There are many suggestions for dealing with depression, some that have held steady for decades. The one that is recommended quite often is exercise, and there’s usually the accompanying exaltation of how great it makes one feel, how it helps with sleep, etc. It’s often touted as the magic bullet for depression, and while I’m sure it’s true for some people (it has to be in order for people to keep nattering on about it, right?), it has never been that way for me. I bought into that bullshit back when I was in my deep and chronic depression. I exercised every day, and it only made me irritated. Part of that was because I was doing it solely to be doing it, and because of my obsessive nature, I was doing it way too much.
In addition, sometimes, I was doing exercise that I hated, such as walking. I hate walking/running. No matter how in shape I was (and I’ve been in really good shape at various times in my life), walking was never enjoyable for me. When I lived in the East Bay, I walked four and a quarter miles a day, and hated every step of it. I did it for almost two years, and it never got any better. It got easier, of course, but I never hated it any less. That whole endorphin high people talk about never happened, and, yes, there’s some lingering resentment on my part that I stuck it out so long.
I switched to dancing in my living room for my aerobic workout, and while I enjoyed that more, it still didn’t give me the natural high that everyone keeps raving about. Even taiji, which I love, doesn’t make me feel instantly better. I will say that I think my daily taiji routine helps me keep the worst of the demons at bay, but it’s taken years to get to this point. In addition, I don’t think I’m doing enough and am slowing trying to add to it (weight-bearing exercise, mostly by doing sword drills and the Sword Form).
Exercise never helped with my sleep, either. I knew better than to do it right before going to bed, but even when I did it early in the day, it didn’t make me sleep any better at night. Disclosure: I’ve had difficulty with sleep all my life. I’m a bit notorious among my friends for my sleep issues. During one period in my life, I was having nightmares in which my friends died on a regular basis. It became a joke that you weren’t really a friend of Minna’s if you didn’t die in my dreams. A joke sadly based on reality.
I am not saying exercise isn’t beneficial, obviously. It’s better to exercise than not if you can, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m pro-sitting on your ass all day long. Well, actually, I am pro-that, but I acknowledge that exercise is good for your health. It’s just that it never gave me the boost that other people seem to get from it. I don’t want someone who’s severely depressed to think that if they don’t get the endorphin rush from exercising that it’s not worth it, and I don’t want them to be upset about expending the energy for seemingly no benefit.
Next is meditation. I see this almost universally recommended for depression. “Take a few minutes and clear your mind,” they say. “It’ll make you feel calm and refreshed,” they say. “It’s easy to do,” they say. This may be true for some people, but it’s not been true for me–by far. Side note: I feel exactly the same about yoga. All these people gushing about how great it makes them feel whereas for me, it’s bullshit. Yoga actually makes me angry when I do it, and it hurts. American yoga, I hasten to add. I want to punch it in the throat.
Back to meditation. I’ve written about it before, but I used to loathe meditation. I know the goal isn’t to rid the brain of thoughts, so that part never bothered me–the fact that my brain was swarming with thoughts, I mean. It’s always been that way. There are always obtrusive thoughts running through my brain, except on the most rare occasions. Sometimes, when I’m doing the Sword Form, it’s the closest to a peaceful mind that I can get, which is probably one reason I love it so much.
There was a time when meditation was triggering flashbacks, so I had to sit it out. When I could finally do it again, I still found it a tedious struggle. I feel as if my brain and my body are fighting against each other, and the way I deal with it was by writing blog posts in my brain as we meditate (in class). It makes meditation tolerate, but it’s not enjoyable in the least. I don’t feel refreshed or calm after doing it, and it bothered me so much, I Googled it. To clarify, meditation made me jittery, anxious, bored, and a plethora of other negative emotions. Apparently, it’s not an uncommon reaction. It’s not a common one, mind you, but there are many downsides to meditation that people don’t talk about. I found an article about Dr. Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist, who is dedicated to researching and treating people who have been negatively affected by meditation. In Googling to find that article again, I found another article that talked about the negative side of mediation (and why current practitioners won’t talk about it) that made a lot of sense to me. The extremely simplified tl;dr version is that since the dissolution of self is one goal for Buddhists, they don’t acknowledge or even recognize that sometimes, the dissolution that’s happening is a negative one.
I never went that far when I meditated, probably because our meditation is guided and limited. I have no doubt if I meditated for hours, my brain would dissolve in a negative way. Finding out that this was a thing and that I wasn’t crazy for not loving meditation made me better able to deal with meditation itself. I don’t feel as bad for not liking it, and I get through it by writing my blog posts in my head. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the other options.
So what does help me when I’m depressed? Back in the day, not much of anything. A good therapist helped, but that was in the long run. Taiji has helped, but again, that’s in the long run. What helped me in the moment? I hate to say it, but inertia. Also, my negativity actually worked for me in that while I hated life, I was sure whatever was on the other side was even worse. Books helped, but there’s a fine line between escapism that helps and escapism that hurts. I find if I’m reading/playing video games for hours on end, it may feel better in the meantime, but it only exacerbates the depression in the long run.
Talking to friends helps, but it can only be specific people. In addition, I’d rather message than talk on the phone because I’m a writer not a talker. I like having someone around when I’m depressed because it keeps me from sinking into the very depths of despair, but it has to be very specific people.
Getting out of the house on a regular basis helps as well. A bit of sun, even if I’m not doing anything important, is good for the mental health. Not blazing heat, mind you, but sun itself.
My cat helps. Not when he’s yelling at me to get up and feed him, but just by being around. Before his brother died, he used to be more of an aloof and silent cat. He was content to do his own thing most of the time, and then would come and sit on the top of the couch by my feet when he wanted to be near me. Or in his little cat bed tucked in the corner of the room by my feet. In the six months following his brother’s death, Shadow became very clingy. He wanted to be near me all the time, and when I went out back to smoke, he would put his front paws on the glass sliding door between us and mew sadly. Around the six month mark, he slowly started returning to his previous behavior of needing more space for himself, but he retained his voice and has stuck closer to me than he normally would. He likes to sit on my chest, which isn’t something he did before, and he’s much more into snuggling or at least being in the same room with me than he has been before. It’s comforting to know he’s around, even if I can’t see him. My boys got me through some dark days, and Shadow continues to do his fuzzy best to cheer me up just by being himself.
Another thing that helps is my writing–fiction and otherwise. I’m frustrated right now because my fiction isn’t coming as easily as it used to, but I find that if I write every day, it helps keep the depression at bay. As I told someone on Twitter, it makes me feel better to get the words out, even if they’re not all gold. In fact, lots of it is shit, but being creative at all helps me feel better about myself.
Sleep has improved for me in the last few years, and I give all the credit to taiji. I used to sleep four hours a night if I was lucky, and now, I can’t believe I was able to exist like that for any amount of time. Recently, I had to get up at six-fifteen because the a/c guys were coming at seven. Side note: I am ecstatic to have air again. I ran it all day Friday just because I could. Anyway, I went to bet at 12:30 a.m. I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and again and 4:30 a.m., and I realized that I wasn’t going to sleep any longer because my brain hates me. If I have to get up earlier than norm, my brain gets anxious, even if I have my alarm set. The a/c guys came at seven and said they’d be done by eleven, maybe noon. It was after one when they left, and I was barely hanging on by the time they were gone. I started losing my shit around ten, and it was all I could do to keep from screaming at them to get the fuck out of the house. I’m glad I didn’t because they brought me the gift of cold air, for which I’m profoundly grateful.
Anyhoo, I get six hours of sleep a night now, and I don’t know how I used to subsist on four. One of my taiji classmates was talking about how he tried to get nine hours on weekdays, but he was still tired as eleven hours was his jam. I’m sure I stared at him slack-jawed because I couldn’t fathom sleeping that much at one time. I was incredulous and envious at the same time.
The thing that helps the most with depression these days, however, is knowing that it’s temporary. Or rather, that I can feel something other than depression. On the one hand, it’s frustrating because I have no reason to be depressed, and I have no idea why I’m feeling it again (albeit on a much lower level), but on the other hand, knowing that it’s temporary makes it somewhat easier to deal with.