“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller
I am in a cold, dark place. Everything feels heavy and the darkness is bearing down on me and threatening to suffocate. I lie in bed, cocooning myself under the covers, surrounded by pillows and I close my eyes. I can hear my phone vibrating somewhere on the floor near my bed, and I know on some level that I should answer it. Supposedly, that’s what normal people do. I focus on the sound instead, its soft humming becoming a sort of hypnotic background noise for my thoughts. And what are my thoughts, exactly, in this moment? That I am so comfortable and I feel so warm and safe that I want to keep lying here forever and never go anywhere ever again.
The problem with this, of course, is that with the exception of getting out of bed to go to work, I have been lying in bed for months. It’s called depression, and it’s familiar territory for me. I’ve been here before, and I’m also intimately acquainted with Depression’s cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which likes to pay me a visit every year between November and April. I get it. I know what it’s like. Except that this time around, this is not my familiar, warm and fuzzy, I-know-how-to-handle-it sort of depression that I’m dealing with. This time, it feels like I’m in hell. And it’s lasted for months.
I decided to write this article because although we are in the 21st century, and although we are supposedly open minded, experienced with, and educated about mental illness/mood disorders, we still have a long way to go. We need to be able to have a meaningful dialogue about depression. We need to talk about how one’s mood is not, in fact, merely a choice to be made as simply as choosing what to wear in the morning. We need to acknowledge depression and its causes, because the roots quite often run deep.
It’s not enough to acknowledge that we feel down and to make a list of activities that would cheer us up and seek them out. Furthermore, as an outsider, it’s not enough to spit out solutions such as “Get some more exercise, it will make you feel better!” when a friend opens up to us. This is not the point, and these do-it-yourself-in-five-easy-steps solutions can be borderline offensive to the person who feels stuck in this dark place.
I knew what I was “supposed” to do, to help myself. I knew that if I ate more vegetables, made an effort to get outside during daylight hours, exercised, did things I enjoyed and talked to someone, that it would help. I knew about the fish oil and the Vitamin D, and the light therapy—I even went out and bought myself one of those bulbs to sit in front of for 20 minutes a day. I just didn’t do any of it. I couldn’t.
On an intellectual level, I knew what I was dealing with. In my day to day life, however, all the so-called solutions seemed silly. I couldn’t even motivate myself to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make lists of things I enjoy. Sometimes you’re in so deep that nothing brings you joy. Or, in my case, the only thing that does bring you joy is being in bed, in comfy pyjamas, and just lying there. Not talking to people, seeing friends, or going outside, but lying in bed. I truly relished those moments.
After a while though, it got harder and harder to do other things, like convince myself to get out of bed to make a nutritious dinner. So I didn’t do that either. Grocery shopping was a huge chore and the simple task of going to the store and having to walk up and down the aisles looking for food felt overwhelming and exhausting, so I avoided it as much as possible. All the while, I understood that it made no sense. I just couldn’t rationalize myself to a better head space.
At my lowest point this winter, I made an appointment with my doctor. I rarely see her, because I rarely need to. But I didn’t know what else to do. I had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and make the call, but I felt resentful even as I was waiting in her office. When she came into the room and we finally spoke, she said all the things that I knew she would say. That was the incredibly disappointing part. I knew what was coming, but I was somehow hoping for something more. I told her I needed help with motivating myself to do simple tasks. If I could somehow find that motivation, I would be fine. I asked her how other people did it, because I couldn’t remember how I used to do it. She recommended a low-grade antidepressant. I filled the prescription even though I never intended on taking it. I put the bottle on my dresser and I gave myself three weeks to start doing something different, “or else.”
That bottle greeted me every day, and it was the sheer horror of being told to take a pill that helped to motivate me, somehow. I started eating more raw veggies and juicing to give myself more energy, while cutting back on things like rice and potatoes. I started using the light therapy lamp I had bought, and taking a fish oil supplement and flax oil. I did more yoga. I meditated more. Gradually, I started feeling better. The days started to get longer again and I realized that I had made it through to Spring. I felt good.
Our notions about happiness entrap us. We forget that they are just ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Every case is different, but to someone who is in a similar situation, providing them with advice or solutions can be frustrating and somewhat useless. If you have a friend or loved one who is going through a difficult time, what’s important is to be there for them. Sometimes it’s not your advice that’s required, but your presence, and your acceptance.
Simple ways to support someone through depression
1. Be there for them. Let them know that it’s safe to open up, but make it OK for them not to, as well. Not everyone likes to talk things through.
2. If they do open up, simply listen to them. Be a calm, solid presence.
3. Don’t offer advice unless you are asked, or unless you feel it would be truly beneficial and well received.
4. If you’re inviting them to a social event, offer to pick them up from home as opposed to having them meet you there.
5. Come for a visit. Bring yummy food.
6. Bring some fresh flowers to brighten up their living space.
7. Offer to help with grocery shopping, or just stop by with a treat.
8. Buy them some scented bubble bath or body lotion. Smell is very powerful. Energizing scents can be very helpful on cold, winter mornings when you don’t want to get out of the comfort of your bed.
9. Bring them some scented candles or incense, especially if they live alone as it can make their home feel more cozy.
10. Sometimes people want to withdraw and spend all their time alone. Don’t give up on them. Don’t stop inviting them to social events. Let them know you care. Call, text or email to show that you’re thinking of them. And understand above all, that their withdrawal is not about you…so don’t make it about you.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’re still stuck in that place, my heart goes out to you. I know what you’re feeling, but I also know that it will get better. Everything is impermanent, and this too will fade. You will wake up one morning and you will feel better. Until then, take it one minute, one breath at a time, and be patient. It’ll be OK.