I sat there staring at my phone waiting to hit the send button. At the same time, I hoped there would be some show of strength, some force, that would keep me from sending it. No such luck. With one final click, the text was sent and a wave of relief came over me. The air instantly got less heavy; it was easier to breathe now.
“I’m sorry I can’t make it. I have an urgent client meeting,” my text said. It was a lie. It seemed like all I ever did anymore was lie to cancel appointments. It felt like letting people down was all I was capable of. I always hated flakes. Now, thirty years in, I had become one.
The guilt of lying, the disappointment with myself – none of it was nearly as overwhelming as the dread I felt at the mere idea of leaving the house and going to a meeting. So once again I chose the less painful route; I canceled my commitment and crawled back into bed.
Any expert or therapist will tell you that, when dealing with depression, it is important to keep busy. They want you to go out with people, exercise, take walks in nature. They want you to be active. It fascinates me how these intelligent people confidently give such impractical advice. Sure, it seems practical. Some of it should be obvious. “If you’re depressed, go spend time with people who make you smile.” But it doesn’t work that way.
When my depression is really throwing hard punches, when I’m up against the ropes, that advice is useless. I’m not going to the gym. I’m not spending time with you. I’m not walking out in nature. I’m not eating healthy. I won’t even go online. When my depression is at full strength you’ll be lucky if you see signs that I’m even alive.
The world outside my home becomes a prison. I’m terrified of it. The only place I’m free is in my bedroom with the blinds shut tight and the covers pulled up to my chin. Thank goodness the dog can go outside on her own to use the restroom. If that was dependent on me having the strength to walk outside it would look like we were hoarding poop in our living room.
I understand the reason behind their advice but when your mental health seems to be systematically killing off parts of your life I don’t think “go for a walk” is the most solid action.
“Look how far I have fallen”
One night Kristen and I were visiting a depression support group at our church. The meeting wasn’t going very well and I wasn’t doing much better. As usual, I was fighting the urge to run out of the room and head for the car. On that particular night Dr. Mike Marino, the author of Anxiety & Depression Boot Camp, was the guest speaker. Somewhere, in the midst of my all too common struggle between staying and running away, the noise muted just enough for me to hear him say, “Within the context of depression some days just brushing your teeth is considered a success.”
“That’s uncomfortably humbling,” I thought. “How pathetic. I once had so much potential and now I’m being told that brushing my teeth is a win. Look how far I have fallen.”
The rules have changed
After the initial shock of his statement, and the resulting negative self-talk in my brain, I marinated on his point and it started to sink in.
The context of depression is important to understand and it is vital that you come to accept it. You have to come to grips with the fact that many of the rules in your life have changed. They may change only for a season, but they still change.
When we struggle with depression and anxiety we have to define new rules. Figuring out your new rules is a big part of living your life despite your illness.
It is going to be difficult to accept that you aren’t capable of the things you were once used to. You may not be able to get as much done as before. You probably won’t be able to keep up with everyone around you. That is okay. Your rules are different right now. The context has shifted and with that so has the definition of a successful day. You may no longer be able to do 5 meetings and a presentation. You may no longer be able to go to every after work function. It doesn’t matter if your friends can or if you used to be able to. Again, you’re living within a different context now – new rules.
Figuring out your new rules
Honestly, figuring out your new rules isn’t very fun. The only way to really do it is through trial and error. Doesn’t seem too bad except for when you realize that the “error” in “trial and error” is going to mean depression or anxiety. But you have to keep trying. It’s the only way.
To figure out your new rules begin with a blank piece of paper. Write down all the things you think trigger your depression. Next, write down all the things you think make you feel better. It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list. It’s just a start. The key here is to just start brainstorming.
(In an upcoming post I’ll go into more detail on this process and how I’ve used it to fight back against my depression. For now, this will get you started.)
Always bend your rules
While knowing (and accepting) your new rules is vital, it is just as important to try to bend them when possible. This means going to that extra meeting or trying to do one more thing on your list than you feel capable of. Maybe it means having dinner with your friends who you usually avoid when your depression gets bad.
Bending the rules is how you get stronger. Over the last couple years, I’ve had to avoid a lot of parties or other social engagements. My depression just can’t handle it. This weekend Kristen and I took off for a wedding. That meant plenty of family time and multiple events throughout the weekend – a nightmare for my depression. I bent the rules and pushed myself. It was hard but I kept pushing. This was super healthy and I’m stronger as a result. But I had to bend my rules in order to make it happen.
Was it easy? Absolutely not. It was really difficult but I survived it with minimal crying and only one panic attack. Because of that my week has been very slow. I’m exhausted both mentally and physically. I’m not getting much done at all but that is because I need a few days to recover from that “workout” where I bent my rules.
Just like a workout, you’re going to be sore after. Maybe you’ll cry more in the days that follow. Maybe you’ll have more anxiety. Maybe you’ll break down in the middle of it. I’ll be honest, I expected all of those when I bent my rules for the weekend. But that’s a good thing. When you go to the gym you don’t just lift the weight that’s easy. You push yourself to lift what you think you can’t. By struggling through that you ultimately become stronger and the things you couldn’t lift before become just a warm up later.
Accepting is a daily challenge
I have really bad depression. The rules have changed for me. I need to be patient with myself and give myself some grace. Here’s the thing, this has to happen daily. Just because yesterday I managed to accept some of the restrictions my depression has placed on me doesn’t mean I’ll be cool with it today.
Each day is a new opportunity to get better but it is also a new opportunity to give yourself some grace. Don’t let it be a new day where you hate on yourself for not getting enough done or being too sad.
Once we accept that the rules have changed for us we can start to manipulate them and try to get better at coping. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn to thrive again.
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