Depression and Novelty

The word new

Content note: depression, obviously. If you discuss this in your own space, please be careful not to give unsolicited advice about mental illness to mentally ill people. (I’m no longer hosting comments on my blog, mostly because monitoring them had become a stressful time-suck.)

My depression is back with a vengeance. It was bad even before the election, and it’s worse now. So I’ve been more vigilant than usual about what helps and what doesn’t. And I’ve noticed something that helps, something I’d never noticed before:


New places. New TV shows. New music. New clothes. New food. New games. New cafes to work in. New varieties of all these things: new combinations of my existing wardrobe, new flavors in old recipes. As long as it’s reasonably pleasant (or at least not actively unpleasant), novelty of almost any kind knocks me out of my self-perpetuating spirals, fairly reliably, at least for a while.

I don’t know why this is. I’m writing this, to a great extent, to help figure that out. Part of it, I think, is that learning and adapting are pleasures for me (as long as my learning curve on the thing isn’t too steep). Part of it is that my depression is highly self-perpetuating: my brain gets set into self-destructive grooves, and novelty knocks me out of those. Part of it is that novelty wakes me up and grabs my consciousness. I’m working to really savor my pleasurable and satisfying experiences, so I can remember them more fully the next time I’m deep in the grip of hopeless and despair. With more familiar pleasures, it’s easier to tune them out: new experiences shake me, and make me pay closer attention.

And my depression often takes the form of thinking that things have always been terrible and always will be, that I’ve always felt terrible and always will. It does this revisionist ret-con time distortion, where it goes back and overwrites my memories to make me think I’ve always felt this way. Novelty interrupts that, and is a reality check against it. Depressed jerkbrain: “The world is awful. Humanity is awful, in ways that are not fixable. My depression is self-perpetuating, which means I’ve always had it and always will. There is no hope, and I will never experience pleasure again — ooo, rosemary chocolate pie!”

The break is only temporary. This isn’t long-term self-care, like exercise or meditation or leaving the house every day. But temporary alleviations are important right now. When I’m in the grip of despair, the memory of these moments is something to hang onto, reminding me that despair isn’t actually permanent. Even if I don’t immediately feel that, even if pleasure and meaning seem a thousand miles away, I can abstractly believe it — and sometimes, that’s enough. It’s not enough to make me feel better right that moment, but it’s enough to motivate me to be patient, to keep doing self-care, to just keep putting one foot in front of the other with the trust that it will take me to someplace better. So I take it back. This is long-term self-care.

There are exceptions. I’m still resistant to new tech stuff, new apps and programs and whatnot: I’m good with tech things once I get the hang of them, but my learning curve with tech is often steep and frustrating. What’s more, when I’m getting too much novelty and unfamiliarity, that’s exhausting, overwhelming, and ultimately numbing — none of which is good for depression. (Travel is like this, which is one of the reasons I limit it.) Old familiar things do help as well, in a different way. Familiar experiences are soothing. They make me feel safe. They give me a sense of continuity, which can help when I’m feeling like the world is breaking apart under my feet.

But when everything I’m doing is familiar, that’s a recipe for making my depression spiral. That’s a recipe for keeping my brain in the same old shitty groove. So I need to keep a balance between familiarity and novelty, between comfort and excitement. And knowing that this balance makes a difference — well, it makes a difference. It’s one more tool in my toolbox. And it’s a new one!

Depression and Novelty