became a workaholic. It was one of the ways I dealt with everything. I graduated in 3.5 years with 2 degrees while working part time.
Work and achievement were the few bright spots in my life. I’d consume myself with my studies, and when I got a good grade it was the rare occasion I’d let myself feel good.
After college, I went on to Google, where I worked 10-12 hour days. Google wasn’t good enough, so I quit to found my own company. Being a successful tech entrepreneur was the peak of achievement in my eyes.
I let achievement consume me, to the point where I wouldn’t allow myself to socialize because I figured it was a waste of time. Indeed, socializing was time wasted in a value system that only honored making money and collecting accolades.
I remember going to coffee shops where I would look down on the baristas. They weren’t pursuing an illustrious career like I was, and they probably didn’t own any property. As far as the American Dream went, they were losing, and I was winning.
But as the years rolled by, I realized this perspective was like a prison. Those baristas were much happier than I was. They didn’t take anything as seriously as I did, and they were so free.
Then I realized that none of the achievement orientation was “me”. It was who I thought I was, but it wasn’t actually me.
One of the hardest things I’ve done was making the decision to quit the startup and go crawling back to corporate America. The decision terrified me because it meant I was turning my back on all my achievement oriented beliefs and mindsets. Instead of chasing dreams, I was “settling” for a secure paycheck and normal working hours.
Ironically, that decision made me ridiculously happy. I realized that I didn’t need to “follow my passion” to be happy, that working a job and getting paid were enough. They were enough for me, the real me, not the me forcing me to work ridiculous hours at the expense of everything else in my life.
I realized I valued the security and stable income of working as an employee more than I valued the uncertainty that came with chasing after achievement as a tech entrepreneur.
Before I understood my own values, I looked externally for a roadmap. I’d listen to speeches by Steve Jobs, and I’d read books about “how to find your passion.” I didn’t have a clue of what I actually wanted to do. I looked at “objective” measurements of success as how I wanted to live my life.
But as I understand myself better, I realize I don’t need the validation of other people to justify what I’m doing. Who cares if working for big companies is derided by the entire venture capital community, startup founders, and anybody who’s anybody in tech?
Working for a big company is stress free, and it makes me happy, and that is enough.
I will probably always be ambitious, by any normal definition of the word, but I hope I’ll never again let ambition get in the way of living a life true to myself.
By now, you may have realized that I can’t tell you exactly how to find your way out of depression. There’s no fixed path. For me it was like being lost in a forest for years, screaming when nobody could hear me, and nobody was coming to my rescue.
What made me miserable is probably different than what is making you miserable, and I can’t begin to know what’s going on with you. Maybe you’re dealing with something I can’t fathom. Maybe it would break the back of anybody else who had to experience it. We all have unique demons, which means it takes unique weapons to slay them.
My job is not to give you a path, but to give you hope. I had dozens of “mentors” in the form of authors and musicians who were there for me, when nobody else knew what was going on, and I felt desperately alone. I had the right books fall into my lap, right when I needed them. I had the right people arrive at precisely the opportune moments. I had music and movies to comfort me and to prevent me from going crazy.
If you feel lonely or like nobody understands you, remember that you’re never alone.
Not everybody makes it through this “crisis of the soul”, and I’m not going to try to shame you into living your life. I’m sure you’ve tried that already, and you might be beyond the point where those logical arguments are effective.
But if you’ve made the decision that you’re going to try to change your situation, all I can tell you is to keep moving forward. The worst possible thing you can do is to stop.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me accusing you. I “stopped” for years, wallowing in self pity and self loathing, where I didn’t believe I had the power to make anything better. If you just keep moving, you’ll feel yourself changing drastically in short amounts of time, and hopefully your journey out of the darkness will be shorter than mine.
Choose one thing you think could improve your situation, and take action on it. That one small step might lead to another, which will lead to 1000 more which will lead you out of the darkness.
I might never be a well known, wealthy entrepreneur, let alone a famous athlete or a celebrity. But I can say that I was sad for a long, long time, and that today, I’m okay. I’ve been okay for years, and I no longer feel alone.
I still have bad days, like anyone, and I’m far too humble to delude myself into thinking this will last forever, but I’m not crawling through my life anymore, inches away from the edge of despair. Everything doesn’t feel like it’s difficult or impossible, and compared to where I was 10 years ago, my life is easy. I don’t feel like I’m dragging a psychological anchor everywhere I go.
What’s most surprising is the sheer sense of gladness I experience many times every week when I look at the mountains, the huge blue sky, or the stars at night. I’m also glad about more ordinary things. I catch myself marveling at the order imposed by traffic lights, or how the checkout line at the supermarket works flawlessly.
Tears fill my eyes, and I feel gratitude well up in my chest. I’m so grateful that I still have blood pumping through my veins, and I’m so fortunate to be here in the middle of this strange human experience, however brief it might be. I would probably never consciously choose to do my life over again, let alone somebody else’s with a brand new set of problems that I can’t even imagine, but I can enjoy the spectacle of my life for the moment.
I can also tell you that the clichés are true. The darkness does indeed make the light brighter. If you keep going, you might find yourself shocked to wake up in a brilliantly lit world, where all the pain and suffering doesn’t scare you as much as it once did. And you might fall to your knees, so grateful to be alive that your heart could explode with gladness.
And then you might catch yourself thinking that being alive was worthwhile after all.
Remember losing hope. Remember feeling low. Remember all the feelings and the day they stopped.
– Our Lady Peace, Innocent.
Photo Credit: Erik Schepers