Photo courtesy Colette Nichol

I’m lying on the floor of my unfurnished apartment with two firemen standing over me.

Splayed out, the black wool jacket I’m wearing probably makes me look like a dead bat. 

“Can you stand up?” one fireman asks, perplexed.

“No…I can’t even crawl,” I croak back.

“What happened?” the other guy chimes in.

“I don’t know…I was leaning over to put my shoes on, and then…I fell down. There was this insane pain in my back. And now I can’t move.” 

After it happened, I’d had to snake-slither on my belly to get to my cell phone. First I called my friend, let’s call her Alicia, who said she was watching TV and would be over in an hour. Then I called my friend Niki who freaked out and told me to call 911. 

I took Niki’s advice. Which is why I now had two firemen standing in my bedroom staring down at me. The funny thing was that I didn’t feel bad. Sure my back was on fire, and this was a bit embarrassing, but that was nothing compared to the hole of depression in which I’d spent the past few years.

I’d been so depressed for so long that eventually all I wanted was to disappear. 

Now, here I was in the middle of an actual medical emergency (at least according to my friend Niki). Instead of feeling depressed, I felt fine. My path to feeling okay in life had started just two months before the firemen incident. Two things happened at the same time. First, I reached rock bottom. Then my vanity kicked in.

After a long night of crying, smoking, painting, drinking, and wishing I were dead, I woke up looked at myself in the mirror and decided something had to change. I’d had this huge zit on the side of my head for about a month. Maybe more. It was cystic. It was red. It hurt. It had to go.

Weirdly, that was the beginning of the healing that took place over the next few months and continues to this day. Since then, I’ve had what I call mini bouts of feeling blue, but the dark paralyzing depression has never returned.

There are probably hundreds of things I’ve done over the years to banish depression. Still, the seven things I’m sharing with you today are the ones that made the most significant difference to my mental health when I need help the most. These steps turned my life around in a matter of months. 

There’s no cookie-cutter answer to depression. 

But sometimes knowing what worked for someone else (and knowing that there is a way out) can help. You won’t stay stuck forever. Maybe what I did won’t work for you. But there’s one thing I know for sure: there are strategies that will change your life. It’s just a matter of experimenting until you find the key (or keys) that unlocks the door to a happier, more peaceful life. 

1. I tried out extreme sobriety.

I’d never been what I would describe as an addict. But I smoked cigarettes and weed, got drunk regularly, and had midnight sugar feasts. It became clear to me that these substances were all depressants. The day after a sugar feast, I would feel like I was drowning in a sea of dark emotions. Sugar was no different than alcohol when it came to the hang-over effect. 

Saying no to addictive substances is the single biggest thing that helped me turn my life around. It was also the hardest to do. But I was so sick of myself that I was willing to try anything. I kicked all of those habits cold turkey. My promise to myself was 30 days. I would stop consuming sugar, alcohol, weed, and tobacco for 30 days. After that, well, I was making no promises to myself.

Those four weeks of extreme sobriety changed my life so much that I never went back. 

Sure I have a glass of wine now and then, and I’m not going to say no to a piece of homemade triple-chocolate cake. I even experimented with how much cannabis was okay for me. (In that case, I discovered that zero was the best amount – even a little bit puts me into an emotional low.) But I never returned to the lifestyle of saying yes to any substance that was offered to me. 

In those thirty days of ultra-sobriety, I started to see my life clearly again. 

The dark cloud of paralysis and pointlessness lifted. I was able to make decisions again. My life was my own once more.

A study published in the Cambridge University Press indicates that there may be some validity to my sobriety challenge. Using cannabis products that have low levels of CBD and high levels of THC have been linked with increased mental health issues. It seems that the CBD protects users against the “psychotic-like effects of cannabis.” Plus higher consumption of THC has been linked with increased depression and anxiety. 

2. I went on a ridiculous salmon diet. 

At face value, this had nothing to do with depression. This was the vanity thing I was talking about before. The cystic acne on my face was hurting me physically and, more to the point, emotionally. After deciding that something had to change, I did what any right-thinking nerd would do: go to the bookstore. I can remember walking through the health section of the mega bookstore in my neighbourhood, looking for something that would help me. And there it was. A shiny pink book with a picture of some sleek California doctor on the front. 

It was a book by a famous dermatologist about how to heal acne. I was in. That salmon diet was genuinely ridiculous. I ate oatmeal for breakfast, salmon for lunch and dinner, and a lot of greens, olive oil, and raspberries. It was probably the healthiest month of my life. The crazy thing is that although I only did this salmon diet for 30 days, the results lasted. The cystic acne disappeared and never came back. The depression lifted. By the end of the 30 days, I’d lost all the extra weight I’d packed on from eating Cool Whip at 1 a.m., I was no longer in a spiral of depression, and I’d told my roommate I was moving out. 

It turns out that my experience is backed by science. A study by Boris Newest published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed a link between consuming the omega-3 fatty acid E-EPA and a reduction in depression. While the participants in the study were taking E-EPA supplements, this fatty acid can be found in great quantity in salmon.

Just be warned, salmon ain’t cheap. At the time, I was working as a server, and I put all my extra money into buying that freaking wild salmon. Was it worth it? Oh, hell, yes, it was! Was it pretty darn expensive? Yes. I was living in landlocked Toronto, so I must have spent a few hundred dollars on salmon over the course of the month. That said, you could try taking fermented cod liver oil instead. 

3. I moved into my own apartment.

At the height of my depression, I was living in a weirdly underpriced 1500 square foot apartment with a 300 square foot patio. This apartment was gorgeous. There was one catch. While it had a huge master bedroom, the second bedroom, wasn’t meant to be a bedroom at all. It was a small room with brick walls and a skylight. No other windows. Just a skylight. It was like being in a 10 foot by 10 foot dungeon but with central heating. 

Obviously, this was my bedroom. 

For an introvert who loves to spend time alone, this wasn’t an ideal situation. My roommate had friends over all the time, most of whom were guys who liked to smoke pot and watch baseball. So if I wanted to avoid them, then I was stuck in the dungeon. 

After my 30 days of eating insane amounts of wild salmon and being totally sober, living in a dungeon became intolerable. I found a tiny light-filled apartment on a street actually called Sunnyside Avenue, and I moved out. 

Away from my old roommate and her crew, I finally felt like myself again. I was free. I didn’t have to hide away in a dungeon to avoid inane baseball chit chat any longer. 

As it turns out, my move was one of the best choices I could have made for my mental health. A study of adults in eight European cities found a link between inadequate residential light and self-reported depression. Those who reported insufficient light in their homes were 1.4 times as likely to report feeling depressed. 

4. I broke up with my toxic roommate.

Not everyone in your life is meant to stay in your life forever. When I told my roommate that I was moving out, I thought we would remain friends. We didn’t. After the firemen incident, I realized that I wanted more from my friends than she was able to give.

During the six hours that I spent in the hospital lying on a stretcher in the hallway, my friend Niki called me to see if I needed anything. Don’t ask me why, but the only thing I wanted was chocolate almond bark. As I think of it now, I’m still blown away that Niki went out, found almond bark, and showed up at the hospital to make sure I was okay. She did all of this via transit in the dead of winter in Toronto. Think freezing cold slush and buses that are half-an-hour late.

My old roommate didn’t call or text. It was the stark contrast between two friends that woke me up. It’s hard to ignore when the signs become so clear. I decided to stop calling her, just to see what would happen. If she reached out, I would answer. But I wasn’t going to put in any effort.

It turned out that she felt the same way. She never called me again, and I’ve never seen her since. 

But it didn’t hurt. Actually, it felt like a burden had been lifted. I realized a lot of things I’d been doing in my life had been to please her – to fit in with her ideas about who I was. I’d been playing the role of a faithful sidekick, and I was glad to be free of that role. 

Often when we’re in a low emotional state, there are people in our lives that don’t want the best for us and don’t really care about our well being. We’re much better off without them. 

5. I took an accidental three-month retreat.

If you’ve been living the hustle life for a long time, you can start to feel worn out. You lose track of who you are and what you value. You don’t even realize it until you stop hustling and are faced with the wide-open space of nothing to do.

After my back gave out, I couldn’t work. Actually, I could barely move. At the hospital, the doctor gave me some pain killers and told me I could leave when I was able to move. 

Eventually, I managed to get up and hobble – bent over, back screaming with pain – to the taxi pick-up in front of the hospital. There was no way I was going to be able to show up for my restaurant shift. Carrying plates of food wasn’t going to happen if I could barely walk.

It was two months before I could walk properly. And another month before I actually felt like I could pull off a restaurant shift. 

That means I spent three months doing basically nothing. 

I had enough money to cover my food and rent (and nothing else!) for at least five months, so I wasn’t worried. I just stayed in my house and read articles online, listened to music, and practiced walking around the apartment. My friend Niki brought me groceries in the first week when I could barely walk. 

You’d think that spending three months alone would have made me more depressed, but it didn’t. It gave me the time to get to know myself again. I remembered what I cared about. I wasn’t worried about pleasing anyone because there was nobody to please. 

6. I moved back home so I could press the reset button.

It seems like every movie about depression begins with a scene of the main character in their old childhood bedroom. It’s the trope of a life gone wrong or a life mired in depression. But it worked for me. 

Six months after my back gave out, I moved back in with my parents. The time I’d spent in solitary retreat had reminded me of who I was and what I was passionate about. I’d gone to school for acting. Storytelling had always been my passion. Yet, here I was living on the east coast, in Canada’s theatre capital, and not pursuing my passion. 

There wasn’t a lot of logic behind moving back home. I just felt the call. Also, I knew I could work for my parents while “figuring my life out.” 

My mother’s voice over the phone when I asked her if I could come back home for a while was full of the unspoken terror of someone who was expecting their child to be a success and is now facing the prospect of a deadbeat who needs propping up for the rest of her life. 

But thankfully, she put aside any concerns and said yes. I spent the next two months working on my parents’ small vineyard doing mindless manual labour. 

Moving back home reminded me of why I’d left home in the first place. 

It reminded me of my excitement about study acting. It reminded me of how I’d felt when I was 17-years-old and moving out. It reminded me that I hadn’t always felt jaded and cynical and hopeless. It also quickly gave me the lesson that living with your parents in rural Canada is a short term solution at best. 

Within two months of being home, and spending every extra minute Googling, I’d found an acting school I wanted to attend in Vancouver. Then I found an apartment. I saved up some money, and I was ready to start my life over again – this time with intention.

7. I started following my creative passions. 

From the day I recommitted to my life as an artist, I’ve never allowed myself to give up. Even when facing down the colossal failure of a solo show gone wrong, I kept making art. Instead of acting, I wrote short stories and painted portraits. 

The darkest year of my life was the year I stopped making art. I had stopped acting and writing. Worse, I had stopped believing that art served any purpose. 

When you have a calling that you ignore, it will destroy you. 

It will eat you up from the inside out and paint your life with misery. That’s perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned through managing my feelings of depression. Fame, success, and fortune don’t matter. They won’t make you happier. You see that all the time with celebrity suicides and overdoses. But doing the work that you love will make a difference in how you feel. 

Getting up and putting pen to paper, or brushes to a canvas, or using your body to express yourself – this is what matters. There’s this little voice inside all of us that whispers for attention. It asks to be expressed. When we ignore that voice, we’re ignoring our truest deepest selves. 

It Can Get Better

By cleaning up my life, getting sober, taking action, releasing myself from a toxic friendship, taking time alone, pressing the reset button on my life, and starting a creative practice, I was finally able to hear the voice inside of me again. 

Everyone is different. What worked for me might not be your exact path. But there’s one thing we can all do to feel better: start living our lives as though they matter. Because they do.  

When we’re in the middle of a bout with depression making any kind of change can seem impossible. 

I understand that all too well. The thing is: we don’t need to make big changes to see big results. We just need to take one small step towards living a life that feels like our own. That’s it. We can start with just one step and see where that takes us.

It’s been 15 years since that last bout of serious, crippling depression. 

I still feel blue occasionally. I’ve definitely gone through phases where I need to make some changes to get out of a rut. But I’ve never ever gone back to that terrifying place of total darkness. I think of that time in my life as a turning point. I had to fall into the depths of despair in order to make the changes that would ultimately allow me to find inner peace and happiness

The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past 15 years of managing my mental health is that life is an experiment. My best advice if you’re suffering from depression is to be persistent and patient as you try out different modalities and health strategies. Often, we’re just one tweak away from feeling like ourselves again.