Depression is a bully.
It’s something I have to deal with from time to time. I manage to function and (usually) keep my mood from falling into a persistent and dangerous low by being very purposeful in my choices. However, being in a high stress environment where it is nearly impossible to be somewhere that I can just let my emotions run for a bit then pull myself back together really doesn’t help.
Recently I had a day where my PTSD was triggered repeatedly from various events, and by dinner I could feel a numbness of feeling coming on. Then, when my PTSD was triggered again, I found myself back in that bleakest of mind-states.
Having spent the past decade learning how to manage my depression in prison, I though it may be helpful to share how I deal with it and what I do to climb out of that numbness. I’m going to use what I think of as the skydive approach to talking about each strategy I use. Start 1,000 miles up, and end down in the weeds.
Perception shapes reality.
In my opinion, the concept of “being objective” has very little meaning when talking about feelings (for clarity, I use feeling to mean an emotion and/or mood). If I perceive an activity to be good, enjoyable, and valuable, then I will derive pleasure from it. If I perceive otherwise, then my feeling in relation to that activity will be different.
At this point some would argue that all one needs to do is change one’s perception and ‘Poof!,’ problem solved. It doesn’t work that way. Why? Because perception is the aggregate of our experiences tinted by the lens of our current feeling.
Notice, these definitions are circularly linked. In logic that is not allowed. However, this is not logic, this is feeling and feeling is cyclical.
We perceive a thing which evokes a feeling. We remember it as an experience of a given quality with various associations. When we perceive something similar the previous experience tints the current experience influencing the feeling evoked and the new memory created.
This is not a simple input/output thing because both humans and the world are messy. There is no isolating a variable or testing a hypothesis or anything else scientific like that. Instead I add more variables, I increase the messyness. Circle not line. By intentionally complicating experience I increase my ability to engage in different modes of feeling. I don’t seek feeling good, happy, content, inner peace or any other necessarily “positive” emotion. I simply seek out experiencing a complex emotion in the first place. For example, thinking about mourning the future loss of of a relationship that I currently value and usually derive pleasure from while empathetically picking up laughter and happy from them. Holding these vastly different modes of thought and feeling in my mind at once allows me to feel something even while the volume on all my emotions has been turned way down.
It took me a long time to learn how to do this in meditation and it is important and helps me because it reminds me that I can still feel, it just takes a lot to get there. I realize that this is probably very specific to people like myself who are highly empathic and still pick up other people’s positive emotional states while dealing with one’s own depression.
Lack of motivation does not mean lack of inertia.
A lack of motivation, for me, means not wanting to do or try something new and not wanting to deal with conflict in a major way. This doesn’t really affect how I feel about continuing to engage in my previously scheduled appointments or meeting obligations. Thus, I have a lack of motivation, not a lack of inertia. Like a heavy cart, I can more easily coast along than I can stop outright.
This is similar to “keeping busy” that a lot of people will use to describe what they’ve been doing since experiencing a loss. This could be escapism if done with an attitude of “don’t think, keep working.” While this can help keep a body functional, it does not do much for healing. Therefore, I see the important question to be ‘what activities does my inertia carry me through?’ Is it the soul-suck of a 9 to 5? A series of interactions where each leaves me more exhausted than the last? If so then my inertia isn’t going to help me out of my depression. On the other hand, if I am being carried through a series of activities like, zen meditation, yoga, going to the library, and various life affirming activities, then my inertia may help me out of my depression, but at the very least will help keep me from slipping deeper into it. This is a strategy which works best if I plan out a schedule for myself when I am feeling well keeping in mind what I will need when my depression comes calling again. By creating the habit of these activities and the social ties with others in those spaces while well, I create positive inertia to carry me through my darker periods as well as help prevent those darker periods through those very same activities.
A good wallow.
This is one that I’ve had some very interesting conversations (arguments) with other people about and I’m fairly sure I’m a descenting opinion on this one. I have found that sometimes being stuck in a depressive mood is because I need to let myself experience an extreme state of emotional sadness. Once I do let myself steer into it for a few hours then the feeling passes and while I am not out of my depression at that point, I am often on my way back out of it. Granted, on more than one occasion that “few hours” ended up being a 10 to 12 hour marathon of inconsolable sobbing with no real explanation beyond “this is what I need right now.” But hey, emotions aren’t rational so I don’t go digging for a reason. I give myself what I need and move on.
Of course, trying to explain this to the mental health counselor standing outside my cell front at 3 AM between hiccups is a losing proposition. Like I said, there is not anywhere to be alone and unobserved when dealing with the emotional self. If my crying is too loud, I am bound to hear about it from my neighbors in the morning and odds are they are most likely going to tell me to shut up about it, which leads me to my next point.
Sometimes it matters and sometimes it don’t.
This is really tricky for me to explain, so I hope this makes sense. This is me using my intuition and self-knowledge to figure out if I need to do some deep personal soul work and seek out the root of my depressive state, or if it’s a purely irrational state bubbling up with no real cause beyond a need to experience a season/session of intense sadness or something else entirely. Understanding and giving my emotional self what it needs is a balancing act and I am unsure of how to properly articulate the difference.
It’s almost like having very little internal physical body awareness. Like having a sensation in my torso and having to sit down and really think about and be thoroughly self reflective just to sort it out. Is it a need food sensation? Is it a need oxygen sensation? Is it a need bathroom sensation? Is it a tired muscles sensation? So many things that could all be happening there. It’s like an emotional body version of that. There’s all this stuff going on and I have to sit down and really think about what these feelings mean and how do I use them as a signal for what I need to do to take care of myself. And there are consequences to getting it wrong, just like there would be a consequence to thinking I need a cheeseburger when what I should be doing is breathing. Whoopsie.
The only way out is through.
Depression is a big scary schoolyard bully that takes my lunch money on chocolate milk and pizza day.
Have to go to school. Got to go to class. Going to have to use the bathroom sometime. Have to go to recess. Right? So it’s not like I can hide from the bully. If I cower or run or really do anything other than own what is happening I’m going to continue to be a victim. The only thing to do is call on my friends and supporters and tell them what is going on and get some help with the situation. Can’t hide behind someone else, but I can draw strength and courage from their support.
The only way out is through.
Don’t try for all at once.
To circle back to “emotions are circular,” anytime I am caught in a spiral of any sort (shame, anger, depression, spite, whatever), I don’t try and bring a halt to it all at once. Inertia is hard to change. Instead, I try an make each spiral a little smaller than the last. This also works well for my stress response when my PTSD is triggered. If my stress, or spite, or fear could be quantified as x, each time the train of thought comes back around I try and have that feeling be x – 1. If my mood is depressed, then I try an be just ever so slightly less depressed each couple of days. I let it be a slow process and let myself be okay with not being at the goal just yet.
I’m getting there and taking my sweet time about it! Thank you very much.
I love me.
I say this to myself every day while standing in front of my mirror and looking myself in the eye. Valuing myself is hard with all the negative messages I received as a kid and currently receive as an adult.
Thus, sometimes working on my depression means being over protective to an irrational degree of my “me time” or something else that helps me slowly but surely move toward better, which of course takes effort I don’t have. The answer: I just tell people I’m not going to show up. If they keep insisting, I walk off without any explanation what so ever. My mental health is more important than being polite. If they aren’t going to value me then apparently I’m going to have to value myself enough for the both of us, usually to the tune of me ignoring them, which is (for me) freakishly easy when depressed. Quite seriously, when I feel depressed I have enough trouble mustering the energy to care about my own problems, so not worrying about their issues is sort of effortless, with one exception: As long as not caring doesn’t come with a heap of guilt and self recrimination.
There are some people that I will always care about their issues, then there are others that I will usually care as long as they didn’t literally bring it on themselves. Like people who play softball then want to complain when they fail to catch a pop fly and get a black eye… they literally did it to themselves. I got no sympathy for that, especially when I’m feeling depressed. When I have to really focus on my emotional well being and take care of myself, that can mean not worrying about as much about others for a time. And I need to be okay with that because a bunch of guilt will keep me depressed.
These are my strategies for climbing back out of my depression. I hope that someone finds them helpful.