Eight Things to Do to Work Through a Depressive Episode
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I am depressed. (Are you? Find out here.)
I’m sleeping 12-16 hours a night and just not wanting to do anything, not finding joy in most things that I usually love. Gaining weight. Just really struggling.
I’m only posting this for one reason and it’s because when we talk about depression (if we talk about it at all), it’s usually abstract. It’s usually, “I struggle with depression and the last time I had a flare-up…” But it’s on, happening now. Now is the time to talk about it, to drag what is dark into the light.
Really, why wouldn’t I be depressed right now? I have tendencies toward depression, and I’ve suffered a lot of loss lately.
One of my dearest friends died in July.
I dropped another child off at college last weekend, which is hard enough, but this one is the baby.
That means we’re empty nesters now, and the silence in my home every single second is deafening.
On top of that, this one is not only the baby, this one is Anna, the one who has suffered and struggled so much. We are extra sensitive about her well-being, and at the same time so proud of what she has come through.
MS. Enough said.
The death of Robin Williams has been really difficult for me, first, because like anyone else I am sad for him and his family. Second, because it takes me back to some difficult things that have happened in my family. Third, because I have had to read so much negativity, ignorance, misinformation, and plain meanness about those who suffer from depression and it has been frustrating and discouraging.
All this sadness and loss has hurled me headlong into what I can only describe as a midlife crisis. My wife recognized that before I did, and was the first to use that term, and I think it’s probably accurate.
Which leads me to something critical. Though I am probably in midlife crisis, and that is totally normal, my crisis seems to be moving me into a clinical depression. When you struggle with depression, sad events can become depressing events. And there’s a difference.
Depression skeptics, I’m talking to you right now. Please read carefully:
I’m on medication and take it every day. I almost never miss.
I’m praying and doing my spiritual disciplines. Actually, quite a bit more faithfully than usual.
I know that even in this dark time, God is surging through me and my ministry is thriving.
I know hundreds of people love and care for me.
I know that I haven’t experienced anything others don’t experience, and that most people don’t necessarily fall into the kind of pit I’m in right now.
I know all of that stuff. But it doesn’t help. Do you understand that, or is that impossible to grasp?
Have you ever been in a situation where you were beyond consolation, where no matter what anyone else said or did, you were just in a terrible place and that was it? That’s depression, only it tends to be deeper and longer-term.
Imagine the emptiness you felt after your pet died, how it dragged on and on. Some people loved and encouraged you, but you still felt terrible. Certain stupid people said things like, “I know it’s hard, but it’s only a pet.” How helpful was that? I know, not very. The truth is, you were where you were and no matter how anyone else felt about it, this was your struggle and you were going to have to be the one to resolve it.
If someone had told you, “Snap out of it,” could you have done it?
What if someone had given you the almost always upsetting and unnecessary guidance, “Look on the bright side.” How helpful would that have been?
Would it have helped knowing others were judging you for your feelings and thinking you were being stupid?
What if someone had said, “Pray about it,” or told you your problem was a lack of faith. Would that have fixed everything for you? Likewise, those things don’t help depression. They just don’t. Please, please stop saying that stuff to people with depression, or to anyone for that matter, and even more important — stop even thinking it.
Now I’m not suicidal at all. I haven’t had suicidal thoughts in decades. If I started having them, I hope that as a mental health professional and pastor, I’d recognize the danger I was in and tell my therapist and family. But I’m rightly concerned about it. To not be is ignorant. But there are many degrees of depression up to and including suicidal thoughts and actions.
Depression sufferers, family members, and onlookers — the rest of this is for you.
What do you do in a place like this? When your world crashes, when your losses feel unbearable, when your grief runs deep as Mariana’s Trench, what do you do?
First, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, click here and do one of these things.
Seriously. Don’t mess with this stuff. If you’re thinking that way, especially if its recurrent and you are finding yourself thinking in deeper and deeper detail, go to the ER. You could be in serious danger. The fact that the dangerous person is you makes no difference. When you come to a point where you really think the only way out of your pain is dying, you are in great danger of following through and that is a very serious problem.
If you’re not having suicidal thoughts, try not to do anything stupid.
Make a stupid list, a list of all the stupid, destructive, and/or counter-productive things you find yourself wanting to do when you’re depressed, and then be sure not to do any of that stuff. Why? Because it’s stupid! If it’s on your stupid list, don’t do it. If you’re too depressed to think clearly, have a close friend or family member help you make your list. When you start to feel better, review your list, edit/revise as needed, and then keep that list handy. For example, your list might say:
Don’t quit your job.
Don’t eat more than 1 bowl of ice cream a day.
Don’t go home with someone or bring someone home.
Don’t cut or do any other harm to yourself.
Don’t get drunk.
Don’t contact any old flames.
Each person’s list will differ (and by the way, I think EVERYONE should have a stupid list, not just people with depression). Make a list that contains the stupid things you are particularly vulnerable to when you’re in a bad place, and then avoid the behaviors on that list. Get whatever help you need to avoid those things.
Next, stay in your normal routines.
If you’re on medication, keep taking it. If you’re in therapy, keep going. If you are a church-attendee, keep going to church. Keep your life as stable as possible. Don’t decide to sell your house or make some other massive decision when you’re in a depressive episode. All big decisions belong on your stupid list when you’re depressed.
Third, tell people.
Why do you think I’m blogging about this right now? Secrecy is a huge part of the darkness of depression. It sets you apart. It convinces you that your life is worse than everyone else’s and no one will understand. Frankly a lot of people probably won’t understand, but more will understand than you think and even many of those who don’t will love you and care for you.
Fourth, keep reminding yourself of what you know.
I’m also doing that by writing this post. I am a therapist. I know a ton of stuff about depression but if I don’t push everything I know to the front of my mind, I’ll become more vulnerable to my emotions and my darkness. I am reminding myself, at this moment, that this is happening to me, but isn’t all of who I am. Read about depression. Learn as much as you can about it. Keep reminding yourself that this isn’t even close to all of who you are. It feels terrible, but it will pass.
Fifth, try to get up and get going.
Allow yourself some extra grace and maybe get more sleep than usual, but don’t stay in bed all day. Engage other people. I’m working on that right now. I work alone in this office, so it’s very easy to just avoid people most of the time. I have to make myself get out there and once I do, it’s usually helpful at least for a while.
If that’s the ONLY person you really tell everything to, by all means at least tell that person everything. Your therapist can help you evaluate how serious your depression is getting and whether you might need medication adjusted or some other intervention. In my case, I went to see my therapist recently and he was able to point out how much great stuff is happening in my life in spite of how awful I feel. That was encouraging. I still feel awful, but it sure is good to be able to see good things continuing to happen in my life in spite of the darkness that seems to surround me.
Seventh, if there’s something you love and still care about while you’re depressed, by all means do that thing.
For me it’s writing. When I stop writing, when you are no longer seeing new posts go up on this blog, or on Facebook, that’s when I might be in real trouble.
If that happens, check on me.
Last, if there’s anything at all you can do to redeem some of your suffering, do it.
I write because 1) I enjoy it; and 2) it’s a way that I can maybe redeem some of the suffering life calls on me to do, whether it’s MS, depression, anxiety, or whatever. Other people can read and learn, know they aren’t alone, be challenged to reach out to those they love who may be suffering, and all kinds of other possible good and the best thing we can ever do with our darkness is anything that turns it to light. Anything you can do while you’re suffering to do it honestly, and some of it at least somewhat publicly, can encourage others.
Depressed or not, it is through the public sharing of your darkness, suffering, and weaknesses that you will encourage others, far more than in sharing your victories. Count on that.