Hello! Who are you?
My name is Maria Leonard Olsen. I live in the Washington, D.C. area. I am a civil litigation attorney, podcaster, journalist, author, and mentor to women in recovery.
I consider myself to be happy, but I have changed my definition of happiness. For me, happiness used to mean excitement, and it came to me in bursts. Now, happiness is longer-lasting. It is a state of serenity. It is living my life in accordance with my values.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
Over the course of my life, I have struggled with depression and anxiety. My life’s traumas include being sexually abused as a child, sexually assaulted as a teenager, and alcoholism. These traumas contributed to my struggles in life. I have had three major debilitating depressions.
My worst depressive episodes happened after a miscarriage, when my father died, and a few years after my divorce. Depression was always accompanied by anxiety.
During my worst depression experiences, I could do little. It felt like I was moving in slow motion. There were times when I was catatonic. It would take hours to make a simple decision. I would stare at the wall for hours. I felt like a ghost of myself.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
During my worst depression, my friends and family were afraid for me and bewildered. They pleaded with me to snap out of it. I could not.
People with no experience with depression have difficulty understanding it. That is changing, however, with media coverage and the epidemic levels of the malady.
I felt broken. I had suicidal ideation because I sometimes could not see a way out of it. A wise person told me my children would be much worse off if their mother killed herself. That stopped me in my tracks.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
My worst depression lasted about a year. Emerging from depression was gradual for me. I cannot pinpoint the day it lifted. It felt more like clouds floating out of my mind. Things became more clear and less belabored.
My multi-pronged approach to wellness is what effected a change for me. I believe self-care includes spiritual self-care, physical self-care, social self-care, mental self-care, and emotional self-care. All areas need attention.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
I mentioned the five most important aspects of self-care. For spiritual self-care, I spent more time meditating. Meditating can be a few seconds of deep, centering breaths, or an hour of sitting silent or listening to a guided meditation. I also use walking meditation. Getting outside in nature helps me heal. I am a fan of forest bathing.
Physical self-care included getting enough sleep, forcing myself to eat healthy food, even if I wasn’t hungry and drinking enough water. It includes moving my body, whether that was by taking a walk or doing an online exercise workout. It meant going to the doctor for regular checkups.
Social self-care for me includes surrounding myself with people who encourage and support me. These people help me to become my best version. I am very careful about with whom I spend my time. I avoid energy vampires and negative people.
Mental self-care means I feed my mind with positive messages. I believe in affirmations. They help me re-train my mind. I also strive to learn something new each day. TED Talks provide excellent stimulation and good learning opportunities.
Emotional self-care means, for me, acknowledging my feelings, instead of denying they exist. I practice Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to deal with my emotions in a healthy way. I found a therapist to help me with this practice. I have learned to ride my emotions like riding a wave. I know it will pass, but I allow the emotions to be expressed.
In addition, through therapy, anti-depression, and anti-anxiety medications, I was able to crawl back out of these holes. Sometimes, one has to try different medications until one determines the optimal medicine for chemical imbalances in one’s brain.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
I shared my struggles with my closest friends, as well as with a therapist. Remember that not all therapists are good fits. Try a couple before you settle on one.
I did not share my struggle at work. I did not feel they needed to know and was not sure if it would change their perception of my abilities. Luckily, I mostly work remotely.
I believe it is important to share one’s feelings with at least one trusted friend or therapist. Keeping it all locked inside can be damaging. Talking about things also helps to keep my perspective in check, in that I was prone to catastrophizing when my anxiety flared.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
You do not have to do this alone. You can get help. Courage is not the absence of fear, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway. There is much help available, even online.
Don’t give up. Do even one thing toward helping yourself each day. These things build over time and cumulatively will help you emerge to a good place once again.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, helped me learn how not to take things personally.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning helped me realize that everything can be taken from us but our ability to choose our attitude in any situation.
Toltec Shaman, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, helped me learn how not to take things personally.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
If you want to read my journey, check out my book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. You can get it at bookstores, Amazon or the library.
My TEDx Talk, “Turning Life’s Challenges into a Force for Good,” can be found on YouTube.
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2 thoughts on “How I Overcame Depression and Suicidal Ideation: an Interview with Maria Leonard Olsen”
Thank you for your service. I hope these interviews can help others!
Thanks for your courage and honesty, Maria!