I guess I should start this off by telling you that I have no idea.
I don’t want to be an unreliable narrator, but I have no freaking idea, you guys.
I wish this was a blog post where I could give you 5 tips to just avoid depression or feeling depressey or depressed-adjacent (there are different tiers of this whole thing), you know? Like, if you meditate enough and think about sunshine, you will be good – if I could stand at the edge of that forest and just circumvent all traffic away from its entrance, I’d do it. It is a cute idea, but not really a thing.
At least, not in my life. I used to think that was my goal as a counselor, and now as a life coach or Sherpa or whatever I am at present – to keep people from getting depressed, but you guys, I don’t know if that is even a real thing.
If there was a way to avoid depression completely, I would have found it by now, as I think it’s safe to say that I have done some prettttty thorough on-the-ground research in what being depressed feels like, and at present have one of the most aggressive self-care plans I have ever seen. I brought in the concept of Self Care Mondays about a month ago – a self-imposed day where I am not to take appointments or chip away on projects, but rather do strictly as I please. Nothing is allowed to be married to a time – and forget talking on the phone. People will not touch Self Care Monday with a ten foot pole, and I love you all tremendously for it.
This most recent round, I stayed in my house the entire day. I made breakfast, and I turned on music that I love, and then I curled up on my couch and watched Gilmore Girls reruns with some really good soup, and fell into an accidental nap. In which I had a nightmare that I had slept through a cycle class and forgot to do ten million other things, which meant that I woke up in a pretty anxious state, and discovered that the sun was down at 6pm, to boot. Self Care Mondays are supposed to make me the opposite of anxious and depressey, so what the hell gives?
I have had incredibly low energy lately – I need a lot more downtime than usual, and building that energy back takes a lot longer than it usually does.. I’m finding myself dreading social engagements a bit, and have a bit of constant low-grade feeling of dread as I go through the day, even despite my best efforts to prepare for things the day before, or go to bed a little earlier, or even eat real food that has nutrients and did not come out of a grease vat.
I commented on this to my friend Mie -- about how I couldn’t figure out the source of the drain and she laughed a bit and said, “Well, you’re forgetting the part where you’ve had a few PTSD triggers rear their heads recently, plus you started teaching a new class, and you start your business coaching this week, plus the time change, plus the holidays, and, well, your depression.”
Ah, that’s right. Depression. Depression, plus my regular life.
We call out the depression part of my mental health life more than the bipolar part of things because the depressive swings are the parts that have given me much, much more trouble this past year. (The hypomanic part of my illness is a lot less of a bother at this point in my story – it mostly translates to more energy, thanks to super helpful medication that I write a mental love letter to daily.)
And this time of year is a breeding ground for a depressive mood swing for a lot of us, I have realized. Thanks, winter. I remember my first academic advisory meeting when I moved to Boone; I shared with my professor that I had a mental illness that tended to swing into depression in the winter months, which are pretty brutal in the mountains. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, honey. You moved to the wrong place.”
Even with all the self care and successes in the world, I can’t stop depression. My busyness is commented on frequently, but what is often missed is that my life is very intentionally structured and color coded to balance the things I need to get done, as well as punctuated with rest. And even with that, I still lose a day to the darkness. When I start to feel down, sometimes I need a day in bed with a book, and sometimes that’s the absolute worst thing for me – it depends on the day. I wouldn’t wish my brain on anyone – it is so annoying, and despite my pleas and PowerPoint presentations to God to let me switch brains with another human or even a mediocre-but-still-good dog at this juncture, He has said no. And so, it is just up to me to get with day-to-day management.
But here's the thing: Every time depression comes to visit, I learn something. Every time I’m down, I come out of it with something I didn’t have before. Every time it knocks, if I invite it in, and sit down with it, and listen, I can usually pull something helpful. Not always, but the ratio sways in helpfulness's favor. It was this way before I even realized it. I can’t stop it from happening, but I can at least try to make it constructive.
Living with depression is sort of like tornado or hurricane season – you don’t exactly know when the storms are going to hit, but there are indicators, and things you can do to try and mitigate the impact. But, what I have learned is that the times I go down the hardest are the times when I’ve tried to ignore what I know is on its way, out of denial or some cute form attempted self-preservation. Bless my heart. So, here are a couple of things I try to do during my hurricane season:
Look at depression and darkness as teachers. Being depressed was even more annoying to me – and a colossal waste of time – before I made a point to look for something to take back into the non-depressed world. Depression is cyclical -- it comes and goes, and I know it'll come back, so I always try to take good notes -- literally, in a journal -- to help me see if I'm taking the best care of myself, or giving things weight that I shouldn't. If one piece of criticism from an acquaintance sends me into self-deprecation, that tells me that I'm probably neglecting things that make me remember my value -- so I'll head to a trusted friend, or listen to a TED Talk or sermon that helps center me. I always try to use darkness as an arrow, and not a destination.
Give yourself permission to be down. I have a sticky note on the back of my front door that says, “You have permission to be where you are today.” Permission to be up and joyful, but more importantly, permission to be down, and to take my time while I'm there. You don’t have to rush it away, and I have found that if I try to, I miss what I'm supposed to use to grow. Also, permission to rest as much as is realistic – for me, this means having entire weeks where I don’t make any social plans when I know that’ll be a drain. Or, weeks where I put social things in blocks where I know I’d otherwise sit at home and ruminate. I love Self Care Monday, but I know it’s not universally realistic – so how about daily self care? Something every day that makes your soul sigh with relief, even in a dark place.
Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it. Remember that you know yourself better than probably anyone else. Your darkness isn’t the same as other peoples’ darkness, and you don’t have to navigate it the same way. I was talking to a good friend about how I have to have lots of white space and rest time when I start to feel low, and she said, “Oh, I’m the opposite. I have to stay engaged in the world, or I get lost.” Guess what? Either one is okay – you just have to know how certain things make you feel, and try to live accordingly.
And then tell your people what you need. Seriously, tell them. They may not know. I know that I need options – instead of people trying to “force” me out of the house, I need friends who give me the freedom to go find a way to connect whether it’s through texting or putting on real people clothes and having coffee.
I wish navigating this world was simple -- but it isn't. There's not a guidebook, but there are patterns and helpful takeaways, but know this: your experience with low points and darker moments is not the same as anyone else's. Use that to empower you. You are not alone in it, but you know your world here the best. Let people in, and listen to those experiences from others. We are all healing from something, whether it's something major or just getting from day to day; we are all just walking each other home.
For me, this means more writing. More note-taking. Getting to bed earlier. Not skipping my hour of centering quiet time in the morning, even if I do hate that alarm clock when it goes off. Before I got out of bed today, I sent "good morning" texts to 10 or so friends, and you would have thought I'd sent them a winning lottery ticket, which made me feel more energized than my usual third cup of coffee. It probably means putting my Christmas decorations up earlier than I ever have before, to make my home at night a bit cozier. You know what you need -- you know what makes life feel softer -- you have the right to ask for it.
Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it.
Here's to the next round, and how we grow as a result of it.