Meta-Depression

Sad women sitting in window seat
Content note: depression, obviously. Also, this post has a different comment policy than the usual one.

Dammit to hell. I was doing so well. I’d been depression-free for several months. I’d dialed my meds dosage back down; I was even planning to leave therapy. And then the shit hit the fan. Orlando/Pulse happened. The latest accusations broke about sexual harassment in the atheist community, centering on someone who had once been a friend and colleague. Brexit happened. And my depression is back. It’s not as bad as it’s been in the past, but it’s bad enough.

And on top of the depression itself, I’m dealing with meta-depression. I am feeling irritated, pessimistic, and helpless, about the fact that I’m depressed again.

My depression tends to be set off by two or more traumas at once. So what does that say for my prognosis? The world is extra shitty right now. I don’t think that’s the depression talking: it seemed that way even when I was feeling better, and I’m far from the only person who thinks this. The world just seems to be on a hair trigger. There are some good things about that — I think a lot of the social upheaval is backlash and polarization about real progress that’s being made — but it doesn’t make the traumas less traumatic. Depression is sometimes defined as feeling hopeless, pessimistic, sad, or shut down, when there’s no external reason to be. But what if there is an external reason? How does a depressed person handle the fact that the world often is unpredictably shitty? The best wisdom I can find is that when depression tells me the world is terrible, that’s not a lie. The lie is that the world is only terrible. But as comfort goes, that’s kind of ambiguous. “Hey, someday you’ll feel better, and you’ll be able to deeply experience the unresolvable conflict of the joy of life being deeply interlaced with its pain and brutality!”

I’m also wondering if I’m more likely to get depressed than I used to be. My last round of depression — fall 2012 to spring 2016 — was bad, really bad, the worst it’s ever been, and the longest. I’m wondering if it just wore down some of my mental reserves, or carved the depression paths deeper into my synapses. With some physical illnesses or injuries, you get better, and once you’re better you’re totally fine. But with some, you never get completely better. You’re always weaker in that arm; you always have a harder time catching your breath. Is mental illness like that? Now that I’ve had a three-and-a-half-year stretch of serious, disabling depression, am I more likely to get depressed again? My therapist says that’s a real possibility, although I have no way of knowing yet how often this is going to happen, or how severe it’s going to be when it does. I used to get depressed every few years: am I now going to get depressed every few months? If that’s true, I don’t know what to do with that.

Hence, the meta-depression. I’m depressed — and I’m depressed about being depressed. I’m depressed about how easily I got depressed this time; how much it was triggered by external events I had no control over; what my depression may look like in the near future and for the rest of my life.

The plus side is that I now know what to look for, and I know what to do about it. I now know the difference between feeling sad, angry, frustrated, irritated — and feeling foggy, unmotivated, pessimistic, anhedonic. The day I started feeling low, I started dialing up my self-care routines. I started leaving the house every day, being social every day, meditating every day. I started drawing again. I started asking for help. I had a brief round of denial, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t depressed again, I was just sad. And tired. And headachy. And forgetful. And unable to focus. And amotivated. And… But I was also able to tell myself to play it safe. It’s not like there’d be any great harm in dialing up my self care. If I was wrong and this wasn’t depression, the worst that would happen is I’d meditate more than I needed to, and spend more time outside and with other people that was strictly necessary. Those are good things to do anyway, why not just do them?

As a result, I think I may be nipping this in the bud. Or at least, I’m making it less bad than it would have been, and hopefully it won’t last as long.

But it still sucks. And it meta-sucks.

Other people with chronic depression — how do you handle it, both the illness and the meta?

Comment policy: If you yourself have depression or other mental illness, I welcome suggestions and perspectives on managing it as a chronic lifelong illness — but please frame them as what works for you, not as prescriptions for me or anyone else. If you don’t have mental illness, please don’t give advice of any kind. Thanks.

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Meta-Depression
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16 thoughts on “Meta-Depression

  1. 1

    I empathize with the feeling. My personal solution to depressive episodes has always been at least in part to change my situation. It can be hard though.
    Sometimes it means not associating with groups/people that trigger depression even if I don’t think that’s their fault. Sometimes it means turning off the news or election even though I feel like I have a responsibility to be aware of what’s going on and make an informed decision. Sometimes it means avoiding challenging, unpleasant discussions and prickly people even if on some level I appreciate that making change is going to require putting myself in that situation.
    Other times it’s something I just can’t opt out of or ignore that’s happening to me personally and legally, medically,whatever requires attention right now… I found throwing myself into something distracting and slightly mindless (last time was minecraft of all things) helped a lot.
    Mostly though I’ve found that things other people suggest are not helpful at best and frustrating at worst. I don’t know if it’s correlation or causation, but the first step towards getting myself back on track has always been to stop listening to everyone else’s expectations and advice, understand I know who I am and what I’m going through better than anyone else is going to, and move forward with that.

  2. 2

    You and I seem to be pretty solidly in sync, and I’m very familiar with the meta-depression. Brexit seems to have been the final push to send me spiraling into a deeply fucked-up period where I’m the black dog’s fucking chew toy. I’ve been only marginally functional at best the last few days.

    I don’t really know how to handle the meta-depression. For me, it comes in the form that I feel like an asshole because when I’m depressed, I don’t feel like providing other people emotional support, or doing the little household tasks that are always necessary, and I can’t explain why I don’t want to do stuff with my GF or family. A lot of people take it personally, and it really isn’t. I am trying to get out for a walk every day (I’ve mapped out a 2.3 mile route in the neighborhood), but that only goes so far.

  3. 3

    The meta-depression has mostly been helped by experience for me at least. The first depressive period lasted for a good part of 6 years. As I was coming out of it, in addition to being depressed, I was absolutely terrified of getting sucked back in.
    Going through it again, starting to get more familiar with it, and having it not take over for 6 years helped a lot there. Also I guess as I get older a year feels a lot shorter than it did the first time.
    I think having responsibilities helped too, but again I’m not really sure correlation/causation. Finishing projects, raising a kid, etc. even while depressed gave me a lot more confidence that even if I couldn’t stop getting depressed I could still contribute and get out the other end.

  4. 4

    Whoa, can I relate. Thanks for calling it meta-depression. It actually helps to name it. I was already meta-depressed (and meta-anxious) about yet again sinking into depression and anxiety after a string of physical illnesses. Then the Orlando shooting hit particularly hard because I grew up in the area, in the local queer culture, and have many LGBTQ friends in Orlando. But I moved away, and it just underscores how little community I have up here, and I felt guilty for not being able to comfort friends very much because of being such a mess.

    I am trying so hard on self-care, hobbies and getting out to meet new people when I can. But the guilt about taking so much time for self-care is getting to me, because I was meta-depressed in the first place about the depression keeping me from getting work done! Also there’s meta-anxiety that I’m falling into avoidance patterns again. I’m trying to at least direct my avoidance to social activities or making things when I have the energy, because those are much higher “quality” than TV or video games. Even though I don’t really enjoy anything in the moment right now, at least the former will help me feel better in the long run.

    On the bright side, it is good to know what’s going on, so the denial phase is shorter. Having Habitica.com already set up helps too – gives me an incentive, if only in a pixel RPG format, to do all the little self-care things each day, and remember the to do list my foggy brain forgets instantly. It’s hard to see my long term To-dos getting super red from not getting done, though. It’s a balancing act between avoidance and guilt. Kinda like the balancing act of talking about mental health, between feeling less alone and being triggered. Your writing is great, but I had to quit following some mental health discussions because I was just getting pulled further down.

  5. 5

    I’m bipolar but have suffered more from depression than mania. I’ve had far too many significant depressive episodes in my life, several of them to the point of suicidal thoughts & plans, but fortunately no actions other than to seek help (or be forced to seek help) and I’m still here. I have been quite well medicated the last 4 or 5 years, and my depressions in this time have been mercifully brief.

    One thing that helps me is knowing that that feeling (and the process that gets me there) of coming OUT of depression is just as powerful in my brain as the thoughts/feelings/processes that land me IN depression. I do think that when you’ve experienced depression, you’re more likely to experience it again. The more you experience it, the more you are prone to it, because your brain does so easily follow paths it has been down before. Habit is unbelievably powerful. And so if I’m going down a dark path I remind myself of how I come up and out along a light path. I know it is possible. Reminding myself, opening up that path, making myself go down it – once I get started I can feel it again and claim this habit, the habit of self care and self love and love for the world can come back into me.

    I also find it incredibly helpful when I’m depressed to give myself time with people who just want to have fun with me, and also time with people who will just tell it like it is and not accept that bullshit that is depression when it is revealed in the ways I react, act and speak about things. Gotta balance those two, but for me that combination is really useful.

    I was depressed for a couple of weeks quite recently. I’m out of it now but do feel that the state of things is quite tenuous. I have had to dial back my exposure to triggers. It’s tough not to be self-critical of myself for doing that even though I know it is the right thing to do and that in the long run doing so will actually help me focus my energies into taking the actions that are most important to me.

    I really appreciate that you take this conversation public. I have seen people suffer so terribly due to lack of exposure to the fact that *other people suffer in similar ways too*. And we all can learn so much from one another.

  6. 6

    It meta sucks and it *mega* sucks. I feel the thing.

    I have a big bag of hugs here. Feel free to dig through them and pick out a few you like.

  7. 7

    “Depression is sometimes defined as feeling hopeless, pessimistic, sad, or shut down, when there’s no external reason to be. But what if there is an external reason? ”

    So much this Greta… I don’t know if my depression has ever been NOT meta….NOT related to outside events. I was joking that I’d prefer dementia come on soon the other day because it’s just no fucking fun to have a clue about anything anymore.

    I try to take heart and look at the resistance in the streets…but, my depressed brain tells me that’s just a sputter. I am trying every day to get out of bed….do why work – which has no hope of changing the world and simply keeps my mind off the things that bring me down….for a little while.

    Hugs to all dealing with this….and a reminder to do something really nice for yourself every single day.

  8. 8

    I have bipolar and while mania is more my thing to manage, I find journaling, media blackouts, managing my sleep, exercise, light, and nutrition help with depressive episodes. I’ve been tracking my moods and sleep since I was properly diagnosed in 2004. I find it helps me stay vigilant for triggers. I also like that I can see what has worked and not worked over the years. There’s also visual proof for me that I got through the last episode.

  9. 9

    I’m never sure whether I’m being depressed BY outside events, or whether I’m already working on big-time depression and things like Orlando just give me a focus.
    I tend to find my best comfort in reading. Sometimes really meaty and worthwhile books, more often stuff with the only merit being amusement. P.G. Wodehouse is good for those times, along with Gladys Mitchell and Agatha Christie. Dorothy L. Sayers is always therapeutic. I’m more likely to read old favorites, or favorite authors, than anything new. I find reading easier than TV watching; TV has too many distractions. Getting time alone helps, but that’s in very short supply.
    Some of the things that I know will help are sometimes the hardest to do; I know a hot fudge sundae is not really a healthy dinner, and that if I watch my diet and get more exercise that will help the recovery process, but when today was just barely survivable, tomorrow seems likely to be worse, and there is no end in sight it’s hard.

  10. 10

    One of the things that make advice from outsiders difficult, even from others with depression, is that there is such a wide range of how different people experience it. Everyone experiences it differently and what helps for some may not help for others. But I think being open and talking about our experiences can help address the “meta” part.

    I experience depression more or less nonstop, but in varying degrees that deepens (and sometimes lessens) from the baseline more or less randomly; nothing in particular triggers my periods of deeper depression, which typically last around a week and half.

    Meta-depression has become less and less of a problem for me as I’ve made more of a conscious decision to accept that depression is simply part of who I am and to not fight it. Recognizing and acknowledging how it exhibits in me also helps; I’ve been through enough cycles to know that when it gets worse it will go back to normal after a while.

    In this sense, I’ve become much better at avoiding the downward cycle of catastrophic thinking. I allow the depression to be emotional and body sensations but I’ve been increasingly better at not letting it take over my thoughts.

  11. 11

    Oh my gosh, I’ve been going through this exact same thing. I was doing really well, then some difficulties with work + world events knocked me off course– and then, as you say, meta-depression. That “Oh my god, I’m HERE again??” feeling. I don’t have anything useful to add except that I feel you and keep up the self-care (and thank you for mentioning it, because I should do that, too). And also I’m super impressed that you’re able to do the work that you do while being depressed. I feel like it saps me of everything.

  12. 12

    Oh, Greta!
    The depression, this Meta-depression, is crushing!
    My recent delve has begun to affect my work, thus, I am beginning back to see my therapist again after ten years!
    The tools I gained from years of medication and CBT are invaluable. The problem? Having the umph to get out the tool box. I’ve been staying in the sun as much as possible and am eating right, but succumbing to hours (days) of isolating with this latest. I know what has triggered this bout (it’s been really bad the last year), and apparently I just cannot fucking deal. Again. Dammit.
    Yes, I know it’s not really a weakness nor character flaw. It just is. Would I call diabetes a character flaw, or a weakness? Yet, I beat myself up for not being better at getting out of this depression.
    So, I am going to see my therapist again for a “tune-up” and try to be kind to myself.
    What works for me? I’m not sure. Gardening in the sun, aka “dirt therapy” does wonders, but I have to actually go outside to do it. I’m trying.
    Chris expressed frustration at not feeling like being an emotional support for others and slacking on the household stuff that always needs done. I feel this way too. It’s impossible to pour water from a dry pitcher, though.
    Right now, I’m at my parents’ house caring for my mother who just went through surgery. At least I can still do this!
    Take heart, Greta. You’re doing what you can and you certainly are not alone.
    Just by posting this article you’ve helped others, and I hope yourself, too.
    Sending you big ol’ hippie hugs.

  13. 13

    Greta, I am sorry to hear you’ve got this millstone round your neck. I was there – for too many years of my life. I’m largely better now.

    The most efferctive non-pharmacuetical change I made was to de-invest in events over which I had no practical control. I was misunderstanding the role of empathy in my worldview and activism.

    For example, an event like Pulse/Orlando would’ve laid me low, too, in a past life. Now I look at the broader sweep of history at the decade level rather than the munitiae of daily developments. And becuase we are (slowly) winning, I can take joy in the wider passage of life and the gains made by progressive values, whilst permitting myself time and space to grieve public and private tragedy and unfairness.

    I believe I’ve come to a more realistic view of what influence and change I can effect in the world. I also believe I’ve become the more effective (and happier) activist for that.

  14. 14

    I’m sorry you have to deal with this dreadful disease too. What helps me, besides taking my medication regularly, is pretending I don’t have the damn disease. Nobody who hasn’t known me for at least 15 years knows I’m manic-depressive. For some reason, admitting I’m depressed somehow empowers the depression. I wake up anxious and depressed, pretend I’m not, and by mid-afternoon, I’m usually feeling just fine. I never, ever admit to being depressed if anyone asks. I might admit to having recently been depressed, but I don’t dare talk about being presently depressed. The worst thing I can do is go back to bed when I’m especially down. Being active helps get me out of the stupor I can so easily let myself slip into. I would say honestly that being active is the number one thing that helps me. Just doing the dishes can be enough to kick me from the rut of depression into something more proactive. Sometimes just playing video games is enough to keep me from sinking under. It’s not terribly active, but it’s fun and keeps my mind off depressing bullshit.

  15. 15

    I have chronic depression. A few things that have helped me:
    1. Getting the actual diagnosis of major depression. I spent years getting diagnosed with a series of anxiety/depression related disorders that were far short of major depression. This after several (admittedly rather half hearted) suicide attempts. It left me with the impression that I was just whiny and, if I were serious about the suicide attempts, not worth saving. I think psychiatrists are reluctant to give a major depression diagnosis and that I may underplay symptoms at times, but it helped quite a lot to get an official diagnosis.
    2. Getting the underlying condition diagnosed. I was diagnosed with asperger syndrome (actually, it’s now been rebranded social communication disorder, but it’s basically the same problem) in my 40s. So this is helpful because now I know that there’s a reason that conversations sometimes randomly explode on me. Again, for whatever reason, this is more helpful to me than it sounds.
    3. Exercise. It’s one of the “classic” quasi-alternative methods, but actually works for some people. My method for getting my butt out the door when I’m depressed and the activation barrier to exercising is high? Fun exercise. Run while listening to the radio (well, okay, spotify on my cell phone–same difference, right?), ending the bike ride at the ice cream store, going out when the weather is dramatic, whatever else.
    4. Meds. I’m kind of meh-ish on meds. They help some but if I go too high on the dosage I start to feel like Mr. Spock: Just no emotions at all. Not depressed, not unable to function, just not feeling much at all. Sigh. Other people get manic episodes when they get too high a dose…
    5. Ignore the news. Don’t read blogs, don’t read the newspaper, ignore the political email. For a number of reasons, mostly demographic, politics never completely leaves my life, but I ignore what I can when things are particularly bad. I think of this as the airplane rule: If I don’t put on my own oxygen mask (deal with my mental health issues), I will be useless in terms of helping anyone else. Or myself. This requires more work than a non-depressed person would think, because part of my depression at least is where I tell myself that I’m being a privileged snit and that I’m lucky that I can ignore politics. Which is true, but I can’t change that while too depressed to move.

  16. 16

    I just want to ask, How much help do your cats give you in coping? Do they seem to prevent severe depression from worsening? For me, meditation helps me to be with mine more fully, freeing my mind a bit from the constant negative stories churning in my head. They need play and affection, and I’m there for them completely. They really make a positive difference in my life. Is that the same for you?

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