A brief look at the interaction between my experience with depression and anxiety and a few of my coping behaviours
Childhood to Grade 8
I experienced low moods and excessive worry as a child, but it was nowhere near as frequent or impactful as it later became. Fear and shame were also familiar feelings. The outward effects of these experiences were normalized as part of my behaviour. My family acknowledged this to the extent that they understood me to characteristically exhibit problematic behaviours. It was not recognized that I was exhibiting characteristic behaviours that were problematic for me and symptomatic of broader, underlying issues. I was often in a “bad mood” and my mother would complain about how easily my moods shifted. Anger was another emotion that hallmarked my childhood. I was considered obstinate and badly behaved, but I had a strong sense of loyalty to myself when I was young. I would tell myself that I was right and they were wrong, but couldn’t quite avoid the shame that stemmed from issues deeper than my own behaviour. My parents had very strict rules for how my sibling and I were to behave in public, and I was very socially anxious by the age of twelve or so. Outside my home I was mostly quiet and well-behaved.
To cope with my emotions I listened to sad and, less frequently, aggressive music. I preferred gloomy weather and spent a lot of time alone. I separated myself from my family to avoid conflict and felt isolated from kids my age. My siblings and I were all home-schooled until high school and we lived in a rural community so I had relatively few opportunities to interact with kids my age. Sometimes we would be enrolled in activities, but seeing our friends once in a week was considered enough.
Last Years of High school, First Years of University
A lot of worry and pressure had built up during my last years of high school. By the time I was enrolled in University and being pressured to stay in a program I had originally chosen but wanted to leave, I was having difficulty managing feelings of depression and anxiety. I kept this from my friends and had difficulty communicating it to my family for a couple of reasons.
They didn’t believe that I was struggling with my mental health or were simply silent on the subject and had little knowledge about mental health in general. We didn’t have a good relationship at that time, and I also found it difficult to explain what I was experiencing or what they could do to support me. Against my family’s advice I sought help through the school’s services and was able to make better sense of what I was going through. Looking back, I don’t believe I would be able to accomplish anything I have now, had I not sought help then.
When I was younger, I was punished for expressing anger, as this was the privilege of the parents. I hated it, but apparently at some point I internalized that rule. In order to avoid expressing my anger to others, I turned it towards myself, thinking that this option lacked negative repercussions. Somehow I had lost my sense of self-loyalty and this led to thinking patterns that sometimes disturbing, even to me.
I was filled with many emotions but couldn’t seem to experience any of them coherently. I listened to emotional or sad music in an effort to feel more connected to myself. I didn’t realize that while it served my need to feel connected, it was actually prolonging cycles of depression and anxiety. Gloomy weather had a profound effect on my mood and for the first time, I didn’t like it. I also felt disconnected from objects in the physical world and this made me feel disoriented and hopeless. It was like there was an invisible barrier between my hands and anything they touched, and I felt like I was viewing everything with a camera lens and not my own eyes. At that time I still felt that spending time away from others was helpful, because it was very difficult to make myself appear happy enough to interact.
Now (Summer 2018)
I still don’t like overcast days, but they don’t affect me as much anymore. I can certainly appreciate them when the weather is super-hot and I’m spending time outside. I stopped listening to sad music for the most part. I understand this better know. Before, I was using it to evoke distinct and concrete emotions in response to feeling distanced from my own emotions and the physical world. It also made me feel a sort of connection, or emotional intimacy, in response to the loneliness that had begun in childhood. I used to do this especially when I felt myself becoming deeply depressed. I wanted my internal experience to match some element in the external world, which helped bring some sense of order.
I used to listen to sad music every night because I struggled to fall asleep. But as my experience with depression has changed, it no longer brings me any comfort at all. I see now that it only brings the anticipation of comfort because I relied on it for so many years. Only recently I realized that it had not only begun to make me feel sadder but apparently more anxious, because I would feel increased chest pains. After testing it out a few times, I was able to see how my coping behaviours were prolonging and in some cases creating states of depression and anxiety. Although they had been effective before, I could now lessen or completely avoid depressed or anxious cycles by discarding old habits. Although I still never go to sleep in silence, I listen to some form of speaking – tv shows, sermons, long YouTube tutorials – on low volume, which distracts me from anxious thoughts while still allowing me to fall asleep. I also avoid isolating myself when I feel overwhelmed by sadness or fear.
From this vantage point, the way that I engaged with my fear and sadness was effective, but it was never a good idea. Those habits were very natural for me and dated back to my childhood, so it was hard to see how it was harming me. As with anything, it’s important to be willing to try new approaches, to see what works and what doesn’t. Not all the old stuff has to go and not all the new stuff has to be accepted. But it’s important to give even uncomfortable changes a chance. Unfamiliar as they may seem, they could be for the better.