I don’t really remember the first day of depression. It’s not as straightforward as waking up with a sore throat. It definitely eroded much of me before I knew it was there. Actually, a few years needed to pass before I could tell my voice apart from the voice of the chemical imbalances I was carrying in my brain like an endorphin depraved enclave. It’s been given many names: the morbs, the black dog, a scary enough place to visit, a horrible place to live in. To this day it’s associated with artists and bohemian behavior, placed by those suffering at the heart of their work, a golden calf to be worshipped and feared. There’s a Reddit thread for it. There’s online dating sites for it. I’ve studied endless lists of therapists, experimental treatments and the ironic side-effects of available medication. The stigma of living with it was thrust upon the world, gently lifted, rinse and repeat. What now? Here’s what I do when cumulonimbus clouds start forming over my head.
- Exercise is your best friend
You’ve heard this a million times. Working out comes with an endorphin rush: fact. But if you’re depressed, taking a jog is the last thing you’re thinking of doing. That’s why working out with friends or paying for a personal trainer will help get you out of your bed. It’ll take a while for you to get adjusted to your workout. In order for it to help your mental health, you need to do this for about four hours a week (minimum). If it feels like too big a step, start with something less intimidating: go for a walk around your neighborhood or in the park, the point is to move your body. Push your brain to surrender the chemicals it’s been unfairly denying you in the first place. Keep in mind that progress takes time and dedication: if you quit too soon, nothing will change. Cycling and skateboarding are also excellent for getting your blood warm.
- Borrow someone’s pet!
I’m not kidding. I don’t care if it’s Fluffy the Cerberus, a Gryphon, a Pegasus, or 25 black house cats, animals have what you’re looking for: gazes that don’t judge and inexhaustible amounts of unconditional love to pour over your soul. Walk your buddy’s dog for a change, or better yet, go to a center where they offer animal assisted therapy (that’s medical lingo for getting to play with puppies for hours). If any of that sounds like too much, how about a stroll in the dog park? If there’s anything pet owners love, it’s reveling in praise about their four legged fur babies.
- How long has it been since you made something with your own two hands?
Any form of self-expression that allows you to reflect on what you’re going through in a detached manner is excellent. Sounds very abstract, right? I promise it’s as simple as taking up a hobby. Paint, sculpt, dance! Move your whole body or just the tips of your fingers. It is important that you express yourself in a healthy, constructive way. You could even build furniture or make clothes. What you do is up to you, but it is of extreme importance that you keep busy. Take up a passion project and seek to complete it.
- Writing is the cheapest shrink
Why is writing so resistant and why did it transition this well in the digital world? How come people are still reading books in an era of sense-boggling experiences like hover-boards, VR, 7D and series with an obscene budget for special effects? I think there’s something that resonates with our innate humanity once we start putting words to page. Trust me when I say this won’t work if you’ll stick to your laptop. Buy a notebook. Buy a pen. Tell the story of yourself to yourself. Writing isn’t easy, but it gets things done. It extirpates the darkness and lets it squirm under your eyes. There’s intimacy between you and the page, but there’s also the satisfying sensation of complete control. You will spit out your thoughts, destroy them, or share them with the world. Isn’t that beautiful?
- I can’t tell you how many books are enough books. I have a book problem.
C.S. Lewis said we read to know we’re not alone. It’s great that books exist to offer us the support other people never could. While you might often find yourself scolded for not being happy-go-lucky enough, remember that your sadness is a valid feeling and you don’t owe the world a mask. It’s healthier to be unwilling to wear one. Literature can help you figure out who you are and how to make peace with who you are. I couldn’t possibly give you a list of titles; it’s better if you find out your own go-to. A friend of mine used to re-read Harry Potter every time things got tough. I prefer Michael Ende or Terry Pratchett.
- Nature’s magic
There’s a special vibe in small meadows, mountain pathways and even desert trails… but don’t forget to look up at the sky! If you can get ahold of a telescope, all the better. It’s incredibly comforting to realize how small we are compared to the rest of the Universe. If everyday life puts too much pressure on you, it might do you a world of good to go out in nature for a couple of hours.
- You’re no one’s “project”
The only person that is allowed to give you guidance and advice regarding depression is the therapist you chose. Everyone else’s favorite chorus, “But just be happy!”, only helps the ego of the ignorant bastard uttering it. Newsflash, right? Even though the pointlessness was obvious to you, it needs to be pointed out to certain people, politely, firmly and with no room for compromise. Is an ailment of the brain harder to comprehend because we as a species generally associate the brain with our personalities? Is that why people cannot separate who we are from the chemicals our star organ is denying us? Maybe, but that’s no excuse for their insensitivity.
- Travelling might make you uncomfortable, but it will remind you that the world is in Technicolor after all
Breaking free from familiarity is not at all a small thing to do, psychologically. On the other hand, building up the courage to go through with it is incredibly rewarding. What pushes us forward is most likely the hope that food won’t be tasteless anymore if we cross a border. Spending a couple of hours in a public piazza might help us cut ourselves some slack. Seeing how other people live gives us imaginative alternatives to our own lifestyles. Definitely worth a shot.
- Enablers are not your friends
This is something I’ve only ever seen happen on forums, but I think it important enough to warrant a paragraph. Making yourself part of a circle of people surrendering to their suicidal thoughts is unhealthy and dangerous. While it might seem that this is the only type of people capable of understanding what you’re going through, being overcome by depression by their side doesn’t do you any favors. Your support network will encourage you to fight, not to put down your weapons.
- Never give up on strengthening the bond between you and your loved ones
They know who you were before depression. Even if they met you later on, they want what’s best for you. They’re by your side helping you through the really bad days. Your best memories have their fingerprints all over them. It takes a world of effort not to shut them out of your life when your thoughts turn rotten, sure. But they’ve heard all the gossip on therapists. They don’t force you to smile for pictures. They deserve your honesty, respect and consistency. Their love keeps you grounded, your love fulfills them.
- Buy a potted cactus
Yeah, sounds ridiculous, right? But caring for another living thing can give us so much purpose. A cactus is really low maintenance, so it’s a great plant to start with. Put some googly eyes on it. Name it. Take responsibility for it.
- Don’t let depression define your self-worth
This is probably the most difficult task one could face when things turn dark. You needn’t put yourself on a pedestal to compensate for the way this illness tears into you, but please remember that your ability to change the world for the better is what makes you crucial in someone else’s narrative. Your choices could change the life of another to a shocking degree and this has the potential to domino into something incredible. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Or a retirement home. Even community service will do. There’re also a lot of projects abroad you could be a part of. Italian mountain villages that need help maintaining fields, fixing traditional houses… Mix and match. You’ll never know how much you matter to other people until you realize they’ve needed your help all along.