• James

The First Act - Part 1, Walking Wounded

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

A year ago, I would not have been able to write this blog.

I would not have had the energy to even think about it.

I simply did not care. About anything.

I was most likely in bed. I saw no point in getting up... I would sleep all day and all night for an entire week, only getting up to have a bowl of cereal or to use the bathroom. I went for days without a shower, much to the dismay of my partner.

I felt bad for him. He had to watch me slowly give up on life. He told me that when we met, I was vibrant, funny and energetic. It's true - I was very social then, was physically active and had lots of things on the go. Now that we were married and living together, I'm sure he felt at some point that he got a raw deal. He didn't sign up for a partner who was now only a ghost of his former self.

But he wasn't entirely correct. I was suffering from depression long before we met. It just wasn't as serious when we were first dating.

It was February 2006 when I had a panic attack out of nowhere. I would have been 37 then. I was at work, expecting to meet a guest right at 9 a.m. I needed to call the receptionist to let her know someone was going to ask for me.

But I couldn't. I was frozen; the mere thought of picking up the phone and forming words in my mouth made me sick.

"What the heck was going on?" I thought. The meeting was routine and it clearly wasn't anyone important as I can't even remember who it was now.

Somehow, I pushed through and went on about my day.

As the days and weeks continued, I continued to feel anxious now and then, about nothing in particular. I would just get panicky and had to stop whatever I was doing - my heart would race and I had to consciously tell myself to breathe. I saw my doctor about it and he prescribed me a low dose of Paxil, an anti-anxiety medication. It seemed to do the trick so I just went on about my days. I did not know then that my body was trying to tell me something.*

Does this look familiar?

At the time, I was working at a job that was probably the best I ever had. I was a political aide at Queen's Park. I really enjoyed the work as it made use of my best skills and experience. My co-workers were great and we all felt a sense of urgency and duty to change government policies for the better which was important to me.

I was a communications advisor to a cabinet minister and also acted as her press secretary. This meant being available to media to arrange for interviews or to provide background information. Working on weekends was not uncommon.

And so it was probably a Monday morning when my alarm rang and I told myself that no one would mind if I showed up a few minutes late since I did work that weekend, and I snoozed for a little bit longer.

Over the next few weeks, 10 minutes late turned to 20 minutes. Then half an hour. Then an hour. Eight hours of sleep wasn't enough and I felt tired every day. My absence was affecting the office, and my boss had to have that "talk" with me. She was very understanding and somehow we managed my occasional absences as well as we could.

This pattern would repeat itself at other jobs, including two where I had to be let go.

For a long time, I couldn't find work. I did find some casual freelance work, but it wasn't enough. To keep afloat, I ate into my savings, maxed out all my credit, and borrowed money from family. I had just bought a condo and a car - I was so scared of losing everything I had worked for.

Even when I finally found a part-time job for a charity whose cause I believed in, I could not overcome my fatigue and wanting to "check out." It was a real disconnect - I cared a lot about the organization and its work, and I achieved significant success in the time I was there, but on most days I still felt my life didn't matter and stayed in bed.

There were times when I felt the only solution was suicide. I got as far as Googling the least painful, most efficient and cleanest way to do it, but what I found still sounded risky to me. I lived on the waterfront then, so I thought the best option would be to just jump into the lake and since I couldn't swim, I would probably drown in less than a minute. That didn't seem so bad. I would put my I.D. in a plastic baggie and pin it to my shirt so the police would know who to contact. If I did it in the winter, I'd have the certainty of freezing to death - just in case drowning took too long.

In 2011, a friend was able to hire me on a three-month contract where she was working. Once hired, I could access internal postings and I was able to land a full-time job in another division. At the beginning, I was a star. My skills and abilities were never the problem: within months, I was tapped for a possible career in management and my boss recommended me for training courses. With money coming in, I could have a life again. I still had depressive symptoms, but they were not as severe. It could have been a combination of factors that I regained some of my energy and motivation. This lasted for about five or six years until things started unravelling again.

My depression got worse and in a few months I maxed out my sick days. It didn't help that my department went through a ton of changes, first with my director moving on, and then my team went through a string of different managers in quick succession. I felt my work didn't matter anymore. New projects did not interest me. I declined as many meetings as I could. I withdrew from co-workers socially. Even now, I have absolutely no recollection of some people I apparently worked with.

With no more sick days, I had no choice but to leave. By then, I had mentally checked out in so many ways. Ironically, I had just received an award for my work on a long-standing project - I clearly could do the work, but inside, I didn't care. I would be walking around, along with all the other commuters downtown. Everyone had somewhere to go and something to do. I, however, felt no purpose. I barely said anything to anyone. I was going through the motions just for the sake of it. I felt like a zombie... one of the walking wounded. We had moved to an open-concept work environment. We no longer had our own desks and so every day I chose to sit in a corner where no one else was. I kept such a low profile that I don't think anyone even missed me.

At the same time, I acquired bad habits like drinking sugary sodas and eating chocolate and candy to temporarily feel better. I had long since abandoned the gym and now weighed 20 pounds more than my normal weight and I hated how I looked. As a result, I now take medication to control high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Throughout all this, I sought treatment from many health care professionals. I was prescribed the anti-depressant known commonly as Cymbalta for the first time. It seemed to make a difference, so I continued with that and my psychiatrist added another anti-depressant to the mix. Under her care, I attended a day treatment program for 12 weeks a couple of years ago to focus on getting better. I was great during those weeks, feeling less alone when I heard how others were struggling with the same illness. But when the program ended, I faltered again and slipped back into depression.

Fast forward to today. My partner and I recently downsized to a condo downtown since I won't be making what I used to make for the foreseeable future. I've been looking at various options as I start my "second act." In the last few years, I've taken up photography as a hobby, specifically street photography. It's given me a focus and I've even had some success in photography competitions. While I love making street images, they don't appeal to enough people for me to sell my work to make a living. Still, I have connected with a couple of professionals and I already spent one day as an on-location assistant, and I may be able to shoot weddings with another firm.

As a consultant, I have helped a few non-profits who needed communications and issues management support. Those projects did not require me to work full-time, so I was able to succeed.

These ventures and our move downtown seems to be making a difference. Or maybe the therapy I had recently with a new counsellor. For the last few weeks, I've been much more alert and present than in a long time. I still have my bad days but I'm beginning to feel like I'm turning a corner.

I've been thinking about starting this blog for some time now. I can't say my depression is behind me. But I'm trying to manage it so I can at least have a life. I want something good to come from my personal experience. There are many layers to my story; it is my hope that by sharing, others who are also struggling can know they are not alone.

I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!

*If you have suffered through trauma, you may like the book "The Body Keeps the Score" by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who uses "recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust." (From the book's back cover copy.)


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