This post has a different comment policy than usual. It’s at the end of the post.
My brain has this quirk. I’m not sure if other depressed people have it; if you do, I’d be interested to hear about it. When I’m in a depressive episode, I literally can’t comprehend what it feels like to be not-depressed, or what the world looks like through my not-depressed eyes. The pessimism is almost completely convincing: my existential despair, and my obsession with mortality and death, not only seem flawlessly logical, but feel like I’ve always felt that way and always will.
And when I’m not-depressed, and haven’t been depressed in a while, the same is true. Depression just seems bizarre. When I recently pulled out of my long, hard depressive episode, I told my therapist that I “finally feel like myself,” and the previous three and a half years looked like a grim blur. Looking at my depressed self through my non-depressed eyes — and at my non-depressed self through my depressed eyes — can feel like switching back and forth between alternate realities, alternate versions of myself on different time tracks or in different universes. That’s an exaggeration, but not much of one: there’s a non-trivial sense of distorted reality and fragmented identity.
So since I’m doing better, and I’ve been doing better for a while and expect to continue, I’m writing a letter to myself, something for me to read the next time I get seriously depressed. I may not believe my friends, my therapist, Ingrid — but I might be more inclined to believe myself.
Note to readers: I really am just talking to myself here. I realize that the first-person/second-person construction might feel like I’m talking to you and lecturing you: I promise that I’m not. My present self is talking to my future self. If you have depression, take what you need from this, and leave the rest. If you don’t have depression and have depressed friends or family members, DO NOT talk with them like this unless they’ve specifically asked you to. It’s really damaging to give unsolicited medical advice to people with mental illness: it can interfere with people’s relationships with their health care providers, and it can come across as hectoring, patronizing, unsympathetic, and judgmental.
Dear Depressed Greta,
Hi. Non-depressed Greta here, writing from the alternate reality. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time right now. There are some things I think you’ll want to hear, but you may have a hard time believing them if anyone else says them to you. So I’m writing this to you in Summer 2016, shortly after your three-and-a-half-year episode of depression had finally wound down (and right when you’re pulling out of your brief relapse). If you don’t believe anyone else, maybe you’ll believe me.
1. You haven’t always felt this way. In fact, if you add up the months and years of your life, you’ve been not-depressed a lot more than you’ve been depressed. Depression can create a revisionist ret-con time distortion, where your brain rewrites your memories and history to make them seem worse than they really are. The reality is that for most of your life, you enjoy life, feel connected with people, find value and meaning in your life and work, and are optimistic about the future — sometimes to the point of being an annoying Pollyanna cheerleader. There are times when you feel, not simply content, but giddy, bubbly, and excited. And for most of your life, you’re able to take life’s ups and downs in stride, and can experience pain and sadness without being overwhelmed by it.
2. Care does have an effect. Medication, therapy, and self-care do make a difference. They don’t always make a difference immediately, they take time and can be very much “two steps forward one step back,” but they help. They help in the long run, and they sometimes help in the short run.
3. Depression lies. When you’re depressed, you feel — no, you’re certain — that nothing will work out, nothing you do matters, you have always felt this way, and you will never feel good again.
This is bullshit. None of this is true.
Depression lies — and one of the biggest lies it tells you is that it’s telling the truth, the real truth, the unvarnished truth you just couldn’t accept until now. This is unmitigated bullshit. So talk with some old friends, look at some old pictures, read some of your old writing. Things sometimes work out, the things you do matter, you haven’t always felt this way, and you will feel good again.
4. Go outside. Seriously. Do it, now. Even if you just throw on minimal clothing and sit in a cafe for half an hour — hell, even if you just throw on minimal clothing and go to the corner store or walk around the block — do it. You have a hard time remembering this right now, but I cannot count the number of times you’ve felt horrible, finally dragged yourself out of the house, and felt better within five minutes. Leaving the house every day is one of the most powerful things you can do for your depression: more than exercise, more than meditation, possibly even more than therapy or meds, maybe even more than writing. When you’re healthy, entire days spent inside by yourself are an introvert’s decadent luxury: when you’re sick, they make you sicker. So do this every day, even if it’s just for five minutes. Get up, get dressed, and leave the house. Now. Do it now. (You can read the rest of this later.)
5. Drink water, clean your glasses, masturbate. All these make you feel better almost immediately. If you’re feeling logy, you may be thirsty; if you’re feeling foggy and headachy, your glasses may be smudged; if you’re having a hard time accessing pleasure, give yourself some.
6. Meditate, for five minutes. It probably seems really counter-intuitive right now. Right now, the idea of sitting still and letting yourself feel whatever you feel probably seems like the tenth circle of Hell. But meditation really does help. It gives you almost immediate relief, and it helps in the long run. It calms your brain. You know that depression can be a self-perpetuating cycle: one of the many ways this plays out is that the frantic, hyper-active, constant attempts to distract yourself are themselves exhausting and depressing. And you know that, for you, depression happens when multiple major stressors happen — and your brain decides to just shut down all its emotions rather than deal. Taking some time to just be still and quiet, to feel shitty and notice that all feelings pass, can give you a few moments of peace.
But don’t force it. If meditating for twenty minutes seems impossible or terrifying, do it for five minutes. When you’re done with that, do it for another five if you can.
On a related topic:
7. Do whatever self-care you can manage, the moment you feel like you can manage it. I don’t have to tell you this — you’re feeling this intensely, right now — but one of the worst parts of depression is that it saps your motivation to do the exact things you need to do to feel better. So if a window opens up — take it. If you have a moment where you feel like turning off the TV, getting dressed, getting some exercise, taking a walk outside, writing a blog post, cooking a meal — do it.
Related to that:
8. Let yourself break self-care into small pieces, and don’t give yourself shit about not doing more. If you have motivation to do a small thing, don’t give yourself shit because it isn’t a bigger thing, or a more important thing. If you get the motivation to get dressed and then can’t leave the house, congratulate yourself on having gotten dressed. If you make it all the way to the gym and then can’t face working out, congratulate yourself on having left the house. If you can write a hundred-word blog post about food or cats, that is good, much better than not writing at all.
9. Draw. If your brain is really torturing you, if you need to be constantly engaged because the horrible thoughts start to close in every time you stop — draw. It engages your brain in a way that will make you feel better, almost always. It makes you feel much better than your standard distractions of TV or Facebook.
Speaking of which:
10. Try to limit your time with devices. TV, phone, laptop, all seem like they offer relief. But if you’re depressed, too much of them actually make you feel worse. When you’re healthy, a day in front of the TV is a luxury and a pleasure: when you’re depressed, it offers the promise of luxury and pleasure, but it’s a false promise. It will suck you deeper into the hole.
But related to that:
11. Don’t give yourself shit about not doing this perfectly. There’ll be times when you’ll be able to do healthy self-care. And there’ll be times when you’ll do whatever it takes to get through the next minute. If you really need to make your brain shut up right now, and the way to do that is with food or TV, cut yourself slack. See #6 above: when you have a window in which you feel motivated to do something else, do it. But don’t give yourself shit about the need to soothe and distract yourself when you’re sick.
12. Cook. Cooking is like drawing, except you get the feeling of accomplishing an important chore at the end. It gets you out of your head; it gets your brain focused on something creative, something that isn’t your depression. And you get food at the end of it! Cooking is like the best of drawing, combined with the best of picking up the house. It’s creative and fun, and it makes you feel like you’re doing something useful and productive, short-circuiting that part of your depression that says you can’t do anything worth doing. So cook a big pot of something you know how to cook. Do it with Ingrid if you can; do it alone if you can’t.
13. Sleep is really important. Getting enough sleep — but not too much — makes a huge difference. Prioritize this. Get to bed at a reasonable hour, and put down the damn phone and close your eyes when you’re in bed. Take sleeping meds if you have to: no, I know you don’t like them, they make you wake up groggy the next day, but so does not getting enough sleep. It’s important to get a balance, not too much but not too little — but when in doubt, err on the side of too much (your anti-depressants are speedy, so too much sleep is not usually a problem for you).
14. Get into therapy. If I were writing this to anyone else, I’d put this higher on the list. Fortunately, you don’t resist therapy. You value it and even enjoy it. But if for some reason you’re not in therapy right now, get into it. It makes a difference.
15. Write. For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, write. Write about anything. Write about your depression. Write about politics. Write about one more reason you don’t believe in God. Write about your cats. Write a description of whatever is in front of your face right now: the room, the walls, the art. Writing — and the flow and groove of writing when you really get going with it — is one of the most powerful anti-depressants you have. So write, about literally anything.
16. If you’re starting to feel super-irritable, or even super-sad — that’s a good sign. Seriously. For you (and you’re not alone in this), one of the main symptoms of depression is numbness. When you start to feel better, you pretty much always go through a phase where you’re not so numb anymore — which means you actually feel just how depressed you are, and just how much it sucks. And because the numbness is wearing off but you haven’t yet rebuilt your emotional reserves, really small things can set you off. So if you’re SUPER IRRITATED over small things, if you’re HYPER CONSCIOUS of how much EVERYTHING SUCKS because your editor asked for changes and you ran out of bread, and this planet is ANNOYING and everything is ANNOYING — that’s a good sign. Hang in there. It’s getting better. It’ll be better soon.
And if you’re having a long, dark night of the soul-less, where you’re intensely feeling just how bleak and awful everything is — hang on. It’s hard to see it now, but that’s also a good sign. It means the numbness is wearing off. So again — hang in there. Some things are awful, but not everything is. Depression isn’t lying when it says things are terrible, but it’s lying when it says things are only terrible. It’s getting better. It’ll be better soon.
That’s it for now. If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
Comment policy: In addition to my usual comment policy, if you yourself have depression or other mental illness, I welcome suggestions and perspectives on managing it — 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.