Content Warning: descriptions of depression
Depression is a doozy of disorder. It makes you feel heavy, like you’re moving through wet cement all the time. It sneaks in and puts on your voice, then says things that sound like you, so you believe them. It detaches you, and you feel like life is going by on the other side of a foggy window and you’re not part of it. Your future dwindles down from “Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?” to “Where do you see yourself in the next two days?” to “Where do you see yourself in the next five minutes?” because anything beyond that new point in time ceases to exist. And the worst part is, it steals your emotions so you can’t even feel anything about what you’re going through.
How are you supposed to navigate that? There’s hundreds of completely useless “self-help” guides to depression, and a handful that are worth anything. “Clean your room, work up a sweat, call your friend”; are you kidding me? What are you supposed to do when you hate yourself for existing? When it hurts to be alive?
These are the lessons I’ve learned in my many years dealing with depression, and I hope they’ll help you, too. They’re really hard to remember when it’s latched its claws in you, but I promise, they remain true, and they do help. (If you haven’t experienced depression, these are things you can gently remind someone who is going through it.)
1. You are not your depression (or any other illness)
This is, hands down, the most important thing I learned. Because I had depression for so long, I couldn’t differentiate between what was depression and what was me. I realized the two were not the same when a friend was writing about her husband, who suffered from Major Depressive Disorder:
That was the first time it clicked that my depression and my sense of self were two very different things. The depression wanted to be left alone all the time, hated doing the dishes, was hypercritical, and thought nothing was worth trying because everything was pointless. My Self — the part of me that identifies as me — missed her friends, liked a clean house, knew she was trying her best, and wanted to travel and write books and paint. The two were constantly at odds with each other, but without knowing they were separate, it felt like I was at odds with myself. Did I miss my friends or not? Did I actually hate doing the dishes? Why did I like to write if it was pointless?
Even now, several years later, it’s still hard to remember who my Self is when depression sets in. You’ll often see me refer to my mental illness as the Depression Beast or the Depression Voice. This is how I keep it from melding too much with my Self; it’s how I remember who I am. It doesn’t shut up the Depression Voice, but it does help me recognize who is saying what. However you want to differentiate the two, I recommend finding a way to do so.
2. Admit when something is wrong
You can’t fix something if you don’t acknowledge it isn’t working.
It’s tempting to try and power through if you’ve had a rough few days — time and tide stop for no one, right?
While that is technically correct, it’s worth examining why things aren’t going well.
If you haven’t been able to sleep and are eating the entire contents of the pantry and don’t want to do things you normally enjoy, ask yourself why. If you’re constantly tired and it takes too much energy to wash your hair and you missed a big deadline, ask yourself why. When you’ve realized that what you’re feeling is depression, tell someone.
For me personally, I often don’t recognize right away that I’m feeling depressed because my mind basically erases all sense of time. Have I been feeling “low” for a day or a month? I was happy yesterday, right? Nope, that was a week and a half ago. It becomes hard for me to keep track of how much time has passed, which is usually when I know something is off.
I know others won’t recognize their depression until it reaches extremes — this is why it’s important to acknowledge something is wrong as it’s happening.
It’s hard to say, “I need help” even when things are going well. But pretending everything is fine when it isn’t will make life excruciating. As soon as you recognize what’s happening, reach out to someone you trust and let them know you’re struggling. Have that conversation.
3. Anything worth whole-assing is worth half-assing
Depression takes up so much energy, it’s no wonder you feel like you can’t do anything else other than exist. Not to mention that some of those tasks, like taking a shower or making a meal, are just… impossible.
Here’s a secret: you don’t have to do it all. Don’t put in 100% if you can only manage 20%. Wash your face and use dry shampoo if a shower is too much of a hassle. You’re clean! Throw something in the microwave and call it good when cooking is too overwhelming. You ate! If you can’t brush your teeth for two minutes, brush them for thirty seconds. You brushed your teeth! Take a five minute walk if doing a full exercise routine is too much; do stretches if you can’t bring yourself to leave the house. You moved your body!
Anything is better than nothing at all. Yes, it really sucks not being able to do the things you normally can. But for your own sake, half-ass it — it still counts!
4. Do one small thing
Depression will tell you that there’s no point in doing anything. But dopamine — a happy chemical — is released when a task is completed, especially if you have visual results. Do one small thing to improve your environment. Put the dishes away. Make your bed. Take out the garbage.
Normally, I like doing laundry. I like folding things, feeling warm cloth on my skin, and watching the mountain of clothes wind down to neat organized piles. When Depression Beast takes over, I tend to let the laundry pile up and won’t do anything with it; then, it becomes a big stressful heap that’s too overwhelming to deal with. If my one small thing is folding the clothes, that’s a pretty good day. Even if I can’t do all the clothes and leave the socks unmatched and lying around, that’s still a pretty good day, because I did something.
If you can’t bring yourself to do all the dishes, or pick up all the clutter, that’s okay! You’re farther along than when you started, and that’s all that matters. It doesn’t have to be much. But it will make a difference.
5. Rephrase, reframe
This is usually written as “be kind to yourself”, which makes it a very easy cliche to ignore. But it’s a Very Important Thing to remember, and the way to make it stick is to do it. “Rephrase/Reframe” is a technique used in cognitive behavior therapy that I first learned about when confronting trauma, but is applicable in many situations.
When I hear someone say, “Be kind to yourself” the only thing to come to mind is the idea that I am incapable of kindness: Yeah, be kind to yourself you dumb bitch, it’s not that hard and you can’t even manage that.
The first step is to counter the negativity: rephrase it by saying what you’re not. I am not a dumb bitch. I am not incapable of kindness.
The second step is to reframe your state of mind and affirm what you are. I am fully capable of kindness to myself and others. I am a smart and compassionate person who can show myself love and acceptance. I am deserving of that love and kindness.
This is a really simple tool that keeps the Depression Voice in check, even if it’s shouting at you. It might grumble and say something to the effect of, “That’s bullshit and we both know it,” but keep rephrasing and reframing until it shuts up. It will eventually shut up.
These will by no means cure depression, but they will make it easier to navigate. If you’re going through a depressive episode, you have my heart; it’s not easy but you’ll make it through. If you care for someone who is experiencing depression, be gentle with them.
In case you need to hear it today:
You’re going to be okay.
You are so, so loved.
Your depression is lying to you.
You are deserving of kindness.
You are wanted, and are a delight to be around.