** Warning: this post contains mentions of self-harm.
Mind Over Mood. Full Catastrophe Living. The Courage to Heal. Healing from Depression. The PTSD Workbook. Those books adorn one particular shelf in my bookcase, nestled tightly between memoirs by survivors of sexual abuse. This is the collection of books I used to hide behind my mini-library of classics: the terrible tragedy concealed by Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles. I used to think of it as my Shame Shelf. Although the books were designed to be lifelines in long, dark nights, I saw them only as spectres of the past, whispering: you’re dirty, and broken, and can’t let go.
My biggest challenge used to be willing myself to get up out of bed in the morning. When you’re suffering from depression, you feel mentally and physically exhausted. Small tasks sap every ounce of energy and once Important Things That Absolutely Must Get Done are relegated to Things That I Might Do Next Thursday When I Have the Energy. The mere thought of activity of any kind feels oppressive. And decision fatigue? The definitely becomes a thing. So, when I would peel my eyes open in the morning, head pounding and throat dry from sixteen hours of sleep that still didn’t feel like enough, deciding whether I would initiate a day full of exhausting thoughts, decisions, and movements was sometimes too much. It became a daily war: to try and muddle through the fog, or to stay in the comfort of my nest?
I’ve done medications. I’ve been on most anti-depressants that you could list off the top of your head if you know anything about them. I’ve also been on a number of benzodiazepines (which I now blame for my rubbish short-term memory). I’m now on what I consider to be an effective combination of risperidone and escitalopram.
I’ve done therapy, too. I don’t know if it’s because the free and (relatively) accessible therapy options are on a tight budget with too many clients, but I found therapy to be largely useless. One-on-one sessions took 2+ years to land a spot in and were either too preachy (literally, there was too much talk about Higher Powers) or too New Age-y (keep your aura away from me, please). Group sessions often focused on things that weren’t important to me, and participants’ rants were permitted to go on too long by group leaders. It also felt like matchmaking wasn’t done very well – they should know not to put cynical, angry people like me in with cryers who don’t yet know how to identify their emotions. Group therapy is not very effective if not all participants are on the same approximate level.
I don’t know when things started getting easier but they did at some point. Slowly. Each small step of progress would take months – and often had to be revisited due to relapses. It took me two years to stop cutting, only to start again after two more years (and then stop again some time later); but, I haven’t done it in a long time and don’t think I will again. The constant anxiety when leaving the house has been replaced with comfort in knowing that I am just another face in the crowd, and that means no one has to know anything about me. The paralyzing anguish has turned into more of a dull ache at the back of my head that I only really notice when I’m being too still.
What I’m trying to say is, there is always hope. And I don’t mean that in a condescending, embossed-in-gold-leaf-on-twenty-dollar-card-stock way. Do not doubt for even a second that the journey from the hell of depression to stability is the hardest thing anyone can ever do. The moment you start expecting it to magically go away is the day you lose. Recovering is damn hard work; and, if you have chronic mental illness, it is a lifelong journey.
The thing to keep in mind is that not everyone can be measured on the same scale. Learn to take joy in the little victories (for instance, after a week of depression and complete disregard for nutrition, I made a healthy breakfast for myself this morning). Start collecting these little victories so they help stack up against the losses.
Surround yourself with friends. Even if you don’t think they want to hear about it. All it takes is saying, “I feel like crap,” and your loved ones will pay attention in a way that might shift your mood. And if the attention and love doesn’t help, that’s OK, too, because at least they will be there when you can’t help yourself anymore.
Those self-help books? Invest in one or two good ones with exercises and work through them slowly. The key to making it through depression is adopting coping strategies. The good self-help books teach you methods for dealing by conditioning you to practice them on a daily basis. That way, you’re not floundering when it gets bad.
If it’s necessary, keep your local crisis helpline number handy. Have it posted several places in your home to remind you it’s there. Make it a contact in your phone so that you don’t have to look it up when the need arises.
There. Is. Hope. Remember that when you feel like you can’t climb out of the pit, I have faith that you can. Sometimes it just takes a while.