I have lived with and dealt with depression (or depression-like symptoms; I have never been professionally diagnosed) in my own life since the onset of adolescence and only recently have I been able to slowly get a grasp on it and, for once, take control of my own life and not let it take control of me. It took a long time to reach this point, and it was not a large number of self-help groups, psychologists, psychiatrists, or depression medications that pulled me up. It was a number of subtle changes in my life.
The goal of this node is to describe the concrete things about my life that I was able to change without the aid of anyone or anything else. I have no interest in prescribing psychotherapy, as it served me no use; instead, this is about the things I have done to help myself. I also have no interest in non-tangibles like add value to your life that are very difficult to really apply. I sincerely hope that these elements, along with the anecdotal evidence from my own life, can have a positive impact on your life.
So, without further ado...
Fourteen Methods of Living and Dealing With Depression
1. Realize that you have a problem.
This may seem obvious, but it is likely that if you sense there is something wrong within yourself, there is something wrong. To have a semblance of what is wrong, you must already have an idea of what is right.
My early adolescence was largely filled with confusion and sadness. A great number of things changed in my life; the usual hormonal changes were just the beginning. I watched my home town get washed away. I lost many of the friends that were close to me; I had a hard time finding friends to begin with, and almost all of them moved away within a year of each other. And slowly I slid downhill.
You don't have to know what it is (unless you want to). Just take account of yourself, and if you feel something isn't right, believe yourself. The actual realization that there is something abnormal going on is the first step to finding a way out of any hole.
I attempted to kill myself in high school (Yer Blues provides more details), and in the aftermath of that decision, I finally realized that there was something not right going on. I had lost the will to move forward. I had just abandoned things that had value to me before. I didn't really know how to deal with it at all, but for the first time, sitting there amazed that I somehow made it through to the other side, I realized that something was fundamentally wrong in my life.
2. Try making changes to your life in small steps.
Many people come to the conclusion that something radical has to change in life, and then proceed to make mass changes. This usually takes the form of mass dietary adjustments, a complete change in social circle, or some other major shift. Usually, this doesn't help at all; the result is that you slash away at elements of your life that are fine in a mad, blind rush to find the things that are actually wrong.
I essentially decided to do this when I went away to university in 1996. I left behind everyone I had known and went to a school where I knew no one at all. It didn't help, and I wound up more depressed than ever. My solace came from writing letters to people from home, especially to a person that I was at best a casual acquaintance with prior to college.
Take things slow. Things won't change overnight, nor should they. The goal here isn't to provide a short-term sense of elation, but a long-term rebuilding of yourself, a true escape from this nadir. Take it slow, and don't choose to throw away something that is really important.
In a few ways, the change of environment helped me greatly. I met several wonderful people who have become the closest friends I have ever had, and I managed to somehow find love. Yet it was not this radical change in my life that brought me up from my depression. It was the culmination of many things, most of them small and gradual.
3. Start a journal for yourself -- and write in it regularly.
You can put this journal wherever you would like: it can be in a spiral notebook, or in a text file somewhere, or online in a semi-anonymous place. I keep two, myself; my offline journal is kept in a series of notebooks and looseleaf papers, and I usually keep an online one somewhere, just to try to share what is going on in my head.
I had no idea how to even begin when I got my first blank journal more than ten years ago. I actually didn't touch it for a long while, then one day, full of frustration, I just started writing every thought that came to mind. A flood of tears quickly followed, and yet somehow I felt better.
How does one keep a journal? Just write whatever comes to mind. I usually find it helpful to write as quickly as my hand will allow, making the page full of scribbles and very raw thoughts. Often, I don't bother to ever reread them; it is merely therapeutic to just express my thoughts and feelings in some fashion.
Some days, I write as much as fifteen to twenty pages a day, hand written. It's often hard to read, and I often have a rollercoaster of emotion while doing this, but there is no single event that leaves me feeling more refreshed than being able to just let it all out in some form.
4. Alter your diet. Just a little.
Before this idea is even elaborated upon, I have to note that radical changes in diet are almost always a huge mistake. The goal here is just to make minor tweaks in eating habits.
I've altered my diet with success in two different ways in the last few years. Both seem to have improved my demeanor and general feeling toward the world. My first alteration was the removal of as much salt as possible from my diet. At an earlier point in my life, I loved eating heavily-salted foods. It reached a point where I would put salt in everything, even adding salt to things that were already salty (my penchant for adding salt to ketchup comes to mind). Early in 2000, during a low point, I found myself eating very salty french fries dipped in ketchup so laden with salt that it was almost gritty. I looked at it and vowed to never add salt to food again, and I haven't.
The best way of altering a diet is just removing something that isn't necessary, or replacing it with something somewhat similar. One potential move is the elimination of a particular dietary additive, such as sugar in coffee or salt on your french fries. Another would be to switch from carbonated beverages to fruit juices. These changes can cause gradual changes in the chemicals inside of you and often will result in changes in how you feel.
A greater change, and one that I feel has really contributed greatly to my recent strong sense of well-being, is the complete removal of soda/pop/sugary carbonated beverages from my diet. As of December 31, 2002, I am no longer drinking Pepsi, Mountain Dew, or any of its other relatives. This was a slow process; again, I came up from a low point in 1997 where I was so addicted to Surge that I was drinking more than a case of it a day, often warm, and feeling utterly miserable most of the time.
5. Return to a hobby you once had.
Depression (or variants thereof) is brought on by some sort of change in the internal or external environment of an individual. Thus, one method of attempting to deal with depression is to try to revert to how things were prior to the changes. And a strong method of doing this is returning to activities that one once enjoyed.
For my entire life, I had been an extremely avid reader of pretty much everything written. I had a particular affinity for history, biographies, and classic literature. Yet, when I reached adolescence, I found myself gradually reading less and less and less. By the end of my sophomore year in college, I discovered that I had not picked up a book in months for the sheer joy of reading it.
It could be any number of things, from games (I know of one person who told the tale of how returning to playing Magic: the Gathering had done wonders for him) to exercise to Legos to any other pastime that once filled hours with happiness. Everyone is different, and everyone has different hobbies; just think back to the things that once made you happy, and give them a try once more.
In the last few years, I've reclaimed that hobby strongly. But perhaps more importantly, along with my increased interest in reading, I've discovered a strong desire to write. Over the last four or five years, I have written about fifty short stories and a full novel, all of which fill me with pride.
6. Add a small amount of variety in simple ways: change your music, your daily routines, etc. just a bit.
Radical changes usually won't help, but often a change in one's daily cycle can help things. If you find yourself listening to the same music over and over, download some mp3s from a different genre entirely and give them a listen. If you go out and eat every night, stay in one evening and try to cook something simple; if you dine in every night, go out, even if it's for something utterly unhealthy.
During my life in the dorm, for years, every day followed almost the same exact cycle, almost down to the minute. I would eat at the same food service at the same times every day for each meal. I would go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. I would spend the same times out of my room studying every day. And the schedule slowly became like a prison.
These changes can be very simple (changing the time you go to sleep or the time you wake up by an hour) or much more pronounced (walking to work or school instead of driving or riding a bus). The goal is to alter the pattern in your life enough that you are somehow "tricked" into re-evaluating this pattern in the first place.
I finally broke out in the simplest of ways: I started eating at another food service. I didn't change anything else about it, but this gradually started to chip away at the glazed-over routine I had found myself falling into. This subtle variety gradually led to other changes, and eventually it led to a period of great happiness in my life.
Often, the simplest change works the best, much like a few grains of sand in a scoop of grease. Usually, they're the easiest to achieve as well, at least in the beginning stages of re-evaluation of your daily routines.
The cycle repeated itself again recently, when I found myself repeating the same steps every single day: go to work, come home, go to bed, get up, etc. I broke this mostly by taking different routes while going home and simply stopping along the way if something looked interesting. Eventually, I broke out of this cycle, too; I do what I have to do, but my days feel so much more alive.
7. Take a walk. Just one.
Really, just one walk. Make it of a reasonable length; at least a mile (or a few kilometers). Preferably, it should be through a mix of environments; the very edge of a suburban neighborhood often works well for this. Just take a walk, and look around while you do it.
In the dormitory, I often spent whole days without going outside. I lived a very sedentary life, one that left me feeling sluggish, tired, empty, and often worthless. One day, a friend of mine came, pulled me out of my room, and literally demanded that I take a walk with her. I didn't want to, but her persistence won the day.
If you found the walk to be unagreeable, then don't do it. However, I've come to almost rely on a daily walk as a time of reflection on my life and contemplation of the world around me. The purpose of the walk is to basically isolate yourself for a bit from all of the worldly distractions around you.
I went on a walk with her that day, and we kept going further and further. For most of the trip, I believed she was playing some sort of game with me until suddenly we reached the top of a hill, where all around below us were trees and cornfields. She walked away from me for a while as I looked around, and in that one moment, the cloud seemed to lift for just a bit, enough to truly plant a seed of hope in my heart. I walk every day, and every day I recapture a glimmer of that moment.
8. Wash your hands and face regularly.
This may seem a bit unusual, but simply washing your hands and face three or four times a day does a fantastic job of making you somehow feel more alive.
At the worst stages of my depression, I found that I rarely had the energy or willpower to do anything more than go to the bathroom and sleep. I literallly lost all motivation to do anything at all. This culminated in the second lowest point of my life when, while sitting on a dormitory toilet, I began to cry and I could not stop. The tears kept coming and coming and coming; I sat there in a stall sobbing while people quietly came and went.
There are several potential causes to this; my physician attributed it to a combination of all of these. First of all, the shock to the system of a splash of cold water to the face snaps you to a degree of alertness. I usually start off washing my face with a splash of water. Beyond that, the pure hygenic effect of washing one's hands and face regularly ensures a decreased likelihood of disease and illness, both of which can contribute to depression. Lastly, the social effect of a clean face and clean hands is subtle, but apparent; if you maintain a degree of cleanliness, people will react in a more positive way towards you.
After more than an hour, I finally reached some semblance of control over myself. I gathered myself, got up, exited the stall, and looked at myself in the mirror with deeply bloodshot eyes. And then I cupped my hands, filled them with icy water, and splashed my face with the water. It almost took my breath away; I looked up at myself, and my cheeks were nearly as red as my eyes. And I just stood there for a moment, realizing there was nowhere to go but up.
9. Throw away your alarm clock. When you first wake up naturally, go ahead and wake up.
This is probably the most challenging thing of all of these to do, as most of us are tied to a daily schedule of some sort. It is often that daily schedule, however, that damages us the most. We're forced into a repetitive cycle of not enough sleep and forced into repeating the same activities every day; often, this cycle is a downward spiral.
For a while, I had a schedule that had me leaving my residence at 5 AM every morning. However, my roommate was usually up until midnight or later, which left me with day after day after day of not enough sleep and a life stuck in a cycle. I would wake up exhausted, not wanting to do anything at all except just hide in my bedroom.
Usually, it's not so much the alarm itself that is the problem, but it is the events that keep interrupting your body's natural flow. Is there anything truly important enough to keep damaging your spirit in such a way? I think that there is not.
One night, at about one in the morning, I went to bed and listened to the bugs chirping outside. I could hear my alarm clock ticking away the small handful of seconds until I had to be up. And I realized suddenly that it just wasn't worth it anymore. I turned off the alarm clock and slept until nature woke me up at 9 AM, and I have only used an alarm clock intermittently since then. What happened to my job, you ask? I went into work five hours late and told my boss that I simply couldn't maintain those hours any longer, then walked out of the place forever. I haven't regretted it for a moment.
10. Attempt some art form that you haven't tried before.
This works because it is an attempt to find some new way to push through the cloud that surrounds you. Depression can be caused by a mix of things (in my case, I am certain that it was a mix of physical, social, and mental causes); digging through these layers can often be the key to piercing the shroud of despair.
I am about as far from artistic as one can be. The closest I come to what could be called "art" is an occasional strum on an acoustic guitar or a banjo, and my constant friend that is writing. But that's the very point, and that's why I believe that trying a new art helped me a great deal.
Usually, a textured art works best; one where you expose your hands to many different types of substances. Calligraphy is one example; the textures of paper and quill and the smell of ink can often reach through. Another approach is finger painting, or perhaps pottery. I found great solace in clay sculpting, actually; I made a set of chess pieces as I lifted myself up from a depressed period that helped greatly.
I fell in love with sculpting, and I still go sometimes by myself. I was taken to a sculpting class by a friend who felt that I needed to be doing "something;" as soon as my hands touched the clay, I knew I had come into contact with something that was a release. In the texture of the clay I found something new, and it pulled me out of the cloud just a bit.
11. Leave random things for random people, and watch what happens.
This also seems sort of unusual, but it has provided a great tonic for me as I left the grip of my most recent depression. I simply would leave things for anyone to find in public places, then go away and watch what happened. It provides a great insight into others without having to really interact with them; it pierces through the cloud of loneliness at a time when it is needed.
I made a mix CD several months ago, but I had no one to really give it to. It was just filled with a number of songs that have meaning to me. It sat on my desk in its case for a week, and each time I saw it I was reminded of the fact that I had no one to give it to. So, one day I picked it up as I walked to work, and left it on a park bench.
You can leave a letter addressed to no one. You can leave a page from your journal. You can leave a mix CD. You can leave an old paperback with a note in the front. Just leave something that has a distinct personal touch, and then watch what happens.
I had made a nice little insert sleeve for it, listing the songs and why they were important to me. So, I walked away from where I left it, sat down, and read a book, all the while watching as people entered and left the park. Shortly, a young woman walked to the bench and picked up the CD. On the front it said, "For You." She opened it up and started to read the liner notes; I could barely take my eyes off of her. She sat there for a moment, reading the notes, and then she put the disc in her purse, got up, and slowly walked away. It made my day; I connected with her without having the burden of socialization, something I dreaded greatly at the time. It made me feel not alone for the first time in a while.
12. Give St. John's Wort a try.
St. John's Wort has repeatedly been shown to be a nice natural treatment for the effects of depression. I would strongly encourage you to read up on St. John's Wort before using it, though, as it has some side effects, like increased photosensitivity.
I have been an avid drinker of tea for many years, and one of my regular gifts from friends has been various tea mixes. One mix in particular I quite liked, especially when feeling down in the dumps; it seemed to be very effective at picking up my spirits.
If you like to do it easily, over-the-counter dietary supplements of St. John's Wort will do; these can be found at most major pharmacies and retail outlets. You can also grow it yourself in a small herb garden, and then dry the plant and use it in tea or in tincture.
I only recently found out that dried St. John's Wort was one of the herbs contained in that particular mix. Investigating further, I found out that it was likely the wort that provided the blessed feeling I would get after drinking a cup. That tea truly helped me get through some painful days.
13. Learn more about other belief structures.
Whether or not you consider yourself an atheist, a monotheist, or a polytheist, you subscribe on some level to a belief structure that basically illustrates how you look at the world. Investigation of other belief structures, even on the simplest of terms, helps greatly to provide an increased comprehension of the world around you, but more importantly, brings realization of how similar we all really are.
I grew up in a household without any real belief structure at all. My family sort of oscillated, attending a Catholic church for a while, then not attending any church for many years, then a short period in a Presbyterian congregation. My brother went away for a while and came home with a copy of the Quran for me. I never really had any idea what to believe growing up, and I assumed that most people were as unsure and confused as I was. I felt like I had no central core of beliefs to rely on, nothing to turn to in my times of need.
Some excellent places to start include the nodes on atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Confucianism (to cover most of the major bases), as well as some of the more important texts: the Quran, the bible, Analects, and the Bhagavad-Gita, for starters.
I am a Christian, but I spent many years building up my own belief structure. It has a healthy dose of Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism in there, too, and it borrows a bit from other religions, as well. I discovered my own path to this state, and it gives me a base of things to believe in that I never had before. It helps.
14. Do whichever of these things that you can do and throw away the rest.
This is not a checklist, by any means. This is just a description of the various means I found to help myself deal with depression throughout my life. I went through three periods of real depression in my life, and generally sticking to these ideas pulled me out of it each time.
The most important step, though, is the first one. The moments when things turned around for me were moments when I realized that things needed to change. The other steps just aided the process along.
Recommended Additional Reading
There are several nodes which provide additional discussion and commentary about dealing with depression that may prove of interest to you.
The Bell Jar
There is no good depression. It's not sexy. It's not fun. It's not the new rock and roll.
depression is simply not a pretty thing
Using money to ease depression
And Last, But Not Least...
Realize that you're not alone in feeling this way. If you feel depressed or think that you may be depressed and need someone semi-anonymous to talk to, feel free to send me a message. I am a very good listener.