The first time I was clinically depressed, I just thought I was tired, lazy, and severely lacking in motivation. I was 20 years old, though, and that description fit just about everyone I knew then.
I had what I now like to think of as “walking depression.” Like walking pneumonia or The Walking Dead, but without the lung fluid or rotting flesh. I pushed through each day fueled by a mixture of shame and fear, which as it turns out are not sustainable energy sources. I mostly made it to my college classes and turned in my assignments, until I couldn’t any more. I worked my part time jobs and snuck off to cry in the parking lot between shifts. I went out with friends and pretended to have fun. I laughed, I smiled, I was social. At the lowest dip in the depression curve, I would drive to campus and park in the behemoth structure, fully intending to go to class, but then I’d detour to the student center, climb onto one of the couches, and sleep for hours. I’d wake up, drive home, and promise myself that the next day would be different.
I don’t know how I came out of that episode. I guess I was like one of those wild animals who gets hurt and just has to crawl off and let its body heal itself. Over the next decade, I’d slide into walking depression a few more times before I finally got a diagnosis and was able to plot a course for health.
These days, I am vigilant. I am SO vigilant. I am the Neighborhood Watch of Nanea’s mental wellbeing. I am the lifeguard of my sanity. I haven’t slipped into the deep water in a long time, but once in a while, I can feel my toes touching the edge. When that happens, there are a few things I do. I’ve compiled them for you as a totally unscientific list, based on nothing at all except my own very limited experience, of helpful tips that are not guaranteed to work but are better than laying in bed like a human filet, lightly breaded in potato chip crumbs and self-loathing. Unless you like that sort of thing. Shall we?
- Wash your face.
Showering is, of course, ideal for you and those who get near enough to smell you. But it’s just not always possible. There are drought restrictions, time constraints, complete lack of any fucks to give about personal hygiene, etc. However, I’ve found that this simple act of washing away the sleep grease can feel like a small miracle. Sleep grease, FYI, is that substance that appears on the surface of your face while you sleep, the way fat congeals on a pot of stew that’s been left in the fridge overnight. This is a real thing I just made up. Anyway, wash your face. You’ll feel better.
- Do ONE thing that is self-care.
Not three, not twenty. Just one thing. That might be brushing your teeth. Or pouring yourself a bowl of cereal and milk. Incidentally, cereal and milk are clinically proven to increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Okay, my brain. But it could work for you, too. Or maybe you like bowls of brussel sprouts, I don’t know. Your one act of self-care could be changing out of your grubby pajamas into some clean pajamas. It doesn’t matter. Just do it. Who knows? You may get wild and decide to engage in more reckless acts of compassion toward yourself.
- Break your day into short increments of time.
There are 24 hours in a day, but when you have walking depression the real feel index for that amount of time is actually 150 years. No one can deal with that. Instead, break the time into manageable, bite-sized chunks. I go for 10 minute periods. Checking the mail. Loading the washing machine. Perusing Instagram for breaking updates. Working. You probably have to spend more than 10 minutes a day working, but if you view your work as a series of 10 minute segments, you might have more of a sense of movement. I know I do. Also – this is crucial – ask yourself how each segment of time is serving you. It’s incredibly difficult to engage in productive or healthy behaviors when you feel like a pile of day old dog poop. But you can do it for 10 minutes.
- Schedule time to cry.
I’m not saying you have to put it in Outlook or anything, but you can if you like. When depression strikes, I am often walking around with a tight ball of curled up dread at the back of my throat. All day long. This makes it hard to concentrate, even for 10 minutes at a time. So, what I do is give myself a specific time when I will be allowed to just lose my shit. I can’t tell you how well this works! This is the difference between telling a toddler she can have a cookie “sometime” or telling her to watch the clock because when the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 2, that’s when she’ll get her cookie. In case it’s not obvious, my brain is the toddler in this scenario. My favorite times to have a scheduled cry are in the shower or just before bed, but whatever works for you.
- Read something that is not online.
I don’t care if it’s the back of the shampoo bottle or a circular from your local grocery store. Okay, maybe not those things. The point is, your reading material doesn’t have to be heavy or deep. Just settle yourself somewhere and spend some time reading sentences that are not on a screen. This helps for a few reasons. It grounds you in time and space to be focused on those words. Your busy squirrel mind cannot jump to another website or page. It pulls you out of the dull gray place temporarily. Also, if you do this before bed, you may find you’ll sleep better because you won’t have that blue screen light confusing your already spinning brain about what time it is.
Other tips: If you can’t bring yourself to call (I never can) try to engage with a friend in some way, even if it’s just a text telling her you are a mess right now. Try not to eat total shit and remember to drink water. If you can make it out the door for a walk, good for you. Be kind to yourself, or at least not quite so mean. Okay? I am rooting for you.