Life is funny. Not the ha-ha-ha comical kind of funny but the funny you don’t always want. Funny because just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something happens that quickly dispels all notions of you having mastered this ‘life’ thing. It brings you down to earth, sometimes rather rudely so. And in comes the ‘stay-positive’ brigade, ‘if you conceive it you can achieve it’. Really? I’m just kidding, you can achieve it, but still life is funny like that.
I’ve shared with you about my ongoing personal battle with clinical depression, how I have made great strides in challenging and overcoming the illness, as well as activities I’ve now taken up that I could not previously pursue because of depression. Although I believe I’ve got a handle on it now, every now and then the heaviness of mood that goes with the condition comes on despite the medication. And these subdued moods have the effect of convincing you that it’s nothing to write home about. It’ll wear off soon, just stay with it. But I think it is something to write home about because if not dealt with, it can lead to other darker things.
There are difficulties though. Some of these I’m only learning now. Because I want my battle against depression to succeed, I’ve found I want to appear well to other people, all the time. Relaying my true mental state to others seems very much like pity-seeking behavior which I personally want to avoid at all costs. But I’ve also found that if I’m going to portray a true reflection of my search for a workable balance I need to let you know that even on treatment there are days or periods of time when I don’t want ‘to mix with people’, when I wish for some mental silence. There are times, like now, when I wish I could be away from my everyday life. This is difficult to explain to people but it is exactly how it feels.
“Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”, Amilcar Cabral said in the context of a national revolution but I’ve found this applies equally well in a battle that has the potential for a relapse. Such is depression. I have chosen to be open about the effects of the condition on my ability to carry out my daily activities and I was just thinking the other day that I would not be totally honest if I only gave you the stories of success and exclude the battles I’m still fighting. These battles are important because all too often I’ve been discouraged from trying out new adventures because the condition convinced me I cannot reach the standards already set by other survivors. I recently heard a radio talk show host refer to a celebrity depression sufferer as the poster girl for depression. I just got the sense that although that sounded like a compliment, it’s not a mantle that would rest easily on the shoulders of one still learning how to deal with the condition.
Poster boys and girls exude all that is positive about their chosen brand. The wide smile, the confident ‘I’m-in-charge-and-I-know-it’ look, that’s hardly what a depression survivor would want to convey. Whilst a poster girl or boy would give the message that ‘depression can be beaten’, I personally think it would be more important to convey the message that yes it can be beaten, but the victory will not always be poster-boy/girl material. Sometimes, despite the medication, the heaviness will come. The urge for social withdrawal, the self-doubt and the irrational fears will present themselves.
When the feeling that I’m on edge comes, I don’t fight against myself like I used to in the past. That, I have discovered, is the most futile of all human exercises, because you can never win a battle against yourself. Indeed, history is littered with stories of men and women who took on themselves and ended up in the gutter, defeated, high, drunk, broken down or even more scary, just going through life in ‘quiet desperation’. When the darkness threatens, I try to order my thoughts. Sometimes just a to-do list for the day or week reduces the unnecessary anxiety that comes with feeling ‘disorganized’. Remember, it’s not that the disorganization is real, no. It’s just an unsettling feeling of impending doom. So ‘ordering my thoughts’ helps me in taking it one day at a time. The darkness comes with a feeling that tomorrow will be just as dark, yet, from experience I know tomorrow can be totally different depending on how I deal with today.
The heavy moods can sometimes be lifted by a change in focus. This is tricky, I’ve found. It’s easy to change what you choose to focus on but your surroundings won’t necessarily change with you. These unchanging surroundings can defeat your well-meaning efforts to change your mind’s focus. A personal example. This might sound a little bit weird but it’s true. Just after graduating varsity I went through a long-ish job hunt. About a year to be exact. At the time I had no knowledge of clinical depression at all or even that I suffered from it. I took every job rejection letter that came very personally, especially in cases where I felt I had done enough to secure the job.
One rejection letter took me to the edge, and I thought this it, no more of this stuff. I had taken to opening these letters in the bathroom as I ran the bath water, so by the time I started bathing I was pretty down(I can’t really remember why I chose the bathroom but I guess it had to do with the need to handle rejection alone, a sure sign of depression). I eventually got a job, a good one at that. What I didn’t know was that my association of rejection with running the bath water would stay with me for a long time. There are times even today, fifteen years later, when I catch myself lost in thought as I take a bath, focused on the negative that’s to come. Exactly the same thought processes that I used to go through with every rejection letter. I’ve had to actually take a conscious approach to taking a bath, hard to believe I know, but it’s true.
I have chosen to change that association by kneeling down and praying before baths. This is easier to do when things are going ok, but when the darkness threatens, my being sometimes wishes to just wallow in the heaviness. It’s what I did for years so even though it’s not a good thing to do, it’s what my subconscious knows to be me, so if I don’t pay attention it’s what I end up doing, giving in to the melancholy moods.
Another trick that I’ve learnt is to do my pick-me-up activity. Years of depression can leave you with a very thin catalogue of activities that you enjoy that can lift your mood. Sometimes, even those can be ‘perverted’ to defeat their purpose. One thing I thank God for always is my love for reading. I read everything, newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, fiction , non-fiction, the lot. I never noticed it before but often-times, when depressed, I would look for comfort in a book. Sadly, your brain is not very discerning when you are depressed, so even this pick-me-up activity could end up enhancing the depression if you happened to be reading dark material. The idea is to choose a pick-me-up that actually works for you. Movies, TV and other media might help temporarily but I find you are not always in a position to do any of them, especially if you work.
I guess what I’m conveying to you is that this battle against this sometimes diabolical and debilitating illness is not always straight forward. I’ve debunked the notion of “happy pills” in my own life because although I’ve found anti-depression medication to be absolutely necessary in my case, they don’t make you “depression-proof” as my clinical psychologist likes to say. I find they serve to give you a fighting chance where you previously thought you had none. They serve to give you a better shock-absorption system, allowing you a longer and more considered reaction time where you would have previously gone straight in to the pits of depression, sometimes with no discernible way out. But “happy pills”? I don’t think so. You, as a person, remain solely responsible for injecting the “happy” into your pills, or life.
I was heartened by a certain response I got to the blog post “That Was Then”. Where I thought I had not necessarily conveyed what I had set out to do, a response came that a reader was encouraged to think about ways of dealing with their continuous “foul moods”. That’s the magic of reading and writing for me, sharing thoughts that until you put down on paper were your private preserve. Thank you for reading mine.