NB – This post contains possible triggers for those susceptible to depression and other mental health issues.
I never really wanted to write about depression because so many other bloggers have written far better, more descriptive posts than I ever could (Jenny Lawson/The Bloggess, Allie Bosch/Hyperbole and a Half, Wil Wheaton – you’ll have to Google them because I can’t figure out how to link to their blogs), but having just skirted along the edge of what was heading toward a big ‘ol bout of it, I feel compelled to get my thoughts on the subject out of my head and onto the screen.
I am no expert on the subject of depression. I can only speak from my own experience. This is what it feels like to me and what I do about it. Your mileage may vary, of course.
I was diagnosed many years ago with dysthymia, which is a fancy name for chronic mild depression. (By the way, having an “official” diagnosis doesn’t make it any better or more legitimate. It just gives it a name so the medical billers can code it in a way that the insurance companies will pay for the therapist visits.) I first started feeling the symptoms of depression when I hit puberty and I suppose I am lucky in that I don’t get the crushing, incapacitating, suicidal episodes that many sufferers contend with. A friend of mine coined the term “brain weasels” to describe how she felt sometimes, and that is exactly what dysthymia feels like to me – a gnawing, insidious sadness that lurks just around the edges of my mind, looking for any opportunity to take a swipe, a nip, a chunk out of my self-esteem and happiness. I sometimes find myself looking over my shoulder, figuratively, and feeling paranoid whenever things are going well because I know the brain weasels are out there and they’re just biding their time, waiting for their next opportunity to strike.
When I’m in the brain weasels’ clutches, I feel as though nothing is right or good enough. Nothing makes me happy, nothing satisfies, nothing works right. I feel tired or sleepy, but I can’t really sleep or rest. I feel hungry, but nothing tastes right and I’m never satiated. Books aren’t engaging, music isn’t uplifting, TV shows and movies aren’t worth the time or effort. Everything is just kind of bland, grey, slightly sad, and pointless. I don’t get that “lie on the couch and don’t move for six weeks” depression that others describe. I still get up in the morning and move through my day. I get a shower, get the chores done, keep my appointments, and hit my deadlines for the most part. Most people don’t even realize that I’ve slid into the pit, because I’m pretty good at faking the “We’re all fine here. How are you?” But everything takes a supreme amount of effort and is haunted by the ever-present chatter of the brain weasels, reminding me that everything in my life sucks, chiefly me.
I’m not sure what set them off this time. It’s different every time, and sometimes the thing you think would send me careening over the precipice barely even pings the radar. When my father died, I felt sad and slightly numb, but I didn’t slide into depression. When a dear friend succumbed suddenly and unexpectedly to H1N1, I was shocked and incredulous, but I didn’t start to slip. But for the past week I’ve felt the brain weasels circling. Whatever it was, they saw a chink in the armor and went on all-out attack.
“You made the wrong decision. You said the wrong thing. You ate the wrong thing. That was a stupid thing to do. How could you be so stupid? You suck. You think you’re so tough, but you’re not. You are fat. You will always be fat. You can’t run. You look ridiculous when you run. People are laughing at you when they see you exercising. You are old and ugly. You look terrible. You are unattractive. Why would anyone want to be with you? You are weak and clumsy. You are going to fall and hurt yourself. You are wasting your time and your life. You haven’t accomplished anything with your life and you never will. You aren’t smart enough or strong enough. You don’t follow through on things and you don’t stick with projects. The things you create are pathetic and stupid. Nobody likes you. Nobody wants to work with you. Nobody wants to hire you. Nobody wants to be your friend. You are a terrible friend. You are a terrible parent. You are a terrible wife. You are doing everything wrong. You have dumb ideas. Your writing is lame. There is no way you can write a story. Nobody wants to read or hear what you have to say. You think you’re so important, but you’re not. People are making fun of you and talking about you behind your back. No one is ever going to love you. You don’t deserve to be loved. You have no right to be sad. There are so many people in the world who are worse off than you are. You should be ashamed of yourself, wallowing in self-pity when there are people out there in prison, in abusive relationships, in abject poverty, in war-zones. You sit there feeling sorry for yourself when you have so many advantages, opportunities and lucky breaks. You should just leave. You should just die. You will never feel any better. Your life is going to suck forever.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Here’s the thing – intellectually, I know that the brain weasels are lying. I know that what they say isn’t true. I believe that I’m a worthwhile individual and I know that I am surrounded with people who love me and whom I love very deeply. I know that the brain weasels are just nipping at me, trying to get me to fall, to lie down, to give up. But when they get really loud and crowd in and close around me to the point where they are all I see and hear, I start to listen to them and believe them. That’s when it becomes a problem.
A therapist once told me that you can’t control your feelings, but you can control how you react or respond to your feelings. I really believe that. Feeling elated or angry or fearful or sad is not within your control and is not really the problem, per se. How you feel is how you feel. What you do with that feeling, on the other hand, how you respond to it or react to it, is where you have control. Once I really understood that, it was so liberating.
So what works against the brain weasels? Not letting the little bastards get a toe-hold helps a lot. You know how in those survival shows and movies, the hero always builds a fire? It keeps him warm and let’s him cook his supper, sure, but it also helps keep the wild animals at bay and gives him a sense of security. The predators may be lurking just outside the circle of light and warmth, but inside the circle it is safe. That is what I do with the brain weasels – I keep stoking the fire and feeding the flames to keep my circle of light and warmth around me and to keep the critters back. Ninety percent of the time, it works just fine.
Here’s how I keep the fire blazing:
1. I found God – Well, maybe not God (in the traditional, Christian sense), but I found a connection and a spirituality that works for me. I make a point to connect with The Divine every day and I think that is the single, most important tool in my arsenal against the demons and the monsters. There’s enough material about my personal spiritual beliefs and practices to write several blog posts, and I’ll get those written and posted one of these days. If you want to know more before I get to that, though, feel free to contact my privately.
2. I started exercising – Yeah, yeah, I know. You don’t want to hear about my workouts. But getting regular exercise (especially when it doesn’t feel like exercise) has really helped keep the brain weasels at bay. I don’t know if it’s because they can’t keep up when I’m running or if I can’t hear them over the sound of my pounding heart and heavy breathing, but the regular endorphin rush (not to mention the increased energy and stamina) has contributed to much-less-frequent brain weasel attacks.
3. I quit hanging around people who bring me down – I spent a not-insignificant portion of the first half of my life putting up with people who were unkind, abusive, cruel, manipulative, self-centered, and controlling. I don’t anymore. Finally learning that I don’t have to be nice to (or even be around) people I don’t like or who aren’t nice to me was one of the best lessons I ever learned.
4. I developed an arsenal of weapons – Over the years I’ve learned what type of music, imagery, and sensory stimulation makes me feel happy. It took me awhile (excessive self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, anyone?), but I’ve got a pretty good idea now what types of things nurture my soul and uplift me. I include some of those things in my day, every day, and up the frequency when I feel the brain weasels closing in.
Sometimes, though, despite all my meditating and beach walking and eating dark chocolate and dancing to Oingo Boingo, the brain weasels bum rush me and tackle me to the ground. The little cretins have really sharp teeth, and they are heavy when they all dog-pile on top of me at once. It seems impossible to shake them off by myself, and although I know I should call for help or reach out to someone for a hand up, it’s hard to focus on the way out with their incessant reminders of how bad and worthless I am. This time, thank goodness, Grif noticed and pushed a few of them aside so he could hand me a flaming torch to drive them back. And so, with the brain weasels pushed to the outer edges of the circle, I’m in a good place again. Maybe I should make one of those charts like you see on construction sites – “47 Days Since the Last Brain Weasel Attack” – to see if I can keep the streak going.
I guess the point of all this is to let you know, fellow dysthymia sufferer, that I get it. I can’t say that I understand what it’s like for you, but I think it’s important for us to remember that depression lies. The brain weasels lie. All those things that they say are not true, especially the part about how no one likes you and the world would be better off without you. And if you ever feel like they’re closing in on you, I’m happy to shove a few of them aside and hand you a flaming torch.