My Recent Issues with Depression

Words for 2018We’ve made it to the final post of this series! If you’re just tuning in, I’d read the intro, part 1, part 2 and part 3 first (if you go to the intro, there’ll be links at the bottom of each post to jump you to the next section).

I got myself to a really good place after college, and while there were some dips to the rollercoaster ride, I was mentally and emotionally healthy for years following. There were hard times of course (that’s life!), but I was able to deal with sadness and stress in as healthy of a way as anyone would expect. Harkening back to the cloud analogy I made in a previous post, I could feel the rain from the cloud overhead without losing sight of the blue sky surrounding it.

My recent struggles with depression throughout most of 2017 weren’t a direct response to the world around me or a particularly bad event. That’s the thing with depression—it can start from the inside, regardless of your circumstances. I have a wonderful life! My job couldn’t be a better fit for me. I live in a city that I love, in a state that has always and will always be home. I have an amazing boyfriend, family and friends. My biggest struggle on any given day is finding ripe avocados at Roche Brothers (aka Mission: Impossible). I’m muthafukkin hashtag BLESSED.

Nonetheless, in early 2017, things started to slip.

It was a gradual decline, slowly shutting myself off from friends, avoiding social situations, making excuses, and losing the ability and motivation to focus on work (or anything). Soon I was back to that feeling of merely existing instead of participating in life. I could barely put together blog posts (you probably noticed things were pretty slow around here as far as content), and I felt completely stuck and stagnant. Basic everyday activities exhausted me, and some weeks I would pretty much only leave the apartment when I had to teach.

It was a pattern I recognized all too well (whaddup, college!), yet I allowed it to progress. I think I was partially in denial that this could happen to me again. But I’m so self-aware now! I have it all figured out!

I was convinced that I had all the tools I needed to turn this thing around, and every day it’d be a new strategy for starting fresh. I’m going to start journalling every day. I’ll write down three things I’m grateful for each morning. Tomorrow I’ll make a fixed planned for getting work done. Meditating will fix it.

None of it worked because I was doing the same damn thing I did in college: Keeping my struggles to myself.

I’ve always been a Type A perfectionist (although I’m lightyears more laid-back than I used to be). I’m also fiercely independent. I think the combination of the two makes me unwilling to accept that I need help from others—but we all do in life! The whole experience reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

After my experience in college, I knew that talking about what I was going through was helpful, but clearly I hadn’t fully accepted that. Talking about what I’m feeling and asking those I’m close to for help are like two muscles I should have been consistently training ever since college. Had I strengthened those proverbial muscles throughout the years, maybe 2017 wouldn’t have been so rough. But, not unlike many people do with their physical health, I waited until I was ill (injured) to address the weakness.

Side note: You have no idea how badly I wanted to put quotations around that above quote and end it with – Nicole Perry 😉

Much like in college, the real wake-up call and catalyst for change was acknowledging how my depression was affecting those I loved around me. I could tell Joe was frustrated and confused by my behavior but for months, I’d just try to skirt around the issue (“It’s just a funk, I’m sorry!” / “I’m just stressed about work, things will be better when this project is done!”). I was avoiding the real work I had to do (opening up and bringing my struggles into the light) and instead doing all this busy work while lying to myself that I was accomplishing something.

To reference another quote that I love (who am I today??): “The only way out is through.” – Robert Frost

The really challenging, scary thing you’re avoiding is often the thing you HAVE to do in order to grow and move forward. And the longer you avoid it, the bigger and scarier it gets.

Late this past fall, things came to a head with Joe and he got very upset and confronted me about my behavior. He wouldn’t let it go and kept at me, digging and pushing me to talk and cry. He was the perfect mix of tough love and compassion, forcing me to explain but also knowing when to just give me a hug and let me cry. It was EXACTLY what I needed, and I couldn’t love him more.

I’d compare that night to the first time I saw a psychiatrist after withdrawing from college. I just sorta blubbered in incomplete sentences but it was so cathartic! I felt like a whole new human afterwards! The one full sentence I did get out was, “I think I’m depressed.” To which Joe responded something to the effect of, “Yeah, no shit.” (LOL)

Since then, I’ve made a point to talk to Joe, my mom and my friends about the things inside me that are the hardest for me to communicate. I know that these are the things that need to be said the most. If the words stick in my throat and make me squirm, I’m on the right track. By bringing my feelings and internal battles out into the light, they’ve become a lot less scary and easier to manage.

Today, I’m out from that fog of depression. But I look back on last year and can’t help but feel sad about all that time lost—life is so short and precious, and I just spent a year sorta drifting through it. That motivates me to put in the work now and prioritize my mental health so that this doesn’t happen again or, if and when it does, I’m able to stop it from getting as bad.

Continuing to communicate how I’m feeling is a big part of that work. That has involved acknowledging that I still carry around some guilt and embarrassment with me from my college years and opening up about it with my college friends.

I also changed my health insurance this year and am in the process of finding a psychiatrist/psychologist I like. (Up until this year, I’ve always just bought the cheapest, worst plan that will prevent me from going bankrupt in the event of an accident, but pretty much offers nothing else.) I feel great now and honestly don’t know that I’ll have much to say to a doctor, especially since my mom makes for a really great therapist in her own way. But I also have *finally* learned that I need to put in the work when I feel good, too—not just when sick/injured.

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Damn. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life but I could sure use one after writing this series (lol). I’ve wanted to share these experiences on the blog for a while now because mental health is just as important as physical health. I’ve hesitated to in the past though because I’d hate for you all reading my blog and following me on social media to look at me differently.

It’s not that I think you’d judge me or that I feel shame in admitting I’ve struggled with depression. It’s more that I would hate for you to take my humor differently or read into things I blog about the wrong way. If I make a self-deprecating joke, it’s not because I actually think ill of myself—that’s just my sense of humor. If I miss a week of blogging, it’s not because I’m depressed—I just suck at my job sometimes. People can be both depressed and funny. Both bipolar and successful. Both anxious and a good parent/friend/etc. No person fits nearly into one simple categorical box. Accordingly, mental illness and things we’d normally classify as positive traits are far from being mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that often our struggles are our strengths. My issues with depression have absolutely affected the person I am today, but I do not define myself solely by them.

Even though I know depression is a mental illness, I have a hard time thinking of myself as being mentally ill. I’ve seen *severe* mental illness up close, and for me, there’s really not even a comparison to what I’ve been through. But as I was writing this series, I noticed how undercurrents of shame and guilt wove consistently through all my tough times and even up to today. It seems a common theme among everyone I’ve talked to who has dealt with varying degrees of mental health issues. And I can say for certain those feelings are poisonous and the ultimate hindrances to forward progress.

Guilt and shame will persist until we’re able to humanize mental illness. And I think a big step towards doing that is to open the conversation and start whittling away at the stigma associated with it. I hope this blog series is a small contribution to that conversation.

Thanks for letting me share my story with you all—not that you really had a choice. 😉 Have a happy, healthy weekend and GO PATS!

xo Nicole

The (Ongoing and Ever-Evolving) Solutions to My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues

The (Ongoing and Ever-Evolving) Solutions to My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues

If you’re just tuning in to this series, first check out the INTRO, PART 1 & PART 2 before reading this post. Next week will be the final post, where I’ll talk more about my most recent depressive episode last year. That being said, when it’s over, if you have questions or there are topics I didn’t cover, please feel free to send them my way. I’m not a doctor or a mental health expert, but I’m happy to share more about my personal experiences.

So by now we’ve established that my emotional and mental state was a flaming dumpster fire. As I neared college graduation, that’s when a shift started to take place. It was no one thing, but I slowly started to make lots of changes that ultimately resulted in me getting back to feeling like my old self.

I realized that my issues were affecting those around me and I was going to lose my friends.

Throughout most of college I was always telling myself, “Tomorrow will be a fresh start,” “Next week I’ll snap out of my funk,” “Next semester will be my semester”—but I’d run out of tomorrows. There wasn’t going to be another semester. We were leaving our home together in Chapel Hill and moving to different parts of the country. I asked myself, “Would I want to remain friends with me?” and the answer was a wake-up call. No, I would not.

Doing it for someone other than myself was an important catalyst for change because I didn’t like myself very much at the time. Why would I want to better my life for my own benefit? I didn’t fully believe I was deserving of something better. When I accepted that my issues were affecting those around me, that’s when I was finally ready and willing to change.

I started talking about it.

I mentioned this in the first post as well, but I can’t overstate the importance of communicating. When you hold your struggles to yourself in secrecy and darkness, they fester and poison you from the inside out. But when you bring your demons out into the light, they don’t seem quite as scary. I started slowly being more vocal about my experiences with friends and family, and the more I opened up, the easier it got to talk about these things and they more manageable they became.

When I started talking more openly, I realized a lot of people had gone through something similar or known someone who had. I had felt so isolated all those years in college and so painfully different from everyone around me, when really that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Had I known there were so many others who could relate to what I was feeling, maybe I would have started talking about it sooner and it wouldn’t have gotten so bad.

When it came to food, I stopped trying to control everything—which ironically helped me regain control.

I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of healing an unhealthy relationship with food because I know for a lot of people, that wound never fully heals. I can say in full honestly though that for me today at age 30, it’s completely in the rearview mirror and has been for years. I enjoy healthy foods but I don’t feel a single twinge of guilt when I indulge in the not-so-healthy stuff. I do really love the whole experience of cooking, but thoughts of food don’t consume my mind by any means.

Being that obsessed with what I was eating in college was EXHAUSTING. That’s a big reason why you’ll never see me track calories or macros and also why I don’t put nutritional information on the recipes I share on this blog. I burnt myself out! I just don’t care about that shit anymore! Ingredients matter to me—the rest doesn’t. And I don’t mean to be harsh because we’re all different. Tracking those things can be beneficial for some people and if it works for you, I’m genuinely happy you’ve found your thing. For me personally, it takes all the joy and fun out of food.

That feeling of burnout was a big reason I was able to finally unshackle myself from the restricting-binging cycle. I just couldn’t live like that anymore and it ties back to that fear of losing my friends. I was sick of missing out on fun times with them and I wanted my social life back. Socializing and eating are so deeply intertwined that I knew I couldn’t regain the former without healing my habits with the latter.

The first time I was able to eat at a restaurant with my friends without binging was the big pivoting moment for me.

Going out to eat—something that should be a fun, enjoyable social experience—was mental torture for me in college. I’d reluctantly go, swearing to myself that I’d just order a salad and wouldn’t overeat. But my mind would start racing as soon as I’d open the menu (I’m just using random names FYI). Look at the salad section. Get the garden salad. What about the pastas. No don’t even look at that section! I could order the pasta and then only eat half and then that’d be ok if I don’t eat the leftovers. What if I order the salad and the pasta and eat the salad first so that I won’t be as hungry when I get to the pasta? I wonder what Mary is going to order. If she orders something unhealthy, then it’s ok for me to. Then the waitress would bring over the bread bowl. Don’t take a piece of bread. Well Beth just took a piece of bread. Ok take a piece of bread but only eat half.

I couldn’t even hear the conversation around me or enjoy anyone’s company because I was in such a panic over the whole thing. I’d inevitably cave under the ridiculous pressure I was putting on myself to eat “perfectly” and end up eating the entire bread bowl and getting a heavy, unhealthy entree and eating way passed the point of satiation until I felt sick and guilty.

The summer after graduation, I told myself that nothing would change unless I changed my behavior and thinking. So I asked myself how I could set myself up for success going out to a restaurant. I knew that once a dish was put in front of me, I’d eat it till completion even if it made me sick. So instead of trying to fight that tendency, I set a rule that I’d only order something off the menu that I could eat in its entirety without feeling guilty or over-full. It wasn’t easy that first time—I had a mini panic attack right before saying my order out loud to the waitress—but I got a summer salad with shrimp and nothing else, licked the plate clean, and felt satisfied but not stuffed. I was elated and so proud of myself. It *was* possible to go out to eat without binging!

Each time I went out to eat with friends, it got easier and easier to do the whole moderation thing. Order something healthy (but not restrictive), enjoy the meal without overdoing it, have a couple drinks, feel great afterwards. In fact, I started actually looking forward to group meals for the first time in years! Some of my fondest memories from that summer and following fall involve going out to boozy brunches and dinners with my college girlfriends living in Manhattan.

For the first few months, I did need to stick to that formula of finding something on the menu light enough that I could eat it in its entirety, but eventually I got to the point where I could order anything I liked and be fine with it. I learned to listen to my body, and even if the portion sizes were massive, I wouldn’t stress because I knew I’d just stop when I was full.

The gradual release of control was happening outside of restaurants, too. I stopped planning out my day’s meals ahead of time and trying to micromanage everything I put in my mouth. When I did that, I eliminated that feeling of failure I’d have when straying from the plan. Instead of violently oscillating between extremes of binging and restriction, I was finding peace in moderation. The more I stopped trying to control everything, the more control I ended up gaining. 

I became introspective.

In and after college, I felt a little directionless with my life, changing majors every five seconds and having absolutely no idea what career I wanted to pursue. I started questioning everything—what are my interests? What really makes me happy? Who even am I?! A big part of accepting that I had a problem and committing to getting a handle on it was to get to know myself better.

What just triggered that action? Why am I feeling this way? What would make me feel better?

I started looking inward and trying to understand the “why”s behind my actions, an ongoing project that will continue until my deathbed. In the years following college, this growing self-awareness helped me recognize when I was slipping back into old habits. (Clearly I’m not a pro seeing as I spent most of 2017 in a fog of depression, but we’ll get to that in next week’s post!)

I stopped taking birth control pills.

Once I accepted that my problems were being caused by something inside me—not the world around me—and I was ready to work on myself, I started researching anything I could find about depression online. Reading blogs and forums about other people’s similar experiences was comforting and motivating. In one particular thread, a girl wrote about how her depression was linked to taking birth control pills. There were HUNDREDS of comments in reply with other girls echoing her experience. I was shocked!

I had been on and off birth control pills from age 16 up to that point (22). At first because I wanted bigger boobs and clear skin in high school (eye roll) and then I’d go on it whenever I was in a relationship. After reading that thread, I went off the pill the next day. No exaggeration, within DAYS—maybe a week tops—I felt more clearheaded and rational. Now, was the placebo effect in play here? Did my expectations exaggerate my perceived results? Probably to an extent. But the number of other girls I’ve talked to in real life and online who have said that they were emotional wrecks while on the pill can’t be a coincidence.  

I want to be clear that being on birth control didn’t cause my problems, but I think it made it more difficult for me to manage my problems because my moods were so all over the place.

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The positive changes snowballed. I was out of isolation and spending time with friends; I was getting to know myself and love myself again; and embracing moderation was becoming easier and easier. Life wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but I was able to deal with hardships in an emotionally healthy way.

Before I end this post, I want to point out that, yes, I was able to turn things around without taking antidepressant medication, but I’m by no means suggesting that it can’t be beneficial or even life-saving. The bottom line is that everyone is different and you should talk with a professional about the best solution for you, should you be experiencing similar issues.

Last post of this series coming your way next week. Enjoy your weekend!

xo Nicole

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 2)

When it comes time to hit publish on these posts, this is who I feel like:

A fun workout you can do in your living room! Vegan finger food recipes! Natural deodorants! That time I alienated myself from loved ones because of my crippling emotional instability!

Womp womp wommmmmmmp.

I admittedly treated last week’s post like a cathartic therapy session so I think it came out a bit on the dramatic side—not that I exaggerated anything but man did I go HAM with the descriptions of sadness. This week’s post deals with equally heavy subject matter but I just spent the last hour laughing at memes (very productive morning over here) so I’m thinking a little less angst. Hmm this is probably why real writers hire editors …

If you’re just tuning in, this is the first post from the series. And this is the second post. In today’s post I talk a lot about my unhealthy relationship with food so I think according to unspoken Internet laws, I’m supposed to put “Trigger Warning” here. So … there ya go.

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 2)

When I withdrew from school, I felt a massive weight lifted from my shoulders. Immediately I knew I made the right decision. I also felt like a failure and a complete loser. Looking back today, I see it as a surrender—not a failure. I was going through something I couldn’t handle on my own and I needed to get help in fixing it and make that my priority. But back then, I was embarrassed.

I decided to stay in Chapel Hill even though I wasn’t enrolled in school for the remainder of the spring semester. While having to tell people at school I had withdrawn was embarrassing, the thought of going back home to the Vineyard felt like the ultimate defeat. I guess I thought it’d be less noticeable to stay put.

I don’t know what the policy is at other colleges, but at UNC, if you withdraw from school for mental health reasons, you need to see a school-approved psychiatrist before you’re able to return. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was so ill-equipped at verbalizing my feelings and explaining what was going on inside of me that the first session was a blubbering mess. I don’t think I spoke a single complete sentence (“I just … I feel like … I don’t know … it’s like … I just don’t know”).

Still, I felt better after the session. And week by week, the words started to come together. My psychiatrist suggested anti-depressant medication but I was adamantly opposed. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with taking medication, but because I still didn’t really accept the fact that I was depressed. In the back of my mind was still my self-sabotaging, ass-hole of an ego telling me I had it under control and could fix everything myself. I was convinced that all my issues were because of external circumstances. I just had to change my major and lose weight and I’d be happy and back to normal again.

Lol. Nice try, girl.

But I did lose weight and I did feel better. Temporarily. In fact, I lost every single pound I’d gained. I had two months of no classes and no job before I went home for the summer so let’s just say I had a lot of free time to go to the gym. Now I knew *nothing* about nutrition, health or fitness at the time. My workouts consisted of me endlessly doing the elliptical with no resistance and then doing 50 crunches and calling it a day. I had no idea how to work out effectively!

But I ate healthier foods and reduced the amount I was eating (reduced it way too much in retrospect, but again, I had no idea what I was doing). I also wasn’t drinking alcohol as frequently because I felt like I didn’t really deserve to be out partying with my friends since I wasn’t taking classes. I also wanted to avoid conversations in which I’d have to reveal that I wasn’t enrolled currently. The guilt and shame weren’t healthy, but a break from drinking certainly was.

When the semester ended, I went back home to the Vineyard at my pre-college weight. I was getting compliments on my appearance, I felt confident in a bathing suit, and for the first time in almost a year, I was actually excited to be social and go out. When I came back to UNC for fall semester of junior year, I still felt great about the way I looked and I had a manageable class load. Things were great! Problems were solved!

Narrator (Morgan Freeman Voice): In Fact, Things Were Not Great. Problems Were Not Solved.

Two things happened when I applied the temporary band-aid of losing weight and changing majors: I ignored the deeper issue that I had been depressed and I created an association in my mind between happiness and thinness. As soon as I started feeling the instant gratification of losing weight, I stopped seeing my psychiatrist. I was stubborn, independent to a fault, closed off, and convinced I could fix it all myself. For me, the satisfaction of seeing the number on the scale drop was proof of that. 

Eventually, a frantic, maniacal obsession over what I ate was born.

I had the full-length mirror in my bedroom framed with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models. I thought of it as “inspiration”—now I just see that as incredibly sad. I downloaded a meal and workout tracker app to my phone and recorded everything I did and ate, obsessed with calories in vs. calories out. I would weight myself daily and record it in a spreadsheet on my computer, graphing out my losses and gains. I was never *not* thinking about food and weight.

I was putting so much pressure on myself to be rigidly, impossibly “perfect” that I fell into a vicious cycle of restriction, binging and guilt. I’d plan out my days to the minute and follow the plan strictly for a couple days at a time. Inevitably though, life would happen. Something I hadn’t planned for would pop up (a classmate brings donuts to class, my roommate invites me out to lunch, I’m swamped with homework and have to skip the gym), and I wouldn’t be able to handle it. That one little deviation from my plan would cause me to completely give up on the day and consider it a wash. It was perfection or flaming dumpster fire, there was no in between with me. Since the day was “ruined,” I’d binge eat ice cream, cookie dough—anything I could get my hands on and vow to start again fresh the next day.

No sooner than the food was finished, I’d be overcome with crippling guilt. What had I done?? It was agonizing. The only relief from the guilt was to make an even more restrictive plan for the next day. I had notebooks filled with failed itineraries for the day of when and what I’d eat and do. It was all I could think about. I’d never wanted control so badly in my life, yet I’ve also never been so completely, utterly out of control.

And I knew I was out of control, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was ashamed by what I was doing so I’d hide my binges from my roommates. Eating rolls of Pilsbury cookie dough alone in my locked bedroom then burying the empty wrappers deep in the trash out of sight. After a binge, I’d be so disgusted with myself I couldn’t even look in the mirror. One time I even showered with a t-shirt on so I wouldn’t have to see my body.

It was all in my head—I was always a “healthy” weight and if you look at pictures of me during that time, I look totally normal. Great even! I mean the side bangs and outfit choice are concerning (why were waist belts ever a thing??), but I was never under or over weight.

Having that kind of relationship with food was incredibly isolating. I was falling right back into my same patterns as sophomore year. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in social situations so I’d try to convince myself that I didn’t want to participate in the first place. That sounds so stupid, why would I want to go out to dinner with friends?? Order a pizza and watch TV with my best friends—pffff who would ever want to do that on a lazy Sunday night??

Almost all social situations—especially in college—involve eating and/or drinking. I was stuck in this violent all-or-nothing pendulum and couldn’t handle moderation. So I’d go out to dinner with friends and it’d turn into a binge. I’d say “fuck it” after one bite from the bread bowl and then it’d be all downhill and I’d feel sick and guilty and not want to go out to the bars afterwards.

If I’d had a “good” day with restrictive eating and then my roommates invited friends over the house that night, I’d be so terrified I’d ruin the day that I’d stay locked away in my room, avoiding the gathering. It was a prison of my own creation: Listening to laugher and my friends all having fun in the next room and being mentally and physically unable to participate.

It wasn’t just the issues with food. I’d never really dealt with my depression and there was always this ever-present void deep in my chest. The best way I can describe it is a pull towards darkness/nothingness; a feeling of being suspended in space while the world moves on without you. Throughout the remainder of college I was in a continuous game of tug-o-war with that pull. I’d have good days, sometimes a string of good days, then with a heaving yank, I’d be thrust back towards the dark void. I’d say all the time, “I’m just in a funk. I just need to stay in tonight and I’ll snap myself out of it tomorrow.” But tomorrow never came. I wasn’t “in a funk,” I was depressed.

Inside I was frenzied and confused but still trying to blame external things for my unhappiness instead of looking inward at that chaos. This caused me to misplace my anger and frustrations, lashing out at others when really it was me who needed confronting.

On countless occasions my friends tried to talk to me about it, but there was nothing anyone could have done to really help me because I didn’t want help. It was too scary to accept that something was wrong with me so I just remained in denial and projected the negativity onto others. I was convinced I would get it under control myself.

This went on right through senior year. Good days, bad days, feeling embarrassed about the bad days, shame and guilt breeding more shame and guilt. But a gradual shift was beginning to take place. And when I say “gradual” I’m talking that GEICO commercial with the sloth playing Pictionary—this was a slowwww process.

I started to *want* to get back to my old self and started to accept that *I* was the problem. My internal dialogue slowly started to shift towards “I need to change” instead of “all these external situations around me need to change.”

Accepting that YOU are the problem is both terrifying and empowering. The idea that there’s something ill within you is upsetting, but in a way it’s also a relief. The problem is identified and defined, and that in itself makes it feel conquerable.

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In next week’s post I’m going to talk about what prompted that shift and all the ongoing solutions that helped me start to heal. I appreciate you all letting me interrupt the regularly scheduled workouts and fun posts to (over) share my story with you.

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xo Nicole