How I got through depression

Small plant emerging from soil with a ray of sunlight shining on it.
image: iStock

I have had a few experiences with depression in my life, but one was particularly rough.

It was in 1998 and I was working in the pharmaceutical industry at the time. My job had been in R&D but I had felt lost for a while. I’d recently changed jobs into a broader role in an effort to find something with greater meaning for me, something that might lift what felt like a dark cloud falling over me. But it didn’t help.

It got so bad at one point that I would often leave work as early as was permitted, drive home, lie on the floor and cry. I just didn’t know what was wrong at the time, why I was feeling the way I was feeling.

In hindsight, I realise that what was wrong was that I felt stuck. I wasn’t living the life I knew in my heart was for me. I was lost. But I couldn’t make sense of it at the time.

Inside, I secretly wanted to be a writer and speaker. The trouble was that it felt like just a dream, a hope, something other more confident people might do, so I’d largely buried the idea as being unrealistic. 

It wasn’t the sort of life I could ever imagine myself actually having. Not me. I never considered myself a confident person and that was a life for outgoing confident people.

Depression occurs for different reasons with different people. Feeling stuck, lost, or lacking a sense of meaning or purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what causes depression in everyone, only that it was this way for me.

Work felt empty. I put on a brave face because I had a job to do, but I almost always felt a background of heaviness that was almost palpable on the surface of my skin, like a coldness or tightness, or even an icky feeling. 

I withdrew from friends, just not going out as often. When you feel depressed, it becomes harder to have conversations, because part of having conversations involves you asking questions, enquiring with interest into what’s going on in people’s lives. 

I just didn’t seem to be able to come up with questions, nor discuss any topic that was being discussed. I felt dulled, like there was a delayed reaction between friends saying something and me perceiving what was being said. The more I couldn’t think of things to say in conversations, the harder it got, and so I just withdrew somewhat to avoid these kinds of situations.

Some things helped me. I found a little solace watching nature programmes on TV, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. There was something about seeing under oceans, watching the fish move seemingly contented, or seeing the wilderness, watching animals, and hearing Sir David’s soft voice, that comforted me.

Years later, having written a chapter about nature in my book, ‘Why Woo-Woo Works’, I now know why it helped. Nature calms the human nervous system, whether you’re physically in nature or even just watching a nature programme on TV.

It’s a legacy from eons of time in the distant past that our human ancestors spent in nature. Now, when we witness nature in any form, our nervous system defaults to a calmer state.

I didn’t know that nugget of science at the time. I watched the programmes because doing so helped me feel relaxed.

I also found that vigorous exercise helped a bit. I started running. Not too far; just a circuit of a couple of miles. But I timed myself and began pushing myself harder and harder in an attempt to beat my personal best each time I ran. I would be so exhausted when I finished each run that I was gasping for breath and seeing stars. But having a target to beat gave my runs some purpose.

The thing that helped most, though, was telling my mum how I was feeling. I’d hidden it from everyone, making excuses for not going out or not joining colleagues at lunch. Mum sensed something was wrong and when we spoke on the phone, she would ask how I was. She probed. She said she could tell there was something I wasn’t telling her.

This went on for weeks. Finally, I relented. I told her that I felt depressed.

She asked me to come home. So I did. The following morning, I phoned work and arranged a few days off and then drove the 248 miles (400 kilometres) home to stay with my mum and dad for a few days. Those few days turned into a week, and it was the beginning of my recovery.

Mum understood depression. She’d suffered initially from post-natal (partum) depression in 1976 after my youngest of three sisters was born. She didn’t receive the right treatment at the time. Post-natal depression wasn’t as well understood then as it is today. With Mum, it developed into clinical depression and anxiety, which took years to manage and overcome.

She listened to me during that week. Really listened. Being around Mum and Dad gave me comfort. I loved just sitting with them in the evening, watching TV. I could take a short break from being fully responsible for my life: cooking, cleaning, working. Mum and Dad took care of me for a week, and it was a tonic.

I talked a lot to my mum about how I was feeling. Talking helped so much because I’d bottled it all up. I’d been ashamed to tell anyone how I was feeling. I had always been the positive guy. Through my PhD, I was the one who lifted others, who always saw the silver lining no matter what was happening.

I was a leader at work in R&D. I had a responsibility to people who worked with me. I felt I had to be positive, the one whom others could count on for insight and guidance. How could I tell people how I was feeling? I felt embarrassed.

But speaking to Mum and Dad was a tonic. It was a release. And I could feel a calmness settle over me during that week.

I hated the idea of going back to work, back to my life, but I felt a renewed determination to get through things. I knew I could cope now because I could always talk to my mum about things. I didn’t have to pretend any more.

I started feeling lighter some days. It wasn’t always plain sailing. I would have a few good days and then a few bad days again. But over a few months, the good days began to outnumber the bad ones.

It was nice learning to feel good again. I’d gone so long feeling heavy and low that I’d forgotten what it was like to feel good. At the beginning of my recovery, such was the weight of the expectation of feeling dense and low, that after feeling good and lighter through periods of a day, I fully expected to bounce back to feeling ‘normal’, that is, depressed. That was normal for me. And I did, for a time.

But within a few months, I was definitely having more good days (where I felt light, positive, optimistic) than bad ones (where I felt heavy, clouded, and couldn’t see a way out).

I recall one day in particular that changed everything. It was three months after I had spent that week at home with Mum and Dad. It was during the Christmas holidays, and I was home for two weeks to stay with them and hang out with my sisters.

It was the 28th of December 1998. It was cold, but there was a lovely blue sky and the sun was shining. I love days like that. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Princess Square in Glasgow, Scotland. It was coming to the end of the year and I was contemplating my goals for 1999. A sudden realisation struck me.

I’d spent 7 years at university, doing an honours degree and then a PhD. I had now spent over three years in the pharmaceutical industry. I had made an impact and was considered a highflier. I had a successful career ahead as far as everyone was concerned.

The trouble is, I felt trapped by it. That wasn’t the life I knew in my heart I wanted to live. 

The sudden realisation was that I didn’t need to stay there. I really didn’t!

I could leave and return home.

It had never occurred to me before. I’d invested so much time in academia and now in R&D. It hadn’t occurred to me because it would have felt preposterous. My career, and my life, was mapped out for me when I made the choice to accept a job offer in R&D after my PhD. That’s just the way things go, I believed.

But I could leave and come home. Of course, I needed something else to go to, but the thought unstuck me. It was one of the clearest thoughts I could ever remember having. It was exhilarating.

I figured I would stay in my current job for another year – so I’d have more experience behind me that would be attractive to other employers – then I’d apply for a job back home, near my mum, dad, and sisters, in some kind of training and development role.

Since moving from R&D, I’d been a project manager, managing change projects. The job gave me lots of opportunities to speak, communicate, and give short trainings instead of working mostly at a lab bench. I was still in the pharmaceutical field, but I could easily stretch over further into a general training and development role.

The clarity of the thought. The realisation. That was the day depression left me.

Depression had been linked with feeling stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be, and I’d felt I was going to be stuck there for the rest of my life.

Now I felt free.

I returned to work in January with a renewed passion and I excelled at my job. I had something to work towards. A reason that mattered to me. My plans accelerated significantly in July of that year when I attended a 4-day seminar led by Tony Robbins.

During a long visualisation session, Tony inspired the audience to grab hold of our dreams and to make a decision, now, that would shape the rest of our lives for the better. I decided to leave my job to be a writer and speaker.

I needn’t seek a job with another employer back home in training and development like I’d imagined. I needn’t wait. I could do it myself. Right now.

I had a passion for the mind-body connection. While doing my R&D job, I’d also researched the placebo effect in my spare time and understood how the mind could impact the body. I wanted to use science to inspire people, to educate them in ways to improve their happiness, health and wellbeing.

So that’s what I did.

I resigned on my next day back at work. It was July 1999. One of the best days of my life was 3rd October of that year. I’d finished working a 3-month notice period and now got in my car to drive home. The drive was wonderful. It was four hours but felt shorter. The sun was shining the whole way. I played music. I sung along.

I remember so clearly going to the shop across the road from Mum and Dad’s house that night with my sleeves rolled up, feeling the familiar cold Scottish October air on my arms. It felt refreshing, invigorating. I breathed it in and savoured it.

Quite a lot has happened in between then and now. It’s over 20 years later, after all. There’s been a few ups and downs, blips, stumbles, and crashes. And laughter. I co-founded and ran a charity with some friends. I’ve been a college lecturer and university tutor. I’ve been broke. I’ve driven a delivery van. I’ve handed out leaflets on the street. And I’ve written 11 books. I now regularly speak to public and corporate audiences, mostly around the subjects of kindness, the mind-body connection, or self esteem. I do pretty much what I left my job to do.

For me, depression was linked to feeling stuck doing something I didn’t want to do in a place I didn’t want to be in.

It had been so ingrained in me during 7 years of university study that this is what you do – degree, PhD, then either academia or industry. It’s the plan. It’s what all the study is for. It’s what everyone does. It’s what we all talked about during our PhDs as we mapped out the rest of our lives ahead. It’s why I’d felt stuck. That life I’d planned just wasn’t for me.

I just didn’t know I could change it.

That might sound like an odd thing to say, but I didn’t know anyone who had done anything different. Everyone stuck to the plan. It’s what you do.

I’m writing this blog today because a lot of people are struggling with their mental health right now. If you’re one of them, I hope there’s something in my story that’s of value to you.

Even if the details are different, the reasons are different, I hope you at least take two things away from my experience.

The first is that you can get better. There really is light at the end of the tunnel, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.

The second is this. Talk to someone! A family member, a trusted friend. Even someone you don’t know that well, if you do want to keep it from those closest right now. Or speak to a therapist. But talk to someone.

Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Speaking to someone will lift a weight off your shoulders. You’ll find that people really want to help. 

It’s human nature to care. It’s what we do.

Wherever you are on your journey through life right now, I wish you well.

You’re doing great, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

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  1. Jean on October 6, 2022 at 9:27 am

    Hi David

    I really enjoyed reading your story. It made me feel a lot better. I try to be positive and always looking forward.
    Its nice to know that people are not alone.

  2. H on October 6, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for this. I have been struggling for several years. On the outside everything is great and I look like a successful woman at the top of her career in a male dominated sector. In reality I’m sitting alone in the dark when I get home from work and sobbing until I get a headache. Cycling helps, it feeds the urge to run away and the muscle burn feels good. Just started Therapy. Most sessions I just sit in front of my therapist sobbing and unable to speak. But even that helps. I will get there eventually. My advice to others is try to get outside for some exercise and find someone – anyone – to open up to. It’s uncomfortable but it’s tricky doing this sort of thing alone. You matter and you’ve got this xxx

  3. Barbara on October 6, 2022 at 9:50 am

    Thank you David for your blog on depression. I can relate to a lot you have written. I will do a visualisation for my happy place and how I would feel there. Thank you

  4. Susan Langridge on October 6, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for sharing this very personal journey – there is so much value in it particularly for those of us who are struggling or stuck – the importance of being true to yourself is such a key thing isn’t it? (But not always obvious or easy)

  5. Vida Hreem on October 6, 2022 at 1:47 pm

    I really enjoyed your story too . I feel anxious and lonely some days. But I to am learning to cope. I’m 80 so I come later to my life. Thank you David. I shall never forget meeting you, many many years ago.

  6. Sue Rotheram on October 6, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    I’m sure your story and wonderful advice at the end will help many, many people. Thank you for caring.

  7. Ann Ayton on October 6, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    I love how you bring things out into the open, so that everybody has a chance to see and understand a broader perspective, and feel part of something bigger, outside themselves. Thank you.

  8. Michele on October 6, 2022 at 10:08 pm

    That sure was wonderful David. Thank you. I realized at some point that having some depression helped to cultivate my compassionate spirit, and it just might be part of balance. I certainly do miss having my family to resuscitate me here and there though. Taking those jumps in life can be paralyzing and/or exhilarating. I’m presently stuck again and it’s from playing it safe. Not my nature but maybe a side-effect of 61.. Though there can be a price for exploring life.. I do know however , that in the end I will have known myself better, and grateful I had the guts (and a taste for humble pie), to really entertain myself for that final read. Most grateful for your reflections! xoxox

  9. Pamela on October 7, 2022 at 2:15 am

    Thanks for sharing your personal drift. Your words connect with what I’m feeling right now, especially when you wrote… “For me, depression was linked to feeling stuck doing something I didn’t want to do in a place I didn’t want to be in”.
    And they connect me with the love of ourselves; “To love is to let all our truth emerge”, in all personal and work areas.

    Luminous Hugs.

  10. Niccola Willis on October 7, 2022 at 8:35 am

    Thank you… Deeply moving.

  11. Cindy Sym on October 7, 2022 at 7:00 pm

    Thankyou. I know the source of my pain and have been trying to extricate myself from stuck for too long. But this sharing gives me hope. It’s not as simple as changing my path but I see that things run their course thanks to you. Grateful for you.

  12. Pippa on October 8, 2022 at 7:01 am

    This is such a wonderful post David, it really takes a strong person to go through this and to share. I am in a stuck place, I know what I have to do but it will impact people all around me. I feel sad by it all. You’re right, knowing what you have to do helps, putting coping mechanisms in place also helps. Keep inspiring!

  13. Dawn on October 12, 2022 at 6:44 am

    Thank you for sharing your journey regarding, realizing, dealing with it and how you got through depression.. For what it’s worth, I took away a few things you mentioned, that will help, but also you made me realize I wasn’t wrong in believing nature can be a form of medicine/therapy.
    l always enjoy your emails, thank you

  14. Wendy mcdougall on October 19, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    Wow. Isn’t is strange how things just arrive with you and you feel like someone is sending you a subliminal message … I have had this article on my to read list and I’m so glad I got round to reading this. I was hooked on every single word. Insightful, fascinating and motivating. I know in my heart that I could give so much back to society if I followed my dreams. Knowing that I can become unstuck and that the present is not forever is giving me some much needed hope. Thank you David

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