The Up Side of Down

It’s taken many years for me to admit out loud that I suffer from depression. For years I talked about the depression I experience in the past tense, as if it had somehow left me. In my book, I described how after having children I experienced depression and for a long time it felt situational, like it was a temporary result of the sleeplessness of raising kids, the stress of making mortgage payments, of being a public person with a private need for solitude – all of these situations were just temporary stressors that would lead to periods of depression. Remove the stressor and the depression goes away, right?

I understand it differently now. I recognize that low-grade depression seems to be part of my makeup. It never totally goes away and when I don’t pay attention, it can knock me on my butt. Yoga, meditation, journaling, counselling, and medication keep me on a relatively even keel, but sometimes I just slip into depression. It is interesting that we use the word ‘slip’, because sometimes it is like that: like moment by moment, something starts to leave us and we slide backwards into darkness. Of late, my patterns are different: I plummet, rather than slip, deep and fast, almost out of nowhere.

I can say it out loud now – I suffer from depression. It no longer feels like a defining statement, rather more like a statement of fact that I can almost feel emotionally detached from. Depression is not who I am, it doesn’t define or limit me. I am many things: I am strong, I am tall, I am creative, I am impatient, I am optimistic, I am athletic, I am someone with depression. I am not sure if this is a permanent state, perhaps it is something I will outgrow, so to speak, but for now, it seems to be a presence in my life that I need to respect and factor into the way I live my life.

Twenty-odd years ago, I was crashed into by another boat while rowing and badly injured my leg. Broken bone, shredded muscle, ligaments, tendons, nerves, all damaged. My leg would never be the same. I went on to win two more Olympic medals and a world championship, with a badly damaged leg. Although millions of Canadians know of my story, what they may not realize is that my accident and my leg injury does not define me. It is part of who I am, and daily I need to adapt my activities to accommodate a badly damaged leg, but it is not all of who I am. I cross-country ski, but it hurts a lot. I cycle and it doesn’t hurt. I walk with a slight dropped foot. My shoe closet is a graveyard of broken fashion dreams: the heels that have sat there hopeful, and still unworn, for a decade in favour of the ones that make me walk more normally.

I do not dwell on what I lost when that boat crashed into me so many years ago; instead I think of what I can still do, how wonderful it is to be healthy and active, and how I am still hiking, swimming, cycling, lifting, and paddle boarding. But I have to factor that leg in, because if I don’t, there is hell to pay. If I cycle 100km one day, I can’t do that again for another week. If I hike with my friends, I better follow up with my foot exercises and some physio. If I wear a pair of sexy shoes, I better make sure I don’t actually have to walk in them.

And so it is with my mental health. I need to journal, I need time to process my emotions, I need time alone. Not everyone in my life understands this, but I do, and that is what really matters. I need to reach out when I feel myself retreating, I need to eat regularly, I need to take medication. I don’t particularly like that I have to do all these things, just as I don’t love the hours I have to spend keeping my ankle and foot working properly, but I accept this is the cost of admission into the life I want. If I want a full productive life, if I want to do all the physical activity and exercise I adore, if I want to stay mentally switched on for my kids, if I want to be able to handle lots of projects as well as high stress and high stakes situations, I have to practice self-care and I have to do it well and regularly. I need to do this because I suffer from depression, and just like a physical injury, this mental health issue needs and deserves the same attention.

I have lived with pain for decades. My leg never stops hurting, and although I have become brilliant at numbing its signals, sometimes the pain is pretty irritating. When my foot bones jam, it hurts to walk. I am bone-on-bone in one ankle, so inflammation of any kind hurts like the dickens. This makes me see the world a little differently. When my leg doesn’t hurt, I park farther from the entrance to the mall; I save the closer spots for people who need them more. I never take the elevator because I want the people who really need it to not to have to wait. When I see an older person moving slowly with their walker, I wonder about how much pain they are in. My physical injury has given me empathy and compassion and maybe even a wee bit more patience.

I know darkness. I know how dark and damaging the voice inside my head can be. I know what it feels like to feel worthless. And so I when I see a person acting oddly or impatiently, a person who doesn’t make eye contact, or won’t smile, I try not to judge or react defensively to them. Instead I wonder how they might be suffering; I wonder what they are telling themselves. I wonder if just getting out into the world was extra hard for them that day because I now know intimately what those days feel like. I wonder and choose kindness. Not all the time, not every time, but as often as I am able, because I also know that one day it might be me out there who is struggling to put a face on. I think of all the kindnesses I have been shown from friends and family – even strangers – and I want to put the same back into the world as much as I can.

Our experiences change us. I am not the same person I was before my leg injury; I am not the same person I was before children; I am not the same person I was before I experienced depression. There have been hardships, yes, but there have also been tremendous gifts and I am committed to seeing, seizing and appreciating them. I have depression but I am not crazy. In fact, there is not a single mental health condition that should ever be associated with that term. What is crazy to me would be not recognizing that just like I am going to have to take the bad when it comes, I must also embrace the good. And there is so much good out there to receive.