Article from Shane Sowden

“Why do I feel like this?”

“When is this going to stop?”

“What is wrong with me?”

“I don’t know how long I can take it.”

“I should be happy. Why aren’t I happy?”

These were some of the questions I was constantly asking myself during the fall of 2002. My college baseball career had ended after a great summer season. I had one semester left of school before graduation. In a few months, I would be engaged and moving back home to start my career as a high school teacher and coach. I had just experienced one of the best years of my life during my senior season at university. I made the honor roll at school, had a great final season playing ball with a great group of guys, and that summer, I’d found the girl I wanted to marry. To top it all off, I had a couple of opportunities to try out for some professional Independent Baseball teams (which I chose not to pursue). Things were great.

I had so many things to look forward to in the coming months: graduation, work, coaching, and marriage. Life was good.

Or was it?

Life was supposed to be good.  So, why was I feeling this way?

“Why am I feeling down a lot of the time?”

“Where has my motivation gone?”

“Nothing seems to matter.”

These questions started near the end of October 2002. Although many things in my life were great, I was in the middle of my 12-week practicum, and a couple of months away from graduation. The first six weeks of my practicum went well but during the last 6 weeks, I was placed in a school I found very challenging with little support from my co-operating teacher. I was commuting 90 minutes each day, five times a week. I was alone. A lot. I was confused about why I was beginning to feel this sense of hopelessness more and more each week. I was exercising regularly, eating properly, and in very good shape, which only led to more confusion.

After a few more weeks, getting out of bed in the morning was becoming more and more difficult. Eventually, my fiancée and parents could tell something was wrong whenever I called. I sounded “different”. They would ask me if I was all right and if everything was okay. I would assure them that I was fine; I was just busy, and a bit stressed about the last few weeks of school. I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable about how I was truly feeling.

Another couple of weeks passed, and things were only getting worse. I opened up to my fiancée and parents about how I was feeling. They did their best to comfort and support me, but there wasn’t much they could do, considering they were 20 hours away in another country. What could they do besides talk to me, encourage me, and pray for me? I figured it was all a phase, and it would all go away in a few weeks. I would soon be heading home for a quick visit during the American Thanksgiving holiday weekend and then I’d be back home for good a few weeks after graduation.

So, everything would return to normal in a few weeks. Right?

That Christmas, I returned home, anticipating a major change in the way I was feeling. The only problem was that I didn’t feel better. For the first couple of days that I was home, I thought things were changing, but after the high of being home for those first few days and seeing my family and friends, things slowly began to get worse. I wanted to sleep all the time. Getting out of bed in the morning turned into a major event each day. The bedsheets felt like they weighed 50 pounds. It took every amount of mental energy I could muster to slide out of bed each morning to start my day. Activities I normally enjoyed doing felt like a chore and got pushed to the side. Exercising and reading—two things that I enjoyed doing—held no interest for me anymore. There were brief moments and days when the fog would seem to lift, only to return the same day, or the next. I started to put on weight, and I become sullen.

By this point, I was engaged to be married in June. I was living at home with my parents, teaching, coaching, and helping plan a wedding. At a time in my life that was full of exciting new endeavors, I was experiencing no joy, and there was no end in sight.

My parents could tell I wasn’t doing all right, and that things were getting worse. My dad gently and caringly suggested that I should see a counselor. He told me that he thought I might be dealing with depression, and that maybe seeing a counselor and considering some type of medication would be helpful.

My dad’s advice felt like an indictment. I felt judged and attacked. Counseling? Only weak people need counseling! Medication? Only crazy people take antidepressants! I was neither weak nor crazy! I was convinced I would get through this season on my own and eventually I would wake up one day feeling better.

Initially, I let my fears and insecurities keep me from listening to and being cared for by the people who loved me the most. My parents were patient with me. Each week, they would calmly suggest that I should make an appointment with a counselor. Each week, I brushed them off.

Eventually, after a few weeks, I gave in. I surrendered. I was tired of them asking me to make a counselling appointment, so I told them I would just to get them off my back.  But in reality, I was desperate for help. I wasn’t suicidal but each day, I would ask myself, “If this is what life is going to be like, then what is the point?” I couldn’t find meaning in anything. I simply felt like I was just existing. I felt sad, tired, unmotivated, and alone each day.

Of course, I wasn’t really alone. I was surrounded by many people who loved and cared for me. But none of that seemed to matter.

Exploring the Darkness, Discovering the Light

“I don’t think this is going to change anything about the way I feel.”

“You’re going to ask me a bunch of questions about my feelings and when we are finished, I am going to leave here feeling the same way.”

“I don’t see how telling you about my struggles is going to help.”

“I am only here to appease the people in my life who are saying I should come here for help.”

My first counselling session was off to a great start, as I didn’t waste any time telling the counselor about how I felt being there. I had been nervous for days leading up to my appointment and when I sat down in that office for the first time, I tried to put on a brave front. I still wasn’t ready to be entirely vulnerable, so I began the session by telling the counselor I thought this was a waste of time for the both of us. On the outside, I was putting up a façade of strength and control but on the inside, I was desperately hoping for some kind of breakthrough during the first appointment.

After about 45 minutes of answering a bunch of general questions about my experiences, and how I had been feeling over the past few months, I was given a prescription for some medication that would raise my serotonin levels. I was relieved to know that the medication would only be temporary for a number of months until the counselor felt I didn’t need to take them any longer. Unfortunately, it would take about two weeks for the medication to start kicking in. Two weeks seemed like an eternity but in the grand scheme of things, I had taken the initial step forward in my healing process.

I started attending counseling sessions once a week. After my third appointment, I found myself looking forward to the next one. I wasn’t sure why, but I started to leave the sessions feeling a little energized and lighter. Maybe the medication was starting to kick in.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown says, “Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”  Each day continued to be a struggle, but I was beginning to experience brief moments of hope and motivation.  My counselor walked beside me as my guide while I began to explore the darkness in my life, and it was through that exploration I began to see the light.

After a couple of months, the counselor told me it was time we started meeting only once every two weeks.  My initial reaction was disappointment; the sessions had become the highlight of my week and now we were cutting them in half.  On the other hand, less appointments meant I was making progress.

Over the course of five months with the help of my counselor, I went on an incredible journey of self-discovery. I was fortunate to work with someone who made me feel cared for and safe, and who asked great questions. With each session, the questions became deeper and deeper, helping me connect numerous experiences from my life to what I was currently going through.

After a few months, l started to find meaning in my life again. I felt more like myself. My motivation returned.

After five months of counseling and medication, I was told I could begin weaning myself off the medication, and I wouldn’t need to book another appointment.  I was feeling better. But was I really healthy enough to stop the sessions and medication? I was happy to be feeling better, but I was nervous about not being “out of the woods” yet.

I didn’t see it at the time but over the past few years, I have begun to see my experience with depression as a gift.  At the time, I never dreamed of my depression being a “gift” or a “blessing” but now I view it differently.

Three Gifts My Depression Gave Me

  1. It equipped me to walk alongside others who are going through the same thing I did. Before my personal experience with depression, I would avoid tough conversations about it with people. I had no idea what others who were affected by mental health issues were going through. Over the past 15 years, I have found sharing stories with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who have had similar experiences with mental health issues as my own. The circumstances for these conversations vary from open to guarded. In each instance, when the other person learns of my story, walls come down, and opportunities for connection and healing begin. Over the years, I have been blown away by the response from people whom I share my story with. Many times, people will later reach out, wanting to go for coffee, to talk, or to seek out advice, as they are working through their own situation or season of depression.
  2. I have empathy for others and myself. Before my experience with depression, I viewed people with mental health issues as “weak”. I hate to admit it, but I was extremely narrow-minded and judgemental. I believed that depressed people were lazy and making excuses for not living their life. My experience entirely changed my way of thinking. I am now very sensitive to the reality of mental health issues. My ability to listen has grown, while my desire to judge has decreased. I have also learned (and am still learning) to show empathy to myself. I can be extremely critical of what I view as my “flaws” or “imperfections” as a human being, but I am learning that it is okay not to have life all figured out and to see the challenges in my own life as opportunities to learn and grow.
  3. Being willing to be vulnerable allows for great connections with others. Before I attended counseling, I viewed vulnerability as a “weakness”. I was a closed book. I didn’t want others to see or know that I might be struggling in any way. I thought I could figure things out on my own and that eventually I would make myself better. I believed that other people would judge me and not want to be around me. Throughout those months of counseling, I started to realize that life wasn’t meant to be “figured out” on my own but to be lived with others—even if that meant allowing them to see and know my areas of weakness. Allowing myself to be vulnerable created an opportunity for greater connections with those around me. Rather than trying to portray this image of “having it all together”, I could now relate and sympathize with others’ challenges and struggles in life.

Coming Alive

During this season in my life, someone close to me said, “You have always seemed like you are perfect.  You always have an answer for everything, and you seem to be successful at everything you do. It is kind of nice to know that you don’t have it all together, and you aren’t perfect. You seem more like a real person now.” At the time, hearing this was like a punch to the gut, but he was right. I wasn’t perfect, and I was tired of trying to be. Afterward, my relationship with this person went from being awkward and strained to one of connection and trust.

I don’t wish for anyone to go through what I went through, and I know many others who have had more severe experiences with depression, but I have learned to view my depression as a gift. My depression ripped away the feelings and characteristics in my life that were keeping me from growing as a person.

Author Madeleine L’Engle once said, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up, we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

My depression forced me to accept and develop vulnerability. Therefore, it is a gift that continues to benefit me to this day. I’m coming alive.

Shane Sowden

Men’s Basketball Coach at Briercrest College

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