Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Lessons learned from my clinical depression

Five years ago, I woke up on a Saturday after a rough week at work at with an absolute splitting pain in my head. In the days to come, I would be diagnosed with clinical depression.

I would go on to lose 4.5 months of work on short-term disability. I lost more time off during my 8-week work readjustment period than I cumulatively did in my seven years of work before I became ill.

And on Feb. 9, 2012, I wound up working my last day of work as a staff journalist — possibly forever. I went on long-term disability on Feb. 10, 2012. That ended with my being laid off by Bell Media on Jun 1, 2014. Except for a four-day stint with Elections Canada last October, I haven’t worked since.

Being 56, a depression survivor and out of work in a field that’s shrinking (eg. the Toronto Star shed 13 editorial jobs on Friday) is a bad trifecta.

But right now, as I sit here, I’m not depressed. That counts for something.

The rest of this post will cover some things I’ve learned from getting sick and recovering. Hopefully you find them to be of value.

Lessons learned

First things first: See your doctor if you sense something is wrong. Do it as soon as possible. I first went three days after that awful Saturday morning. I was surprised when I learned I met a diagnosis of clinical depression*.

*There is no established biological test yet for depression. But the science on this is evolving. In the meantime, you’re evaluated via a 9-question survey. If you show at least five of the symptoms for two consecutive weeks, consider yourself depressed.

While that seems like a no-brainer, I met many people in depression support groups who hadn’t seen a doctor, largely because they didn’t want to be “put on pills.” I don’t mean to pass judgment, because if those people are sick with depression, then they can’t be thinking clearly. But the longer you go without seeing a doctor, the longer you are going to suffer.

Medication might well be the answer to your depressive woes; might not. When it became clear I wasn’t pulling out of this on my own, my doctor put me on a medication called Cymbalta. I have remained on it ever since (for more background, see this earlier post). A GP-psychotherapist eventually prescribed Abilify, an adjunct to anti-depressants such as Cymbalta. I still take Abilify every day.

I’ve asked my current doctor about going off my meds, since I seem to be reasonably well these days. He’s reluctant to do so, because it’s impossible to determine in advance if the depression has truly gone away. Michael Landsberg, a TSN host who has been open in his battles with the disease, told the Ottawa Citizen: “I’m on medication today and I will be for the rest of my life. Every time I’ve gone off the medication I’ve relapsed.”

What is known is that once you’ve had a bout of clinical depression, the odds are that you’ll have another — and another, and another. So maybe I shouldn’t fret about getting off meds if they’re keeping me reasonably healthy. The reason I say that is because because I’m  stuck in a zone where I’m not too down, but not too up either. I’m spared both the pain from being in the pit of depression and but also the pure joy of dancing a jig on top of Mood Hill.

There’s also the cost. Cymbalta costs me about $270 a month while Abilify tacks on another $140 per month. That makes for a monthly total of $410 — a sizeable amount of money when you’re not working.

One alternative to medication is cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. It works to unravel knots of bad thinking that have led you into depression (one theory about depression is you can think your way into it). If you’d like to play around with online CBT to get a feel for it, visit MoodGYM.

I personally don’t believe the theory that depression is all in one’s head and that the road to recovery lies solely in better thought patterns. Sometimes the stresses in one’s life are all too real, and pretending otherwise is an insult and a lie. But I’m not a therapist, and modern research claims CBT can be as effective as meds in treating depression (maybe it depends on the severity of the case).

However, that’s something to work out with your doctor*.

*This Mayo Clinic article on treatment-resistant depression has a good list of all the various therapy types.

One thing your doctor might well prescribe that’s 100 per cent natural is exercise. It boosts serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps control your mood. It will help break you out of the lethargy trap that comes with severe depression. My doctor was big on me getting to the gym.

I did it during the acute phase of my illness, but since I’ve gotten better, I’ve slacked off. I started up again at the gym in October, but aggravated an old back injury in mid-December. Hopefully I’ll be returning to the gym in the near future.

I’m not sure whether exercise did much for me in the acute phase of my illness, but it’s hard to say. I may have been sicker than others. My overseer at Manulife, which handled disability claims for Bell Media at that time, said most people with my diagnosis returned to work after four to eight weeks off. I was off about 22 weeks and still probably returned to work too early.

I say all this because I don’t believe any specific treatment or approach is a silver bullet. Maybe the cruel reality is that a given bout of depression clears up when it clears up, and nothing you do individually helps accelerate that process. I tried (my doctors considered me a model patient), but I still lost close to 21 months of work due to depression. Then again, maybe I would have lost more had I not tried to actively recover.

It wasn’t until April 2014, 10 months after Bell Media let me go, that I finally tested normal on the depression inventories I filled out. So the whole ordeal, from the time I became acutely ill until then, totalled 38 months, or just over three years.

 Closing thoughts

Think you’ll ever develop depression? I didn’t — despite a family history of it that included my dad, brother and mother.

Can it be prevented? This Mayo Clinic page offers sparse advice on that point. But hopefully you have people who care about you in your life who will provide empathetic listening if you aren’t feeling yourself,  feel you’re on a bit of a slide and need to vent.

But if you’re really veering towards depression, it comes back to your family doctor, getting diagnosed, and getting on a course of treatment, be it medication, talk therapy, CBT or whatever.

Treat depression very seriously. It’s a potential killer. It took the Robin Williams case to drive that point home to the public.

If you ever feel like harming yourself or otherwise get into a suicidal ideation loop, call 911 or a local suicide prevention centre immediately. It’s a matter of life and death. And despite the curves thrown at me in recent years, life is still my overwhelmingly preferred option.

Sat, January 16 2016 » Main Page, Minutiae

4 Responses

  1. Stephanie Robinson January 17 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    Would be good to know if there was a connection between the stabbing headache and the depression. I’ve had migraines/daily headaches for 14 years, and severe clinical depression. Chicken or egg?

  2. Bill D January 18 2016 @ 10:24 am

    I don’t really have the headaches anymore, and my depression is under control, so maybe. But I’m not a clinician, so I can’t say whether one causes the other.

  3. Steve January 19 2016 @ 7:49 pm


    I came across this post. I wondered if you were able to write over those 3 years. I know that is a passion of yours. Did that help you, or was your productivity low? It’s good of you to talk about this. Wishing you all the best.


  4. Bill D January 21 2016 @ 3:48 pm

    Hi Steve:

    My productivity on the writing front definitely took a hit. When I was acutely ill, I had a really hard time scribbling anything, and even when I thought I got better, friends of mine say they noticed a difference in my writing. I’m back in the groove now. Thanks for the kind words. All the best to you too.

    Bill D.