Depression: Part I – My Journey

Hello lovely people!

I hope you’ve had a terrific week! Today I want to share with you a topic that is very close to me: Depression. As I have personally experienced depression for many years, and also studied and conducted research on it, I have quite a bit to say on the topic. For this reason I’ve broken this topic down into two parts. The first of which that I will share with you is my personal journey with depression. The second part, which I will post over the weekend, will discuss some of the scientific evidence relevant to depression.

When I started writing this piece I wasn’t sure exactly where to begin. I feel I have so much to say on this topic and so much knowledge to share, it’s tough to decide what to focus on. For the purposes of keeping this somewhat brief, I won’t go into a lot of detail. However, if there’s something you read that peaks your interest and you’d like to learn more about it, please leave a comment, email me (genuinelyjulie87@gmail.com), or contact me on the Genuinely Julie Facebook page, and I’ll be happy to chat more with you about it.

To give you some perspective on the prevalence of depression among cancer survivors and the general population, according to the literature both cancer patients and survivors tend to be at a greater risk for developing depression both during treatment and afterwards (Harrington et al., 2010; Raison & Miller, 2003; Spiegel & Giese-Davis, 2003). The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that among the general population, approximately 8% of adults will experience a major depressive episode at some time during their lives (CMHA, 2015). Depression is one of the most prevalent illnesses and the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2015), and has considerable economic, social, and personal implications.

The first time that I became depressed I was about 16, and its onset was triggered by a stressful family life event. I simultaneously developed an eating disorder, which I later realized was a maladaptive coping mechanism, that I struggled with for two years. When I turned 18, I was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. This did help some with my eating disorder, however I continued to experience low levels of depression, and struggled with a very negative self-image; I did not like myself and I hated my body.

Then came my stage IV laryngeal cancer diagnosis, which was a highly stressful and traumatic event, triggering another and more severe depressive episode, which would last for several years. The combination of the physiological along with the psychological and emotional trauma culminated in me becoming extremely depressed. At times I even recall contemplating suicide.

I also developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the trauma I experienced with my cancer, particularly the surgical aspect. Losing my voice, and having to adjust to a different way of breathing and speaking, along with the quite noticeable physical markers (ie. my scars and tracheotomy), was very difficult. As I had fairly severe body image issues prior to my cancer diagnosis and treatments, the new circumstances I faced only magnified my insecurities and self-loathing.

For those who have never been depressed, I realize that it can be difficult to comprehend the experience of it. However, I caution to withhold judgement as it’s difficult to truly appreciate how it feels to have no hope for your future, to feel as though no matter what you do you will not be able to overcome adversity, to feel completely alone, and to suffer tremendous emotional pain. But that is how severe depression often feels.

For many years I was angry to be alive, had little confidence in myself and minimal hope for the future. So what changed? In short: my attitude.

Aside from my longstanding fascination with behaviour and the mind, I expect a key reason I went into psychology was because I’d finally decided to try solving my own issues, because medication wasn’t doing the trick and I was sick of being depressed. In 2011 I began my studies in Psychology at Brescia University College. The experience and knowledge I gained in my three years there helped me to learn and grow tremendously, and slowly I began to overcome my depression as I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. I realized that just because I only had a tiny whisper voice, that didn’t mean I couldn’t achieve success. I excelled and graduated with honors one year ahead of schedule.

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Graduation from the Honors Specialization in Psychology Program at Brescia University College, London, ON. (2014)

I then began my master’s degree where among my many research interests, I became fascinated with learning more about inflammation, the gut microbiome, and its role in depression. This led to my interest and passion in nutrition, for which I am now taking a program to be certified as a Holistic Nutritionist. I’ve continued to educate myself on the role that nutrition and diet play in depression, overall health, and wellness, and slowly I made positive changes to my diet and lifestyle.

Along side my educational experiences, I began seeking out different resources and approaches to help facilitate my healing. This led me to yoga, meditation, and learning to practice gratitude daily and embrace kindness, which have been tremendously helpful to me in overcoming depression. I also read many books. Two of which that I found to be most helpful were “Happiness” by Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard, and “Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression” by Miriam Akhtar.

Here I am now, nearly 10 years after my cancer ordeal; I have overcome a lot of obstacles, one of the most daunting of which was depression. I have not only survived, but have learned how to flourish, cultivate happiness, and embrace life; and I know that regardless of your circumstances, YOU can do this too!

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Embracing life and learning how to flourish! (Photo: Emerald Lake, Alberta. 2015)

I now want to say to those struggling with depression: I know it may feel like you are alone and that there is no hope, that you can’t overcome it, and that your suffering will never end. But you can overcome depression, and you will. However, achieving recovery requires that you truly want to heal. This point is critical to understand:

Recovery and healing are a choice. You must both want it and be open to it.

For many years I wasn’t open to healing, and so my suffering continued for far longer than it needed to. I had a pessimistic attitude and my perspective was that life was cruel and unfair. I had victimized myself, and so my depression persisted.

It was not until I decided to take accountability for my circumstances and an active role in helping to heal myself that my life began to change positively. No one could make me do that, except for me. The same is true for each of us.

It is your choice to pursue recovery, healing, and to flourish.

No one can do this for us, we must do it for ourselves, recognizing that this is part of our own unique journey; a journey that will likely not be easy, but rather quite challenging. But the reward of gaining back and embracing your life, and of learning how to flourish and cultivate happiness are undoubtedly worthwhile!

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Step outside of your comfort zone, say yes to adventure, flourishing, and happiness!    (Photo: Ucluelet, BC. 2015)

I am content that after many years of taking antidepressant medication, I am now off of it and feeling better than ever! That being said, I want to be clear that I do not advocate nor advise for anyone to stop taking medication they are currently on; that is an important discussion to have with your doctor. What I do want to emphasize however, is that medication is not a cure but instead addresses certain symptoms temporarily. This is accomplished by altering specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain (Meyer & Quenzer, 2005). Moreover, the effectiveness of antidepressant treatment can vary greatly from one person to another, and depends on several factors such as genetics (Papiol et al., 2007), environment, and lifestyle choices. For some people a reduction in symptoms may be experienced, for others there may be no effect, and still for some symptoms may actually worsen.

Depression is a multidimensional illness involving physiological and psychological, including cognitive and emotional, components. This is why a holistic approach to treatment and recovery, which addresses both physiological (eg. nutrition, stress management, physical activity, herbal supplementation, etc.) and psychological (eg. emotional wellness, cognitive and behavioural treatments, stress management, etc.) aspects, is most likely to be successful (Greenlaw, n.d.; Hollen et al., 1992; Williams, 2001).

Ultimately though, one must first decide that they want to recover, and be willing to take action to facilitate this.

I am not so naive as to think that I will never again face depression. I know that I am more susceptible to it due to a variety of reasons. However, I have also developed confidence in my ability to overcome depression, along with an understanding of how to recognize what triggers may cause it to resurface. I have developed effective, healthy coping strategies and ways to counteract depression when I feel it trying to take hold again. The great news is that these are skills that you too can learn and develop!

Unsure of where to begin? A good first step is choosing to be open and honest, both with yourself and others, and realizing that it’s okay and natural to feel vulnerable and insecure. I’ve discussed both of these topics in more detail in previous posts which you can find here: insecurity and personal growth, and the value of vulnerability.

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Embrace your journey! (Photo: Ucluelet, BC. 2015)

Remember: This is your journey. Embrace it. Discover what works for you. Learn and grow.

I will end here with a quote that I remind myself of daily: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” – C. Jung

This quote has become somewhat of my mantra as it reminds me that no matter what life throws in my path, whatever my circumstances may be, I always have the opportunity to decide how I choose to respond and the extent to which I allow circumstances to affect me, and so do you.

xo Julie

The Value of Vulnerability

Hello Beautiful People!

After the positive response to my post on Insecurity and Personal Growth last week, I thought this very honest, raw post would be a fitting follow up. It also so happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day tomorrow, which can be rather difficult for some, as well as the 10 year anniversary of my official cancer diagnosis. Today I’m going to discuss the value of vulnerability.

I’m curious: how many of you upon the mention of “vulnerability” automatically associate this with weakness and negative connotations come to mind? Likely a great many do, and that may be because in many societies we have been socially conditioned to perceive vulnerability as a weakness. (It should be noted that limited research exists on this and there appear to be cross-cultural inconsistencies within the literature).

However, perhaps vulnerability isn’t a weakness at all. Consider this: humans are social creatures and many traits we exhibit have been evolutionarily preserved. By this I mean that since our early ancestors, qualities in individuals that were useful, such as altruism, stuck around because such qualities helped promote survival. However, for the most part qualities that were maladaptive (such as an inability to cooperate with others) and did not help an individual to get along with their social group were unlikely to be passed along to future generations (through reproduction).

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Altruistic behaviour – caring for orphaned baby squirrel, Theo (Summer 2015)

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, feeling vulnerable is something all of us have experienced at one point or another. It’s innate and has been evolutionarily conserved, therefore it must serve some sort of beneficial purpose to survival. So why are we taught to perceive it as a weakness? Could it be instead that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable in social situations are actually at an advantage? As research suggests, this may indeed be the case.

Allowing oneself to be vulnerable facilitates social bonding and helps cultivate closer relationships with important individuals. Historically, this would have helped with survival because it’s good to have someone who’s “got your back” when things get rough.
Yet in the modern emotionally constipated climate in which we live, the notion of being vulnerable has all but been suppressed.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness”Brene Brown

Given the evidence, it is plausible that we are actually fighting against years of evolution for an adaptive and beneficial trait. Further, perhaps this discrepancy is resulting in negative consequences regarding our ability to function socially and build the close, intimate relationships we often crave with others. Moreover, this suppression of innate vulnerability may be fueling the increasing levels of anxiety and depression which many individuals now struggle with.

From my own experience, I’ve come to understand that vulnerability IS a good thing, but requires balance. Here’s a personal example: On February 14th 2006 I was diagnosed with a stage IV malignant tumour in my throat. I was told that if I did not undergo surgery to remove my larynx (voice box), followed by chemo and radiation, I would without a doubt soon die. I still remember lying in the hospital bed hiding under the covers, crying for hours. Then came the rage, as I angrily told everyone I’d rather die than have to end up with no voice, all alone, and unloved (oh the theatrics and naivety of teenagers haha, but I genuinely believed this would be my future at that time). I had resolved not to receive the surgery; to simply allow myself to die rather than face a future of struggle and uncertainty.

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Social bonds – my wonderful family & two of my beautiful best friends for over 20 years (June 2014)

What made me change my mind were my family and friends. I saw how much this hurt them and how afraid they were, and it broke my heart to see their pain. I’m a very empathetic person and find it distressing to watch others suffer. Fortunately, this motivated me change my mind and I agreed to have the surgery.

After the surgery physically I recovered quickly. It’s amazing how rapidly the energy returned to my body once I didn’t have an enormous tumor sucking the life out of me (quite literally). But soon after came the chemo and radiation treatments, which nearly did kill me. I underwent 6 weeks of radiation and 3 intense chemo sessions. The chemo made me extremely sick. Then there was the radiation, which burned my skin, scarring it and the underlying tissue. Due to the pain and nausea, and fact that everything tasted metallic (a side effect of the treatments) I could eat very little. But I’m stubborn and I refused to give in to my broken body. It was my anger and the walls I’d put up since my diagnosis that I believe got be through it. I’d resolved to be invulnerable. To show no weakness to the disease that was trying to take my life.

For example, the radiation suite was on the basement floor of the London Regional Cancer Center and there was a flight of spiral stairs to get from the main floor to the basement (or of course there were also the elevators). I’d decided that no matter what I would take those stairs every single day, down and back up. Though near the end I was so weak I literally had to crawl up them (what a ridiculous sight I must have been hah), I still forced myself to take the stairs. I laugh about it now, even though I recall how at the time it was exhausting for me to do this. But this was my way of fighting back and proving to myself that I was not vulnerable, but rather I was tremendously strong. Death was not an option.

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About a year after treatment (Spring 2007)

My (perceived) invulnerability had served it’s purpose: I survived. However, after all of the struggle and treatments my walls did not come down, but rather stayed up for years. Unfortunately, it took me several years to realize that I needed to let my walls come down in order to move on with my life. I needed to learn how to be vulnerable again. This was a terrifying prospect for me. I’d experienced considerable trauma and the emotional and psychological aftermath nearly consumed me. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable anymore, but I knew that I needed to learn how to cultivate my vulnerability so that I could start living again.

And so I began meditating and practicing yoga. Reading as many books as I could  (“Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard, is one of my favourites and has helped me greatly), and learning all I could on how to open myself up to others and to the world; on how to be vulnerable again.

One of the most influential sources that helped me rediscover my vulnerability was a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of vulnerability in a delightfully humorous way, and how it IS ESSENTIAL to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Because, as you will learn:

Vulnerability allows us to connect with others; to experience joy, happiness and love

Please, if you do one thing today make time to listen to this talk because the message is tremendous and truly life changing, especially if you’re struggling with how to allow yourself to be open to others and the world; with how to be vulnerable and accept yourself. I still get shivers when I listen to this talk; it’s truly brilliant.

What I can tell you about vulnerability based on research that has been done, as well as my own experience, is that it is not a bad thing. Indeed, in the years since my cancer I’ve come to understand that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable are the stronger ones. It’s easy to put up walls to protect yourself from the pain and fear you may feel by putting yourself out there and being open to others and to new experiences. It takes far more courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open, knowing full well that you may get hurt and you may fail.

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Stepping outside my comfort zone and learning how to golf in Shuswap, BC. 2015

 

And that’s okay. Pain and failure suck. No one wants to experience that, and yet without it how can we grow? If we’re not making mistakes and experiencing things there is little opportunity for growth.

I would now like to challenge you to be vulnerable. Let down your walls and open yourself to life. Be curious. Go on adventures. Learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. LIVE! My experience has taught me that life is brief and can end very suddenly and unexpectedly. So please don’t hide behind your walls and shelter yourself from life, because you only get this one.

You will feel fear, and it will be uncomfortable, and that’s perfectly okay 

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Experiencing my “spiritual awakening” in magical Ucluelet, BC, Canada

Do not allow whatever it is that you fear stop you. We all have fears. Acknowledge that fear, then walk right through it. I am no longer afraid of dying. Having almost done it before, it doesn’t scare me anymore. What I’ve realized and what I now fear most is the prospect of not allowing myself to live, savor, and experience every opportunity this life offers me.

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Happiness with feathered friends in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (2016)

One of the most remarkable characteristics I’ve come to appreciate about individuals is their ability to overcome adversity, to adapt and to heal, so long as there is a willingness to be open to recovery. This requires vulnerability. It’s taken me nearly 10 years, but I have finally learned to be vulnerable, and I’m a much happier and more fulfilled person for it, able to love and accept love. Whatever walls you’ve built, for whatever reason, consider that perhaps it may now be the time to let them down and to let life in.

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Exploring beautiful Emerald Lake, Alberta, Canada (2015)

With love and gratitude,

xo Julie

ps. If you’re ready to take a step outside of your comfort zone, leave a comment about something that you fear or which makes you feel vulnerable. Simply getting it out in the open is the first step to overcoming it! 🙂