Living with Depression

There’s no cure for depression. A combination of prescribed medication and therapy can variably lessen the impact the illness has from person to person, but this is by no means a permanent solution. Clinical depression, in a much less detailed nutshell, is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, particularly concerning serotonin and dopamine. Medication, as well as a healthy lifestyle and proper self-care, can help to regulate these chemicals, but that’s really all it can do. Now, it may feel like I’m starting this post off with a very direful mindset, but as my aim with this post is to address the realities of living with depression, I believe it’s important to be realistic and honest, as opposed to spouting motivational lies. But I promise, it isn’t as grim as it sounds.

Depression, like many other illnesses both physical and mental, is ever-present. Experts say it’s likely that at least 60 percent of those who’ve had a depressive episode will have a second, 70 percent of those who have had two episodes will have a third, and 90 percent of those who have had three will have a fourth. As the number of depressive episodes increases, so too does the likelihood of another. To clarify, depressive episodes are not the same as clinical depression as an illness – episodes refer to periods of time, lasting anywhere from days to months, in which one is suffering from depressive symptoms. In short, a multitude of depressive episodes are what make up clinical depression as a whole.

A statement from Thomas Franklin, M.D. speaks to me as being one of the most accurate representations of what depression is, anatomically speaking. He describes the illness as being biopsychosocialspiritual, meaning it oftentimes permeates every aspect of the life in one who’s suffering from it. Physical, mental, spiritual, social…depression can be informally considered an illness of any type. There is much we still don’t understand about it, and with time, research, and prayer, hopefully there will come a day where we can eradicate it altogether, but for now, we live with it as best we can.

In the Harry Potter series, according to author J.K. Rowling herself, dementors are a direct reference to clinical depression, mirroring her own experiences with it. For those who aren’t fans of Harry Potter (first off, why not?), dementors are ghostly, cloaked, disturbing creatures, who attempt to kill a person by literally sucking their soul out. Yikes. As morbid of a metaphor as this may seem, it is accurate, as those suffering from depression often have the joy “sucked out of them” by the illness, preventing them from enjoying life as much as they should. Whilst many who have depression may not claim that their soul is missing, it does seem important to note that life, the very thing that builds and strengthens our souls, is what’s being threatened by depression.

I would be remiss to sit here and claim that I know what depression is like for everyone. Every person is physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually different, and the way depression affects each person is different in each of those ways as a result. For myself, depression is a creeping beast, ready to pounce when I least expect it. My depression is the almost eternal pessimistic attitude, and the devil on my one shoulder, though oftentimes it feels like it’s on both. My dementor ensures that only the happiest of moments can drive it away, and even so, it will oftentimes rear its ugly head after the euphoria has died down. My depression causes me to think about returning to my bed for a large chunk of the day, only to have me return to it at night, wide-eyed and worrisome for the next day.

bedtime
Credit: Jake Likes Onions

Accepting my depression is accepting that I will never be as comfortable in social situations as many others. Very rarely will I be the one to take initiative in much of anything, and logic will oftentimes fall to the wayside as my decisions are emotionally based on trying to lessen the impact of my depression in the present, as opposed to making decisions that will help me combat it in the future.

I’ve accepted my depression. I’ve come to (relative) peace with the fact that much of my life will be spent trying to live in harmony with it. The key is realizing that it doesn’t have to govern my life. Depression, by its very nature, is a condescending acceptance, a resigned sigh that things aren’t going to get better – if anything, it says that things will get worse. That’s what depression tells me, and all else who suffer from it. This is one of the plethora of lies it will heap on whoever unwillingly listens to it, another step forward in its job to make people’s lives worse.

Whether or not you believe medication makes things better, anatomically, it does help. From our very, VERY limited knowledge of depression, we can see prescribed medications make the numbers we want to go up, up, and the ones we want to see go down, go down. I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you if I knew what all of those numbers are, but from my own research and personal experience with psychiatrists, serotonin and dopamine are the two golden chemicals in this this regard. Our brains need certain amounts of each one of these to make us happy. Regulating these chemicals is key to combating clinical depression.

As any good doctor will tell you, though, popping a few pills isn’t nearly enough to avoid recurring depressive episodes. Having good mental health is a full-time job, and it includes balancing all aspects of your life. Depression makes this even harder, though, as the very likelihood of its existence is based on inadequate mental health management. This is why I cannot stress enough: if you need help, ask for it. Although the stigma surrounding asking for help has been dying over the past few years, there is still a strong mindset out there that believes asking for help is a sign of weakness. We’ve all seen the movies where the stubborn husband on a road trip refuses to ask a local for help because “real men don’t ask for directions.” Don’t be that person. Real men and women aren’t afraid to admit their hindrances, because they realize everyone has their own.

Notice I didn’t say “admit their faults,” there, as depression isn’t a fault, just like it isn’t your fault it you’re suffering from chicken pox. You clearly didn’t pick your genes out and say, “Ooh, depression? That sounds fun!” It’s not your fault, nor is it a fault in character. It’s an unfortunate character trait to have, sure, but that doesn’t make you worth any less. It’s a part of your life, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can learn to live with it, if not harmoniously, at least tolerably.

As with many posts I don’t sit down and plan out beforehand, this was a little all over the place, and for that I apologize. If there’s any one thing I’m trying to get across here, it’s to show how those who have depression can view the world, and broadly explaining how I believe the illness can be dealt with. Sure, there’s no cure for depression, but there are ways to live with it, and decrease the chances of its return once it lessens. There’s help everywhere, all you have to do is ask.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Jealousy, Take Two

Oh, goodness, I haven’t written anything here in quite a while.

Since July, to be exact. I could give you the spiel of how I’ve been so terribly busy with work and…well, more work, but that’s probably not of much interest to you. But, for completion’s sake, I will say, I’ve started going into work much earlier than I had been used to, and I get home feeling like a zombie half of the time, so even when I say to myself, “Ooh, I’m gonna get home and write!”, any thought of that tends to exit my mind as soon as I see my beautiful, comfortable, incredibly inviting bed.

However, as I’ve been on this early morning schedule for some time now, my internal clock has (mostly) adjusted, and I hope to get back into the swing of updating this, at the very least, weekly. And so, as I’m here dog-sitting two adorable German Shepherds, I thought there’s no time like the present to get back into the swing of things. And so it is…

So, jealousy. I’ve done an entire post dedicated to this subject in the past, but being that it can be such a prevalent feeling in our lives (it certainly is for me), and given that I’ve felt jealously creeping into my own mind over the past few weeks, I thought it might be an interesting venture to revisit the subject.

Jealousy seems to be such a tragic facet of our first-world culture: They have something, I don’t have that something, I want that something and I’m bitter towards them for having it, bam, jealousy. For me, the feeling of jealously isn’t what’s inherently bad, it’s more so how it leads my mind to come to conclusions. When we’re intent on getting something someone else has, be it a material item or achievement, there’s often a thin line between what many call determination, and jealousy. The jealousy creeps in when we feel resentment towards others for having what we do not.

It seems that human society puts value on a great many things that, in the end, really don’t at all matter. Material possessions, achievements, titles. For some who get jealous over these things, it may be less of an arduous task to step back and say to themselves, “In the grand scheme of things, these possessions don’t matter. But what of things for which “want” could be argued? Marriage, children, a sturdy financial situation…some may argue jealousy is a healthy type of determination for these things, as love and a comfortable living situation are things all should strive for. If feeling jealous towards an individual or family that has these near “essentials” is the kick in the butt needed to get you working towards those things, can’t you argue for that bitterness? Doesn’t it help you more than harm you?

My own intuition says no. When jealousy is used as a motivator, it more often than not turns into a competition with another. I have the “healthiest marriage,” or the “best-behaved and loving children,” or “highest-paying job.” God knows we have an entirely too-competitive society already, so when we start to incorporate that competitiveness into our life goals, it turns our lives into finding contentment by simply being happy, versus finding contentment by trumping others. At the risk of sounding like I’m channeling the Dalai Lama, happiness should come from peace and contentment in ourselves, not from knowing we have the “best” anything of anybody.

Not to mention that if we fail in our jealousy-initiated competition, it only leads to more bitterness towards our “competitor.” “I wasn’t able to beat them out in having [insert possession/relationship/status here], so I’m going to be even more resentful towards them from now on.” I’m sure you’ve never consciously said this to yourselves, even in your mind, but the devil on your shoulder may plant that bug of revenge in your minds. Not that I support revenge in any sense of the word anyway, but this type of, “I-didn’t-get-what-you-have-now-I’m-bitter-and-resentful-towards-you type of revenge isn’t logical. If revenge is supposed to come from a place of somebody else actively working against you, how does revenge against someone who is just going about their life make any sense?

Like most negative emotions, jealousy also has a physical effect on you – racing heart, tensed muscles, even something more active such as staring the potential “competitor” down. Gone too far, a relationship built mostly on jealousy of another can spiral out of control, resorting to spying on them or their communications, or even going through their personal belongings. It goes without saying that these are destructive (and intrusive) habits.

My own jealousy becomes apparent when I notice my abdomen tensing up or my breathing quicken. I subconsciously flex my fingers in and out, not necessarily into fists, but as if all of my negative feelings are trying to escape through my hands. In my interactions with others I become snappy and rude, and when I interact with the one I’m jealous of, my passive-aggressiveness shines like a crude beacon to all.

So, even if jealousy can push us to strive for our goals, the collateral damage of ruined relationships, physical symptoms, and invasion of privacy is by no means worth it. If it gets to the point (which it often does) where others are starting to take notice of your lack of contentment, it’s time to take a step back and deal with the situation from neutral, level-headed ground.

So how do you deal with, or better yet, avoid jealousy altogether? I don’t claim to know what helps everyone, or even most people. I can only give you what helps me, and the most powerful tool in my personal arsenal is mindfulness. I talk up mindfulness like Billy Mays talked up OxiClean, but I do so because it works (the mindfulness, not the OxiClean. I dunno, I’ve never used OxiClean). In a nutshell, mindfulness is looking at situations not from a place of passionate, sometimes corrupting emotion, but instead with a clear head, only going back to revisit the situation in your mind once you’ve been able to interpret it from a level-headed perspective. By doing this, any overwhelming emotions that you felt during the moment in which the situation is happening have had time to die down, and as such, should no longer cloud your judgement or allow you to jump to conclusions based purely on the ferocity of your emotions. Instead of being the jury or executioner, being mindful is being the judge; looking at all sides of the situation and then coming to a conclusion, not the other way around. Keep in mind that being the judge and being judgmental are not the same thing.

It may also help you to avoid jealousy by simply telling yourself, “I’m not them.” Well, duh, you may say, but by admitting to yourself that different things happen to different people at different times at different points in their life, it’s easier to accept that not everything they have is something you should have, and vice versa. You’re different from them, and they you, and that’s how it should be.

As I stated earlier, I’ve been trying (and sometimes failing) to fend off jealousy myself for the past few weeks. For most, it isn’t easy, and even after writing this, I’m still probably going to go to work next week and feel, at the very least, a twang of jealousy. But, like a firefighter goes into a blaze with the correct tools to survive it, I feel that with the correct mental and emotional outlook, jealousy, like fire, can be overcome.

Stay strong.

–  Ryan

Clinical Depression, broken down

Depression is known for its unfortunate ability to “override” any good thought that decides to come our way. Even if there is evidence in our lives supporting the fact that we shouldn’t be having depressive thoughts, our minds still find a way to push that logic to the side. With major depression affecting so many aspects of our lives from sleeping all day, to being reclusive, to suicidal thoughts, it’s almost hard to believe that all of these symptoms stem from a simple glitch in brain chemistry.

Unlike some mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s Disease, clinical depression affects multiple areas of the brain as opposed to just one. In a nutshell, depression stems from abnormalities in the interactions between hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, such as the ones controlling serotonin and dopamine regulation. In order to understand why brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are important in the diagnosis of clinical depression, it’s important to understand what they actually do.

Serotonin is thought to regulate sleep, pain sensitivity, sexual function, and appetite. Looking at some of the symptoms of depression, including sleeping for long periods of time (or not at all), overeating, or loss of ability to perform sexually, it’s no surprise that serotonin plays a big role in regulating depression. However, depression symptoms are not caused by a serotonin deficiency, but rather by the neurotransmitters in the brain being hypo responsive (under-responsive) to the serotonin provided to them.

Dopamine is known as being the “happy” chemical. It’s responsible for regulating motor function, reward and motivation centers, memory, and attention. Even more symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, loss of interest in things that once excited you, and a feeling of sluggishness. On the flipside of serotonin receptors, the neurotransmitters responsible for receiving dopamine are hyper responsive, basically overreacting to stress and fear stimuli.

neurotransmitters depressionThese hypo and hyper reactive receptors can be caused by a multitude of reasons, from excess stress to overeating. While genetics can certainly play a role in the risk of developing depression, it’s only about half that of the risk stemming from individual lifestyle factors. Of course, depression can stem from a combination of the two as well.

anatomy of depressionThis is another fact that makes clinical depression unique among many illnesses. While many diseases are purely genetic (you have to be born with the right makeup of genes, chemicals, etc.), depression affects us physiologically even if we aren’t born with it. Regardless of the cause, chemicals in the brain are put all out of whack.

So…why does any of this even matter? If you’re sad, you’re sad, who cares about the brain chemistry, right? It matters, because understanding the brain chemistry has played a big part in recent years in our understanding and treatment of depression. If you were to go back in time 50 years and tell someone that you’re depressed, chances are you’d get a response somewhere along the lines of “you’ll get over it soon.” 50 years ago, most people weren’t worried about the causes of depression, simply because most people weren’t worried about depression. Depression has been “diagnosed” in many individuals since the time of Mesopotamia (its original name is melancholia), but understanding it as an actual medical problem didn’t come until much later. If an individual was feeling depressed, it was considered nothing more than “being in a funk.” Everyone feels sad sometimes, why should we pay any more attention to people who feel sad a bit more often? Now, knowing what we know about brain chemistry and physiology, we’ve finally come to the realization that depression is an actual, medical problem, and it is worthy of our time and attention. Through our new understanding, we are more equipped than ever to deal with it.

depression wheel
A small correction to this graph: under Situations, as aforementioned, a bullet point should say “genetics.”

For me, nothing says it better: “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” Flaw is such a key word here, as depression has the ability to make anybody dealing with it feel like a flaw of life. I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m sad, I’m flawed. No, you are not flawed. You are as much of a person as anyone else, worthy of feeling happiness, joy, and love; a slight mix-up of brain chemicals doesn’t change that simple (yet irrefutable) fact.

We live in a time where we’re lucky enough to have, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of clinical depression and its causes. By understanding the root of depression, we’re that much closer to finding a way to cut the stem before it sprouts. If we do nothing with the information we’ve learned, combating depression (and mental health in general) will be at a standstill for far too long. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I feel a responsibility to use what power I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

My fear of having fears

I often refer to my struggles with anxiety as “paralyzing,” and I’m more than certain many others feel this way about their own battles with this illness as well. When my anxiety prevents me from physically getting out of bed in the morning because I’m so fearful of facing the day, that’s paralysis. When my anxiety tells me that I shouldn’t go out with friends to some public place, because I may be put into a social situation I’m uncomfortable with, that’s paralysis. When my anxiety refuses to let me speak my mind for fear of what others may think of me, that’s paralysis.

All 0f these paralyzing things, these anxieties, stem from fears. Notice I didn’t necessarily say rational fears – in fact, 9 out of 10 of these fears are irrational. But when it comes to irrational fears, anxiety is the package deal. “If I say this thing, what will [person] think of me?” “Remember that unimportant thing that happened a week ago that made you slightly uncomfortable that everyone else has likely forgotten about? Dwell on it.” “That person gave you a look that could maybe be taken as offensive, so naturally, it means that person must hate your guts – there’s no other explanation.”

Now, I’ve said this dozens of times, but for those without anxiety: we know these fears are irrational. I, who worries about many of these things on a daily basis, can look at these as I type and say, “That fear isn’t rational.” Trust me, I know, and people with anxiety know. But the day simple logic stops an anxiety-riddled mind from thinking the way it does is the day anxiety no longer exists. This is what separates anxiety-sufferers from “normal” people who are just worrying about something: logic and the knowledge that their fear is irrational will do next to nothing to soothe their roiling thoughts.

This may unintentionally go the way of Inception, but the reasons above are precisely why I fear what fears I may have in the future. I fear my future fears. Why? Because I know, once I have this fear branded into my mind, however irrational it may be, it will be another opportunity for my anxiety to paralyze me. If my anxiety (and I do specifically mean my anxiety) determines that something is to be feared, it’s mighty hard to convince it otherwise. The very anxiety that tells us to prevent doing this thing we fear is the same thing that prevents us from seeing the irrational thought behind it. Sure, it would be great to ride that roller coaster to show our anxiety it won’t come off the rails and kill us all, but there’s no way in hell our anxiety would let us actually do that. What, the odds of you dying on an amusement park ride are 10,000 to 1? No way we’re taking those odds!

So, long story short, I fear what I will fear in the days to come, because I know that it will prevent me from experiencing so much of what life has to offer. This is one of the many reasons I’ve taken to practicing CBT and mindfulness – I refuse to let my mental illness get the better of me if I can help it.

Does anyone else feel this way? We’re so afraid of these fears being stamped into our heads, because we know what the consequences are. If anything, this post certainly argues for the quote: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Ain’t that right.

Stay strong.

  • Ryan

A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Tasting

For many, there’s quite a difference between enjoying a certain coffee, and appreciating the differences and intricacies from cup to cup. If you’re interested in becoming one of the latter, a good first step is to learn how to do a proper coffee tasting. When done correctly, a coffee tasting is planned to bring out every aroma, taste, and feel of said coffee. Keep in mind that tastings should be done only with black coffee – any added sugar or cream will dilute and alter the original qualities of the coffee.

Although not required, you may get better results when tasting two different coffees side-by-side. This allows comparison between the two, allowing you to make observations based on what each coffee does or doesn’t have (i.e. Coffee A has more acidity than Coffee B, or Coffee C has a mouthfeel of [blank], while the mouthfeel of Coffee D is more akin to [blank]).

If you are just beginning coffee tastings, don’t worry when you aren’t able to pick up many differences between the coffees you taste – a more refined coffee palette comes with experience. The more coffees you taste and are able to describe, the better-equipped you’ll be to point out the differences between each.

Step 1 – Defining Aroma

sniffingcoffee

The nose can determine dozens more scents than the taste buds can pick up, so figuring out what aroma the coffee gives off is a logical first step.

After pouring the coffee, take your hand and cup in around the top lip of the cup, pressing your nose under it, creating a natural funnel for the aromas to reach your nostrils. Breathe in deep with your nose, doing your best to describe what aromas you sense. Nutty, floral, chocolaty, earthy, basil?

Step 2 – Defining Taste

best-tasting-coffee-at-grocery-store

To be honest, this step always makes me chuckle, because while teaching people how to do coffee tastings, my advice for this step is basically “be as obnoxious as possible.” When doing the actual ‘tasting’ part of a coffee tasting, slurp the coffee. Yes, slurp it! If the person next to you can’t hear your slurp, you aren’t doing it right. By slurping, the coffee is spread out all over your mouth and tongue, allowing different tastes receptors to pick up different, well, tastes. Some parts of the mouth are more akin to picking up sour tastes, others better for sweet. By allowing the coffee to spread out over your palette, you can pick up more intricacies in the taste.

Step 3 – Determining mouthfeel/body

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As the picture above describes, body is basically how long the coffee sits in your mouth after you swallow it, and before that, where the coffee sits in your mouth. Take a sip and swallow. After the coffee goes down your throat, where is the taste (and general overall feel) lingering in your mouth? The middle of your tongue? Tip of your tongue? Sides of your mouth? Without going into too much detail, the mouthfeel of a certain coffee is often a good indicator as to how much acidity it has. Acidic drinks, such as orange juice, are felt on the sides and tip of your tongue – acidic coffees are the same way. Also, using the picture above, what is the “thickness” of the coffee? Is it smooth or almost watery, like skim milk? Or is it closer to whole milk, leaving a slight coating on your tongue?

Again, with your first few coffee tastings, don’t expect them to go perfectly. You won’t be able to determine every intimate detail of each coffee you try, but your palette becomes more accustomed to coffee with each new one you taste. Let me know if this technique works for you, and if this is all old news to you, let me know some of the best coffees you’ve tasted! I’m always looking for new ones to try!

Happy Caffienating!

  • Ryan