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10 Things I Realized as a Man Who Struggled With (and Beat) Depression

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As boys, we were taught that “big boys don’t cry” and that it’s not OK to show your hurt feelings, or to show you have any feelings at all. As we grew into men, we were told to “harden up, grow a pair and don’t be a pussy.” So when things get tough emotionally, most men seem to bottle their feelings up.

I was one of those guys.

My depression took me to some very dark places. Places that were very painful to experience. It affected every part of my life — my relationships, my work, my happiness, my direction in life and in the end, my health. But ultimately, I beat it. And although this might sound a bit bold, I’m confident to say that now my life is richer because of it.

I’m your ordinary guy. Some people might even say that I have it all going for me: an undergraduate degree in business, an MBA and a very decent 9 to 5 job as a senior business analyst in financial services. I’ve never had any problems finding or keeping a job. If anything, my problem is that I usually just get bored way too quickly.

I like to be physical, and like many men, I love sports. I’ve always enjoyed hitting the gym and I train a lot. Once upon a time you might even say I trained too much; probably because I liked the feeling of strength and masculinity that working out would give me. However, I also used to love getting drunk and partying way more than was good for me. In those days it was important for me to impress girls, and at the time, the behavior I assumed was “cool,” was actually indicative of a man who was emotionally falling apart.

All of that was not really me. All of that was a mask I conditioned myself to wear to look strong. To look macho. To be cool. To give out the impression of an alpha male who nobody can f*ck with. Only after long years of self-destructive behavior and complete dishonesty with myself did I burn out. Many signs came my way, only for me to ignore them and dig myself in even deeper.

It is really entertaining (in hindsight), sad and intriguing at the same time, when I look back at how delusional I was. How I was, with my own actions, destroying myself while having that deep-seated feeling that there was something wrong, that I was still missing something, or more like something was missing from me. That something was just “not right.” I did not know what it was. Most of my 20s and early 30s, I wasn’t even aware that something wasn’t right, something was missing. If you had asked me then if I was depressed, I would’ve laughed at you and probably made some smart arse comment to make you feel bad about yourself. And of course this would’ve just be a defensive reaction to try and feel good about myself, for a moment…

Eventually, however, depression really did set in. Quite a strong depression that I would not be able to get out of without the people life gracefully sent my way at that time. For that, I am very grateful.

I also had many realizations about struggling with depression along the way:

1. Being depressed and being sad are two different things.

Feelings of sadness come and go and are usually related to one event or a group of events. Depression is something that can last days, weeks, months, even years. You simply might not feel good and there are not many, if any bright moments in your life, according to you. Even though there are genuine reasons to feel happy, you might become incapable of genuinely feeling good.

I remember, one year I travelled home to Slovakia to see my family. I had organized my trip to coincide with my parents combined 60th birthday party, and the fact that it was going to be in Europe during the summer was an added bonus. Looking back now, I had every opportunity to have a fantastic time. My parents were healthy and all of my family members would be reunited at one event together; something that had not happened in over a decade. And yet when I arrived and the family reunion was in full swing, I simply was not present. I mean, I was there physically, but I was just so consumed by my depression that I simply could not enjoy this precious moment.

2. Emotionally, I was empty.

It didn’t matter to me at the time that I was hurting my parents with my despondent behavior. There was nothing I could do to shake the dark cloud that hung over me. And the fact that I couldn’t do anything, while knowing something was wrong, drove me even more insane.

3. I couldn’t just decide to be not depressed.

There was no amount of positive thinking techniques, strategies, hacks, friendly advice or even threats by family members (with good intentions) that could make me snap out of it. And I knew it. I was stuck there, in that deep hole I wanted to get out of, and yet I couldn’t. No amount of happy thoughts and being positive helped sort it out.

4. It’s real and it does exist. It doesn’t just go away.

There is no way out. No amount of exit strategies and avoidances could help me, unless I faced it. I could drink myself to numbness (which I used to do with a passion), I could even exercise to numbness (which I was also very good at), only to wake up feeling the same, if not worse than the day before. Facing it is painful, scary, and like stepping into the unknown; but avoiding my “demons” would only postpone the inevitable and make it more painful in the end.

5. I came to realize others have it too, yet I felt alone.

No matter how much I read about it online, talked about it with professionals who assured me that I was not that special — that it is perfectly common and a lot of people experience this — I still felt like a failure.

6. I wanted to be with people, yet I did everything possible to isolate myself.

I wanted to be with people, even more, I craved human interaction. I yearned to be in my circle of friends and to be with someone. And yet at the same time, I dreaded picking up the phone to call and say: “Hey, I’m feeling down. I’d like you to come over.” Or even more, the scary “I need help.” My mind would come up with all kinds of stories about why my friends might not help me, not support me or even think I’m a loser. But this is absolutely untrue. You would be surprised how many people are ready to help and how many people will understand.

7. I felt like crying very often.

For a long time, I wanted to cry, yet I didn’t allow myself to do so. There was a strong stigma around it for me. It took me a long time to allow myself to cry. As soon as I did it for the first time, it became a part of my daily morning ritual. Crying like a baby for half an hour every morning. Unbelievably cleansing. I am convinced that crying on a regular basis was one of the reasons I am no longer struggling with depression. I realized later that crying is a strength, not a weakness.

8. I felt like less of a person.

The stigma around depression is gradually being conquered. More and more influential people, celebrities, scientists, you name it, are coming out and sharing their experience with depression. Many people admit that depression was a dramatic turning point in their lives. A turning point when things started to improve, transform and transition into the good times. Having depression does not mean that you or I are less of a person.

9. Some people will not understand.

I was only talking openly about this with my mum. Not my dad. My dad did not have the capacity to comprehend this (as an old school eastern European man with a low EQ). He knew, yet he did not understand. My mum would tell me he simply could not understand what I could be depressed about. A “man” like me, what a load of horse shit! But you know… I don’t feel upset about that. I know that a few years back, my reaction would’ve been the same, if not worse. So yeah, some people will not understand, and that is OK.

10. Living from gratitude.

When I look back now, I am really grateful for all the “painful” experiences. They taught me a lot about life and a lot about myself. The whole experience of dealing with depression is something that really enriched my life. I am now much more empathetic. I am less judgmental. I stress about petty things far less. Lots of my relationships have improved, for example the relationship with my family is much better. My sister and I are now closer. When I was down she was there for me and we talked about things that we had not used to. I have my moments, absolutely, yet the way I deal with things is so much healthier.

Read more by this author here.

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Originally published: October 11, 2017
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