Depression in a Fascist Regime

depressed woman in window seat

(Content note: serious depression, spoilers for the last episode of “Angel”.)

I don’t know how to do this.

A lot of my strategies don’t work anymore. This round of depression isn’t just worse than my previous episodes: it’s different. My symptoms, the things that help, the things that make it worse — they’re different. I’ve spent the last four years learning how to manage depression, and now, at least to some extent, I need to start all over again.

It’s different because the world is genuinely terrible. That’s not the depression talking: that’s a reasonable, evidence-based assessment of reality. You know the joke, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you?” Well, just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean the world’s not terrible. And just because you’re anxious doesn’t mean the world’s not terrifying. I keep thinking about Reviving the Tribe, Eric Rofes’s book about gay men’s lives in the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, and I keep thinking about the question he kept asking: How do you treat PTSD when the trauma is still ongoing? Continue reading “Depression in a Fascist Regime”

Depression in a Fascist Regime
{advertisement}

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:

Novelty.

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

The Other Way Around: Letter To My Non-Depressed Self From My Depressed Self

depressed woman sitting in window seat looking out window

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. Continue reading “The Other Way Around: Letter To My Non-Depressed Self From My Depressed Self”

The Other Way Around: Letter To My Non-Depressed Self From My Depressed Self

Letter to My Depressed Self From My Non-Depressed Self

depressed woman sitting in window seat

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. Continue reading “Letter to My Depressed Self From My Non-Depressed Self”

Letter to My Depressed Self From My Non-Depressed Self

“I don’t think depression is divine punishment”: Meme from The Way of the Heathen

"I don't think depression is divine punishment or an obscure lesson, and I'm not racking my brains trying to figure out why I deserve it."

“I don’t think depression is divine punishment or an obscure lesson, and I’m not racking my brains trying to figure out why I deserve it.”
-Greta Christina, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life
(from Chapter 22, “How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t”)

(Image description: above text, juxtaposed above image of bare trees on an island and on a shoreline on an overcast day.)

I’m making a series of memes/ inspirational poster thingies with my favorite quotes from my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. Please feel free to share this on social media, or print it and hang it on your wall if you like. (The image above is pretty big: you can click on it to get a bigger size if you like.)

Way of the Heathen cover
The Way of the Heathen is available in ebook on Amazon/Kindle and on Smashwords for $7.99. The audiobook is at Audible. The print edition is at Amazon and Powell’s Books, and can be ordered or carried by pretty much any bookstore: it’s being wholesaled by Ingram, Baker & Taylor, IPG, and bookstores can buy it directly from the publisher, Pitchstone Publishing. Check it out, and tell your friends!

“I don’t think depression is divine punishment”: Meme from The Way of the Heathen

“Depression is not a philosophical failing”: Meme from The Way of the Heathen

"Depression is not a philosophical failing. It's an illness."

“Depression is not a philosophical failing. It’s an illness.”
-Greta Christina, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life
(from Chapter 22, “How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t”)

(Image description: above text, superimposed on image of a cloudy sky above hills and a lake)

I’m making a series of memes/ inspirational poster thingies with my favorite quotes from my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. Please feel free to share this on social media, or print it and hang it on your wall if you like. (The image above is pretty big: you can click on it to get a bigger size if you like.)

Way of the Heathen cover
The Way of the Heathen is available in ebook on Amazon/Kindle and on Smashwords for $7.99. The audiobook is at Audible. The print edition is at Amazon and Powell’s Books, and can be ordered or carried by pretty much any bookstore: it’s being wholesaled by Ingram, Baker & Taylor, IPG, and bookstores can buy it directly from the publisher, Pitchstone Publishing. Check it out, and tell your friends!

“Depression is not a philosophical failing”: Meme from The Way of the Heathen

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.

Meta-Depression

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy — Greta’s Addendum

two armchairs

Content note: depression

Miri has a great piece at Brute Reason about how to get the most out of therapy. If you’re thinking of getting into therapy, or if you’ve been in therapy and not gotten as much out of it as you wanted, I strongly suggest that you check it out.

I have my own personal addendum to Miri’s list. #5 on Miri’s list says, “Set goals for therapy.” Based on my experience, and with all the caveats Miri included about how not all these suggestions are necessary or appropriate for everyone, I would add an addendum to that.

#5a: Set goals for therapy — but be prepared for them to change.

When I look back on my times in therapy, and think about the ones that were really successful, some very vivid themes pop out. In my first successful stretch of therapy, the main thing I got out of it was learning how to identify my emotions. Literally. I’d talk about something that was happening or that I was thinking about, my therapist would ask me, “How do you feel about that?” — and I’d say, “I don’t know.” He’d then talk me through it: “How do you feel in your body? How does your stomach feel, how does your jaw feel, how do your hands feel?” In talking through my physical sensations, I learned to identify my emotions, which sensations meant I was angry, scared, excited, confused. It’s weird looking back on it, I’m now pretty in touch with my emotions, but that was a skill I had to learn.

In my second successful stretch, the main thing I got was learning how to let myself experience feelings and sit with thoughts I was frightened of. I had a lot of fear about certain emotions or thoughts that I thought would overwhelm me, and I kept pushing them to the back burner for fear that they’d consume me and control my life. A huge amount of what we did in therapy was creating a safe place for me to experience these emotions. When I had a trained witness sitting with me, someone who stayed calm and didn’t try to fix my feelings but who also know how to intervene if it was necessary, I was able to let myself have these thoughts and feelings — and I learned to trust that even when they were temporarily overwhelming, they always eventually passed.

In my third successful stretch, the one I’m winding up with now, the main thing I’ve gotten is understanding and accepting that depression is a lifelong condition for me, and learning how to manage it. Until recently, I’d always thought of my depression as situational, something that cropped up now and then when times were rough, but not something I needed to worry about or even think about the rest of the time. In this stretch of therapy, I’ve accepted that depression has come and gone my whole life and will probably always do so, and I’ve learned what to do about it — what kinds of life events tend to trigger it, how to recognize the warning signs, what specific actions to take when an episode is coming on, what to do when I’m deep in the middle of an episode or am starting to pull out of it.

The common theme among all of these? Going into therapy, I had no idea about any of them. If you’d asked me what my goals for therapy were… well, the first two times, I would have said “I’m unhappy and am not handling it well.” I was unhappy about relationships or work, I didn’t know what to do or even how to decide, and my unhappiness was taking over my life. The third time, I went into therapy because my dad was dying, and I knew I should be in therapy when he died. As therapy proceeded, my goals changed.

I agree with Miri that it’s a good idea, if possible, to have goals going into therapy. And a case could be made that what I wound up getting out of therapy did meet my original goals. Learning how to identify my emotions, how to let myself feel my emotions, and how to manage depression, were the tools I needed for my original goals of not having my life be completely screwed-up by my unhappiness, and figuring out what decisions I needed to make. I’m just saying: For me, therapy is often surprising. When it goes well, so far it’s always been surprising. It takes me places I couldn’t have predicted, and helps me solve problems I couldn’t have named and didn’t even know I had.

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy — Greta’s Addendum

A Practical Guide to a Post-Apocalyptic Life: More on Recovering From Depression

depression photo

The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Content note: depression, obviously.

How — specifically, in a practical sense — do I live with the understanding that I have chronic recurrent mental illness?

I have chronic episodic depression, and probably will for the rest of my life. I’m getting better now, I’ve been better for a few months; but I accept that this is a chronic illness and I could get depressed again at any time. A few days ago, I wrote a piece about What All This Means: it was useful for me to write (a lot of my writing about depression is as much for myself as for anyone else), but it was a little philosophical, a little abstract and meta. So I’m writing this practical guide to how I plan to live as a currently healthy person who has a chronic recurring mental illness.

None of this is intended to tell anyone else with depression what’s right for them. This is entirely an account of what I think is right for me, written largely so that I can refer back to it later if I need to. If you find any of this useful, please take what you need and leave the rest. Continue reading “A Practical Guide to a Post-Apocalyptic Life: More on Recovering From Depression”

A Practical Guide to a Post-Apocalyptic Life: More on Recovering From Depression

A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression

depression photo

The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Content note: depression, obviously.

How do I live as a more-or-less healthy person, when I know I can get depression at any time?

My depression is chronic and episodic. When I total up the years of my life, most of them have been not-depressed, but I’ve had several extended bad episodes over the decades of my life. This last one, starting in fall 2012 when my father died and I was diagnosed with cancer, has been the worst and the longest by a long shot. I refer to it as Armageddon.

I’m starting to feel better. I haven’t had a significant depressive episode for a few months: I’ve had some depression-ish dips in my mood, motivation, and ability to focus, some stretches when my brain felt like it was wrapped in cotton. But for a few months now, those have been fairly short and easily handled. I think I’m getting better. And I’m starting to look at what that means, and how I’m going to live now.

See, I didn’t know I had chronic episodic depression until this most recent round of it. Before this, I’d seen myself as a mentally healthy person who’d had occasional episodes of situational depression. It took a fair amount of work, with both my therapist and my psychiatrist, for me to accept that my depression, while intermittent, is a lifelong thing. Yes, my episodes are situational in that they’re usually set off by external events — but once they get going, they’re self-perpetuating in exactly the way depression generally plays out. And not everyone responds to major traumatic life events with depression, several times throughout their life. The fact that I do means I have a chronic mental illness.

So now I know. And now I have to act on that knowledge. Continue reading “A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression”

A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression