Some things haven’t changed since the days our ancestors lived in caves.
Death and grief aren’t new things. Trauma and serious illness aren’t new things. Depression isn’t a modern development, either.
Life in caves, life in cities and suburbs, life all those centuries in between – it’s all life. Some things are undeniably consistent in all ages and in all cultures. Take stress, for instance. We all encounter stress, which has been defined as the body’s response to anything that disrupts a person’s normal life and routines.
My body doesn’t always respond well to stress. That definitely was not part of my personal profile during my 23 years as a professional sportswriter. I thrived on deadlines. Now, I have to pay extra attention to periods of higher-than-normal pressure, which means I’m beyond cautious about myself these days.
I’m on “high alert” status after my mom passed away May 23.
Yes, I admit these are dangerous days for me. I really don’t want my depression to roar back and chew me up, or to make me feel like a failure, or to force me into complete isolation. History tells me there is a chance any of those – indeed, all of those – are strong possibilities.
Even a person in good health overall can have adverse reactions to stress, especially major disruptions in life. For someone such as myself, who has suffered from major, chronic depression for more than a dozen years, stressful situations and episodes can be extremely dangerous.
I have been managing fairly well for the last several months. For a long time, I estimate I had two decent days as opposed to five “bad days” each week. (What’s a bad day? I’ve shared that often in the past. For now, let’s say it involves inexplicable tears, very low energy, overwhelming sadness and much worse.) Recently, that has been more like five decent days and two bad ones weekly. I’m not saying I have been happy, but I haven’t been unhappy. That’s a big deal.
Still, I always have to be aware of possible “triggers.”
A trigger is a common medical term for “something that either sets off a disease in people who are genetically predisposed to developing the disease, or something that causes a certain symptom to occur in a person who has a disease.”
Just as there are possible triggers for someone with diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease that can present serious complications, so too are there physical, emotional and mental events that can trigger a depressive episode. Some of those are more easily controlled than others. For instance, not eating properly and not getting any exercise can increase the chances of depression taking hold of someone. Those also can be symptoms of depression. So all this can get complicated.
“Precarious stress” can come from the holidays or experiencing debt and financial problems. Thanksgiving and Christmas often sent me into an emotional tailspin, worsened by severe anxiety I always encounter involving large social gatherings. We had severe financial problems some years ago when I changed jobs, taking a large initial pay cut, and our kids still were in private schools; I plunged deep into a hole at that time.
Work stress can be a self-perpetuating cycle of depression. I lived through that from August until December last year. I got behind in a project at work and couldn’t manage to climb out of the pit. As time passed, instead of catching up I fell further behind in that project as well as in subsequent projects. The depression essentially paralyzed me.
Another self-fulfilling “prophecy” of depression can be negative thinking. I’ll use myself as an example. Sometimes, I look at my roles in life and don’t feel I’m particularly good at them: husband, father, son, brother, friend. I can focus so much on that way of thinking that I “pile on” the guilt. The worse I think I am doing, the worse I do. My mind pushes me deeper and deeper.
Major life changes – even those that might be considered positive – can increase the chances of depression first appearing for a person but are especially perilous for someone who has had a depressive episode in the past. A “milestone birthday,” like turning 30 or 50, might seem innocuous to some people but is a land mine for someone with depression. Here are some other potential triggers:
- Job loss or retirement.
- Dealing with an “empty nest” when children move away.
- Stress from serving as a caregiver.
- Problems in marriage, especially separation or divorce.
- Significant trauma, such as a natural disaster or car accident.
- Poor sleep habits. This has been particularly hazardous for me.
- Not following the treatment plan for depression, such as taking medication and regularly seeing a therapist.
One of the most threatening triggers is the loss of a loved one. My mom isn’t the first person to die in my life. I have attended many funerals, including two truly emotional ones when I was in high school: my grade-school-aged cousin Gary, who died of leukemia in 1978, and Janet, a long-time friend and classmate who died of cancer that same year.
In the last 30 years or so, I have mourned all four of my grandparents, two close uncles, a 19-year-old godson, a 20-something friend of my son who had been in Donna’s youth group, parents of close friends, the infant son of some dear friends, friends of my parents …
Yes, a lot of grief through the years. But losing a parent is something altogether different. At the visitation for my mom last week, I told several people who had lost their mothers or fathers in the last few years:
“I cried for you before. Now, I am able to cry with you.”
So what can you or I do to keep an event from triggering the spiral back into an emotional nightmare? For me, I have to manage my sleep so I try to get seven or eight hours each night. I have to eat with some common sense and not turn to my “comfort foods” of Big Macs and other fast food, cookies and cupcakes and candy bars. I need to try to take a walk in the neighborhood a few times each week.
I can’t mindlessly watch TV, especially reruns that I have seen time and again. I have to see my therapist and be honest with her. I have to keep taking my medications as prescribed. I have to maintain my prayer time. To be candid, I haven’t done very well at most of that so far.
There’s another important one: I have to let people love me.
I have learned the last couple of weeks that you find out who really loves you and cares about you in times of crisis or distress such as this one. The outpouring of love and support has overwhelmed me.
A friend who was supposed to work out of town on the day of the funeral last week instead got his work done quickly and flew out from California in the wee hours of the morning in order to sing at the funeral Mass on Friday. Another friend drove several hours to attend the funeral. Many friends and family dramatically changed their plans – often at great expense and inconvenience — to offer comfort and consolation.
Depression can hasten isolation and loneliness, be it physical or imagined. I have to work, genuinely work, to avoid that.
My mom, who suffered from depression for more than 40 years, would want it that way.