I have mentioned each year I do Movember that I have personal experience dealing with depression. Each year I plan to elaborate on that, but to date, I haven’t. It still isn’t an easy thing to talk about. I have suffered from four major depressive episodes in my life over the last twenty years. Not stretches of time feeling sad, but months at I time where I don’t get out bed, shower, put on pants, answer my phone, or really talk to anyone. This cost me an academic scholarship to Southwestern University, my Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, and has put a strain on both romantic and family relationships .
The first time I was diagnosed with depression was the summer between high school and college. I had been manifesting some strange neurological symptoms after being under general anesthesia for the extraction of my wisdom teeth. There was a bit of aphasia, where I spoke in short, choppy sentences and sometimes forgot words I should know. After a series of escalating doctors visits, I ended up at a neurologist’s office. At some point in our personal history interview he discovered my girlfriend broke up with me a few months prior, so he jumped to a diagnosis of depression, wrote a couple scrips, then decided it was a done deal. Mystery solved.
I was still far from 100% when my Freshman year at Southwestern University began. The admissions counselor I interviewed with observed and noted the differences between the bright, energetic young man he talked with and my current condition. He looked at all of my existing college credits through AP and Dual Credit courses and told me I’ve already done my first semester and then some. He advised me to take some time to get better and to come back in the spring and hit the ground running. I followed this advice.
Eventually, things returned to more or less the way they were before. I don’t recall how long I took the drugs for depression. I suppose it is hard to determine when something like that is “working.” I didn’t notice it “working,” but I did notice some unpleasant side effects and, eventually, I stopped taking them. My return to University was uneventful, and I started my time at Southwestern doing quite well academically.
Things were humming along until Spring 2001. Looking back, I wonder if my first diagnosed episode of depression was indeed that or something related to the anesthesia from my surgery. With this second bout, there is no doubt that I was suffering from a classic, major depressive episode; though I did not realize or acknowledge this at the time. This was the first time that I was bed-ridden, don’t put on pants, or even leave my room for days at a time.
My GPA plummeted from a respectable cumulative 3.6 to a 1.2 on the semester. (Damn Southwestern lowers your GPA for an A-. Side note, when looking at colleges, check out their holiday calendar and the +/- policy on the ole’ GPA). I was able to withdraw from a couple classes, somehow managed a C+ in Spanish, got an A in wind ensemble—I was able to put pants on by noon three days a week to go play my horn for an hour. Failed both neurobiology and an elective called “Parenting: Theories & Realities.” (I can’t wait for when I have kids, and they are teenagers and think I’m an asshole to remind them that I did fail Parenting in college, so deal with it.)
When I say this was a classic, major depressive episode, what do I mean? The DSM-V has eight criteria for such incidents. If you experiencing five or more symptoms during the same 2-week period and at least one of the signs is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, guess what? You’re clinically depressed. Here are the criteria:
1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
Ah. Anhedonia. From the Greek an-, “without” and hēdonē, “pleasure.” A diverse array of deficits in hedonic function, including reduced motivation or ability to experience pleasure. This is my personal number one indicator of depression. From this publication, you can rightly assume I enjoy music and going to live shows. When I am depressed, I can’t get it together to go to shows I would otherwise never miss. And it isn’t that I want to go, but just can’t do it. The desire to go is absent. And if I do get drug out to
I would usually love by friends, I don’t really enjoy it. It isn’t bad, it’s just whatever. No emotional response whatsoever and I’m the type of guy that generally can’t stop grinning at a concert and gets goosebumps from music on a regular basis.
3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
I think my most substantial weight fluctuations in college were my freshman year (got the freshman 50 instead of the 15, going from 175 to 225) then when I was getting ready to enlist in the Army. When I am depressed, my weight tends to remain relatively stable, but my eating habits go to shit. I won’t be hungry or interested in food for days, but when that changes, I’ll house an entire pizza with half a bottle of ranch in one sitting. So, no real net gain or loss; but not a healthy, ideal nutrition plan.
4. A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
I am definitely sloth-like when depressed. This manifests mostly through my remaining in bed until motivated by hunger to forage for food around four in the afternoon, but even when I am ambulatory, it is at a snail’s pace.
5. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
6. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
Oh yeah. This wasn’t particularly the case during this particular episode, but my most recent two incidents in graduate school, this was definitely a daily thing. The tape on repeat in my head was how I have made all the wrong choices and irreparably screwed up my future and damned myself to continued poverty and worthlessness.
7. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
8. Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
This one is tricky, and also difficult to talk about even though I am trying to be completely open and transparent. I never contemplated suicide in any concrete manner, though it would be inaccurate to say it never crossed my mind. When it did, it was always a transient, fleeting thought. Nothing that I got fixated on or planned out in any specific way.
If you are contemplating taking your life, call someone. Call me. Call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.
To receive a diagnosis of depression, these symptoms must cause the individual clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The signs must also not be a result of substance abuse or another medical condition. I would say straightish As to straightish Fs counts as a significant impairment to functioning.
Looking back, this was so obviously a major depressive episode. I had no idea what was happening at the time. I knew something was up. I knew it wasn’t good or healthy. We had free counseling services available at the university, but it never crossed my mind to take advantage of them. Shrinks are for crazy people. I don’t know what’s up, but I’m not crazy; so I don’t need a shrink.
I didn’t seek treatment. Eventually, things returned to normal. I had enlisted in the Army National Guard the Fall before and left in May after my atrocious semester for Basic Training. Not entirely sure where I was on the depression spectrum when I left for basic, but wallowing in bed until four in the afternoon was not an option there.
I returned to Southwestern in Spring 2002. Three As and one B was a significant improvement from my last semester, but a C in Molecular Genetics (docked an entire letter grade for missing one lab), and a D in Frank Guziec’s Organic Chemistry II course meant my GPA was just under the threshold that I needed to maintain my academic scholarship and my days at Southwestern were over.
Since this tell-all account is growing longer than even interested parties would care to read, I am going to wrap this up for the day. We will have the next installment soon.
If you have ever felt this way, please comment with your story if you feel comfortable. If you are feeling this way right now, please know you are not alone. Even though people don’t talk about it, this is more common than you think. There are resources out there and you do not have to suffer in silence alone!
If you are still reading, please consider making a donation to my Movember fundraiser. Thanks!