For those of you who may not know my personal story, I’ve spent over four years struggling with major depression and anxiety. It’s been very up and down. A lot of the down times have been bad. I was on full or partial sick leave for the last two years of my career.
I’ve done many of the right things. My psychiatrist and I have looked at different medications. I see my talk therapist regularly and work on changing my depressed thinking. The combination of drugs and talk therapy, according to the best research, is the most effective treatment.
The last 17 days have been a revolution.
During my time on the Cook Islands, I have never been depressed and had only minor anxiety (it might even be just normal worry). In fact, I’ve met my main goal for the last four years – to experience joy on a daily basis. I’ve also been more creative and energetic.
The saddest part of these good feelings is that since she died in November of 2011, my Mom isn’t around to hear about them. She cared a lot about me and it would have been happy news to her.
Why do I feel so good, better than I have in a long time?
In some ways it’s a useless question.
If we force ourselves to give reasons, we most often get it wrong. I need to wait and let the answers come when they are ready.
Most people, in their lives, will go through experiences which may trigger genuine depression – the loss of a loved one, loosing a job, any of the tragedies that we all experience. This is situational depression and, although treatment helps, time will heal.
For those who experience episodes of depression throughout their lives, as I have since my adolescence, depression and anxiety are likely caused by genetics influenced by environment.
My yet to be scientifically validated theory holds that my Scandinavian ancestors found depression a survival mechanism. During the cold of winter on the fjords, depression keeps you safe and in your cave. You don’t have the energy to go dancing in the snow and suffer terminal frost bite.
The Cook Islands isn’t the gloomy depths of winter in the wilds of Norway.
I also find it fascinating that so many famous people, whether Winston Churchill or Abe Lincoln, have also been severe depressives.
I’m an scientifically testing kind of guy. Common sense may be common, but it most often doesn’t make sense. Having a purpose, connecting with people, the laid back attitude on the Cook Islands, and the startling beauty, are nice, but they haven’t been shown to cure depression and anxiety. They are the kind of things that signal that your mental illness has abated.
I don’t know, but I suspect that the tropical climate and immediate presence of the ocean are clues. When I need time to myself, I’m not in my basement study looking at my computer. Instead, I’m looking at a computer on my balcony. The waves are breaking against the reef, the sun is bright, and in my shade I feel a gentle breeze. I haven’t worn shoes since I got here. When I’m at the school, I’m in bare feet. When I’m back at the Kiikii Motel I’m wearing as few clothes as is polite under the circumstances.
This may be the reason that there are significantly fewer suicides in tropical climates than in Northern latitudes. I also find that my mood worsens beginning in November, only to improve starting in May.
If you or someone you love has a mood disorder, you should consider coming to the Cook Islands in winter. For me, it’s been magic medicine that I don’t fully understand. What I like about the Cook Islands is its low key commercialism. There are no mega resorts that isolate you from the climate and people. I’m not sure you get the same salutary effects in Cancun or Hawaii.
Given what my Saskatchewan government has paid for my treatment over the last years, maybe a bit of subsidy for my next visit to the Cook Islands might save Medicare some money.
One of the promises I made to myself about two years ago is that I would start talking about my own struggles with mental illness. I’m not “sharing.” I’m simply speaking about a medical condition much as others would talk about other kinds of conditions. I hope it’s my small contribution to “normalize” mental illness and make it something we can all discuss with reasonable comfort. However, you will find that many people who are suffering from a mental illness do not want to talk about it.
The people who love and care about me are more than interested in finding out how I’m doing – there’s no shame in such conversations on their part. However, depression and anxiety are isolating illnesses – disconnect from others is a major symptom. To talk about their illness is connecting to someone else and this can be hard to do.
One of the reasons I’m now more public is that my years of experience with my mental illness has taught me a lot about symptoms, medications, treatments and how to get the best healthcare available. I’d like to give that knowledge to those who could use it.
By the way, a Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor is a class of drugs, like Proxac, used to treat depression.