up from the bottom of the well

well pulley photo by andrew dunn
well pulley photo by andrew dunn

photograph by Andrew Dunn

Usually, I’m pretty upbeat here.  I like to dwell in the sweet, the erotic, the pleasures, the finer things in life.  I like to focus on the good stuff and help it get bigger.

But there’s a danger in focusing only on the good stuff.  It makes it hard to figure out how to get there.  If you don’t talk about the hard…well, it’s almost impossible to build a bridge without two pieces of land to connect.  Focusing on where you’re going can be inspiring, motivating, exciting…but it’s not enough.

So today is about depression.  Here in Maine we’ve stepped into Real Winter, with snow that sticks, cold days, colder nights; sunrise is after seven, sunset is before five.  There are things I love about it: the crisp air, the unspeakably bright sun (when it’s up), the crystalline sky.  But come a cloudy day and it feels like the world has had the air sucked right out of it.  There are all kinds of reasons why people get depression: body chemistry, circumstances, lack of sunlight…but it all boils down to one thing.  You feel like you’re sitting at the bottom of a very deep well, and you don’t even have the strength to stand.

Breathing is hard.  Not crying is hard.  Moving is hard.  Caring about anything, having hope for anything, is damn near impossible.

And pleasure?  Food?  Sex?  Forget about it.

Maybe you’re one of those people who eats to feel better.  Or maybe you’ve discovered that you can drown your sorrows in the internet, or in chemicals of one kind or another.  Or maybe you don’t know any of that about yourself yet, or maybe you’re too tired to try.

I lived with depression for my first 24 years.  In 2001 I started to get a glimpse over the edge of the well.  And a few years ago, I finally climbed out.  It’s a slippery bank.  I fall in again sometimes.  And if you’re completely exhausted, it’s so tempting to just let go.  Bridget Pilloud has a great post about it here: Don’t Freeze to Death.

But as she writes, we’ve gotta get moving.  We’ve got to climb out.  We have to. It’s about survival.  It’s also about the amazingness of the world.  And about not letting the bastards get you down.  And about one more sunrise, or baby smile–whatever your thing is, that thing that you bring to the world.  But when you’re way down there, down so deep in the shaft that you can barely see daylight, barely even remember it, let’s be real: you don’t give a damn.

So here’s my personal step-by-step, the hidden ladder anchored in those cold, slippery stones.  Of course, your needs and results may be different.  And of course you can blow it all off as impossible and useless.  Or you can give it a try.  Or use it as a jumping off point to figure out what works for you (and then write it all down).  How badly do you want to feel better, anyway?

  1. Totally contrary to every holistic piece of advice out there, sleep with your phone and your computer, or whatever you use to be connected to people who care.  If you have no one who cares, whatever you use to be connected to the world outside your bed.
  2. if you are not sleeping, don’t lie in bed. Get up, give in, be awake.  Write the crazy things in your head (on a notepad where you can’t impulsively email them out).
  3. have a therapist. Bring your notebook.
  4. if you are sleeping, and especially if getting up is a challenge, create routine. Make deals: I just have to do these three small things and then I can go back to bed if I want.
  5. brush your teeth and your hair every day; shower at least once every other day.  Change your clothes.  You know how good it feels when you’ve got a cold and you finally get clean again?  You are sick–like having the flu–and you’ll feel worse if you let your personal hygiene go.
  6. Give yourself gold stars. Don’t roll your eyes.  I’m serious.  On a good day (or get a friend to do it for you) go shopping.  Get a package of those tiny foil stars that your teacher handed out in third grade (if third grade was in the 80’s) and a regular wall calendar.  Staples has ’em.  Every time you get up?  Gold star.  Brush your teeth?  Green star.  Journaling because it makes you feel better? Red star.  Asking for help?  A whole line of silver stars (I know how hard it is to ask). Why it works: because it’s easy to believe you Haven’t Done Anything At All.  Which is total bullshit.  Your depression has a megaphone and it’s shouting right in your ear.  The stars help you find reality again.
  7. Drink lots of water.  I know, again with the rolling of the eyes.  There are several reasons why it works.  The big one is this: stress and depression create toxins in your body.  Water helps your body get rid of the toxins, like flushing the toilet.  Start with a big glass, preferably with lemon, every single day.  Then carry it around with you.  Another bonus: if you tend to eat absently, substitute drinking water instead and you’ll be less likely to gain random weight from not paying attention and more likely to feel full.
  8. make at least one phone call every day to someone outside your bubble of depression.  They will change the endless loop in your head.
  9. do something with your body: walk, cook, paint, dance, yoga.  Do not just sit still sixteen hours a day.
  10. give yourself an outlet: journal, scream, cry–give yourself some time every day to engage with whatever is awful.  It feeds on sideways glances and the crap it finds under the rug when you sweep it there.
  11. get touch. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Oxytocin would be reason enough, but there’s more than that.  Get someone to hold you, get a massage, if all else fails, take a bath or shower just to feel your skin again.  Depression causes intense disconnection.  Touch is one of the most basic ways to return to your body, even just for a few minutes.
  12. Take the pressure off. Tell the grumbling voices in your head that they are nothing but a pack of cards, and remind yourself that you are ill, you have come down with the mental equivalent of a fever, and you simply won’t be functioning at full force for a while.  Celebrate the little stuff, and be realistic about what you can actually expect to do.  If you can’t be realistic get someone who understands depression to help you set goals. This can be a friend, co-worker, coach, doctor, therapist…but not someone who is always totally cheerful and runs a marathon before breakfast.
  13. ask for help. I know.  This might seem impossible.  Still.  Sign up for Mark Silver’s remembrance challenge which automatically calls you to do a little heart-centering every day for two weeks.  Get a friend to promise to call you every other day just to talk.  Post a call for funniest websites of the day to Twitter. You don’t have to bleed all over everyone to get assistance–you don’t have to humiliate yourself or bare your soul.  Just ask for a little help with something you need.  Groceries.  Laughter.  Company.  A kitten.
  14. pet a cat. Or a dog.  Or a hamster.  Don’t have one?  No problem, visit a friend, offer to pet-sit, or go visit a local pet store.  Touch.  Pleasure.  Unconditional love.  Doesn’t get much more healing than that.
  15. help someone out. Sometimes the best cure is to stop thinking about it and lend a hand.  Give someone a ride, or a place to sleep, or a book recommendation.
  16. do something you’re great at. Hard to tell sometimes, from the depths of depression, but there’s probably still something you can rock.  Find it.  Do it.  Set yourself up for success.  Know how to knit?  Make a potholder or a pair of fingerless mitts.  Know how to read?  Make a recording of fifteen poems for a friend who has a long commute.  Bonus: these make great gifts.
  17. make your list of ten things. People don’t like to say it, but depression can lead to thoughts of suicide.  So make your list of ten (healthy) things you can do instead of kill yourself.  Post it somewhere easy to see.  You don’t have to wait until you’re that bad to use the list.  Whenever you’re at a loss, pick something and do it.  The more you do the more likely you are to shake the depression.
  18. escape. Sometimes, you just need some relief.  It’s like any pain.  The pain causes tension which causes more pain.  If you can’t relieve the tension, sometimes you can break the cycle with some temporary pain relief.  I don’t at all recommend alcohol or drugs for this.  But a favorite TV show, a novel, or a couple of hours to do Nothing Productive on the internet could be just the ticket.
  19. listen to music. For reasons that we don’t totally understand yet, music touches our brains in ways that other things don’t.  Art does, too.  Go to a museum or a concert, put on an mp3 mix, and lose yourself in the art.
  20. breathe.  When your brain gets scrunched your breathing does, too. And you need air and spaciousness in your chest so you can have air and spaciousness in your life.  Spend a minute or two focusing on filling your chest with air and letting it out again.
  21. call yourself good things. Sweetie.  Darlin’.  Love.  Words like “stupid”, “no good”, “failure”, and “useless” really aren’t going to be useful, especially if you’re addressing yourself.  Especially avoid words like “lazy” which conflate your behavior (doing less) with a judgement (should be doing more).

The trick with depression is to do one small, tiny, manageable thing at a time.  Overwhelm is easy to find.  Don’t go looking.  Recovery is a series of tiny steps forward, without beating yourself up for backsliding.  Do one little thing every day.  And if it gets really bad, call a hotline.  1-800-273 TALK is the national phone number.

It’s a tough time of year for a lot of people.  Go gentle.

PS: I didn’t talk about sex.  But sex drive decreases with depression, AND sex helps ease depression.  They’re our bodies, our brains, our lives, and they’re all connected.