Monday, January 24, 2011

A few Thoughts on Surviving Depression

 So, you have the flu. Your body aches, your head aches, your throat hurts, your eyes prickle, you shiver with sweat-drench high temperature, life sucks.

So what do you do? Do you lie naked on a bed of nails outside in the pouring winter rain, wear a hair shirt and self-flagellate? Do you cuddle a metal ECO tanka drinking flask filled with water and frozen hard? Do you eat your most hated foods and drink unsweetened boiled strong tea with soured milk? Do you play heavy metal and original old punk with the volume turned to full? Because if you're stupid enough to get the flu you deserve to suffer as much as possible.

Or do you curl up in a warm, soft bed, with crisp, clean sheets changed regularly by whoever comes by. You cuddle up to a hot water bottle, refilled hourly. You eat only treats and drink the most soothing liquids. You suck pleasant lozenges and swallow paracetamol as needed.  You have a good book at hand and read a paragraph or two as you are able, and if you feel like music, it is soft and sweet. You nurture yourself and ask for care from others, making your world as comforting as possible until the flu recedes and you can live again.

So, you have depression. Your soul is desolate, black, oppressive, helpless, hopeless. At it's almost worst you are so deadened, you cannot walk and talk at the same time. At the next step down you can't do either. At it's very worst you rise up from your bed and kill yourself.

So, what do you do when you are depressed? Do you see the worst in everything, taking note of every wrinkle in the sheet, every un-dusted shelf, every flaw on your skin, every word said or unsaid, every glance, every caterpillar bite out of your lettuce, every tiny cloud, every mosquito, every milligram of weight gained or lost? Carefully chronicling all the things that prove that you are horrible, undeserving, unworthy of love and life. Do you berate yourself with self-abuse? Do you gorge on chocolate until you are sick, then call yourself disgusting? Do you eat food you dislike because you don't deserve better? Do you pour your vitriol against self and others all over your friends before shutting them out completely?

Or do you nurture yourself and ask for care from others, making your world as comforting as possible until this depression illness recedes and you can live again?

 Frankly, in 40 years of bouts of depression, this latter had never occured to me as a possibility.

There have always been plenty of people to tell me what to do:

Just pull yourself together.

Don't be so selfish. You're upsetting others.

There's plenty of people worse off than you.

Have another drink.

Get over yourself and get a life.

Then there's the perennial You just have to make the choice to think positively instead of negatively. Like I was waking up each day and thinking, "Today, hmmmm, yeah, today I'm choosing to be really fucking miserable."

Some would tell me that all it takes is to repeat 'affirmations' to myself in the mirror and soon all my problems would be solved. "I am beautiful just the way I am." Ignore the doctor if he says, lose weight or you'll get diabetes / heart disease / die. "I am beautiful just the way I am." Yeah, right.

I always found the count your blessings, be grateful for what you've got suggestion particularly annoying. Count my blessings? I have a lovely husband (but he won't go dancing with me.) I have a lovely house (but it's not finished.) I have four sons whom I adore (but I don't get to see and talk with them enough.) Blah blah blah but but but. Then there's the guilt. I should be grateful and happy because I have it so good compared to people in the refugee camps on Christmas Island, enslaved children in Africa producing chocolate for me to make myself sick on, that woman who is beaten daily by her abusive husband.....and so on and on.

Others would tell me to cheer myself up by doing things that I like doing. Well, duh! When depression stomps all over me, I don't like doing anything!

It wasn't until recently that I discovered that these suggestions have a degree of truth to them. Perhaps these truths are obvious to the people who offer them, but to a depressed person they seem trite, simple and insulting.

Then someone said, When you're down, do things you like doing when you are well, and keep doing them even if you are not getting any pleasure from them. And you know, I have found that he's right - eventually  there's, well, not more pleasure immediately, but perhaps, less displeasure with life. It's like the nurturing we give ourselves or our children when we have a physical illness like the flu. I need to make everything I can as pleasant and comforting as I can while I suffer through this bout of mental illness. The other day I could feel myself falling downwards and took myself off to the sea. I swam in the Ngarunui Beach waves for an hour and a half, not emerging until I started feeling better (albeit very wrinkled!) I'm trying to make myself do things I enjoy when feeling good, even when I feel bad. Like writing, walking, making books, spending time with friends, gardening, swimming. It's really really hard when I'm slipping down, but so far it seems to be working, in that I hold where I caught myself rather than slipping further.

Count your blessings, be grateful for what you've got has similarly taken on new meaning since I let go of the big blessings. Instead I find that meditative mindfulness of the small things is what works for me. The loss of sense of self, and immersion in the universe that I have always got when swimming, I now find in scything too. But beyond these physical activities, I find that simple mindful observation of the beauty and intricacy of our world can also lift me out of the oblivion of the self and into the oblivion of the all.

St John's Wort Hypericum perforatum - I don't have to swallow it - with determination, just looking at it can bring a smile to my face.

(PS - Surviving depression takes a lot more than this, but these are just a couple of the new (to me) ways that I have been making my life more bearable.)


wildchild said...

this is outstanding writing xxx

skatey katie said...

hey cally,
love your findings here: 'do things that ordinarily make us happy'. i am usually sunnyish, but since the kids've gone to skool and i've gone to skool, i have noticed that i tend to panic when left on my own at home (all the voices in my head get too loud). so last year, even tho i mostly had a part time-ish job, i stayed at skool pretty much full time. this year, the job is looking like even less hours. eeeep. so i have decided that i'll give 'being at home a day or so a week' another shot. i might redo our gardens. i'm not a gardener at all, but i think i can manage a little creativity outside. but i also told a girlfriend that i might need to pop into her work and 'do things for free'...
love and sunshine X

eileenb said...

small steps leadign to big results Cally - to stop the downward trend is awesome progress :)