Battling With Depression – Practical Steps I Took To Beat It
Depression seems more visible in today’s society than it ever has been and it seems that more and more people are not only willing to talk about it, but also willing to take action and get help. To the people who suffer or who have suffered and got help, I applaud you all. Each of you is a brave individual and it takes a lot to put aside your ego and to talk about your problems. Depression is a strange thing that can diminish your wellbeing. Although not a doctor, or a psychologist, or even a college graduate (yet), the subject of depression is one that is close to my heart and one that intrigues me. In my eyes, depression is hard to quantify because it is dependent on the individuals opinion and their perception of how they feel and think about themselves. Depression is something that can creep up on you like an ever growing storm, or it can overwhelm you, like a volcanic eruption and tear you down to the pits of your being. Either way, depression is extremely relevant in today’s society and I am going to share with you my story.
The Onset of My Depression
In early 2014, I moved back to Ireland after a failed golf scholarship. At 19, the pressure I put on myself was too much and the stupidly high expectations I had set for myself were so overwhelmingly difficult to reach, I would’ve never got there anyway. What followed was a tough couple of years, ones that lead to the greatest learning curve of my life. Before moving to America the first time, my life had gone quite smoothly and although I wasn’t as good at golf as I may have liked, I believed I was on the right track and in many ways, I was. This lack of failure and easy sailing that my life had been would ultimately come back to bite me.
From the outside looking in, my life probably looked great. Although an overconfident, quite cocky 19-year-old on the outside, it was quite different on the inside. What began as one silly decision, lead to two years of torment and hatred of myself. After failing on a golf scholarship, I did what any other 19-year old would do and I wrote a book. I felt like I had some valuable information to share with the world and to be honest, I still think there is some valuable information in that book, but I look back on that time in my life and realize I had so much to learn. In the two years that followed the Spring of 2014, I did many things. I wrote and published a book, started a company, continued to play golf as best as I could and ended up back in America on another golf scholarship. Again, from the outside looking in, it probably looked great and it may have even looked like “the stupid kid who messed up his first golf scholarship has got his life together and is now going back”. And perhaps I had sorted it out, for the most part.
Fast forward to my first semester at Bethune-Cookman University. Had I been asked at the age of 15, where I’d want to be by the age of 20; the environment I found myself in was exactly what I would’ve described. Sunny, warm, great practice facilities, an easy class schedule and near the beach. I was back. The stars had aligned, the outer circumstances of my life were absolutely ideal and I made sure that I kept reminding myself of that. But there was something strange happening. Although I knew that the outer circumstances of my life were as perfect as they were ever going to be, I still couldn’t feel “happy”.My life was this strange conflict between knowing intellectually that my life was great but never feeling fulfilled. This “sadness” definitely didn’t come from an under-appreciation of what I had because appreciation is something I have been mindful of for years. It was something deeper, something more than circumstance.
Being the kind of person I am, I had been documenting things on and off for the past 5 years. I had gone through phases of documenting thoughts, trying different journaling techniques, reading different books and talking/learning from people who I wouldn’t usually associate with. But still, I couldn’t feel happy. The schoolwork was good; I was on par to have a good semester and I did. If the FBI did an investigation into what could possibly be making me feel like sh*t, I don’t think they’d have come up with anything. And so I continued through life, unhappy but not knowing why.
The Stars Don’t Need To Align
The stars really don’t need to align to be happy. Mistakes from the past were the initial catalyst for the snowball effect that led to my depression and eventually led me home to get counseling just before my 21st birthday. All sorts of questions arose in my mind as to why I felt the way I did.
- What the f**k is wrong with you?
- Why are you unhappy when your life is nearly perfect?
- What do you want to become?
- What do other people think of me?
The list goes on, never really leading me to any clear answers. Truthfully, the initial snowball was when in the University of Toledo I started drinking and this came as a shock to me as much as it did to my friends and family. As someone who swore they’d never drink and who despised what alcohol did to people, why on Earth would I start? I can’t quite answer that but it must be that sometimes, you become what you fear if you don’t know how to manage it and I guess that is what happened. In over my head and 4,000 miles from home, I was lost and the only way out in my eyes was to quit. Quitting came from not having the perseverance to look beyond the past and focus on the present. As I said to a friend recently, there was a cycle I noticed in myself for the two years that I hated myself and it all stemmed back to sloppy decision-making. It looked something like this.
Start off annoyed at myself. Set a plan for a few weeks/months. A master plan that never worked. This plan would fill me with motivation to go and practice, workout, and basically change what needed to change. I might miss a few days practice due to feeling ‘”tired” and this would eat away at me slightly. I’d beat myself up. A few weeks down the line and a few missed practice sessions later, I was way too tired to even get out of bed. This would be more than likely followed by one night out maybe once a month and that would be followed by a few days of depression. (We all know that alcohol is a depressant). So where does this cycle leave me? During these periods, I was actually working quite hard, but I had built this illusionary image of the masters of their craft, waking up at 5 A.M., practicing until 10 P.M. and getting a 30-minute break throughout the day. Stupid. What is the lesson here? We compare the worst we see in ourselves to the best we see in others. After this cycle repeated itself a few times, I was so worn out that the motivation to practice was at a minimum and so was everything else. There were days of incredibly clear focus and determination but there was no consistency. Slowly but surely, I broke myself down to the point of being depressed. The cycle of setting high expectations, continually failing to achieve those expectations and wearing myself down so much that I barely had the motivation to get out of bed was one that took its toll.
You might look at this and think, “get a grip you b*tch”, and I don’t blame you because that’s exactly what I did tell myself. But it is very easy from the outside looking in to say this and the second thing to understand is that everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. What happened in my case is that I took a small mistake and turned it into a big one. The mistake didn’t get any bigger, but the fact that I kept holding onto it and kept repeating it, made me hate myself. The story I was telling myself was one that I ended up believing and I didn’t know how to correct the sinking ship.
The Snowball Effect
The snowball effect can work both ways and if any of you remember the game on “Miniclip” where you used to race a snowball down a hill, trying to dodge trees and obstacles, all the while, your snowball grew and grew then this metaphor will resonate with you. Every few seconds you’d clip a tree and this would make the snowball slightly smaller, but soon, you picked up momentum and size until you’re freewheeling so fast that the only way to stop yourself is to smash, head on into a tree. Well, that is how I felt and I’m sure other people have felt like this too. Slowly, your bad thoughts pick up momentum. Soon you begin to believe some of them. Then you might catch yourself and tell yourself to stop. You’ll have a couple of good weeks, which is like clipping the tree. But soon thereafter, you’ll free yourself from the shackles of positive thinking (because nobody wants to be positive . . .) and society has this way of dragging us back into to the dungeon of negativity. Soon you’ll be freewheeling yourself into depression, picking up on every negative thing you dislike about yourself along the way and adding it to your snowball. Soon, you’re a fucking avalanche and nobody can stop you until you reach the bottom and that is where you must seek help. This is how depression manifested itself in my case and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are the same. All too often, the people who seem the happiest are the ones who struggle the most and the people who try to help everyone else, often forget about themselves in the process. There is a fine balance to be met between making others feel happy and making yourself happy too because people say, “ help someone else to make yourself happy” and I couldn’t agree more. Helping other people definitely makes you feel better about yourself, but it doesn’t last. Helping other people when you don’t feel good is like having an illness and taking medication to relieve the symptoms, but never really getting to the root cause.
On returning home in November of 2015, I realized that suicide was not an option. It just simply wasn’t. No matter how much I felt like I had failed my parents because of my small, petty mistakes, I realized that 1. They didn’t really care about those mistakes because they didn’t define me. 2. They loved me anyway. 3. The amount of hurt that suicide would create would be much worse than the hurt that I was feeling at any given moment in my life. Sometimes, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like there is no escape and believe me, I’ve felt that, but there’s always an escape and there’s always someone willing to help. On top of that, as much as you feel like nobody cares, many people care and the hurt you’ll cause by taking your life will cause a lifetime of pain to the people around you. So, if you’re contemplating anything along those lines, take it from someone who has been in that situation and try to understand that every friend, family member, acquaintance and enemy will be deeply distraught when they find out that you’ve taken your own life. Take this time to be less selfish and focus on the people who you would hurt and while you’re thinking about the people you would hurt, take the opportunity to reach out for help. I hope someone can take something from this and understand that always chasing the next thing will never EVER fulfill you. Yes, with triumph comes a glimpse of happiness and with achievement comes satisfaction, but like anything, good or bad, you cannot dwell on it and you cannot live in the past. All too often we find ourselves living in our own shadows and we never see the sunlight.
Social media also plays a part in your outlook on life. Everything can seem fine, and even better than fine in most cases, but behind the façade there is often a different story. I read a very sad story in January of last year about a beautiful, young college girl who committed suicide. This girl had it all and she was a great track and field athlete. It seemed as though the next 4/5 years of her life were set and you would’ve definitely believed so if you saw her Instagram page. The saddest moment in reading this article was when I saw this girl posted a photo to which her Mom commented, “You look so happy” and her daughter replied, “It’s only a picture”. I believe this proves the power of perception and social media. This is definitely something that I got caught right in the middle of and it wasn’t so much to impress my peers, but rather share my outer experience of life. But upon returning home, people will tell me how much I’m “living the dream”, but little did they know the stuff going through my head. During these times I understood that the world of social media is a fake one and it is a trap that so many people can fall into. Of course, I could make myself look like a millionaire living the dream and in truth, I was living my dream, but on top of that, I was very depressed and very unhappy with myself because of the decisions I had been making and this is the aspect of my life that never made it onto social media.
This further proved to me that circumstances are merely circumstances and they don’t determine your happiness and you must understand that if you’re going to live a more fulfilling life. Of course, it is easy for me to say that circumstances don’t matter; they most definitely do matter but I don’t think they need to be the source of your perceived happiness or sadness. As each of us progresses through life we often become victims of a progressively lopsided culture. Our culture values achievement over presence and status over appreciation of what we have. This leaves us in a trap, one of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can never be fulfilled.
Quite often in my darkest moments, I reflected on myself and saw myself as the factory defect of a group of people and I often looked at others as though they had it all figured out. From people working in the worst of the worst jobs to the über successful, I felt as though I was the only one who couldn’t figure out this thing called life. But later, I figured out that 1. A lot of people are fighting the same battle. 2. Some people are so oblivious to how much can be explored in the world that they are quite content in the small bubble of their town or city and they cease to explore the realms of an exciting life. As people become more educated and well-rounded individuals, they begin to see that a life exists outside of their perceived ‘world’ and that there is much more to explore.
Talking to someone definitely helps. Whether a friend, a family, a doctor or a psychiatrist, it all depends on who you’re most comfortable with and what you feel you need. I also think that you need to see a problem for what it is and not worse than it is. A lot of us oversteer in life, especially people who are trying to do something different or better themselves. A lot of people see a problem, they then proceed to fix the problem and they do, but they fix it to the extent that the opposite of the initial problem is now the problem. This kind of leaves us in a rat race, running down a hallway, bashing into the walls and wearing ourselves out. In my case, I was oversteering after making a simple, forgivable mistake. After the mistake, I’d beat myself up for a few days and then get back to work. But during the few days of beating myself up, I’d set forth some completely insane goals that were so unreachable that I was guaranteed to fail. This then leads me to fall short every time and thus, the idea that I always fall short becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though I intellectually knew this not to be true, my track record said otherwise. As a hero of mine, Tim Ferriss, says, “You must set the game up so you cannot fail”. And this might seem so basic that it simply couldn’t work, and perhaps it won’t work for you. But if you find yourself in the same position that I was in, it might and is worth a try. Setting the game up so you cannot fail simply means setting yourself tiny tasks to get done, milestones to reach or goals to conquer. Why set them up so small and attainable? Wouldn’t any book of high achievement say, set your goals just out of reach, enough to stretch you but not so far that you can’t reach? Yes, they would. But there is something so addictive about setting insane goals, dreams, and aspirations. “People are year wise and hour foolish” – and this means that people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a year (see Time Perspectives). This was of massive importance in helping me get back into a better frame of mind.
By starting small and doing the basics right, you build up consistency – momentum. Just like your snowball that got you here in the first place, you’re now on the other end of that snowball and things are looking up. Just as the beginning of what became a monstrous snowball was a handful of mistakes compressed together, the new snowball is comprised of a handful of triumphs which turn into an unstoppable force. The story you tell yourself and the words you repeat consciously or sub-consciously become the belief system you hold. Learning to accept that things will not happen overnight and that you must do the simple things well is a difficult pill to swallow. We always want the big fix and the quick answer but there never is one. How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time. So take your tasks slowly and in small bite size pieces for this is what will help you gain the right kind of momentum.
You also need to remember to be kind to yourself because you need to live in your body and mind for the rest of your life. However simple it may sound, it’s true. We still haven’t found out a technique to export our consciousness to another being and until that time comes, you need to love yourself. Again, you’re navigating the edge of a sword and you do not need to love yourself so much that you’re full of shit. But love yourself enough that you don’t allow yourself to fall into the small traps that will be put in your way.
What Techniques Did I Use?
I have tried and used many techniques, some more successful than others. I am going to give you a list of techniques that I have tried and tested and ones that have not only helped me claw my way out of the hole I was in, but they now help me mitigate falling into that hole again.
- Journaling and more specifically, gratitude journaling. I initially started a gratitude journal many years ago, and what it has done for me is allow me to notice the small moments in life, the things that people often ignore. Gratitude or gratitude journaling also helps you see through the lens that society creates and it helps you label things slightly differently. Instead of ‘a horrible rainy day’, your wording might change to ‘a beautiful rainy day’. These slight shifts in language help you see that “Hey, life is actually amazing”.
- Star gazing. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that this is probably my favorite thing to do and luckily enough, living in Florida, I get to do it quite often. I know “Star Gazing” sounds like absolute B.S. but take a second to think about it. When you look up into the night sky and see the part of the universe visible to the human eye, you see how vast it really is. You might look at a star and when you contemplate that star, you’re looking into the past and that star might not exist anymore because its light is traveling millions of miles and it takes such a long time to reach earth that it could be extinct. Then think of all the parts of the universe we cannot see or have not discovered. Or even imagine yourself on a different star, looking back on the earth. Suddenly you gain perspective and see that your life or my life isn’t all that important. In the vastness of this universe, were as much as an atom is to the earth . . . invisible, but not worthless.
- Working out. I have always worked out, mainly because it gives me a competitive edge when playing golf but at the time I wrote my book, I was so stuck in my own head I let my workout regime slip. Of course, you might think that writing a book would help but it didn’t. When you’re stuck in your own head, the last thing you need is to be secluding yourself from the rest of the world and spending more time alone, thinking. When the formula, changing my mind to change my body isn’t working I switched that formula and change my body to change my mind. The body and the mind are part of the same vehicle, and they work interdependently of one another.
- Meditation. A consistent meditation practice can help you understand yourself on a deeper level. Download an app like Headspace and let the experts guide you. You can do 10 days of 10 minutes for free. Don’t judge, just do and see where it takes you.
- Slowly build layers. Do not try to change everything at once. I have done this many times and it simply doesn’t work. If you want to run a marathon and haven’t trained, you wouldn’t run a marathon every day for a week because you’d end up in the hospital. Likewise, trying to do 10 things in a day is setting yourself up for failure because if you achieve 9/10 then you’ve got 90% complete. Decent right? Wrong . What if you decided to do 1 thing a day for a week and you end up doing 3 things a day for that week. You’ve then scored 300% in an exam as opposed to 90%. Set the game up in your favor because you need to give yourself the best chance possible.
Thank you for reading this piece and it is great that I am now in a place that allows me to write about this period of time in my life. Depression isn’t the kind of thing that once you’re out of it, you’re out of it forever – it is something that requires work, constant reflection, and mitigation. Like fitness, you must do the basics consistently and consistency leads to excellence. I encourage each and every individual who reads this to take the time out of your day to sit back and reflect. It might be the best thing you ever do.