Six months ago, I could not have even fathomed that I would ever feel this good again. Six months ago I wasn’t able to imagine a brighter future or what would it take for me to reach it. Six months ago I was at my lowest of lows since 2008, and the years in between weren’t exactly Disneyland.
Six months ago I was wondering, “what if this is the real me, and what if the happy, content me was a fake? What if there’s no way for me to ever feel better because that’s just my melancholic nature?”
You might have guessed that things have gotten much better since. I’m at a point where I feel like I can comfortably write about my experience without getting pulled back in. But this is not the first time I’ve tried to write about this topic. Nor the second, nor the third... I’ve stopped counting.
You may be wondering why I feel so compelled to write about depression, on my art and business blog no less?
This might sound like "too much information" for a blog of a creative professional. Understand though, that I'm not throwing a pity party here. There is more to these words than trying to give you a glimpse of the world from my viewpoint.
There’s research that supports the connection between high creativity and mood disorders, so I can assume a great percentage of people who read this blog have one too, either diagnosed or self-diagnosed.
Depression is a part of many creatives’ lives, and people feel too much shame to talk about it openly, so they suffer in silence.
They think to themselves “What if I never get better?” and don’t dare to ask anyone to confirm or dispel their suspicions.
They think to themselves “What if it’s just my nature to be so melancholic? What if it’s a core part of my personality? What if getting better meant I would lose the inspiration for my art?”
These are all valid questions, the last one not the least important. Art is such an integral part of our lives. Would we willing to risk losing our art if we get rid of the anguish that currently fuels it?
Most people don’t dare ask their peers whether these feelings are something others are also struggling with.
There’s such, such deep shame in having mental health issues. This shame is in no way helped by our loved ones who add the salt to our wounds by telling us to “snap out of it”.
I still have shame around this topic, and as much as I want to think I’m writing this for you who may be needing to read it, I’m writing this for myself – to prove myself that I’m stronger than this feeling of shame, and that it has no power over me.
If I’m able to tell the entire world how I really feel, it means I won.
But six months ago winning at anything was a faraway dream. Six months ago things were looking bleak.
But before we go on with the story...
A big fat disclaimer
I need to say this, because I don't want anyone's lawyers on my back.
Opinions expressed in this text are just that – my personal opinions. I'm not a mental (or any kind of) health professional.
I cannot accept responsibility for any damages you might suffer if you apply anything you read here. By continuing to read this text, you fully accept responsibility for your own well being and relieve me of any liability to you.
If something sparks inspiration for you, that's great. If you think this I'm full of shit and quackery, that's actually great, too.
People differ, and what works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.
My first onset of depression came about in early teens, which I already mentioned here. In short, I was bullied by my peers since kindergarten, and after years of experiencing the negative side of humanity (in children and teachers, no less) it culminated in a deep desire to just stop existing.
(I never wanted to commit suicide because I felt a commitment to my family and friends to stay in their lives, and I knew my death would hurt them badly. So the best I could do was fantasize about never being born in the first place, and how everyone’s lives around me would be better off it I wasn’t around.)
I don’t remember how I got better, but it probably had something to do with getting closer to a new friend who was in a similar situation. Naturally, we became best friends and started our journey of exploring metal music and occultism in search for the meaning of life (pretty standard behavior for depressed teenagers).
I had another onset of depression in high school due to unrequited love, but that one wasn’t really memorable except for the fact that one of my best friends dumped me because she couldn’t bear to listen to me complain anymore.
I’m not sorry that she did. I believe friends should be able to accept each other at their worst, and if they can’t, it means they’re not compatible. But this adds to the feeling of shame, and if it happened to you as well, I want you to know that I empathize with you, and that it’s not your fault. (It’s not their fault, either. People are free to choose who they want to be friends with by whatever criteria.)
I have to pause here and thank my dear friends who were unfazed by my dark side and remained by my side to this day. I know you’re reading this. I love you.
The next episode was fairly memorable for several reasons. I just enrolled into the University, electrical engineering program.
Whenever I mention to people that I’ve studied electrical engineering and not art, they’re surprised, but you have to know something about me-from-then. I was not an artist yet. My first choice would’ve been computer science, but I wasn’t able to go study outside of my hometown, so I found “the next best thing”. Except the supposed next best thing was the worst.
After the first month of classes I realized I was in the wrong place. I didn’t like the subjects, the teachers, fellow students, or the overall atmosphere. I wasn’t happy where I was, but I had no idea where else to go. I felt trapped. It was unbearable.
My only means of escape from the unpleasant reality was into my own imagination – and that’s how Nela the artist was born.
What began as doodling in my class notes became a decade-long obsession with sketchbooks. I spent days and nights practicing drawing and digital art.
The older version of "Sharp Tongue", pen & ink on paper, 2006.
I later painted a new version in acrylics.
My first creations were raw and dark. I didn’t hold anything back – I let all my disappointment, frustration and hopelessness run out on paper. Before I knew it, I was hooked for life. I found a new meaning and it helped me get better.
I started dreaming about other possibilities, about maybe going to a different university and becoming a graphic designer, or maybe getting into art school and becoming a cartoon animator. The world seemed full of options.
Well, you know how things turned out in the end. (If you don’t, I’ll fill you in: I didn’t study art or design, but I did end up a professional graphic designer.)
I’ll just note that the episode at the uni was the first one when my parents realized something was seriously wrong with me. Sadly, their first suspicion was drugs. When they had me tested and realized it wasn’t drugs, mom suggested I go see a therapist. I turned it down because I didn’t want them to pay the “unreasonable hourly rate”, when we weren’t really rolling in money.
The there was another episode in 2008 that came out of a relationship decay and my subsequent self-medicating with alcohol and making poor life choices, mostly in regards to men and money. (Tortured artist stereotype, anyone?)
This time I actually went to see a therapist. You could get free counseling sessions at the Psychology department if you were a University student, I just didn’t know that before. She didn’t seem too worried about me so I thought I was pretty much doing OK on my own. I only went to see her a few times, but it helped with my self-confidence that a mental health professional thought I was perfectly normal.
Long story short, I sobered up and decided to refrain from dating for a while. Then I started hanging out with this guy that I knew from before. I gave it a shot without harboring too many expectations, and well, we’ve been together for over 6 years now.
I thought I was cured. I thought it was never going to come back. I thought those “low phases” when I just wasn’t very inspired that lasted for a few months were as worst as it could get.
I wrote an article how I was a “closet depressive” because I felt that what I was suffering from wasn’t really depression, and I didn’t want to compare myself with people who needed to take medication for their condition or had suicidal thoughts.
I was in denial and reluctant to call my condition by its name because I had this idea that really depressed people had it worse than me. That me being somewhat functional disqualifies me from wearing the label. I called it “my down phase” and later Seasonal Affective Disorder, because it usually coincided with the winter months.
My self-worth issues wrapped their tentacles around the very thing that was causing them in the first place. I felt it wasn’t bad “enough”, that I wasn’t depressed “enough”.
Then – surprise, surprise – I touched the bottom once again.
What depression feels like
People who have never been through depression have a difficult time understanding what it's like.
They say "helpful" things like:
"Just snap out of it!"
"It doesn't matter how you feel, you just need to push through."
"You've changed. I don't like the new you."
which invalidate a depressed person's experience.
When you are depressed, you are not aware of your strength, so you can't use it. That's how it works.
You get weighed down by the smallest things, like getting out of bed, vacuuming or replying to emails. You can barely remember what it felt like being the capable person who had things under control. All your past accomplishments now seem insignificant, and all your future potential completely out of your reach.
There doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel – you don't even know which direction is right, so you just stand there in the middle, alone in the dark.
Occasionally you may feel like you'd just rather stop existing, because your life seems like such a waste of water and oxygen. There are surely people on Earth more worthy of it.
(You don't want to kill yourself, of course. That would hurt your loved ones. But if there was some kind of hack to erase yourself out of existence throughout time and space, you'd take that red pill in a heartbeat.)
Yes, it's dramatic and ridiculous. But that's what it actually feels like inside one's own mind, which is the only reality we can experience.
(This is true for anyone, healthy or not.)
The entrepreneur’s curse
We’re finally seeing articles popping out in respectable papers about startup founders suffering from mental health issues, depression and anxiety being the top two.
These issues are exacerbated by our distinct way of life: feast or famine income cycle, working in isolation, feeling like our family and friends don’t understand us because they have steady jobs, avoiding social occasions and travel because we “have to work” or “can’t afford it”...
I’ve seen it in the people around me before I’ve started my own business. Even those that don’t have a history of depression can burst at the seams if they’re stretched too wide.
I’m not joking at all when I say that if our country really wants to encourage more people to pursue their own business and help the economy, they should invest in free counseling for new entrepreneurs.
If I had to distill my main reason for becoming depressed again into one sentence, it would be: I felt like I was doing my best, and I still wasn’t seeing any results.
My frustration grew into disappointment, disappointment grew into guilt, guilt grew into anxiety, and anxiety grew into hopelessness.
This is a snippet of what I wrote back then (the fourth time I attempted to write about it):
At the moment of this writing, the reality of my situation has finally sunk in. There's no doubt about it: I'm chronically depressed.
I still can't see the end of it. I'm still afraid that it will never go away. That my life will be like this forever.
I hadn't told anyone except for a few friends. My boyfriend didn't really understand the seriousness of it and blamed it on me simply not trying hard enough – which is pretty much how the majority of our society perceives depression.
As my parents like to put it, “When we were your age, we were too busy to be depressed. We were busting our ass to provide for you, we didn't have the time to have the existential dilemmas of your generation.”
While I was feeling terrible about myself because of objective life circumstances (ie. business problems) and then on top of that, because people in my life thought I should just plow through despite my mental, emotional and physical anguish, it somehow slipped my attention that I was no longer functional. For a while I thought I was keeping it together just fine, and then suddenly I realized I wasn't.
My not-actual-depression-just-a-low-phase-because-life-sucks-at-the-moment became actual textbook depression.
In a sense, I was relieved. I wasn't just a lazy ass who can't pull herself together. I have a condition that's preventing me from doing so.
My other thought was “well, shit”. How am I supposed to get out of this mess now?
Depression can be fatal. What am I going to do?
All I knew was what I wouldn't do – at least not yet.
I was so broke that there wasn't even a chance I could get a psychiatrist to check me out. And being aware of how sadly misinformed most MDs are about depression research and what actually works, I didn't want to go there just to be handed some happy pills. (Did you know that 80% of depression medication prescriptions in the US are written by people who are not mental health professionals? That's absurd.)
While I was pondering my choices, things weren’t getting any better. I felt more and more exhausted, until I had no energy for even the most basic tasks.
I could barely muster the strength to get up in the morning. Sometimes I slept in until 10. Sometimes I’d get up, realized there’s not even a reason for me to be awake and went back to bed until noon.
I was just barely keeping up with my client commitments, and had no drive to look for new clients or work on personal projects.
I was hiding from my partner and everyone else, hoping they wouldn’t see my terrible work ethic and blame me for what’s been happening. I didn’t want them to think I deserved to be broke and unhappy because I didn’t work hard enough. Because I was lazy.
As I was letting things slide more and more, the situation had gotten even worse. Without going into the full details of the story (that alone would take a novel), I’ll just state that my depression almost killed my business and my relationship.
If I was to go on as I did, I'd soon end up back with my parents, unemployed. Those are quite the opposite of the conditions needed for a person to get better. My life was in desperate need of change. I needed to change. And there was only one way I know how to do things – by myself.
Bootstrapping my way out of the pit
With no money to spare for my health and a revulsion toward medication, I started researching self-help and herbs. Soon I learned that the latter option was going to prove difficult because St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) was recently made illegal in EU.
The most useful website I’ve found in my online research was the Depression Learning Path. It’s a long and fascinating read that I can’t sum up in short here, but there were a few key points that made a huge difference in how I approached my own depression.
Two most important ones were the thinking styles that people who tend to become depressed have (as opposed to people who deal with the same circumstances and bounce back quickly) and the role of sleep in the development of depression. The reason I was hooked to this particular text, unlike other things I’ve read, is that it went along perfectly with that I was experiencing. I took some of the advice on that website and started my own healing journey.
Knowing that I’m prone to jumping headfirst into whatever interests me and getting discouraged if I don’t see the results fast enough, I decided I wasn’t going to allow this tendency to sabotage my healing. I was going to take baby steps and only move forward when I’m sure that my foundation is strong.
At the time, this meant that I wasn’t able to force myself to get up earlier, exercise, or do anything that was physically taxing. I just didn’t have the energy for it.
I decided to take the approach of absolute kindness toward myself.
Up until that point, I had the constant stream of negative commentary running through my head. I was beating myself up for not being successful enough and for not being able to take care of myself. It’s been going on for about 7 months and there were no visible signs of progress, which meant that this approach wasn’t working.
I decided to take a completely different approach. I knew I was going to receive pushback from my partner because it was so counter-intuitive, but I was desperate enough to finally stop caring about what someone else thought of my actions.
For once, my own health was more important to me than anything else. And so I decided to take it easy and rest.
My mission was to do whatever it takes to feel better.
I decided that I was going to ask myself what would make me feel better and do it, no matter what the answer was. A lot of the times, the answer was “nothing”. So “nothing” is precisely what I did.
If I was thinking I was lazy earlier, this pushed all my buttons. It was extremely hard for me to just sit on my couch and read, trying to take my mind of the worries that plagued all my waking hours. If you think sitting through 4 seasons of “Community” is easy for a creative workaholic with self-worth issues, think again.
This first step on my journey brought to the surface all the beliefs about work that I’ve been collecting through my childhood and education. It was so hard not to run back to my office, sit in front of my computer and waste hours doing nothing in particular (because my concentration was terrible), but at least thinking better of myself because I’m trying my damndest.
I returned back to meditation in an attempt to stop the spiral of negative thoughts. It worked very well, and I realized that if I want to get healthy and remain so, I ought to make it a part of my daily practice, no matter what.
The problem with meditation, like any other practice, is that when I’m feeling great, I think I don’t need it anymore. And then I start slipping up and things go to hell, and I wonder what went wrong. I became complacent, that’s what went wrong.
This time I swore I would never stop meditating again.
For at least one to two weeks I continued with the same approach.
I meditated. I wrote a journal. I went for walks in the forest. I stopped reading about business, blogging, marketing, productivity, and instead I read stories and watched videos that made me laugh. I barely set foot in my office and remained comfortable at my couch.
My boyfriend would ask me what I plan to do today, and I'd say "I'll read". Just like that. I got the nerve to say to the guy who's been paying our bills for the past two months that I'll just sit and read, when all the logic dictates I should have been busting my ass to make more money.
Occasionally I’d have a thought that perhaps today was the day to be more proactive, but I’d remind myself that I have to be patient and wait until I’m certain that my desire to work is back, and I’m not just guilt-tripping myself into working.
Of course I feared it would never come back. But I’ve experienced it enough times already to be able to trust that it always comes back sooner than I expect.
Eventually it did. I don’t remember how long it took, but one day I woke up with the knowing that I’m ready to take the next step.
Still fearing that if I try too hard I might slip up and be back where I started, I proceeded with care and caution. I only worked for a few hours every day, and I picked only the tasks that I knew I could handle. If this meant that the only thing I was able to do that day was to answer e-mails and then turn off the computer and go back to the couch, that’s what I did.
This did some great things for me. Every successfully completed task added wind in my back and raised my self-confidence.
I set the success bar so low, that there wasn’t a chance I would end up disappointed.
When you’re trying to crawl back up from a very deep & dark place, disappointment acts like poison. Even a tiny drop if it will send you back down in an instant.
If you’re in that place right now, I urge you to be kind to yourself. I know it’s not easy, because you’ve been taught exactly the opposite.
The reason you’ve ended up where you are is that you’ve been abusive toward yourself, thinking the thoughts that condemn you to a life of failure. The only way to turn things around is to learn how to act with kindness and allow yourself to take things easy.
Did I panic that me taking things easy for an indefinite amount of time will result in losing the little money and clients I’ve had? Of course I did. But I had to remind myself that acting out of this panic was what brought me here and that the only way out was to try something completely different and stick with it until I see the results.
Creating a way to remember
During all this time, I wrote notes. I created a little book where I’ve dedicated a page to certain aspects of my healing, how and why they worked, and how I felt when I did them.
I did this so that someday when I end up depressed again (I no longer entertain the thought that it will never happen again), I have a place to start that’s based on what worked the last time around.
It’s an instruction manual, written from the perspective of a person who’s just a few steps ahead.
This is super important to remember. Me from six-months-later couldn’t have written this. I don’t even remember all the details anymore. I’m too far removed from the experience of a girl in desperate need for some relief to be able to provide her with advice and guidance.
That’s why talking to your loved ones about depression doesn’t usually work.
They are too far from where you are, and the words they offer fall into the chasm between you, and never reach you. That’s not your fault, it’s just how things are.
The sound advice “you should get some exercise” at the time when you barely have the strength to get out of bed makes you feel more guilty that you can’t do it. It’s not the advice you need right now.
Our friends don’t know that. They don’t know the inner workings of our mind, and honestly, neither do we ourselves know them unless we observe our mind carefully and take notes.
Document your journey as it’s happening, and keep it for the next time the same thing happens.
Write down the thoughts that are bothering you and once you’ve realized that they’re not actually true, write that down as well, and how you can move past them.
If you’ve read the above description of depression and nodded your head, there’s one reason why: you feel like I’m reading your mind, because you’ve felt the same way. You trust me because you know I know how you feel.
That’s exactly what you need to do for yourself.
Next time you’re feeling too bad to accept any advice, you’ll read that and think, “Well, me-from-then sure knew exactly how I’m feeling right now. There must be something to this thing if she was able to predict it with such accuracy. Maybe I should try these things she’s recommending”.
Yes, get all the help you can from wherever you can – but remember that your own experience is a goldmine of ideas for healing.
How to help a depressed loved one
Many of you who are reading this may be asking yourself what can you do when your friend, partner or family member is going through a depressed phase?
The best thing you can do is to provide a judgment free atmosphere.
The biggest obstacle in communication between a person with depression and a healthy person is disbelief. The healthy person finds it hard to believe that the depressed one just isn't able to do something to get over it already, and the depressed person doesn't believe that anyone else understands her.
If you really want to help someone, listen to them with empathy. No advice giving, no questioning. Be careful not to do anything that will create a sense in the person that what they are experiencing is wrong, and if they’re unable to quickly move away from it, they’re a failure.
When they say something self-deprecating like “I feel like an utter failure and like I messed up my entire life”, instead of saying “You’re not! You’re a great person, and this is just depression talking”, be empathetic. Say something more akin to “It’s understandable why you feel this way. I would probably feel the same in a similar situation.”
You may be worrying that this is counterproductive and won’t help them get any better, but that’s not how it works. What you’re really doing is building trust between you and them. They feel comfortable with you because they know you’re not trying to force them to change before they’re ready.
The depressed person has to reach new understanding on their own in order for it to be effective. Just saying things will turn out OK won’t make it so. What you can do is remind them that this is a temporary situation, and there’s nothing shameful about finding yourself in one once in a while.
What doesn’t kill you...
As I was going through the most difficult times in the past few years, my go-to saying was “this is going to make a great blog post one day”.
More and more I find myself thinking "One day, the story of how I've gotten myself out of this mess will make a great blog post." #fml— Nela Dunato (@nelchee) March 13, 2014
And so the time has finally come to turn this story into a blog post.
Overall, it took me less than a month from taking that first step to healing until the moment when I’ve felt that I’ve finally gotten back to my self again.
At first, the worry subsided and I was able to feel at peace about my situation.
Then I was able to think some optimistic thoughts like, “today may be the day I get a new client / I receive a payment due / someone buys a brush set license...”
Then my energy level rose and I was getting up feeling more content with my life and eager to write, draw and design again.
I became super prolific with writing. For all the months before that this blog stood silent, I more than made it up in mere weeks. I was coming up with at least one new topic per day.
To me, my recovery feels extremely fast, compared to 7 months before that I was only getting worse. I honestly didn't think it would work so well. I'm still surprised that it did.
I cannot guarantee that this is something that will work every time, but at least I feel confident that I will always be able to find a way that works for me.
This experience has taught me the importance of trusting myself over other people, and that taking care of my own needs first is the key to being able to do anything worthwhile in life.
Before this, I had an immense amount of guilt about relaxation and “laziness”. I felt like I deserved to be a failure because I simply hadn’t worked hard enough, and then I ran myself into the ground working even harder, never satisfied with my progress.
I’ve learned about the medicine of ease, rest, and letting go – things that were “dirty words” before, that I never allowed myself to really enjoy.
And I’ve learned about the importance of the written word to preserve the memory of wise things we realize and then forget.
Some of these things are meant to be shared, some are not. I don’t believe I will ever share the contents of my journals, but the least I can do is write this and hope that it will offer an inkling of hope to someone who needs it.
There’s infinite wisdom in all of us that never gets shared because it never gets written.
I’m grateful to have the drive and the opportunity to be writing and sharing this with you right now.
As I said, even if it doesn’t do anything else for anyone, it achieved something immense for me.
I’ve found the courage to share this despite all my shame.
And this means that I won.