Baby steps in managing depression

A friend recently asked me how I figure out whether I’m depressed (in the clinical sense of the word), or just really, really sad. Based on experience, I would boil it down to asking myself this question: am I mourning a loss or a tragedy, or am I mourning my entire existence? Another helpful clarifying question, one which the people I love can help answer, is: am I still able to find meaning in the things I’ve always cherished, or have I lost vitality in these pursuits and concerns? Of course, these aren’t fool-proof diagnostic tools, but they’ve served as a good starting point for me.

Most recently, I learned to also ask myself this: Am I suffering due to things beyond my control? Or am I inflicting suffering on myself?

Because my current depressive episode was specifically triggered by mistakes I’ve made, I subconsciously began punishing myself. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a difference between humbly accepting the consequences of my mistakes, and actively torturing myself.

This dawned on me when I recently found myself feeling faint from just trying to grade my students’ work. A few days prior, I almost passed out in the classroom. I noticed my ribs beginning to jut out more than usual, and my skirts no longer clinging to my waist. I realized that for more than a month, I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less. Most days it would be a bowl of instant oatmeal, other days a couple of granola bars from my roommate’s stash, some days nothing. I hazily mulled over these observations after returning home from work, and eventually burst into tears while struggling to chew on a cold, half-eaten burrito that had been sitting in the fridge for a week. And then I made a very important resolution. It’s time to “grow up” in the way I handle depressive episodes.

If this is going to be a recurring theme in my life, I can’t and don’t want to always count on being babied. A close friend recently told me, “Take care of yourself as you would care for your own child.” I thought about that. There will come a time, perhaps especially when I have my own family (if I do), when I’ll want to be able to take care of other people while depressed. Before I can do that, I first need to know how to take care of myself, regardless of how I feel about myself.

Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while it’s a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I need to do to stay healthy and better poise my mind and body for a speedier recovery: eating well, exercising, spending time with people, putting my best effort into my work, and so on.

Yesterday, I finally made a trip to the grocery store. Did I feel self-conscious and anxious asking for help? Yes. Did I think that every stranger I saw was secretly thinking bad thoughts about me? Yes. Did I think I was useless and stupid for not being able to find cilantro? Yes. Did I regret leaving home at all? Yes. But most importantly, I did what I needed to do anyway. I then cooked myself enough food to last me at least the next three days. It’s not the most balanced or nutritious of meals, but it’s a start. Baby steps!

Experience does help. This being my fourth depressive episode, I’m now quite familiar with depression’s arsenal of tricks. When someone at work stares at me and my mind instantly jumps to ridiculous conclusions, I’m able to tell myself to ignore the thought. When I’m having dinner with friends and I find my mind preoccupied with thoughts like…I’m too stupid to engage thoughtfully in this conversation. My friends invited me only because they feel bad for me. I have no friends. I don’t deserve friends…I’m able to tell myself that those aren’t true, no matter how true they feel. In being able to identify false or distorted thought patterns, I’m able to direct my behavior accordingly. Conduct that lesson no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Meet that friend no matter how scary it seems. Finish your lunch no matter how undeserving you feel. The more I push myself, the more I feel myself getting better.

I attribute these milestones to a combination of factors: the mitigative effects of mood stabilizers (which I was already taking prior to the onset of this episode), consultation with my doctor, wisdom from experience, and honest communication with the people who care about me.

As a Catholic, I must also add that most importantly, access to the Sacraments has granted me access to extra graces I previously didn’t have. And there’s no better reminder that I’m loved than to receive Christ, who gives me His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

I still remember talking to Fr Peter, way before I entered the Church, while in the thick of depression and a major faith crisis. He advised me to “get this under control” by seeking a diagnosis and proper medication, before adding, “And you might want to consider becoming Catholic.” I had no idea at the time, but he really knew what he was talking about. Previously, my despair would know no bounds and suck me down a bottomless abyss. These days, it’s clear that there are limits to how much I can actually despair. As rough as things get, I know that I’m building my house on solid rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:25).

Perhaps when the brain fog clears, maybe in a couple of months or so, I’ll be able to write a more articulate post on the theology of suffering and how it’s helped me. But for now, this will have to do.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

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11 thoughts on “Baby steps in managing depression”

  1. I’m lucky in that I know what the source of my depression is, my job. More specifically the company that I work for. It was a good company in the beginning, but has gone down hill as it has gotten larger. Add to that, I am stuck here because my age. It’s a bleak outlook that gets me depressed when things here get bad, knowing that I am stuck here. A friend gave me an app that makes it a little better, gives me the number of work days to retirement, currently 1,008 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes, and …. When I feel the depression starting up I look at it. Sometimes it helps, but there are days when things just get so bad that nothing can stop it from coming on. I’m currently enrolled in a mood alteration self help therapy, but s lot of the exercises seem dumb and not relevant, so I’m not convinced it will help. The good think is knowing retirement will bring this phase to an end, hopefully there won’t be a second phase.

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  2. Karen, I loved reading your self-care tips when a depressive spell hits. I’m always interested to hear how others survive and thrive during such times. I’m always open to suggestions 😉

    And when you moved to your faith and the sacraments as a solution – wow. I am just embarking on a journey to deepen my faith and my access of it as a means of healing my depression and anxiety (added to my arsenal of traditional treatments). I look forward to following your journey as I make mine.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  3. I think that if you are noticing the thoughts which make you depressed then you are a long way to getting better. There is a book called Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson, about noticing these thoughts and living with them. I was feeling very bad about myself six months ago but heard a little voice inside me telling me to be a bit nicer to myself. So I bought myself a pair of earrings, even though I didn’t think I deserved them. Every time I put them on, I feel loved because I managed to give myself a present even when I was feeling very low. Okay, bit of a crazy idea giving yourself a present, but it helped me.

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  4. A very thoughtful post, I think it’s something people find very hard to talk about, especially during an actual episode. Being mindful of your behaviour is so key 🙂

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  5. I LOVE this post, Karen, and I have missed hearing from you, although I understand your absence. I love how you describe ways to distinguish depression from sadness. Like you, I continue to persecute myself for parenting mistakes. I know what I need to do to fix things, but can’t enact those changes…yet, but I know I’ll get there, and that there are valid reasons for my relational difficulties. Like you, I have to be my own parent, giving the love and nurturing missing from my childhood. I think that will help fill the voids in me and enable me to care for my family.

    If you met me in person, you would not think I am a person of faith, but separate from church, I am very spiritual and have always communed (from a lowlier level than He of course) with him, finding enormous comfort in our talks. It is hard to feel alone with Jesus’ suffering for all of us in my consciousness. Not that I want anyone to suffer, but it is comforting that He loved enough to go through what He did, and inspires me to keep going, as you said.

    I wish you peace and stability as you move through your illness and live.

    Love,
    Elizabeth

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  6. I just found this blog. I’m glad I did. I can relate to what you are going through. I just recently addressed my struggle with bipolar 2 on my blog. I’ve been thinking about how much I have grown in my faith because of my struggle. I appreciate how open you are about it. I have not always been very open about it. I am trying to change that because I feel as though the Lord is calling me to be honest, talk about it, and perhaps encourage others.

    I have often looked online to read about other people’s struggle with Bipolar 2… and I struggle to relate to most of them. Most of the stories are about people who have very dysfunctional lives that include drugs, alcohol, a history of sexual or physical abuse. It seems like almost all of the stories I’ve found are extreme examples. It is refreshing to find someone who is much more like me. I know there are others out there besides us…but they are hard to find.

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  7. When I’m going through it this scripture helps me. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me in earnest, you will find me when you seek me. I will be found by you. Jeremiah 29:11-14. You are in my prayers.

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  8. I had a similar experience a year ago, during a bout of deep depression (I also have dealt with recurring depression), where I also realized I needed to “grow up”, as you put it.
    I just wanted you to know that I have a book of prayer intentions next to my bed that I pray over daily, and I’ve added you to it. I believe that God can free us from anything, and I’m praying for your freedom. I also wanted you to know that your love for the Lord and our faith is very encouraging. Keep on keeping on, friend. God bless you.

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    1. Thank you so much for keeping me in your prayers — it means so much to me. He’ll heal us completely if it’s His will! But if not, it’s a blessing to know that we can more deeply participate in our Lord’s suffering during this lifetime, and to unite our suffering with His work on the cross — what an honor. God bless you as well, friend. Wishing you a most blessed Holy Week!

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