Travel with the Depression: My Battle with the Black Dog

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It comes as a surprise to people who don’t know me well to learn that I’m not actually that happy. At least, not most of the time.

A good friend of mine recently expressed her surprise when I told her how I can spend entire weekends in bed with the lights out and still not feel like I’ve rested. How I can sometimes let a week pass without having a single meaningful conversation with another human being.

How, and I’m loath to admit it, there’s been periods in my life where all I’ve wanted to do is go to sleep and never wake up again.

You always seem so happy,” she explained, “When we chat and in the way you write“.

I tried to explain to her that the me I post here on these pages and I try to portray to most people is how I want to see myself. That happy-go-lucky adventurer without a care in the world is the man I so desperately want to be.

If I look back over some of the best experiences of my life, that black dog (as the Roman poet Horace first described) has always been trotting faithfully along behind me. Look at the smiling face in those photographs and he’s always been there – the lingering doubt and self loathing that has tarnished and colored almost every moment of my adult life.

man with tulips
I was, in all honesty, miserable on this particular day in sunny Seoul.

The smile so often falls off of my face as soon as the flash has faded.

In the beginning

cute kid
A younger, happier Aussie (not yet) on the Road

I couldn’t tell you when I first started to feel the way I’ve come to feel most days. I don’t know when the wild, extroverted, and completely shameless kid I was growing up changed.

At times I think that depression has been a relatively recent addition to my life. After all, I wasn’t diagnosed with it until early 2010. But if I look back over the last ten years of my life, there’s that old black dog again.

It was there when I told a crowd of crying friends and relative strangers I wanted to kill myself while I threw up into the toilet at a college party in 2002.

It was there when I’d call in sick to my three day a week job in 2006 because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to be seen by people.

It was there when I’d turn down invitations to go out and spend time with friends because I was too damn tired of plastering on a smile and pretending I wasn’t exhausted.

So while I was given a label to put on it when I moved back to Sydney in 2010, I think I’d known something was wrong for a long time.

I’d always thought that maybe I was just a naturally ‘down’ person. Maybe it just a character trait that made me cry more easily than most. Maybe I was just naturally inclined to be tired regardless of how much sleep I got.

When I look at my life objectively, I see no reason for the way I feel. I have a wonderfully supportive family with whom I get along well and know would be there for me in a heartbeat if I needed them; I’ve got more friends than I can count; a job that I enjoy; no major health issues; no money worries; and I live in a country and a time in history where the world is literally there for me to explore if I so desire.

I’ve loved some remarkable women, made some unforgettable friends, and done more in the past five years of my life than most people will ever do in a lifetime.

When I first stopped and realized just how good I had it and compared that to the feelings of sadness, isolation, self loathing, and exhaustion that so often accompany me about my day – I realized maybe it was more than just a few character quirks.

I went first to a doctor and then to a therapist.

I’d like to say that after nearly two years of travel with depression that I’ve made some progress, but the truth is I’m no farther along the path towards happiness than I was when I scored a 29 on the K10 test.

Truth? I scored higher when I retook the test midway through last year.

Hitting Bottom

There have been a few dizzying, soul destroying lows throughout the years. I’ve done some stupid things in the hope they’d make me feel better.

For me, the lowest point came in May last year.

I’d returned from Korea after my midnight run and the break-up of a relationship I never should have gone into. I was staying with my sister, unemployed, and the weather was miserable.

I was on the phone crying my heart out to Lifeline when my brother burst into the room asking if I wanted to kick a soccer ball around. I’d never let one of my siblings see past the walls I’d put up. I couldn’t tell if I felt ashamed or relieved.

He came back into the room a few moments later with the phone in his hand and my mother on the line.

Three days later I got a call at 2am after I’d posted a typically emo song lyric on my Facebook wall. My other brother, worried about me but unable to tell me himself, woke my sister up in the middle of the night and had her call my mother.

I’d been staying in Armidale with a friend and like a homesick kid, my mother had to come and get me.

I’d never felt so utterly helpless in my life, but knowing that my family cared so deeply about me helped. I wasn’t fixed, but I gradually began to claw my way back out of the lows.

I wish I could say I hadn’t slipped back in the months since.

How travel with depression has affected me

In a lot of ways, depression is a self perpetuating problem. It’s an exhausting process to wake up every day and wish it was time to go back to bed again.

I can’t even begin to explain how exhausting it has become to put on a smile and play the part of a happy person almost every day now for as long as I can remember.

That’s not to say I don’t have days, or even weeks, of genuine happiness. Those periods are the ones that get me through the troughs.

The tiredness and self loathing take their toll. You take sick days because you’re too damn tired to get out of bed. You say no to that invitation to go out. You take the easy path through life because the idea of failing would be one blow too many to an already fragile ego.

I lost my job in Korea last year because I was too caught up in my own sadness to focus on my work. I took sick days so I could stay in bed. I struggled to stay awake in classes despite getting a full night’s sleep.

Some of the best trips of my life – China in 2008 and the US in 2009 – saw my moods bounce erratically between happiness and utter despair. I’ve cried myself to sleep more often in my 28 years than anybody, especially an Australian man, should in a lifetime.

I’ve had otherwise promising relationships come to a premature end because I was so happy to find somebody who liked the man I couldn’t bring myself to like that I lived solely for them. I’d pin all of my happiness on a person to the point that I forsook friendships and other passions, and then I’d be inconsolable when they inevitably cracked under the pressure of being my whole world.

I don’t begrudge them their decision. Nobody wants to love somebody who can’t love themselves.

I self sabotage. I did the easy course at University. I take jobs with the least likelihood of failure. I fail to pursue promising romantic options because I’m afraid I’ll only fuck it up.

Drunken irishman st paddy's

I drink. Not often, but a lot. Alcohol has been my partner in crime since it first came into my life at 17. At first it only made things worse, but it got to a point that it was my way of maintaining the mask. In Korea I’d drink 3 or 4 nights a week until I became ‘that guy’ who everybody knew about town. I loved it.

Hell, I still look back at those days as some of the happiest in my life.

But there would always be the hangover. The day of utter self loathing and panic attacks as I worried that I’d done something stupid. The fallout from girls kissed or arguments started. The fights and the near misses.

The nights I don’t even remember.

I don’t have it as bad as I could. I’ve never self harmed or seriously contemplated suicide. I’m not alone in my battle and I know it. My family and my friends are always there for me if I need to vent, need to cry, or just need to hash out my feelings.

If anything, it’s been my decision to keep so much of this close to my chest.

What to do?

The laundry list of problems above might indicate that I’m resigned to being this way for the rest of my life. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Remember that happy-go-lucky adventurer I mentioned earlier? The one most people see? I intend to someday be that guy in more than just action.

I’m not going to look back at my life at 70 or 80 and realize I’ve squandered most of it on boozy regrets and self pity.

We only get this one chance to live our lives and I don’t know when it is I might die – but when I do, I don’t want it to be knowing that I wasn’t all I could be in this life. I don’t want it to be a lifetime filled with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.

I recently listed my 2012 Resolutions and amongst them were several aimed solely at being the person I want to be.

Already I’ve started a new course of medication and I intend to start seeing a therapist again soon. I’ve never given one more than two weeks. It’s time I respected the process.

I’ve started running again. I’ve run three times in the past week and while I’m nowhere near the level I was at two years ago, I’m slowly seeing signs of improvement.

I’m trying to eat healthier and I’m forcing myself to say yes where I would usually prefer to say no. I was out four nights out of seven last week socializing and meeting new people.

Anthony from Man vs Clock is a man I have a great deal of respect for and, in part, I credit him with nudging me in the direction I currently find myself headed in. His post It’s Ok not to be Ok was a slap in the face that I needed, and I’m going to be borrowing another page from his book:

I’m going to quit drinking.

suit up drunk man
Bye bye beer. I’ll suit up without you.

This is a big one for me. Like everybody else, I’ve made the promise before when I’ve been hungover only to renege on it a week later. I do have a lot of good times when I drink – but if I’m serious about getting better, I need to realize that drinking so much is only making things worse.

Not only because it’s a depressant or because it has worsened problems in the past, but also because it’s been a way for me to pretend I’m ok for too long. It allows me to fake confidence and that means I’m not developing any of my own.

For far too long I’ve made promises to myself and I’ve put them off.

“Oh, I’ll start exercising again on the weekend when I have more time”.

“It’s ok, I’ll eat pizza tonight and start my diet tomorrow”

“I’ll visit the therapist next week. It’ll be ok”.

“I’ll quit drinking after the next party. Oh wait, no, after Christmas. Can’t not drink at Christmas”.

I need to do this. Not just so I can be happier. Not just because I want to be that person so many people believe me to be.

But because I can’t go on being this tired and miserable for the rest of my life. Because the idea of still feeling this way in a year – let alone ten – terrifies me.

I’m never going to be the person, friend, partner, father, or writer I know I can be as long as I have this hanging over my head unacknowledged and untreated.

Ten years of trying to manage it on my own have taught me that it’s not a battle I can win without help. No more excuses.   Sharing this is my way of making myself accountable.

Wish me luck.

If you want to know more about depression or want to help in the battle against depression, you can find out more from excellent sites such as Beyond Blue, The Black Dog Institute, and Lifeline.

If you’ve dealt with your own demons in the past, how did you start on your road to recovery? Any tips or words of wisdom you’d care to share?



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