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How I Cured My Depression
Practical strategies I used to overcome grief and depression in 4 months.
“I'm 3 years sober and just wanted to say. I thank you. You were a good boss and a friend and I'm sorry I let you down. You influenced or inspired me in places I wouldn't have gone. Anyways thanks for being you to me. Just thanks.” - Bret Hitchcock"
In January of 2020, I received this touching text message. But the message got a darker and and deeper meaning when my friend Bret, only 42, tragically passed away from problems caused by alcohol abuse on June 4, 2023.
Just over a year earlier, on February 22, 2022, I lost another friend named Joe to similar issues with alcohol. At that time, I didn't realize I was becoming depressed. It was hard to spot at first. But now, looking back, I can see that my deep sadness started after Joe's unexpected death.
Given Bret's recent passing and the potential for my close friends to fall into the same pit of depression as they grapple with his sudden death, I felt compelled to share my own journey through depression. By doing so, I hope to equip my friends with insights that may help them identify potential signs of their own depression more swiftly than I did, and offer some strategies that helped me navigate through the encompassing darkness. Keep in mind that I'm no doctor, so these thoughts are merely my personal experiences, shared in the hope that they may be of some value.
In the aftermath of Joe's death, I changed, though I wasn't aware of it then. Only in retrospect does it become glaringly apparent. My sleeping habits changed: I started sleeping in even later, found it challenging to fall asleep and even more difficult to stay asleep. My mornings were tinged with sadness and a sense of worthlessness. Activities I once found joy in lost their appeal. Motivation eluded me, and I yearned for the comforting refuge of my bed.
However, the most dramatic change was the tension that crept into my relationship with my wife, Laken. In our near-decade together, arguments had been rare. Yet, post-Joe, trivial matters sparked disputes. I harbored an unidentifiable sadness and darkness that I clumsily offloaded onto Laken, expecting her to remedy my gloom. And when she couldn't, resentment welled up within me. It was irrational.
Two weeks after Joe's demise, I had a stark realization that something was off, and changes were in order. While I hadn't identified my condition as depression and grief, I sensed an internal shift.
Enter: The Year Of The Opposite
On March 7th, I decided to instigate radical changes. I embarked on what I call my 'Year Of The Opposite.' The first step was imposing a news diet: I stopped watching the nightly news and purposefully avoided news sources. Amid the pandemic, I was addicted to the news. Consuming every detail about Covid policy, vaccine updates, and lockdown rules became a constant in my life. A suspicion that this habit was detrimental had been nagging at me, yet I found it hard to abstain.
Additionally, I quit soda, began waking up early, adjusted my diet, and monitored my progress via the Way Of Life App. The absence of news and these other changes positively impacted my mental health almost immediately.
In just a few days, I felt lighter. Nevertheless, I was still consuming alcohol and occasionally smoking weed. The positive changes that I had already experienced encouraged me to commit fully to my new path. On March 14, 2022, I quit alcohol and marijuana. I also initiated a simple 7-minute bodyweight workout every morning, guided by my Apple Watch.
On March 27th, I began journaling my daily experiences and attended church for the first time in over a decade. Despite being raised Catholic, I've identified as an atheist or agnostic for most of my life. On March 29th, I retreated to the Edward Lowe Foundation for their self-guided Entrepreneur In Residence program, using the 2,000-acre wildlife preserve as a meditation retreat.
Even a month into grieving Joe, I hadn't come to terms with my depression. I only felt that something wasn't quite right. Given that this was my first encounter with the untimely loss of a loved one, I was left questioning whether this was merely a standard part of the grieving journey.
By April, I recognized the need for professional intervention and sought a therapist's guidance. Upon evaluation, they confirmed my depression and grief. The suggestion of medication to alleviate my distress was brought up, but the idea of more medication didn't sit well with me. With my current prescriptions for high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, and high cholesterol, I aspired to be decreasing my reliance on drugs, not adding more. The doctor was understanding, and we proceeded without any antidepressants. (Note: I do not oppose medication. My personal preference is to avoid them unless absolutely necessary, considering them a last resort. I fully acknowledge their vital role for many individuals.)
After several therapy sessions, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the outcome. Perhaps it was due to the limited time, or maybe it was my inability to engage effectively in the sessions. For whatever reason, it wasn't proving beneficial. From discussions with friends who have found success in therapy, it seems that the dynamics with my therapist may have been misaligned. Our sessions were dominated by the doctor's voice, which my friends deemed unusual. Regardless, therapy did not resonate with me, and I eventually decided to terminate it.
I did get a very valuable take-away from therapy though. That was the acknowledgement and diagnosis of my depression, providing me a target to aim my efforts at overcoming.
The first month of abstaining from alcohol and marijuana was challenging before I started to feel more like my old self. There was a distinct period of withdrawal during which my mood swung wildly. Breaking the ingrained routine of enjoying a beer at dinner or social gatherings proved a hard habit to shatter. But as the month concluded, I realized a more consistent upswing in my mood.
The allure of alcohol is rooted in its ability to stimulate dopamine release from the brain's reward center, eliciting initial euphoric effects. As the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, dopamine is associated with pleasure. Yet, while alcohol induced feelings of euphoria, it would invariably lead to a downswing in my mood. The highs were intense, but the lows were uncomfortably low. I didn’t like the dramatic highs and low lows that alcohol provided.
I've put together a rather simple yet effective graphic to encapsulate my feelings. The black line represents my emotional state during alcohol consumption. My first drink would spark a surge of happiness that lingered for a while before descending into a subtle sadness. The happiness spikes were exhilarating, even tempting me to justify the subsequent sadness. However, upon quitting alcohol, the happiness surge vanished, as did the following sadness. My overall happiness seemed slightly elevated in sobriety. But more importantly, my mood stabilized, no longer swinging between extreme highs and lows. My emotional regulation significantly improved.
By July of 2022, 4 months after starting my Year Of The Opposite, I had lost 20lbs, my VO2 Max improved 5 points, I went from not being able to run .1 miles, to completing my first ever nonstop 3 mile run.
But most importantly, I was no longer sad. I was no longer depressed.
I wish I could say that one day I just woke up and I was happy. But that wasn’t how it worked for me. Even when I was depressed, I sometimes had happy days. And even now that I am not depressed, I sometimes have sad days. What changed for me was the average. And it didn’t happen immediately. It happened gradually over time until one day I looked back and said “Wow, I feel great!”
If I am to look back in retrospect, the things that had the biggest impact on my recovery from depression I would rank as follows.
News Diet - Not Watching News or Politics
Better emotional regulation from Stopping Alcohol & marijuana.
Eating better. No Soda, Less Sugar & more protein.
Going to church & embracing community
Waking up early.
Nightly journaling & tracking my habits. Helps to be grateful for the day
Meditation retreat at the Edward Lowe Foundation
After over 450 days of implementing my new lifestyle, I remain dedicated to maintaining these changes consistently. On those rare days when I miss a workout or accidentally consume news, I often find those to be the days when my satisfaction levels dip. I persist in tracking my daily habits and journaling each night. This not only helps me monitor my progress but also guides me to stay on track. These strategies have contributed immensely to my overall happiness and life satisfaction. I share this in hopes that it may prove helpful for you too.
I want to clarify that what worked for me might not necessarily work for everyone, and my experience with depression may not mirror others' experiences. This account doesn't diminish the potential benefits of medication or therapy. It's simply my personal journey and the strategies that helped me navigate through it. It's not a guarantee that these will be effective for everyone else. However, I can confidently share that within a span of four months, I experienced a significant improvement in my overall well-being.