Person bends down to clip off a ball and chain from their ankle.

Depressed for the "Right" Reason: MS & Mental Healthcare

The other night, something weird happened to me. I was eating dinner and streaming one of my favorite TV shows when I started to notice what I can only describe as “a heavy feeling of regret” begin to creep over me. At first, this was a little odd because the show I was watching was pretty funny, and the vegetarian chicken strips I was eating weren’t too bad, so what was going on? Where was this feeling coming from? So, I directed my undivided attention towards it to try to figure out what it was, and just like that, it engulfed me. As if it sprung into attack mode only because it noticed that I noticed it. It was at this moment that I realized what it was: depression. But not the depression that I’ve known for half my life.

Feeling depressed for no reason

I’ve always tried to be really open about my battle with depression. I think it would be really beneficial to the MS community if more people were open about it since depression is so common in people living with a chronic illness. Anyway, it’s a struggle I’ve endured for much longer than my battle with multiple sclerosis (MS). Waking up feeling hopelessly depressed for no reason had just become the norm for me since it first started up in my late teens. I had so many reasons to be happy in life, but “a lack of reasons to be happy” is not how this kind of depression works. It’s basically a chemical imbalance in the brain, so regardless of how you’re life is going, you just feel… terrible.

I tried medication after medication

That’s how life was for most of my adult life. Feeling down, unmotivated, and like my life lacked any kind of meaning. I tried medication after medication, but nothing really seemed to help very much. Of course, my eventual MS diagnosis didn’t help either. In fact, I often wonder if the crushing depression I started to experience in my late teens was actually the first manifestation of my MS?

I accepted depression as my reality

I guess it makes no difference, but the point I’m getting at is, depression was just something I learned to live with. For the longest time, I thought that this was just how life was for me now and that nothing could be done. I didn’t even see it as a medical issue; it was just me.

Taking steps to take back control

That would eventually change, though. You see, not too long ago, my depression was starting to get way out of control. I started seeing a therapist. I later adjusted my medication a bit, and I started looking at exercise as part of my treatment regimen for my depression. It took some time, but wow, for the first time in as long as I can remember, the dark figure that was my depression in my mind’s eye stopped showing up.

Fatigue and depression weighed me down

I could finally trust that how I was feeling was how I should be feeling and this really helped me start to get my life together. Sure, in my day-to-day life with MS, fatigue is often an enormous challenge to overcome , like trying to go about my day with a ball and chain attached to my ankle. But depression was like a ball and chain on my other ankle, so between the two? Well, I felt like I could never get much of anything done. Like I was anchored down in one spot. Luckily, I managed to unshackle one of those balls and chains from myself.

Managing my time differently

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about how I’ve started managing my time and all my obligations in my life with MS differently. By scheduling out my entire day, including many short breaks to help combat fatigue, I’ve started to become so much more productive while feeling less exhausted than I did before.

A new feeling

Even though I would credit much of my being able to do this to finally getting control of my depression, this is how, I think, depression ironically managed to find its way through to me the other night. I say depression, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it was not the depression I’ve spent so much of my life trying to overcome. This was not the dark figure that I had always imagined my depression to be. It was more like the less successful cousin of my former depression. It was just… a feeling. A feeling that I would now say I was supposed to be feeling.

There was a reason this time

I kind of imagine it would be like living your entire life with a chronic, neurological, burning pain in your legs that you eventually find a way to cure. Life is so much better now! No pain! But then one day, you notice that your legs are starting to burn but strangely not in the way they did before. Something is different, but what? Come to find out, for once, they are hurting because they are supposed to be hurting. Maybe some kind of rare and poisonous bug bit you? I don’t know, but you get my point. Something physically happened to your legs, and that pain is your body’s way of telling you there is a problem. The other night, I was feeling depressed but not for no reason. I understood that my body/mind was basically trying to tell me that something was wrong.

I always stayed busy

So, I spent some time thinking about why this feeling of depression randomly popped up and what could have triggered it and, pretty quickly, it became so obvious. Over the years, I had adopted the habit of always trying to keep myself occupied in hopes of being too busy to be depressed. Out of sight, out of mind. Obviously, that didn’t ever work, but I was desperate and eventually, it just became part of my daily routine; trying to always keep busy so that I never had a moment to really let my mind wander into the darkest corners of my brain.

Reflecting on my life with MS

Well, since I’ve adopted my new time management strategy, I’ve actually had a lot more free time throughout the day which means I’ve had more time to just think. To think about my day, my life, my future, and my past. Specifically about my life before MS, how MS changed everything, where I’m at now (ten years later) and where I want to be in another ten years.

Feelings of regret

This has inevitably brought up a lot of feelings of regret because I can’t help but wonder where I would be now if I had handled my life with MS differently. What if I had started a more aggressive treatment like Tysabri much earlier? What if I had actually gone for the whole stem cell treatment thing? What if, what if, what if? Would my health be in better shape? Would I have run into better opportunities in life? Would I be where I want to be or, at the least, closer to where I want to be? I’ll never know.

Adjusting my goals

But what I do know is that where I’m at now in my life with MS is definitely not where I want to be, and I’m pretty sure that is why I found myself feeling a little depressed the other night. I think I needed to feel that way in order to realize that I need to adjust my goals and plans so that I can actually get to where I want to be.

We can't turn back time

So, for the first time in my life, I’m kind of happy that I was feeling depressed because it allowed me to actually see some of the problems I need to solve. Perspective. But sticking to the “what if” theme, I can only wonder: what if I had learned to manage my depression like this when I was first diagnosed with MS? Where would I be today had I not spent almost the entirety of my first decade with MS struggling to carry around the weight of depression? All I can do is imagine because as you know, and as I’ve stated before, we can’t turn back time to do things differently.

The importance of talking about mental health

But hopefully, my experience can somehow help others dealing with the same things. Hopefully, as more and more people living with MS grow comfortable talking about their depression (or other mental health issues), the people working in the various healthcare careers that the MS community depends on will start to see the need for better mental healthcare. Mental healthcare that’s more than just a prescription bottle full of pills.

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