a many-layered thing
The curious thing about depression is that it’s made up of many layers.
It’s not simply a sad feeling. For me, it was (and sometimes still is), a small, nagging, critical voice at the back of my mind that always said, “yeah right.”
- “I’m going to work hard and get this project done this week.” sure
you are, you said that last week.
- “I’m going to get up early tomorrow and do a ton” snort, that’s a good one.
- “I’m going to meet my goals!” nope, you never will.
- “Man, I screwed that up badly” just like always
- “Why can’t I ever do things right?!?” because you’re no good
This voice even replies to good things, that other people say, like:
- “Hey Fred, nice job on that” yeah right, I know I could have
After a while, the voice just went away, and I thought all of these terrible things all of the time. I didn’t even need the voice to beat me up, I did a fine job of that myself.
In classical therapy (picture Freud with his phallic cigar), we’d sit down and discuss my childhood, my mother, my father. We’d make theories about where this neurosis came from. By knowing the subconscious source of my unhappiness, I’ll be able to dismiss it and move forward with my life. So simple!
But I don’t think it’s enough. In fact, I’m not even sure that such an analysis is helpful.
I’m not saying that therapy isn’t helpful, nor that classical therapy doesn’t have its uses. It’s just that for me, even knowing the root of the problem isn’t enough — I need concrete things that I can do to move forward.
I prefer practical therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, because it focuses more on the doing than the knowing.
Through my own experience I’ve found that taking action is effective. There’s a saying (I’m not sure whom to attribute it to):
Where the body goes, the mind follows.
I have undergone relatively little therapy. For one thing, it’s expensive. For another, I have found great benefits in simply paying attention to my thoughts and habits. I don’t doubt medication and therapy have helped me. But to me they’re only a pair of tools in my mental toolbox.
what’s in the box?
Journaling, meditation, simplicity, a clean workspace, making time to write & think, making time to exercise, getting up early, simple daily habits, eliminating distractions, setting clear boundaries, spending as much time with my family as possible. Even getting my finances in order and making a proper budget have been huge.
But I don’t always want to do those things. And I often forget.
So to combat that forgetting, I’ve made a list of operating guidelines for myself: things that I’ve observed about me & how I work during good and bad times. It’s called THE LIST. It’s not so much ‘operating manual’ as ‘playbook’, something to refer to from time to time to keep me moving forward. It’s currently 17 short but important things that have worked for me.
THE LIST is handwritten. It lives in my main notebook /journal.
The terrible and wonderful thing about a handwritten list is that when I look at it I know that I wrote it. It’s not something that I found. It’s my writing, my intention behind the words and thoughts. Electronic writing doesn’t have this same quality.
When the walls of depression close in I hate THE LIST. I don’t
even want to look at it. As much as I put it off, though, I eventually
pick up the page and read it. When I read my handwriting and realize
that my good intentions caused me to write those words, it moves me
in a strong and deeply personal way.
Each of these items deserves a full explanation, but for now I just want to share the whole list, the whole mess of habits, tips, suggestions, and thoughts.
- Breathe deeply & intentionally
- Drink plenty of water
- Stay in communication
- Write it down.
- Writing helps me brain move forward.
- Do it as soon as I think of it. (How many times do I want to deal with it?)
- Ask and listen more than tell.
- Give thanks
- Electronic distractions don’t brighten the future.
- It’s easier to START and do a little today rather than plan to do a ton tomorrow. (Keep momentum.)
- Get started, results will follow.
- Pay attention to habit. Habit is Cue → Action → Reward
- Make small, immediate, and attainable changes & habits.
- Exercise: just do it, even for 2 minutes, one minute.
- Celebrate wins, big or small. Pause for a moment, reflect, and enjoy the moment.
What’s on your list?
Do you have a list for yourself? Perhaps you could start one. At worst you'll have a page full of silly ideas that you can toss. At best, you may have a tool that helps you keep moving even when things are difficult.
Everyone encounters difficulty in life. Some of us seem to have the ability to weather it and move on. Others of us get stuck and have to stumble along in the dark for a while. When this "stuck-ness" comes, what will you do? What things might help you get un-stuck?
Set aside 10 minutes or so. Sit down in a quiet place with a clean piece
of paper and a pen, and write about these:
- Small things that you do that make you happy, calm, and/or peaceful.
- Strategies that have you helped you in the past — whether coping with stress, improving your health, finishing a project, or simply getting on with day to day life.
- Times of the day, week, or month when you feel the best.
- Times of the day, week, or month when you feel the worst.
- Any thoughts you might have about these things, ideas about what to do next.
Further reading /listening
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Hard Times — Pëma Chödrön Get the audiobook. I can’t find it right now, but there is something about her voice that makes the teaching much more real. There are a few similar Pëma Chödrön programmes on Spotify.
- Playing Ball on Running Water — A Japanese counterpart to Cognitive Behavior Theory.
These are the materials I’ve found most immediately useful. I also like Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but they’re harder to get into.