Over the last year I have started becoming more confident in sharing my on and off relationship with the “black dog” of depression. If Facebook asked me to define my happiness status, it would be “It’s complicated”.
The personal challenge I face talking about this is that I can’t help but feeling like it’s terribly narcissistic to give oxygen to thoughts or opinions on the matter.
‘Athletes, executives & soldiers; these are guys who have isolated themselves, are suffering in silence, and would prefer to risk self-destruction rather than break the ultimate taboo for an alpha male – which is to put your hand up and say “I’m hurting”‘
Who am I to think I have something to offer?
Does this mean I am not the invincible, red-blooded war-machine character I have built for myself?
What will people think of me to express myself like that?
In a world where we have livestream media coverage showing genocide and famine, who needs to listen to a 35 year old fledgling meathead talk about feeling a little gloomy?
Whether this is my ego, the spotlight-effect, or some rational reservations given my profile in the fitness industry – it has proven almost more challenging to articulate my personal battles with depression, as it is to overcome the depression itself.
And herein lies the problem…
Anytime I have posted anything on the topic of “depression”, my inbox goes into overdrive with dozens upon dozens of people reaching out in solidarity, as well as confiding that they too, are in a dark place.
Often, these people are men.
And men, who like me, have built a character around being a pillar of strength, resilience, to the point of being an almost emotional void. Athletes, executives and soldiers, these are guys who have isolated themselves, are suffering in silence, and would prefer to risk self-destruction rather than break the ultimate taboo for an alpha male – which is to put your hand up and say “I’m hurting”.
Luckily, the seeds of change have been planted by some brilliant people and organisations before me; and we seem to be in the early stages of messages and movements where we can encourage others to seek help by displaying our own vulnerability.
So, in the interest of providing any limited value, I will briefly disclose my story and the process that has pretty much served me my personal salvation.
Around the age of 12, alcoholism and physical abuse was the common theme of daily life growing up with my father. Most nights were spent in an incoherent altercation with an unpredictable man – who at any minute could either shift gears into a lecture on foreign policy, or use his 120kg frame to turn an adolescent boy into a punching bag.
‘Suicide was no longer something which baited me in times of despair – it was then the only option I believed I had.’
Whilst the fear of violence underpinned this period, the real danger was having a front-row seat in watching mental health problems go undiagnosed, unrecognised, and unspoken.
My escapism as a 12-year-old boy was lifting weights and martial arts. Anything which would make me stronger, more confident, and more aggressive. In the absence of emotional understanding, I felt the need to build my physical armour, quickly.
Whilst sport and exercise were saviours for me in early adolescence, in my later teenage years, I failed to resist the temptations on offer to an aggressive young man who desperately wanted to prove himself to the world.
At 21 years of age, I hit my first “rock-bottom”.
I was a highly functional drug-addict. At the time, a business collapse coincided perfectly with a relationship split. It was now clear that people in my life were using me and dragging me into a world I had no place in; and I had comprehensively convinced myself that my future involved either death, jail, or at absolute best, a long life of utter mediocrity.
Suicide was no longer something which baited me in times of despair. It was then the only option I believed I had.
‘Little did I know that this day would be my baptism, and this gym would become my church.’
The memory of that afternoon will last with me for life. There was no more pain or grief. I actually felt liberated and completely emotionally detached from the realisation that I was about to take my own life. There was a zen-like calm around committing to hit the “game-over” button.
There are some “technical details” of that day which we don’t have time to discuss in this post, but it’s safe to say that I survived.
In that moment, I decided that if I was going to live another 24 hours, something needed to change. Immediately. I had no idea what, or how; I just knew I couldn’t be left alone. My last remaining energy was focused on simply not pulling the trigger.
Exercise had been my safety blanket as a child, perhaps that was the answer.
That afternoon I drove to a boxing gym. It was closed! But across the street stood a filthy old-school bodybuilding gym that did happen to be open, and were happy to accept a few dollars for a day-pass. Little did I know that this day would be my baptism, and this gym would become my church.
The next few years, I became completely, obsessively, committed to “rebuilding the man”. This was both an inward journey, and an external manifestation.
I craved the pain of each workout. The harder I could make each workout, the longer and the more frequent, the better.
We all have different ways to practice mindfulness, and at that time, mine was in the feeling of steel pushing against my skeleton; where the only thing I focused on was ensuring I pushed my body way past the point that my mind wanted to stop.
I noticed myself becoming more confident, more optimistic, and more fulfilled. I didn’t need to justify this to anyone. I knew that my body and mind were becoming stronger in unison.
I realised that as I embraced harder workouts, I also embraced bigger challenges in business, relationships, and areas of personal growth. A new sense of confidence now permeated into every area of my life, and it filled me with an incredible sense of gratitude for finding my own personal ladder out of the dark hole of depression.
This has been the driving force behind my passion for sharing the gift of health and fitness with an evangelical approach – to anyone and everyone who will listen. Whether it is my own empathy or ego, I no longer see what I do as an “opportunity”, but an obligation. If one life can be saved as a by-product of whatever I create past this point, then I am certain to leave this world one degree better than I would have 14 years ago.
For the next 14 years, I consciously created Mr. “Get Sh*T Done”. I avoided excuses like the plague, and wouldn’t accept them from others either.
Nothing could penetrate my armour. I had read hundreds of books, completed thousands of workouts, and spent tens of thousands of hours in deep reflective thought.
I was now, truly, invincible.
Or so I thought….
In 2016 I again experienced business collapse, bankruptcy, betrayal, relationship breakdowns and complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
‘Your depression is 110% your responsibility.’
My right arm was paralysed by an extremely rare nerve condition triggered by stress, and I once again found myself in an incredibly dark headspace.
Whilst the external factors were objectively worse than my demise as a young man, I navigated this period very differently based on the work I had done since then.
Rather than react, and again carry the victim card that I had used earlier in life, I knew that I could endure these challenges based on the toolkit of mental weapons I had fine-tuned.
My ‘Depression’ Diary
Step 1: Own it
Your depression is 110% your responsibility.
Your trauma, abuse, addiction or chemical imbalance is not fair, and you did not deserve it. But being depressed is a mind-set that we prolong and amplify by remaining in that victim mentality.
By “owning the black dog”, we majestically realise that we now have the power to change it. Failure to do this means that the key to salvation lies in the hands of other people, or perhaps an event that happened in the past.
Accountability and ownership is one of the first steps to freedom.
Step 2: Quantify it
This is where it gets a little existential.
Whilst your soul or consciousness is up to your own beliefs, your body is simply a bunch of carbon matter; that being one of the 8 billion humans occupying this planet right now.
This planet has been around for over 13 billion years, and it’s currently hurtling through space and time – for forseeable infinity.
How big are your problems now? You think that you’re the first person to be in this situation? Could there perhaps be some simple solutions to your complicated problem?
Step 3: Define it
What is one physical behaviour you believe most personifies the negative feelings that cloud your mind? When we feel worthless, or broken, our actions tend to reflect this.
It may be a stress-response, like emotional eating, or self-destructive behaviour, like substance abuse. I truly believe that bad actions are simply bad reactions; and if we are aware of this, we can start to attack it.
Define that behaviour and you give yourself the parameters with which to destroy it.
Step 4: Move it
Anyone who says that physical exercise won’t cure mental health issues is probably right.
But I am yet to find a more powerful vehicle of massive, transformative, positive change as simply exhausting your body physically.
‘Whatever you choose, attack it like your life depends on it – because it might.’
Something profound happens when our bodies hurt, when our lungs are on fire; when we are simply getting blood flow that the body may never have experienced before.
It may be the result of something as simple as walking, or as intense as blasting 18 CrossFit classes in 8 days. The key to this is to replace negative thought with the meditative magic of being totally present in the activity you’re engaged in.
Whatever you choose, attack it like your life depends on it – because it might.
Step 5: Replicate it
The key to any change in life – whether professional, financial, physical or psychological – is about trajectory. You are either moving forwards, or backwards. Whatever your massive disruptive action is, the key is to become obsessively focussed on keeping it consistent.
A moment of inspiration is easy. But the inspiration is not your goal. Your challenge is maintaining that over time, and that requires a bulletproof commitment to yourself that nothing and nobody can steer you off course.
Step 6: Share it
The biggest thing I have always tried to promote to those I have coached is to take their opportunity to “pay it forward”.
Being solely focused on your own headspace may be crucial at the early stages of your journey, but eventually it can become a very lonely and self-centred place.
Taking a role of responsibility in the life of someone else is not only a beautiful distraction to any emotional scars remaining within you, it also gives an incredible sense of achievement. A sense that you in some small way acted as a catalyst for someone else to be encouraged and inspired by story.
As we encourage and empower others, we are also encouraging and empowering ourselves.
As simple as it sounds, I truly believe that this is how we change the world: through a cascade of passion and purpose on uplifting those we have the ability and power to serve.
About Alex de Fina
Alex is the Founder & CEO of Pherform and creator of the FST system. Twice voted Hong Kong’s Best Trainer, he has also created some of the most successful female fitness brands in Asia Pacific.
If you feel like you need help and support managing anxiety and depression, we encourage you to contact your local support hotline.