I got a message that you were struggling and I wanted to let you know that I’m holding you in my thoughts and prayers. Like so many others, I have also struggled with terrible depression. And I’m still here to tell the tale! Not only have I survived, but my depression has turned out to be, strange as it sounds, one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Sounds crazy, but I’ll try to explain.
I got hit as a young teenager, back in ’71, and almost overnight my grades went from A’s to F’s, I stopped going to football practice, I broke up with my girlfriend, I couldn’t sleep, night after night, couldn’t eat, the food tasted like ash and iron in my mouth. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t retain any info from my textbooks. Didn’t want to see my friends, felt like I was jumping out of my skin, felt guilty, useless, worthless, felt like getting in a fight but wasn’t angry, a constant lump in my throat, ache in my chest, pain in my stomach. I ended up not even being able to go to school.
I believed that I didn’t belong anywhere. Not with my friends or teammates, not with my girlfriend or family, not even at church or with God. I cried what millions of people with these illnesses cry: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” It was the start of a ten-year chronic battle with depression. I wasn’t able to finish high school, missed juvenile detention by a fraction, ended up being hospitalized numerous times, day treatment centers, halfway houses. I even went about a year living out of a knapsack. I couldn’t tell day from night, or winter from summer.
I physically hurt so bad I couldn’t hear music. I think we hear music with our hearts not our ears. You can crank a stereo up so loud that your eardrums bleed, but if your heart is in that much pain you can’t hear anything but some meaningless sounds. I couldn’t see color. You see color with your heart not your eyes. I couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t make a friend, couldn’t date a girl, couldn’t feel the presence of a higher power in my life, and even if I did I wouldn’t have felt worthy of it.
When you truly believe that you don’t belong with your family, friends, even God, no one can stand that kind of loneliness. It’s no wonder to me why kids turn to gangs, or booze or drugs or sex or anything to distract them from their pain. When you feel you don’t belong, you will grab ANYTHING that’s offered, even if it makes you more lost.
The question that defined my life was “why?” Why did this happen? Why me? I wanted somebody to blame, somebody to strike at in retribution. But I couldn’t find anyone to blame so I blamed myself, and saw myself as a broken, loser kid.
And with this pain and loneliness comes fear. I think that if grief is the response to pain in the past, then maybe fear is the response to pain in the future. With depression you don’t want to be awake, you don’t want to be in the present. Your ‘now’ is so full of pain and loneliness and feelings of worthlessness that it feels like death. You don’t want to be in “the now.” You want to be in the past or the future, or in a fantasy world. You want to be zapped out on drugs or booze or sex or anything to distract you from the pain you feel.
But all we have is “the now.” We don’t have next week or next year or even two minutes from now. I was actually doing pretty well with “the now,” even with my depression, but I didn’t stay there. I was always looking to the future, to when the bell rang and I had to walk in the hall with the rest of the kids, or eat alone in the lunchroom. I thought, “Man, if this is what I have now, I won’t be able to handle what I’ll be given in the future when I’m a grownup, because that’s surely going to be worse.”
So what I did was I consciously, on purpose, hardened my heart and soul so that I was as hard as a rock. Peter the Rock. And you didn’t look at me sideways. But it wasn’t because I was tough; those kids aren’t tough, they’re hurt. Their tender hearts have been slashed so many times they pull back inside themselves; they build a fortress to protect their injured hearts. The problem is that if you stay in that fortress too long, it starts to turn into a prison that’s hard to get out of. And that’s what happened to me. And I spent many years in that damned dirty prison.
What turned things around for me was a combination of many things. I had been feeling physically poorly for some time, and good ‘ol German/Norwegian/Lutheran that I am, I said, “I’m not gonna see the doctor until I’m bleeding from an artery!” Then came the day when I thought I had the flu and told my family I was going to lie down for a while. It wasn’t the flu; it was multiple sclerosis. I was on the couch or in bed for the next 18 months. I went to the doctor and asked him the question that was my life: why? I’ve been battling depression for years, so why did I get MS too? I didn’t feel like I needed another character builder. And the doctor answered my question: he said I didn’t do anything wrong. I just got MS. And that simple but profound answer turned my life around. If I didn’t do anything wrong to get the MS, and with what I was hearing every night on the TV that mental illnesses like depression are really biochemical, hereditary diseases, then maybe that poor teenager didn’t do anything wrong either. He just simply got the disease of depression.
I started to forgive myself for having it, and in that doctor’s office, getting the diagnosis of MS was one of the best days of my life. Because that was the day that my heart started to soften, and break open and begin to heal and forgive.
I worked with a psychiatrist to find the right medication for me, something that actually took quite a while because of my terrible sensitivity to drugs. But we did find it, and it made a huge difference. I started doing cognitive therapy to learn how to use those terrible times as a stepping stone of knowledge, wisdom and experience. I started to see myself not as a helpless victim but as a soldier, actively working for my recovery. I began to see that the work with the doctors was only one piece of the puzzle. Human dignity, I believe, is based on there being some significance for our lives. You can have all the doctors, pills and therapy groups in the world but if you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning, you won’t. I didn’t. I needed to focus my life not on my illnesses, but on what I loved. That’s how I got my sense of dignity back, where I stopped feeling that I was broken, toxic, damaged goods. I lost my shame of having the illness, and started to understand that simply living through it was a tremendous thing. I found I had insights into depression that the doctors don’t have, a ‘street credibility’ that could potentially help others. I learned that if you can come through these illnesses without your heart being hardened like mine was, you’ve got a map through Hell that you can’t learn in any medical textbook, a map that may help others through their Hell. Who better than me to help others with this illness? Who better than my family, who also suffered, to comfort other suffering families?
I found that my creativity was enhanced and my writing and drawing were tools to help express and speak about something so terrible it often doesn’t have words. I discovered my spirituality was enhanced. There are many things in my control as I fight these illnesses, but there are also many things not in my control. That’s where my spirituality came in. Volunteering became important because it’s easy to isolate in depression. Easy to feel that you don’t have enough of anything just for yourself. But I learned that helping others actually replenished my own inner resources.
I learned that to come through these tough times (and nothing you ever do will be harder), you need to get your team together: friends, family, spiritual advisors, doctors, therapists, mentors, a whole team to help you get through the long tough recovery period that you face. I will never be the same as I was before I got the depression, but I truly believe that I’m better for it. I’ve learned so much, and my wisdom has come at a terrible price. But I know what’s important to me and what isn’t, I see money and appearance for what they are; empty. I know that I am incredibly powerful: everything I do and say has the power to make someone else’s life a little bit better or a little bit worse. I’ve learned to count my blessings and see how lucky I am, and how blessed. Even the MS and the depression were gifts—teachers and meditations, wanted or not—and I believe I’m a better friend and a better man because of it.
It takes a leap of faith to believe that anything good can come from such terrible pain and loneliness. But it can and does. When you get closest to what breaks you down, that’s where you get closest to what breaks you open, revealing your true gifts.
Friend, you’re going through the Hell of the illness right now. Your job is to heal, to take time for yourself, to be kind to yourself, to ask for help, to show mercy to your wounded body and spirit. I would be honored if you’d let me be one of your team, someone to share ideas and thoughts with, even share the darkness with.
Your job is to focus on you and to:
• Work with your medical professionals and explore medication and cognitive therapy.
• To grab with both hands the things you used to love to do, even if you don’t feel like doing them right now. They will be life savers.
• To get your team together, friends, mentors, family, professionals, spiritual advisors, teachers. It’s too hard and lonely doing this on your own
• To not isolate. Find a place to share your talents, even if it feels empty. Volunteer even a few hours a month. Keep a list, and everyday do something kind and healing for someone else, and something for yourself, no matter how small it seems.
• Be kind to everyone you meet. There is a “kindness high,” just like a runner’s high.
• Journal, keep a diary, paint, draw, scrapbook, do something creative. It brings order to disordered thoughts. And give away any little things you do.
• Practice positive affirmations, or prayers. It seems silly at first, but it truly works to feel better.
• Focus your life, not on your wounds, but on what you love.
Take care, my friend. Let’s be in contact—both for you, but also for me, as I still fight my own moments of Hell.
Pete Feigal, 612-588-6455