I’ve been ruminating on this post for a few days, as I struggled to decide what to blog about this week. This is a tough and heavy topic, but I finally settled on discussing it because it *is* so important, particularly at this moment in time when so many people are struggling and vulnerable. Why add my voice when so many others have already provided great resources and their own stories? Well, I hope I have something of my own to add, because of my own struggles with depression for the past twenty-plus years and because I think that we can never talk about it enough to break the stigma and ensure that people get the help that they need. (Please note, **trigger warning** for this entire post).
All week, I’ve had one of my favorite memes in my head, which is “to the tune of ‘the Final Countdown’ – it’s a mental breakdown – ***off-key kazoo.***”
I don’t mean to make light of depression – it’s NOT a funny disease – but those of us with it often resort to gallows humor to get by, and this meme always makes me giggle. At week five of the quarantine, it feels particularly appropriate. It seems that a lot of people are starting to really struggle at the moment. And at the outset of this, I want to make clear – I’m not a doctor. I will be sharing from my own thoughts and experience, but if you’re someone who is struggling, you should seek the help of someone who is trained. I can’t emphasize this enough. I’ll share below some resources for how to get that help, but getting help is one of the bravest and scariest things you can do when you need it, but I promise you it will help you to feel better – maybe not immediately, but speaking to someone with the skills to help you cope and an objective view of your life and situation is literally a life saver.
I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this here on Zen before, but I’ve been co-hosting a podcast with some brilliant women on Friday mornings, called “Keep Calm & Cope Coronacast.” The first several episodes have been dedicated to wading our way through the five stages of grief as they relate to the current pandemic, and last week, we delved into depression. Taking a listen may be helpful, and I’m going to share some of the same resources here that I did on the podcast.
One of the things that we discussed is that there are different kinds of depression, and among them are situational and major depressive disorder. For some of you reading this and struggling in the lockdown, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression for the first time, and not recognizing them as depression, because it is situational. Situational depression can sometimes happen around loss of a loved one, or a job. Right now, we’re experiencing all kinds of grief (I read a GREAT post today from Gini Dietrich over at Spin Sucks about why we shouldn’t be hustling at the moment, and anticipatory grief), and it’s entirely reasonable that some of these symptoms may come up, and give us greater compassion and understanding for those who suffer from major depressive disorder (like me!). In case you’re not sure what the symptoms of depression are, for yourself, or for those around you, the Mayo Clinic has a great list:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
Mayo Clinic notes that these symptoms can appear differently in children and in older adults, so if you’re concerned about someone in one of those age categories, do some deeper dives to see what those symptoms may be.
I do want to share a word of caution to friends and family of loved ones with depression – I see many, many posts from people sharing offers of help to people who are suffering. I know that these are genuine and well-meaning. But as a depression and anxiety-warrior myself, and being a friend to several depression and anxiety warriors, I know that it is an intense and often life-threatening disease. It is also best left to the professionals. When you offer to be there for someone, and act as a lifeline, but you don’t pick up the phone or answer a text message or other outreach, you might be the last port of call for that person. Again, that’s why I can never emphasize enough the importance of involving medical professionals in getting someone help and care. So, how do you do that?
For When You Need Help
As the person struggling – I know first hand how hard it is to pick up the phone and ask for help. You feel guilty for bothering everyone, you feel unworthy of the effort, you make excuses about not wanting to spend the time, you don’t want to admit what’s going on because then you’d have to fix it, sometimes suffering is actually comforting, you might be forced to get out of your comfort zone (and a million other reasons). But I promise you, it’s really a relief once you do it. Yes, it’s true that sometimes it takes time to find the right therapist. Or the right dosage of medication if you need it. But once you do, your whole life opens up to you. It’s like a weight has actually been lifted. As my doctor told me when I broke down in her office over a year ago, “You deserve to be treated. If you had high blood pressure, we’d treat you for that.”
Friends and others have recommended Psychology Today as a great place to find therapists in your area. This is US-based, and will help you to find someone licensed near you. You can also call your doctor for references – I have a great relationship with my GP, so she was able to give me a list, and also tell me who on that list was most likely to be a good fit for me. She was right. Talking to trusted family and friends is also a way to find a therapist or counselor that someone you know has had success with. Another tip I’ll share is that I’ve had many friends and friends of loved ones with depression wait months to speak to a psychiatrist about medication (therapists and psychologists are not licensed to prescribe). If you are seeing a therapist and need medication, your doctor (and if you’re a woman, your gynecologist) can prescribe antidepressants if deemed necessary. So when you’re in medical crisis, know that your doctor can be a primary resource for you as well.
If you’re the friend or family member of someone who is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask the person how they’re doing, and to be specific. Ask “are you depressed?” Say “I’ve noticed you have these symptoms and I’m worried about you.” “Can we talk about how to get you some help.” Talk openly about suicide and whether they have a plan – that will let you know if the threat is immediate and you need to act quickly to get them help right away. These conversations are terrifying and hard – I have had them with people, and I won’t pretend they aren’t awful. I recommend talking to a professional yourself to find out how to have them, and also involving other family and friends to get support – not to make the friend or family member feel like they’re being cornered, but to help them understand how loved they are, and how worried you are.
Coping with Depression
There are other ways to cope with depression (and anxiety, if you’re in the lucky group that gets to battle both!) in addition to therapy and/or medication. I shared some resources from HelpGuide.com and my own list during the podcast for how to do this, and I’ll elaborate here on how I’ve learned to use these to manage my own depression over the years:
Reaching out and staying connected: This one is *essential* for me. I’m an introvert, and about eight years ago, I had a bout of agoraphobia as well. So being on lockdown during a pandemic can be a bit risky. I have to be exceptionally intentional about how I engage with people. I do that by reaching out to my friends with video apps like MarcoPolo, doing yoga over Zoom with my best friend several times a week, holding virtual coffees and meetings with clients, participating in more webinars, agreeing to more calls, FaceTiming with family, etc. I’ve also been rigorously honest with friends and family about how I’m feeling, whether that’s good or bad, so that I can make sure to stay ahead of any issues that are cropping up.
Daily walks outside: It’s been a miserable spring here, but I am committing to daily walks. I don’t always get outside, but even if it’s two and a half miles on the treadmill, moving my body is an essential part of the day for me.
Meditation: Although I am firmly in the camp of it being unnecessary to pick up a new skill or hobby during quarantine, I have started daily meditation. I had promised myself I would commit to this in 2020, and it’s helped me tremendously. I’m using the Calm app (you’ll hear us talk a LOT about this in the Coronacast), and both the guided meditations and the sleep stories have been a tremendous lifesaver for me. I truly didn’t think I’d survive ten minute meditations when I used to get antsy over five minutes, but I’m thirty-two days in, and hooked.
Proper nutrition: If we’re honest, we’re all probably doing this one to lesser or greater degrees of success during lockdown, right? But I can tell you for myself, when I’m eating foods that nourish me, and regularly (as in, I don’t wait to eat lunch until 3pm), I feel better and my moods are more even. Being able to do this is definitely a privilege, and one I don’t take for granted. It’s certainly on my gratitude list (and having a gratitude list is another practice for me that is hugely helpful).
Therapy & Medication, as needed: we’ve covered these!
Reaching out to support others (getting out of your own head): This one is HUGE for me. One of my favorite sayings is “I may not be much, but I’m all I ever think about.” And when I think too much about myself, that’s where I’m at. So one way to not spend too much time with *me* is to spend more time thinking about others. There are TONS of things you can do to help out, while continuing to social distance. I’ve been using my time to crochet “sore ear savers” as part of a relief crafters group I’m in for frontline workers wearing masks, and it keeps my hands busy and helps me feel like I’m making a small difference.
Pets!: My mom told me last night that there’s some concern that dogs will have separation and anxiety when their owners go back to work after the lockdown lifts (not cats, they’ll be relieved, I think). I know this is true, and although I always work from home, I know I’m grateful for the extra time I’m getting to spend with my senior pups, when I was expecting a year of increased travel. Even if I had a conference call with several hound howls yesterday.
Do things that make you feel good (bath, watching funny shows, reading a good book): Whenever I’m talking to a friend with depression, I suggest getting back to the “kid” basics – what were the things that you enjoyed doing as a kid that would make you happy now? Make a grilled cheese or a PB&J. Read a book that you love (not one that you feel like you’re “supposed” to read). Watch a funny show. Jump rope. Bake cookies. This isn’t about learning a new skill, but it’s about getting back to the 10 year old you that felt some joy.
Supporting your health (regular exercise, eight hours of sleep, etc): Same thing here – how would you care for a young child? Care for yourself that way. Give yourself a strict bedtime and adhere to it (I say “you” because I’m terrible about this. I’m working on it.). Commit to exercise – I’m not suggesting reinventing yourself, just moving in a way that brings you some joy – even if that’s a dance party in the kitchen for ten minutes (really, I mean it). Eat meals at mealtime, even if you don’t want to, with real food. Pretend you’re a kindergartner who needs some TLC – what would you say to him/her/them? Do those things. Say those things.
This is a tough topic, so I’ll end with some positives. Depression has taught me a lot, and that’s one of the things we talked about on last week’s podcasts too. One of my fellow hosts said she’d learned confidence, that she could get through anything because of it. I just love that. It’s really true – when you’ve been through the darkest days, and survived them, you know that you are capable of handling really hard things, even when you don’t want to. For me, it’s taught me greater empathy, which can be hard at times, because I feel other people’s feelings so deeply. But I’m grateful for that level of sensitivity and connection. And it’s crystallized what’s important for me, and forced me to take care of myself (I don’t always do that perfectly!). But I’m reminded that when I feel out of whack, something is wrong, and I need to identify what that may be, be kind to myself, and take a little time to take care of it.
Very, very importantly, I want to share: If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.