I had a serious brain injury in 2007, the result of a suicide attempt after decades of depression and traumatic life events. Somewhere in the first year post-injury, I was finally able to stop running scared to death, panicky and out-of-breath through the dark tunnel away from the light. I slowed down, calmed myself, and began to develop the sense that it wasn’t a train, after all, coming right at me. I was able to find a sliver of hope that somewhere down the tracks, the darkness would eventually lift, and I’d feel the sunshine on my face again.
That’s hope. Faith. Something I did not have before trying to take my own life.
More than a decade and a half later, I’m walking, sauntering, and whistling even, in the sunshine. The tunnel and darkness are far behind me in the distance. Now, don’t get me wrong. Every day isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but even when the clouds gather overhead and life gets tough, I have a strong knowing now that the sky will clear before too long. The sun will come out again.
I’ve learned to just keep going. Don’t panic. This is for now, not forever. Keep doing what I know helps me.
Believe it or not, I’m actually grateful to have had the brain injury and wouldn’t go back to being the person I was before it, even if I could. While I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out with tweezers than go through that gut-wrenching ordeal again, the experience did have its benefits. Like any other “bad” thing in life, my brain injury came bearing profound gifts, if I just looked for the lessons in the mess.
It Is Possible to Thrive After Depression
Everywhere you turn, you see evidence of the epidemic of depression. Unfortunately, it’s very real and affects far too many of us. What we don’t hear enough about is the people who have recovered and gone on to thrive. There are quite a few of us who do. We could stand to learn a lot from them.
The article, It Is Possible to Thrive After Depression, had this to say:
When a group of researchers went looking—for the first time—for really good outcomes in people who had previously suffered from depression, they were surprised by what they found. Over 10 years, 10 percent of those who had previously had an episode of major depression were not only managing their symptoms but could be said to be thriving in life. In various measurements of psychological well-being, they were doing as well as the top 25 percent of people who had never suffered an episode of depression at all.
Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but what’s important is that until now, we didn’t know that anyone with depression managed to get into what psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg of the University of South Florida, who led the research, has called ‘the rarified air of people going along in life and flourishing.’”
My Depression Turning Point
For a while after the suicide attempt, I was still depressed, emotionally unstable, and undecided as to whether I wanted to live. At around six months post-injury, I had a near-drowning incident. At the moment I was facing life or death, something inside of me instinctively kicked in and fought mighty hard to live. It wasn’t until later I realized that I could have easily slipped quietly under the water and finished what I’d started months earlier.
Why didn’t I?
The event helped me to see that my mind had been convincing me that life wasn’t worth living – when my innate instinct when confronting death, was to fight to survive. For decades, I’d been torturing myself with the pain of the past and anxiety about the future. I realized that something inside of me – beyond the incessant depressing, hopeless chatter in my head – wanted to live. From that point on, I started acting like it. I began putting positive effort into my recovery and life.
What I’ve Learned as a Depression Survivor
Let go of the past.
Part of my memory was wiped out along with brain cells in the brain injury. What I could remember followed no rhyme or reason. While I could recall the words to almost every song that came on the radio, the memories were not there in detail for my sons’ births or their baby years. Pictures have become my memories. Thankfully, I also don’t remember a lot of the little hurts and gaping wounds that left me with many scars over the years. Therefore, I couldn’t torture myself with the pain — at first.
Over time, as memories came back, I consciously decided not to keep hurting myself with them. While I know all the painful stuff from the past really did happen, I didn’t have to bring it into my present every day. It was in the past. It could stay there. You can learn to let go of painful memories too – without a brain injury.
Appreciate the little things.
When you’ve hit rock bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. After the brain injury, my arms hung limply at my sides when I walked instead of swinging naturally. Because of this, I used to “chug” them not knowing what else to do with them. I sure did appreciate something as small as the way they used to just automatically swing and do again now without me even having to think about it.
The same goes for speaking. Before the brain injury, I never gave the act of putting thoughts into words and producing the corresponding sounds with my mouth a second thought. Immediately post-injury, all I could do is make sounds. Because of my speech impairment right after the brain injury, just going to the grocery store used to make me break out in a sweat and had me summoning all of my courage. I would pray that I wouldn’t get a chatty cashier. It took years, for my speech to get somewhat normal again, and I sure do appreciate it now!
Having an attitude of gratitude actually changes your brain and improves your mental health in many measurable ways according to science. I believe it. It has certainly worked for me.
Focus on the abundance in your life.
Pre-injury, I had an overwhelming abundance in my life, but all I saw and obsessed over was the lack. I focused on what I thought was wrong and completely missed what was right.
Before the injury, my two young sons lived with me. While I doted on and my life revolved around them, like any other full-time, single parent, I’d get annoyed easily by the little, routine things. I took my boys’ presence in my life every day completely for granted. After the injury, they now went with their Dad in a different state. When they visited, I would revel in the energy they exuded, appreciatively notice lots of little things I missed before, and even secretly enjoy seeing their socks strewn about the den floor.
These days, I do what I need to do to take care of the problems, but I don’t focus on them. I put my energy into and focus on the possibilities. There are good things in your life all the time — even when everything seems bad — you have to train your brain to notice them.
Face your fears.
I used to be afraid of life. Although I don’t think anyone who knew me would’ve suspected as much because I played a pretty convincing tough girl. Don’t most of us with depression learn to put on our mask and go function out in the world? I was good at putting up a brave front, and while I really did want to be brave, inside I was terrified. In the years following the brain injury, I had to draw on and develop strength I didn’t know I had and learn to trust and depend on myself. For a person who had perfected playing the victim all of her life, this lesson has proven invaluable.
My challenges have made me strong and taught me how to be resilient. Now, I still may feel fear and anxiety, but I’ve learned to work with them and keep going. I don’t let them stop me anymore. I refuse to live my life making decisions based on what I am afraid of. That never turns out well and does not get you where you want to go. I now have the tools and confidence to handle whatever life throws at me. I may even be able to find some joy along the way.
There is life after depression for me – a rich, fulfilling life. I wish the same for you.