Depression snuck up on me and took over my life these last few weeks. I had so many things I wanted to do, blog posts to write, books to read, people to catch up with. Instead, I just about managed to do the essentials at work and stagger home in the evenings to sit on the sofa and watch Star Trek.
This particular bout of depression got me thinking about how to identify that I am depressed and then how to support myself through an attack. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my own depression is probably transposed anger. Rage always seems close to the surface when I’m depressed, which suggests to me that it’s the underlying emotion in my case. Growing up, I had a lot to be angry about in my life, but middle-class girls are not allowed to express anger in healthy or assertive ways, so like a lot of them, I turned my anger against myself and, inevitably, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders followed. I hate the depression, but maybe it’s easier to cope with than facing up to my anger and the causes of that anger. Right now I’m dealing with the emotional fall-out from a very difficult holiday period which brought up a lot of issues around my family. In fact, I think I’m just starting to really get to grips with what really happened in my family, something that has only started to become possible since I’ve lost the buffer-zone represented by my father.
Depression, for me, tends to manifest itself in the following ways:
- Physical fatigue
I sleep a lot and wake up feeling just as tired as I did when I went to bed. I really struggle with accepting the relationship between my emotional state and my physical state. This is partly because the existence of this relationship is not something that my family believes in, but it’s also because my mother suffered with a mysterious debilitating illness for years when I was a child (later diagnosed as chronic fatigue) leading me to develop a fear of illness.
- Anxiety and catastrophizing
I begin to experience rushes of anxiety. I feel the need to try and control for every potential threat and danger. I’m a highly threat-sensitive person at the best of times, but when I’m depressed my brain runs wild predicting potential disasters. I haven’t heard from my boss for a few hours? Clearly this means I’m about to be sacked, which means we won’t be able to get my partner’s visa renewed, which means she’ll get deported, and my life will be ruined etc.
- Night Terrors
The slightest noise in the house and I’m awake, absolutely awake, sweating, heart pounding. I can’t get back to sleep until I turn the lights on, get up and check that the house isn’t full of murderers.
- Brain fog and inability to concentrate
I think I hate this most of all. Not being able to do the things I want to do produces intense rage and frustration in me, but when I’m depressed it’s a painful struggle for me to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.
- Constantly seeking out distraction
This goes with the brain fog and inability to concentrate. I start seeking out stimuli to distract me from my emotions. Usually, this involves compulsive internet browsing and link-hopping. I don’t enjoy doing it, it’s not satisfying and I don’t even stop to read things properly, but I feel compelled to carry on until I feel almost nauseous with information overload.
- Seeking out of negative stimulation
And I don’t look for things to cheer me up, no. I actively start seeking out more misery and pain. I revel in it. I’m not sure why, maybe I just want to validate my own feelings of discontent and unhappiness – see, the world is an awful place.
- Rage, defensiveness, jealously, resentment
Bouts of depression are also the time when my shadow self really makes itself felt, bringing forth all the aspects of my personality that I dislike most. I have disproportionate attacks of rage; I resent and envy people for their apparent “successes” in life; I start to feel insecure and defensive about my own life. Now my white, middle-class, social conditioning makes an appearance, muttering: “You’re really a failure aren’t you? You don’t have all the things you should have by now, do you? You’re not even trying are you? You should be a lot more successful by this point in your life shouldn’t you? Look at them, they’re doing so much better than you”. One of the many lies promoted by white, middle-class culture is that happiness comes from achieving certain things (only things that give you status in middle-class terms being worth achieving ) in the certain order. I know this is a lie, but the beliefs are hard to excise.
Putting in self-support
Over and over again my therapist would ask me the same question, “what are you doing to support yourself?” She was trying to get to start thinking in terms of self-support, again not something I’ve been taught to do. This is an alien idea. Support myself? How on earth would I do that? I wonder, is this just me, or is self-support an alien concept to a lot of women, since women are so often taught that doing anything for themselves is frivolous and indulgent, if not outright selfish?
What I’ve realised is that, instead of actually taking care of myself, I used to try and manage the symptoms of my depression by seeking out a temporary buzz or high that masked them for a while. I might stop eating and engage in bouts of intense exercise to get a high from fasting and losing weight. I might work incredibly hard and take on too much to get a high from feeling “useful” and the approval it got me from other people (“You have so much energy!” etc). I might drink too much alcohol or smoke an entire packet of cigarettes.
The challenge for me is changing this pattern and introducing healthy acts of self-care into my life. I’ve got a long way to go with this, but here are some of my initial thoughts on what I can do to support myself when I’m depressed:
- Acknowledge what I’m feeling and put a name to it
This is difficult because I’m emotionally illiterate, but even just starting with “I’m angry”, “I’m sad”, “I’m frustrated” etc., helps to stop me getting into a state and ending up with my behaviour being driven by unacknowledged emotions.
Don’t let it fester inside. I try and talk as soon as I start to feel that there’s an issue. Keep talking until it’s all out. Other people might prefer writing, or something else, but I think just getting it out of your head is what matters.
- Don’t try and “fix” it
Emotions are not things to be “fixed” or “solved”. That isn’t how they work. There’s an old saying, “The only way out is through”. I don’t like it because I hate experiencing difficult emotions, but I suspect it’s true.
- Allow myself to regress
This one might sound a little strange, but it’s something my partner and I have been trying to cultivate. We both had short childhoods for a variety of reasons, and were expected to be “grown up” and responsible from a young age. I had an interesting experience during the holidays when I was sitting on the sofa at my mother’s house cuddling one of my nephew’s soft dinosaur toys. My mother came in and called me a “baby” in quite a disapproving tone and I realised she was really uncomfortable with my behaviour. I decided then to buy myself a soft toy of my own.
- Nurture myself physically
Eat properly, sleep, take a warm bath, ask for cuddles, lie down in a darkened room etc. I have mood drops when I don’t eat enough, for example, which feeds into the depression that’s already there and makes it worse.
- Allow myself comforting entertainment
All I’ve wanted to do this week is watch Star Trek. The sound of Patrick Stewart speaking those opening lines, “Space, the final frontier”, feels like stepping into a lovely warm bath.I’ve got my Star Trek, Buffy and Babylon 5 DVDs, but I do need to get more comfort reading in stock because my bookshelf is rather serious.
- Reduce exposure to negative stimuli
In my case this means switching off the internet. I’m going to start tying to have a week off the internet at least once a month. I do love the internet for several reason, not least the support I get from people on twitter and my blogs, but too much time on the internet can be over stimulating in a bad way. I’m quick to get emotionally caught up in things and there’s so much negative information out there.
Depression tells you that you’re not worth anything and I think, ultimately,this self-support is about building up my self-worth, about treating myself like I’m worth being cared for and respected.