Guest Post: Ellen Lundgren and Depression

As I am all prepared to give a talk about mental illness tomorrow, here is a guest post by Ellen Lundgren.  Ellen (pictured at right) will be at Skepticon 4 all weekend and has said she’s willing to discuss her story with anybody interested.


Confession

I wrote an earlier post with some details on dealing with my anxiety. What I left out was this problem has a much deeper background, and I’ve had a new and recent solution.

To cover a lot of history in a little time… I was always an extremely shy kid, terrified to talk to strangers or authority. It continued through grade school turning me inward and protecting myself with a hard shell of masked emotions. Through middle school and early high school, this made me extremely depressed, lonely, and internally masochistic. My life was the worst thing to me. I felt isolated, I felt like I had no friends, when in reality, I was probably pushing them away because I didn’t know how to handle it. I felt like my parents were purposely making it worse for me. Home life was spent on the computer with online friends, or in hiding in my bedroom. School was spent blending in and getting by.

In the middle of high school, I decided that this depression sucked and that I didn’t want to be like this anymore. Over the next few months to a year, I began to teach myself to be happy. I started with the little things. I would literally giggle just playing with some string. I would make myself smile when I stepped on the crunchy leaves in the fall. I would do what ever little things could give me momentary pleasure, and very slowly, I began to step out of the dark pit of wallowing depression.

I began to use the incentive of going to college as my escape. That thing to look forward to where I would finally be on my own, a chance to reinvent myself. I no longer cared that I wasn’t popular, I didn’t have many close friends. People didn’t care for me, I didn’t care for them. But I was going to get to college and show them all that I was awesome. I was 90% out of my depression and I had done it all on my own. At the same time, I’m extremely proud of that, and also really sad that it had to be that way. Sad that I had no one to help me through it. No one had seemed to notice. But I was now ten times stronger than I was before. I knew what depression felt like and I could tell when I began slipping down that dark hole again, and I would use my silly little tricks to slowly pull myself up again. Sometimes the smiles were forced, but over time, it helped.

Finally, in college, I felt a huge relief being on my own. I was excited to be able to relax into myself and to try out a new me. I was still quiet and shy at first, but freshman year I had a great bunch of new friends because we were all starting over again.

Now, my depression was gone however, stress and anxiety began to creep in and replace it. In my new life of actually being social, and having a full load of classes, I think I began to fray. I began to completely over think situations with people and my thoughts would go into warp speed worrying if I was acting right, what people thought of me, if I was too weird, if what I wanted to say was going to sound stupid. It was too much. I started to spend more time alone in my room and I would go whole weekends without even getting out of pajamas. At this point, I finally began to contemplate making a counseling appointment (free at my university) but I would always feel either ashamed or terrified and burst into tears thinking about it, and I could never do it.

About a year ago now, it built to the point that my anxiety snapped. I began to have panic attacks. It was usually a social expectation that triggered it, someone would ask me to do something completely voluntary that wasn’t a big deal but that I didn’t particularly want to do. It would have been the easiest thing to just say no, but instead I would feel bound to accept or risk being impolite or being completely rejected. It was an irrational fear, but my mind was convinced that it would happen and I would hyperventilate to the point that it hurt, my heart would race and I would get dizzy enough that I had to sit down, my eyes would tear up and my brain would not stop. Finally, I called a close friend who rushed over to calm me down, and the next day they went with me as moral support as I made my first appointment at the Counseling Office.

After that, just having that appointment made even though it was three weeks out made me feel so much better. Knowing that I had finally sought out some help and admitted that I had some issues to deal with, really began the healing process. Over the next eight months I went to regular counseling sessions for severe Social and Generalized Anxiety and Mild/Moderate Depression and began to feel quite a bit better. Even though some sessions were tough, I was rationalizing my fears, and I felt that I was on the road to recovery.

My counselor asked early on if I was interested in anxiety medications to get a handle on it, but I wanted to avoid medication to see if I could get over it with counseling first. I was willing to work on it and willing to make the change to get better. But a few months down the line, he asked again and said that he felt there was still some resistance from me and that he recommended medication again. Over this last summer, my counseling was interrupted so I had the time to really think about it. After meeting and talking with JT about these issues for a while, he convinced me to seriously consider some anxiety medication.

At the end of August, my doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant SSRI medication that also deals with anxiety. I’m glad to report that over the last few months, I’ve been more comfortable and more myself than I have in… forever. It sounds like an overstatement, but really… I’m not different, I’m more “me.” I’m no longer trapped in my head worrying and I’m much more sociable with my friends and with new people. I still need my downtime (this isn’t magic extroversion medicine) and I still get sad, but I am ten times more confident in my relationships and way less stressed leaving my apartment each day. And it’s how I’m able to share this story publicly today.

My hope is that by sharing my nearly decade long struggle, that it will help someone else with a similar story have the courage to admit it. If anyone reading this has experienced long term depression, apathy, anxiety or is constantly over-stressed and worried about life, I suggest going to a counselor, doctor, trusted friend and talking honestly about this for once. Even opening up and telling more people that I had anxiety helped me feel better, like I wasn’t hiding. I spent a lot of time trying to hide from my issues with anxiety and depression, but being in denial didn’t help me feel better. Tell someone, look into counseling. If it’s too scary, have a friend go with you. But don’t stay where you are, because life can be so much better and much more fun than it seems now.

If you want a friendly stranger to talk to, I’m available on facebook at Ellen Lundgren, or by email, ellenlundgren@gmail.com. JT is a great person to talk to about this as well since he helped me.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Andrew

    JT, are you on medications?

  • eNeMeE

    I don’t know about JT (although that double post with size differences does raise some questions :P) but I sure am! It’s soooo much better.

  • Colt

    In your talk, is there any way you could mention psychiatric service dogs? (Check out psychdog.org and pleasedontpetme.com if you’re interested.) My service dog has been more help than any medication (none have worked). There is a ton of stigma about MI and psychiatric SDs, glad to see you’re working against some of that! :)

  • Mark

    Is mental illness a trend with skeptics?

    • Sneffy

      My guess would be that the trend we’re seeing is not lots of skeptics having mental illness (which is too common to be confined to skeptics), but rather skeptics openly talking about mental illness. I know from my real life that having just one person open up about it can bring five people out of the woodwork.

      • Richard

        Seconded.

        If you sit down and talk with people, you find that a large number of everyone has something or another wacky in their brain to some degree or another. Hooray for vague statements without citations!

        The skeptic community is exactly that, skeptic about it. Most end up having to face their problems, and in the end become stronger for the struggle. The lives of those who are in this community tell a story of strife and victory that warms my heart and sends me to sleep with good dreams, of a world where people who need help, get it, and then get better.

        <3

    • http://potatoesarenotvegetables.blogspot.com/ Ashton

      I actually think that that might be true. It’s not that skepticism causes depression or other mental illness. I think it’s probably that those who experience those things while growing up in a religious environment find little to no resources to deal with these things and therefore begin to look elsewhere for answers. When you spend your life being told that Jesus will make you happy and then find that it isn’t true, it’s a lot easier to leave. For those who don’t experience that, they have don’t have that impetus pushing them out the door. That’s my experience anyway. This lovely slogan drives me crazy http://www.zazzle.com/no+jesus+no+peace+know+jesus+know+peace+bumperstickers I used to see it on posters all around my college campus.

  • LadyBlack

    I think we find more and more people with menal illness only because people are coming forward more to say, “You know what? I am depressed (or whatever they have chosen to discuss)”. It’s great to hear people feel more relaxed about discussing it. My mum has just gone to seek help. Having suspected something was wrong for a while, it is such a relief to know that she is talking to someone (and hopefully me, now) rather than bottling it up and trying to cope on her own.

    I am deciding myself where to go from here, being a self-harmer and I also deal with depression on a day to day basis. I personally don’t want to go back to medication, but then again last time I took it, I was on alcohol as well, which would not have helped.

    Ellen, I wish you all the happiness in the world – and of course, JT as well. Thank you for your post.

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      Thank you for sharing, Lady Black. I would encourage you to try meds again, minus the alcohol. Tell a friend about this and have them check on you and hold you accountable for taking your meds, and avoiding alcohol. Perhaps talk to your mom as well. It can be good to find another person to share your journey to recovery.

      Also, I think there’s definitely something about skeptics being more open to share these issues. We’ve already broken the conformity of religion by coming out of that closet. Makes sense that we can also break the stigma of mental illness as well.

  • SushiMPLS

    IMHO, I think being a skeptic can be pretty useful in helping with some of the more dangerous slippages, e.g. mania & schizoaffective episodes. (My credentials on that, is that my wife has a pretty nasty case of Bipolar type 1). Even just one instance or the ability to second guess one’s reality effectively can help show the need to take an anti-psychotic, which can prevent the snowballing effect of delusion that can happen in the brain.

    Religion is absolutely gasoline on a manic episode. (In fact, I find it a pretty convincing argument itself against the existence of god.) On a tangent, I think that most religions were started by people who were either manic/hyperthymic or schizophrenic. They actually believe that they are talking to God, which could be pretty convincing if you were into that sort of thing.

    Mental illness is something that I feel we as a society MUST be more open and candid about. There is absolutely no shame in it. It is an illness. People who have a mental can be absolutely tortured, not only by their illness, but by the people around them who don’t understand it. It is an extremely difficult thing to live with, and the least we can all do is try to understand and be compassionate.

    • papango

      I feel like there’s some serious OCD in there as well. If you read something like Leviticus it’s all about categorising things and making sure the categories stay separate and what rituals to do in the case of ‘contamination’ from one category to another. So neurotic. If I turned up to my psychatrist with a list of fabrics that shouldn’t be worn together I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be seen as a sign I was improving.

  • Lori

    Thank you for being so open about your illness. I am also an anxious, depressed introvert. It’s a tough road. Medication has helped a lot, although I find the side-effects make them less than desirable, but still worth it. Therapy was extremely helpful to me in the past and I’m trying to ramp myself up to starting up again. Perimenopause has really damaged my calm. (Yea, I’m hot for Jayne.) Anyway, just wanted to chime in for those in a similar predicament — you’re not alone and it can get better — much better. Take care.

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      Thanks for sharing, Lori. :) I hope you can share your story with those around you as well. Like atheism, we need to put a face of “normalcy” to the issue of mental illness to show society that it can happen to anyone, and it’s not anyone’s fault.

      I’m glad you’ve found help with medication and wish you the best of luck with finding the right therapy again!

  • Anonymous

    keep crying, jiggle tits

    • Pteryxx

      And it’s depression that gets stigmatized, instead of say being a vicious asshat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeannaJoy Deanna Joy Lyons

    Ellen, thanks so much for opening up about your anxiety. I’ve just recently realized I have it l. Too. My shrink put me on an SSRI also. No shame!

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      That’s great to hear Deanna! Keep it up, and tell your friends. I think being “out” about this issue will help to de-stigmatize the cause the same way that we need to be “out” about being atheists, or “out” as a part of the LGBT community.

  • anthonyallen

    Depression, loneliness, anxiety, fear.

    It doesn’t go away.

    And there is no one that can help.
    :(

    Thanks for sharing, Ellen.

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      But it can be managed, Anthony. And people do certainly help. No one person can provide a single fix, but doctors and psychiatrists can provide meds, friends and family can provide moral support.

      It doesn’t go away, these feelings are part of being human, but they don’t have to be the dominant force of feeling in your life. You deserve to be happy and content as much as anyone else.

      • anthonyallen

        I can’t see a doctor because I work overnight through the week, and I’m just simply not awake during regular working hours. My family lives 5000km away from here. I have no close friends.

        So when I say that no one can help, I meant it.

        • http://www.ziztur.com Flimsyman

          Anthony;

          Take time off of work. Just a day or two to sleep a bit late or early, to get in and see a doctor. If you need to, grab someone, either in person, preferably, or online or over the phone if need be, and tell them exactly when your doctor’s appointment is. Tell them straight out that you need them to call you and message you and harass you and hold you accountable for going to the appointment.

          Do it.

        • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

          I know these excuses. It may not be the easiest thing to get help when you’re alone, but making excuses isn’t going to make it easier. Be honest with yourself and go get the help you need. I know it’s hard, but there is support for you. I know you can do it, and I hope you do. You have my email, you have these commenters. Use us. :) *hugs*

        • eNeMeE

          I have no close friends.

          Which is not uncommon when depressed. It makes it hard to want to talk to people, or to talk to people about things that don’t suck. You may be stuck with not being able to see a doctor, depending on labour laws where you are, but go seek one out if you can – it really, really helps. Also, if you have friends somewhere else and can manage it – consider moving there (which is probably wildly impractical but hey, if you can…).

          I haven’t made a half-assed attempt to kill myself (it really helps that I have access to drugs that will kill me, but only over long (24+ hour) periods so I have enough time to realize I’m being a murgleflurging idiot) since starting ‘em, and I now actually want to talk to/do things with my friends (as opposed to only doing things when I felt forced to). Also, going on the meds allowed me to go out and actually meet people which also helped a heck of a lot.

  • Lana C

    Two things. This is why your work is SOOO important, JT.

    Second, and even more importantly, this is a beautiful piece, and I see parts of myself in your story. Thank you so much for sharing it Ellen. It is the hardest thing in the world to come out of depression, and to share it is lovely, since it can only help others of us. I suffer from extreme anxiety as well, and while the medications help, it is really hard to go to a professor and tell them why you got a D on the test. (panic attack). I am happy to hear that you are getting better, and believe me I know what a long road it is, I’m still traveling it as well.

    Again, thank you for this. It helps being able to commiserate and to hear about others doing well.

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      I know the feeling of talking to professors… O.o I’ve missed so many classes this semester from switching meds and the side effects making me so sleepy that I never wake up for them. But thank you for sharing, and best of luck on your journey as well. :)

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  • anthonyallen

    I wrote nearly a thousand words in response.

    But it’s all just excuses. It doesn’t matter.

    I’ll shut up now.

    • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

      Hey, just email it to me. I don’t mind long or rambling emails. If venting about it helps, I’ll do what ever you need. I’m here. :) ellenlundgren@gmail.com

  • papango

    “I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”

    That’s from Heart of Darkness and it really sums up for me the way I struggle with my own mental illness and why it’s such a hard fight.

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