Tag Archives: depression

On Thriving (not just surviving) in the Dog Days of Winter

Lazily browsing Instagram this afternoon, I stumbled upon a woman who described herself, in winter, as a hibernating bear. I adore this in so many ways. How freeing to allow, to forgive, to be PATIENT with myself through the long, struggle-y winter months.

Though born in the heart of it, I’ve never loved winter. Extra hours of darkness combining with icy sidewalks, bitter wind and waves of 21st century plague cause my insides to tremble in dread as early as mid-August. I know I sound dramatic. The fact is, winter means facing things that feed my depression, making staying ‘okay’ a bit more difficult.

Medication and therapy can be vital tools for managing depression, however, I believe much of the healing happens in the seemingly insignificant moments of daily living. Truly LIVING with depression means finding ways to fuel the inner flame.

In winter, much of my survival toolbox consists of methods for generating warmth and light, both literally and figuratively. These are a few of the things I do regularly, if not daily, to keep my fire burning.

  • Light candles with intention. By this I mean, be PRESENT in the action.
  • Create a skincare regimen and stick with it. Cold winter air means dry, thirsty skin. Taking care of your skin not only helps combat dragon scale but also serves as a SELF-CARE practice.
  • Maintain a TIDY and pleasant environment. I keep my space clean and organized.  Those who know depression will relate to the all-encompassing dullness of anhedonia, that lack of interest in everything. Keeping art and craft supplies in easy to reach, organized compartments means that when I feel like doing something I easily can.
  • Hang string lights. Yes, year round.
  • Focus on eating healthy, PLANT-BASED meals. Stay away from items made from a long list of ingredients you cannot pronounce. I also like to keep low or no prep items in stock for days when my energy is running particularly low. Lotus Foods’ Rice Ramen is my current addiction. And Larabars are almost always available in my kitchen.
  • Plan for FUTURE fun. My latest project is researching all the road trips I can take with our new little dog, Hazelnut. She’s just the right size for car travel, and I’m thrilled at the thought of sharing outdoor adventures with a canine friend.
  • If at all possible, GET OUTSIDE. Early last autumn I determined not to allow winter to keep me housebound. Keeping cold weather gear at the ready gives me fewer excuses to remain glued to the couch.
  • Show MERCY. Some days are tougher than others and that’s okay. Dare to show yourself the compassion you would a beloved friend.

Now it’s your turn. I want to know–how do you get through the winter doldrums? What are your tried and true self care methods?

Keep it cozy, fellow hibernating bears!

 

 

 

 

Mountain Therapy – where agoraphobia met adventure

The agoraphobia struck forcefully and without warning. I cannot entirely identify the catalyst, though I remember those first weeks well—long October days, hiding under layers, smoking menthols out the bedroom window and pure, unadulterated panic at the mere thought of needing to leave my apartment. Depression swirled through it all like milk poured into black coffee. I skipped holidays and family events. I made excuses. I slept through entire days and nights. Anxiety medication was popped like candy. I watched the seasons change through glass, like some kind of backwards peeping Tom.

When spring arrived, I forced myself out to stretch my legs and breathe something other than staleness and smoke. I couldn’t make it past the end of my street.
Fast forward five years and you’d find an older, slightly happier, slightly less agoraphobic me. I had a healthy relationship, a cat, a dog and a ten-year-old girl who wanted me to be her stepmom.

And yet…
I still had panic attacks in the grocery store.
I still could not drive more than 20 minutes from home without fear and nausea and a jumpy, palpitating heart.
I still skipped family functions sometimes.

I’d had enough.
I would do something big, push myself beyond every, last level of comfort. I would perform my own version of immersion therapy.
I would not die before I saw something beautiful.

I chose Glacier National Park. Crown of the Continent. More than a million acres of mountains, lakes and streams. Teeming with everything from tiny pikas to mountain lions and grizzly bears.
Lying in bed at night, I scrolled through pictures on my phone. I wanted to be there so intensely I could feel it in my chest. I had been a prisoner of my brain for too long; it was time I unlocked the gate.

I didn’t have money for hotel rooms—I would sleep in my car. I’d arranged my sleeping bag so my lower half would snuggle down into the trunk of my 2007 Toyota Corolla. My food supply consisted of protein bars, peanut butter, bananas and instant coffee. I didn’t have the proper “outdoorsy” clothing. My too-cheap, stow-away backpack was made more comfortable with a little help from a bungee cord as a makeshift chest strap. My hiking shoes had holes in the toes.

None of this mattered.

On the morning of the great exodus, I was readier than I imagined I could be. When I’d awoken throughout the night, I was met with feelings of confidence, not the get-me-out-of-this dread I had anticipated. Nerves were high but so was excitement. The car was packed. The house was checked and double checked for things I might have missed. I said goodbye and logged the first of 1700 miles.
For each of the next few days, my routine was similar. Drive until I couldn’t anymore. Find a place to park. Set up sheets as makeshift curtains. Slide into the me-sized trunk bed. Sleep. Wake before the butt crack of dawn. Make coffee over my tiny stove and jetboil fuel. Drive. Drive. Drive. I-94, you vast, barren creature—I will never forget you.

Wildfires were raging just west of here. I’d noticed for hundreds of miles the hazy muted shades of the horizon but on my morning drive to Glacier, the sun was a strange murky, coral-colored orb. With the windows rolled down, I breathed in the acrid scent of what, to me, smelled of childhood bonfires. The Blackfeet Indian Land I traversed was immense and looked nearly untouched. I imagined this land looking much the same as it always has, unharmed and wild.

And then, it happened.

I saw my first ‘real’ mountains. I stopped the car at a pull-off, got out and stood on wobbly, unused legs. Far below me, an animal bellowed deeply. This was the wilderness. I was here in all my shaky, four-days-of-car-living, no-shower, stinking realness, and I was more alive than I had ever been. I drove the rest of the way into the park, paid for my pass and listened to the park ranger with a raptness I’d not previously conjured.

I entered at Two Medicine and parked at the Scenic Point trailhead. I’d done no real research, so focused was I on keeping myself relaxed and calm as mile by mile I became further from home. I didn’t know how long the trail was or what to expect. I secured my bungee cord chest strap and stepped into wonderland.

The trail started gently, quiet and meandering through thick forest, the sound of the rushing water of Appistoki Falls to my right. I was convinced I had walked on the set of a film. The trees and flowers were props, each stone strategically placed. If I exhaled too hard, I’d blow it all down. I ached to touch it but I could not. This was sacred ground. This place could eat me alive. I was dumbfounded. I hiked with my mouth hanging open.

Thick vegetation lined the trail, and I quietly wondered where the grizzlies were hiding. Never had I hiked with the very real possibility of becoming someone’s meal. Overcoming my trepidation about making noise in this beautiful place, I occasionally clapped my hands loudly to scare away wildlife. The trail opened, looking down at Two Medicine Lake. Gnarled skeletons of dead white-bark pine trees stood stark against the landscape like wise village elders.

Scrambling over boulders and talus, I continued up, switchback after switchback. Despite running nearly every day back home, I had never felt more out of shape. I was panting. Hard.
I began to realize that Scenic Point was at the top of this mountain. I didn’t arrive looking for this particular challenge but now it was my life’s sole mission. Veteran hikers coming down passed me at intervals, looking nonplussed, decked out in their Osprey backpacks, carrying trekking poles, bear bells jingling cheerfully as they walked. I was a novice. I didn’t care. When I thought I’d certainly reached the top, another switchback led me further. I refused to stop.

The wind was whipping my hair into my face, sun beating down on the exposed trail when I saw the cairns. I was too tired for tears of joy. I was an agoraphobe on a mountaintop. I had breathed for the very first time. Such a strange mix, the fear of leaving the safety of my home and the elation of standing there, a solo brunette lightning rod. The latter force was stronger. It was worth every dusty mile.
On the way down I wondered if everyone could see that I’d looked at the face of God. Was my hair a little whiter? Was it written in my eyes? I felt I had grown, that my heart was bigger and my soul finally full and satisfied after years of starvation.


I was not…am not…cured; Life doesn’t quite work that way. But I was changed. The essence of that mountain had seeped into my pores. Now, when I am afraid, when I feel less than brave, I know that I am still the same girl who once defied the enemy and drove 1700 miles to stand on a mountain.

The “R” Word

An episode of All in the Family, the 70’s television show, was playing on the “antenna tv” station today. I was only half watching but looked up as the mother figure (Edith) was in distress. As it turns out, a man had attempted to rape her. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes of the program, I watched Edith experience all of the classic grief reactions.

I felt them with her.

I was raped five years ago.

I’m sitting here wanting to erase that sentence with all the usual ridiculous banter bouncing around my head. Maybe I’ll offend someone. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it. Maybe I should just pretend it never happened. Maybe I should call it something that causes less of a reaction from others….assault, sexual battery?

The truth is, I’m tired of the way we all talk our way around the issue. I’m tired of the feelings of self-blame and guilt victims place on themselves and have placed upon them. I’m tired of feeling embarrassed for something I didn’t ask for and was powerless to stop.

According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. 1 out of every 6. And while the victims suffer in silence, only 2% of rapists will ever spend a day in prison, due only in part to unreported assaults.

To all the other 1 in 6, you are NOT alone. You are not forgotten. The shame is not yours to bear. The guilt does not belong to you. It was NOT YOUR FAULT.

 

A (Very Short) Bedtime Story

A long time ago, in a galaxy much like this one, boys and girls, there lived a very sad girl. The fire in this sad girl’s heart had been nearly snuffed out, and she struggled just to find the strength to make her way through each new day.

Luckily for this very sad girl, there also lived a wise old man. And when the girl cried to this man that she had lost all her hope, he looked her in her very sad eyes and said, “It’s okay, very sad girl, if you cannot have hope in this moment, for I have enough hope for both of us.”

And this, boys and girls, is what I want to share with you tonight, as you drift off into soft pillows and magic dreams. If you have lost your hope, do not fear! For I have enough hope to last us both until you find yours again.

 

On…Choosing Childlessness

children

I never really felt like the ‘mommy’ type. When many of my high school friends talked about getting married and starting a family, I vaguely wondered if there might be something wrong with me for NOT feeling this drive. Marriage? Yes, maybe. Babies? Hmm…I dunno.

Some time after college, I made the, somewhat detached, decision to not have children. Not because being a mother didn’t appeal to me (there are certainly aspects of motherhood that I long for), but because I 1) see within myself a “selfishness” in regards to my need for personal space, time alone, the ability to come and go as I please, etc. 2) have a personal and family history of struggles with mental illness which I have elected not to pass on via genetics and 3) (as a result of #2) require a high level of mental power simply to keep myself afloat on a day-to-day basis.

Regardless, up until recently, my decision had always felt fairly distant. It was a speck on the horizon, an ineffectual blip on my life’s radar.

Until it wasn’t.

Quite unexpectedly, I was hit with the full reality of what choosing childlessness means for me. It means I will never look down into the eyes of my baby, it means I will never see myself in another human being, it means that what makes me ME (at least so far as genetics is concerned) dies along with my last breath. For the first time, I truly grieved the things I had surrendered.

As little girls, we are groomed for motherhood. Shortly after birth, dolls are placed in our hands. We are playing house, imitating our mothers. It isn’t easy to let go of this ideal.

I know my periods of sadness over my choice are not yet over, though they have momentarily waned. And I realize that I am only 32 and that circumstances can change. I will, most likely, be forced to reevaluate from time to time; however, based on the present, I feel confident that my decision is the right one. I am lucky to have Alan’s girls in my life and am attempting to be the best mother-like figure I can be. I will most likely never have a baby of my own, but I can still comb a child’s wet, tangled hair. I can still make pancake breakfasts for a family. I can still share my thoughts and experiences with a young mind. There is solace in this.

 

The next best thing

Some days simply don’t go as planned.

After not sleeping well last night, I found myself in an emotional slump. My attitude was negative, I (might’ve) cried into my lunch, and I made poor eye contact with the nothing-but-friendly cashier at the health food store. So many times I’ve let bad hours turn into bad days and bad nights, relinquishing any chance for seeing or experiencing beauty. I did not want today to be one of those days.

Though I can’t recall (or even find) the specific quote, I once read something about doing the “next best thing.” This particular quote was in reference to eating disorder slips, but can be easily applied to any number of good-mood-destroying events. The basic idea is that, even if you cannot always prevent something negative from happening, you can do the “next best thing,” the next positive step toward opening yourself up to what could be.

NextBest

For me, today, that involved a hot shower, comfortable clothes, tea, a book and a soft blanket.

 

 

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!

IMG_20140409_143541

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.