Surviving Depression: The Depression Journals of John McElhenney

Surviving Depression – An Intro

At 59, author, John McElhenney continues to harness the gift of his depression.

Whatever you want to call it, depression affects a lot of us. It’s more than sadness or grieving. Deep hopelessness can come on after a traumatic event (job loss, divorce, death of a loved one), and as depression blooms it often robs creative and active people of their livelihoods, their relationships, and ultimately their lives. The statistics on depressive suicides are off the charts, at all ages, all demographics, and all income levels. Depression is a first-world problem, but one that few have learned to harness and grow through.

My initial diagnosable depressive episode came on when I was a freshman in high school. I was away at prep school in New England, and my father suffered a heart attack while I was visiting my mom and sister in New York City. I was summoned to the headmaster’s office mid-day on Sunday before classes resumed. It was a somber moment. “Your stepmom would like to talk to you on the phone,” he said. “Your father’s had a heart attack.”

This was the initial blip of trauma that began a long series of blips in the coming years. Failures, deaths, expulsions, and mental hospitals, all became like a necklace of depressive episodes that began transforming my body’s defense mechanisms, my chemical reaction to loss became a bit more aggressive, and my outlook on life grew darker and more desperate with every big loss.

In some ways, my brain learned to respond to adverse events with more chemicals than were required. My fear and sadness would morph into something catastrophic. My mind would not stop at the first level of defeat, getting kicked out of said prep school, for example, it would lead me further down terrible fantasies of disaster, despair, and ultimately suicide. That was my brain taking the low road. The chemistry went off the Rickter scale and plunged me into an anxiety-fueled nightmare, that became harder and harder to control, and almost impossible to get off. The train of depression roars into the dark and dank station and we (the sufferers) get on, bound for some hell of our own creation.

But this is not a sob story. These journals do not spiral down into an unhappy ending. Nope. This is the story, the stories, of a young man, possessed by angry chemicals, angry parents, and angry inner demons, who continued to fight back towards the love and light he knew he deserved. This is the testament of an adult man, who at 59, has two lovely kids, a fine career, and is still building on his successes. This is a love story. And this is not any love story like you’ve ever read before. If I can do it, reveal all of it, I am proposing to let you into the stream of consciousness that is my depression. And I’m going to pull each of those black bastards, swarming along beside me, the river of trouble, hate, despair, and hopelessness, and I’m going to expose them to the light.

The lie of depression is what we are battling here. The lie that we’ve been told about our diagnosis. The false promise that was offered by Prozac and all that has come afterward. And finally, this is about taking charge of your own path, your own demons, and your own chemistry and learning to live with this very sensitive emotional warning system. Depression is like a hair-trigger: something bad happens and all the bad things of the past rise up like a hurricane of pain to destroy my life.

I’ve learned to tame the black bastards one at a time. I’ve learned to speak a new language of hope to myself and my inner circle. And I’ve learned to grow in the careful management of my condition. Nothing is more important than my mental health. And with the practice of mindfulness, I have grown more resilient and resistant to the death spiral of despair.

There is a lot to unpack here. The chronological story. The emotional story. My dad. My mom. My sister (who committed suicide when I was in my 20s). And all the rest of the living that has brought me to this point, this moment, this courageous beginning, again, to tell my story.

I have told this story a thousand times. In poems, in short stories, in my first unpublished novel, in my blog, and in my journals. I have been writing about my own thoughts, and my own troubles, as a way to get perspective on my life. Journaling has probably kept me alive. I’m not living such a great story, but I’m writing one hell of a book about it.

“If you can survive this,” I would tell myself on the grounds of the mental hospital in New England, “You can do anything. It’s going to make one hell of a story.”

Here we go…

Not to get ahead of myself, but you can read some of the source material on my award-winning blog The Whole Parent, here is the Dark Days section that contains most of my historical writing about my struggles with depression.

Back to the Depression Journals Index

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