Day 135: Depression. My old mate. Goes away for a bit but always returns again to say hello. He loves coming to see me straight after I have done something positive like a trip away, a social outing or overcome an anxious event. I don’t talk enough about my depression because it was the more visible anxiety which dominated my periods of struggling and pushed me towards the drink. Of course depression was also at the party, just quieter and sitting in the corner. As a bloke (last time I checked) you find that the signs and symptoms can differ to that of women. Us men also tend to use different coping skills – both healthy and unhealthy – more than women do. When you read the various pieces of literature on depression it isn’t clear why men and women may experience depression differently but I suspect some of the likely factors include brain chemistry, hormones and life experiences.
I wanted to break it down and share how I see it. Lets start with the primary depressive components that affect us all regardless if we have a penis or not…
- Feeling sad, hopeless or empty
- Feeling extremely tired or lethargic
- Difficulty sleeping or maybe you sleep too much
- No pleasure from activities or environments that you usually enjoy
I’m sure we can all relate to the above to some degree and that is regardless of our gender too. However, research says men are more likely to experience the following too;
- Escapist behaviour, such as spending a lot of time at work or on sports
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive problems and pain
- Problems with alcohol or drug use
- Controlling, violent or abusive behaviour
- Irritability or inappropriate anger
- Risky behaviour, such as reckless driving
Looking at that list really hits me because I have regularly experienced all of those. Not one, not two but all of them. I would pack out my work and social calendar every week so not to have that period of a day for spontaneity or down time with family. Not because I don’t love my family but I knew if I was busy and focusing on something my depression and anxiety would back off a bit. Plus most of the time it would allow me to drink too which was my self-medicating. I’ve never really suffered with headaches and I used to be a very deep sleeper but my anxiety and depression left my digestive system in a right mess – abdominal pains, going to the toilet a lot, loose bowels and reactions to certain foods. Since I gave up booze and have been taking more care of my body and mind it has been no surprise that my stomach issues have reduced massively. My substance abuse with alcohol obviously led to heightened anxiety, deeper periods of depression and my behaviour would become very erratic, risky and violent. I’ve spent a night in the cells, nights in hospital and fell out with friends and family because of the way I behaved under the influence of alcohol.
I can’t blame alcohol and being under the influence as the sole reason for my behaviour though. When sober I was and still can be very controlling whether that be in work, at home with my family or in social groups. I still get irritated very easily but thankfully the ability to step back and take a breath is becoming a more common practice for me than erratic reactions. I used to get really bad road rage and on occasions nearly endangered myself and others by reacting to others. Looking back it is embarrassing, scary and quite upsetting to think there have been times in my not so distant life where I could have messed up big time.
So as a man, I relate to the research and can confirm I’m a living case of depression in men. I think a lot of these behaviours in males are the result of ignoring, burying and hiding how we feel. I definitely did.
Men with depression often aren’t diagnosed for several reasons, including:
- Failure to recognise depression. You may think that feeling sad or emotional is always the main symptom of depression. But for many men, that isn’t the primary symptom. For example, headaches, digestive problems, tiredness, irritability or long-term pain can sometimes indicate depression. So can feeling isolated and seeking distraction to avoid dealing with feelings or relationships.
- Downplaying signs and symptoms. You may not recognise how much your symptoms affect you, or you may not want to admit to yourself or to anyone else that you’re depressed. But ignoring, suppressing or masking depression with unhealthy behaviour will only worsen the negative emotions.
- Reluctance to discuss depression symptoms. You may not be open to talking about your feelings with family or friends, let alone with a doctor or mental health professional. Like many men, you may have learned to emphasize self-control. You may think it’s not manly to express feelings and emotions associated with depression, and you try to suppress them.
- Resisting mental health treatment. Even if you suspect you have depression, you may avoid diagnosis or refuse treatment. You may avoid getting help because you’re worried that the stigma of depression could damage your career or cause family and friends to lose respect for you.
Looking over the above bullet points I can certainly relate to the playing it down and reluctance to talk about it. I knew I was not well and to be honest I’ve always been self aware of my depression and anxieties even without diagnosis but that didn’t stop me trying to mask it and put on an act day to day. When sober it was fairly easy to hide how I really felt despite the pain it was putting me through inside. Once I drank I would then let my guard down and that’s when people saw the real me. The person who was hurting, was confused and who was angry. The problem is that a drunk doesn’t react well to people responding to your pain. I certainly didn’t.
Although women attempt suicide more often than men do, men are more likely to complete suicide. That’s because men:
- Use methods that are more likely to cause death, such as weapons
- May act more impulsively on suicidal thoughts
- Show fewer warning signs, such as talking about suicide
Despite my own deep darkness I’ve only felt suicidal a few times in my life – and thankfully I never completed that process. I’ve felt very low and thought about suicide a lot, especially under the influence of alcohol – but actually formulating a plan to go and do it… very rare. That said, I don’t doubt for a minute that if I didn’t get help when I did the regularity would have increased and an attempt would have taken place. I like to do things properly too so my attempt would have been a completion. That’s how I’d have approached it.
Asking for help can be hard for men. It is hard for everyone but I’m speaking as a bloke and can only really give you a male perspective. Without treatment, depression is unlikely to go away, and it may get worse. Untreated depression can make you and the people close to you miserable. It can cause problems in every aspect of your life, including your health, career, relationships and personal safety.
Depression, even if it’s severe, usually improves with medications or psychological counselling (psychotherapy) or both. If you or someone close to you thinks you may be depressed, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. It’s a sign of strength to ask for advice or seek help when you need it. Since my time in a psychiatric hospital where I completed a detox programme and spent a lot of time reflecting in isolation I have returned to the community, I see a mental health team every week or so and I have much more regular dialogue with my family, friends and work colleagues. Things like this blog help me massively. Even if I was the only person reading this blog I’d keep doing it because writing has become a big part of my coping.
So what have I been doing to keep my two mates “Depression” and “Anxiety” out of the room or at least in the corner of the room?
- Achieve a Goal = Set realistic goals and prioritise tasks. I don’t set unattainable lists and cram my daily diary. I prefer to write down ‘What I’ve done’ lists as opposed to ‘To Do’ lists. Yesterday I was determined to go for a bike ride despite the weather and my general mood. I did 20 miles and I had a great time. Really loved it. If I hadn’t done another thing yesterday I’d have achieved a goal. Some days I don’t even leave the house but I might read for an hour. That was my goal. I made progress with something. On the very dark days just getting out of bed and putting some clothes on can be your goal. It is your goal, nobody else’s and not to be challenged or ashamed of.
- Get Support = Seek out emotional support from a partner or family or friends. Learn strategies for making social connections so that you can get involved in social activities. I have a lot of social anxiety since giving up alcohol and of course the pandemic. But I talk about it and share how I feel with my friends and family. I was at the cricket on Tuesday and that was my first social event this year. I was honest with my friends about how I felt and they were great in ensuring I was not made to feel uncomfortable or pressured. The old me would have drank alcohol and put on an act to get through the social event.
- Learn how to cope = Learn ways to manage stress, such as meditation and mindfulness, but I appreciate that doesn’t come natural to a lot of blokes. I certainly struggle with meditation. It is a slow burner and takes patience and practice. My main ‘go-to’ ways of coping with my stress is going for a walk with a podcast on or maybe a run. Even just lying on my bed for an hour reading a book with my mobile phone not near me.
- Making Decisions = Delay making important decisions, such as changing jobs, or booking trips until your depression symptoms improve. Impulsive decision making will make your anxiety go into over-drive. I find that even making plans in advance is not done quickly anymore and even being invited out to the pub by friends is something I choose to think over because in reality pubs for example are not good for me at the moment. That is not to say avoid doing things – just respect the fact you suffer with a mental health condition and that needs to be considered if you are to feel comfortable going ahead with something.
- Activities you enjoy = Engage in activities you typically enjoy, not others. What YOU like doing. I like to walk, run, read and write. No surprise that in the 135 days since my recovery began I have never been more absorbed by activities I enjoy. Even my bike is back out of storage as yesterday demonstrated!
- Healthy Living = Try to stick to a regular schedule and make healthy lifestyle choices, including healthy eating and regular physical activity, to help promote better mental health. This is often the thing that people struggle with because it is so easy to eat junk food or not plan meals when you are tired, down or just not organised. Motivating yourself to go out and exercise can be even harder! I still enjoy treats but I plan meals with my wife and try to eat a balance of all food groups. I’m by no means a fitness freak and I don’t eat all the right things but I have lost nearly 2 stone since I left hospital so again… it is no surprise that doing the above all comes together and I certainly have more desire to go for a run or walk more often if the scales keep giving me a positive figure from my week of chomping and my chomping gives my body and mind the positive hit it needs,
So I’m going to wrap things up but I want to share why I wrote this today. I felt pretty down yesterday and my depression was as bad as its been in any of the days since I left hospital. I knew it would pass and that is the difference between me now to me then. I didn’t turn to alcohol and I didn’t take it out on anybody else yesterday. I enjoyed a bike ride and my depression lifted but came back within a few hours of being home. It stayed with me into last night and I went to sleep feeling gloomy. But so be it.
Today I feel better. Depression hasn’t left the room but it is back in the corner being quiet and letting me get on with my day. Maybe it’s my medication doing its job, maybe it’s because I’m back at work, or was it that banana I had for breakfast? Who knows, I certainly don’t. All I know is that I can only control my own actions and emotions by doing what I know. Everything I have written today are experiences both good and bad but by going through the bad times it has allowed me to learn what good things may remedy future bad times.
Depression came on the bike ride with me yesterday. Depression came back home with me. It didn’t go away but the time we spent together in the outdoors clearing our minds means we are getting on a bit better today than we were for the last few days. Mates for life, eh?!