This is a very personal post for me. If you’re a close friend of mine or part of my family, you should know that you’ll likely find out some things about me in detail you find unpleasant. That being said, the only reason I can write this now is because I’m stronger, clearer, happier and more aware than I’ve been to date. I’ve been thinking about posting about depression for a while now, with the hope that it might help somebody else. January 2016 was the one-year anniversary of when I chose to face and ultimately accept my depression. Before this, I suffered through waves of depression since my early teens. Some were long seasons of heaviness and dread and during these times I felt there was most certainly something wrong with me. Through a handy little subconscious brain trick called confirmation bias, I would find evidence of my shortcomings as a good human everywhere – in relationships and in the material world at large. What developed was a nasty habit of self loathing that either sat in the corner smirking during the good times or whispered (screamed) discouraging non-truths to me in my darkest times. I believed I was fundamentally screwed in the head. In the recent years leading to January 2015, I would imagine my own death at length, sometimes fixating on it for days or at the worst times, weeks. I longed for the relief from my demons that death would bring. I believed I was an ugly, stupid, and phony person. All of this despite the fact that others saw me as a successful, talented, lucky, good person. This is an important clue. Your thoughts are not Truth, and they are not You. They are only your thoughts. The problem is, you can’t just not think a thought. Try it – you can’t! January 2015 was the lowest point I’d reached yet, and I was beginning to get scared that I might truly destroy my life or hurt my friends and family with my actions. I chose to take myself on in full, no matter how much it hurt or what fell apart from my facing this fully. What follows here are the key steps to what I can see in retrospect has become my path to compassion and loving awareness. If you are suffering, I hope you will take it to heart. Before you read on, I want you to know that if you feel self loathing, sadness, unworthiness or fear (or all of these), there is nothing wrong with you. I am going to say this again: there is nothing wrong with you. Right now there are over 7 billion people on earth and every single one of them experiences these things. However, and this is also important, I am not a medical professional and my words here should not be taken as medical advice. I also have not experienced severe physical or mental trauma such as abuse or PTSD associated with the moral wounds of war. I did not use anti-depressant drugs but that doesn’t mean they should not be used to help you on your path. Talk to your doctor or therapist. I still will assert that there is nothing wrong with you, as a person. I believe your basic goodness is still in tact, but it is your actions, your body,  your mind and your path that require a closer look.

1. I Forgave Depression and I Told People.

At the moment I chose to face my depression, I recognized that I needed help. I told my husband, who has been experiencing my highs and lows for a decade, that I didn’t know what to do, and that I needed help and support. I told my close friends and I told a few of my family members. I didn’t put the weight of being my psychologist on them, I simply told them I have been suffering from depression and that I was going to live openly about that now. I was able to cry about it, and I hadn’t really cried much at all in many years. What I began to recognize was that I had been feeling these waves for years, and absolutely no amount of willing them away or ignoring them did a bit of good. No amount of hating myself for feeling so unhappy cheered me up. No amount of anger towards myself motivated depression to move out. This is when I chose a different tactic – I would be gentle and kind to myself. This was not easy. Each day I sat alone quietly for a few minutes, placed a hand on my chest (which is where I physically felt a tightness of self-doubt and loathing) and I forgave depression for existing. I also told myself that I could be strong and I could choose to do good and nice things for myself even if depression was going to be hanging out with me today. On days where I stayed curled in fear under my covers, when I eventually got up I forgave myself for trying to rest through the pain. Something began to change. By giving depression my full attention and allowing myself to open to the full power of it, the intensity seemed to dull a bit. I could have a bit of mental bandwidth back. By taking the time to be kind and gentle to myself, like I would with a hurting child, I began to make different choices for myself.

2. I Started Meditating.

This is such a game-changer. The habit was not easy for me to make, despite the fact that the benefits of this practice are obvious and almost instantaneous. By taking 10 or so minutes each day to sit and focus on my breathing, I began to understand how my thoughts naturally come and go, and that I don’t have to get wrapped up in them. Before I began this practice, I believed it was impossible to clear my mind. I never understood when somebody would start an exercise or story with “clear your mind”. What?!! And how, exactly?! My thoughts never stopped. Generally, they only stopped when I was in what is known as flow, mostly when I was playing music. I also began to notice a distinction between consciousness and awareness. Consciousness is where our thoughts and memories live, and where we seem to create a narrative about what is happening right now, related to what has already happened in the past, and related to what we want to happen in the future. For instance you might be reading this, break to sip coffee and think “There’s my coffee. I’m glad I got this coffee on the way home.” Exactly who is this narrative for? It can’t be for you, since you are the one who is glad you got coffee… It’s a bit of a mental conundrum to think about. Through awareness, we aim to bring our full attention to every moment. To simply see the coffee and fully feel the gladness of having it, bypassing the narrative. Meditation is the training for this, and you can see how this might help when you have a narrative in your head that tells you that you’re unworthy of love. This lead me ultimately to discover Buddhist philosophy and practice. I recognize this might not be everybody’s path, but nevertheless I cannot recommend a meditation practice enough. To get started, try out the Headspace app. They have a free Take 10 program of 10 free guided meditations. They’re easy and really wonderful. As author Tim Ferriss says it’s like a warm bath for your mind.

Whole Foods

3. I Changed My Diet. I Chose Whole Foods.

Everybody has heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. It’s pretty easy to see that it’s true. I made an effort to make sure that whatever I did eat, I ate because I made an aware choice to do so. For me, I chose to become a vegetarian. Since then I’ve eaten a vegan diet, a pescetarian diet, and now once again a vegan diet. While I think there are many benefits to these specific choices, the biggest and most important aspect is the focus on whole food. Or as your grandparents called it, food. Whole food is food that has been processed very little or not at all. Both my husband and I made the change, and we used Brendan Brazier’s Whole Foods To Thrive book as our guide. This is a detailed map to switching to a whole foods plant-based (vegan) diet. I won’t lie – it took a bit of effort. changing what you eat is hard because of years of habit and the fact that your body relentlessly will tell you that you want a bagel with butter and cream cheese and nothing else will suffice. Believe it or not – meditation will help you here too. A short pause to check in with your body and notice how you’re feeling physically and mentally before you indulge a craving can make a big difference. Even if you choose to indulge the craving, it will have been an aware choice which is easier to live with. If you can, remember that urges and cravings do not matter, only action, right now, matters. When I made the switch, I began to notice a general lightness, especially after meals. Instead of feeling heavy and slightly lethargic, which I commonly did after most meals previously, I felt energized and good. Over time, my perception of food and even my cravings for it changed. I saw it as fuel and as having a direct effect on my body and mind. Instead of pleasing the little voice who I generally used to wish would shut up anyway, I was pleasing my body, mind and life. Do I still like cake? Hells yes, but I am the one who decides when to eat it, not the little voice or the rise of anxious feelings. When making the change, the best place to start is by reading about it or watching some films to educate yourself. If you presently eat a more standard north american diet, you’ll need to change what you buy on a regular basis at the grocery store and how you prepare food. Yes, it means giving up some of the food you’ve been eating your whole life, but it also means letting go of the negative side effects of eating processed foods, and these are not insignificant in the least. In many cases, the stresses we feel during the day and throughout the night are caused in major part by the food we choose to eat. You’ll also discover a new world of flavours and enjoyment with food, guaranteed. Another aspect of this process which I cannot ignore was the temporary giving up of alcohol completely for eight months. After either heavily or casually drinking since my late teens, choosing to stop marked a huge win for myself being in control vs giving in to urges and status quo. My sleep, digestion, mood and energy all improved significantly. I don’t think drinking is outright bad, but if you do choose to drink, make sure it is indeed your aware choice and generally limit yourself to two drinks in order to leave your body in good condition to repair your cells and restore cognitive function during sleep.

4. Exercise.

A year before my decision to take on depression, I got a couples membership to the YMCA for my husband and I. Both of us had tried working out at home on and off for years – never quite making it a life choice. When I got the membership, it had nothing to do with trying to deal with depression or health, and everything to do with vanity and the fact that my close friend also had a membership. I have been tiny my whole life. I’m a grown adult male of 5’8″ and I weigh 115 lbs. I have the body many women dream of, but with societal pressures I wanted to be bigger and stronger, the way I thought attractive and desirable males should be. I tried many things but never stuck with it, finding the over eating to be really difficult and generally not seeing the results I wanted. In hindsight, a trainer probably could have helped me immensely both in changing my body but more importantly in accepting my body as it is. When I decided to take on my depression I began to find refuge in my daily visits to the YMCA. It was a place I could listen to podcasts and the stresses of my everyday life seemed to fade to the background as I worked out. I allowed myself to make it easy; it didn’t matter what I did, as long as I showed up. Sometimes I was angry, anxious or sad when I went. When the voice in my head began telling me reasons to not go, I said “thanks for sharing” and I went anyway. I may have had a shorter visit that day, but unmistakably the benefits shined through immediately. I felt like I had done good by myself and I had more ease in my mind. Of course, over the months something else began to happen – I started to feel stronger and enjoy my body more. I started to look forward to my visits and I began to actually like what I saw in the mirror. More and more I’ve come to accept my body as it is. Maybe it’s delicateness does evoke a feminine image, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s wonderful. Maybe it makes me no less of a man. I’ve come to see that a feminine energy is a beautiful part of being human. Whoa. Gender bias and equality – that’s a whole other blog post in the future I’m sure. I also said “yes” to more activities that involved physicality, such as hiking or dancing. Getting into nature while you get exercise is a force multiplier for your peace of mind. If you don’t exercise regularly now, and if your work has you sitting or standing stationary at the moment, I recommend you start immediately – right now – and that you start easy. What you do is vastly more important than how you do it. There is no limit to how basic you can start. Have a big stretch and do a single walk around the outside of your house. Done! Do this everyday for a week – you’ve just succeeded in nailing your workout routine for a full week! Celebrate with an activity you love. Go for another week – success! Celebrate again. Now do two laps – you’ve just DOUBLED your routine! It really can be this easy to put big changes in motion. There are no big actions – just tiny ones performed one after the other.

5. Marijuana

I played in a rock band and a live electronic music duo for a living for twelve years. I practically drank for a living and during that time managed to try a couple of recreational drugs at music festivals and parties. While I generally enjoyed these experiments I never had the urge to dive right it to their world. Frankly, I had a pretty healthy fear of drugs and still do. So I thankfully avoided the pitfalls of addiction and other life altering situations. However, I took a particular liking to pot. At that time, in my twenties, I simply enjoyed the feeling of being stoned sometimes, but I don’t think I understood why. I also felt somewhat guilty about it and was secretive about it. I wanted people to like me and think that I didn’t use drugs. Ironically, this is all while myself and everyone around me drank alcohol regularly, sustained a caffeine addiction and ate refined sugar like it was holy water. In any case, it wasn’t really until this past year that I recognized what it was that I got out of pot, and realized how effective it was in helping me deal with anxiety and depression. Not unlike alcohol or other drugs, there’s an initial sense of awareness that happens. The narrative in my head quiets a bit and I begin to take more acute notice of my surroundings. The present moment slows down a bit, and I simply allow myself to be in it. Also, the tension in my body lessens. As this happens, my awareness also tunes to how my body really feels underneath the initial, dominant emotion. I began to pay close attention to the dose I was using this past year as well. I recognized the difference between an optimal dose for my body (like sipping one glass of red wine) and partaking in too much (like drinking a bottle of red wine.) Both brought pleasant sensations, but one left me settled after the effects subdued and the other left me unsettled. At this point I have put aside my guilt and shame around this part of my life, and I’ve accepted the general goodness of it. The unfortunate part of the equation is that unlike a glass of red wine, there are laws and stigma surrounding the use of marijuana. In Canada, our present government has stated it will work to change this. In the meantime, a person can seek medical advice to get a prescription or obtain a dispensary card if you live in certain cities in British Columbia.


 

What I’ve recognized looking back over the last twelve months is that I am on a journey. I am walking, one foot in front of the other, in a direction without the expectation to arrive somewhere. My close friend told me the other day that some things are not meant to be gotten over, but meant to be carried. Through the practice of acceptance, I am finding that I am stronger and more capable than I thought, and the weight of depression not as great when it’s allowed to exist and float to the surface. When it is accepted with loving kindness.

Let me know what you thought about this post. Do you have any insights? Get at me on Twitter if you like @aaron_collier.