Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. If these ideas resonate with you, and you’re thinking of trying this practice, talk with your mental health care provider. Also, while evidence does suggest that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, it is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

I was on Facebook a little while ago, and the subject of depression and mindfulness/ meditation came up. And someone (of course I now can’t remember who it was, or what their exact words were) said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

I can see that reaction. There is something counter-intuitive about this. Sure, there’s a reasonable amount of research suggesting that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of treatment for depression — but I can see how some people might go, “But how on earth would that even work?” So I want to write a little about how, exactly, using meditation to help manage my depression works for me. There’s almost certainly neurological and neuro-psychological stuff going on that I don’t know about or understand — but this is what my subjective experience of it is like.

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1) Practice in shifting focus. I’ve written before that meditation is a practice — not in a vague woo-ish sense, but in the most literal sense of the word. It’s like practicing a tennis stroke, or practicing the piano. I set aside time to practice certain skills, so I can get better at those skills and use them when I want them or need them.

And among those skills is the ability to shift my focus. Much of what I do when I meditate — in fact, the core of what I do — is to focus my awareness on something (my breath, a part of my body, an activity); notice when my awareness has drifted away; observe this without judgment; and gently return my awareness to its intended focus. So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else. I am, literally, more practiced at moving my focus to where I want it. I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m better than I was. And that helps with my depression enormously.

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2) Acknowledging my experience without judgment. One of the central features of MBSR meditation isn’t just focusing awareness on one object or experience — it’s noticing when that awareness has drifted, observing this drift without judgment, and gently returning the focus. And when it comes to helping with my depression, the “observe without judgment” part is, I think, almost as important as the “focus” part.

For me, a big part of what makes depression worse is judging myself for it. That can turn into a nasty feedback loop: I get down on myself for being unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then that self-judgment makes me feel worse about myself, and adds to my depression… and then I get more unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then I get down on myself for it… around and around and around. Depression can be very self-perpetuating, and a lot of what I’m looking for in depression treatments are ways to cut into these vicious circles.

And the “observe without judgment” part of meditation is one of those ways. When I notice that my awareness has drifted from my intended focus into feelings of torpor or pessimism or despair — and instead of hammering myself for that, I observe these feelings, acknowledge them without judgment, and return my focus to my breath or whatever — it’s extremely liberating. It doesn’t make the feelings of depression go away — but it makes them less all-encompassing. It makes the depression feel more like something I have, rather than something that has me, or that is me.

This even helps with the meta aspects of depression. If I notice that I’m getting down on myself for being depressed or for having a hard time keeping my focus where I want it… that’s also something I can observe, and acknowledge without judgment, before returning to my focus as best I can.

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3) Letting my feelings be, instead of frantically trying to fix them. MBSR isn’t just about formal, set-aside meditation sessions. It’s also about being more present in everyday life. So in everyday life, if I’m having a moment where I’m feeling anxious or restless or sad for no reason, I’m now better able to just notice that, and acknowledge it, and let it be. I’m less likely to desperately search for the non-existent reasons behind my anxiety, restlessness, or sadness. And I’m less likely to immediately try to fix the feeling or distract myself from it.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, the frantic search for things that make me feel better is often part of what makes me feel worse. (Especially since things that make me feel better in the short run — television, junk food, long stretches on Facebook — often make me feel worse in the long run, and even the medium run.) The frantic search to fix my feelings and perfect my life just makes me feel anxious. It makes me even more aware of all the ways that my life falls short of perfection. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I feel anxious or restless or sad for no reason, and because I can’t find a way to make myself feel better. And it makes it nearly impossible to really savor, and really experience, the parts of my life that are wonderful and satisfying. (Plus, it’s just fucking exhausting.)

Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness, I’m better able to just sit with the anxiety, the restlessness, the sadness. I’m better able to let myself simply… have it. I’m better able to say to myself, “I’m just sad right now. I don’t know why. My brain sometimes gets sad for no real reason. I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames. It helps keep me from adding self-judgment to the mix, or anxious and exhausting and utterly pointless attempts to find the non-existent problem and fix it. And that makes it easier for the anxiety or restlessness or sadness to pass. It doesn’t make the emotions better, exactly, but it helps keep me from making them worse.

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4) I don’t know how or why it works — it just does. Apart from everything I’ve been talking about here, there seems to be something going on, on a deep neurological and neuro-psychological level, when I meditate. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why. I just know that when I meditate, I feel better. I feel both calmer and more energetic. (Very much the opposite of depression, which tends to make me feel both twitchy and torpid.) I feel more focused. I feel more at peace.

Meditation helps with my depression in the long run and the middle run, in the sense that when I meditate every day, I’m less likely to get depressed, and my depressive episodes tend to be shorter and less severe. But it also helps in the short run, in the sense that if I felt depressed when I started meditating, I almost always feel less depressed when I’m done. I don’t entirely know why it helps me. I just know that it does.

Again — your mileage may vary. I really am just talking about my own experiences here. And again, if any of this resonates with you and you think you might like to try it, do talk with your mental health care provider, and remember that this is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Other posts that might interest you:
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be
Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.

Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression
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Trying to Apply an Insight About Depression

So I’m going through a mild depressive stretch right now, for the last couple of weeks, and I had this insight about my depression, and I wanted to share with the rest of the class and see if it resonated with anyone else. I think it’s a useful insight, but I’m having some trouble applying it, and I’d love some feedback from other depressives, or other people who are familiar with depression, on how to translate it into action.

The conundrum, which I think almost everyone with depression will recognize: The very things I need to do to alleviate my depression — exercise, getting outside, socializing, taking care of business and battling entropy, even just getting showered and dressed — are things that the depression makes more difficult to do. Depression, among other things, saps motivation, and makes it difficult to do… well, anything. When I’m having a depressive episode, no activity feels good; everything I do makes me feel restless and twitchy and uncomfortable and like I’d rather be doing something else. When I’m active, I get tired and want to sit down; when I’m sitting down, I feel restless. When I’m with other people, I feel overwhelmed and like I want to be alone; when I’m alone, I feel isolated.

The insight: Since nothing I do feels good anyway, I might as well do the things that have a chance of snapping me out of the depressive episode, and of making me feel better in the long run (and indeed in the medium run).

When I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, being active and inactive, social and solitary, outside and inside, all kind of suck. So I might as well be active, be social, go outside. It’s not like being inactive and solitary and indoors are actually going to alleviate that twitchy, uncomfortable, restless-but-exhausted, “something isn’t right” feeling. They’re not. When I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, I carry that feeling with me wherever I go. And being active, being social, going outside, are all things that might actually drive the feeling away, or dial it down.

A very perceptive insight. But it’s still not getting me off the sofa. Thoughts on how to translate the insight into action?

Trying to Apply an Insight About Depression

Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety

(This is part of a series on mindfulness based stress reduction: a secular, evidence-based meditation practice that I’ve recently started.)

Note to self: This works.

It has been a bad, bad couple of days. I don’t want to get into a lot of details… but it hasn’t been good. My depression, which has largely been lifting over the last couple/few weeks, relapsed with a resounding crash. I’ve been feeling alarmed, unsafe, exposed, powerless, despairing, unmotivated, hopeless.

I’m on a plane as I write this. With several hours to sit in one place and do nothing, I decided to meditate.

It was difficult: my mind has been racing even faster and wilder than usual, and it has been perseverating on all the dark things, all the failures of my past, all the worst possible outcomes of my future. It was more than a little difficult to just sit and be: be with myself, be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. I bloody well didn’t want to be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. My thoughts and feelings and sensations were freaking me the fuck out. I wanted to shut them up, shut them out, drown them out. But I knew — both from my own experience and from the research that’s been done on this mindfulness-based stress reduction thing — that this might work: that this might quiet me down, restore some sense of peace. Or at least, restore some sense of self.

So I did it. I sat still in my seat on the plane, and closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing… and my breathing… and my breathing… and on the sole of my left foot where it was pressing against the floor of the plane… and on my left big toe… and on my left pinky toe… and on the toes in between…

And when I finished, I felt better.

Like, really better.

I’m still upset. But I feel… I don’t quite know how to put this into words. I feel like myself, feeling upset. I don’t feel like the upset itself. I don’t feel swallowed by the upset, or carried away by it. I’m still upset… but I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is manageable. And I feel like it’s worth it. I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is one sour note in a good piece of music… not like it’s swallowing me whole.

At the beginning of the session, my mind was stubbornly racing to all the dark things. It took me I don’t know how long — I wasn’t looking at a clock — to really feel the sole of my left foot, even for a second, and really experience the sensations in it. My mind would not shut the fuck up: I had to keep noticing the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… like every three fucking seconds. I wasn’t looking at a clock, but I suspect it took me a good half hour just to get through my left leg.

But by the time I got to my right leg, I was starting to feel better. My mind was still racing, still frantically jumping from branch to branch… but at least some of the branches it was landing on before I pulled my focus back on were happy ones, plans I was excited about, ideas I’ve been having fun with. By the time I got to my pelvic girdle, I was remembering that I actually enjoy meditation and take pleasure in it: that it is a deep and genuine pleasure to set aside time and experience my body, to notice that I am my body and to return to that awareness. (I always like it when I get to my pelvic girdle.) There was a weird scary moment when I got to my mouth and nose: the feeling of awareness of each part of my body felt like sinking into a warm bath, and when it got to my mouth and nose, I had a sudden panicky feeling like I was about to drown. But I noticed it, and paused, and just stayed with my neck for a little while, and finally I reframed the “sinking into water” thing as “sinking into a pool of super-oxygenated air,” and moved on. By the time I got to the top of my head, the process of noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, had become second-nature. And by the time I was finishing, by the time I was experiencing my entire body as a whole entity and was returning to noticing my surroundings and my sense of myself in the world, I felt… not just calmer, not just happier, not just more hopeful. I felt like myself. I felt capable of experiencing pleasure, capable of managing the problems in my life, capable of doing the work that I love so much… because I felt like I had a self. I felt like there was a there there.

It was like a circuit-breaker.

This is not a panacea for depression. Far from it. I don’t think this would be working without meds, and therapy, and exercise, and sitting on the sofa with Ingrid petting cats, and all the other things I do to heal my depression.

But it sure as heck is helping.

So I’m writing this: partly to let other people know that they might want to check this out, but mostly as a reminder to myself:

This works.

So keep doing it.

I wrote something a few days ago about the meditation practice, about how after a week of doing it I was already seeing noticeable results…and about how then, inexplicably, I stopped doing it. As if it were a theorem in math, and once I’d figured it out, I didn’t need to do it again, and could move on to the next theorem. But it’s not a theory. It’s a practice. And there’s a difference between theory and practice. I can’t say to myself, “Aha! You now know that meditation helps with your depression and anxiety and makes you better able to focus — problem solved!” Any more than I can say to myself, “Aha! You know that working out builds your muscles and gives you strength and stamina — problem solved!” I have to actually freaking do it. Several times a week. Every day, if I can.

But when I do it, my life gets better.

So yeah. Note to self. This works. Keep doing it.

Other piece in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice

Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety

Priorities, When Depressed and When Not: Grief/ Cancer/ Depression Diary, 2/21/13

So there’s this thing that’s making it harder to manage my grief over my dad, and my recovery from cancer surgery, and menopause landing on me all at once like a sixteen-ton-weight, and what can only be described as mild PTSD from having all of these things happening within less than a month of each other, and the depressive episode I’ve been having as a result.

When I’m in a depressive stretch of my life, I have to make managing my depression pretty close to my top priority. And among other things, this means that if I have any impulse at all to do something that alleviates the depression, I do it if I possibly can. If I have any impulse at all to go to the gym, to get outside, to socialize, to write, to masturbate, to get a manicure, to read for pleasure… I do it if I can.

This is actually one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about depression management. If I’m having a hard time getting motivated to leave the house and take a walk, and a window opens up where this amotivation lifts… in that moment, my friend told me, I should get the hell up and get out of the house. The self-perpetuating, vicious-circle nature of depression is one of the shittiest things about it: there are all these things you could to do to make the depression better, but the depression is sapping your ability to do them. (And the depression then makes you feel guilty and worthless and lazy for not having the minimal will power it takes to get off the sofa, put some clothes on, and take a walk.. which then makes you feel worse, which then makes it harder to get up.) So if your brain is giving you a reprieve and offering you a window in which you actually do feel motivated to do things that alleviate your depression, you take that window, and you fling yourself through it.

All of which means that my priorities aren’t what they normally would be when I’m not depressed.

For instance: I’m prioritizing going to the gym a lot more than I normally do. I’m prioritizing getting outside more, which means activities that give me an excuse to get outside are getting prioritized as well. (Take a forty-minute walk to go to the bakery and get a loaf of bread? Sure!) I’m prioritizing things that reliably give me pleasure a lot more than I normally do. And if I have the impulse to write anything at all, I write it… whether it’s on a topic that my normal, non-depressed self would consider a priority or not. (Translation: Yes, I’m writing about fashion even more than I normally do. Writing about fashion is fun, and it gets me writing.)

But I feel like this sometimes creates a problem with the people in my life. I worry that people in my life are thinking, “You have time to go to the gym, but you don’t have time to make a lunch date? You have time to get a manicure, but you don’t have time to give me feedback on my book/ video/ blog post? You have time to blog about fashion, but you don’t have time to blog about this important issue I’m letting you know about?”

I feel like I want to scream to the world, “No. I don’t think getting a manicure or blogging about fashion or going to the gym is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I think that managing my depression is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I think that keeping myself away from the rim of the event horizon, keeping the black cloud from descending over my head, is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I’m genuinely sorry that I can’t do as much as I normally can… but managing my depression is what’s going to get me back into a condition where I do have all that energy I used to have. Please bear with me.”

But complicating this is… well, a few things.

Complicating this is the fact that I don’t have a clear sense of whether anyone in my life is really thinking any of this, or whether this is just the usual critical voices in my head, telling me that whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it wrong. Voices which, inevitably, get amped up when I’m going through a depression. Even at the best of times, it’s hard for me to tell when the people in my life are actually disappointed in me, or whether I’m disappointing my own high expectations of myself and then projecting that disappointment onto other people. I suspect that sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other… but I have a hard time telling which is which. And I have a harder time making that distinction when I’m depressed.

Also complicating this is the fact that I think the whole question of personal responsibility and mental illness is incredibly complicated. This is a very large question that I plan to write about in another piece… but the tl;dr is that I don’t think my depression absolves me of all responsibility to other people. It absolves me of some of it, but not all of it. I think I get to cut myself some slack while I’m working on getting better — but I don’t think I get to cut myself infinite slack.

And complicating this is the fact that these are my own priorities we’re talking about here. It’s not just about what other people expect from me. It’s not even just about what I expect from myself. It’s about what I want from myself, and for myself. I don’t actually think that getting a manicure or taking a long walk is more important than blogging about atheism or having lunch with a friend. And while intellectually, and even emotionally, I get that managing my depression has to take pretty much top priority… on a day-to-day level, doing this often feels like I’m making the wrong choices, like I’m dicking around with trivialities, like I’m wasting the one life I have.

Then again: Part of being depressed is that, with a few exceptions, I’m uncomfortable with almost everything I do. When I’m feeling depressed, with a few exceptions, I pretty much always feel restless and twitchy and like I want to move on to the next thing these days. Even when I am doing things that resonate with me deeply and that I think are important. So that feeling that I’m doing the wrong thing and really should be doing something else… right now, it’s not a reliable barometer.

I don’t know. I think I’m going around in circles here. Thoughts?

Priorities, When Depressed and When Not: Grief/ Cancer/ Depression Diary, 2/21/13

Some Scattered Thoughts on Depression (Mine)

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about my depression, What’s Been Going On. Please note: These thoughts are just about my own experience with depression. They are not an attempt to express what depression is like for anyone other than me.

Scattered Thought #1: Writing seems to be one of the things that makes me feel better. I’m also, however, having a hard time finding the motivation to write. Very unusual for me: I’m normally very excited about getting out of bed in the morning and getting started on my workday, and usually my main frustration with writing is having more things I want to write about than I have time to write them. I’m also having a hard time staying focused on the actual writing part of writing, even when I do muster up the motivation to get started.

So my new technique, for the time being, is that if there is any topic that engages me or that I’m excited and motivated to write about, that’s what I write about. And today, I’m feeling motivated to write about the depression itself. Hence, this piece.

Scattered Thought #2: Memo to self: You actually enjoy lifting weights. Right now, anhedonia (the inability or difficulty to experience pleasure) is one of the biggest and worst symptoms of my depression. The things that I generally and reliably get pleasure from are not giving me pleasure, or are not giving me much pleasure. This is affecting me in nineteen different ways: interfering with motivation (what’s the point of doing anything if it won’t feel good?), sleep (I can’t shut up my brain from perseverating on painful thoughts by distracting myself with happy or comforting ones, since my usual happy and comforting thoughts aren’t calming me or making me happy), etc.

But Ingrid and I made it to the gym the other night, for the first time in a few weeks… and I was getting deep, serious, thorough pleasure out of pumping iron. I felt entirely present with my body, and was enjoying my body, in a way that’s been very elusive for me lately.

So memo to self, because writing it down will help me remember: You actually enjoy lifting weights. So don’t just do it because it will help the depression in the long run. Do it because it’s fun. It is one of the few things right now that you actually like doing. So keep doing it.

Scattered Thought #3: I’ve started therapy. I know many of you will be happy and relieved to hear that.

I’m already feeling somewhat better, having started therapy. I don’t think it’s the therapy itself, per se: I’ve only had one session so far, that’s not nearly long enough to make a therapeutic difference yet. But there’s something about knowing that I’m starting to get help, knowing that I’m in the process of getting help, which I’m finding to be a big relief. It’s like when you’re sick with a non-mental illness, and you start taking medicine for it: you sometimes feel better right away, before the medicine has had a chance to kick in. Just knowing that you’re probably going to be feeling better soon can make you feel better. It does for me, anyway. And a lot of what my depression is centering on is feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, and the self-perpetuating de-motivation circle of depression itself… so the simple act of taking steps on my own to make myself feel better is, itself, helping.

At the same time, I’m having some anxiety about having started therapy. Being in therapy means I actually have to delve into some of the ugly, scary, overwhelming feelings that I’ve been barricading myself against. I don’t think this is universally true for everyone, I don’t even know how common it is: but I think for me, when I sink into a depression, it’s often my brain’s way of barricading myself from feelings that I can’t manage. It’s like I turn off all my feelings, so I don’t have to experience the horrible and overwhelming ones. (This may be one of the differences between situational depression and chronic depression. I don’t know. Thoughts?)

Scattered Thought #4: I’ve also started the process of getting on meds. That may take a little longer, insurance being what it is, but I’ve started those wheels turning.

I’m feeling relief at getting that process going. But I’m also finding myself having some resistance and anxiety about starting meds — more so than the abovementioned anxiety about starting therapy. I’ve never been on psych meds before (although in retrospect there’ve probably been times when I should have been) , so some of this is just anxiety about the unfamiliar. Also, I know psych meds can have less-than-fun side effects, and it can take a while to tinker with them to get the right drug and dosage… and I’m feeling apprehensive about that process.

But I’ll be honest: Some of it is that I’m feeling a certain… shame isn’t exactly the right word, but something close to it. I feel like, once I start taking actual psych meds for depression, it’s like I’ll have “Mentally Ill” stamped on me forever. I’m finding that hard to deal with. I know that’s ridiculous. I’ve acknowledged for years that I’m subject to situational depression, that I have to take steps to manage it when it crops up and keep it at bay the rest of the time. I’ve even gotten the official medical diagnosis from doctors more than once. But I’ve never been on meds before. And there’s something about the prospect of being on meds that I’m finding hard to accept. I know that’s dumb. I have approximately 857,768,454 friends who are on anti-depressants or other psych meds, or who have been at some point or points in their life. I don’t think any less of them for being on meds. In fact, I think more of them for taking care of themselves. But there it is. Going on psych meds feels weird. Not sure what to do with that.

Oh, which brings me to:

Scattered Thought #5: I want to say a giant Thank You to people who have been writing publicly about their experiences with mental illness. My good friend JT Eberhard especially. I do have this stupid resistance and sense of stigma and something-like-shame about being on psych meds… but I have much less of that than I would have had, if it hadn’t been for other people being willing to write about it, and speak about it publicly. The more people who are willing to speak and write about mental illness, the more the stigma gets de-stigmatized, and the more mental illness will be seen — by the people suffering from it, and by the people around us — as… well, as an illness, no more shameful than cancer or heart disease. The people who have been doing this have definitely made it easier for me to just fucking well get over myself, and seek out meds and other help despite my irrational resistance to it. Thanks.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Depression (Mine)

Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective

We talk a lot in the atheist/ rationalist/ skeptical community about how life can be made better by leaving religion and embracing rationality. And we talk a lot about wanting to get that message out into the world.

Today, I want to talk about a very specific, personal, pragmatic example of this.

A little over a week ago, I got some bad news. My dad had a second stroke: he’s stable right now, and he’s doing okay, but they don’t yet know whether he’s going to recover his pre- stroke level of health and mobility. (Which, ever since the first stroke a few years ago, was already pretty bad. And which, frankly, wasn’t that great even before the first stroke.)

I have a lot going on about this, obviously, some of which I’ll probably wind up writing about here over the coming days/ weeks/ months. But here’s what I want to talk about today:

I want to talk about depression, and the difficulty of perspective. And I want to talk about how rationality has helped me deal with it.

I’ve dealt with mild to moderate depression off and on for much of my adult life. It’s mostly situational: it rarely comes on for no external reason, but once it’s triggered, it can be hard to shake, even when the external trigger has passed. I’ve had it pretty well managed for a while now, but it’s something I always have to pay attention to, and many of the routines of my life — getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, making sure I get out of the house and outside on a regular basis, etc. — are deliberately designed to keep it at bay.

The news about my dad’s stroke triggered a pretty bad episode of it. I had a day when I couldn’t make myself leave the house, and could barely make myself get off the sofa, and was stress-eating in a way that I haven’t done in years. I had another couple of days where I was more functional — i.e., able to leave the house and go to work — but I felt like a zombie. I felt like I was sleepwalking. I felt like my head was wrapped in a wet sock. Sleep didn’t make me feel rested… but I didn’t want to do anything but sleep.

I’m doing better now. I’m often sad, and tired. I often feel restless, and have long stretches where, no matter what I’m doing, I want to be doing something else. I’m more easily irritated by small irritations than usual. My attention span isn’t great, and it’s sometimes hard to work and write. But I’m feeling alive, and awake, and present in the world, and able to experience pleasure a fair amount of the time. I have days of waking up and not feeling rested and feeling like I just want to go back to bed… but if I get enough sleep and not too much, I also have days of waking up refreshed and happy, and feeling like I want to get out of bed and start getting stuff done.

So here’s the weird thing, the thing I want to write about.

When I look at the two or three days when the depression was gripping me really badly… they look bizarre. I can understand the “feeling bad” part, of course — I still feel bad now — but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and paralysis seems distant and weird. When I’m not in the grip of it, it’s hard to understand how I could ever feel that way. It doesn’t make sense.

And during the two or three days when the depression was seriously gripping me, non-depression also looked bizarre. There’s a vicious circle with depression: intellectually, there are things you know you can do to feel better, but finding the energy or motivation to do them feels impossible… and if you don’t do those things, the depression doesn’t pass… and if the depression doesn’t pass, you don’t have the energy or motivation to do the things that make it better… I felt like I was trapped in a tar pit. And even though I knew, intellectually, that I hadn’t always felt this way, that I wouldn’t feel this way forever, that there was a big world outside the wet sock wrapped around my head… I couldn’t see it. It didn’t make sense.

In both the state of depression and the state of non-depression, it’s hard to have perspective on the other.

And that’s where rationality comes in. Continue reading “Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective”

Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective