I was first diagnosed with depression about five months after the birth of my son, in February 2011.
I say “first diagnosed” because I’m sure I’ve been low like this at numerous other points during school, University, and my first career as an IT consultant. But I’d never encountered anything this extreme.
The interesting thing, looking back, is that I can’t pinpoint the onset of my depression on any one single event. There were a host of small decisions that compounded over time, and slowly led me down the spiralling path of stress, overwhelm, and ultimately, depression.
My depression journey began back in late 2009 when, after two miscarriages trying to have our second child, my wife and I started a “get fit, get pregnant” campaign. We were the healthiest we’d been in years, and in late January 2010 we got the exciting news that we were pregnant again!
The next step was to re-arrange our lives and our business so that in 9 months’ time, my wife could focus purely on looking after our new baby. I started training four new photographers for our business. Suddenly I became a manager of people, on top of my roles of husband, father, photographer and business-owner. A few cracks started to show.
As part of the “get fit, get pregnant” campaign I decided that I would like to run a full marathon. My weekly training already included regular 3 gym sessions, but now grew to an additional 4 or 5 hours of long runs. This started to take a toll on my body, and more cracks in my psyche started appearing. In August, I was given an amazing opportunity to photograph and publish a book for my local City Council. The project had an absurdly short time-frame, and I decided I’d work on my days to get it all done. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this choice started a whole new line of cracks through me.
My son was born in October 2010, so along with all these new roles, new stresses, and minimal down-time, I was now a new parent again, getting disrupted sleep, and dealing with a new addition to the household. I started sleeping less and less, and drinking more and more coffee. I was getting gradually more angry and irritable, and more overwhelmed and further behind in my work. The cracks started becoming fractures and fault-lines.
I desperately wanted my wife to be able to enjoy being a Mum for our new son, and focusing her energies on that alone, just like she had for our daughter four years earlier. Because of this, I stopped talking to her about work, and kept more of my stress and concerns to myself. I would nod off at the dinner table, snap angrily at my daughter, and be silent and distant from my wife. I would sit at my desk for hours, with my head in my hands, trying to think my way through all the competing pressures I was feeling.
I remember thinking to myself: “If I can just make it through to our summer holiday after Xmas, I’ll be OK.” Except that I wasn’t OK…..
I made it to our summer holiday, with a massive coffee habit, and a weird desire to stay up late watching garbage TV. I didn’t want to engage with my kids, and at the same time I was putting pressure on myself to train for my next fitness goal - a triathlon in late January. Instead of unwinding and enjoying my down-time with my family, I was going for long bike rides, runs and swims every day, eating garbage food, and not sleeping well at all.
We didn’t have much work to return to after Xmas. We were burning through cash at an alarming rate, and I was grumpy almost all the time. I now didn’t care about the business, I didn’t care about being a photographer (something I had loved passionately for years) and I was even more distant from my wife. To top that off, my daughter started school and I realised that I’d missed most of her final year at home because I was too focused on work to spend much time with her. I punished myself and felt immensely guilty because of this.
I felt like I had stopped on our Xmas holiday, and was unable to start again. I was angry at everything, and felt overwhelmed, sad, and hopeless most of the time. I didn’t know what to do, and I hated that feeling, because I’d always known what to do. I was unhappy with myself, because I’d always wanted to be a great husband and a great father, and I felt like I was failing terribly at both of those goals. I felt completely miserable. One day, frustrated with my distant, closed-off behaviour, my wife confronted me about it. She said, “For whatever reason, you can’t talk to me about whatever’s going on, so please call your Step Dad. You always seem to be able to talk to him about anything.”
So I phoned my Step Dad. It was the first time I admitted to myself that something was wrong. I said to him, “I’m just not coping. I hate taking photos, I hate my business, we’re losing money every day, I’m tired all the time, I’m angry all the time, and I’ve just missed my daughter’s last year before school because I was working too hard. I don’t know what to do.” He then gave me the simplest, and possibly the best, piece of advice I have ever been given: “You have two choices. You can figure out what’s wrong, and then fix it. Or, if you can’t do that, get some help to figure out what’s wrong, and then fix it.”
The next day my wife very gently asked me to read and complete a questionnaire on the beyond blue website. It was like someone had scraped the insides of my brain, all my thoughts, all my feelings, and put them on the page in front of me. It became very clear to me that I was very likely suffering from depression.
I made an appointment with my GP on the very next business day, and after describing my situation, he almost instantly agreed. He referred me to a psychologist and my diagnosis was formally confirmed, and a treatment plan put in place.
My preference was to address the root causes of my depression, rather than treat things with medication, so with the help of my psychologist, I put in place a new plan of better sleep, less physical stress through hard training, and better work habits. The journey didn’t end there, however. My wife and I were still fighting a lot, and she couldn’t comprehend the severity of my depression. After all, she had just given birth to our son naturally and without pain relief, in record time. Not only that, but in a freak accident only 5 weeks later, my wife cut off the end of her little finger in our back sliding door. In light of that, her response to my illness was along the lines of “What’s your problem? I’ve gotten through heaps worse than this without losing it, why can’t you?”
On top of that, the psychologist’s recommendation was that I reduce as much work-related stress as possible, to allow me to recover. I was all for it, and quickly wrote up a plan to demolish our business, but my wife was completely opposed to my plan. We went to a marriage counsellor, to help us find some common ground. Sadly, I couldn’t engage with the process at all. Things were looking bleak. Despite being given a formal diagnosis by a qualified psychologist, I felt like I was still flying solo.
Finally, something happened that changed everything. On returning home one day, my wife saw a Police car parked directly out the front of our home. She was terrified that I had harmed myself, or worse, taken my own life. In that moment, her attitude shifted. Later on, my wife said that if I had been diagnosed with cancer, she would have done anything and everything we needed, without a second thought, to get me well again. When she saw the Police car, she realised that we had to treat depression with the same focus and dedication as if it were cancer.
My journey with depression has a happy ending. Once my wife and I started working together again, we made rapid progress to getting me back on track. Our business is now a fraction of its former size, but still pays our wages and with a fraction of the stress of before. I see plenty of my wife and kids each week, and we have a fantastic lifestyle filled with personal and family rituals, to keep us all healthy and well-balanced. I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be “cured” of depression. Over the last couple of years since I was diagnosed, I’ve learned what my triggers are, and what my symptoms are. I’ve learned several techniques that help me stay balanced and positive, and minimise the impact and duration of the “down days”.