Trigger warning: Themes of depression, and hopelessness. Discretion is advised.
“ Once it snowed, and it wasn’t that I felt great,Neil Hilborn, “Our Numbered Days”.
because I felt awful, but awful is better than nothing.
Depression wasn’t an endless grey sky,
it was no sky at all. ”
I took a break this week.
It was Monday morning and I had just had blood work done and I had had the flu shot on Friday but was still feeling like garbage. I could tell internally that something was not right with myself and my soul. I felt off and sad and angry. So I did something I am not used to doing. I checked in with my supervisors, called my clients to cancel and went home and slept. I slept for three hours. I got up, took a shower and slept some more.
It helped. Positive re-enforcement for the fact that listening to your body is, in fact, a good thing.
I was feeling sad and down and depressed. But on the way home I realized something. I felt guilty for leaving unless I had a physical reason to do so. Me, a mental health provider, felt guilty for leaving work because of mental health. I could only warrant it because I had physical problems going on too. Perhaps a harsh realization of the fact that I have been living within a version of stigma and not aware. But why?
I have a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder, anxiety, OCD (in remission), trichotillomania (also, mostly in remission), and PTSD (growing all the time). I struggle with my anger. I struggle with boundaries and people pleasing (getting better every day). I’m a chronic worrier. When there is nothing to be worried about, I worry about the fact that I have nothing to worry about. If my environment isn’t perfect, I will freak out in less than .25 seconds. Too hot? Open all the windows right now and give me a bag of ice. The bed comforter is a little askew? I’m not sleeping until it is perfect. The lighting too bright? I will literally hide and/or cringe until it is better. These diagnoses are all like waves. They come and go and through the years I have gotten better at not waiting around for the next wave of whatever DSM-5 delight is headed my way.
I have carried each of these diagnoses for some time. But, the oldest book in my bag is depression. I don’t remember exactly when it “struck”. I just remember that my lows got to be really, really low at some point. It became harder to come out of it through the years. For the longest time, I fought medications. I didn’t let myself go to therapy–I had been in and out of therapy throughout my life and never felt like I had accomplished anything. I was skeptical about the efficacy of anything but my own brain. But I had a chemical imbalance. I still do. It is a psychological illness. And I refused to do anything about it for a long friggin’ time. If this were a broken leg, I’d have gone and seen a doctor. Gotten an x-ray. Plopped a cast on it. Went to physical therapy. So why is a chemical imbalance any different? Because we can’t see it? Because we aren’t trained to identify when something feels wrong? Because we should be able to just “suck it up”? Because having depression is “just self pity”? Because? Because what?
Depression. It’s the unwelcome guest that crashes the dinner party late, comes a little drunk, and brings up your most embarrassing stories for all to hear. You want to take it and shove it out the window and tell it you’re breaking up with it forever. But maybe at some point you realize you can’t ever fully kick this person out of your life, so you stop reacting and just wait for it’s spiel to be over. Your dinner party guests get used to it, and offer to help clean up the mess. You offer a half smile and say thanks, and begin cleaning up in a pregnant silence, wondering when your drunk friend will ever get their shit together.
Depression. I think of the word and I instantly feel my shoulders slump over. I immediately slow down. My breathing becomes less involuntary and uneven. I want to crawl under the sheets and turn the lights off. I just want to hide. I know we all experience sadness. And maybe most have been depressed for a time a two. But there is a major difference between feeling depressed and having depression. Depression is rarely something that just goes away. Mine took four years of weekly therapy and a nice dose of 75 mg of Venlafaxine ER nightly to stabilize. I’m still not 100%. I still see my therapist every month, and the meds are the same.
I often envision my depression as a ditch, or a sink hole and I am a circus bear dressed like a cute little clown on a unicycle just wheeling around in circles around this ditch. I could lose my balance and drift right in at any time. Sometimes I am able to keep upright. It used to be that even the slightest thing could send me right into that ditch. And there are days where this is still the case. I wake up and I know instantly where I am at for the day. But that’s just it. I know where I stand for the day. THIS is progress. I gave up a long time ago on the expectation that my depression would ever truly go away. But I have learned to approach every day with the mindset of meeting myself right where I am.
Some days are so productive and so alive and so fruitful for so many reasons. And other days, I am lucky if my greatest achievement for the day is getting out of bed. There is only one major thing that has changed throughout all of this that has made either outcome something I am okay with. I stopped getting mad at myself for not being able to (insert daily tasks here) because of my depression. I stopped getting angry with myself for having a chemical imbalance. I stopped becoming frustrated when I couldn’t focus because I was too sad. I started to listen to what my heart and brain and soul required of me every. damn. day. Sometimes it is ritual. A cup of tea made slowly for the sole purpose of showing my body nourishment. Sometimes it is a pint of ice cream. Sometimes it is just letting myself feel how I feel. Sometimes it is total isolation and other times it is surrounding myself with love, soft blankets and wearing cozy clothing. But in order to have this knowledge, I had to stop and really really listen.
Depression. Ugh. There are hardly words to explain what it feels like. It’s heavy and dark. It doesn’t let light in, and when it does, the light is usually too bright anyway. It’s controlling and doesn’t let you see your friends. It takes all of your energy. It requires every ounce of strength from you and the some. It makes itself known in every way it can. It has a grasp that is cold and menacing. There is a gravitational pull that happens with depression that is a force to be reckoned with. It is messy. It is not showering for days. It mood swings, and weird cravings, and also you’re not hungry at all. It’s staring at walls wondering if the paint can hear your thoughts or if you are going crazy. It’s staring out windows and finding yourself leaving your body. It’s watching life as if it were a movie. It’s “never being good enough” to be a part of someone’s plans. It’s fear that you will “just bring everyone else down”. It’s not being able to speak because it might take up too much energy. It’s feeling hollow and empty. Like really, really feeling like there is nothing inside of you. It’s not being able to speak because words aren’t there any more. It’s focusing on absolutely nothing and not being able to focus on anything. It’s dark humor. It’s not being able to sleep or sleeping so often you lose track of time. It’s crying. So much crying. It’s crying so much you can’t cry anymore. It’s being numb. It’s not feeling. a. damn. thing. It’s wondering what the hell is wrong? It’s changes in grades or work performance. It’s self-depreciating statements. It’s constant second guessing. It’s wanting to change but feeling like you don’t know where to start. It’s wondering if days ever get better and also not caring. It’s wonder what your worth is. It’s feeling pain all over your body for “no reason”. It’s having skin that feels like it is full of needles and not knowing where or how to fix it. It’s not being able to find the light in a room made of light bulbs. It is exhausting. It is invisible. And if you think you have it, I believe you. Because it is real. And it is painful.
Depression. It is heavy. It’s clunky and doesn’t fit well in any space. It seems to be attached to you wherever you go though, so “it has to fit somewhere“. Right? Maybe. Maybe it is something you can allow space for. Maybe it isn’t something you need to eradicate from your life. Maybe it is something you simply need to understand rather than try to “fix”–you’re not broken. Sometimes, we need to be curious about why things happen or are coming up for us. Depression does not have to rule your life. I’m not saying it ever becomes easier. I think we, as humans, just get better at learning the nature of depression in the way that we experience it as individuals. We come up with tools along the way.
I often equate this to camping. It is suggested and good practice to pack a bag at the beginning of a hike with the “ten essentials”. These are ten items you would utilize to prevent an emergency or to handle an emergency should one arise. Things like extra water, hats, a knife, food, a first aid kit, fire starting materials etc. But take a minute to remove yourself from the hiking mindset of it all to a mindset of mental well-being. If your wellness journey is similar to that of a hike, which ten items (concepts, coping skills, resources etc.) do you require to ensure a safe travel? Keep in mind that these ten essentials may change as we are fluid beings, our needs change with the tides. Whenever I bring this up with clients, I ask them to really be specific, because ten items is both not enough and too many at once. Some find things like “hope”, “support”, “family”, “friends”, all fit into their wellness journey bag. But something I NEVER hear is self-compassion. People just don’t go there. I often wonder if this has anything to do with why people are depressed in the first place. It might be. But I haven’t conducted that study yet.
Why is it so scary to be self-compassionate? Why is it so difficult? Hell, what does it even mean? Self-compassion. It does not mean being easy on yourself or taking the easy way out. Self-compassion is approaching your own being with that similar to how you would a friend or a loved one (that you have a good, healthy relationship with). It’s opening your eyes each day and choosing to show up for yourself however you might need to on this day. It’s asking yourself about your needs and giving you those things. It’s advocating for yourself when no one else will. It’s acknowledging that maybe you are doing too much right now and it might be time to take a step back. It’s making a love offering every day for the person that you are. It is choosing, each day, to strive to understand you a little bit more. It’s asking the right questions. It’s thinking and exploring the person that exists within the vessel of flesh and bones and water that makes you you. It’s doing something that is meaningful to you. It’s creating ritual to allow for positive nourishment of the self. It’s regressing and not becoming angry about it. It’s acknowledging any progress you have made. It’s changing the language you use with yourself conscientiously so that you are not being mean to you anymore. It’s not speaking to yourself in your abuser’s tone of voice anymore. It’s choosing to identify one thing abut yourself every day that makes you worthy of what you seek. It’s creating healthy boundaries in your life so that harm cannot befall your soul. It’s not standing in lies, and living your truth to reclaim your power. It’s not forcing anything. It’s allowing emotions to come and go. It’s greeting challenges like old friends, and lending them an ear so that they can feel heard. It’s being honest about who is in your life, and why. It’s making a plan to try your best which is much different than making a plan for “success”. It’s understanding that the original plan for success will change thirty five times before you realize you are standing in it one day. It’s being gentle with yourself. It’s loving caresses on your own skin until you believe it exists for more than the criticism and pleasure of others. It’s acknowledgement of any effort, and identifying areas of growth. It’s finding your passions through trial and error. It’s having courage to try things you won’t be good at. It’s being fine with not being good at some of those things. It’s dropping expectation, altering standards, and seeing what happens when you provide a safe space void of judgement for yourself to grow. These things are meeting yourself where you are. And it is the only way, I have found, to really make a dent in managing my depression.
I used to find self-compassion difficult and sometimes it still is. It is work. It is not an easy practice. I had to change the language I was using with myself. I had to stop becoming so reactive to my own actions. It took me a long time to become okay with saying something kind to myself. And if this is a struggle you have, I would encourage you to consider this: If hearing positive feedback in your own language and voice towards yourself is too difficult right now–whose voice must you hear it in to believe it to be true?
Circling back just a bit to the idea of the ten essentials, I want to take a quick second to speak on what to do with the things you have to take out of the bag. We often, as a society, talk about what else we can take on to make our lives easier. But what about what we need to take off? What is in your bag that has been in there for way too long? Is it still serving you? Did it ever serve you? How did you wind up with it? What are you going to do to take out? Who was the original owner? Maybe it is time to give it back. It is not your responsibility to take things on that do not belong to you. Part of self-compassion is recognizing what is rightfully yours to take on what is not. You are not required to share anyone’s load. If you so choose to, keep it on a timeline be firm about it. I believe you have superpowers, but this is not one of them. So get rid of it. Give it back. Do whatever the hell you have to do to give it back.
Depression does not change all that much. But you do. You gain insight. Your days become less agonizing. You find your worth again. You actually start to believe it is possible. The next time you feel like you might need a day off, or some time–take it. Spend some time being compassionate with yourself. A chemical imbalance is JUST as serious as an injured leg with worse long term impacts if left untreated. If you disagree, I am open to a debate at any time. If your boss disagrees, send them my way. The things that need to get done will get done. But do not put yourself at risk of mental decline to do it. Nothing is more important than your mental freedom. Depression is not about picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It’s about sitting in the dirt for a second to assess if you are alright, assessing why you fell in the first place, and following your gut in what to do about it. Sometimes you will need help. Most times, actually. And that is actually fine and great. It’s okay to rely on a therapist for a bit. It’s okay to need medications to get you to a point where you can even pick up the phone to call a therapist. It’s okay that you don’t want any of it. No one does. But they will be there when you are ready.
When was the last time you allowed yourself to be gentle with you? Last week? A month ago? A year ago? Ever? How do you choose to show up for yourself every day? What do you need to let go of? What do you need to give back? How are you going to empty your backpack? What will you replace those items with ? Will you replace them at all? What are your ten essentials? What language do you use to speak to yourself? Does it need to change? How? When are you going to allow yourself to be more self-compassionate and gentle with you? What does that mean to you? What steps can you take TODAY to start?
Love, warmth and cozy feelings on this Sunday morning,
If you or someone you know struggles with depression or thoughts of suicide please contact:
National Suicide Prevtion Hotline:
pyschologytoday.com (has amazing resources that can allow you to search for a therapist by zip code, insurance, and specialties)