I am severely depressed.
There. I said it.
Believe me, I know the stigma that comes from admitting that. I’m rather nervous about saying it out loud like this in so public a place, particularly given the “advice” I’ve often gotten for how to “get over” depression, PTSD, and anxiety. But I’ve decided once again that hiding isn’t really the best way to handle it. And so here I am, dealing with it, in public, in front of you, my dear readers. As always, I crave your gentleness.
This depression of mine manifests itself in many ways in my life, and I’ve taken to calling it The Great Sadness. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half has a really great post describing depression quite accurately — I highly recommend reading it. She puts words and images to this beast of a thing, and I think that must be helpful to someone other than me.
There are just…so many things that elude me on a nearly-daily basis. Making decisions can be emotionally and mentally crippling. Garnering the confidence to speak my mind can trigger an anxiety attack. I will stumble all over myself apologizing for being an inconvenience — because I honestly believe the worst about myself pretty much at all times so severely that I often apologize for simply existing. I second-guess my life, my words, my investment in friendships, my ability to be a good person and friend and wife and doggie-mommy, and all of my fears and doubts and sadness and pain and anger overwhelm me to the point that I often very literally cannot function at all. When in public or when I fear ridicule and judgment, I can usually hold myself together until I’m alone where I’m safe to fall apart.
I do plan to seek professional help when I am able. The thought of therapy terrifies me worse than my depression, PTSD, and anxiety do, so we’ll see whenever I can make that step. But for now, I have my own coping methods that I would like to share with you. I call them all Operation: Fight the Sadness! There are three stages of this operation, and I’m choosing to call them practices…because I certainly haven’t mastered any of them.
I’d also like to point out that I do not in any way, shape, or form believe that these are solutions to any mental illness. And I say mental illness because that’s what depression is. That’s what PTSD is. That’s what anxiety is. The things that I’m talking about here are not just “personality quirks” or “proof” that you or I or anyone is “just attention-seeking” or in some way deficient or lacking or less of a person. Depression says nothing about our morality, our worth as people, or our standing before or relationship with God. I call these coping mechanisms because that’s what they are for me. They help me get through my days when I otherwise might not be able to.
That being said, allow me to tell you about my first practice…
The practice of positivity.
One thing that I have gotten into the practice of doing is affirming myself. I am often overwhelmed by the feeling that I am not enough — not good enough, not happy enough, not loving enough, not trusting enough, just altogether not enough. And yet I am often also convinced that I am entirely too much — too opinionated, too outspoken, too honest, too trusting, too sad, too skeptical, just way too much. (My friend Sarah Moon wrote an excellent post about this dichotomy over at Alise…Write!)
When these feelings overwhelm me, I tell myself about my good qualities. I am loving. I am compassionate. I am a good listener. I am kind. I am intelligent. I have great hair. (Honestly, some days I just need to look at the mess of curls and tell myself this through gritted teeth.) And then when I inevitably feel that I am being far too self-centered, vain, and shallow — I give myself permission to take care of me. Which brings me to my next practice…
The practice of permission.
I just realized that I’m apparently turning this into a sermon outline with all the alliteration. Oops.
As I touched on briefly earlier, I often tell myself how self-centered I am. Recognizing my good qualities is self-centered to my mind. Taking pride in wearing clothes that make me feel good about the body I happen to have is shallow (after all, deep and intelligent women don’t care about their looks!). Taking a long epsom salt bath or playing video games or reading when I should be cleaning my house is laziness. Frankly, I have absolutely no inborn concept of taking care of myself.
Somewhat related to this is my deep need to seek permission to do things. I constantly feel the need for affirmation from others, peers and mentors alike, for decisions that I make. I need to know if buying a fall jacket is okay. I need to know if buying a new car that won’t break down on us is okay. I need to know if letting the dishes pile up so I can spend quality cuddling time with Michael is okay. I constantly seek and desire and crave the permission and approval of others. And when disapproval is expressed, I’m often overwrought with anxiety over “doing something wrong.”
One major thing that I do to help bring autonomy, stability, and freedom from guilt to my life is that I give myself permission to make my own decisions and enjoy whatever I want to enjoy. This typically looks like me (or sometimes Michael or Paige) telling me, “You don’t need anyone’s permission to do this,” or “You’re allowed to like this thing, even if I don’t. It’s okay.” When I start worrying that I’ve done something that someone else wouldn’t have chosen for themselves or wanted me to choose for myself, I take a deep breath and tell myself, “I am an adult, and I can make my own decisions.” Sometimes I have to keep telling myself these things until I really believe them. But it’s been so immensely helpful to me to be able to own my choices and even to own my interests. It’s freeing in a way that I’ve never felt as an adult, and takes away the pressure of performing to make other people comfortable or happy.
Second, when my depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress have so overwhelmed me that I’m good for nothing more than sitting in a puddle of panicked self-hating tears, I give myself permission to take care of me. (As a side-note, thanks to Elizabeth Esther for her post about slow recovery that made me feel far less selfish and far more sane for this belief that I need to baby myself sometimes.)
This is probably the most important breakthrough I’ve had in the past six years in dealing with The Great Sadness. And it’s born in part from Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. In that book, she talks about a lifestyle of giving thanks and tells about how she began writing a list of one thousand gifts in her life for which she was thankful. Nothing was too big or too small to go in this list, so that she could appreciate all things.
While I do have my own one thousand gifts list, I sat down one day and created another list. And when I am in that crisis mode of depression where there seems to be no hope for light, I pull out this list.
The idea is very simple. It’s a list of activities that make me happy. Things like reading a young adult fiction novel, shaving my legs, washing my face, playing Nintendo, petting Sherlock, kissing Michael, burning a favourite candle, listening to acoustic guitar. Things that calm me, make me feel more sane and more in control of my life. And when I pull this list out, I choose 2–5 activities from the list to accomplish that day.
There are stipulations for these activities, of course. Since I am pulling this list out when I am emotionally and mentally spent, it must either take no longer than 10 minutes, or it must be an activity in which I am stationary. There are exceptions — it’s no use having a list of happy activities if I’m going to be too militant in what I allow myself to put on it.
The only other rule I have is that when I pull this list out and choose what I want to do, I cannot guilt myself for not doing all of what I choose. Maybe I’ll get caught up in one activity and not want to move on to another. That’s okay. The idea is for me to focus on making myself well, to get me to a point where I feel more in control over my emotions and my life and can function normally again.
If you’re interested in me posting a sample list, please let me know! I can definitely do that.
When all else fails in my attempts to cope with The Sadness, there is…
The practice of persistence.
This is my least favourite practice of coping with depression. But it’s also the one that I’m the best at, because I’ve been doing it all my life.
Sometimes, nothing I say to myself makes me feel better. Sometimes, nothing I do distracts me from the hopelessness. Sometimes, absolutely nothing helps.
And when that happens, I whisper to myself, “All you can do is keep breathing.”
What about you? If you deal with depression or anxiety, what have you found is most helpful for you? What do you think of my extremely unprofessional method for myself?