Giving up Depression

This post was written 10 years ago.
Sun, 02 Nov 2014
This is a uniquely stupid title, you might think. You cannot just 'give up depression', obviously, it's an illness. And I have to agree with you. In fact, I am not sure if I will keep the title. But maybe I should, just for the sense of unease it gives me.

It makes me feel uneasy, because I find it difficult to let go of depression - or perhaps, rather the idea that depression plays a huge role in my life and will always continue to do so. It might be a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome. It has been a companion for so long — and when it wasn't there, the fear of it —, what might a life without it even look like?

The thing that for me personally has come out of the Geek Mental Help Week is that I gradually realised how well (although not necessarily always happy) I have been recently. This was not, because I read other people's articles and thought "They are so much worse off than me". It was rather all the stuff I scribbled down and didn't publish in the end. At the same time, when I was failing to get my article together, the old panic — and I get this panic a lot — resurfaced again. I was scared that I might have actually triggered a bout of depression by focusing so much on it, and it would turn into a prolonged period of depression, and eventually major depression.

(The next bit is a record of some experiences from my 20ies, skip if not interested in that)

I had a few of those in my teens and twenties. For example, a very dark month during my time as an ERASMUS student in Pisa, which was otherwise the happiest year during my studies. One day, I sat on the lawn in front of the leaning tower, and was struck by how my life had become just as wonky as that tower. The German term for crazy - "verrückt" - literally means "shifted". I thought how apt that word was. My reality had shifted, it was as if I was living in a different dimension, and I could not find my way back to what felt normal and familiar. I also remember bumping into some people in the canteen during lunchtime, and finding I could just not coordinate anymore the necessary parts and processes to properly say "Hello". The muscles, my voice, my motivation - I could just not get them to play together in a proper fashion.

Or that time when I joined an acting group. I'd been meant to play a leading role, but decided against it when dates of some of the performances clashed with an excursion I wanted to do at university. Instead I became 'assistant to the director'. Except I was not much help at all, had no initiative, and was more of a burden than assistance, despite spending loads of time at the rehearsals. Instead I smoked like a chimney. I often felt almost paralysed and started calling this state my 'strait-jacket'. When I helped at the performances, I remember being almost completely mute and at some point I thought: At least, if somebody else is feeling insecure and not good about themselves, it might make them feel better when they see me. Sort of, "if you are no good, you can still serve as a bad example". That was really the only use I could find for myself!

But I did not get professional help during those two (and previous) episodes, I somehow came out again. In Italy, one day I suddenly started feeling this rage, not directed at anyone in particular, just rage. And then I gradually got better. In the second case, I had a meltdown where I ended up crying in the director's arms. Again, very gradually came out of it. And then I was an actor in the next play, and had the time of my life! Just neglected my thesis a bit, mmh.

The first time that I got help was after I'd fallen in love with a PhD student at the place where I did my Master's thesis, and it didn't work out. I had shared a 'transcendental kiss' with him once (it really was that, and for him too, I know that!), but mostly tried to 'act cool', while at the same time I started to believe it was my destiny to be with this man. I accumulated all kinds of 'evidence' for this, too. And we did get quite close to.. okay, let's leave that. And then, well, he went off to South America, but came back a year later for his viva. I knew he had to come back, and I waited for him, and I waited for him to realise that he loved me. So much arrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh. If I could tell my twenty-something-old self just one thing, if I could tell any girl just one thing: DO NOT WAIT FOR A MAN (unless I mean there are valid reasons, like you are already together and waiting for him to come out of hospital or something). DO YOUR OWN THING.*

I didn't very much do my own thing at all. I spent a whole year after leaving university, hanging around. Among the few things I got myself to do was once working for the post-office, and once writing an article for the local pages of a Munich newspaper (I thought I could become a science journalist eventually; but I only managed to write one article about genetically modified tomatoes). I met the PhD guy again, when he invited everyone (including me) to a pub after his viva, on which occasion he uttered the unforgettable words: "I don't love you. I could never love you". (He could be quite dramatic, just as me). That was when this whole world that I had built up in my head, collapsed. And a month later, I collapsed, too. One night, I could not sleep at all, and it felt like I had pins and needles all over my body, while my mind was completely numb. The next day I went to my parents' house. It was my mum's birthday. When she walked across the lawn to greet me, I cried and just pointed to my head. - I stayed at my parents' house for some weeks. I got to see a doctor and was prescribed Amitriptyline, and when that stopped working after a while, Fluoxetine. I got therapy, too, and eventually started crawling back out of the hole..

I've not had it as badly anymore since then. I just know I never want to go back there. That's why I sometimes get a panic when low moods persist for a bit. Perhaps it is the panics that keep me from getting it.

Depression versus Crisis

There's one thing I am not quite sure about. Because, you see, up till now, I was thinking: I keep having bouts of depression.

I just started describing what happens then, but find there's no point in going on too much about it. Because in a way I probably feel a bit ashamed about what triggers these bouts, when there are people who have real problems, like losing somebody they love. What is a kind of confidence crisis, where I suddenly believe I am an inadequate person, against that? And yet, they do happen. They follow a certain pattern, and I get distraught, I cry, I have negative thoughts. When my husband comes home, he helps me - challenges the thoughts and otherwise is there while I 'go through' the crisis. As for the negative thoughts, reading David Burn's book (which I believe is the best book you can read about cognitive distortions) has helped a great deal, but there are moments when all the insights I've gained are flushed away in one big wave of all-too-familiar thoughts and emotions.

The question is, what is meant by the term 'depression'? Robert Sapolsky says in his lecture on depression: "Right off the bat, we have a semantic problem". He then goes on to make a distinction between 'everyday depression' (that we all experience every now and then), 'reactive depression' (somebody reacts badly to something, is impaired for a few weeks, then gets out) and 'major depression' (somebody reacts badly to an event, slides into low mood, and weeks, months later has still not got out).

Elsewhere I have read that depression can last any amount of time, sometimes just half an hour, and there was no distinction made between different types. So, I will just make a distinction here for myself: Depression which is also a biomedical condition, versus a crisis with depressive symptoms. Or, in short: Depression versus Crisis.

Because, you see I do keep getting these crises, and they follow a certain pattern. And they are problematic in some ways, in what they prevent me from doing, and in keeping me 'locked down' in an unhelpful thinking pattern. But can I call them depressions? - And might there not be a way to challenge them, and make them become less frequent? Also, there is actually a part of me that can come across as quite confident. What if I managed to focus more on that?

And then there is this: Like, I am convinced, a lot of other people, I am so bogged down in things, and feel the pressure of all the things I am supposed to do, that often it can be difficult, to just feel happy or even just okay for a while, when in reality, there would be enough reason to do so.

On Halloween night, just after I had submitted my — I think now, pretty strange — post for Geek Mental Help Week, I kept feeling so calm. And suddenly there was another, very powerful, feeling that I had not known before. I can't quite describe it. It was beautiful. Like some sort of veil had been lifted from me. And I just felt well.

Since then I think: What if I could indeed give depression up? What if it was - by now (and for now) - my choice?

Coping strategies

So, this is a brief summary of the things that helped me, and keep helping me:


There are various different aspects to this:
  • Accept that your current experience is what it is.
  • Accept yourself fully
  • Even accept your inner critic (before you tell it politely, but firmly, to shut up: "I know you mean well, I have heard you, now please go." - ha, I only just remembered this; I don't really do this. But I will do now!)
  • Accept that other people behave in ways that irritate you, or that you might find hurtful. Try not to immediately criticise them, but understand that there are reasons for them acting like that that you might not know of.
I could go on. By far the most important thing though, is to accept yourself, and develop self-compassion. You cannot be kind to others, if you are not first kind to yourself. This is such a simple rule, and yet it took me so long to come across it, and still longer to make any real progress with it.

Find out what makes you feel good, do more of it

I once saw a tweet that said something like this: "Three most important factors for good mood: Good sleep, exercise, meditation". Recently, I have managed to have a better sleeping pattern (although it's pretty much down the drain tonight). And I started to go running. The latter is probably the external factor that has helped by far the most in my case.

Likewise, the advice could be: Find out what doesn't make you feel good, do less of it. But I am not good at that at all so far! I want to try and do that though. For example, not spend so much time on the computer when I am not working.. And have boundaries between different aspects of my life. When I am with the children, I want to be with my children, not start writing emails from my phone. When I cook, I stick with the cooking, and don't go to the computer inbetween to check emails and Twitter.. As I said, I have not been very good with this so far, but then I was maybe never as aware of all this as I am now.

Mindfulness and CBT

Probably, the single most helpful thing for me has been Mindfulness and meditation. Be present with whatever you are experiencing (see 'Acceptance' above). Recognise that your emotions, and your thoughts, are just passing events. This is a very short but ultimately of course insufficient summary. You have to really experience it, to feel the benefits of this approach.

I have not specifically had any CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) recently, but would count the David Burns book mentioned above as such. And it really did help, too, and still helps when I remember doing it, to discover how certain thoughts and beliefs you have, are distorted.

I just realised that what is missing from this list, is what many others have put first: "Talk about it". It is missing from my list, because I have already for a long time been able to talk about it. But, of course, it is helpful. Although there is caveats to this. You might feel, you can't keep going on about it all the time, you don't want to become a burden. Also, talking might not always help as much as you'd have hoped. Still, if you never talked to anybody about it, if you just cannot 'sort it out' by yourself anymore it is important to do that, rather than suffer in silence.

See also "Resources" below.

Can I help others?

I'd hope so.

And I'd hope that writing this all down, in whatever convoluted ways, might help someone besides me, too. I also hope that the Geek Mental Help Week, well - helped. What I can see coming out of it: People feeling less alone, and seeing mental illness as less of a weakness (as some successful and well-known figures in the web industry talked about theirs). Also: Pointing out how helpful talking can be. How helpful psychotherapy can be.

For me, there is a wider, almost political dimension to this: If we don't just 'medicate the problem away' and recognise that it is not just a medical condition, as the so often quoted broken leg is, we might be better able to change the conditions that make us depressed in the first place. - What I mean: If it was just this illness that comes out of the blue, and you just take some drugs and it goes away again; then nobody might start to question why so many people suffer from it, and ask themselves if there's something we can change.

If we manage to accept that we don't always have to be productive, if we collectively managed to move away a bit from the maniacal pace at which the tech industry is moving. If we recognized that there is no point trying to learn all the new things, putting yourself under that pressure. If instead we managed to fully accept ourselves, with all our 'shortcomings', that would mean that we'd have more time to think, to properly see things, and, as was said in one of the contributions to Geek Mental Help, to properly see each other. And we might not be so easily manipulated by corporate interests.

Or you could put it this way, perhaps: To fully accept yourself is a revolutionary act. - I am sure somebody must have said that before me!

Should I stay or should I go?

Just to finish off on a personal note. I do have some (not insubstantial) doubts about all this. This whole post, my opinions expressed in it. My ah so brillant 'advice'. Do I have the authority to write any of this? Do I have the authority to give advice? Even to wonder if I could be out of the 'field of vision' of depression for a while?

Especially, within the tech community, what authority do I have? The thing is, for a long time I really didn't know if I even belonged. I felt so unsure that any of what I was doing was any good.

I am not as unequivocally commercial as most people in that community. You need to be 'commercial' if you want to properly earn money. And I don't need to (or feel the need to) earn as much money as others, as my husband is the main breadwinner. This might at first sight, be a big advantage I have. But my situation comes with its own set of problems. Foremost, in my case, really bad confidence. And I probably do manage to do less (although on the other hand, possibly more than some people think!) than somebody who works full time. Less in volume, that's clear anyway. But less in terms of skills? Well, that's an interesting question, and one I don't really have an answer to at the moment.

Then, I also have certain ideas of where I want to be heading. I want to become good at programming and be able to make applications. To "hack".

A lot of my above-mentioned "crises" revolve around that: Does it make any sense what I am doing? Would it not be better to give it all up? Just take any job, so I can earn some money in addition to my husband's (It could even be things like database entry, online editor; something to do with the web or technology, just not as ambitious?)

Basically: Am I doing the right thing?

And again, this seems so self-indulgent. What kind of problem is this?? Compared to people who have to flee their home country? Who experienced physical and emotional abuse? - But then, everybody has to deal with their own life, and if that is what you find difficult at the moment, it just is.

I am just starting this experiment. I have left my "regular freelancer" role at an agency, and started something new, where I work together with somebody who is my mentor. I don't want to write about the ins and outs of this at the moment. It does look like we both benefit from it, which is what I'd always wanted from a mentor relationship. That is a good start. The rest we will see.

The important thing for me will be: I will give myself permission to just learn and code, without asking myself if it makes sense, and if I will be good enough. Just for three months. No looking at the outcome. Just throw myself into it. It is an experiment. I hope to write about it soon, and it will hopefully be positive.

Then there's CodeHub :) Don't let me get started on that!


- Robert Sapolsky video "It's a biochemical disorder with a genetic component with early experience influences where somebody can't appreciate sunsets."

- The Mindful Way through Depression

- Feeling Good by David Burns

Self-Compassion / Self-Acceptance
- Self-Acceptance project:
- Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

* There is a passage in the book "La mort heureuse" (A Happy Death) by Camus, where the protagonist says to a woman called Catherine: 'Ne renonce jamais, Catherine. Tu as tant de choses en toi et la plus noble de toutes, le sens du bonheur. N'attends pas la vie d'un homme, c'est pour cela que tant de femmes se trompent. Mais attends-la de toi-même!' (I wrote this from memory, there might be mistakes in it. I think I had an English and a French version of this book for some reason, I did not read the book in French, but have always remembered this one sentence). — 'Never give up, Catherine. You've got so many things in you, and the noblest of all, the sense for happiness. That's where so many women go wrong. Don't expect life from a man. Expect it from yourself!' - And yes, it's kind of ironic that a man had to tell me that.

This post was written 10 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Geek Mental Help Week - About 'Social Pain'

This post was written 10 years ago.
Wed, 29 Oct 2014

In case you've been directed here from the GeekMentalHelp site, please note: I have in the meantime written a second post, about depression. In that article, I mention some resources and strategies that helped me.

This week's "Geek Mental Help Week" has had quite a strange, and profound, effect on me. I have to admit this, even though I had previously decided I would try and not pay much attention to it at all; because I somewhat agree with a post on that very site, stating that campaigns to raise awareness can be a double-edged sword and it can be a bit overwhelming. - But as I'd expected, I kept being drawn to the site, and I am now glad I read the articles on there. What made the biggest impression on me were the posts that people wrote about their experiences with mental illness. There is such an openness and honesty. And I feel I want to be there as a 'listener', a witness to the trauma people went through, which in some cases was very grave.

And then I'd also started to pen an article for it. For two weeks I collected a lot of thoughts, quotes, resources. Next, I ordered them and started to string the whole thing into a narrative. I sat the whole of Sunday in front of my computer. I had tried to write this 'witty' article about all I knew about depression. But I made a mistake. I thought I could take myself out of it, write about my experiences objectively, from a bird's eye's view. It didn't work, and I felt very disillusioned and frustrated.

Instead I am publishing the below for Geek Mental Help Week. I wrote it about a year ago, and while I put it on my blog, I never tweeted about it.

Perhaps this is my way of saying "Here I am, and this is what I've struggled with and sometimes still do. If it is similar for you, you are not the only one."

I think for me, and many others, the web has always been about connecting, too. You can reach out to others in a way that was not previously possible. For me, this week has been about exactly that in the end. The likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, can easily make us forget that we can communicate in 'long form', too, and how liberating and comforting that can be.

I also felt reminded of a post I had read during the summer holidays, Everyone I know is broken-hearted by Josh Ellis. I found the last three paragraphs quite moving. "I don't believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark." Perhaps initiatives like this can be a step towards that.

Here is my post from a year ago:
(- I felt tempted to edit this and move things around, it might be a bit clunky; but after this week's difficulties with writing I am just leaving it as I wrote it back then)

About loneliness and becoming an apprentice bodhisattva

(from 24 November 2013)

Quite recently, I started re-reading parts of a book by Kamalamani. The book is called "Meditating with Character" but is about much more than meditation! Yesterday I hit on a few pages that I felt the strong urge to photograph and tweet, just because I find them so relevant to the current state of (world) affairs. I am posting them here instead.

Then today I saw a link to an article called "Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming". This article is very strongly related to the message about connectedness in what I read yesterday. Furthermore, it is about a topic that is very close to my heart: Loneliness, and in a wider context, something I would call "social pain".

Social pain is something I have been thinking about quite a lot in recent years. Partly, because of the role it has played in my own life. But also because I increasingly realise how much it (or fear of it) shapes the way we live, the structure of groups, organisations and so on. And last but not least, because of its seeming prevalence in today's 'connected' age.

I think the main insight for me is that social pain can be just as excruciating - and actually has a strong physical component - as what we call physical pain. I have sometimes had this thought: The pain of pushing two children into this world without pain relief, and smashing both bones in my lower leg (on a separate occasion!), have not come near the social pain I have felt in my life. But then that comparison is flawed. Because that physical pain was limited to brief periods of time, of course. So really you would have to ask, would living with constant pain be preferable to social isolation? That isn't a good comparison either, as constant pain in itself has great potential to make you depressed. A recurring pain, cancer with chance of survival, loss of a limb? - It is difficult to answer. I do think anyhow that social isolation ranks pretty high on the list of undesirable and painful things.

As Brené Brown puts it, "We are hard-wired for connectedness". In other ages, we were born into structures that provided that connection (but had of course all sorts of other problems we don't have these days). Now, it is not so clear cut. Often we have to create our communities ourselves, and in many cases we might feel a stronger connection with people in those groups than those we were born into. But we have to find or create them first, and the way there can be full of anxiety and provide some pain in itself. Yet I believe it is always worth to persist in this.

I have below written down something about my own experiences of isolation and rejection. I did not do this to get your sympathy. It is rather to illustrate what effects an experience like that can have. Perhaps mostly, to say: Look after your children. And I could add: Look after yourself and each other, because we really are all interconnected.

As far as I am concerned, I am actually genuinely happy with where I am now, so in a way, I can now see what happened to me as a necessary step to this point. - And then of course I am grateful for all the good things that have happened, and the people I've met. And for the plasticity of the brain.. - Still, I would never wish upon my children the isolation I felt. I could not bear knowing them in a situation like that. (I think my mother was simply not aware of it. Moreover she has had more trauma in her past than I've ever had.)

Now I just feel I want to move on from all that, and instead become an apprentice bodhisattva as described in the pages below.

So, I leave you with this excerpt from Kamalamani's book, and below that, the thing I wrote about my early years (but really, don't feel compelled to read that!)

From Kamalamani's book "Meditating with Character" - Chapter 4 - Why embodiment matters

My story (part of it, by far not all)

One line that struck me in the article about loneliness was: "Inside every lonely adult is a kid eating lunch by herself on a bench." I am not a lonely adult anymore, but I was that kid. When I was 5 my family moved to Paris, and I was sent to a nursery there for a year. It's a commonly accepted notion that children pick up a new language quite naturally at that age, but I didn't. I can't really explain the reasons, I guess I was just quite shy. I was also - probably still am - quite sensitive and an introvert.

It did not take long for the French children to move from initial strong interest in the newcomer, to finding it really odd that I could not understand them. They also bullied me on occasion - stepping on my toes, putting sand in my mouth *. But I also remember a girl who held my hand and was friendly to me, and how immensely comforting that was. Still, the overwhelming feeling of those days was that of isolation. An extreme isolation. I could not put a name to it then of course, but it was definitely painful. I ended up developing a survival strategy. That strategy consisted in completely retreating into myself, to "live in my head". I also completely stopped talking for the hours I was in the nursery. (I did not have the right language to talk with!)

When people have psychological problems, often it is partly because of survival strategies that are not helpful anymore. Those strategies have started to get in the way of a healthier behaviour and attitude. It took me an incredibly long time to realise that in a situation where I ended up feeling excluded, it was often me who took the first step towards that exclusion. It was my old survival strategy of shutting everything and everybody out that made me appear "weird". The shutting out happened as a reaction to the slightest sign of rejection or sometimes just apparent lack of interest. - The thing is I had never learned very well to read my "peers'" attitude towards me, because I was so isolated and did not interact with them very much. I did have my siblings, but those were people I already new!

Back in Germany, I was able to develop friendships, but often had difficulties with groups of people - to become integrated in a group. Then in my teenage years, a further difficulty presented itself. My beloved mum, at roughly the age I am now, was struggling with mental health. As one consequence, she often seemed to despise me. Any criticism was never put into words, but rather delivered as a turning away from me, of not paying attention and not talking. That way it was difficult to understand what was actually wrong with me. But from some strong reactions (silent disapproving glares in my direction mainly), I gathered: I must not appear clever. I must not praise myself, not say anything that could even be construed as self-praise. I must not be selfish and self-absorbed (the latter is pretty difficult, I can tell you, if you keep trying to find out what the heck is wrong with you!). Oh, and I must not talk so much! That was also difficult to achieve, because I was still very quiet at school, but then bursting to tell things at home. In fact, any kind of enthusiasm seemed to be kind of repulsive. While as a result of this episode I pretty much lost the ability to feel pride in the things I do, I am glad to say I never lost the ability to be enthusiastic **.

Possible 'costs' of all this: Many periods of depression from teenage years on, some prolonged and heavy. Various antidepressants over the course of a year - that is now 15 years ago, thankfully, and I've not needed them since, though often craved to go back. Two to three years of therapy - some in Germany, some here. The final year of therapy was really helpful by the way. Low confidence. For a long time, the belief that I was actually a bad and selfish person. - To be fair, the self-absorption is still pretty pronounced, although I might get better at that, too. It sometimes makes me sad to think how much better I could have used all that time and energy I lost. And yet, on the other side, I think it helps me to understand other people better, and that could be helpful in some way.

* Oddly, I quite liked the boy who put sand in my mouth before and after the event. When my parents were looking for a baby name, I suggested "Stéphane" because I still 'fancied' that boy. I did get a brother a bit later, and he was called Stefan.

** My mother is a lovely person, and I have far more to be grateful for than to complain about. She was very stressed and ill.

This post was written 10 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)