Depression has been a lifelong journey for me. In this article I will share my personal experience with this chronic illness. I have used both traditional medicine and natural approaches to treat my depression over the years. Recently I changed my treatment strategy to a functional medicine approach, and found some surprising details about my body that have influenced my moods. This has caused me to re-think how I manage my depression, and I hope to share this strategy with others. My journey has taught me many valuable lessons, and I have come to understand how beneficial taking a holistic and functional medicine approach to treatment can be.
First Memories I Associate With Depression
Looking back, there are instances that come to mind that I now know are portrayals of depression in my life. Although I did not realize what I was witnessing at the time, it is very clear to me now. And there are likely more instances going back even further that remain hidden in the recesses of my brain. Perhaps in time they will present to me. I will begin with what I can recall.
Memories from my early teen years, are the first I associate with awareness of depression. I recall returning from school in the afternoons to find my mother sitting in the dark, with the window coverings closed. During those years she spent the majority of her day time in her bathrobe, playing solitaire, in the dark. This was the case most days. At that time, although it caught my attention, it did not surprise me. This behavior seemed consistent with who she was. I know now that she was experiencing depression.
Another distinct experience I recall was during my college years in nursing school. During those years I worked as a home health aide outside of attending school. The agency I worked for assigned me to care for people in their homes. One memorable assignment I received was to care for a woman who had depression. Her name was Mary. She lived in the beautiful Laurelhurst neighborhood near a large park. Mary needed to have someone with her at all times because she was prone to suicidal thoughts. My job was to encourage her to go through her daily living activities and to make sure she was safe. This was because she did not have the motivation to care for herself on her own, and additionally, she had a history of suicidal ideations.
What Mary Taught Me
I remember meeting Mary for the first time and confidently thought I would be able to “cheer her up”. I felt I would be able to easily encourage her motivation. My experience was otherwise, however. As it turns out, I was astounded when my normally cheerful personality could not bring the same forward in her. I tried everything to get her to smile and look at the positive side of things. I was certain that all she needed was to walk in the park with me. This did not work. Nothing I tried worked to cheer her up. It was that experience that led me to understand the power of depression. I had witnessed the hold this illness can take on a person. I realized that the power of depression could simply paralyze one’s very essence. And this made me feel scared.
My Experience of Depression in Africa
Fast forward a few years to my own experience… the first time I recall experiencing true deep depression. I was 26 years old and traveling in West Africa with my boyfriend at the time. The image and experience I recall was we were walking down a dirt road in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This was a third world journey, and there were people with leprosy lying on the sides of the streets calling out in pain and despair. Being someone who had lived a fairly sheltered life in America, this astounded me.
In the scenario I recall so vividly, it was coming on evening time, and we were walking to get something to eat. The air temperature was the most extreme and oppressive heat I had ever experienced. As a result, I tried to conserve on every movement. I even tried breathing more shallow to avoid further overheating and hopefully become a bit cooler. The sweltering heat felt suffocating to me. My body felt heavy… like lead. I was covered with dust and sweat. My digestive tract was terribly ill and in pain. I knew that our “dining experience” would include being served beverages in filthy and unwashed glasses that had been used by others.
The Last Straw
My spirit was incredibly low walking down that road. I could not smile, and I could not see any good in anything that surrounded me. My boyfriend tried to cheer me up by singing a love song to me. This simply made me cry uncontrollably. Then suddenly a locust storm surrounded us without warning. There were locusts in my hair, all over my clothes and body, my nose, and my mouth. The locusts covered the road. We could not avoid stepping on them. They darkened the sky, so it looked like nighttime.
The locust storm was the last straw for me. It brought me so far down into a deep hole in my mind. All I wanted to do was to lie down on that dirt road and die. At the time I did not know this was depression. Years later, however, when I finally sought medical help for my moods, I was transported back to this moment. And again in that moment I experienced full realization of the deep dark depths of depression.
My Diagnosis of Depression
My first experience seeking medical help for depression was in my mid 30s. I had two young children, and life seemed overwhelming to me. I remember crying at every little thing. For example, when I would open a drawer and the contents were in disarray, I would break down sobbing. Or when I was reading a children’s book to the kids and something sad occurred in the story, I would break out crying. Crying was not something I could control. And I finally saw a doctor who diagnosed me with depression. As a result, I was started on medication.
Receiving a diagnosis of depression and starting on prescription medication was exceedingly difficult for me. This was because I did not want to be considered depressed like my mother was. I had such bad memories of the impact of her depression on me growing up. And I was crushed that I could be considered the same to my children. I started seeing a counselor, however, and life began to improve.
Treating My Depression
Within several weeks of beginning treatment for depression, I realized just how bad off I had been without treatment. The stark realization sticks out in my mind. I was shocked at how well I felt on the medication. And I was astounded by the blindness I had had when in the deep dark throws of the depression. I have been taking anti-depressant medication and participating in behavioral health therapy for most of my life. It has truly saved my life. Although I have never been suicidal, I fully recognize that without treatment, I likely would have journeyed to that edge.
Difficulties with Medication
I prefer to approach most health concerns from a holistic perspective. One thing I dislike about traditional medical care is the extremely heavy emphasis on prescription medications. I have been on a number of different antidepressant medications in my life. I have also attempted to use a variety of lifestyle and holistic approaches. Counseling has been invaluable. I take a number of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements which are helpful. I also prioritize exercise, time in nature, mindfulness techniques, meditation, and recently added Reiki. However, although I do all of these things to help support my moods, I have required the use of the prescription medications long term. The medications help me to feel like myself.
At times I have chosen to go without my prescription medication. I have made many unsuccessful attempts, and remain hopeful that perhaps someday I can go without prescribed medication. But so far, this is not the case. Despite my many attempts, I have always returned to the prescriptions. They have helped me feel most like myself. And I have found the combination of prescription medication, supplements, talk therapy, and leading a healthy lifestyle, has kept me whole.
Functional Medicine For Depression
Since originally writing this article, I have begun to approach my depression from a functional medicine perspective. Functional medicine views the body as one big system made up of many many smaller and interrelated systems. The goal is to find the root cause of the problem, in this case, my depression. I have had several functional medicine tests. These include extensive hormone testing, nutritional testing, genetic tests, and testing to determine the health of my gut microbiome. I have been astounded at how all of the tests have consistently revealed “dysfunction” in several areas of my body that have influence on my moods. And it has become very clear to me that these areas of dysfunction have all contributed to and possibly caused my mood problems. With this information, I can now very specifically direct my holistic treatment plan. This gives me a great deal of hope.
Going through the functional medicine evaluation process has enabled me to shift my approach to treatment for my depression. I now take very specific vitamins, minerals and other supplements targeted to address deficiencies that showed up on the test results. I recently wrote a blog post about one of these tests… the Organic Acids test that reflects nutritional status… and how it changed my approach to treating my depression. You can read the post here. Although I have not gone off of my medication completely, yet, I am taking less than half of my lifelong dose. I feel confident that I will be able to discontinue the prescription medication once and for all very soon and manage with a more holistic strategy!
Depression Is Part Of Who I Am
I have had to learn how to accept depression as a part of who I am. At this point in my life, it is best to acknowledge this part of me rather than try to hide it. Depression is something that reminds me of my human nature. I am perfectly imperfect, and that is okay. In my mind, I look at it as I do any other “concern” or illness, or human imperfection.
Sometimes, depression acts as a warning sign to me… a strong message to slow down and take care. Sometimes the warning comes gently. When this is the case, I can make a quick acknowledgement and a few lifestyle changes and things are good again. And at other times, the warning is like being hit over the head with a baseball bat. It is during these more difficult times that I find myself on that street in Ouagadougou wanting to lie down in the sweltering heat and filth and close my eyes forever.
Getting Myself Back On Track
I occasionally find myself headed “towards that street in Africa”… down into the depths of the blinding dark hole. But because of what I have learned about my depression over the years, I am typically able to pull myself up. And when I am able to travel towards the top of the hole using my various strategies, life becomes glorious again and I am ready for the sun to shine on my face.
Sometimes it is not easy pulling out of the hole called depression. And sometimes it is most helpful just to allow myself to fall into it with intentional gentleness placed around me so that I do not crash…. and just let go into the darkness for a while. Under the right circumstances, this sometimes feels like bliss… to just let go and be in this darkness… to stop fighting… knowing that the light is there in a small crack, and I can see it coming through. When this happens, I know that when it is time, the light will shine fully on me again.
My Dance With Depression
I do a dance with depression, and I likely will for the rest of my life. My realization is that this is okay. The experience of the dance teaches me. In many senses, it helps me to grow and become wiser and stronger and more resilient. I will continue to journey on with this part of me, and share my experience and what I have learned with others. And my hope is that by talking about my depression, I can help others to come to understand their own version of this human imperfection. My hope is to inspire others to continue with the life journey and all the beauty that it brings… even when depression is your sidekick.
Through my experience with depression, I have developed many tips and recommendations. My personal experience as well as working professionally with many women has helped me to develop a holistic and integrative approach to addressing depression. Through a functional medicine approach and holistic treatment process, I am helping other women. I look forward to sharing what I have learned with you in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments about your own experiences with depression. Feel free to email me at email@example.com.
+ view comments . . .