How I fell onto the wagon.

I’m not sure when I started drinking to make myself feel better. I guess I started doing it without really admitting that’s why I was doing it. A social drink with a meal or a beer with a few friends is great, but tossing back a glass of red to make the churning in my stomach go away was something that grew once I realised it actually worked. My burnout had so frightened me, and the anxiety had been so severe for so long, that even when I was in recovery I had a phobia about anxiety. If I felt those butterflies, and the heightened heart rate I would react to it and eventually my go-to was the bottle. After a drink, I felt so much better. I felt calmer, I worried less – heck I practically floated.

There were a couple of downsides I could see though. One was that it slowed me down and some things became harder to do. For example, getting dinner prepared and on the table was slightly harder after a glass of wine or a beer, so I had to go slower. I must admit it was much more enjoyable though.

The other downside was that I worried I was becoming an alcoholic. If I ran out of beer or wine, I was happily drinking port, and if everything ran out, I’d be grabbing the cooking sherry and neat brandy (yucko!). I was starting to keep an eye on stocks at home to make sure I didn’t run out. I started ordering wine by the case and stocking it in the shed. 16 months ago we went away for Christmas and I took the overnight ferry to the mainland with my two boys while my wife and daughter flew across. I smuggled port in an empty juice bottle in my bag, just in case I needed it.

My wife was really concerned with my drinking and she used to ask how many I had consumed for the day. This made me angry. It was my business, not hers. I felt like she was watching me all the time so I was careful to throw the empty’s in the bin so she couldn’t keep track. I think on a couple of occasions I’d cracked a bottle of wine in the shed out the back and from time to time headed out there to toss some back. She used to complain about the smell on my breath.

I didn’t feel good going to the bottleshop on grocery day with the kids in the back seat and emerging with four dozen cans of beer (because they were on special). The kids didn’t seem to like it much either and would ask why I was drinking so much these days. When I first started my “stay-at-home” dad routine, I had the whole day to myself in peace and quiet but my anxiety would grow the closer it came to 3.45pm. At this point, the kids would burst through the door after school like the hungry Mongolian hordes descending the steppes to invade peaceful China. I took to having a drink before they got home, so I would be blissfully calm and welcoming. It was great how the drink enabled me to not get angry about the uneaten lunches, the torn school pants, the drink spilled in the school bag, the forgotten homework, the chaos, the lost school hat, and the usual bickering. At times though, the pre-school-return-invasion drink happened at 11 am. I’m pretty sure the earliest I had a drink to quell the anxiety was about 9am.

I felt a bit ashamed. It was a dirty secret that I drank that early. The only person I told was my psychiatrist. I confessed to her that I was worried about my drinking. I drank every day. She didn’t seem to be worried however, which seemed odd to me. She said that as long as I was drinking less than three drinks a day, and had two days off each week, I wasn’t an alcoholic. Although I wasn’t drinking more than three a day, I was drinking every day. I justified to myself that I was just averaging it out. Did this make me an alcoholic? I reasoned that I could have a day off any day I chose (I’m pretty sure this is what alcoholics think too). Deep down, I knew I was dependent on the drink, but on a surface level I didn’t want to think about it and found it helpful.

Interestingly, my wonderful psych didn’t make an issue of it. She gave me ideas on how to reduce the drinking but was confident that continuing treatment for depression and anxiety would see my alcohol use decrease, and it did. Kind of all by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I still drink – most days. Maybe one, maybe two beers, rarely three unless it’s a dinner party of barbeque. And yes, I still drink if my wife and I have a fight – I find it dulls the pain (resilience is a bit of an issue for me – I crumble easily). But I can go a week without drinking if I’m away, or on a fishing trip for example. I’m paranoid that I’m going to need a drink and be caught short, and I’m certainly not drinking before the kids get home from school so I can handle it better. I think I have a better relationship with the bottle now, where I can enjoy it, without it being my lifesaver.

I feel lucky.

Do you ever get over depression?

I get asked this a bit. Usually by carers of someone with depression, but sometimes from people who are yet to recover. One went something like this.

One thing I am interested in knowing is you don’t talk about having depression anymore, you speak of it as if it were in the past. Do you ever get over it? Are you on medication? I never really asked you about the medication bit and I am leaning towards it because my girlfriend is on Zoloft and she says that she is a changed person.

It’s a good question – one that I’ve thought about for a while (I think it says a lot that I still think about depression). The answer went like this:

I would say I’ve recovered and no longer have depression but I don’t say I’m cured. Basically what I mean is I am not symptomatic anymore and I’m able to do the things I want in life without being impeded by depression.

I do still have a low level of anxiety quite a bit and have a low resistance to sadness so when I’m too busy or haven’t had much self time I tend to get sad. But other than that I’m happy most of the time.

I have changed though, so things aren’t back to the old “normal”. I do things slower. I do less and pace myself more. I am more intentional about self care. My brain doesn’t work as well. But on the upside I’m more patient, understanding, compassionate than before and value simpler things in life because I’m less ambitious. I’m more satisfied and I know myself and accept myself more.

I’m not on antidepressants anymore but they worked really well in controlling my anxiety. They really calmed me down and gave me the space to face my issues. They were important in my recovery. They have their downside (no sex drive and no feeling of happiness either) but on balance I found them useful. They work best for severe depression and anxiety and are line ball for moderate depression and anxiety. My long suffering wife says within 36 hours of me taking it she could talk to me again. Gold!

Recovery is a journey and depression is episodic so I’m not sure I’ll ever be free of it but can still lead a happy,  satisfying and rich life. I don’t regret having it. I only regret coming so close to dying before diagnosis which is why I do the work I’m doing today.

The Return of Anxiety

I’m home alone this morning. I love being alone. No one talks to me. Being a Myers Briggs iNtuitive, my inner world is really important to me. My wife has taken the kids to church. She’s started going again and the kids love it. I think one of the reasons she’s going is because she’s back on antidepressants so she can manage ok. This time she says she’s going to take them daily until she’s better (my fingers are crossed).

I have struggled for a few months with anxiety. I recently did my 09-10 tax and had a blowout. I was threatening to whack the kids and yelling at them. I was in such a state I was reaching for the beer to try and calm down. I’m not sure how long the anxiety has been simmering, but I didn’t become aware of it until June when I organised a mindfulness seminar. After the two day training I felt really anxious. At times I was sucking deep breaths and the knot was back in the stomach. I wondered how a mindfulness seminar could make me anxious, but I realised after a bit that it had just increased my awareness of what was happening inside me.

There was a little bit of denial that was going on too. I wanted to believe that I was better and was fooling myself into ignoring what was happening in my body.

The”why” took me a lot longer to figure out. Work was fine. My home duties were going smoothly. Parenting was all good. I’m still not going to church so there’s some cognitive dissonance still rattling around down there but I don’t think that’s causing any anxiety. Then I realized what it was.

I was getting to a point of hyper-vigilance with my wife. She was erupting on a regular basis and becoming really tense. Seemingly out of the blue she would crack the shits and start riding the kids. While this would make me tense and increase the heartbeat I wouldn’t get involved lest the wrath be turned on me. I figured the kids could absorb it. There were times that I’d chipped in a thought and received a full dose. I even recorded one of them on my iPhone and it’s frightening. So her anxiety, was causing my anxiety. I was walking on egg-shells afraid of her anger and what she could say. It’s not very tough, but if I’m honest, this is what was happening on an emotional level (the brains more primal limbic system) – not a cognitive one.

It’s really odd how she couldn’t see it though. Even a few weeks ago she was insisting that I wasn’t well and that I needed to go back on medication and get treatment. She felt that I was the problem. But somewhere along the line she’s been able to get some space and get in touch with what’s happening inside her and realise that she’s not well. She has used antidepressants before but pops them like Panadol. The problem with this is that it calms her down, but it’s only after an episode of lashing out and spinning out of control which isn’t much good for us. She’s never followed the psych’s recommendation of being on them for a solid period of time while engaging in talking therapy to unpack what’s going on.

But this time she says she’ll do it. So far, so good. And my anxiety has almost all but disappeared. I’m not vigilant or wary of her anymore – which is a good thing in a marriage! I feel in the main part happy again and calm. Now I only feel anxiety in “normal” stressful situations (meeting a tax deadline, running late for an appointment – that sort of thing). I’m still hyper sensitive to stress where I react to the stress and stress about stress, but I’m working on that. As I say, the only way to make a marriage work is if each one owns their own shit.

Antidepressants; to pop or not?

Recently I was invited to speak to a few groups who train people in suicide prevention using a one day course. It’s a brilliant course, one that I completed last year and thoroughly recommend. I generally share my story of depression and having strong suicidal tendencies which led me to research deadly methods to end my life. In the course of conversation afterward the topic of anti-depressants arose and the fact that those under treatment are notorious for not taking their medication. For those of you who’ve cared for someone on medication I’m sure you’ve all asked the question “did you take your meds today?”

Asking that question is a bit like my uncle who as a boy climbed up onto the roof and as his father was passing underneath dropped a brick on him and asked “did that hurt?” It’s going to attract the same kind of response my grandfather had. He hauled the mischievous boy down, gave him a hiding and said “did that hurt?” Be prepared to don a flack jacket and helmet prior to asking the question.

So we got onto talking about why people go off them all the time and in the main it’s basically all about the downsides:

Firstly there’s the stigma. One bloke describe them as “old lady pills” – and even old ladies don’t want to take old lady pills, let alone the rest of us. For someone with depression whose self esteem is scraping rock bottom, the blow of having to take meds is yet another bitter pill to swallow (no pun intended). It took me months to fill the script I had while I struggled to accept that I needed them.

Second I had no feelings on antidepressants. I didn’t feel angry, frustrated, and irritable which was great – but nor did I feel any joy, hope, or happiness either. Interestingly I didn’t even feel fear when I should have (riding a mates Yamaha 450 dirt bike through the scrub at full tilt should have triggered some red lights in my head but it didn’t). I just felt totally calm. It was millpond still inside, but in an uncanny way.

Finally my performance in the sack took a big nose dive – one thing I like to think I was pretty good at (what guy doesn’t?). Now I sucked at that as well. My libido went on holidays and didn’t leave a forwarding address. This is the biggie and this is the one that was raised by the suicide prevention group leader. Everyone she knew who was medicated went off them frequently because they didn’t like having a non-existent sex life. I found that by going off them for 48 hours things worked again, but the crankiness returned pretty quickly and I was back on them again. Still, having my libido back even if it was just visiting was a good thing.

So do I recommend taking antidepressants? It depends. For severe depression it’s highly recommended. That in conjunction with therapy is a proven effective treatment. The meds are like floaties. They’re not the solution, but they do support you while you learn to swim. For moderate depression – maybe. But studies show that talking therapies (in particular CBT or Mindfulness Based CBT which I prefer) work at the same rate of effectiveness. For mild depression meds aren’t recommended. There’s a whole host of things that can help there from exercise to eating well, sleep, recreation etc. that will do wonders. For more on what works for depression, check out beyondblue’s comprehensive publication (clicking this link will download the pdf)

For us, medication was critical. Within 48 hours of starting, my wife said I was totally different and that she could talk to me again and have a normal conversation. Profound peace and calm returned to me and all the aggression and irritability totally dissipated. I was much better to be around. It was the pressure relief valve I needed to give me the breathing space to deal with the issues that had caused me to become so ill.

For you? That’s something that only you can and should work out for yourself.

I’m on some kind of weed – St Johns Wort

I’m assuming St Johns wort is a weed. Why would any plant have the ignominy of being called a wort if it was anything other than a weed? In our country we have a noxious weed called Ragwort and a lot of effort goes into its eradication and control.

But I heard good things about St Johns wort and it’s viability as a treatment for depression, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought that I’d be a bit of a guinea pig for y’all and let you know my thoughts. I don’t have severe depression anymore, but I still have a few of the symptoms. I get anxiety at times, still lack motivation in certain areas and can’t handle the kids in large doses and generally have limited emotional energy so I still budget it closely.

I haven’t been on prescription medication for about 12 months now. Prior to that I was taking Paroxetine which I found extremely effective. It worked fast (not the 2-4 weeks that doctors recommend), but almost overnight. Its big downside for me was the numbness and loss of libido.

In terms of numbness, I remember visiting a client who has bipolar disorder. He had been off medication for seven months and just run out of food in his house as his disorder had taken over. He resumed his medication that day. I asked how long it would take to kick in and he said in 48 hours, everything inside would go quiet. I hadn’t heard it expressed that way, but I knew exactly what he was saying. On antidepressants it’s like everything goes still, calm and quiet on the inside – numb in other words. The downside of this is you don’t experience any good feelings either – happiness, joy, excitement – meh.

As far as libido goes, I experienced a loss of interest in sex and found that even if I notionally thought it would be a good idea, couldn’t climax when I was on the prescribed amount. It was a little embarrassing like “well dear, I’m about puffed now, and I really don’t think anything’s going to happen, so I’ll be climbing off now”. So that was a big downer. I’m fairly red blooded and still relatively young and never had that happen before. I scrounged through the fine print and yep, there it was.

So back to the wort. I’d heard good things, and it was time to have a go. I’ve been taking it for about a month. I miss a day every now and then out of forgetfulness (I think this is common – if medication is effective and we “feel” ok, we’re likely to forget we have an illness!). I think it is more gentle and mild than the prescription SSRI I was taking, but the modus operandi is similar. It does make things a little more “quiet” and “numb” but not to the same extent as the Paroxetine. I think it has a similar effect on libido, but that’s probably not such a bad thing… it stops me bugging my wife so much.

There are conflicting studies, just as there are with prescription drugs. Many studies show placebos just as effective and prescription drugs, but St Johns Wort is showing to be “as effective” as prescription and more effective than placebos at treating mild or moderate depression (not recommended for severe). All the research just brings me back to my basic philosophy that each individual has to find what works for them. Note – you can’t take prescription anti depressants in conjunction with the wort. There’s loads of info out there, but I think this article from the Black Dog Institute is a good start.

I think I’ll keep taking it for a while. I’ve never been on the weed before, but maybe this is one weed that a little experimentation with may be useful.

Yours truly, the Guinea Pig.

What I needed from my wife

Got a call from a teary partner of a friend of mine on the weekend. Apparently he’d spat the dummy and she’d taken off with the two kids. He is being treated for Attention Deficit Disorder and has made loads of progress over the years but it got me thinking about what I needed from my wife when I was at my worst, and I thought I’d write about it, in case partners of pastors are trawling about and stumble across The Scrapheap Pastors blog.

I needed a wife who was secure. Unfortunately my wife was not emotionally independent enough from me to not take my behavior personally. Maybe no spouse could be, but she wasn’t able to impartial enough to see my behavior independent from her sense of self. What I’m trying to say is that she took my outbursts, impatience, intolerance and irritability to mean that I no longer loved, cared for or respected her. She then reacted to me out of a sense of being rejected. She interpreted my emotional state through her lenses of insecurity and came up with the wrong conclusions.

I needed a wife who was healthy. Two weak and unhealthy individuals makes for a recipe for disaster. One healthy individual and one sick one can stand a chance. I needed a healthy wife who was able to own her own emotional state and look to others to meet her needs where I couldn’t. My wife didn’t see me as being unwell. She saw me as being a bad husband, so the tack she took was to try and point out how I was failing as a husband at meeting her needs which of course compounded my problems. She has since learned that if her emotional needs aren’t being met by me, she’s responsible to get them met. That takes a whole lot of pressure off, and makes it more likely that I will actually recover and meet her needs.

I needed a wife who could spot the signs. I remember the moment some two years after experiencing depression and receiving treatment, when a little book fell into my wife’s hands about spouses of partners with depression. She read the book and identified with all the stories of spouses and how they felt and what they experienced. We sat in a little cafe and she told me she finally accepted that I had depression. I nearly fell off my chair. I actually couldn’t believe that she’d managed to maintain a steadfast denial for so long despite the bleeding obvious. To have a spouse who can recognise the signs as early as possible would have been invaluable.

I needed a wife who could intervene. Obviously being a man, we never listen to our spouses when they point out our weaknesses of flaws (it’s a man thing). So having a wife suggesting that I have anxiety or depression would have gone down like a lead balloon. But I do listen to a close circle of friends that I have around me that I’m very transparent with. If my wife had gone to them and told them exactly what was happening at home and how she felt about it, intervention would have been swift. Sadly, she didn’t talk to anyone about what was happening, not even her close friends. She only spoke to my interstate sister and a couple of cousins of mine overseas. I think she’s a private person and she felt ashamed at the way she was being treated and didn’t want anyone to know.

If you’re a spouse of a partner with depression, hopefully these ideas can give you some way forward. You’re not responsible for your spouse, but you have a responsibility to your spouse and you definitely are responsible for your own emotional health and need to take positive steps to trying to stay as healthy as possible yourself, for the sake of your marriage and family.

I think I’m getting better

getting better is really slow, in fact so slow, that it’s hard to feel like i’m making any progress at all sometimes. I get a bit sick of being sick, but if I look back, I really am making progress.

I can handle our finances again – pay bills, balance accounts and stay on top of things there. that’s a biggie for me, because at my worst, I would go to the ATM, withdraw cash but never take the receipt or want to look at our balance in case it was bad.

I’m less affected by my wife’s up and downs. I’m a bit decoupled from her emotions which is great. I used to feel that if she was upset, stressed and angry, that it was my fault (and she usually blames me anyway) and I’d blow up. Now I feel more and more that her life is her responsibility not mine. My psych says I am responsible TO her not FOR her. Fine line I know but that helps.

I’ve been off antidepressants for over a month now and haven’t been particularly stressed. I’m probably still a little volatile, but not as bad as 12 months ago when I went off and became suicidal.

So all up, I think there’s a slow improvement. If you’re wondering whether you’re stuck or getting better, just trying looking back and see if there’s a difference.

Happy Pill

I thought I’d write something about medication for depression and anxiety. I take the active Paroxetine, marketed as Paxtine, Paxil, which is a class SSRI drug which means it tries to increase the body’s uptake of seratonin (happy hormones).

It’s used to treat major depression, obsessive-compulsive, panic, social anxiety, and generalised anxiety disorders in adults. Oddly, in teenagers it can cause depression. Just goes to show how much of a black art treatment options are for this illness.

For me, I wasn’t so much struggling with sadness, it was more social anxiety. I didn’t want another meeting, another phone call or another email to deal with. I didn’t want to see my family or friends. I just wanted to hibernate. I hibernated in my office, in my bedroom or in the lakes country a couple of hours drive away. Sometimes I hibernated in my car.

I was getting out of control too. I was extremely irritable which could be triggered into a rage at home. Press the right buttons and bingo, I was wild. It all seemed logical though at the time – a righteous anger if you like. I didn’t feel like I was losing my mind, but the reactions were definitely disproportional to the perceived provocation.

The medication worked a miracle. The physician said to take a half dose for the first week as it may have side effects. Then after a week to go on a full dose, but not expect any change for 4-6 weeks until it stabilizes in my system.

After two days, I was totally changed. I felt calm inside. An unshakeable peace had permeated my core, deep in my emotions. But it was more than peace, it was almost like a non-emotion. In other words, it seemed to dull or remove emotion rather than soothe. I had swung the other way. I was so calm, there really wasn’t much you could do to provoke me.

I remember hopping on a mates powerful trail bike and doing some dangerous stuff and realising I felt no fear but logically, I should have. I can no longer cry and whilst on medication I have no libido. But that doesn’t bother me though, because I have no libido, therefore no desire!

My wife noticed an instant change. It didn’t give me motivation or “strength” to do my work or face my issues, it just levelled me out and calmed me down.

Others are far less fortunate than I in trying to get the right medication. There are several classes of drugs that have differing mechanisms and it’s a matter of trying different actives at different dose rates and watching side effects. It’s a long protracted process for some because physicians don’t expect a change for a couple of months minimum. The side effects can be hard to deal with too, so there is compromise for many people.

I notice that if I go off my medication for two days, my sex drive comes back, but so does my temper and aggression, so that’s a trade off too. I don’t think my wife particularly wants to have sex with an irritable, cranky husband!

Sometimes I forget to take my meds. I feel fine for a few days as it works out of my system but eventually I become anxious, nervous, foreboding and tense.

I have noticed that my meds don’t do anything for sadness though. I’ve only had a couple of bouts of sadness lasting a couple of weeks at a time, but this stuff doesn’t really seem to make much difference.

What’s your experience?

How did you get over the stigma of having to take antidepressants?

How long have you been, or were on them for?

How did you get off them?