It’s been almost 16 months since I last stood on the Figure stage. It was actually the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia, and it seems like such a long time ago now. A long time, because so much has happened in my life since then. Things that, for the first time in about six years, have resulted in competing no longer being my major passion in life.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that right at this moment, I really have no desire to compete at all.
The darkness begins . . .
It started in April of last year, shortly after my last competition season, when I began feeling a bit “low”, mood-wise. That was very much out of character for me, since I was typically one of those people who was always smiling. Everyone that knew me would regularly comment on how bright, happy, optimistic and energetic I always was.
I was that person that was a constant bundle of excitement and energy. I would bounce out of bed each and every morning, ultra-excited about getting into my day. I was all about motivation for myself and motivating others.
I would hit the gym each day with gusto and reveled in working hard, building my physique, and chasing my dreams. I couldn’t imagine life without fitness and training for competition. And I told a number of people I knew that that was what I was born to do.
But over the course of last year, my enthusiasm for training, and really everything in my life, gradually lost its shine. I began feeling a sense of acute loneliness and uncertainty about my life’s direction and purpose, as well as my future. And I just wasn’t happy.
As the year went on, I got progressively sadder and sadder.
Interestingly, as I spoke to close friends about what I was going through (one of them had herself been battling depression and anxiety for over 16 years, and still is) I would experience periods of complete recovery. It made me believe that all I needed was a minor shift in my mindset or my way of thinking, and that everything would be okay. All it would take is a positive attitude, I thought to myself.
But those few recovery periods were all too brief, and each time I quickly fell back into the gloomy darkness.
Professional help . . .
I sought out the help of a psychologist. The first one I tried, I just didn’t click with. The second one was better, I saw her maybe seven or eight times in total. She was highly regarded by my GP and had quite a good reputation, but unfortunately I found her to be of very limited help as well.
Sometime later in the year I was prescribed antidepressants by a GP. I purchased the drugs, took them home, but immediately threw them in the garbage. As someone who lived a life of health and fitness, someone who had been drug-free and medicine-free their whole life, I just couldn’t bring myself to go down that road.
By the end of the year however, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety. I went days without any sleep, and my mind raced constantly with thoughts of doom and fearfulness, about everything. I dreaded waking up each morning and having to face the simple, everyday tasks that I was doing effortlessly each day in the past.
Medical help . . .
Talking to my close friend and coach, Fabian, he suggested that maybe if I could just get my sleep under control, I would feel better. I had a prescription for some type of sleeping pill at home that I hadn’t yet filled, since as I mentioned, I really didn’t want to resort to drugs to help my condition. Fabian strongly recommended that now I should give them a try, since going three full consecutive days without sleep was approaching danger levels. So I did.
The first morning I woke up after taking one, I felt 100% like my old self again. Overnight.
I was ecstatic, and believed I had found the magic pill, so to speak. I rang Fabian with the great news, telling him that we had stumbled upon the solution to my anxiety problem. I just needed more sleep. Once I got back into a regular sleep pattern, I thought, everything would be okay.
Or so I thought.
My sleep improved, but my low mood and anxiety quickly took hold once again regardless. And I was back where I started, albeit with better, but still not great, sleeping patterns.
I struggled on for several more weeks, seeing my psychologist, and my anxiety got gradually worse. I had some okay days but some really horrible ones, and it was getting increasingly difficult to function like a normal person.
The sessions with my psychologist were just getting nowhere, and another GP then also prescribed me with some antidepressants. I don’t even know if they were the same as the first ones – the ones I threw away. She assured me that they would help with my mood, and also prescribed me with different sleeping pills to help manage my sleep.
Dancing with the devil . . .
Although I could see no other solution, I resisted the option of going with the medication. As I mentioned earlier, Fabian and I have a friend who is a long time anxiety and depression sufferer. And having seen the roller-coaster of ups and downs and hospitalizations that she has had to endure over more than 16 years on antidepressants, we were very fearful that going down that road would be the beginning of the end for me.
Fabian felt very uneasy that a GP would be so quick to prescribe antidepressants, and felt that they should only be an absolute last resort. Of course he was no expert, however, so he suggested I get a second opinion before making any decisions. He made an appointment for me to see his own GP, whom he very much trusted.
Fabian’s GP basically agreed that the combination of antidepressants and sleeping pills I had been prescribed were what I needed. In fact, he strongly recommended them. He went on to say that antidepressants were commonly used to successfully treat anxiety, and that he had seen many of his patients enjoy tremendous improvements with these medications.
His advice was very reassuring. And when he told me that the right antidepressant could almost work like magic, I was sold. I started taking the medications.
I saw Fabian’s GP a few more times on a weekly basis as he controlled and monitored my transition onto the antidepressants.
More doors open . . .
Within several weeks, the day arrived for my appointment to have an assessment done at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD) at St Vincent’s Hospital, in Sydney. Fabian had discovered this facility though research online and we had made an appointment for me to attend about a month prior.
At that time we both believed that I had only been suffering from anxiety, and that that was in turn affecting my moods. We were hoping that I could be assessed for inclusion in their Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program, which, together with my medication (which so far had not, unfortunately, turned out to be working like magic), would help me overcome my anxiety.
The result of the assessment, however, was that I was suffering from both anxiety, and quite deep depression. We were told that the two are very much interrelated and more often than not, go hand in hand.
I was lucky enough to be assigned a really awesome psychiatrist at CRUfAD who took over my medical care (as far as my anxiety/depression medication goes), and with whom I have weekly therapy sessions to this day.
The aftermath . . .
It has been several months now since I started the antidepressants. The first ones I was prescribed I only partially responded to, so I was given an alternative type by my psychiatrist some time ago.
When I changed medication, and each time my dosages were increased, I worried about the side effects. But so far, I must say they have been minimal. Nowhere near some of the horror stories that we have read about online. Touch wood.
At the moment I’m suffering from a troublesome digestive issue, which may or may not be related to my medication. I’m due to get some tests done for that in the near future.
My sleep is pretty much under control, and while I have to say that the medication has definitely helped to stabilize my anxiety and depression, they’re both very much still there. I still have good days and bad, but I am getting by.
Each day is a real struggle for me, but I have to keep fighting.
Thankfully, I have the support of good friends and family. Fabian has come with me to CRUfAD for every appointment I’ve had so far with my psychiatrist. In the beginning, there was no way in hell I would have been able to go on my own. Now I probably can, but he still insists on coming along just the same.
One of the things my doctor has emphasized to me is non-avoidance. The importance of continuing to do the things you do, even when it’s really hard. If you stop doing something, it could be almost impossible to start doing it again.
Probably the most mentally difficult thing for me to do these days is going to the gym, believe it or not. I feel like I don’t belong there anymore. I don’t go because I love to go anymore, I go because I know that have to. If I stop, I fear losing my identity.
That worries Fabian too. So he comes with me to the gym these days three times each week. That makes those days bearable, and even sometimes a little enjoyable. The remaining two days I go alone, and they’re really, really tough.
The healthy me is a Figure athlete. That’s who I am. And I have to fight each day to prevent the depression from taking that away from me.
I’m pretty sure I’ve lost quite a bit of muscle, which saddens me. Especially considering how hard I’ve worked to achieve it. I just can’t train the way I used to. Not with the focus and intensity of someone on a mission. So the objective now is simply to do my best to preserve my physique and my identity the best I can, so that when I’m better I can come back with a vengeance.
I know that when that day comes, Fabian will have the mother of all comeback programs ready to get me back into show condition in no time.
The way forward . . .
When I was first diagnosed with anxiety and clinical depression, neither Fabian nor I knew very much about them. Through our friend who suffered the conditions, the only thing we knew about overcoming them was that it involved taking antidepressants and/or doing therapy (CBT). I suspect that’s the case for many people, even those who have been suffering themselves.
We had read that CBT was about as effective as antidepressants, and that the two together were an even more effective treatment. Naturally, when I was diagnosed, we just prayed that the medication would work. Because if not, I was in trouble. Sure, there was always CBT to fall back on, but that sounded like a long and tedious, and maybe even uncertain, strategy.
Well since then, Fabian has really embraced researching this condition, and the ways in which it can be overcome. We’re encouraged to learn that there are in fact quite a number of very promising treatments that we can turn to, many that aren’t yet widely known, unless you do your homework and look for them.
The fact is, just as anxiety and depression have a large number of contributing causes, so too do they have a large number of contributing remedies. We’re actively trying to implement as many of these as we can as we learn about them. And as we learn more each day, Fabian and I are increasingly optimistic of a complete recovery for me to my former self.
Actually, that’s not quite true.
Fabian is increasingly optimistic, but I can’t really say that I am. Because it’s in the nature of this condition to strip you of your optimism about anything. And your motivation. So for now, I just try to battle through each day the best I can and leave the optimism to someone else.
That’s why having good support is so important in this situation.
A moment ago I mentioned that there are numerous different treatments available for people suffering from anxiety and depression. I strongly recommend that anyone suffering from this condition go out there, learn about them, and like us, implement as many as they can. There’s a very good chance they’ll find one that makes all the difference.
To help anyone get started, below is a list of some of the treatments that we’ve discovered and are currently learning more about:
- Antidepressants – Don’t hate for this being at the top of the list. As Psychology Professor Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “If you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed, and they’re really depressed, you should try giving them antidepressants. Because if they die, you can’t help them.” (I’m currently on these.)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – (This is part of my weekly therapy sessions with my psychiatrist, and involves making lifestyle changes aimed at creating more relaxation, fulfillment and balance in my life.)
- Behavioral Activation (BA) – This is a type of therapy that’s actually a part of CBT, but is much simpler and less time consuming, and more popular since it can be administered by less qualified therapists than CBT. Studies have shown, however, that this is as effective in treating depression as CBT and even medication. (This is part of my weekly therapy sessions with my psychiatrist.)
- Biofeedback Based on Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – The health and function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be analyzed through a measurement called HRV, which is taken using a specialized heart rate monitor. Changes in HRV resulting from anxiety are well understood nowadays, and various exercises such as breathing exercises can be used to repair and rehabilitate the ANS, and thereby help to reduce and even cure anxiety. (I’m currently taking daily HRV measurements and have identified weaknesses in my ANS caused by my anxiety. I’m also performing daily breathing exercises to help repair these. At the same time, we’re doing a lot of research about the science of using HRV to create “coherence” and help overcome anxiety and depression, including more types of correctional exercises that can be used.)
- Neurofeedback – This is a specific type of biofeedback that replies upon readings of brain waves. Surprisingly, there appears to be little information on the successful use of neurofeedback in the treatment of anxiety and depression, particularly in comparison to HRV. (Given the lack of evidence supporting neurofeedback, we’re not actively researching this just at the moment. Since I own a Muse neurofeedback headset however, it’s an area that we may look at in the future if necessary, to possibly help in training with mood and brain-state training.)
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) – A new alternative therapy currently being provided by medical professionals and also still being studied. The results so far are very exciting. (We’re currently researching this and have identified a facility in Sydney that provides the treatment.)
- Ketamine Therapy – A new therapy that’s still being investigated but is showing some very promising results. (We’re currently researching this and have identified a facility in Sydney that is running clinical trials on the treatment with suitable volunteers from the public.)
- Low-Inflammation Diet – Studies have shown a direct causal relationship between inflammation and depression. (We’re currently researching the implementation of a low-inflammation diet, particularly using high doses of Omega-3 fatty acids, and I hope to start it very soon.)
- Gluten-Free Diet – I’m in no way one of the many gluten alarmists out there, but studies have shown that there is some correlation between gluten and depression. (I removed gluten from my diet about three weeks ago, with no noticeable effects to date. It hasn’t improved my digestive problems in any way either.)
- Identification of Correlating Factors – (We’re currently recording my lifestyle factors such as nightly sleep patterns, exercise programming, outstanding daily events, etc., to try to identify correlations between any of these and my daily moods.)
In addition to all the treatments that we’re currently researching, we’re of course also learning all we can about the mechanisms behind anxiety and depression to better understand how they can be dealt with.
Please remember that Fabian and I are by no means experts on any of this. We’re not medical professionals, and we’re just still learning. So if you’re interested in understanding how to best overcome your own anxiety and depression, please do your own research to validate the accuracy of any information before you act upon it.
If you have any questions or contributions to make on this topic, please feel free to comment below.