Summary: The Short Version
Everything seemed to be going well, yet everything seemed to come crashing down. I had a decent job, a happy family, and a new house. It started in October and I knew my body was feeling different. I had been through one bout of depression three years prior (almost to the date), yet not nearly to the degree of what I was on the verge of.
I made the decision to begin medication and started seeing a therapist. None of this was helping and I continued to slip. As my family doctor believed my situation was more complicated than he had originally thought, he scheduled me to meet with a psychiatric physician’s assistant (the quickest appointment I could get). This psychiatric PA switched my medication and had planned to monitor my situation. As I gradually moved into a deeper depression, I began to have crying bouts, I was struggling to interact with people, I could rarely eat anything at all, and I was struggling to fall asleep. I also started to have thoughts of suicide. My wife and I discussed the situation and, with consultation of the psychiatric PA, decided that I should take some time off from work. My medication was increased and the hope was that they would have a chance to kick in before returning to work. In hindsight, I do not believe that taking two weeks of unstructured time away from work was the best decision. I did not want to go out because I feared bumping into somebody I knew who would question my absence from work. My wife and I created lists of things we thought I could accomplish around the house the next day. Impossible. I couldn’t even begin any of the tasks that we had discussed. Although I struggled sleeping, I would lay in my bed, hours at a time, rolling around unable to sleep. Lying in my bed behind closed doors was one of the only places I felt safe.
I decided I would attempt to go back to work for the one week before winter break, as a sort of trial period. Work was challenging and I found myself often isolating myself in my office, rather than being in classrooms. I would get home, manage around my four children until it was their bedtime, and then meltdown, uncontrollably sobbing to my wife at night. Not only did I continue to struggle sleeping and eating, but my suicidal thoughts became more frequent. At one point, I found myself searching suicide methods online. Another evening, I looked in a mirror, holding my hand to my head in the shape of a gun, analyzing the best angle for which to hold it. The crying bouts continued. I eventually created a plan to take my own life, thought about it often throughout the day and even dreamt about it one evening. This scared me very much.
I knew that I needed more help and at this point felt that I had been screaming for help and nobody was listening. I asked my wife and sister to join me at my next psychiatric PA appointment for support. The three of us essentially convinced the PA that I needed to take time off from work to enter a program for recovery. I took three weeks off of work in order to enter a partial hospitalization program. I spent my days in the program and my evenings at home. While this was a huge jump-start to recovery, there was still a long road ahead.
Now, approximately two years after having gone through this major depressive episode, I continue to maintain a lifestyle that will support staying mentally fit.
The Whole Story
Chapter 1: A New Position
Several years ago, my career took a large leap from assistant principal in a public elementary school to becoming principal. This was an exponential increase in the amount of responsibility that was put upon me. Instantly there were many new challenges that I had to face on my own.
I quickly felt overwhelmed. My stomach had a continual knot in it and I could hardly eat anything at all. I found myself throwing away entire meals. My sleep began to suffer. I would roll around in bed, my mind racing, unable to fall asleep until near morning. I would try to sleep with my iPhone on, ear buds in playing beach sounds…I would do anything at all to fall asleep. I needed sleep so desperately, yet found it nearly impossible to get any at all. I shared my feelings with my brother, a family doctor, who tried his best to support me from overseas, where he was living. I sat in administrative meetings before the school year even began, wondering how I was going to accomplish all that needed to be done.
I would drive down the highway at a snail’s pace, literally going no more than fifty miles an hour, dreading the arrival to the school where I knew that I wouldn’t even know where to begin, as it seemed there was so much to accomplish. I started counting down the days that were left in the school year when we were only in October.
I finally decided that I could do this no longer. I made an appointment with my family doctor. This, alone, became another stressor. How could I not be at the school that I was trying to lead? At my doctor appointment, I could not even sit down. The doctor came in, shook my hand, and took a seat on his leather, swivel chair while I paced back and forth in the tiny clinic room. This was so strange to me. I’m not someone who paces. I couldn’t stop myself and the doctor, who had been my doctor for many years, immediately knew something was wrong. I spoke to him of my previous three or four weeks; the stress, the lack of sleep, not being able to eat and the overall feeling of not being myself. He gave me a questionnaire and made a pretty quick diagnosis of “Situational Depression”. He prescribed me a medicine and told me that I should probably see a psychologist.
Leaving the doctor’s office, I felt more stressed than ever. I called my mother from the car to tell her that I was going to have to contact the superintendent and resign from my position. I told her that I could no longer take the stress. She urged me to think about it before making any rash decisions. I took her advice.
Even with the start of medication, I was not feeling like myself at work and I certainly was not sleeping any better. I continued to keep my brother in the loop. He emailed me an article from a well-respected medical journal that encouraged doctors who prescribed anti-depressants to also prescribe a low dose of a particular type of benzodiazepine. During the day, the benzodiazepine would help with the anxiety and depression. Before bed, a slightly larger dose would help with sleep. This was primarily used as a buffer until the anti-depressant started working, as anti-depressants often take four to six weeks before they have much effect. I brought the article to my family doctor and shared my brother’s thoughts with him. Luckily, he agreed to add the benzodiazepine to my regimen of medicines. Finally, I was getting a better handle on my sleep.
I continued taking the medicines and I began to see a therapist. I found my first therapist to be more depressing than helpful. I wanted to give therapy a real shot, so I continued for two more sessions. After these sessions and still feeling no connection, I decided I would look into others. I found another therapist and this one included the added bonus of scheduling evening appointments. Scheduling appointments during my work hours would only cause me more stress and add to my depression and anxiety.
I was able to survive my first year of the principalship and my mental health seemed to be gradually improving. During the summer after my first year as a principal, my wife and I had twins. This doubled the number of children in our family. We now had a five-year old, a three-year old, and two newborns as I entered my second year as a principal. This year, I was able to have more support through the district; a mentor and a leadership coach who worked with me and our school Leadership Team. This second year seemed to go much smoother. My direct supervisor was rarely in the school, which led me to believe that the building was running smoothly. However, at my final review, to my surprise, my supervisor informed me that he would be asking me to do a third year of probation. This was not as bad as being non-renewed, but clearly not as good as being granted tenure. His reason was that he had had only one year to work with me and to mentor me. Having rarely seen my four children for two years, leaving home before they were awake and regularly getting home after dinner and often times after bedtime, I requested a voluntary demotion.
Chapter 2: The Major
My first year back as an assistant principal came and went without much excitement. My relationship with the principal was not as strong as it had been with other principals. However, the principal moved on to an opportunity in another district the following year. I was very excited to find out who my new boss would be. This next principal was confident, had high expectations of himself and his teams, and was the first principal to really work at developing me into a stronger, more confident leader. We began working together in August and had established a very good relationship. Work progressed smoothly and in the beginning of October I had a solid review from him.
For whatever reason, mid-to late October of 2013, my body began to feel strange. It was a sort of heavy, lethargic feeling as if moving through quicksand all day long. I sent an email right away to my brother and shared this information with my best friend and my wife. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of what was going to be a very deep, dark depression. One that words cannot fully describe. My brother would later share with me that my first email to him describing these changes was at almost the exact time, three years earlier to the date, of when I shared the start of my 2010 depression with him.
By November, I had continued to slide downhill. My family and I visited some friends during the Thanksgiving weekend. While everybody was hanging out, talking, playing, and enjoying themselves, I sat on a stool in the kitchen at a counter island. People were around me, cooking in the kitchen, conversing and such, while I essentially just sat there, staring, sitting very quietly, trying to socialize and finding it nearly impossible. That evening, I spoke to my wife about how unable I was to socialize and how this may be manifesting at work. My wife convinced me that staying at work could be detrimental because neither of us were clear as to whether or not I could be at all effective at work, or even hold it together emotionally while at work. I texted my boss, the principal who I had only been working with only for a few months at this point, and asked him to meet me that next Monday morning at a coffee shop before work. I shared with him that I had been dealing with depression. He immediately, in an attempt to completely support me, asked me to return home right away and to do what I needed to do in order to get better. When I got to my house, my wife informed me that my boss had contacted her to let her know that I was on my way home, in case I didn’t make it.
I took those first two weeks of December off from work. It was so odd to me. I had a decent job, great review from my new boss, a happy family (with some typical chaos and challenges), yet I had somehow slipped into this depression. When I arrived home from the coffee shop, it felt a bit like a load was taken off of my shoulders, having time to figure things out. I immediately called my psychiatric PA, my family doctor, and my psychologist to get in as soon as possible for appointments. By this point, I was having sleepless nights, extreme crying bouts with my wife (after holding it together for most of the day) in which I was unable to stop crying for thirty minutes at a time, and some general thoughts of suicide. I would find myself following my wife, literally at her side, while she cooked or washed dishes, not knowing what I should be doing. My memory and cognition were definitely being impacted. I got lost with one of my daughters in my car as we went to pick up a friend in her carpool who lived less than five blocks away from our house. I had to pull over to the side of the road, take out my phone, and map it out from where we were.
I had brought my wife to a couple of my psychologist appointments, as she wanted to know how she could support me and I had no idea. She also went with me to a psychiatrist appointment in order to support me through the ordeal. I ended up taking two weeks of unstructured days off of work. In hindsight, this was one of the worst decisions I could have made. Each night I tried to make a schedule of simple things to do in order to keep me busy. I was to do laundry, exercise on our elliptical machine, clean a bathroom, take out the garbage…anything that was easy and would keep me busy in order to maintain some type of routine. Instead, I would find myself laying down on the couch and asking my wife for permission to take a nap. I would use the excuse that my therapist explained, at one of my sessions with my wife, that depression is like a brain injury and that rest is an important factor. I would go upstairs to our bedroom, lay in my bed for two or three hours at a time, unable to sleep a wink, but feeling safe alone, behind closed doors. I was looking forward to bedtime so I could be in the safety of my own bed. Prior to the depression, I would often lay down for a few minutes with my older daughters when it was their bedtime, sometimes waking up to my wife poking me in the side because I had fallen asleep for brief amount of time. At this point, I would lay down with them for more than an hour, thinking that if I stayed just a bit longer, it would be my own bedtime. One evening my eldest daughter rolled over and said, “Dad, you can go now” and I responded with, “I’ll leave soon”, remaining there for another thirty minutes or so. Never was I able to sleep while lying next to them, but it seemed much safer and less painful than being awake and not knowing what to do.
Every little thing that went wrong at the time would feel like the world was crashing down on me. I was having some minor car troubles and our internet went out. I didn’t want to leave the house for any reason at all. I was fearful that I would be seen by someone during the day while I was out who might ask or wonder why I wasn’t at work. Not only that, but motivating myself to get out of the house was nearly impossible. The few times I did make it out of the house, my wife was left wondering if I would make it back home. Because our internet was out, I had to bring my router to the Apple store at the mall and was afraid to go. I asked my sister if she would join me. She did and while we were there, sitting at the Genius Bar for a much longer time than anticipated, my sister turned to me and told me that she had to leave. I couldn’t believe it. I was very scared to be there on my own and to fend for myself, a task that would normally be quite easy and, for the most part, enjoyable. I normally enjoyed being out and meeting new people. My sister left and, although I had incredible anxiety, I somehow managed to survive the rest of the visit. These unstructured days of not working were destroying me.
On Thursday of my second week off, I met my boss at a coffee shop in the morning and told him that I wanted to start back at work the following Monday. I had discussed with my wife, my sister, and my brother and we all agreed that it would be a good time to try to go back, as I would only have one week of work and then it would be winter break. As planned, I returned the following Monday and made it through the week. I found myself staying in my office for much longer periods of time, as this became my safe place at work. If I didn’t venture out of the office, perhaps I could minimize my interactions with staff. When I did have conversations with staff, I always unintentionally put my own negative spin on things, negative comment or not, and then blamed myself. One staff member, for example, complained to me about the schedule. I personalized that comment and assumed the staff member was actually complaining about me since I had created the schedule, even though it had been shared with and approved by all grade-level representatives. This is just one small example of how easy it is to twist comments into negative, personal attacks when one is depressed…and it happened to me often at this time.
Winter break came and, as my family does each year, we took a road trip to Dubuque to spend Christmas with my in-laws. My wife had shared with her family that I was depressed. She shared this with her sisters and her parents, so everybody involved in the festivities knew about me and my depression. One evening my wife and I went out with her two sisters and their husbands and I barely spoke a word. Social events during this time were very challenging for me. I wanted to engage in conversation and couldn’t. I was normally quite a social person, so this was very strange for me and, most likely, even made me more anxious and depressed. If I were at a social event with my wife, I would often ask her later that evening, “How did I do? Was I social? Did I seem myself?” I wanted to be myself. In fact, often times through my depression and my many crying bouts I would say, “I just want to be myself again”. Back in Minneapolis, I went out with my sister for lunch. I found myself in the middle of a large, open restaurant, suddenly breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably once again.
After a week and a half of winter break and more struggling with no structure and seeking isolation and the safety of being in bed behind closed doors much of the time, it was time to go back to work. I somehow managed three more weeks. The days became more challenging at work, more isolation, and more crying bouts in the evenings. Any new task that came my way, no matter how small it may have been, felt like an additional huge weight upon me, an insurmountable mountain to climb. I tried my best to get out of the office and into classrooms. I forced myself to at times and was very uncomfortable doing so. I was meeting with my psychologist weekly at this point. I was also on a new medication that my psychiatric PA had prescribed. I was hopeful that things would get better. However, they did not. I was experiencing more frequent suicidal thoughts. At one of my psychiatry appointments I specifically asked if these thoughts could be due to the medication, as suicidal thoughts are indicated as a possible side effect of many anti-depressants, as ironic as that may be. The PA’s response was, “It could be the medication or it could be the depression.” He increased the dosage of my medication at that appointment, hoping to have a better outcome. Instead, however, my suicidal thoughts became much more frequent throughout the day and much more planned out. One evening my therapist even called me at home, as he was clearly quite concerned about my well-being. One evening, sitting at the dinner table with my wife while the kids were sleeping, I began crying uncontrollably and asked her, “You’ll be alright, right? You and the [four] kids, if I’m gone?” I truly felt a burden to the family; a bad father and a bad husband. These were some of the scariest days for me. I started imagining how I would kill myself. I thought about plans that would ensure my death by combining two methods. One plan I had thought of was to sit in the garage, car running, and to shoot myself. That way, if the gunshot somehow did not kill me, the carbon monoxide would. I had read some articles about suicide. One article I read was about a person who tried to kill himself by having the car run in the garage and, in addition to dying by suicide, others were killed when they went in to find him. As illogical as that sounds to me now, I believed it at the time. I also read that most cars these days do not have enough carbon monoxide exhaust to become harmful even in a closed garage. So, that idea was completely gone. I thought for sure it would have to be a gun. Another article that I had read, that certainly doesn’t seem logical to me at this point, was about someone who had tried to shoot themselves in the head, but the bullet went in one temple, out the other, and the person survived. I found myself looking in the mirror of the bathroom one evening, holding my hand up in the shape of a gun, trying to figure out the angle that would be needed to kill myself. I did a bit of research on the internet specifically about suicide. The first site I came to had an entire list of what method was the most likely to work, how long before death would occur, and how much pain was involved. The pain factor never even entered my mind. Someone having to find me, however, crossed my mind often. I had finally decided it would definitely be by gun. I even knew where I could get a gun. My parents were gone for the winter and my father has a gun case. I knew he even had a couple of pistols, which would be much easier than a rifle or shotgun. I thought of this plan often throughout several days and even had a dream one night about it. I remember having had plans to drive my two older daughters to my sister’s house. Because she lived only two blocks from my parents, I thought this would be the time; drop my children off and head to my parent’s house. I thought about parking a block away and shooting myself while in my car, but I thought of the terrible mess someone would have to clean up and how tragic it would be for someone to find me that way. I thought about doing it in my parents house and leaving a note on the front and back doors that stated, “Do not enter, simply call 911”. However, I didn’t think that would be fair to my family; to leave such a tragic, gory scene in my parents’ house. Again, these thoughts were really beginning to scare the hell out of me. These thoughts were out of my control. If I remember correctly, I stayed with my kids that day at my sister’s house, so that I could not act upon my plan.
I contacted the psychiatric PA and asked for an emergency appointment. I was able to schedule an appointment and asked my sister and my wife to join me. At that point, I felt like I had been screaming for help for quite some time and getting none. Even at that appointment, when I was leaning towards taking time off of work, the PA couldn’t decide and talked about some possible negative impacts that may occur if I were to take time off. I am thankful that my wife and sister were there to adamantly support the need for me to take the time off. We discussed options of various programs. I was surprised to find out that it seemed that we were going to have to call around and/or visit places in order to check out the many different programs. This was so odd to me. However, while he described a few of the programs, we had pretty much settled on a partial hospitalization program in which I would spend full days there from 9:00am-3:00pm. He told us that he didn’t know how quickly they could get me in, but that someone from the program would be calling me for a brief intake conversation on the phone.
I was lucky enough to get the call within a day or two. It happened to be a Wednesday evening. I felt cautious about how I answered the questions that I was being asked. I wondered that if I were to mention my suicidal thoughts, might I, for some reason, not be allowed to enter the program. I shared my suicidal thoughts, but tried to down play them. I desperately needed to get into this program. I need something more at this point. I had already planned on taking the next week off. I became fearful that I would have more, unstructured time off if I weren’t able to get into the program immediately. I found out that I would be going to an intake meeting the following Thursday, January 23 and starting the program the next day.
A couple weeks prior to making the decision to enter a partial hospitalization program, one of my best friends shared with me that he knew a guy in the cities whose entire job revolved around supporting men with depression. I was able to joke (a rare occasion throughout my depression) asking my friend why he had been holding out on me, not sharing this information about his acquaintance with me until this point. The person’s name was Mark Meier. A social worker who had several years earlier started a non-profit foundation called FaceIt. After several days of reservations, I contacted Mark. After meeting with him on two or three occasions at a coffee shop, he convinced me to join one of his men’s support groups. Prior to entering the partial hospitalization program, I thought it would be critical for me to start building support around me. I invited two of my best friends over several days before starting the program and shared with them most of my story and my plans to leave work in order to enter a recovery program for depression. They were very sympathetic, yet they were both at a loss as to how to support me. Two days prior to entering the partial hospitalization, I went to one of the FaceIt support groups. I walked in the door, found myself surrounded by six or seven strangers and Mark, the founder, and cried for almost two hours straight, sharing my entire story with these total strangers. The one comment I remember hearing from one of the other men was, “Wow, you’re really in the shit”. I didn’t want the two hours of group to come to an end. This was one of the safest environments I had been in for a long time. It did come to an end, I did leave, and I did go to my intake meeting two days later.
I was so thankful that my wife had joined me for my intake meeting at the hospital. In fact, I cannot believe that the staff does not ask new patients to come with a loved one or someone who knows them well for the intake meeting. We walked in the door, walked past some of their current patients, and checked in at the front desk. We were brought into a bland room with one large rectangular table. The wall was being prepped to be painted. It was all very surreal to me; being in this small room, about to check myself into a program for depression. I couldn’t believe this was me…going through this process. Yet at the same time, I was so thankful that places like this existed and I was very hopeful that this was the right thing to be doing. The meeting consisted of many questions that my wife was able to help me answer. Depression is known to impact cognition and memory, so answering the questions accurately could be quite difficult. I would imagine that some patients, meeting these doctors and staff members for the first time, may not be comfortable in answering questions such as, “How much alcohol do you drink?” or “Do you hear voices” or “How long have you had your symptoms?”, just to mention a few. A loved one may be able to decipher what may be new behaviors vs. behaviors that may be a bit odd, yet are the norm for the patient. They may also be better able to share a proper time line of events. Based on this two or three-hour long interview with a new patient, who is most likely in the midst of a significant mental health situation (possibly even crisis or psychosis), a diagnosis and medication protocol are established. I did appreciate that the psychiatrist engaged in a conversation with my wife and me around what type of meds might be best. With depression, it can be a guessing game and a long trial period, as meds often need 4-6 weeks to take effect. Based on what meds I had previously taken and what had worked for another distant family member, we selected an anti-depressant. We also discussed sleep, as this is one of the things that psychiatrists often want to straighten out immediately. The doctor adjusted and added medicine to support me in getting a full night of sleep. In addition to two psychiatrists, I also met with an occupational therapist and a nurse. All together, I believe this meeting was about three hours. After leaving, my wife and I decided to eat at the hospital restaurant. We could immediately tell which large group was from the psychiatric ward, the same group I would most likely be eating with for the next few weeks. The thought of eating lunch at a giant table with ten to fifteen other mentally ill people in the middle of a hospital restaurant, surrounded by “normal” hospital patients and hospital staff was not something that I was looking forward to.
The next day was my first day in the program. Again, I had such a surreal feeling, sitting on one of the flat, cushioned benches that were built into the wall waiting for the doors to open. This was the start of my three weeks in a partial hospitalization program; a place I would never have imagined that I would need to be a part of. There were two groups of patients, each with anywhere from six to eight patients. Every day started with a therapy group. This is similar to a peer support group, but is led by a professional (in our case, either a social worker or a therapist). There was always a period in the day that involved learning, typically related to mental illnesses or recovery. We had crafts three times a week in order for us to experiment with various self-selected art projects for which materials were provided. We would converse while working and I eventually came to really enjoy this time. I found a new hobby, pastel drawings, that I now do with my children from time to time. Other sessions that rotated throughout the week included music therapy, yoga, occupational therapy, and nursing. Patients would be pulled out during the day to meet with the psychiatrist. Psychologist appointments could be scheduled individually after the close of the day. I tried to do this often. Although I did not feel a strong connection to this therapist, I was committed to doing everything and anything I could in order to work towards recovery. I would attempt to take away at least one nugget of information to learn from each session in the individual therapy and throughout the entire day. Patients came and went, as patient spots would be filled when one had completed their typical three weeks.
My emotions varied quite a bit throughout the three-week program. Of course, the first week I was still deeply depressed. I was starting new medication and experienced some anxiety regarding doing so. Not only that, but I was informed that one of the medications I was starting had a very common side effect of creating a significant increase in anxiety for the first few days, as well as dizziness and dry mouth. I definitely felt those effects and, as predicted, they lasted only a few days. I was trying to get an understanding of how the program worked these first days and what my days were going to entail. In the beginning, my conversations with other patients typically revolved around questions regarding the program, as it was difficult to gauge how much one could ask other patients. I also wasn’t sure how much I wanted to attempt to connect with other patients, as some patients, for whatever reason, would be gone one day and never return or “graduate” from the program. We were also encouraged to focus on our own recovery, rather than supporting others. In fact, we were not allowed to exchange numbers, carpool, or see each other outside of the program, although I know this rule was broken by some at times. There were women and men of all ages, all backgrounds, and all different types of diagnoses.
During the second week of the program I was feeling great. I believe the medication had kicked in, I was understanding the program and was finding most of it to be helpful, and I was participating at a high level in all of my groups. I started to support others. At one of my private meetings with the psychiatrist, I asked the doctor if I could return for my third week, even though I had been doing so well. It really gave me glimmers of what it felt like to be “normal” again, or to feel like myself again, and gave me a real sense of hope that I would get better.
My third and final week was really difficult. Although I wasn’t experiencing much depression, my anxiety seemed to be increasing. I’m sure this was almost entirely due to the fact that I knew the start of work was right around the corner. What was I going to tell staff at the school I worked at when I returned? What would they think? Will my return to work be successful? I knew I was going right back into the exact same home and work environment that I had left for three weeks and that had, possibly, somehow, put me into this deep, dark place that I had never experienced before. I knew I was going to have very little support, particularly compared to these last few weeks. I was scared. There was fear that I could sink into another depression at any time. The week went on and I “Graduated” that Friday, February 14, 2014. I exchanged numbers with the one patient with whom I had made a connection, said good-byes, and that was that. No more daily support and straight back to work full-time.
My boss had agreed to meet with me at a coffee shop the next day. I had requested the meeting to prepare for my first day back at work. It was nice to meet with him. He had been very understanding and supportive of my leave and did what he could to support my return. I returned to work that Monday, February 18. It was much less dramatic than anything I had anticipated. Most people simply welcomed me back. Some people asked how I was doing. I believe only one person asked why I had been out. It was a fairly smooth return, although I knew I was nowhere near a hundred percent as far as my mental health was concerned. I was still dealing with some anxiety and I knew my recovery actually had quite a ways to go. I had received the name of a psychologist who was recommended to me by the administrative assistant at the partial hospitalization program and a recommendation for a psychiatrist through a friend of my sister. I had also planned on continuing to join the men’s depression support group at FaceIt twice a month. I knew I would still need all of the resources and support possible.
It wasn’t long before I reached another setback, this one physical. The evening after my first day of work, my daughter had accidentally set off the alarm in our house. It was approximately 11:00pm. She had woken up, thought my wife and I were still awake, went downstairs to the main floor of the house, and set off the motion detector. A beeping sound began, as my daughter ran back upstairs. I vaguely remember hearing the beeping of the alarm (which lasts approximately thirty seconds before the loud horns go off) and my daughter running upstairs. My wife woke me and I shot out of bed to get to the alarm panel downstairs before the alarm sounded. I got to it just in time. However, I decided to call the alarm company just to be sure that police would not show up at our door. I dialed the number, heard the ringing, struggled in my head to come up with our verbal code to share with them and hung up in frustration, as I couldn’t remember the code. The next thing I knew, I woke up with my face at the legs of our coat rack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had fainted. I immediately got to my feet and staggered through the dining area towards the stairs and made it about six feet before falling to my knees and fainting again. I got up, and stumbled up the steps bouncing off the sides of the walls and slammed through my bedroom door, passing out one last time on the floor of my bedroom. My two oldest daughters were there now along with my wife. My wife woke me, I pulled myself up onto the bed, lay on my back, and told my wife I was fine.
I woke up the next morning and went to work, unfortunately with a shoulder that has never healed completely to this day. I called the psychiatrist at the partial hospitalization program, shared my fainting episodes with him, and asked if it could be due to the medication that I was still on. He did not believe it was the medication at all, since I had been on the same course of medication for three weeks without any such side effects. Both he and my family doctor, who I saw a day later, told me that I should call for an ambulance if I were to faint again.
Three days after the fainting spells, one of our two and a half year old twins started crying in the middle of the night. My wife woke me to check on him. I stood next to his crib with him shouting for his mother. I told him that I could rub his back or hold him, but that he needed to stop screaming and kicking. I told him that I was going to leave, I turned in order to return to my bedroom, and fell flat on my face fainting once again. My wife woke up to the thud of me slamming into the floor. It took her a couple of minutes to wake me this time. She immediately contacted her sister and my brother, both doctors, for advice. I sat on the floor, leaning my back against the twins’ dresser, and we agreed that we should call for an ambulance this time. The next thing I know, I was escorted by two men to an ambulance. The shaved my chest, hooked up an EKG, and started sticking me with an IV. We must have sat in that ambulance a good twenty minutes before we took the very icy, bumpy slow trek to the hospital through a terrible snowstorm. I met with the ER doctor who told me that he was absolutely certain that I had been fainting due to the medicine I was on for sleep. He said that it was the most common side effect from this particular medicine that they see in the ER. He told me, facetiously although it didn’t seem that way to me at the time, that I could, “…continue to take the medicine and that my only risk at all would be accidental death from banging my head when I faint again”. Needless to say, I very quickly, with direction from the psychiatrist, weaned myself off of the sleep medicines.
Chapter 3: The Recovery
Gradually, with some bad days here and there, and with a lot of effort, I continued to get better and better mentally each day. I was told by one psychologist that it takes a minimum of one year to fully recover from a major depressive episode. I would agree. Now, just over two years out, I feel completely recovered. I continue to work at maintaining my mental health through various avenues. I continue to go to FaceIt every other week for the men’s depression and anxiety support group. I have a psychologist who I trust and know that I could schedule an appointment with at any time. I continue on a medication and see a psychiatrist twice a year. I try to exercise on a regular basis and maintain a healthy diet. I continue to pull out the pastels now and then to create art with my kids and have taken up the guitar. I try to be fairly consistent with meditation and mindfulness. I journal on a somewhat regular basis. I have found that supporting others with depression has been very therapeutic for me. I have been connected with men to support through FaceIt and I have recently been trained by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as a speaker to share my own story (In Our Own Voice-IOOV) and to lead anti-stigma presentations.
Having gone through this major depressive episode has changed me in many positive ways. I have learned a great deal about mental illness, particularly depression. I realize that I had awful stereotypes in my mind regarding people living with mental illnesses and now understand that it can hit anybody, any race, from any socioeconomic group, at any time. I have become very passionate about working towards minimizing (or even eliminating) the stigma around mental health, supporting men with depression, suicide prevention and awareness, and changing what I consider to be a broken mental health system. In fact, these are the topics on which I plan to write about in this blog. Comments regarding “My Story” or any other blog entry are more than welcome!
Al, wow one thing this shows me is that although I knew you were struggling, especially in the earlier days I really didn’t know just how bad it was and I am your sister! It is clear that people dealing with depression turn so inward and isolated that it is hard for people to know what is truly happening to them and what they are going through.
I so admire your courage and your willingness to share your story to help others with drepression and those close to people with depression. Thank you
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You are incredibly brave and I applaud your desire to #endthestigma. You can consider me one of your cheerleaders. It hurts my heart to know that you, too, have had this experience. Only those who have been through it can really understand. I understand! I wish you ongoing wellness as you follow your journey, because, in all reality, it is a journey!
(If my name doesn’t sound familiar, think of Faith’s roommate years ago in Detroit who you met last summer at a graduation party)
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Thanks for following and commenting, Laurel. Of course the name is familiar. It’s been a household name for a long time at the Levin’s & Rothberg’s!
My name is James Withey, I live in Brighton, UK and I run a website called The Recovery Letters which publishes letters from people recovering from depression, addressed to those currently suffering. http://www.therecoveryletters.com
I live alongside major depression and after 20 years of working in social care I now work in a library and spend my time running the website and doing public speaking about depression and mental health. Amongst other places, I have been interviewed about The Recovery Letters on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 here in the UK.
I have a book contract with Jessica Kingsley Publishers http://www.thebookseller.com/news/jessica-kingsley-signs-recovery-letters-333366 to publish a book of current letters from the site alongside new letters. It will be published in the US and the UK in August 2017.
I really like your writing and wonder if you would be interested in writing a letter for the book?There is no remuneration I am afraid, but I hope you might still be interested.
If this sounds like something you might like to do send me an e-mail and I can tell you more.
Very best wishes,
Al, thank you for your transparent courage in sharing your story. I can relate I SOsososo many levels and issues. I taught high school for nine years but it wasn’t until several years later that depression came to a head – for whatever reason, I do not know. In 2014 I attempted suicide and decided to blog on it for my own, My Story. Thank you for being one of the many brave men that takes a stand and talks openly about your situation, especially with your high visibility job. X
Thanks for our comments. I really appreciate it! I hope that my blog supports others who are or have been dealing with depression. In addition, I hope that it supports in educating others, which will, hopefully, help to minimize or even eliminate the stigma. Thanks again for your comments. I’m looking forward to checking out your blog, too! Al
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What a powerful story! And it is wonderful that you have such wonderful support in your wife, sister and boss, as well as having a great mental health team. In my journey with bipolar, I am truly grateful for my supports and consider that them vital for my healthy recovery….
Thank you for your comments. Yes, I was certainly lucky to have such a supportive network and I’m glad that you have one, too! Al
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Thank you for sharing your story. It’s inspirational and you are courageous!! Your blog is great.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and thank you very much for your kind words. I really appreciate it! Al
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You’re welcome. 😀
I needed this story in my life today. That sounds bizarre but it’s true. I’ve had anxiety disorder since age nine. I’ve had one depressive episode. For weeks I’ve been considering whether I’m suffering from some depression or coming to terms with new motherhood – I’ve been running from that conversation but I’m now ready to face it. Well done for sharing your story. I will continue to share mine now, just in case someone like me needs to see it.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much. It doesn’t sound bizarre at all. Part of the benefit of sharing our own stories is that it supports others in sharing their stories. I’m really glad that you’re now able to come to terms with what may be going on with you. There is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to reach out for support. I’m sure that as you start sharing your story with others, you’ll be supporting many women who may going through a very similar experience as yours. Thank you for reading my blog and for your comments. Be strong…you’ll get through this! Al
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New motherhood is a very difficult time with very complicated emotions. Best gift my mom ever gave me was she told me that she loved every stage of raising her kids except the first three months. The first three months are just a lot of work and sleepless nights. I now have 23, 21 and 19 year old children and I agree with her, too. Hang in there and its great that you are willing to share your story! As you do, I know you will find out that a lot more people have a similar story, too!
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Thank you so much for that: I don’t think a week with my semi-interfering Mother in Law has helped. My baby is great but you’re right, it’s very hard and a massive adjustment. It’s getting better every day and I’m lucky to have a very supportive family.
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Hello Al, Just read your entire story, it was deeply moving and sadly a familiar one. I knew you had many of your own experiences with depression and anxiety but wasn’t aware of the details you’ve shared here. It must feel odd to read your own words now, about those incredible struggles so personally laid out in print. You’ve come a long way since then, not without more challenges for sure, but growth isn’t painless I guess. Thank you sincerely for your great podcasts, your supportive tweets and for increasing the awareness of this truly difficult burden we share; it’s very, very nice to know you are out there fighting the good fight alongside many of us. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you ever need to connect with someone who knows the same language. Peace of mind and heart wished to you.
Thanks for taking time to check out my story. It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve ever read my story again since I posted it quite some time ago. In fact, I have a journal in which once I was on my way to recovery, I documented all of my darkest thoughts. I think I wanted to be able, for whatever reason, to remember just how dark my thoughts had been. Sounds strange, but I don’t ever want to forget how low I was. I think that’s what feeds my passion to continue the advocacy work.
Thanks for your feedback on the podcasts, as well. I really enjoy interviewing the men for the show and I’ve learned an immense amount about various mental illnesses. Unfortunately, due to the time constraints, it’s limited how much I’ve been blogging. I enjoy the writing, as well, and the blog allows me to get outside of just men and depression. It’s also simply another way to reach people.
Thanks for all of your support, your comments, your artwork, and your retweets. I really appreciate it! Al
Hi again Al,
I know for me if I look at art I’ve done – (or count the relationships I’ve mindlessly let go of, or projects I’ve let slide) – it’s a stark, bitter, but good eye opening reminder of where I don’t want to be again. So helpful since I’m in the position of being mom to two adult children with it at the same time I struggle. I guess that’s why it really forms such strong bonds online between a lot of us; we’re all looking for encouragement, ideas, resources, and it becomes an really supportive and mutual friendship.
I read your story and was so impressed at your strength through those dark times; I know you don’t see it that way, though. But having experienced and witnessed similar intense episodes, it’s amazing to me that you asked for help, sought help, relied on your trusted friends and family, new boss, etc. And that you followed up with support groups, made rational, realistic decisions about work responsibilities, kept a journal, blog, podcasts…!!!! You are SO MUCH stronger than you will ever know or give yourself credit for, Al. Count me in as a friend and supporter.
Thank you for such kind comments, Julie! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and to comment on the posts and for offering up art as a way to advocate! Your presence on Twitter is much appreciated! Al
Anytime Al! You know how to find me if you need anything.
Thank you for this story. I’m in the depths of it right now and similarly am working and parenting during it. I’ve had a depressive episode before for a little over a month last year, and I started feeling better after a small dosage of antidepressants.
But I’ve since been hit again with a harder wave. I resonate very much with you mentioning how you just started feeling weird. I woke up one day a few months ago and just felt “off”, and it has since spiraled and spiraled. I find myself obsessing about my mental health, suicidal ideation, and lack of motivation—i don’t plan on acting on my thoughts, but it’s a battle every day to have them.
I have a good support group, therapist, and nurse practitioner that I’m now working with. We tried a new medication over the last month that didn’t have much of an affect, so starting the process of trying a new one now. It’s stories like yours that keep me hopeful. Thank you.
Thank you so much for sharing, Ryan. It sounds like you’re doing the work you need to…working with a therapist, attending a support group, and now a nurse practitioner and a change of meds. You WILL get better. You’ve been through it before and got better and you WILL again! Keep working at it! Take baby steps if that’s what it takes. Then…be sure to acknowledge the steps you’ve taken and pat yourself on the back! Journaling helped me a bit and I’ve heard others say it has helped them. During my second depressive bout I journaled every night and ended each entry with, “Today, in order to work with recovery I…” and I made a short list. Sometimes it was, “I got out of bed”…or…”I read to one of my kids”…or “I called a friend”….or “I walked around the block”. Mind also help to try to pick up an old or new hobby. Something like drawing, coloring, painting or a musical instrument. Helps to be mindful and to focus on those tasks in order to stop the obsessive thoughts and perseverating. Maybe you can see your therapist more often, if need be? Or find another support group? Keep working at it! You WILL get better! It takes time and effort (and you’re certainly putting in the effort).
Thanks for reading my blog and thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your story.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to. Be strong and know that you’re not alone!
Hi Al, Just curious if, during your experiences with depression, food, surroundings and lifestyle were ever addressed. I ask because after living with chronic depression for 40+ years, I accidentally “disappeared” it by changing my diet and surroundings to help my husband get off a statin drug that was killing him. It takes courage to “come out” as a depressed person. I know because it was hard for me as well, but that’s how we help others, isn’t it… Cheryl
Thanks for the comment and questions, Cheryl. I certainly knew that I should be eating healthier at the time, but I couldn’t eat anything. I had a huge knot in my stomach and literally struggled to put food down. I lost around 50lbs or so. As for living situation…absolutely. I left work for five weeks and checked myself into a partial hospitalization program. That was certainly a change in my surroundings (and responsibility). Finally, I decided to take a voluntary demotion. That decision, amongst other things, was certainly impacted by knowing I needed to improve my mental health.
Thanks for reading my blog and thanks again for the comments.
A happy and healthy new year to you!
Well, Al your story is inspiring. I am an educator and can relate to the stress involved with parenting and working for the public schools. Mental health is important and many men are afraid to admit their challenges. Thank you for sharing this site with me. Continued success!
Nick, Thanks for taking the time to read my story! It was great bumping into you recently! Keep up your great work and continue to make sure you’re staying on top of your mental health! Hopefully, our paths will cross again soon! Al