Apparently it’s mental health awareness month, so it seems fitting to do a post on something I’ve been struggling with lately: depression.
I’ve had depression for most of my adult life, so it’s something I’m pretty familiar with, at least as it affects me. And the biggest thing I’ve learnt is this: it’s unpredictable.
Bouts of depression can come on suddenly, or slowly creep up on me, a looming dread that I notice only when it’s too late. They can cause an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, making me loathe my face, my personality, my skills (or, more accurately, perceived lack thereof). Or they might simply cause a complete and utter lack of mental energy or focus.
Recently, I’ve been struggling with the latter kind. I’ve not been unhappy in any way. Truly, I’ve been happy. I’m really enjoying how the novel I’m working on is coming along. I’ve been reading voraciously, something I often find I can’t do when I’m depressed. I’ve hit a number of PRs weightlifting lately, and been chuffed to bits with them.
It’s been an utter slog to actually do any of these things, reading aside. I’ve come home from work and wanted to do nothing more than sit down and read. I’ve had to force myself to go to the dojo, even as I’ve had an absolute blast during class. I’ve had difficulty focussing on anything for any length of time, my mind drifting to other topics or to mere nothingness.
It feels like I’m wading through knee-deep mud, when it should be firm dirt. Instead of walking leisurely, or even running along, I’m struggling, huffing and puffing, as I force myself through even simple tasks. I tumble into bed, exhausted but unable to turn off the noise in my head to sleep, only to do it all again in the morning.
And then, a few days ago, it began to ease, like the first bud of spring after a long winter. The nights may still be cold and dark, but the days are growing longer and warmer. Soon it will be summer, and with a frenetic energy I’ll attack my to-do list, ever watching for a sudden cold snap that will kill all my best-laid plans.
Unlike the seasons, the cycles of my depression are not easily anticipated. The longer I live with it, however, the more I’m learning how to mitigate these cycles. I can’t prevent them entirely, but I can reduce their severity and, perhaps, their frequency, with a few habits.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This post is about my personal experiences, and I’m sharing it in the hopes it may help someone else. If you think you might have depression, please seek professional help.
This is, single-handedly, the most important thing I can do for my depression. One of the characteristics of depression, though it’s not always present, is relentless self-criticism. I have had nights where I struggled to fall asleep as I itemised every single thing wrong with how my body looks. And when I reached the end of the list, I’d search for more – or simply go back to the top of my head and start all over again.
Cultivating self-compassion means that I’m more likely to be able to shut my mind down when it starts up this cycle. It’s hardly foolproof, but it’s a start. Telling myself I’m beautiful would never work, because I wouldn’t believe it, but instead I can remind myself of the good things. Maybe I’m ugly, I tell myself, but I can deadlift my bodyweight and throw men twice my size to the floor. Maybe I suck at writing, but at least I’m making a solid effort at it, so you can’t say I didn’t try.
It’s not much, but it helps.
Self-compassion is also helpful when I’m having one of my low-energy depressive spells. When cooking dinner feels like an impossibility, I allow myself to order takeaway without judgement. When folding the laundry is a leviathan task, I refuse to criticise myself for letting it sit there, unfolded, in the laundry basket.
Sometimes, it takes all my energy just to get through the day, and having self-compassion is about allowing that to be enough.
Part of self-compassion when dealing with depression means lowering the bar for how much I expect of myself. However, I find that it’s also important to make sure the bar isn’t so low as to be underground. There’s nothing worse than going through a depressive spell, only to emerge to a messy flat, and a to-do list as long as my arm, like I’ve just come back from the world’s worst holiday.
It’s difficult to find the balance here, but I’m working on building simple, daily habits that I can continue no matter how bad I’m feeling. I know from experience that there’s a vicious cycle otherwise, where I don’t even bother to tidy up after myself, and then feel even worse because my flat is messy and I haven’t washed my hair in days.
The focus here is on the things that I know make me feel better – or, at least, things that I know not doing will make me feel worse. So I focus on getting enough exercise, doing basic housework, and spending time with loved ones.
It’s also important to keep the commitments I’ve made to others. There have been times when I’ve been tempted to cancel plans with family, but I always feel better for having gone anyway. If I cancel, it’s not a net neutral situation, where I feel the same as I would have done if the plans had never existed. Instead, I feel worse for also disappointing someone I care about. If I don’t cancel, it might be a slog to get myself out the door, but spending time with people who care about me invariably makes me feel at least a wee bit better.
This one is definitely a struggle, but I find it helps immensely. Often when I’m depressed, I have this strange lack of focus combined with restlessness. I try to read, but my mind keeps wandering and I have no idea what’s happening in the book. So I try to watch some telly, but keep finding myself scrolling through Instagram on my phone because my mind won’t focus. I wander round the flat in a sort of trance, unable to focus my attention on anything, yet at the same time unable to summon the energy to tackle my to-do list.
What I’ve been trying to do is notice when I’m doing this, and direct the restlessness into something low-stakes and low-energy that can help focus my thoughts, like yoga or journalling. I don’t do this with the expectation that I’ll suddenly become productive afterwards, but in the hopes that it helps calm my mind a little, rather than exhausting myself doing nothing at all.
A final note
I’ve shared some of the things that have helped me with my own depression, but the most important thing I did was to seek professional help. I saw a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy for several months, and it was immensely helpful. I also found it incredibly helpful to simply get a diagnosis; I had suspected for years that I had depression, but always managed to convince myself I was just lazy. Simply knowing that there’s more going on than that has helped a lot. Now I know I’m dealing with an illness, not a personality flaw, and that has helped almost as much as anything else I’ve done.