Seriously…stop and smell the flowers.

By default, my brain is a negativity sponge. Left to its own devices, it would put down roots in the land of all that is gloomy, cloudy, gray and uncomfortable. Preventing this takes work. Every day is a choice: Give in and ruminate in sadness or fight like hell.

I will say that years of practice have made the fighting, or rather the knowing how to fight, a little easier. For instance, you won’t generally find me sitting alone in the dark; If a room has curtains or blinds, expect me to open them. I’m wary about the music I listen to and the movies I watch. I almost always do some kind of chore while I wait for my coffee to brew in the morning because it helps me to productively pass the precarious minutes between asleep and awake time. This is important because those minutes have the capacity to set the tone for the entire day.

Perhaps most importantly, I am learning how to look for the good in each day. My hope is that slowly but surely my brain will start to see these things naturally, that the effort to be consistently happy will be less difficult. And I have reason to think this could be the case. Studies in neuroplasticity show that, contrary to popular belief, the brain continues to rewire itself throughout life. Exposure to difficult and/or new experiences can actually change the physical structure of the brain! How fucking cool is that?!

In the meantime, spring has finally arrived in Indiana and with it, so many reasons to feel happy and hopeful. Just look at that blue sky!

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Lying in bed last night, I was thinking about the similarities between spring and the end of an episode of depression. Both bring a sense of new life and an enhanced appreciation for all the little things. While I certainly don’t recommend taking a spin at depression (“All Aboard Misery Cruiselines!”), I do believe that experiencing a particularly rough patch of life can help one to better appreciate moments that might otherwise be taken for granted.

Take a moment today to step outside and feel with all your senses.

Stop. Be still. Close your eyes and breathe.

Surviving Depression

To avoid being redundant, all the tips I gave for surviving a loved one’s depression also apply to surviving your own depression. However, as I’ve spent more time as the depressed person, I have a little additional insight into keeping yourself afloat when your brain feels like it’s trying to drown you.

1. Be patient with yourself. Let me repeat: Be patient with yourself. You cannot get out of bed before noon some days? It’s alright. You haven’t washed the dishes in a week? They aren’t going anywhere. What truly matters is surviving to the best of your ability.

2. With that said, pick one task each day and complete it. When you’re in the pit of a depressive slump, the simplest task can feel impossible. Select just one task, muster as much willpower as it takes and get it done. As you begin to feel better, you may be able to slowly add more tasks to that list.

3. And when you complete these tasks, document and celebrate your simple successes! Depression can cause every day to melt into one, long void. Help yourself to combat this by keeping an Activity Log. Documenting the things you do not only serves as a visual reminder of your successes but also offers an opportunity to say, “I may not feel well, but I completed x and y today. I’m doing alright.”

4. Remember that you have felt happy before. Depression has a tendency to wipe from memory all the good that has ever occurred in your life. You see nothing but darkness behind and darkness ahead. Whether you believe it or not, remind yourself that you will not feel this way forever. You will have happy times again. Consider asking a trusted friend or family member to remind you of the good times.

5. Seek out qualified assistance. Whatever the circumstances surrounding your depression, should you find yourself stuck in a terrible slump of sadness, please begin actively looking for help from medical professionals. Though I believe antidepressants and other psychotropics should primarily be prescribed by psychiatrists, a trusted family doctor isn’t a bad place to start. If you are searching for a therapist/counselor, check here for tips on finding one who fits your needs.

6. Don’t give up. You may not believe it, but there is hope. There are options. There is help. Looking for the right combination of medications, the best fitting therapist can be an exhausting and frustrating process. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you never know the beauty that could be just around the corner. I, for one, would hate to quit when something wonderful could be waiting for me on the other side of this minute, this day or this month.

For Caregivers: Surviving a Loved One’s Depression

May I state the obvious? Being around someone who is depressed is exhausting. We (the dismal, depressed collective) are pessimistic, weepy, needy and, whether or not We’ve found the energy to shower, possibly stinky. Having been both the depressed person and the loved one of someone experiencing depression, I’d like to attempt a little perspective on what We need as well as how to save yourself from burnout as a caregiver.

To begin, please for the love of all that is beautiful, do NOT say the following: “Your life isn’t that bad.” “You have nothing to be sad about.” “Just snap out of it.” “I was depressed once and then just decided to be happy.” “What’s wrong with you?” “If you prayed more, you wouldn’t be depressed.” “You’re depressed because you aren’t following God.” (I’ve heard all of these and none of them did anything but increase the guilt I was already feeling.)

DO say: “I love you.” “I know that you are hurting.” “We will get through this together.”

But, enough about Us.

You, the caregiver, are going to get tired. You’re going to get irritated. You’re going to feel upset, scared, angry and possibly resentful. So what can you do to save yourself?

1. Realize that your loved one is sick. He/she is not defined by the depression. Stop to consider the things that make her who she is. Remind yourself that much of the negativity she is projecting is a symptom of depression. Separating the illness from the person can help stop misplaced anger and give you an outlet for frustration. It’s okay to be super pissed at the disease.

2. Try not to take everything your loved one says personally. While depression is not an excuse for cruelty, remember that, as stated above, your loved one is not herself and may say things that come across as unkind, whether or not she intended them as such.

3. Find someone you can talk to. Your loved one probably isn’t going to be as emotionally available as usual. It’s important to have someone else you can trust who will listen to what you are feeling, whether that be a family member, a friend, a therapist or even an online forum. I don’t necessarily suggest you tell your loved one you are talking about her to someone else, as this may be interpreted negatively.

4. But, don’t be afraid to talk to your loved one. So many times, I’ve heard people say, “I knew you weren’t feeling well, so I didn’t want to burden you with my own problems.” Completely understandable response. Talking about your struggles, however, may help your loved one to continue to feel valuable as she is recovering.

5. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from friends and family. More often than not, I think you’ll find people are willing to lend a hand if you only just explain that you’re feeling overwhelmed.

6, In addition to asking for help, don’t try to do everything. You may find that some tasks need to be put on the back-burner for a bit. Unless you’re someone who finds relaxation in such things, deep-cleaning the kitchen grout can wait. In this same vein, it’s important to realize it isn’t your responsibility to “cure” your loved one.

7. Take care of your body. You will need to prevent yourself from becoming physically rundown. Try to make healthy food choices, maintain your sleep routine and take time for light exercise. As best you can, keep to some sort of schedule to maintain a sense of balance and normalcy.

8. Treat yourself. Try to do at least one special thing for yourself every day. Pick up your favorite coffee, take a bubble bath, listen to uplifting music. Whatever you enjoy, make time for it.

9. Consider taking up journaling. I started keeping a journal my first year of college, and over the years, I’ve found it is a great way to vent and sort out my thoughts and feelings. You can go the traditional journal route or try art journaling. (Check this tumblr page for beautiful examples of this type of journal.)

10. If all else fails, just breathe. When you’re at your absolute wit’s end, try some deep breathing exercises, like these, for relaxation.

If you’re looking for more information, try this resource for caregivers.

On Depression

I’ve been away awhile, trying, trying, trying to fight off a nagging sense of depression’s lingering presence in my brain. I couldn’t keep the Deep Dark away this time, so as I wait out these weekend hours until I can reach my psychiatrist and get some medication to send my serotonin levels back to “normal” I thought I’d take the time to share a bit of how depression feels.

As I was telling J last night, I haven’t been posting on here because 1) I haven’t felt well enough to write and 2) I long for this blog to be a source of optimism. Nonetheless, I think I can talk a bit about what I am feeling without taking an entirely pessimistic view on life.

If you’ve read anything about depression, I’m sure you’ve read that it isn’t just “a bad day.” I cannot emphasize strongly enough how true this is. Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, even. Depression is a different beast.

My first warning sign is usually a decreased interest in everything. There’s a clinical term for this: anhedonia. It means you lose interest in all those things you used to love doing. Previously, I’d found pleasure in cleaning and decorating the house: no longer. I love taking walks in early spring: no energy. Everything around me loses its color and vibrancy.

Second sign? My brain feels like it’s muddled in cement. I can’t think clearly. I have trouble explaining myself. I catch myself staring into space, staring into my coffee, wondering how long I’ve been “gone.” Every action seems to require a tremendous amount of concentration and energy. I’ve found I have to practice simple, non-verbal mantras to myself. Lying in bed this morning, realizing I’d been there for 12 hours… “Get up, Holly. Get up. Get out of bed and make coffee. You can’t lie here all day. Get up and make coffee.” Repeat until I muster the strength to throw off the covers and put both feet on the floor.

And then, the crying. Random, unexpected crying. I remember a time I had a sob fest because a bouquet of flowers had died, and I had to throw them in the trash. Somewhere in my sad mind, the flowers represented all that is life and suddenly “we were all slowly withering on the brink of death.” Sounds like a real drama queen moment. It isn’t.

Bring in the feelings of guilt. Depressed people will apologize for all the troubles and ills of the world. It isn’t that we are being purposely selfish or ego-centric but that our brains are filled to the brim with thoughts of inadequacy or of being a burden. For my part, I experience immense guilt over the concern I cause others and for how needy I become. I am naturally a very independent person. I hate having to ask for help. But when I’m depressed, something as simple as a sink-full of dishes can reduce me to tears. I need help but knowing that I need help, that I am draining my loved ones of energy, compounds those feelings of guilt.

Next up, physical pain. By now I’m sure many people have seen the commercial for Cymbalta. “Depression hurts, Cymbalta can help…” And hurt, it does. I’ve noticed that I experience more physical symptoms with depression as I get older. My back will ache, I’ll feel like my neck is made of limp asparagus and cannot hold my head. My head will ache, or I’ll get strange stomach pains. It can become difficult to distinguish whether you’re depressed or if there’s something seriously wrong with your body.

Other common symptoms of depression include sleep and appetite disturbances, irritability and/or restlessness. I can go either way on some of these. I’ve had times where I didn’t sleep for days despite being exhausted and other times when I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of bed. Appetite is a confusing topic for me because of my comorbid (not sure I used that correctly, but it just means an addition of another disorder on top of the primary one) eating disorder. I’ve taken loads of online depression self-tests over the years, and whenever I reach the question about appetite disturbance, I always wish there was a “how the hell should I know” option.

As I wrap this up, I feel the need to clarify that my purpose for sharing these things comes out of a desire to dispel the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses by spreading the truth. Depression is a real, physical illness that severely affects an individual’s daily life and functioning. Later, if I can get my brain to cooperate with me, I’d like to address what to say and what not to say to someone who is depressed, possible suggestions and tips for caregivers and things I’ve learned over the years about surviving a depressive episode.

If you’re interested in further information, WebMD gives a nice overview of depression here. For a reputable self-test, PsychCentral offers a well-rounded quiz that covers the basics of depression but isn’t overly long.

This Is Water, This Is Water…

Awhile ago, I was shown this video. I don’t often use the words “life changing” but this speech by David Foster Wallace is just that.

As we grow older and settle into the seeming monotony of day-to-day life, it is easy to be sucked into a vortex of boredom, cynicism and and impatience. Everything and everyone around us can feel like an inconvenience. I’ve found I need to regularly remind myself that I must “make a conscious decision about how to think.”

Please take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video and truly listen to the words.

Oh, Happiness…you elusive beast…

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have a confession. I can be an incredibly negative person. (To those who know me well, keep your laughter to yourselves. Kthnx.) But really, far too often, I find myself wadded in a ball on the couch on the verge of tears wondering why “I can’t just be happy?!” My life is pretty good. I have a family who loves me, a caring boyfriend, a home, a fur baby… And yet, I tend to become fixated on the difficult aspects of life.

I think I sometimes fall into the “happiness trap,” imagining I’ll one day wander into some magical world of emotional bliss. The reality? Happiness takes work and practice. Well, shucks…

Okay, so how does one go about this happiness business? Keep in mind I have certainly not found the holy grail of all things gaiety and rainbows, but I’m fairly certain happiness is the direct result of choosing to see and string together all the “nice” moments in life (a tasty meal, a hug from a loved one, a smile from a stranger, a sunny afternoon, a good book…all those things that make you smile, make you feel content or peaceful) all the while letting the “not so nice” moments drop like stones from your hands.

And like most things, the more you practice happiness, the easier it becomes.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” Dr. Seuss

You’re Pretty Good Looking…

I recently attended my first eating disorder recovery support group. I’d searched for groups in the past and been unable to find anything in the city, so as soon as I located this one, I knew I needed to make myself go. The small group met in a cozy basement room of a local university building. Overall, the experience was positive and left me feeling welcomed, warm and hopeful.

Later that night, though, as I lay down to try to sleep, I found my brain swimming with thoughts..

“I don’t know why you went to that group. There’s not even anything wrong with you! Good grief. Your weight is perfectly healthy. No one thinks you look ill, so you obviously aren’t. Yadda, yadda, yadda.”

Living with an eating disorder is much like playing host to an evil twin who perches herself on your shoulder incessantly whispering cruel and belittling comments into your ear. You never feel good enough, pretty enough, deserving enough. But though it sometimes feels more comfortable to consider the ED as separate from yourself, I believe this displacement of responsibility could be potentially harmful.

The reality is, all these thoughts are coming from your own brain, not some separate entity. Frustrating? Absolutely. But admitting these thoughts are a part of yourself means returning the power to where it belongs. In you.

Let me say this, as much for myself as for anyone who might be reading: You deserve peace. You deserve joy. And you deserve to not continue to live in a way that leaves you tired, weak, ill and socially-isolated. YOU ARE ENOUGH.

On Emotions

Do you ever have one of those “aha!” moments? The moments when something once obscure and foggy, suddenly becomes clear, precise, tangible? (You know, like when it suddenly occurs to you that AYCE stands for “all you can eat” and isn’t in fact some strange fish in the scrod family. Oh wait, you knew that all along? Nevermind.)

One of these such moments occurred over an incredibly simple idea: Emotions are neutral.

And this changes everything!

When you come to the realization that emotions just are, you no longer experience guilt over feelings of anger, depression, frustration, apathy, etc. It is not the emotions themselves which determine right or wrong. It is how a person chooses to respond to these emotions that is important.

Repeatedly, others apologize to me for what they feel. “I’m sorry for being a downer.” “I’m sorry for venting.” “I’m sorry I don’t feel like hanging out today.” Stop the apologies!

To feel is human and that is a remarkable and beautiful thing! 

On Self-Care and Nurturing

“I like to be surrounded by splendid things.” Freddie Mercury

As children, we are taught not to be prideful, to rid ourselves of ego, not to let our successes “go to our head.” Obviously, this is meant to keep us from becoming conceited, overly self-involved assholes. In some cases, though, I think we lose sight of the importance of taking care of oneself, both physically and mentally. 

As I move down the path toward recovery from my eating disorder, I am continually reminding myself that I am worth the effort. When in the grips of something like anorexia, a voice in your head is incessantly screaming about what a disgusting, low-life piece of shit you are. You feel that you don’t deserve to eat and when you do, you experience intense, irrational guilt. I believe that an enormous aspect of recovery involves learning how to appropriately care for and nurture yourself.

In fact, nearly everyone could use a little bit of self-nurturance. 

Choices of ways to nurture oneself are bound to be a little different for each individual, but the basic idea is to take time to partake in little indulgences and pleasures. I find this is especially important when going through a difficult period of life. When everything feels chaotic, painful or out of control, that is when you need to take a moment to yourself.

My mom always used to say that when I was feeling sad I should take a bath or shower then spread my neck and shoulders with a yummy scented lotion. Such a simple idea! No, this isn’t going to pull you out of an episode of depression or solve a major life dilemma, but something about feeling clean and good-smelling inhabits a person with just the slightest little boost of confidence and the feeling that, “yeah, I really do deserve to be taken care of.”

For me this means: taking the time to use a hair mask or paint my nails, buying my favorite coffee even if it costs a little more, wearing clothes that make me feel pretty, and buying new and flavorful foods.

For more on the topic, I highly recommend a book given to me by my best friend at college, “Transformation Soup: Healing for the Splendidly Imperfect” by Sark.

“…Paint stars on your ceiling; make noises when you eat; put a clown nose on when you drive; wear a flower behind your ear; light candles every night; send yourself (or anyone else) a bouquet of yellow tulips; use your best dishes every day, especially when you eat in front of the refrigerator.” From “When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair” by Geneen Roth

My hair like Jesus wore it, Hallelujah I adore it!

While washing dishes yesterday morning, I was contemplating body acceptance, self-acceptance, self-love, etc. in a particularly hippie-ish fashion. I was thinking about how I used to assume I needed to be “perfect” and have all my shit together in order to be loveable. It’s easy to get stuck in this frame of thought, that you need to be some utopian, ideal human being before you can move forward or start a relationship.

Hold on a minute and consider this… What do you find most beautiful in others? Personally, I am attracted to weirdness. I like eccentricities and flaws. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. If I am able to love someone BECAUSE of their imperfections, who am I to think someone else cannot love me for those same reasons? While there are certainly situations where it is helpful to spend some time alone, I encourage everyone to accept those little quirks and “insufficiencies” with open arms.

Embrace your “weird” because goddamn, it is beautiful!