When we left off last week I was in a state of total collapse. I’d been depressed for months, and it had finally gotten to the point where I felt suicidal and could no longer care for my basic needs. I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say I truly believe that I would have died if no one intervened.Fortunately, my apartment manager did. I had met her through my ex-fiancee’s church (which I joined), then moved into the apartment complex she managed. Despite my breakup, she and I became friends. So when I stopped coming and going, she got concerned. It had been a few weeks since I’d talked to her or stopped by, and she noticed that I hadn’t left my apartment.
She came to check on me – may have even let herself in. I don’t remember the details very well, I was in such a haze. I do remember her telling me I had to take a bath, and thinking how I would just slip under the water and never get back out.
I know we must have talked, but I don’t remember the conversation. What I do remember is her dealing with the practical things: Getting me cleaned up. Opening the curtains. Making me eat. Calling my job.
It was a turning point for me. Maybe because she came and did things that made me feel better whether I liked it or not, maybe because seeing how low I’d sunk through someone else’s eyes was humiliating, I decided I wanted to feel better.
Without that flicker of desire to feel better, what came next would have been impossible.
First Strategies for Recovery
My mom had given me a copy of a little book called How to Be Happier Day by Day. I don’t know if these ideas were in there or not since I’ve long-since lost the book, but I do remember reading it. It put me in the mind to try doing a little something each day to make myself happier.
Back in 6th grade, I had a teacher I could not stand. One of the more obnoxious things she insisted on was making us smile for 30 seconds every single day: bright, wide, lips apart, teeth-baring, cheerleader-esque smiling was required.
For some reason, I remembered her rationale. She said smiling made you feel good whether you liked it or not. Despite having been infuriated by smile therapy as an 11 year old, I decided to make myself try it. There was no feeling worse, so why not make myself miserable in the hopes of feeling better, right?
I also decided that every day I was going to give thanks for something. It started off pretty hard. I’d think of something I should be thankful for, it would infuriate me, then I’d shame myself over it. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for true gratitude, but in time, it worked.
One thing I’ve learned is that emotions aren’t just things we feel. They are also things we practice. And when we practice, we don’t always get it right the first time. That’s OK.
I’ll never forget my first act of thanks. I said out loud:
“I am thankful for clean water. Even though if I didn’t have clean water I could catch a horrible disease and die. But other people who don’t want to die are dying from lack of clean water so it’s unfair of me to wish I would.”
Some thanks, right? But over time, I did find things to be truly grateful for. I began to see that my life was not over, even if my relationship was. I went back to work, and going through the motions of a regular life started to restore my will to live.
Turns out I’m not the only one who has noticed a correlation between gratefulness and well-being. There have been a number of studies over the past decade showing that gratitude can help alleviate depression and bring on a whole host of other positive benefits.
Using These Tools Now
I believe there are physical causes to most mental disorders, and that our understanding of them is far from perfect. The disorders and syndromes that the DSM describes are often just lists of symptoms. Giving depression or bipolar or OCD or autism or ADHD or schizophrenia a name does not uncover the root causes or light our way to the best treatments.
While we strive to understand and eventually treat what underlies our mental symptoms, we must also cope with those symptoms.
These three tools (intervention, smiling, gratitude) weren’t a magical solution to my depression. I know I can’t just walk up to a depressed person, tell them to smile and say thanks, tell them to get to work, and expect everything to be alright. For many of us, depression is a full body experience, and sometimes it starts up even without an emotional trigger. It can be purely physical completely overtaking us.
Once that happens, our thinking becomes confused (though it can feel more accurate) and it’s much harder to decide to try to feel better. I have an especially hard time to accepting that reality may not be what I feel it is in the moment. (I’ll get into that more in another post). I know I can’t always count on a friend intervening in the perfect moment, or on wanting to feel better once I’m down.
Recognize the Earliest Signs
But I have learned to use my past experience of creeping out of depression to help me avoid going there so deeply in the first place. The key is to notice it early, before it completely takes over, and to set up a support system that can kick in when you start to fall.
What I’ve done is noticed the earliest signs, and made some deals with myself and the people in my life. What are the signs you are starting to get depressed? For me they include:
- Avoiding responsibilities (with reasonable excuses)
- Sleeping more than usual
- Pleasure seeking and escape – sugar cravings, cheese cravings, wanting more sex, never being able to eat enough, tv watching
- A hard time focusing on things I need to do
- Feeling very low energy
- Putting a negative spin on everything that happens (my perception seems true, but I have learned to recognize this pattern)
To figure out your earliest signs of depression, look back to how you felt a bit before things went noticeably downhill. These earliest signs don’t always look the same as full-blown depression. If I’m not paying close attention, I will rationalize them away. When I do that, they will get worse. But if I acknowledge them, I have the power to change course.
Edit: I just found this video about early recognition of states and building tolerance for the triggers that send us out of control. This is something I have planned on sharing a lot about over the next few weeks, but I want you to be able to see it right away!
Once I’ve recognized depression is creeping in on me, I tell someone in my life who has already agreed to help me. This creates intervention – someone to be accountable to, and who can look out for you. If you don’t have a friend or family member who can fulfill this role for you, it’s time for a therapist, your doctor, or a call to a crisis line. I like to go both routes – I tell someone in my life, and I also seek out professional help when possible.
Then, I do the tricks which have helped me climb out of depression in the past. I give myself the space to continue to feel bad, but I do the tricks anyway, as much as I can. If I can’t do them, I tell myself I will do them when I can. Often, I am able to head off a fall into major depression through this simple awareness and action approach.
Back in the day, I only had gratitude and smiles to help me. They were enough to pull me out of depression, but not enough to stabilize my bipolar disorder. Now I have more tools. I’ll get to them in more detail in future posts, but here are a few:
It doesn’t really matter who you thank or what you’re thankful for, so long as you cultivate the attitude of gratefulness. If you believe in God, you may give thanks in prayer. But if you don’t believe in God, you can still practice gratitude. Here are some ideas for practicing a grateful spirit:
- Start or join a Facebook group where you and friends post something you are grateful for every day. (If you miss a day, don’t sweat it!)
- Say thank you to a stranger who does something for you. It can be a normal part of their job – doesn’t have to be anything special. Just thank them for it.
- Thank a family member or friend for something good which they did a long time ago.
- Express gratitude for something amazing in the natural world.
- Count your blessings – express gratitude for the things that have been given to you in life, for things that have come easily, for things you have accomplished against all odds, and for the opportunities you have been presented with.
- Thank yourself for taking a step to improve your own mental health!
I’m thankful that *you* have visited The Liberated Kitchen and read or skimmed this post. What are you thankful for today?
Remember, I am not a doctor of any kind. I am not giving medical or therapeutic advice, and I do not recommend stopping any medications which your doctor has prescribed based on the experiences I share. I am just a person with some life experience I’d like to put out into the world for consideration. If you are inspired to try something I’ve tried, please consult about it in person with qualified health care practitioners before making any changes!