We throw the word "depression" around a lot. That's the unfortunate truth. We use it to describe a weeklong period of sadness after a breakup or a few days of feeling bad when things aren’t going our way. I don’t mean to trivialize those experiences or emotional hardships. But being sad is not the same as being depressed—that’s only the smallest part of it.
Depression is about feeling trapped by overwhelming unhappiness, completely surrounded by an impenetrable fog of misery, and a general acceptance of the idea that it will never go away.
Winston Churchill called depression “the black dog.” His reasoning was simple: Like a hunting dog, it would always be nipping at his heels, following him. For some people, the black dog is omnipresent. For others, like myself, depression comes and goes—but even when you’re not suffering, you’re always aware of the black dog off in the distance, waiting to close in. This is an uncomfortable thought to which one must adapt: Even when you’re not depressed, you’re afraid of depression.
In My Case
When I say I’ve suffered from “debilitating” depression, I mean exactly that: I’ve had long periods of time (three months or more) when getting out of bed was the only thing I could accomplish each day. And sometimes that was a stretch.
There have been times when I would break down and cry for seemingly no reason or randomly snap and put my fist through a window before I could rein in my temper. There were months when I hid from friends and family, pretending everything was fine and that I was too “busy” to see them while sitting alone in the dark. More often than I care to admit, there were times when I needed to be working on some massive project, but instead would spend a weekend watching an entire season of some TV show I’d already seen.
That’s what depression is like for me: a general inability to perform. And with it, a feeling of shame and guilt for not being able to do so, compounded by the ever-growing anxiety of deadlines.
In many ways, being truly depressed is sort of like being immunocompromised: It weakens you emotionally and psychologically, wears you down to your bones—and suddenly, things that would not normally affect you or which you could fight off with ease overwhelm you. When I’m depressed, I’m infinitely more susceptible to things like guilt, fear, shame, and regret. I’ll dwell on mistakes I made years ago and think about all of the ways I could have done things differently. I’ll feel ashamed of myself and my actions or inaction—and actively fantasize about the ways the lives of everyone around me would be better if I were simply not there.
Small setbacks seem like incomprehensible obstacles. Tiny transgressions seem like reasons for justifiable homicide.
Small setbacks seem like incomprehensible obstacles. Tiny transgressions seem like reasons for justifiable homicide. Mustering up the energy to shower sometimes takes days. Sleep comes unbidden or not at all. Training is half-hearted at best. Food turns to ash, and everything that isn’t made of chocolate seems to be made of cardboard. Life is pretty sh*tty.
Coming Out the Other Side
Since I’m clinically depressed and not bi-polar, I don’t have cycles of depression alternated with extreme mania. I just have periods of being depressed and periods of being a relatively normal human being. Most of the time I’m fine and happy and productive. I’m typically brash, boisterous, happy-go-lucky. I’m friendly and goofy and annoyingly passionate about love and life and sex and food and literature and music.
But depression doesn’t really follow any schedule or come at predictable intervals. Things just start feeling awful, and then they feel worse. And then you sort of get used to feeling awful. And then maybe things change a bit.
There is no massive change, no celebratory event, no clear signal that the storm has passed. Things just slowly get better. Day by day you’re able to function just a little bit more.
There’s an old saying about the month of March: It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Depression, then, is the March of your emotional calendar. And like March, it strikes suddenly and takes over absolutely everything. When it fades, it’s gradual. There is no massive change, no celebratory event, no clear signal that the storm has passed. Things just slowly get better. Day by day you’re able to function just a little bit more. And then one day you look up and realize you’re doing pretty well. Things seem less gray, and the world seems to offer reasons to keep living.
And there are reasons—thousands upon thousands of reasons. And they’re all around you. You just need to wait things out long enough for the veil to lift so you can see them. Now let’s talk about how to do that.
How I’ve Coped
Therapy and medication are viable options for treatment, as are other less clinical approaches: meditation, exercise, certain dietary changes. All of them work in their own way. While I dislike medication, I admit that antidepressants, taken in moderate doses for short periods of time (8 to 12 weeks), have seemed to get me through the hardest times.
Whether you find yourself besieged by depression and/or thoughts of suicide, or you know someone who may be in distress, I’d like to provide some other resources that have helped me.
1. Pick up the phone.
If you’re actually considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
2. Educate yourself.
If you’re exploring depression from an academic perspective and trying to figure out how the pieces fit together in your particular emotional landscape, I encourage you to spend some time reading the following articles:
Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide, by Tim Ferris
This amazing series on The Art of Manliness, collectively titled Leashing the Black Dog:
3. Do nothing; be silent; be still. Breathe.
Take a moment and try to take the long view.
Perspective is important because chances are whatever fresh hell you’re experiencing is a temporary thing. Eventually you’re going to feel better—or at least, less awful. Your experience of depression, however powerful, is an exercise in exposure to the impermanence of humanity—and there is simply no real upside to facilitating death with suicide. Because once you’re dead, that’s it. Game over.
While I admit that the idea of committing suicide might occasionally reach out to the tortured artist in me, the pragmatic side of my personality rails against the thought. Because suicide is permanent—and ultimately robs the world of whatever contributions you may make in the future. What if Hemingway killed himself before The Sun Also Rises? Or The Old Man and the Sea?
While I cannot claim any Pulitzer Prize-winning manuscripts, in my own small way, I change lives. I have a file on my computer of emails filled with several hundred notes from people who have said my work has changed their lives; those are lives I would not have had the chance to change had I checked out years ago. To me, that is a reason to keep living.
4. Take control.
I’ve come to believe that suicide is an attempt to feel in control, and both depression and anxiety result (in part) from feeling out of control. So take control—of something, anything.
Take control of your body. Cut your hair. Get a tattoo. Sign up for a transformation challenge. You’d be surprised how this can help. (I am endlessly surprised by how many of my clients tell me they were suffering from depression before starting their fitness journey.)
Take control of your environment. Change something. Devote five minutes a day to imposing your will on something external. There have been some surveys that suggest that something as simple as making your bed every morning can mitigate the symptoms of depression.
Take control of your mind. Meditate. Read. Write. Examine. Discuss. Whatever seems interesting to you, dive into it and allow it to eat up some of the energy the black dog is trying to siphon from you. I have a friend who was experiencing intense feelings of anxiety and who decided to address it by taking control of his inbox. He made it a game to see how many things he could unsubscribe from or delete in a single day then tried to beat it the following day; within two weeks, he was at inbox zero—and he said that helped.
5. Do less.
A big part of feeling out of control is simply feeling overwhelmed. If you have too much sh*t to do and your ability to produce is already hampered by your emotional state, then you’re not going to get it all done. Trust me, this will push you further in depression.
If you can eliminate something, do it. Do less. Say no to as much as you can. Push off any obligations or projects that aren’t immediately urgent. Delegate things to other people, and actually allow them to help you.
6. Ask for help.
This is the hardest thing of all but also the single most important—and the most beneficial. If you’re anything like me, you feel deep shame about asking for help and more so about needing help.
I find it almost impossible to look back now and get into the mind of the person I was in those moments—but I do know that I did not allow myself to ask for help.
I’ve had three actual suicide attempts: two of which I can say in retrospect were more a cry for help (ironic, as I never told anyone about them), and one that qualifies as what mental health professionals label a sincere attempt. I find it almost impossible to look back now and get into the mind of the person I was in those moments—but I do know that I did not allow myself to ask for help.
What I’ve come to believe is that suicide is something that is contemplated for extended periods of time— yet the decision to execute is made in a single moment. Had I just reached out to someone, anyone, I would have gotten through that particular moment and been able to lean on them for support.
Ask for help. From a friend. A loved one. A stranger. The hotline. A support group. If you’re struggling, and you need to talk, I am here for you.
This post originally appeared on Roman Fitness System. John Romaniello is an internationally recognized human. While known primarily as the founder of Roman Fitness System and his contributions to the fitness industry, a little known fact is that he also invented the piano key necktie. Roman is also a bestselling author and angel investor, but that's not nearly as important as the fact that he's a die hard New York Jets fan, and as such spends his life in a near-constant state of disappointment. He enjoys unicorns, sarcasm, and writing about himself in the third person.