My Turning Point with Depression:
Turning Point would like to thank Brian Dykstra for being willing to share some of his journey through anxiety and depression... Brian has willingly offered his story as an encouragement with those who are struggling and as a testimony to how counseling can be a part of a powerful journey toward healing.
Below is his blog and account of his journey through anxiety/depression and how he found health, healing, and hope, on the other side. Though Brian probably would not say that his journey is near from over, he has found practical means to stand firm, be courageous, and fight for himself and his future.
At Turning Point, we want people to understand that struggles are okay. Some are our fault. Some are forced upon us. Some we were predisposed to have before we had the capacity to choose.
But whatever the reason, we have a choice as to what we do next. Take a look at Brian's story and how he found healing through his faith, his support system, his counselor, his psychiatrist, and his church.
This is just one of many stories... But maybe Brian's story will help you step out today and move closer to healing in your life... Check this out!
"ALL SHALL BE WELL"
I vividly remember my first panic attack. I was in St. Ann’s Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio (the sanctuary and altar discussed are actually the photo that is used for the header picture for this blog). My fiancée, Samantha, was with me (the ring having been on her finger just over two weeks) along with our dear friends Sammy and Jeffrey, who had come into town to celebrate our engagement. I had been struggling with a turbulent mind and endless questions the five days leading up to the attack, ever since I had looked up into the sky during a walk to pray the rosary, and said, out loud, “I don’t think I believe in God.”
During those tortuous five days I had visited the church, our parish, to find solace, but in vain. This day I was praying, begging, pleading to find comfort, an answer from God to all the questions I had. I slowly, tremulously, walked down the long center aisle to the front of the church, ascended the steps into the sanctuary, and fell on my knees before the altar, clinging to it, laying my head against the cold marble, kissing it, in hopes I might feel the Presence that, just days before, I believed was there during the Mass. I devolved into sobs, saying “please God….please…I need You, I can’t do this…where are You?”
A small group had entered the church, and my fiancée gently led me to a side area adjoining to the rectory. It was here I had my panic attack. I was practically manic, I barely remember the words I said. I do remember I kept saying “I don’t believe in God! I don’t believe in God!” among other things. What I remember vividly is how I felt, and even just recalling and delving into this event unsettles me.
My face was burning hot, my hands and arms tingled, my heart racing. I was short of breath, I couldn’t stop sobbing and I wasn’t entirely sure why. I felt as though I had to go, had to leave and pull myself together, but at the same time I was frozen, I couldn’t move. I felt as though every atom in my body was zooming outward, exploding me into nothingness, while at the same time I felt the weight of all the world, every thought and emotion, was spiraling inward, boring a hole into my chest.
My fiancée realised we were all in over our heads, left me with Sammy and Jeffrey, and went to get help, finding the pastor, Fr. John McNulty, who also had been serving as my private spiritual director and confessor the past year. He found me and spoke with me, about what I don’t entirely remember. I do remember he put his hands on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, “we are going to get you help, you’re going to be ok.” He told Samantha to take me to the hospital to have me evaluated.
On the way to the emergency clinic, Sammy, who has fought and conquered depression and anxiety herself, kept telling me that everything was going to be ok. She said, “you are having a panic attack, it is going to be ok, we are going to get you help.”
What do you do for yourself when this is your struggle? How do you cope with the serious illnesses that are depression and anxiety? Dealing with these issues is complicated, and, unfortunately, takes time. There is no easy fix, no magic pill, no say-this-prayer-and-it-will-all-go-away. However, as you deal with these things, there are tools you can use to help you through, help manage, and give you a purpose to keep getting out of bed and facing the day.
1) Professional help.
If you are dealing with depression and anxiety, consult your family doctor. He or she will be able to do a preliminary evaluation to determine if perhaps you need psychiatric help. Some doctors may simply prescribe anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication as they see the need, others may refer you to a psychiatrist for that decision. Not everyone dealing with depression and anxiety needs medication, but in some cases it may be necessary. There is nothing wrong with needing medicine. It doesn’t make you weak, it doesn’t mean you have failed. It means your body is sick, your mind is ill. At first that may sound harsh, but trust me, in time you will find that a relief. To know there is something physically, chemically off-balance in your body helps you understand that it’s not “in your head” or “made up.” It is something that can be diagnosed and treated, in many different ways. I myself was on multiple forms of medication. I was on two anti-depressants and a low-dose anti-psychotic (the anti-psychotic to fight the suicidal thoughts I eventually began to have). The medicine, if necessary, is a stepping stone, a tool to help your body heal. It puts your body back in balance chemically, and allows you to focus on the everyday tasks of life. Medicine should always be in tandem with other remedies, which brings us to point two.
2) Talk about it.
Find people that understand what you are going through, and talk about how you feel, express yourself. Not only should you talk to your friends and family, most likely you should find a professional to see as well. It can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical counselor, someone with advanced training in dealing with emotional distress and depression/anxiety. I saw both a psychiatrist and a clinical counselor. My counselor was a wonderful woman named Rose, a retiree, who worked pro bono for St. Ann’s parish. Truly a God-send.
3) Stay busy.
The worst part of my depression was often waking up. The instant grip of anxiety the second I gained consciousness set the tone for the entire day. Getting out of bed was an impossible feat. I nearly cried every morning because the prospect of facing an entire day in my state was unbearable. But out of bed I got (a small miracle), every day, and about my business I went (by the grace of God). During the day however, if ever I had alone time or down time, the anxiety was too much. I couldn’t handle it, and if I didn’t do something to help myself, I would end up having a panic attack.
So I found ways to distract myself, pass the time until one of my housemates came home and could help me keep my sanity. I did dishes, I raked the yard in the fall, pulled the weeds, shoveled the driveway in the winter, scrubbed the countertops. Often I would go to the grocery store and walk around, sometimes for a couple of hours. Being around people with whom I didn’t need to talk, and who didn’t expect anything from me, helped me. Watching people do “normal” things helped remind me there was such a thing as “normal,” even though I hadn’t felt that way in so long, and didn’t believe I’d ever feel that way again. Many people advocate exercise, which releases endorphins and is a natural depression-fighter. I would tell you to go for it, as well, though for me it didn’t help at all. I was physically and mentally unable to run during my depression, but that isn’t typical.
The key is to find the things you can do. Find what works and stick to it, stay busy, and keep distracted, keep giving yourself things to do, things to look forward to. It sounds silly, but one thing that kept me together was preparing the coffee at night for the morning. We had a coffee maker with a timer, and nearly every night, I would prepare the coffee for the house. It was a ritual which became something I could focus on and look forward to.
4) Create a stream of positive self-talk.
We are always talking to ourselves, whether out loud, or interiorly. During a period of depression and anxiety, it’s easy to get in a rut of negative self-talk. You have to avoid this. Find mantras, little catchphrases, you can say to yourself. I would say mine out loud. I felt it gave them greater power. My most frequent mantra was “all shall be well,” taken from Julian of Norwich. Even when I didn’t think “all shall be well,” I said it. I hoped in the truth of the phrase. I would often say “this will not be forever,” and “one day I will see God in this.” Phrases like “you are strong,” “you can conquer,” and “you will have victory” are all phrases I’ve used that I find helpful as well.
5) Read the Psalms.
Even if you’re not a person of faith, the Psalms are a remarkable tool for anyone going through depression. The poet (whether it was David or another writer) captured the feelings of despair so accurately and so vividly. I remember, even during my period of “not believing in God,” I would often say, when I could manage to crack open my Bible (doing so often created a wave of panic and anxiety), “man, David really knew what he was talking about.” The depictions of despair and depression are so relevant, even thousands of years after they were penned. It helped me to read them, knowing that someone else, particularly a great hero of faith, had journeyed through what I was dealing with.
I (again, by the grace of God alone) was able to stay devoted to prayer during my depression. It certainly wasn’t out of piety or immense holiness, I assure you. I was particularly devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, all mystics, all individuals who traveled through depression and intense spiritual droughts. St. John of the Cross’ magnum opus “The Dark Night of the Soul” (which I read during this period) has become a classic in Christian mysticism, and the term “dark night of the soul” has become well known and popular among most of Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike.
I will be honest: during my depression, prayer was never a solace. I never “felt” the assistance of God, or the spiritual consolations I so desperately craved. But something kept pulling me back, driving me to my knees (Holy Spirit anyone??). Even in this time when I “didn’t believe in God” I couldn’t help but continue to pray.
It was during my depression I was most thankful for the rote, memorised prayers of my Catholic tradition. Even when I couldn’t cause myself to utter words of my creation, I could rely on ancient prayers said by Christians for millenia. I collected quite a few prayer cards and prayer books and recited the prayers, because forming my own prayers felt fake, forced, and hypocritical. I relied on the Church and Her traditions to help carry me through my dark night, by staying devoted to prayer.
These are just some of a number of tools you can use to help fight this great battle of depression and anxiety. It’s not an exhaustive list, and it might be that not a single one of them works for you (though I would be willing to bet that most of them will help you on some level). To tie all these things together, you must keep one thing in mind: as in most things in life, the best tool to fight depression is time. It takes time to balance your chemicals, it takes time to discuss and evaluate the underlying emotional causes for your mental distress, it takes time to move on and heal from the trauma. You have to be patient with yourself and give yourself grace. You will have bad days. That’s ok, it doesn’t ruin your progress. You get back up, and you keep going, one step at a time.
If you know someone who is going through depression or anxiety, hopefully this will help you have a better insight into what they are dealing with. If you think it may help, share these things with them and encourage them to give them a try. It’s hard at first because often, in depression, you have no hope and you feel nothing will help, so what’s the point? But every step we take is one step closer to healing and being whole.
I hope, in some small way, this short list may help you or someone you love take that courageous first step on a path towards being well, or adds to the arsenal of someone already fighting their great battle. Overcoming depression and anxiety is about growth and change, acceptance and understanding. It is a long process, a true process of conversion.
Pax vobiscum, friends!
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” -Julian of Norwich