This post has a different comment policy than usual. It’s at the end of the post.
The other day, I posted a letter to my depressed self from my non-depressed self. The way I framed it was: When I’m depressed, I literally can’t imagine what it feels like to not be depressed — and vice versa. It’s like there are two versions of me, in parallel universes or something. So I wrote a letter to my depressed self from my non-depressed self, with some guidance on self-care, some perspectives on how to tolerate it and get through it, and some encouragement to hang in there.
But it works the other way, too. My depressed self has some things to say to my non-depressed self — mostly about things I can do when I’m healthy that will make the next round of depression less bad. Hence, this letter.
I’ll post the same note to readers I did in the other letter: 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 Non-Depressed Greta,
Hi. Depressed Greta here, writing from the alternate reality. I’m so glad you’re doing better now. We both know, though, that you’re almost certainly going to get depressed again. And it could happen any time: we know what some of the triggers are, but a lot of them are unpredictable. There are some things you can do now that would make things go better for me, or at least less badly, the next time it happens.
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 were pulling out of your brief relapse. Right now I’m on the cusp between depression and health, with good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours — so I’m in a unique position to see both selves, and to know what each of us needs to hear.
1. Keep doing self-care. When I’m depressed, there are self-care things I’m going to try to do every day. It will be much, MUCH easier for me to step that up if you’re already in those habits. If I’m trying to exercise every day, socialize every day, meditate every day, leave the house every day, it will be much easier if you’re already doing these things at least a couple/few times a week. So please don’t let this stuff slide. They’re good for you even when you’re not depressed. And you like doing them. (See “Have some fun” below.)
2. Sharpen your saw: do some organizing, and take care of meta-business. There’s an analogy, it’s from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of all places. A forester is cutting up a big log with a saw that’s obviously dull, and it’s taking him a long time. Some friends ask why he doesn’t sharpen his saw — and he says, “I don’t have time! I have to cut up this log!” The idea is that effective people sharpen their saw, and take time to do the things that will make them work more efficiently.
The book frames this in terms of self-care, but we already talked about that in the other letter. Here’s how you’ve been interpreting this: Take care of meta-business. Clean and organize your closet. Organize your email. Clean out the fridge and the pantry. Label your photos and cull the ones that are almost identical. Do the jobs that don’t immediately produce anything, but that make it easier to do other jobs.
Here’s why. Even at the best of times, having this meta-stuff be a mess can be annoying, time-consuming, and discouraging. But when I’m depressed, it can be overwhelming. When I’m depressed, it’s hard enough to do simple everyday tasks. When there are roadblocks that make these tasks harder — things like a messy closet or glacially slow email — it can make me just give up. They become what our therapist called a tragic geranium: if a magic geranium is the project that inspires you to do other projects, the tragic geranium is the obstacle that has to be done before anything else can move forward. When I’m depressed, even the smallest tragic geranium can seem insurmountable. So take care of them, when you have the health to do it.
Remember how, when you pulled out of the three-and-a-half year Armageddon of depression, you finally got your automated backup system working, and you switched your email from that millstone around your neck? Remember how, when I had a brief relapse, having those things handled made that round of depression SO MUCH easier to deal with? I could have a minimally productive day of answering emails without wanting to throw the computer across the room, and I didn’t have the anxiety about my data being backed up adding to all the other anxieties roiling around in my head. Please do us both a favor, and take care of at least some of this.
3. Pay attention to warning signs and triggering events on the horizon, without becoming hyper-vigilant. By now, you know what depression looks like in the early stages: fogginess, difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, loss of libido, a tendency to eat lots of junk and watch tons of TV. (It looks like that in the later stages, too, with an added dose of numbness, pessimism, passivity, helplessness, despair, and a tendency to fixate on worst-case scenarios.)
So keep an eye out. Don’t get hyper-vigilant — you don’t need to check in on your mood every five minutes — but check in every now and then. If you’re meditating semi-regularly, set aside an occasional session to meditate on your mood and emotions, and let yourself observe and experience them.
And you now know the kinds of events that are likely to set off a relapse. Some of them will come out of left field, but some you may be able to see coming. You were smart to get into therapy when Dad’s health finally started failing: you knew he was probably going to die soon, you knew it was going to be hard when he did, and you knew you should already be in therapy when it happened. That helped a lot. So if you see a trigger on the horizon — friends or family getting seriously ill, a large project ending, a Republican getting elected President — dial up your care. It won’t do any great harm if you’re wrong, and it will do a great deal of good if you’re right.
4. Ask Ingrid and your close friends to be vigilant for you — and listen to them. When you start to fall into a depression, you have a tendency at first to deny it. You insist that you’re just tired, sad, sick — and you don’t start your self-care regimen. So ask Ingrid and your friends to help keep an eye on you. Let them know what symptoms to watch for. Ask them to let you know if they see them. And when they tell you, listen. Depression lies — and in the early stages, one of the lies is tells you is, “This isn’t depression.” If you’re depressed, the people around you may be able to see it better than you can. And again — it’s not like dialing up your self-care is going to hurt you.
5. Do NOT let yourself get a book-shaped hole in your heart. When you finish a book, you tend to feel aimless, unfocused, and sad — unless you have another book started. So when you’re done writing a book, you should already be working on the next one. At the very least, you should have a plan for what it’s going to be. You don’t have to be working hammer-and-tongs at it — in, fact, you probably shouldn’t be, you do deserve to take a break between projects — but have it lined up.
6. Have some fun already. When you’re healthy, you have a tendency to focus on work to the exclusion of almost everything else. That’s a problem for a lot of reasons — but it’s a big problem for me, your depressed self. When I’m trying to remember what I enjoy about my life, so I can get inspired to do self-care and pull myself out of the pit, it’s harder to do when all you’ve been doing for the last few months is work. You tell everyone else that self-care is not selfish, and that having a life will help them do better work. Apply it to yourself.
Yes, you love your work, and it’s a huge part of what drives you and inspires you. You love other things, too. You love drawing, walking, reading, cooking, eating, sex, movies, music, quiet conversations with your friends, long baths, art exhibits, parties in small controlled doses. Do some of those. Give me good reasons to want to come back. Give me something to come back to. Thanks.
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.