Port Elizabeth-based writer, editor and trainer Llewellyn Kriel (61) was diagnosed with depression when he was in his forties. He shares his story with us…
“Strength and fortitude” in the face of depression
“I was formally diagnosed with major depression in 2001 when I was 47. At the time, I was in the final stages of treatment for alcoholism and was still under medical care. I have managed to stay sober since 2000 – which, as far as I’m concerned, is a big deal!
Like all alcoholics and addicts, I remain vulnerable and relapse is an ever-present threat. In a world where there are so many things over which we have little if any control, my sobriety is one thing I can control. I guard that power very jealously. It gives me great hope and courage for the future. My personal motto is Sapienta et Fortitudo – strength and fortitude.”
The start of my depression
“I remember many occasions growing up when I felt ‘down’. Maybe those were early symptoms of the disease. I have always struggled with low self-esteem. I was severely bullied at school – except for the two years I spent in the UK from age 10. I had a warm, loving and supportive family, but it stood in stark contrast to my peer experience.
I have also always set incredibly high standards for myself and, when they proved unattainable, I came down very hard on myself. In early adulthood, I sought solace in alcohol and dabbled with drugs. They made me feel better, but gradually the alcohol became more and more of a problem. That, coupled with other pressures, ultimately caused my marriage to fail. My diagnosis and the subsequent long road to where I am today followed my first attempted suicide.”
The essence of depression
“Everyone will reportedly suffer at least one bout of depression as a result of a traumatic experience – the loss of a loved one, a relationship break-up, a setback or a severe trauma. Men tend to hide their depression behind a false bravado of ‘cowboys don’t cry’.
Major depression is when those symptoms and feelings persist day after day, week after week, year after year. I felt drained, physically, mentally and emotionally emptied, as if there was a reservoir of goodness and joy inside me and the tap had been left on. I was devoid of hope that it would get better. I was a burden. Life was a burden. Here I was doing this ‘good thing’, kicking my alcohol dependence, and that should have made me feel really good. But it didn’t.
There was just an insatiable emptiness, a great vast desert in which nothing could or would grow. I loathed myself and blamed myself – even for failing to kill myself: ‘You see how useless you are,’ I said to myself, ‘you can’t even kill yourself.’ Nothing held any joy or fulfillment for me and I lost interest even in the things that normally gave me great joy. I saw no future or hope or relief anywhere and yearned to be dead.”
Depression, relationships and work
“Depression cost me my marriage. My ex-wife and I are very lucky in that we’re still very good friends and she is very supportive, as are both my sons, and most of my friends. Employers and bosses have, however, been quite the opposite.
There is great stigma attached to mental illness in SA and companies avoid employing ‘problems’ at all costs. I was wrong initially to think that being open about my illness was a good and worthy thing. It only created fear and an eagerness to find any excuse to purge the company of this ‘Kriel-thing’, ‘the nutter’. I don’t blame sufferers who have to live a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence because of stigma, ignorance, paranoia and fear.”
Getting the medication right
“Effective, lasting treatment has been a very long road for me. Due to the insidious nature of mental illnesses, treatment still seems to be a hit-and-miss affair with doctors and psychiatrists trying various ‘cocktails’ and monitoring progress.
I went through the entire gamut of anti-depressants, dosages, this combo, that combo, until finally, after a second (thankfully) failed suicide attempt I was put on a SNRI (serotonin-norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor) together with an antipsychotic at night. I have been on this combination for the past six years and it is great!
I have also learnt to understand myself and my illness much, much better and can quickly recognise when I need to take a break, exercise, change my diet or, critically important, seek help. Knowledge with correct medical supervision is indispensable in living and thriving with mental illness.”
Caring for those with depression
“How can you help those struggling with depression? Be there. The urge to do something can be overwhelming, but it is much more important in the long term to allow the sufferer to work through things.
It is vital to learn everything you can about your loved one’s illness, so talk to his/her psychiatrist, doctor, SADAG, and read up on the Internet. Understand that this is very serious. Depression is not something to be shaken off and it won’t simply pass. Your loved one cannot ‘just get over it’.
If necessary, join a support group, as finding out how other people are coping is hugely valuable.”
My advice for those diagnosed with depression
- Stay on your treatment until advised to change; don’t self-diagnose… Treatment is a journey along a path toward getting better and it usually takes a long time. You start feeling much better after a few weeks, but that’s because the meds are doing their job. Do not stop just because you are feeling better!
- Exercise regularly, even if you simply walk every day for 15 or 20 minutes.
- Join a support group.
- Learn as much as you possibly can about your condition and keep up to date with new developments.
- Know yourself. You are the best gauge of when things are in danger of falling out of kilter.
- Be easy on yourself. Guilt, low self-worth, regret, anger, impatience, prejudice etc. weigh on all of us, but especially heavily on the mentally ill. Take a break when you need to: get out, watch a movie, go to a park, or visit family. Often other symptoms are the early warning signs that something is out of balance. Stop, investigate and then act.
If you’re struggling with mental illness and need help, contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com