Today is World Health Day and the theme this year is depression. I wanted to take this opportunity as a man, husband, father, son, friend, human and clinical psychologist to talk a bit about my personal experience in dealing with depression.
I have a type of muscular dystrophy called FacioScapuloHumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD). I was born with it and it has gotten worse over time. I played sports growing up and played tennis through high school, but I couldn’t keep my arm raised above my head. I played street hockey, but I couldn’t do a push-up.
Growing up with MD was a huge source of shame for me. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I hid it from myself and from others. I didn’t talk about it. When I couldn’t do the pommel horse routine in gym class in high school, I stayed after class and somersaulted around the room telling jokes to my gym teacher in order to pass. It makes me cringe when I think about it now, but telling him or anyone else didn’t even cross my mind.
I told my closest friends about it in college as well as my first serious girlfriend. It felt like coming out of the closet.
After I graduated from college, I started going to therapy and talking more about the MD. I was depressed on and off from the time I was 18 till my mid-thirties. I had a respite for a few years when I met my wife, Debbie. We were living in London and got married and our son was born there.
We moved to New York City when I was 30. That’s when things started getting more challenging physically. It became too difficult to navigate the subway stairs. I started tripping and having some bad falls and broken noses. I had a series of major depressive episodes in my early to mid- thirties that were directly related to my physical decline.
It had a huge impact on my relationship with Deb, who is also a therapist. We went to couple’s therapy together. I was in my own therapy as well. I also traveled to different places around the world to work with alternative health practitioners, trying desperately to slow down this runaway train.
I am 41 now. We moved almost two years ago to Austin, TX after 9 years in New York City. I have worked with many people with different chronic illnesses in my therapy practice, including running a group in New York for people with chronic health conditions. I have presented on the topic as well.
Probably the most profound thing that I have discovered is that my overall wellbeing is not inversely proportional to my physical state. In other words, even though I am a lot more limited physically now than I was ten years ago, I am happier. I am going to list what I consider to be the main components that have contributed to this (not in hierarchical order):
- Therapy: I have been in some form of individual, couple’s and group therapy for almost 20 years now. The love and support of my therapists has been and continues to be priceless.
- Meditation: I have studied and practiced different forms of meditation. When I am meditating regularly, I feel much better.
- Combating shame: I simply cannot hide the MD any longer. Being able to talk about it with others and to not keep it a secret have made me feel less isolated in the world. I still struggle with shame though. It is a struggle that continues to evolve.
- Love: My wife and I have been through the ringer over the past 15 years with the MD. We have struggled together and separately, but we haven’t given up on each other. We are closer than ever and we have two children that we love fiercely. My family is everything to me. I also have close friends and family that I know I can rely on.
- I love what I do: My private practice is 100% online now and last year I created a site called Love After Kids to help people reconnect and strengthen their relationships with their partners while raising children. My work doesn’t feel like work. It is meaningful and sacred to me.
- Acceptance: I work on focusing on the things I can change and not on the things I cannot. Recently, I have been challenging my own assumptions about what I can change and have been working with old beliefs and ways of being that have contributed to keeping me boxed in. This is also a work in progress and will be for the rest of my life.
- Staying present: I’m a husband and father and therapist. I don’t have the luxury of allowing myself to project into the future and focus on the things that might happen. I have gotten good at staying present. This is a result of training and taming my mind. In my twenties and early thirties, I was at the mercy of my mind all the time. There was no separation between me and my mind. I have cultivated this awareness and agency and I treasure it. I rely on it.
- Spirituality: What I am working on now is allowing myself to embrace the unknown, the possibilities, what I cannot see or comprehend. I guess you could say that this is my spirituality. It is not derived from organized religion or a traditional notion of God. It is based in connecting to the miracle of life, the fact that we exist on this tiny planet in an incomprehensibly vast universe.
All of this said, I still have bad days. I still struggle. The dance of being connected while observing at the same time, is a dance that looks and feels different every day. I know what despair feels like.
I know what contemplating ending it all feels like.
I know what deep shame feels like.
I know what hopelessness feels like. These aren’t things you can just snap out of. Depression can feel like a black hole. I have been there. I am not there now and I have listed some of the reasons why. I share my struggles when appropriate with the people that I work with, because I know that I am not above or outside of anyone or anything. That’s why I am sharing them with you as well. We are all in this together. This much I know is true.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.