21 Tips to Keep Your Shit Together When You’re Depressed.
A while ago, I penned a fairly angry response to something circulating on the internet – the 21 Habits of Happy People. It pissed me off beyond belief, that there was an inference that if you weren’t Happy, you simply weren’t doing the right things.
I’ve had depression for as long as I can remember. It’s manifested in different ways. I did therapy. I did prozac. I did more therapy. My baseline is melancholic. I’d just made peace with it when I moved, unintentionally, to a place that had markedly less sunshine in the winter. I got seasonal depression. I got that under control. Then I got really, really sick. Turns out it’s a permanent, painful genetic disorder. My last pain-free day was four years ago.
So, this Cult of Happy article just set me off. Just… anger. Rage. Depression is serious – debilitating, often dangerous, and it’s got an enormous stigma. It leaves people to fend for themselves.
It’s bad enough without people ramming Happy Tips at you through facebook. There is no miracle behaviour change that will flip that switch for you. I know, I’ve tried.
A friend of mine suggested that I write something from my point of view because, surprisingly, I manage to give an outwards impression of having my shit together. I was shocked to hear this. And I find this comical, but I see her point. I’m functioning. I’ve adapted. I’m surprisingly okay. I think the medical term is “resilient”.
So, here it is.
My 21 Tips on Keeping Your Shit Together During Depression
1) Know that you’re not alone. Know that we are a silent legion, who, every day face the solipsism and judgement of Happy People Who Think We Just Aren’t Trying. There are people who are depressed, people who have been depressed, and people who just haven’t been hit with it yet.
2) Understand that the Happy People are usually acting out of some genuine (albeit misguided) concern for you, that it’s coming from a good place, even if the advice feels like you’re being blamed for your disease. Telling you these things makes them feel better, even if it makes you feel like shit. (If they insist on keeping it up, see #12.)
3) Enlist the help of a professional. See your doctor. You need to talk about the ugly shit, and there are people paid to listen and help you find your way to the light at the end of the tunnel.
4) Understand that antidepressants will only do so much. They’re useful, they’ll level you out and give you the time you need to figure out your own path to getting well. They can be helpful. There are lots to choose from. They may not be for you, and even if they are, they take some time to kick in. Conversely, they may not be for you. Work with your doctor.
5) Pick up a paintbrush, a pencil, an activity you got joy from in the past and re-explore that. Or, sign up for the thing you always wanted to try. There is a long history and link between depression and creativity. It’s a bright light of this condition, so utilize it to your best advantage.
6) Eat nutritionally sound, regular small meals. If you’re having trouble eating, try to focus on what you’d like to eat. I went through a whole six week episode of tomatoes and cream cheese on a bagel twice a day. Not great, but it was something – helpful context, I’m a recovered anorexic. Conversely, if all you want to do is scarf down crap, try to off-ramp it by downing a V-8 and doing #9 for 15 minutes, and see how you feel. Chucking your blood sugar all over hell’s half acre is going to make you feel worse.
7) While you’re doing #3, get some bloodwork done. If you’re low on iron or vitamin D, or if your hormone levels are doing the Macarena… these can all contribute to zapping your energy or switching your mood to Bleak As Hell.
8) If you’re in bed and the “insomnia hamsters”, as I like to call them, are on the wheel of your head, watch Nightly Business News on PBS. This has the effect of Nyquil. Swap out your coffee for herbal tea. If you just cannot sleep, try the next tip….
9) Learn how to meditate. Start by focusing on your breathing. Not sleep, not thoughts. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Meditation is focusing on being present in your body, not careening around in your brain. It may not be as good as sleep but it will give you some rest and recharge you.
10) Face a window as often as you can – at work, at home. Look out into the world. Watch. Observe. Try to find something you find pretty or interesting to focus on. And, handily remember that one in five of those people out there feel the way you do.
11) Cry. Better out than in. Sometimes it’s not convenient or career-enhancing to cry, so find a private place as best you can and let the tears go. Carry Kleenex and face wipes and extra concealer if you wear makeup. You can always claim allergies.
12) Any “friend” who resolutely believes that your depression is because you’re lazy, because you’re not trying hard enough, who blames you for not bootstrapping out of it- that friend needs to be cut off. Polite (#2) is one thing, but there is a limit. You don’t have to explain, you can just not respond. You feel badly enough, you don’t need their “assistance”.
13) Limit your time with people who drain you. You know who they are. Often you don’t have a choice- but you can put the meter on. And, subsequently, be aware of what you’re asking of those close to you.
14) Everyone has shit they’ve got to deal with. What you have been saddled with is your shit. Recognize, just as you’re not alone, you’re also not unique. The grass may look greener, you may be jealous or envious of others who don’t have to deal with depression, but you likely do not know everything that’s going on with them.
15) Let go or be dragged. This is an old Buddhist saying. It’s a very useful way to frame aspects of depression. Betrayal, anger, fear… letting go is a process – often a painful and difficult process - but it’s ultimately going to show you the path out of this terrible place. Repeating the mantra can help when you’re feeling gripped by these feelings.
16) Wear clothes that make you feel confident. It takes as much time to put on nice clothes as it does to put on sweatpants. You will want to wear the sweatpants. Fight the urge. The whole “look good/feel better” campaign isn’t limited to cancer and chemotherapy. Or women.
17) Avoid fictional drama and tragedy like the plague. No Grey’s Anatomy, no to The Notebook, or anything that won a Pulitzer prize. You’ve got enough going on In Real Life. Comedy only. Or trashy stuff. Old episodes of WonderWoman? I’ve got the box set. Mindless drivel, like the latest CGI blockbuster. Or clever, funny books. David Sedaris. Jenny Lawson. Fiction exists to elicit emotion, and the emotion you need to express most right now is laughter.
18) Simple exercise, if you can. It can be something as simple as taking the stairs up a flight, or walking around the block. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, it doesn’t have to involve climbing a mountain or running a marathon. Baby steps.
19) Depression will lie to you. Depression will try to tell you what others are thinking. That you are unloved and unworthy, that others think little of you or don’t care – or even wish you harm. You are not a psychic. Keep repeating that. “I am not a psychic”. Repeat. The only way to know what another person is thinking is to up and ask them.
20) If you are well and truly losing this battle, reach out to someone. I’ve been the random friendly-but-not-close person who has fielded the occasional outreach. I like to think I’m not judgemental and generally resourceful, and others have thought the same, so they called and asked. You know someone like me. And they will help you.
21) Forgive yourself. I’m writing out all these tips, and I can’t always muster the strength to even stick my nose outside, or walk up the stairs, or eat my vegetables. Today, I got outside for ten minutes. I will try again tomorrow. And I will try again the day after that.
Hi. This is me, taken earlier today around 7 pm.
It’s been a pretty curious year for me. Last summer was something… well really it started about two Augusts ago. I wanted to be in shape, to eat better, and most specifically I wished to decrease my risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, which runs in my family. After having seen all the complications my grandfather has due to chronic heart disease and advanced diabetes, and after being home and stress eating sweets, I decided I wanted to be healthier all around. I would say I was an average of 120lbs, I’ve always loved fruits and veggies and would eat what I’d consider well rounded meals, but I wasn’t the type to eat breakfast and I’d almost always have dessert- a bit of ice cream or some cookies or cake if we had it. I ate normally/intuitively and I ate junk with my friends and once touted french fries as my favorite food. I avoided sugary drinks, most fried foods, and would eat things like pizza occassionally. I mean, I was generally a normal functioning person but I didn’t exercise daily. I’d go for walks and things on the weekend if the weather was nice, but after school and working and then having to do homework, I never felt motivated to exercise; my form of relaxing or stress relief was reading a book. But after I graduated from college, and experiencing my diabetic grandfather have his leg amputated because of it, I wanted to be healthier and start exercising more and eating a little better (that is to say not eating out of stress or boredom and limiting my dessert intake because it had gotten a little out of hand that summer).
I started simply by walking every day and trying to do a small yoga routine in the morning. I also started eating breakfast, something small like a banana with peanut butter on toast or an apple with some milk since I never felt hungry in the morning. I eventually went from walking to running in short increments (walking for 5 minutes, run for 30sec) until I challenged myself to run a little longer and walk a little less and so forth until I could run a complete mile straight without stopping for the first time in 8 years. I also would take a bike ride or do some physical activity during the day. I learned a lot of nutrition and ate more whole wheat/whole grain things, learned how to make things healthier, ate quinoa and other new foods, and cut down my sugar intake and started counting calories/keeping a food journal. After a while I gained muscle and lost weight. I was pretty impressed. But I kept doing it, and eventually I became obsessed with clean eating. If I couldn’t control my food or meals, then I’d try to plan ahead and add up calories that may be in my dish I’d order at a restaurant. I’d have occassional cheat meals. I exercised a lot during the day and became too focused on the amount of calories burned. I used to stop around 35-45 minutes of exercise, but then if I didn’t reach 300 calories burned by 45 minutes I’d keep going and eventually burn 400. But I wasn’t making up those calories later in the day. My net intake was probably somewhere around 1000-1200 calories per day. And if I had evening classes, I wouldn’t eat a proper dinner meal but would have a sandwich and some fruit or veggie with it. At a certain point I was only getting 900-1000 calories per day. I felt aggravated or upset and angry a lot, I wasn’t sleeping well, I was tired, but I would push myself to exercise that day despite feeling tired. I also worked as a vet assistant/receptionist which was an on-your-feet-constantly-moving job when I didn’t have class. I ended up going from 120lbs (relatively healthy for a 5 foot 5 in female age 22) to 110lbs. I had visible abs, I had bigger biceps and more upper body strength than I ever had before. I liked how fit I was and how easily old clothes fit again and how I needed new clothes that hugged me nicely. I was almost happy with my body for the first time. But, in losing 10lbs, I lost out to many experiences I could’ve had with my friends. My clean eating and calorie counting habits became extreme. I was minimizing my intake of healthy food based on calorie numbers instead of nutritional needs. I wouldn’t go out drinking with my friends or go out at all because drinking is unclean and would cause me to gain weight.
Around the time my clean eating habits were becoming extreme, my boyfriend of almost 6 years and I were having a very large rough patch. Because I had no energy left over for myself, I couldn’t help him in his greatest time of need. I was awful. I couldn’t care, I wasn’t nearly as caring as I could’ve been, or would’ have been if I gave myself a break and just chilled out once in a while and relaxed and ate good food with my friends and him. If I wasn’t so focused on planning my day and plans around my eating and exercise schedule, things may have turned out differently. But no, I lost myself at a time he was very lost himself and I couldn’t help at all. We ended up fading from each other, or pulling away from each other, and the distance grew and grew. He didn’t know i was struggling with the beginnings of an eating disorder- I wasn’t yet convinced myself I had one- but I knew he was struggling with severe anxiety and severe depression and I just made it worse, I gave up. We ended our relationship in an amicable and consensual manner.
Last summer was extremely difficult for me. I lost myself almost completely. I looked like myself. Except much thinner and leaner, and I had gotten my hair permed because I had an obsession with everything being different- I wanted to be different and not part of the life that was stressing me out to the point where I failed to confront it and instead took it out in terms of calories and nutrition facts. While I was happy with my visible abs and muscle tone, I was only 112lbs and barely there. I wouldn’t listen to any music I used to love, I only worked out to my safe bands or bands I liked when I was a crazy 14 year old with undeveloped taste. I still was a joy kill and wouldn’t do anything with my friends that required me to break my sleep/exercise/eating routine. I wasn’t inflexible. I was selfish. I was uncaring of others around me because I couldn’t even care about myself enough to allow myself to enjoy unclean eating or activities. My friends acknowledged that I wasn’t fun anymore- I asked. I felt bad. I was alone. I made myself feel that lonely, though. I pushed everyone away unintentionally.
Then I really did become alone. Everyone went back to school and working; yet, I had been let go from my new vet assistant job. So I only had school once a week. Then my cat fell ill. Kidney failure. The love of my life since I was 7 was sick and anemic and I had to take care of her. I ended up stopping exercising. I was too depressed finally to want to. I tried, and then I started binge eating and stress eating and then exercising to make up for that. My metabolism was screwed up from the year and a half of a low caloric intake. I gained some weight back and that made me feel worse. I didn’t really have anyone to confide in. My best friend Nicole was busy for most of October and November getting her PhD. I only talked to Gil (via texting) every day. Then in November, Honeysuckle was too ill to go on and we had her put to sleep since the fluid in her abdomen was preventing her from breathing and eating. I was a wreck. I fell into the worse depression I’ve ever experienced. I had no cat, no friends around me, I didn’t have Matt anymore, and no job or school to keep me relatively busy. That also meant I had no money to do anything had I wanted to.
Matt came back into my life after hearing about Honeysuckle (and we also kept in touch, occassionally talking briefly if we needed a shoulder to lean on). We talked about music again. I found Yuck to be my new favorite band; it felt like I was hearing music for the first time again. A new restaurant opened down the street, a brewery, and we checked it out one day. I tried a beer that I actually loved and ate food I didn’t know the calorie content of. I slowly got out of my own head, went out with friends, and eventually became a hostess at that brewpub. I had some money to do some things with and my friends became a little less busy and I saw them more. I went to a few concerts with Matt and his friends, and got to know my friends better and myself better again. I started exercising again, because I wanted to feel healthy again. I didn’t calorie count or become too focused on clean eating. I learned how to exercise when I was up to it and eat normally again.
I gained all of my weight back and a little more since last fall. In March I was still around 124lbs, but by June I became 132lbs. Some might be muscle but not that much. My clothes became tighter and some things that fit me at 110lbs and 120lbs no longer fit well. At a certain point in time this really upset me. Specifically in July when I felt fat and ugly and I didn’t want to wear a bathing suit for any reason because all of my bathing suits were too tight and not flattering. I didn’t like my body again. But I struggle with that often. Some days I’m happy with it and others I’m not. I realize that the days I think I’m fat and gross and need to go back to running and yoga every day are the days I’m anxious about other things and take it out on myself.
Since having Matt and my friends back in my life, I’ve discovered myself again; I’ve found myself and learned new things about myself. I have many facets that I can focus on that aren’t related to my body or whether or not I have visible abs. I’m a bassist in a band and we’ve come up with really cool songs that I’m proud of, I’m nearly done my Master’s in Microbiology at Jefferson and I’m starting in a parasite lab tomorrow and will get to work with mice and neat helminth infections. I’ve experimented with baking and have made so many good treats that all of my friends love and request. I’m reading books again, listening to music and discovering new music and going to more concerts that I ever have before. Doctor Who is back on, and I’ve watched new shows like Orphan Black that I love. And even though I’m not thrilled by my job, I don’t hate it, and I’ve made a couple friends there that I like.
I know this tumblr of mine started out of wanting to be part of the fitblr community and I used to update often - posting my healthy foods, workouts, and recipes to share. But I’m done with that now. I don’t want to be focused on my caloric intake and how many reps or miles I did that day. That’s not what’s important to me anymore.
So Hi. My name is Erica. I suffered from orthorexia and depression. I still struggle with anxiety but I’m doing okay now. Funny how much better things can become in a year.