So then. Following on from my last post, you might have worked out that I’m a bit of an expert when it comes to depression. I’ve not only got the T-shirt, I grew the cotton and wove it together, stitching it up into a slightly saggy grey tank top with I’m Depressed!!! stamped across it above a picture of a smiley face gone sad. I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve had depression, particularly if we’re going to throw in Mild Depression as a category.
One of the not-so helpful things about depression is that once you’ve had it, you’re very much scared of getting it again. So if you’ve had a bad week, a bad day even, there’s this shrill voice in the back of your head trilling oh shit, am I getting depressed again? That voice is enough to trigger an inner panic, a shutting down inside yourself and a bit of a withdrawal – all of which seem to confirm that yes, indeed, you are getting depressed. Fear of depression can be enough to start you off down a panicked bunny-in-the-headlights spiral down into depression. Bit of a vicious circle, that one. So one of the things that has helped me the most was words of wisdom from an acupuncturist, which went something like this;
The Chinese believe that emotions are like the weather. You can’t avoid a particular state of feeling any more than you can avoid the rain. Therefore neither fear any particular emotion, nor try to cling onto a way of feeling. It will all just pass through, always moving and changing.
The image of depression as a literal black cloud helps. Yes, it’s pissing down now, but it will pass. The sun will come out. And while there might be more rainclouds in the future, they too will pass. You will not have to live with this forever. It also helped me to realise that it was fine to have a bad day, or to feel a bit down, to feel blue, without that cold grip of terror that I was going to be depressed again. Telling myself I’m just having a bad day is incredibly reassuring. Paying more attention to the menstrual cycle and knowing that it’s PMT week is also useful – you’d think that as women we’d have figured that one out by now, but it’s incredible how many women go about beating themselves up for feeling shitty or having a rough time and not coping when it’s actually down to hormones. Supplements really can make a difference – I know by now that I need to take starflower oil (similar to evening primrose) or I start getting insanely irritable and down. In other words – make sure you give yourself what you need, in terms of nutrition, supplements included and also rest, sleep, exercise, fresh air, relaxation and fun. You know, the things that actually build up to a balanced life.
Without delving too far into medical research, I’m going to divide depression into two different types for the purposes of this post (I’m not talking about bipolar disorder, nor postnatal depression.) Firstly, the deep dark pit that is clinical depression, with an added serving of suicidal thoughts. This one is the absolute monster, the head-on collision with the wall of pain. If you’re feeling this way, like the pain inside you is too great to live with – GET HELP. Don’t try to tough it out or get all macho on its ass, it doesn’t help. You’re ill and you can get better, but you need help.
Firstly tell someone close to you – and this can feel incredibly hard to do, you’re in a state of withdrawal and so reaching out to someone can feel nigh on impossible. Right now, you possibly believe that your loved ones would be better off without you – but that’s the illness speaking. They would prefer the chance to help you. If all else fails, sit them down in front of this blog post. Then make an emergency appointment with your doctor (as in if the receptionist asks you whether it’s urgent, the answer is YES, GET ME A SODDING DOCTOR NOW, not No, that’s fine I’ll wait until next week.) I’ve found that a more holistic practice is the most useful, somewhere where they might be able to put you into some kind of therapeutic programme such as art or gardening therapy. At the very least, get yourself signed up for some counselling, even if you have to pay privately. It might be possible to get a reduced rate through certain schemes, eg with a trainee, or sometimes counselling services are available through your Union. Please consider taking the tablets, bearing in mind that it might take a few attempts to find the right one that works for you. If you’re adamant that you don’t want anti-depressants then St John’s Wort can help. Consider this a state of emergency; you need immediate support. Cancel everything and get the help that you need.
If you’re trying to support someone in this state of severe depression, then do the legwork for them. Book them in at the doctor’s surgery and take them there. Go to the chemist and get the drugs. Find out about counselling/therapy in your local area and book them in. It’s probably not worth asking them What do you want to do? because they don’t know. They’re not capable of making decisions in this state and are entirely locked down. The best approach is probably that of a kindly Girl Guide leader – sympathetic but firm, with a brisk, practical touch when needs be. You’re going to have to lay down the rules. Once the emergency measures are in place, then make sure that they eat well (they’ll likely have a loss of appetite and certainly won’t be bothered to cook for themselves), that they get some fresh air (the outside world can seem too bright, too raw) and perhaps a quiet, gentle walk or the chance to sit by the sea. They won’t want to be around other people, so if you go out, it needs to be secluded. Be a coat of armour around them, wrap them in a security blanket – literally as well as metaphorically. But do try and get them outside, even if it’s just sitting on the backstep for a few minutes. Use Come on, we’re going to… rather than Would you like to… If it’s too much to take on by yourself, create a support group around the depressed person to provide the daily help that they will need.
The second category is a much milder form of depression. The kind that creeps up on you gradually, that if you’ve had it before you can feel yourself sinking down into. You feel less interested in life, more reclusive. Nothing feels that appealing, you’ve forgotten what fun means. The world is a grey place, and right now your favourite activity is sleeping. Shadow comforts creep in, like addictively playing a computer game, or becoming a night owl and going to bed ridiculously late because you prefer the world when everyone else is asleep. Drinking too much or relying on drugs or sex to fix your mood. Losing interest in personal hygiene – you don’t want to strip off and get into the shower because you can’t be bothered, it takes too much energy, and being naked makes you feel too vulnerable. Living in sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, starting to sleep in the clothes you’ve worn all day. Eating junk food, skipping meals and bingeing on rubbish. Avoiding going shopping – or to the supermarket at least, so there’s a lack of healthy options. Sometimes spending uncontrollably or impulsively because the shiny new toy might make you feel a bit better for five minutes. Feeling incredibly irritated with people, unable to keep calm. Anger can often be masking a depression. Things feel bleak and pointless, there’s no joy in the world and you’re not sure if you can be arsed carrying on, your life seems a bit meaningless. Also in this category is the depression which comes from sheer exhaustion – working three jobs, looking after children, burning the candle at both ends, getting insomnia. Feeling trapped in a job you hate, house you hate, and seemingly a life that you hate too. Although milder, as in it’s not severe enough for you to realistically consider killing yourself, it’s still painful. You might wonder if you’d prefer to die, but you kinda know you’re not going to try it, not yet anyway. You can live like this for a long time, half-alive, never really thriving. Sometimes it eases off of its own accord, sometimes it worsens and spirals down into a far deeper depression, sometimes you just get used to feeling this way and forget that life can be any different.
I see depression as a Winter of the soul. A retreat from normal life, when things have got out of balance. A necessary withdrawal in order to build yourself back up and make the changes that need to be made. Because something is wrong, and this is your body’s way of letting you know.
What would it be like if you gave yourself permission to be depressed? To go with it rather than fearing it or fighting it? To stop thinking of it as depression and start thinking of it as retreat? To use this time as a period of extra nurturing, of really looking after yourself; going to bed earlier and getting more rest, eating well, journalling your thoughts, putting yourself on a news-fast and only watching and reading things which will be inspiring and uplifting? To seek out beauty, spend more time in Nature, have fresh flowers on the table, take more baths, indulge yourself. To spend time thinking about the way you’d like your life to be, of what changes you can make to improve it. To ask yourself what do I need right now and act on that. What one small thing would make you feel better, whether that’s baking cupcakes, going for a walk or curling up for a nap?
See, I believe we need times of retreat. Our lives are busier than ever and completely out of alignment with the lifestyle that our bodies have evolved for. Once upon a time when our lives were closely tied to the land, we rested in Winter. There wasn’t anything else we could do, before electricity and the invention of the light bulb. So for several weeks, we’d sleep more, eat home-cooked meals (take-out hadn’t been invented), tell stories and rest. Nowadays if we get a holiday, we’re likely to be still checking our emails. We’ve lost sight of the necessity of taking a break, and of looking within. And often when depression bites, it’s because we’ve ignored our needs for so long that we’ve forgotten we ever had them.
Once you’ve ascertained what you need right now, ask yourself again what do I need? The list should include time spent outdoors, fresh air, sunshine, sleep, healthy food, laughter, friends, some form of creative expression, exercise. But what does your personal list look like? What do you consider to be beautiful in life, and how can you get more of it? You have, as Hamlet said, lost all your mirth. How can you go about getting it back? How can you be better supported, how can you simplify your life? Depression brings with it a necessary simplification – nothing is that important any more. Go back to basics, cancel whatever you can, spend time beautifying your environment (sounds better than tidy up), weeding the garden, watching your favourite comedy whether or not you feel like laughing. It’s okay to laugh when you’re depressed – sometimes we don’t allow ourselves that luxury in case other people pronounce us cured far too soon or don’t take our depression seriously.
The final piece of the jigsaw – gratitude. You’re dwelling on the negative right now, and that drags you down. I mean it – stop watching/listening to the news or reading the papers; trust me, you’ll still find out what you need to know, but all that bad news isn’t helping you right now. Stop reading/watching dark, disturbing films. Ask yourself whether something is going to lift you up or drag you down before you do it. And every night before bed, reach for your journal and write down three things that you’re grateful for, whether profound or banal. I’m grateful for; strawberries, not having to go out in the rain, being able to read. This activity in itself can be life-changing, as it makes you focus on the positive. Depression can tip over into self-indulgency at times, and a determination to dwell in the negative just to reinforce the fact that I. Am. Depressed. Just in case anyone was wondering. So be a bit strict with yourself and make your gratitude list every night. Consider it a prescription.
I don’t want to demean the suffering and pain of depression – it’s very real. But we can also decide to learn from it, and to fully utilize it as a time of retreat and inner growth. Use depression as an alarm bell, a wake-up call, your body’s way of drawing your attention to the fact that you’ve wandered off-course – whether that’s because you’ve been continually under-nourishing yourself for years and your body is now depleted, or whether it’s because you hate your job and your life is too stressful, or whether it’s because you never had the help you needed way back when. Just as the plants die back in Winter, shrink back to their roots, so can we. In Spring, the fresh shoots and leaves will emerge and blossom. We too can make use of this time of pulling back, in order to recharge and renew ourselves, before re-emerging with fresh inspiration and energy. It feels controversial to suggest that depression can be a positive thing, but why not? Depression is painful enough without us adding more stigma to it, so why not wring it for all it’s worth? If you’ve got to go through it, then go through it determined to benefit from it. And if you can do this every time you feel yourself slipping down, then you might find that you start averting the depression just by pulling back and giving yourself what you need.
You will get through it. This too will pass, remember? One small step at a time - what do I need right now? What will help? - and plenty of rest. And when it feels safe, ask again; what can I learn from this? What does depression have to teach me? What would I like to get out of this?
You might be surprised by the answers.