As this is the final blog post for mood month, it’s time to get to the raw, uncomfortable, real crux of it; the why. Our very own Aoife of @happiness_transformation shares her own journey and how she got to her why.
At 16 my parents found me crying uncontrollably in my room one night. It was pretty unusual for me, as I was very much a closed book, even at home. When asked why I was crying I think I just said I was very unhappy. I had no idea what was happening or necessarily how I got there, but I was in a very dark place. I remember whole-heartedly believing I had nothing to look forward to, I didn’t even want to get out of bed and no longer found enjoyment in anything.
This behaviour continued for a little while and then my mum decided I should see a counsellor. I got diagnosed with severe depression, which was not well received at home. My mum was hugely empathetic and supportive but having worked in mental health, couldn’t quite figure out how I’d become depressed when she only knew of it in the context of PTSD. My dad’s natural response was anger - how could someone who’d been given everything and been brought up in a loving family be depressed?
I went on medication. At that time, there was no other option (or so I thought), as I was so far in. I also started seeing a psychiatrist on a weekly basis. This treatment and severity of condition went on for 2 years. I got to the point that I knew my only option was suicide, it was just a case of when. Putting that sentence to paper, writing those words right now, makes me want to cry. The realisation that my perception of life had become so warped, that that was my logical conclusion, is heart-breaking. But, in my experience, that’s what depression is - a warped perception of reality. The cause is debateable. Looking at it logically, it was most likely a combination of a chemical imbalance due to poor diet and gut health, playing into a genetic pre-disposition and a lack of connection with society and sense of purpose, basically it’s complex!
I finally learnt to enjoy myself again when I left school and went travelling. I was, at that point, on the maximum dose of meds and consequently couldn’t handle my booze and had crazy dreams and generally disrupted sleep, but I’d found enjoyment in things again - which was huge progress!
I’m now 31 and now (and only now) 18 months off anti-depressants, and what a journey it’s been.
These are the key mile-stones in my ‘happiness- transformation’, as I like to call it:
Age 24- I went through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy- knowledge/awareness is power
I went to the doctor and requested to start CBT. I had read about it, and being a curious person, I wanted to understand the ‘Why’ behind becoming severely depressed at 16. I was still classified as depressed at this point and still on meds, albeit a lower dose, but I had found my balance. I was emotionally removed enough to look at things objectively.
CBT was incredible and took me on a path of understanding myself. As part of CBT I got introduced to mindfulness meditation, which has been instrumental in my transformation.
Age 25- I became a yogi
I had theoretically been practising yoga from aged 19 but I was doing it for physical reasons then- I wanted to look good. But I only understood, loved and practised yoga for what it really is, thanks to the seed being planted through mindfulness meditation.
Age 26- I had my appendix removed
This may seem like an odd thing to call out as a mile-stone, but it was, because I was so sick afterwards and my digestive system has never been the same. The relevance of that, is nutrition became so important and I learnt the power of nutrition for the body and mind.
Age 30- I moved back to London, having spent 3 years in Sydney where I had become more and more of a yoga and health fiend. I took a moment to reflect and realised I’d managed to transform myself, into a better version of me. I was no longer angry or emotionally temperamental (sure, once a month I still got tetchy and if something bad happened, it affected me) but I was no longer fundamentally unhappy. I had found my balance and become the best me yet, thanks to my ‘toolkit’- I had found out how to facilitate my own happiness.
I wanted to write this article then and set up my business, but I felt it would be somewhat incomplete- why? Because I was still on the meds, 13 years on, my Achilles heel. I still had that irrational fear that if I came off them, I could slip back into the darkness. I decided once and for all, to make it happen…to come off them. I did my research on what I could do to support myself nutritionally, chose not to tell anyone, and did it. I changed my diet, meditated every evening, upped my exercise and cut back on alcohol. I really focused on looking after myself, to support myself in this final chapter of my journey with depression. It was not easy - a few months in, my mum asked me if I was off them because I was noticeably short-tempered. I was irritable, the rage came back a bit - I was frustrated with everything, but I persevered and it passed.
I want anyone who is depressed, down, unhappy or stuck on meds to know that it is possible to not only see the light at the end of the tunnel, but to get there. The key, in my experience, is understanding happiness is not something you get, or are given, but something you create.
So, the question is, if I knew what I know now, what would I do differently? How can I turn my journey into a positive, to help others?
First and foremost, I wish I knew there were options. In my opinion, the way in which my situation was handled, reflects the very binary Western medicine mentality - you’re sick or you’re not. The symptom is treated, and not the cause.
In an ideal world, other avenues would have been explored to investigate the cause before medication, be it a possible chemical imbalance or lack of social connection/sense of purpose, or indeed, a combination.
I would have started with an anti-inflammatory diet, which would have consisted of:
- Cutting out: sugar, vegetable oils, dairy, gluten and alcohol
- Reducing: meat consumption
- Increasing: green veggies, good fats (extra virgin olive oil consumed cold, avocados, coconut oil and yoghurt, nuts and seeds) & wild fish
- Introducing elements to address gut health:
- probiotics, in the form of fermented foods and supplements
- prebiotics from foods such as artichoke, gf oats and green bananas
- Introducing elements to address brain health:
- good quality fish oil with a high DHA ratio
- increase magnesium consumption
- a vitamin D&K supplement
This is a strong nutritional blueprint for establishing optimal health.
I would have undertaken specific analysis in the form of blood and stool tests to see if there was any nutritional deficiency or GI dysbiosis, which can be responsible for all sorts of hormonal imbalances that manifest in a variety of ways.
I also reflect on prevention and what ‘mind training’ may have perhaps helped to avoid the escalation of my negative feelings. I would love to be able to go back to my younger self, pre-break down and offer her the gift of ‘permission to prioritise self-care’, outside of just the physical. Offering up a coaching approach to life where the skill of self-awareness and reflection is honed through sharing and talking with others. Where you can learn to trust your own mind to have the solutions to your issues and the best action plan to get what makes you happy. Laying stable foundations in my thought patterns and self-care behaviours to assist me in making sustainable change in my life that were in line with my values.
It’s important to note that self-care isn’t something that only becomes relevant at times of crisis. Given 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point in their life, a proactive approach would be something I’d highly recommend -who’s to say your life couldn’t be enhanced?
Can you imagine how powerful coaching could be in a formal school context for example in teaching our children how to understand themselves and their needs and how to pave their way to getting them?
Let’s think about wellness, not just treating sickness. So often in our society the driver is the physical, but how can anyone deny that things like mood, sleep quality and energy levels are more important day-to-day than looking good in a bikini for 2 weeks of the year.
Given the connection between gut health and mental health, nutrition is definitely a place of focus, which is why we’ve come up with the Reset and Reclaim programme www.resetandreclaimprogramme.com. I have applied the nutrition principals here, which I have first-hand experience of, in a practical, sustainable way, so you can show up to life with your best foot forward and be the best version of you.