It’s not often I feel the need to put a disclaimer before something I wrote. This post is a result of trying to gather some (jumbled and not entirely coherent) thoughts about my personal experience with depression and therapy. I tend to state things quite strongly at times but please understand that everything I put down here is written from a personal point of view. In other words, I claim no absolute truths. Even though I use a lot of declarative statements about the way I taught myself to think about depression and ways of dealing with it, it is a perspective of a person with a very particular set of beliefs, specific thinking patterns and life experiences. I’m not saying – do these things, they will definitely help you, whoever you are. I’m saying – this is how I deal with this.
Gratitude is difficult when you’re depressed. But there again, so is showering, or getting up. It’s one more thing you need to work on. Which on one hand is a bit scary, because you feel so exhausted and defeated already, and here’s another thing to add to the list that already seems overwhelming. But on the other hand, it really is something you can get better at, if you practice.
For me one of the biggest benefits of therapy in general and cognitive behavioural therapy in particular is that you start feeling more in control of yourself again, you take back the ownership for your well being. And that’s liberating and it gives me hope. Depression manifest itself in many ways, and one that haunts me the most, is the feeling of helplessness and lack of control.
Something horrible is happening to you, and it doesn’t seem fair, and you inevitably start asking “why?” Am I being punished for some unidentified sin? Do I deserve this? Am I just a really bad/lazy/undeserving/stupid/pointless/insert-your-pejorative-adjective-of-choice-to-abuse-yourself person and this is karma coming to bite me on the arse? Or maybe the world is just a horrible place and nothing matters anymore so why bother? I’m confident that all of us who live our lives with depression, at one point or another have gone down this dark and twisted rabbit hole of an inquiry. I promise you, it leads nowhere good, it offers no solutions. Asking “why?” is focusing on the wrong question. There is no “why”, there is no reason. There are mechanics of the process you can understand but it’s not all a part of some grand design. Your depression is NOT a punishment, or karma, you are not cursed, nor tested – it is a matter of coincidences, accidents, bad experiences lived through, and genes, certain biological quirks and freaks of upbringing. “Why?” does not give any helpful answers, a better thing to ask is “how?”. How do I do this? How do I learn to live with depression (and I mean live, as joyously and fully as possible, and not just exist), or mania, or PTSD? How do I learn to limit the opportunities for these states to occur again? How do I prepare and train myself? How do I teach myself to think about these things I’m dealing with, in a way that is helpful?
There are things beyond your control, there always will be. And you need to learn to recognize them. You cannot control everything in life, and if you try it will destroy you. You cannot help that you or someone else is ill, or passed away, you cannot prevent the horrific accidents so many of us encounter at some point in our lives, you cannot eliminate loss, you cannot take away the suffering of others, you cannot stop the natural disasters from happening, you cannot help how other people act, you cannot eliminate all change. But you can learn to deal with them. You can learn how to think about them. And how to react to them. You can learn how to analyze your situation and break down the overwhelming into manageable. You can learn to recognize what is within your reach, how you can genuinely help yourself or others, and learn to know when you can’t, and how to accept that fact. You can learn how to change the corrosive thinking patterns. You can learn how to limit the negative effects of other people’s actions on your life. You can learn how to change the way your brain works.
It’s not a magical solution, therapy doesn’t “fix” you by itself. If you expect to go to a few meetings to listen to the clever man/woman telling you everything you need to know, and to miraculously get better just by being there, it won’t work. And temptation to think about therapy this way is very real, we all would really like it if someone could snap their fingers and just “make us better”. How lovely would that be? Unfortunately, that’s not how the world operates. My first few experiences with therapy weren’t the best, precisely because I expected the impossible. I expected that the therapists would “fix me”, I expected them to be these all-knowing, all-powerful creatures akin to gods, with power of “making people better” just on contact. I’m being a bit flippant right now, but you know what I’m getting at.
It’s only when I accepted certain facts about therapy, that I started making progress. Therapist’s job is to equip you with the tools, techniques, ideas that will allow you to help yourself. They can guide you a bit, they can explain certain concepts, suggest ways of seeking solutions that might work for you. And that’s invaluable. When you’re in a dark, hopeless place, these guiding beacons can make all the difference. But ultimately the onus is on you. You need to put in the work. And I won’t lie, it is an awful lot of hard, frequently very tedious, work. You are rewriting your brain, that is not easy, even if it is, at its core, “simple” for a lack of a better word. Most likely, initially you’ll fail. And not just once. Sometimes repeatedly. At least I know I had. And this you’ll also need to learn, how to pick yourself up, and try again. The work never ends. Because even if you get yourself into a better place, you still need to remember that the possibility of depression reoccurring grows with every depressive episode you go through. After several major ones, I know for a fact that this can and probably will happen to me again. I need to stay vigilant to protect myself from that, or if I slide into depression to limit its impact. It does get easier with time and practice. But you must do it regularly.
The point of this whole roundabout introduction is that while therapy is hard and tedious, and never-ending work, it’s also absolutely worth the effort you put in. It really can help. Initially just by providing simple techniques you can use to get yourself more active and capable of dealing with everyday life in the reality of your condition (helping you to maintain a healthy sleeping and eating habits, introducing physical activity, understanding the value of proper rest and relaxation, socializing etc), and therefore giving you the mental space you need to progress to the possibly even more important matter of establishing healthy cognitive patterns, i.e. ways of untangling your depressive thinking knots.
The very knowledge, that it is you who is doing all that hard work has an intrinsic value, it is a reward in and of itself. It reduces hopelessness, it raises self-confidence, it makes you realize that there are constructive and surprisingly simple things you can do to help yourself. Again, “simple” does not necessarily equal “easy”. But it does mean it is doable. It means it is within reach. And while it’s continuous work, once you get to it, you start noticing progress fairly quickly. And that, again just in itself, helps you get a sense of accomplishment, and purpose. One of the things I’ve learnt in therapy was to celebrate the small victories. We tend to undervalue ourselves and the things we do. And that’s especially true when we’re depressed. We think “well, I managed to get up, have shower and make breakfast today, whoopty doo, that’s what ‘normal people’ do every day without giving it a second thought. What’s there to celebrate? I should have done so much more. I’m useless.” Come on, admit it, you thought that, or something along these lines so many times, right? When you’re depressed, everything is difficult, and tiring, and often feels impossible to do. It’s not just getting up, just having shower or breakfast. It’s doing these things when they are so difficult as to appear impossible. Comparing ourselves to others, who do not deal with the same problems as we do, or to ourselves as we are when not depressed, is pointless. Acknowledge the difficulty. And acknowledge the strength and determination that’s gone into that seemingly simple set of tasks. And be proud.
And now I’m finally getting to the whole inspiration for this post. Today’s writing prompt: gratitude.
One of the first (of very many) exercises I’d been asked to do in my CBT therapy, was to record each week the positive things that happened. Sometimes these would be major events, sometimes insignificant happy accidents. Big changes, like moving to a new house, or to another continent, and small daily happenings, like a fact that you saw someone in a silly outfit, or a sun shone at a particular angle on a yellow leaf, and made it glow, or someone was nice to you.
This is meant to help you remain aware of the good people in your life, of your own strengths, of the beauty of the world out there. It’s tough to remember about these things when you’re depressed. Your mind just automatically seeks out the ugly, the bad, the negative and latches onto them. And when you do remember the good stuff, you somehow tend to twist even that into self-criticism. You know what I mean – “I have so much to be grateful for, so why am I so broken? What is wrong with me? I’m the worst!” sort of a thing. That is not terribly helpful to anyone, least of all to yourself.
Concentrating on the positive, or more accurately, noticing and acknowledging it, even in the darkest of times, breeds gratitude. At least it does in me. Despite the various ways in which my life did not exactly go according to the plan, despite depression, despite mania, despite PTSD, despite the abhorrent things I’ve witnessed or been a victim of, despite the multitude of flaws I find in myself, despite the loss, despite the pain, despite how broken so much of the world sometimes appears, I remain grateful.
For my family.
For my partner and the relationship we have.
For all of my wonderful friends.
For the many random encounters with kind-hearted strangers.
For the good doctors/psychiatrists/therapists who have helped me on the way.
For the fact that I have the intellectual capacity to work on my issues.
For my sense of humour, which allows me to find a funny side even in some very dark moments.
For the strength I keep proving to myself.
For the writing which helps me organize my thoughts.
For the books, and the ways in which they inspire/educate/entertain/distract me.
For the opportunities I had to travel to or live in different places.
For the ways in which that broadened my horizons.
For my many interests.
For my love of food.
For my ability to see and appreciate beauty even in unlikely places.
For the fact that dogs are amazing.
For the wonders of nature.
For big vibrant cities.
For small, sleepy villages in the middle of nowhere.
For the fact that we imagine dragons, and dream about interstellar journeys.
This list would be enormous if I wanted to put everything I feel grateful for on it, so maybe I’ll leave it at that for the moment.