I can feel myself slipping away.
At the end of November, when the winter cloud ceiling drops over my corner of the Big Sky and stays until June, I notice the shift. The light retreats a little more each day, and I can feel myself curl into the fetal position. My energy is low, but my day is full of cravings.
Sugar. Coffee. Chocolate. Beer. Naps.
My brain functions at half speed, and I swear there’s a tractor beam pulling me to my bed at 2 each afternoon and 8 at night. I can’t summon the energy to load the dishwasher or return e-mails. I’m touchy, prone to tears, and mildly resentful. (Okay, fine. husband says maybe a notch or two above “mildly.”)
Fortunately, I’ve been here before.
Yeah, I said it. Fortunately.
I’ve been trapped in this haze for more than a month, but now I have an exit plan. Several bouts of depression have schooled me in the patterns of my body and mind. I wish I could say that I’m savvy enough to short-circuit depression completely, but alas. I’m still learning.
In my 40-something years, I’ve been through the cycle more than a couple of times, and while that’s no party, Idon’t sink as deep for as long as I used to. I’m better about paying attention to what’s happening during my low spots and what lifts me out.
Here’s how I’m ratcheting myself out of my funk:
See the pattern
This is essential, and it can also be the most difficult part of the process. I am so prone to blame myself for being a lazy, whiny, underachieving so-and-so, which just adds to the downward spiral. I kick into self-loathing, avoiding others, and retreating further and further into the Hole of I’m Not Good Enough.
When I can remember, I pause. Breathe. Forget about fixing anything. I ask myself a few basic questions.
Have I felt this way before? When?
I don’t worry about the why. I give myself permission to make observations without analyzing myself or the situation. Focusing on the details just sucks me into a negative cycle where I focus on shoulds, musts, regrets, and pain.
About mid-November, I remembered that the last time I felt this run down, low-down and lousy, it was last winter, when I wasn’t seeing sun or playing in the snow. Ah-ha.
What time of year was it? Was it before or after some big event?
I really try to be kind to myself with this question. Often, I realize that depression is a signal that some part of myself is still working through big feelings: loss, grief, regret, fear. I’m often tempted to dive into the emotional turmoil and figure out why, but I’m learning not to go there. I just sketch the space and step back.
Last winter was the first in a place where everything seemed foreign and difficult. I was raw from our move from Bozeman and the effort of having to appear brave for the kids. I was devastated by the nastiness we’d endured and so afraid to trust people again.
I realized that part of myself was afraid of repeating a bleak season and reliving that pain. Another part was craving sunlight’s power. Both were big clues.
Last time, what changed the game?
I forget my victories when things get smoother. I’m getting better at taking a minute to look back and see what might have triggered a shift in an upward direction. A trip? A shift in routine? Spending less time with an emotionally draining friend?
Noticing. Remembering. Focusing on the shift upward.
Make one tiny plan. Move forward.
When I’m in the depths, peering up at the tiny squint of sunlight at the top, it’s tempting to gin up some energy by putting on war paint and treating depression like an enemy. This works for some folks, but I’ve found that when the dust and drama settles, I’m back in the same space as before, only more exhausted. And usually, I’ve vented my frustration onto someone I love.
Instead, I’m starting to choose one beautiful thing, and move toward it. 10-Minute Momentum is a perfect place to start. I’m finding that I don’t need a lifestyle makeover, really and truly. I just need to step into my own power.
I try not to use language like “change,” “improve” or “transform.” They all carry energy that says I’m not good enough as I am, and that just ain’t true, darlin’.
A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I was headed into the depths, and I didn’t want to go there. I felt lousy and I didn’t think anything I did was going to make a difference. I knew precisely what I needed to do (exercise, spend time with friends), but I couldn’t force myself to do it. It all seemed too difficult. Even biking, which I adore, seemed like too much bother.
But I didn’t want to feel this lousy anymore. One day, I got on my bike/therapy couch for a quick, 15-minute ride. No biggie. A couple of days later, it didn’t seem like a huge deal to pull out the hula hoop while I was watching a movie with the family. Ten minutes and done. I didn’t try to go the personality overhaul route, and pretty soon, I was ready for a 20-minute core workout, then a longer bike ride. By Thanksgiving, a 5k seemed possible.
From there, I stocked up on Vitamin D, made a doctor’s appointment, and ate minimal sweet stuff through the Thanksgiving weekend. All of this seemed out of reach three weeks ago, but I’m so much better now. I’m living in possible.
Remember when you were magic.
If you’ve been hit with depression once, it’s likely you’ve had it before. And you survived.
I stop for a moment and take that in. I’m still here. I made it.
Next, I remember a time when I loved life and it was loving me back. I don’t compare — I just drink in that feeling of being powerful and strong and how it felt in my whole body.
I know that you can be that way again, even if it seems far away.
I’ve decided to reflect on this after building a wee bit of momentum with anything. Depression can suck all thoughts of hope away, but one tiny step forward makes the next one and another one seem much more possible.
When I can’t remember my magic moments, I reach out a friend or a family member. My older sister has gotten more than one teary phone call when I’ve asked her to tell my a funny story from when we were little.
Everyone has a collection of stellar moments. I’m learning to hold mine close.
If you’re struggling right now, you have my love. It’s a complicated, frenzied time of year, and it’s easy to get pulled under buy a tidal wave of expectations, demands and drama of holidays past.
Do me a favor. Don’t disappear.
During my tangos with depression, being seen by other people who weren’t obligated to be nice to me (like husband, siblings and friends were) really mattered. I needed proof that the world was kind, simply because.
In the midst of it all, please be gentle with yourself. Even if you can’t believe it now, at least say hello to the possibility that this darkness that you perceive as a shameful flaw may be the exact opening to healing and connection that you need.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
–from Anthem by Leonard Cohen
Now for the caveats, ipso factos, and common-sense provisos. I am not a professional in the mental health field, nor do I play one on TV. This post is not meant to take the place of professional therapy, even slightly. If the world seems dismal and hopeless, please reach out to someone you trust and get help. Soon. This darkness does not define you. You can get better.