It’s always there. In the eyes. Like the worst possible Mona Lisa smile. I don’t know if other people could see it in mine, or not. I do know I’m not the only one, because I can see it in other people. I’ve seen it in family and friends, and always, always in the mirror. For most of my life, I have struggled with depression. I probably always will. We all struggle. This is one of mine.
It took years before I was finally diagnosed with depression. I didn’t want to take medication. I wanted to believe I was in control, or maybe more appropriately, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I *wasn’t* in control.
What it took, in the end, was an exhaustive review with a very patient counselor. Instead of examining only what I was able to say verbally, her direction was to understand every angle — brain chemistry, intelligence,sleep, nutrition, etc. The battery of tests I went through gave me pause: intelligence, sleep, and nutrition all checked out. Along with a genetic predisposition, the brain chemistry appeared to be the source. For me, that made all the difference.
Every year we’re learning more about how injuries to the brain affect our lives. From high school football players dying on the field, to retired professionals taking their own lives, head impacts make all the difference. And not just the neck-cracking hits that leave players flat on the field. Even the subtler ones can cause issues. I can count three. Not including knocks playing sports. And then there was the pain.
For almost two years, pain ruled my life. Over time, a small injury to my spine developed into a full-scale sciatic episode, which in the end required surgery. In the meantime, the level of pain increased until there was no longer a “side” I could sleep on without pain. Stairs required hands and feet to climb, at times. My brain was responding to pain every second, taking away from the other jobs it needed to perform to keep me healthy and, more to the point, happy.
As it turns out, the part of the brain that helps to regulate mood — the amygdala — does not respond well to concussive impacts. Once it stops producing sufficient brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), mood begins to slip. Additional head trauma can accelerate and prolong this effect. When the brain cannot recover, the amygdala shrinks, and is put into a semi-permanent state of lowered regulation. Mine had had enough trauma to slow production. And so, my mood was, shall we say, poor. P.S., I’m not a doctor. I hope I’ve described this accurately.
But just like every other wicked problem, though, hard problems sometime require different methods. Depression has proven to be one of those problems. At least it was for me. I would guess it is for others, too.
When I was depressed, I was in a state of distrust. Vulnerable. This manifested in many ways, though no more obvious to myself than my own conscious placement. Always seated facing the door. Constantly watching people moving around me. Distrusting everything. Isolating myself, even in social situations. I strained at the confinement I had created around myself, but was too afraid to push through them.
Though it took many years, and many treatments, I’ve made substantial progress. Progress I’m happy to share with those I see with those sad eyes. Depression is a touchy subject. It might be considered rude to ask someone directly about depression, or how they’re feeling. That is, perhaps, something we should change. You cannot build trust without knowing the name of the person you want to have trust you. We have to start somewhere.
This is just my story. There’s no single path to depression. It’s an individual journey, though we can, no doubt, find common ground along each of them. While we may not be able to find common solutions, we can offer guidance and support. We can share our authentic stories — and not just the relatively pretty parts. We just need to trust one another.
When he’s not revealing personal details about his struggles with depression, Ethan Bagley is a service designer, facilitator, philosopher, and many other things. If you struggle with depression, let’s talk.