Questioning Everything I Knew About Depression Helped Me Discover Buried Trauma
Caution. Long read.
Double Caution. I use the terms depression and anxiety both together and separate throughout the post. My intention is not to diminish one or the other, as I feel they are closely related and treat them as such.
Triple Caution. This is only based on my personal experience.
Almost one year ago, May 2, 2019, I authored a post on LinkedIn entitled “Living With Depression: My Long Shadow” for Mental Health Awareness Month where I “came out” as a father, husband, entrepreneur and CEO who has battled depression and anxiety for much of his adult life.
The responses I received, and continued to receive, have been overwhelming, as countless others shared their own struggles and told me that after reading my article, they felt, for the first time ever, comfortable talking about it. Eradicating the stigma was the number one reason for authoring that post, and if I do nothing else of consequence in my life, I will meet my maker with pride that I did my part to help others.
That post took years to write, but today I’m going to share an even deeper chapter from my life that has taken decades to pen. A journey that began innocently enough, fueled by my intense curiosity, and ultimately taking me to the most unexpected of places.
This journey started a few months before I wrote “My Long Shadow,” in November of 2018. As I referenced in that post, I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since I was a young boy and, as I grew into the man I was in 2018, always felt that taking medicine was a weakness — until my last, and most intense depression attack. That month, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — not a tremendous surprise to hear, but still a shock to the system to see it come out of a psychiatrist’s mouth. I was put on an antidepressant and began seeing a new therapist.
I will address how my position on medicine evolved later on, but what I will say is that the medicine and talk therapy helped me find a relatively immediate balance. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was able to think clearly, and so I used this newfound tool to start an exploration of my mind. As I mentioned above, I’ve always been a curious person, and being in the conferences and events industry since 2000 has given me a great outlet to apply that curiosity on a daily basis. It’s one of the reasons I love sales; because I am genuinely interested in learning other people’s back stories, understanding their needs and seeing if I can provide a solution.
So I began this exploration by identifying three questions I wanted answers to:
Why do I have it?
How can I get rid of it?
I was scheduled to take a few days vacation in February 2019 and was looking for a good, deep read. When I googled “books about depression,” Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” popped up first. This book allowed me to discover the rabbit hole of psychedelics and empathogens (more on that later) and for the first time ever in my life, I began to understand what depression and anxiety truly was for me; a byproduct of how my mind processed thoughts against the concept of time. (Again, I refer you to My Long Shadow for a more detailed explanation of that thought process.)
From Pollan’s book, I began consuming as much information as I could on psychedelics. Books, TED Talks, research papers, blogs and articles; anything I could find, I read. My curiosity was in overdrive, so using the skills I’ve developed over 20 years in conference sales, I began cold-calling and emailing people who worked for — or with — many of the psychedelic companies and institutions I’ve been reading about. This wasn’t a sales pitch, it was a genuine attempt to learn more about their work. I reached out to some of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with at companies including COMPASS Pathways, MAPS, MindMed, Entheos, Silo Wellness, Synthesis, Rhythmia, Field Trip, Orthogonal Thinker and countless others. I spoke with leading researchers at Johns Hopkins, NYU and the University of Alabama. The more I consumed, the hungrier I was for more knowledge.
My First Conclusion
My first conclusion was that my mind might be wired differently, but it is not broken. I credit the antidepressant I was put on in November of 2018 with helping me find enough balance to start reading and interpreting data in a more independent manner, however, I cannot tell you if it was the medicine or a placebo effect. It probably just doesn’t matter, as there is evidence to suggest both might be at work. For me, I’ve come to believe that in mental health cases like mine, antidepressants should be considered more of a first-aid tool than a chronic solution. It’s a Band-Aid that could provide much needed help for some, especially those navigating situational depression and anxiety. Just like one wouldn’t use a Band-Aid to suture a deep wound but would use one to cover a nasty gash, antidepressants are, in my opinion, an important “tool in the toolbox,” but they are not a long-term solution for me.
I am just talking about myself, maybe you can relate, or not. (Clearly there are conditions like bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. that are in an entire category on their own and, to follow on from my analogy, beyond a gash.)
The logical conclusions was if my mind was wired differently, but not broken, then I might not have a “disease.” Yes, this is 180′ from my original post, and it doesn’t mean depression and anxiety aren’t major, life-altering issues. It’s a belief, based on some growing evidence that was recently shared in a more articulate and well-constructed manner by Johann Hari in his amazing book, “Lost Connections.” If you can’t find the time to read his book, then I highly recommend his TED Talk, “This Could Be Why You’re Depressed or Anxious.”
Some may be shocked, disappointed or even angry that I now hold this belief, but please don’t let my classification of something diminish the devastating effects it has. For example, hatred isn’t a disease, but it creates an unbelievable amount of pain and suffering. By thinking of my depression not as a disease, but as a condition, led me to also believe that there might be a treatment and that this treatment could lead to peace. This was all the fuel I needed to continue my journey and led me to my second conclusion.
My Second Conclusion
Now that I’ve come to believe/understand my depression not as a disease, but as a condition that can (hopefully) be cured, I wanted to understand why I have this condition in the first place. If my brain is not “defective,” why have I found myself, for decades, on the hamster wheel? Why have I danced at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in an oddly seamless manner? Why have certain events hurt me more than the “average” person? Why were some people easily able to take advantage of me? Why did I always feel tired? Why was I unable to find real, inner peace?
I began to question everything.
This is when my thirst for knowledge led me down the rabbit hole of understanding psychedelics. From Pollan’s book right through movies like Mike Zapolin’s “The Reality of Truth,” I began to decipher the theories, conclusions and first-hand accounts of those who have had psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
What became increasingly clear to me was that psychedelics and empathogens like psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and esketamine helped the mind unlock buried memories and thoughts that held an abnormally tight grip on how life events were being processed. This grip wreaked havoc on almost every level possible, for some it was their PTSD, for others it was their depression, for a few more it was their addiction to drugs, alcohol or nicotine. The mind is a tremendously powerful organ that we are still trying to understand — and psychedelic research has started to decipher a greater part of it.
As I felt more and more “comfortable” with my level of knowledge on what the latest science was telling me about the impact of psychedelics, I started to have this belief that they would be the secret to helping alleviate me from my long battle with depression and anxiety.
But where to start?
Figuring out which psychedelic was “right” for me was a challenging process and it took the consumption of hundreds of data points from disparate sources that included articles, blogs, research papers, interviews and opinion pieces to start to categorize each medicine. (This is a side effect of trying to research a powerful yet partially underground, slowly re-remerging medicine.) Trying to gain knowledge on psychedelic applications and the potential impact on oneself is a complicated task, and I hope one day it becomes easier as the science paves the way for greater access for the general public.
I read and listened to many industry pioneers including Johns Hopkins’ Matthew Johnson, University of of Alabama’s Peter Hendricks, MAPS Rick Doblin, MindMed’s JR Rahn, Entheos’ Colin Beattie — among dozens more. I explored well-respected retreats like Synthesis and Rhythmia. I downloaded their brochures, watched testimonials, read the literature and joined meetups. Suffice it to say, I did my homework.
Man plans, God laughs. Well, in my case, this man planned and the Universe laughed.
Through a series of unpredictable and unrelated events, I became introduced to an individual who I will simply call Cain. Cain is in her late 70s and has been performing MDMA assisted therapy since I was in diapers — if not before. Based on conversations I had, the “work” (as MDMA therapy is called) was what was recommended for me. I won’t lie, this caught me by surprise. See, I had studied MDMA as intently as I did psilocybin, ayahuasca and all the other psychedelics, and came to consider MDMA a post-trauma, PTSD type of therapy. There are hundreds of articles on the success of this medicine, and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has been leading the way in this field since 1986. I encourage to do your own research and learn about their successes.
All of this led me to question why the Universe was putting MDMA in front of me?
My curiosity spiked and I was introduced to the book “Trust Surrender Receive: How MDMA Can Release Us From Trauma and PTSD” and, like all of the others sources of knowledge, consumed it vigorously. The stories shared were tremendous, and while I could see how I might find relief through MDMA therapy, I still did not know why this was the psychedelic (technically an empathogen) being presented to me. However, I trusted the Universe, I surrendered to my pathway and decided I was going to receive the medicine.
My Third Conclusion
The night before my session, I was speaking with my mother who, along with my father, my wife and my close circle of friends were tremendously supportive of my decision to undergo MDMA therapy. The calendar had just turned to March and the impact of COVID-19 was becoming more significant. As the owner and CEO of a professional conferences company, we were tip of the spear, alongside travel, tourism and hospitality in receiving the brunt of the pandemic. Things hadn’t completely unraveled yet, (I was able to go to three more spin classes), but the storm was coming.
That evening my mother asked me, “Is it a good time to undergo this treatment now, with everything going on?” She wasn’t trying to dissuade me, just presenting a very fair opinion that mother’s are well entitled to do!
I told her, “I don’t know if it’s a good time or a bad time, but something just tells me it’s the right time.” With that, she told me she loved me and couldn’t be prouder of the leap I was about to take.
I am not going to provide much detail about my experience at this time, but all I’ll say is that if anyone thinks MDMA is a recreational drug, they need to experience it in a therapeutic setting because it was anything but fun for me. My experience was painful, exhausting, unpleasant and cathartic. At the end of my session, I sweat through my shirt and vomited.
The work unearthed a deep, 30 plus year old trauma that was so far buried I had no waking memory of it. In fact, the only “conscious” connection to this trauma I had was gaps in my memory for certain years of my childhood that neither I nor my parents were ever able to explain. In hindsight, I now realize why my mind simply turned off the memory function, and the ripple effect that had was significant. Things I should’ve learned went un-learned, experiences and friendships that likely would have occurred did not occur. The list goes on.
Once this trauma was found, I relived it — and released it. MDMA is called an empathogen because you don’t have a hallucinogenic experience. It’s more a lucid dream. I did not lose consciousness, I knew where I was the entire time, but what felt like a seven minute conversation with myself was actually three hours of me talking through my trauma, reliving every detail, and then, like someone who has had the blindfold removed, connecting every single dot of my life to this one experience. Every mental health challenge I have ever faced, from the big (depression), to the small (risk tolerance) came together like dozens of pieces of string being interwoven and traced back to a starting point. Finally, everything made sense.
Many have asked me what I hoped to gain from my MDMA therapy, and I worked hard to manage my expectations. I simply wanted answers, though I was secretly praying for something bigger. When I first met with Cain during my consult, she told me the only promise of MDMA was knowledge — ironic, considering my appetite to consume as much of it as possible before every being presented with the work was what led me to her. That promise was fulfilled as I now understand almost everything about my life; who I was, why I did the things I did and what shaped me.
For decades I had come to believe that my depression was a byproduct of my defective brain, and many of the “treatments” I underwent helped push my hidden trauma deeper underground. Like a bad case of tennis elbow when cortisone is administered to numb the pain and get you through your months one day at a time, self-medications like alcohol and prescriptions helped me numb my trauma.
I visualized my life as a boat on the ocean that for decades believed the drag on my hull was the waves, wind and debris, otherwise known as situational depression and anxiety, that just always seemed to get in my way of “smooth sailing.” While I certainly had situations that triggered bouts of depression and anxiety, what was unknown until my MDMA session was that there was a long, hidden tether strapped to my rudder. The tether went all the way down to the ocean floor, beneath the seabed where it was connected to a big, metal box that contained a large, emotional weight. This box was so deep that it is unlikely the best of therapy could have found it, especially without the aid of mind-bending assistance.
So after 30 plus years of suffering and 14 plus months of deep research, I was able to finally identify and slay my long shadow. Today, my depression and anxiety are in remission. Only time will tell if I am “fully” cured, but one of the lessons I have come to learn both pre- and post-treatment is that we all must take one day at a time.
The current pandemic has placed a tremendous strain on my mental health — and I know I am not alone. Millions who struggle are only added to the millions more who are facing situational depression and anxiety. However, my experience provided me with the gift of a restart, a fresh foundation by which to navigate my “new life.”
I am still a boat on the ocean navigating wind, waves and debris, but for the first in over three decades, there is no tether, no unknown drag. I can face any storm and have a fair, fighting chance.
I am free.
I made a promise to not proselytize and I don’t want any of what I said to be interpreted as such. Breaking the mental health stigma is my passion and anything I can do to help those who struggle talk about their struggles and seek help — in any way, shape or form is what drives me. My journey is simply that — mine. All I can do is recommend resources that might provide the knowledge you need to start your own journey. The path is yours to walk.
Getty image via Pel_1971