My 3-Year Fight for Life Against Depression
So, it’s been just over three years since I last posted here.
Hard to believe.
For three years, my treasured website has been just sitting here. Gathering dust.
Yes, three years a pretty long time. But believe me, it feels much longer. In fact, it feels like it was a lifetime ago.
And in a way, it quite literally was.
So much has happened in my life over that time. So, so much.
Forty-two months ago, my world inexplicably descended into a blackness that I could see no conceivable way out of. For the longest time, I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined that I would ever be back. Back here in “the light”.
And yet, here I am.
Somehow it happened.
Before the blackness of depression, I had a profound appreciation for life and for my health that few other people shared. I felt thoroughly grateful for every single day.
But you know what? There’s nothing quite like three years of hell to take that to another level.
The darkness begins . . .
It started around April of 2017, shortly after the competition season where I competed at the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia. I began feeling a bit “low”, mood-wise.
That was very much out of character for me, since I was typically one of those people who was always smiling. Everyone that knew me would regularly comment on how bright, happy, optimistic and energetic I always was.
I was that person that was a constant bundle of excitement and energy. I would bounce out of bed each and every morning, ultra-excited about getting into my day. I was all about motivation, both for myself and for others.
I would hit the gym each day with gusto and reveled in working hard. Building my physique and chasing my dreams. I couldn’t imagine life without fitness and training for the Figure stage. I remember telling a number of people I knew that that was what I was born to do.
But over the course of a month or two, my enthusiasm for training, and everything in my life really, gradually lost its shine.
I was still going to the gym regularly, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Now it was miserable, and I found myself just going through the motions.
I began feeling a sense of acute loneliness and uncertainty about my life’s direction and purpose, as well as my future. Making the smallest of decisions suddenly seemed to overwhelm me. And pretty soon, myself esteem all but disappeared.
A dark sense grew inside me that there was just no point to living. I felt like I just didn’t belong here in this life anymore.
And as that year went on, I got progressively worse.
Professional help . . .
Eventually I sought out the help of a psychologist. The first one I tried, I just didn’t click with.
The second one was no better, even though I saw her about nine times altogether. She came highly recommended by my GP and apparently had quite a good reputation, but unfortunately I found her to be of no help. Looking back now with a clear mind at how she treated me and on what her attitude was like, I can objectively say that she was incompetent, and should probably be in a different line of work.
Sometime later in the year I was prescribed with an antidepressant by my GP. I purchased the medication, took it home, but immediately threw it in the garbage. As someone who lived a life of health and fitness, someone who had been drug-free and medicine-free their entire life, I just couldn’t bring myself to go down that road.
By the end of the year however, I had spiraled down deeper and was experiencing full-blown anxiety. I went days without any sleep, and my mind raced constantly with thoughts of doom and fearfulness.
About anything and everything, with no rhyme nor reason.
I dreaded waking up each morning and having to face the simple, everyday tasks that I was doing so effortlessly in the past.
Now they absolutely terrified me.
My only source of personal support was my best friend, business partner and fitness coach, Fabian. He was and still is more like family than a friend to me.
By November I was staying at his place almost every day. He didn’t think it was safe or healthy for me to be on my own in the condition I was in, and I don’t think I could have survived without his help.
Dancing with the devil . . .
With my psychologist sessions getting nowhere it was getting increasingly difficult for me to function each day.
Sometime early in the new year I went to see yet another GP, who also prescribed me with antidepressants. I don’t even know if they were the same as the first ones – the ones I threw away. She assured me that they would help.
Fabian and I have a friend who’s a long time depression and anxiety sufferer. And for over fifteen years we had witnessed the roller-coaster of ups and downs, crises and hospitalizations that she’s had to endure because of antidepressants.
So we were very fearful that, as it was for her, going down that road would be the beginning of the end of my life as I knew it
But we didn’t really think I had much choice. With the psychologists being no help, medication was really the only thing left that we knew of at the time.
So finally, with good deal of trepidation I took the plunge.
Another door opens . . .
A few weeks later, the day arrived for my assessment at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD) at St Vincent’s Hospital, in Sydney. Fabian had discovered this facility though research online and we had made an appointment for me to attend about a month prior.
We were hoping that I could be included in their Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program, which, together with my medication (which so far had unfortunately not been helpful at all), would hopefully allow me to get better.
The result of the assessment was that I was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Depression and anxiety, in plain English.
I was assigned a psychiatrist/therapist that I quite liked, as did Fabian. We had a pretty good rapport. Fabian started taking me to each of my weekly therapy sessions because I was far too anxious to travel on public transport on my own.
Also, since he had known me for over 17 years at that point he was able to give my psychiatrist a lot of background into me as person and into my life. As it turned out, Fabian actually ended up sitting in at the end of each of my therapy sessions for the whole of the time I visited the clinic.
Because I was so profoundly depressed, my psychiatrist’s strategy was to simply do weekly talk therapy with me while the medication had a chance to lift my mood to a manageable enough level to allow CBT to work.
Despite trying a few different medications, however, that day unfortunately never came.
In October of 2018, after seven months my allowed time at CRUfAD came to an end, and I left with no real improvement over when I had arrived.
Even so, I was sad to leave.
Life goes on . . . sort of . . .
One of the things my doctor at CRUfAD emphasized to me from the beginning was non-avoidance. The importance of continuing to do the things I normally did, even when it’s really hard. If you stop doing something, it could be almost impossible to start doing it again.
Since my depression began I continued to work as a Japanese tutor in our tutoring business. I wasn’t able to do it at the same level that I used to, but still, I did what I could.
Fabian and I both knew that if I gave that up it would be the beginning of the end for me. As painful as it was, I just couldn’t allow myself to quit, so I toughed it out as best I could.
My psychiatrist said he couldn’t believe that I was still managing to work, but I knew I just had to.
So I did.
The other hell for me was going to the place that was once my sanctuary – the gym. From the beginning, Fabian encouraged me not to stop going.
As I said, we both knew that avoiding things would be very bad for me. We also knew that exercise is really important for someone with depression.
And besides, we were hoping that my depression wouldn’t last all that long. After all, I just wasn’t the type of person that was supposed to get depressed. The last thing we wanted was for me to suddenly recover having lost all my hard-earned muscle. That would have been tragic.
The healthy me was a Figure athlete. That was part of my identity. And I had to fight each day to prevent depression from taking that away from me.
So I persevered.
But despite all the theoretical upsides, it was just getting harder and harder to do.
My five-day-a-week gym schedule gradually became four days. Then Fabian started to go with me for support on two of those days each week. Then three days.
The days I went on my own were really, really hard.
Sometimes I just sat in the car park for ages, trying to work up the courage to go inside.
Never in tears though.
No matter how sad or how hopeless I would feel, either the depression or the medication – I’m not sure which – made it impossible for me to cry.
Eventually, four gym days a week became three days, all with Fabian going with me. And then two. Soon we were just going once a week for some cardio.
Finally, I cancelled my membership, behind Fabian’s back. But he understood.
There’s only so much hell that a person can put up with. Especially when you’re depressed and there’s no point to anything, including life itself.
The thorn in my side . . .
Back in April I had also actually started suffering from pretty serious chronic constipation. My doctor had put it down to possibly being caused by my medication. But before trying an alternative, he decided that we needed to rule out other possible causes.
That led to a saga that saw me undergo a series of medical tests, including a colonoscopy, and trying every laxative and enema known to mankind. I actually spent 24 hours in hospital trying to get my system cleaned out to prepare for the colonoscopy.
Thankfully, every test turned out to be clear.
It was soon after that that I had to finish up my visits to CRUfAD. As a free government service they had rules about how much time they were allowed to devote to each case.
The next six months saw me trying yet another antidepressant – one that was less likely to cause constipation – under the care of my GP.
But my depression and anxiety didn’t improve, and neither did my constipation.
After a while I decided to come off my antidepressant medication completely, and I was referred to a gastrointestinal specialist. After still more tests and therapy sessions, I still was no better and no closer to an answer or a solution.
It’s hard to describe just how much stress and misery my constipation caused me.
Imagine being terrified of eating every meal over a two-year period, because in your irrational, depressed state you’re convinced that the food isn’t going to be able to come out. There was no doubt in my mind that I would eventually die from my constipation, but it seemed like no one would believe me.
You have to understand that this is a very condensed version of my whole story.
Everything in my life was unimaginably difficult. For some strange reason, washing my hair terrified me. I couldn’t speak on the phone. Whenever it rang, I would jump.
I was consumed by thoughts of being abandoned and homeless, to the point where I was collecting shopping bags to put my things in when I would eventually be out on the street. Whenever I saw homeless people in the street, I would fret for them because I was convinced that I would be there with them someday.
I wondered where they slept at night, and where they would go when it rained. I also worried about how they dealt with mosquitoes and rats. I researched about where McDonalds threw out their unused food, so I would know where to go to eat.
And I was terrified that I would eventually go to prison for stealing food.
Anyhow, you get the picture. It was a living hell.
The end of my rope . . .
Fabian had been researching depression and anxiety the whole time I had been unwell, and had a number of ideas for potential treatments for me.
Since leaving CRUfAD he had tried doing CBT and Behavioral Activation exercises with me at home many times. But as for my psychiatrist, it was all to no avail.
Fabian’s goal was to start another therapy treatment with me around New Year’s Eve in 2019. He had researched it extensively and believed there was a good chance that it might help me.
Unfortunately however, he couldn’t find anyone in Australia who offered it, so he decided we would do it ourselves at home, since it was quite a safe therapy.
As luck would have it though, we never managed to try it because on 30 December, 2019 I tried to end my life with a massive overdose of sleeping pills.
It’s hard for someone who has never experienced depression to understand what drives a person to want to end their life. It’s very easy to criticise and say it’s selfish and weak and thoughtless.
Maybe it’s all of that. But you really don’t care.
In my suicide note, I apologized to Fabian for my selfishness.
When your entire life is so dark, painful and hopeless for years, and you see no imaginable way it can ever possibly change, the decision is pretty obvious and straightforward.
Maybe if you have a family there’s a little more to it than that.
But I’m single and I have no children, so for me the decision was that simple.
It really didn’t take much thought at all, although it’s probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
The aftermath . . .
Fabian found me in my room about five hours after my overdose, covered all over in dried blood.
For some reason, the overdose caused me to fall over in my room several times and I ended up with an eight centimeter scar on my head that required thirteen staples to close, as well as a cracked vertebra in my neck.
As a result, I spent a week in Royal North Shore Hospital healing up under 24/7 suicide watch.
The first few days following my overdose were particularly painful.
I was absolutely devastated that I was still alive, and couldn’t comprehend how it happened.
I didn’t want to be alive.
I even pleaded with Fabian to help me leave (life, not hospital), like Maggie in the movie Million Dollar Baby (more about that later).
Once I was medically cleared they transferred me to their mental care ward, and two days later I transferred to Gordon Private mental care hospital, where I was eventually to stay for two months.
I think I was the most withdrawn of all the patients there in the beginning. I certainly considered myself as the worst case.
I hardly spoke to anyone, and I saw the group therapy programs as being utterly pointless and a complete waste of time. The hospital itself was a very nice place, but even so I hated everything.
I even didn’t like the new psychiatrist whose care they put me under. That surprised Fabian, who thought he was a really nice guy. But of course, Fabian wasn’t depressed.
Over time the doctor gradually put me on a cocktail of four different psychiatric medications plus a sleeping pill. By that point our fearful attitude towards medications had softened somewhat. You could say that after everything that had happened, we really felt that we had a lot less to lose.
Though having said that, at the previous hospital, the consultant psychiatrist’s suggestion of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) certainly made Fabian extremely uneasy. And my indifference towards it didn’t help.
At the time I just didn’t care.
I don’t think it was something that Fabian would have allowed to happen quite so easily though.
The only thing that made life in hospital bearable were Fabian’s visits. He came to see me every single day, at every possible visiting session, at both hospitals.
Even so, as each day passed I grew increasingly distraught that yet another day of 2020 had gone by.
The year that I was never supposed to see.
Fabian intentionally avoided mentioning the date to me as much as possible.
But then, one day, my world suddenly changed.
Back to the land of the living . . .
On 24 February 2020, at exactly 2:00am, I awoke in my hospital bed after just two hours of sleep.
And inexplicably, my depression and anxiety were gone. Completely.
Miraculously “switched off”.
Just like that.
Thanks to the wizardry of my wonderful psychiatrist (and new best friend), I was back.
That day, everything changed one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
I was back to my old self.
I’m sure the patients at Gordon Private were left scratching their heads. Literally overnight I had gone from being a part of the furniture, who would hardly interact with anyone, to the life of the hospital.
I made friends with virtually every patient there.
I was ecstatically happy every day. And suddenly, I absolutely loved the group therapy classes. I even signed up to do more as an outpatient once I was discharged.
My mood became so elevated that my hospital psychologist labelled me as “hypomanic” in her notes. She and my psychiatrist both suspected that I was in fact bipolar.
It look some convincing on the part of both Fabian and me to assure them that that was in fact the normal me. I have always been a very upbeat, energetic and over-enthusiastic person.
Add to that the sheer delight of being suddenly back to normal after almost three years of unimaginable hell where I had lost all hope, and I think that no one could have denied me the right to be “inordinately happy”.
Gordon Private hospital became like heaven to me, and I avoided leaving for as long as I could. My psychiatrist was certainly happy for me to stay a while longer, to ensure I was OK before letting me loose on the world again.
I still look back at that place with extreme fondness and consider it my second home. The place where, after almost three years of unremitting, severe depression, I was born again.
On 24 February, 2020 – my new birthday.
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me . . .
Before my depression, I was the model of a person who could, in theory, never be depressed. My friends would say that if it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
And it can.
All the lifestyle changes you read about for combating depression – exercise, good diet, omega-3, pursuing goals, being active, etc., we already a normal part of my life.
I was training in the gym five days a week, since I was an active Figure athlete. That means I would compete in bodybuilding competitions, in the Figure category.
It was my life and my passion.
I was proud to be a totally natural athlete – no steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. And I was competing against women who were on steroids – I’ve never been the type of person to avoid a challenge.
Fabian and I were and still are involved in our own online fitness business for women. We named it Million Dollar Baby Fitness, after the movie starring Hillary Swank and Clint Eastwood.
Now that I’ve recovered from depression and anxiety, my life has a different outlook.
Although I’ve gained a lot of weight because of the medications, I still have a deep interest in fitness. I will get back into shape again, but I don’t think I have have the desire to compete anymore.
I know that depression and anxiety can be a lifelong thing, and that it can recur at any time. So I spend a good deal of time, along with Fabian, learning more and more about the condition and how to prevent relapse.
After all is said and done, the very fact that I became depressed tells me that not all was perfect in my life. It doesn’t happen for no reason.
But that’s OK.
Since my depression a lot has changed, both in me and in my life. So I’m optimistic.
I think I’ve come through this tough journey a far better person, and I feel as though it all happened for a reason. It has made me understand and appreciate life and myself so much more.
I’ve had to overcome more than my fair share of challenges in life. And depression has without a doubt been the toughest. But it has intensified my desire to inspire and empower other women to break through their own challenges and create amazing lives for themselves.
I’ve recently started writing an autobiography, which I hope will help me achieve that. And for the title I’ve chosen my favorite expression. I feel that it sums up my life pretty neatly.
A good friend that I made in Gordon Private hospital asked me yesterday whether, if I had the choice, I would choose the challenging life that I’ve had or an easier, pain-free one.
Without hesitation, I told her that I don’t want an easy life.
It wouldn’t teach me anything.
It wouldn’t cause me to grow as a person.
I welcome the challenges, and I’m actually glad that depression happened to me. I appreciate the lessons and I appreciate the growth.
I have no regrets whatsoever.
So for me, it’s onward and upward from here. I still have a lot of things to do and dreams to realize. There’s no time to waste.
Oh, and the name of the book?
“Never out of the fight”.