When I was depressed ...

July 28, 2016
Devin Fitzgerald, DVM

My anxiety and sadness got so bad I passed out in a bathroom at my veterinary clinic and finally faced how bad it had gotten when I wound up in the hospital. I got help. I hope youor your loved onewill too.

(Photo Getty Images)Editor's note: This article includes discussion of depression and mental health issues. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or thinking of hurting yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.

I suffer from depression and anxiety. Looking back at my life, I had bouts of it off and on, starting when I was fairly young. But it always seemed minor. That definitely took a turn for the worse after I graduated veterinary school and started working in general practice.

'I would often have tears in my eyes'

My wife-also a Ross University veterinary grad-and I moved to Chicago and started working in different general practices. While I worked with some very nice, compassionate doctors, that first clinic was a high-volume hospital. I never feel comfortable there, as I didn't handle the stress well. Before work, I would often have tears in my eyes and need to sit in my car in the parking lot to calm myself down, making sure no one inside could tell I'd been crying.

I left that job, which was a good decision for me, but I wish I'd recognized then that my depression and anxiety weren't going to go away.

I eventually left that job, which was a good decision for me and my health at the time, but I wish I'd recognized then that my depression and anxiety weren't going to go away. I assumed all of my problems were associated with the clinic. I now know most of it stemmed from how I dealt with stress.

Eventually, my wife and I bought a clinic together. I knew it'd be tough, but the thought of being my own boss and practicing medicine the way I wanted was so appealing to me. I was already experiencing more episodes of depression and anxiety, but I just thought it'd get better on its own. Sometimes it, but it would always come back.

'I could keep it together while at work, but barely'

For a while, our clinic wasn't doing well. We'd been slowly declining over the years. That's when my depression was most severe. All I worried about was the clinic. Panicked questions ran through my head: Would we have another bad month? How much longer until we would declare bankruptcy? Could I even pay my student loans? It got so bad I had to start working at another clinic to keep our hospital afloat.

By that time, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to work, and that was a struggle. I'd consider it a decent day if I was able to get out of bed and go to Lowe's-which was right near my house-and make one lap around the store. And I didn't have many good days. I would often lie in bed all day until about 30 minutes before my wife got home and then quickly clean so she wouldn't notice I hadn't done anything all day. I felt terrible all the time, ate terribly and got fat. I could keep it together while at work, but barely.

 

I had a long commute and would often cry on my way to work and then on the way back home. I felt helpless and alone. I concentrated mostly on hiding all this from my wife, my daughter and the rest of my family to avoid worrying them or hurting them. My wife still worried about me, but like so many spouses, friends and colleagues who know someone having a rough time, she didn't know what to say or do.

I hit what was bottom for me when I'd been crying all the way to work, went into the bathroom and had a panic attack so severe I passed out.

I hit what was bottom for me when I'd been crying all the way to work at the other clinic, went into the bathroom and had a panic attack so severe I passed out. After I came to, the other doctors and technicians saw something was wrong. I told them I'd fainted. I was so ashamed and upset with myself that I'd let my depression and anxiety get to a point where I was passing out in the bathroom. The clinic I worked at was a very nice place with very nice doctors and staff, so I can honestly say the job wasn't worsening my depression.

The worst phone call I've ever had to make was to my wife from the hospital after my fainting spell. My doctor called for an EKG to make sure I didn't have any cardiac problems. While I waited for the doctor to return to my room, I called my wife and told her what had happened. I could barely get the words out. I felt like such a failure as a husband. My wife's only concern was my well-being and happiness. She's an amazing woman, and I wouldn't be where I am today without her. I had also called my parents to let them know what happened. I'm lucky in that I have an amazingly supportive family and friends.

'I decided I wasn't going to let depression ruin my life anymore'

A few days after my incident, I sat on the side of my bed staring at the floor. I remember my decision then and there to try whatever I could to get better and that I wasn't going to let depression ruin my life anymore. I was put on medication and told to rest. I started exercising again. Through a combination of both of those, I found better ways to cope with depression and the stresses of the profession-which are many.

 

After some time off, I came back and started working at our clinic again. It was still stressful, because we didn't know how long we could stay afloat if business didn't pick up. But in our case, it did, and we had the best year the clinic had seen in years.

It took time to develop good habits with diet and exercise, but that's what helps me the most these days.

Through diet and exercise, I lost a large amount of body fat and put on some muscle as well. I exercise nowadays five to six days a week and eat much healthier. It took time to develop good habits with diet and exercise, but that's what helps me the most these days.

I'm lucky that I figured out that exercise makes me feel better, but it's not a cure-all for everyone. If you're reading this and think you may have depression, please seek help. Know that you are not alone. Many of your colleagues are struggling with the disease as well. You do not need to be ashamed or embarrassed for the way you feel. That was a big step for me-just coming to terms with the fact that I suffer from a disease. There is help out there. There are therapists, psychiatrists and support groups-even veterinary-only groups on Facebook. (Here's one- Veterinary Medicine: Discussing Suicide and Mental Health in the Veterinary Profession.)

Do I still have depression? Yes, sometimes, but the episodes are much less severe, shorter and less frequent. It's a disease, and it won't just go away on its own, but there is help and hope.

We need to be much more supportive of each other as a profession.

We need to be much more supportive of each other as a profession. Please reach out to colleagues, classmates and friends and see how they're doing. Get in touch and start support groups. Employers, you need to discuss depression with your staff and help take away the stigma surrounding mental illness. This profession will always be stressful, and we need to build a community of support, encouragement and hope.

I hope that my story encourages someone to get help or to reach out to someone else who might be struggling. I hope we make some changes and no longer have to read the stories about veterinarians committing suicide that have become way too frequent.

The author with wife and practice partner, Dr. Rachael Fitzgerald (Photo Getty Images)

Devin Fitzgerald, DVM, is a co-owner of Fountain Valley Animal Hospital in Security, Colorado.