Karl Shallowhorn, Wendy Danford and Ron Simmons* all know the torment of depression. Shallowhorn, 47, of Amherst, New York, has had bipolar disorder for 29 years and been symptom-free for the past 15. At 65, Simmons, of Oakville, Ontario, has a lifelong history of depression. And Danford, 52, from Belleville, Ontario, has dealt with depression for the past two decades. All three belong to support groups and work in their communities to help others deal with mood disorders, and each has his or her own self-help tips that they share in the hopes of improving the lives of people living with depression. Now they’re sharing those tips with SZ Magazine.
You cannot cure a mental disorder, but recovery is possible. The key is time: You can get through this, but don’t expect to find your old self right away. “A few years ago, I was working on a project with a doctor and he asked me, ‘What do you recover from? And how do you know you have recovered?’” recalls Danford. “Instead of recovery, I think of coping with and managing the disorder. This isn’t a fast process, nor is it always easy, but in the end
the reward is worth it.” Simmons agrees, adding: “It’s not a two-week process, or (like) a migraine where you can take a pill and it’s over with. It’s something you have to live with and work with.”
Stigma exists, but so do positive experiences. As you change, the way people act toward you might change, says Shallowhorn. Be prepared for it. “One thing I stress to people is that it’s okay to have a mental illness; you can still enjoy life. I always say, I don’t struggle with mental illness—I live with it.”
Hate the disorder, but don’t hate yourself. The trouble, Shallowhorn says, is that “often we take on the disorder as who we are. “I had a counsellor make a really great statement. She basically said my bipolar disorder is only a part of who I am. There are other parts of me that are valid and are good, and can make up for the deficiency of the mental illness, and that can help me look beyond the stigma placed on me as an individual.”
Don’t be shy about turning to others. Do your own research and find out where you can meet others who share your illness. Virtually every community has its own support group ready to welcome new members. The Mood Disorders Society of Canada Website (mooddisorderscanada.ca) has a wealth of information, plus links to mood disorder societies in each of the provinces and territories. In the United States, you’ll find a vast array of information and local contacts through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org). Family members usually want to help—and their support is important to recovery—but it’s difficult when they aren’t familiar with mental illnesses. “That’s why support groups are so beneficial: because you’ve got other people like yourself who have been there, and you kind of help each other,” says Shallowhorn. “In a way, they become your family.”
Exercise—even if you have to force yourself. While your mind recovers, you can’t neglect your body. In a report on its website, the Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com) points to exercise as a way of easing the symptoms of depression. Physical activity causes the body to release neurotransmitters and endorphins, which may quiet the depression; it reduces some of the negative chemicals in the immune system that worsen depression; and it increases the body’s temperature, which can also have a calming effect. Improved health boosts confidence and regular exercise in a gym gets you out with others. And you’ll sleep better at night. People who are depressed have a tendency to withdraw. They stay inside, avoid talking with friends and family, and their appetites dwindle—as does their interest in things they used to enjoy.
Set goals to get out of the house and stay active. “I’m a believer that if you look at your situation and you’re trying to work your way out of it, you need to have a plan,” says Shallowhorn. He found that he felt better when he was around other people. So he made the effort— and it truly was an effort—to go out and visit friends. “When we’re by ourselves, our minds can really do a number on us,” he says. Our thinking gets skewed in the wrong direction. Isolation is deadly.”
Learn all you can about your illness. Twenty years ago, it took some real detective work to find good information on depression. That’s not the case today. Google the term “mood disorders” and 2.8 million entries will pop up. Actors Harrison Ford and Halle Berry, singer Billy Joel, and retired National Football League player Terry Bradshaw are among the celebrities who have spoken about their own depression. And many local support groups maintain libraries of reference materials and books on the subject.
Medication helps, but it’s not the only answer. There’s no denying the importance of medication in overcoming depression. You can’t just “snap out of it,” says Danford. “Medication can be the basis for recovery, as it works to balance the chemicals in the brain that have gone out of proportion, but it isn’t the only thing that will help you feel better.” She points to good nutrition and exercise because they “get the chemicals working” properly inside the body. Yoga, meditation, and natural remedies can also be beneficial, adds Shallowhorn.
A belief in a Higher Power can give you strength. At a time when you don’t feel you’re at your best, faith in something bigger can help with your load, says Shallowhorn, who grew up in a family that regularly attended church. A study presented to the American Psychiatric Association in 2002 found that depressed seniors who feel their life is guided by a Higher Being show fewer symptoms of depression than those who don’t use faith-based coping strategies. “When you see these kinds of data coming out from both medical and psychiatric populations, it’s hard to continue ignoring religion as a variable in the recovery from depression,” says Harold Koenig, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University, who was quoted in a report on mental-health-today.com.
Recovery is individual, so it might be necessary to revise your expectations. In a support group, it can be inspiring to see someone overcoming their illness. It can be a downer, too, when it makes you wonder why you aren’t improving just as fast. “That should be a positive,” says Simmons, who belongs to a group called Equilibrium. “We encourage interpersonal discussion. If someone has been there before you, you can learn from their feelings and apply it to yourself.” The bottom line is: There is no right or wrong way to recover, no time limit, and no single approach. The goal is to get there and stay there.