Battling depression often feels more like defeat than victory. I’m going through yet another difficult season, and yet again my depression steadily consumes my life. Those closest to me remark that I’m getting better, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. I just have horrible week after horrible week. Every Friday night is a finish line I drag my exhausted body across.
I go to bed many nights scared of what is going to happen the next day. How deep will the depression go tomorrow? How bad will it get?
When you regularly suffer as I do, it’s easy to feel the symptoms of your illness and quickly fall into a routine making your condition worse. For example, when we feel our depression creeping in, it’s easy to skip the things we know will help us. We skip meals even though we are aware food will fuel us and lift our mood a bit. We bail on exercising even though we know it’s the right thing to do. We hide from people even though we believe we need to be around them.
We must keep an eye toward the goal, to get better. Even when things are at their darkest, it’s vital to at least be aware of the things that will make you feel better. You can’t just isolate, and make it worse. You have to fight it.
When battling my depression, when an episode comes upon me, I’ve found there’s a one-two punch, two phases of it, and working hard to maximize those punches ensures the next episode isn’t as bad.
Phase One: Survival
We’re all too familiar with this phase. Our depression has a hold of us and begins to drag us down.
First, go to your list, the things you know that might work. For me, I grab essential oils; I make sure to take my meds, put on a movie or TV show that lifts my spirits or I play music that puts me in a good mood. I pray. I text my wife at work.
When it’s beyond dreadful, and I can’t do anything other than convulsing in pain under the covers of my bed, my wife will do these things. She’ll grab the oils; she’ll put on the movies or TV shows we know work, and she’ll administer my meds. If she’s gone, it takes a lot of prayers, personal strength and motivation from my wife via text to accomplish these things. And most of them never happen if I’m particularly bad one day. That’s okay; it doesn’t always work out the way you want. Just survive.
Do whatever you have to do to survive the attack. At best, go to your list, at worst, hide under the covers and pray. Either way, you have to do whatever you can to get through this episode.
I remember when a disc slipped in my back. For weeks, I would have these shooting pains that forced my body to convulse as if I was getting electrocuted. It was awful. Whenever the pain would start up again, I would just do whatever I could to survive it. I’d cry out in pain. I’d pray to God. I’d yell at God. I’d scream, and I’d grip the sheets of the bed tightly. But I survived. I did whatever I had to, and it worked because I’m still here.
Job one, when a depression attack comes on, do whatever you have to do to ensure you’re still here when it’s over. Don’t let your mind go to that dark place we all know too well. If you’re like me, you will have flashes in your head where you will see yourself try to end it. Your depression will tease you and tempt you to call it quits.
Just because you have those thoughts doesn’t mean it’s over. Keep fighting, keep going. Grip the sheets and scream, it’s okay, you’ve earned it. But whatever you do, keep enduring the pain so that you’re still here tomorrow. Survival is your number one priority when the attack comes on.
A life of survival is not a life
You never want just to survive. If we just survive, we’re barely scraping by in life. We’re not living are we? Sad Runner is about thriving despite depression, so we need to figure out how to get beyond survival mode at some point. Yes, survival mode can last days or weeks or months, but at some point it subsides, and that’s when we have to go to work.
We want to make sure the next time isn’t as bad, and we want to get better at managing our illness. So that’s where the second punch comes in, the second phase of battling depression.
Phase Two: Adaptation
When I train to run a specific race, I don’t resent the uphills or the challenges of that course. I don’t fear them. Instead, I alter my training so that I can meet those challenges. My dear friend and coach, Alex, helps me plot my training so that I’m ready to face the challenges of that race. And, when I get there, those challenges are never as bad as they appear. Why? Because I did all the work to adapt my body to the challenges, I would face.
We must learn to adjust to the terrain of our illness because adaptation is the only way we get better for the next time. Depression is a long dark trail run with extreme elevation changes. One minute you’re struggling to get uphill and the next you’re trying not to slip down the rocky peak of the same illness. And, once you think you’ve got it covered, that you’ve mastered the course, the whole thing changes. And you have to figure it out all over again.
That’s why we must commit ourselves to a lifetime of adaptation. So much of Depression Hacking is about changing ourselves so that we can face our illness. It sounds exhausting, and it is. But adapting is how we improve and ultimately how we stay ahead of our depression.
I want you to understand that this one-two punch is how I’ve managed to keep going all this time. I survive my attack by any means necessary and then, the minute the clouds start to part, I go to work adapting myself so that either the next time isn’t as bad or I’m stronger to meet the challenge.
Before I dive into what I do when I adapt to my illness, let’s get a couple of things nailed down.
First, adaptation doesn’t happen over night. We’re talking micro-changes here. You’re going to move inch-by-inch and slowly get stronger, smarter and better than your illness. But it happens at an exhaustingly slow rate. So strap in and expect to learn patience. But I swear, if you can keep doing it, this will work. You’ll start to get smarter and stronger when battling depression.
Second, adapting to your illness is not giving in to it. You may be thinking, ‘Why should I be the one to change?’ And you’re right. You shouldn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have depression either. But you do, so accept it and accept that, if you want to keep living and actually have a good life despite this illness, it’s going to take some work. So this isn’t giving into your illness, it’s finding a creative way to get over it.
Step One: Catching your breath
The minute my attack starts to subside, I catch my breath and try to get a sense of where I’m at in my life. I’ll look at the time and date, try to see what’s left of my day/week/month. My episodes can wipe out entire schedules, so I have to get an idea of what’s happening and what I’ve missed. But, at this point, I’m still trying to regain some focus and some vision. Think of it like waking up in a stupor. Things are little blurry, and you don’t know what exactly is going on. I’m catching my breath here because this is my short recovery phase.
Step Two: Refueling
Here’s where I start to put some pieces of myself back together. I’ll go to my list of things that make me feel better. Whatever I wasn’t able to accomplish during the attack is first on the list to do at this point. So, I’ll make sure I have my essential oils on and going in the diffusor. Doing this will help keep my anxiety lower. Next, I throw on a funny movie or music like a mentioned earlier. I’ll grab my meds; I’ll make a smoothie with greens in it. I’m still recovering here and moving very slow. I’m wiped out, and it takes effort and energy I don’t have to get through this step. But refueling makes sure that the attack that just subsided doesn’t come back for an aftershock. The minute I can, I have to start doing things to refuel myself.
Step Three: Analysis
So this move is where you’re probably going to roll your eyes and decide you’re not going to try this at all. That sucks for you because, if you follow what I’m saying and power through, it’s going to make things better for you in the future. You just have to commit to doing this.
So, after I catch my breath and then refuel, I go to work breaking down what happened around the attack. I don’t always dwell on the actual attack, but it’s important to pay attention to the things around it.
I’ll start by asking myself a bunch of questions. At this point in my life, I do this all in my head or talk it out with my wife. That’s because this season of depression has lasted about three years so by now I can spot the usual suspects that cause my attacks. But, when my depression changes again I will have to journal this. So, if you need to write these questions/answers down in a journal, absolutely do it. Share it with your therapist while you’re at it. But just know, it doesn’t always have to be that tedious. As you get more proficient at this, you’ll be able to do it quickly in your head. Again, be patient with the process. You’ll get there.
I start by thinking about what conversations I had leading up to the onset of the attack. Were there any uncomfortable situations that could have caused this? We’re trigger hunting at this point. Did someone come to visit? A trigger. Did I have a meeting? Another trigger. Do I have an appointment coming up. Yup, there’s another trigger. Did I read something online that bummed me out. Big trigger. Were there any negative conversations leading up to it?
Just like in a house fire, the trigger isn’t the full blaze itself. It’s just the match that starts the fire. But to start, we’re trying to find out what that trigger looked like so we can try and avoid it the next time.
So, find your trigger and make note of it. You may not find it right away. You’ll start to train your brain to trigger hunt over time.
I’ll start by asking myself what I ate before the attack. I’m not talking the meal right before, though for you maybe that’s a trigger. For me, it’s usually a few weeks of crappy eating or inconsistent taking of meds. So I go straight to those first. I’ll ask how I’ve been eating the last few weeks. Have I been eating what I should or have I been slacking off? Am I eating enough greens? How’s my water intake been? Am I drinking like I should or am I dehydrating myself? How’s my med intake? Am I on top of them or has it been spotty. When was the last time I exercised?
The answers to these questions may hold the key to understanding the gasoline in our fire analogy. So if the trigger was the match, it’s this stuff that fueled the fire. Just like a fire needs fuel to keep going, so does your depression. The things you do in your life, or don’t do, can impact your depression. Those things either fuel it, so it grows into a big blaze, or they snuff it out.
Our goal here is to limit the things in our life that act as fuel, gasoline, for the fire of our depression, so the next attack doesn’t blow up as big.
We start with taking note of the things that make our depression worse and stop doing them. I’ve limited meetings and phone calls to next to none because they bring me so much pain and fuel the depression anxiety. I avoid the news, and I don’t go on social media much. My reason for that is because I’ve identified those as pieces of fuel for my depression. So, until further notice, I don’t do much of those things because I know the consequences. So take note of this stuff and take it seriously. They add up to a massive fire.
Next, I’m asking what happened to snap me out of the attack. Did it just run its course and then the clouds parted or did something happen to start me back in the right direction? Did my wife make a joke or do something dumb? Did someone text me something that moved me?
Sometimes, and I think this is weird, I just need an emotional outburst to jump start me back into life. I’ll try and explain. The pain of my depression internalizes so much, so deep, that I become numb to the outside world. Almost paralyzed, as if inside my body I’m running a marathon trying to get through the attack but to look at me I’m almost catatonic, expressionless. It often appears as if I have no interest in you, our conversation, what’s going on in life, anything. That’s because inside, I’m doing something else at the moment.
Well, sometimes I need something to snap me out of that numbness. I need something to get my attention. On rare occasions, it will actually be my wife pissing me off briefly. We rarely argue and never bicker. But occasionally, she’ll set me off. Well, when I’m in the middle of some of my attacks, I’ll be so numb to the world and then she’ll piss me off enough that I’ll break through the barrier and have an outburst. Now this lasts maybe a minute at most. She’ll do something, boom; I’ll have an outburst. Then we make up and move on. So it isn’t like we have this blowout fight. But it sometimes is enough to snap me out of my depression coma.
Another example of this will be when I get cut off in traffic. There have been many occasions where I will be so numb because of the war inside me, but then some jackass will cut me off, and I’ll have to slam my breaks to avoid the accident. Now, that sucks. I hate that. I don’t want to get into an accident, and I don’t want to share the road with that tool of a driver. But, the slamming of the breaks gets my heart rate up, the anger at the driver gets my emotions up out of their numbness, and I start to make my comeback to the world.
I can’t count how many times we’ve been driving down the road, and I’m having a difficult period, and it looks like we’re just going to have a bad day or turn around so I can go back inside to where it’s safe. But then something happens on the freeway, and I snap back into it, and that saves the day.
I’ll often ask myself if I did anything to prolong the attack. Did I wallow in my pain too much? Did I avoid doing the things I know help me out of it?
Here I’m looking for two things. First, by searching for something, subtle or not, that started me back on the road to snapping out of it I can find something that might help put the fire out next time. Something I can add to my list. Also, by searching to see if I prolonged it, I’m trying to see if I made that fire last longer than it needed to.
Sometimes we can nurture our attack and keep it going. It gets to a point where we are comfortable in our pain because it’s our normal. We don’t want that. We must look aggressively for the things that snap us out of it, and we need to be honest with ourselves to see if we made it worse.
Then, the next time the attack happens, we learn from the last time. We try harder not to prolong the attack, and we try to do the things we learned that snapped us out of it the last time. By doing this, you MIGHT have a shot at keeping the attack shorter than the previous one.
To go back to our fire analogy, this is the extinguisher. You’re looking for things to put out the fire faster.
Putting this all together
So, let’s stick to the fire analogy. Our goal is to get smarter because of this attack so that we can outsmart the next one. So, we’re going to limit the fuel to the fire (stop doing the things that make the depression worse). Next, we’re going to avoid playing with matches (try your best to skip the things that triggered the last attack).
After that, when the next attack happens we’re going to avoid doing things to prolong the attack and instead we’re going to focus on doing the things that put the last fire out. And, we’re going to try and apply the extinguisher sooner this time.
Now, remember we’re talking incremental improvements. If this makes your depression attack last even a minute less, it’s worth it. Because those minutes add up and you will start to feel stronger. I’ve been doing this consistently for the last three years, and it works.
I’ve managed to survive some horrific attacks that have lasted months at a time. But, over the years, I’ve worked to get these attacks shorter, and I’ve managed to get out of them quicker. The reason for that is my tireless commitment to this process. This one-two punch approach that keeps me fighting.
I can’t stress this enough, the process works. If you do this, you’ll get smarter; you’ll get stronger, and the attacks won’t last as long. Just keep doing this and you’ll see how you improve.
Just keep punching.
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