Heads up. Some people might be triggered by my sarcasm, humor and light heartedness on a very serious matter. Very serious. You’ve been warned.
Anyhoo. So I have struggled with depression almost since I can remember.
I was nine when I first thought about how nice it would be to no longer exist, and I was eleven when that thought had become (as strange as it sounds) a kind of warm blanket that I would go back to. I didn’t think I’d live past twenty-two and, for many years, figured that if things got bad enough, I could always end it. This was all while being a believer, a dancer, heavily involved in a faith community, successful in school and an otherwise normal teenager. I even got into arguments over whether suicide wasn’t the unforgivable sin, as taught in the Catholic tradition.
Side note: Never assume someone is okay, simply because they perform well.
To be glib, surviving past twenty-two was a wake up call. It made me realize I was going to have to come up with a plan for my life. And it’s taken me seven years to reach a point where I like getting up in the morning, have a plan for the future and people are beginning to notice that I am different! It’s not why I do it, but it is a cherry on top.
For anyone who might not know where to start, but who wants to try something different (because there were times where I had no interest in trying) these are the ways I got my depression into a manageable state.
#1: I did EMDR Therapy.
Like therapists, not all types of therapy are created equal.
People often say, quite truthfully, that you need to find a therapist you connect with to get anywhere. But fewer people discuss the type of therapy itself.
I did not find talk-therapy to be helpful. I always left feeling mildly heard, and slightly perturbed about how to move forward. I didn’t start experiencing genuine change and a sense of direction, until I found a therapist that redefined my understanding of fathers (he was male), and who also practiced EMDR Therapy.
EMDR targets trauma and stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. To be honest, I’m not sure what these words mean, because we didn’t do the eye movement method, but I can tell you exactly what we did do and what helped me.
Throughout the week, I would take notes. If I didn’t take notes, we discovered that my life would, mysteriously, be just fine as soon as I stepped into the office. So, whenever I had an extremely upsetting episode, I would take a quick note on my phone or in my journal. I would bring these short notes to the session and relate them to him, my therapist. For the sake of this blog, we’ll call him Bilbo. This is how it went.
Bilbo: Which experience you wrote down was the most upsetting?
Ashley: Forgetting how to speak, when arguing with my dad.
Bilbo: And on a scale of 1 – 10, how upsetting was it?
Bilbo: When did you first feel this way, like you couldn’t speak or get an idea out? Or it just disappeared?
This, of course, can be complicated because if you have deep-seated defense mechanisms, you will literally lie to your therapist. I have done this many times, from downgrading how upsetting the experience was to saying I couldn’t remember when I started feeling a certain way. I didn’t always lie intentionally but, when I remembered the real answer the second I left his office, I realized something was definitely up. Taking notes helps.
Once we figured out the first time I felt that way, usually somewhere between the ages of 2 and 10 (also, 8 was a terrible year), he pulled out The Machine. Basically, I wore a pair of headphones that alternated beeping between my ears, and held a pair of tiny buzzers (think of your mom’s pager, if you’re older than twenty-five), one in each hand, that matched whichever side of the headphones were beeping. Then–because I am
ADD tactile–he tapped my knees in time with the beeping/buzzing. This process sounds complicated and perhaps even annoying, but it’s extremely effective and the reason is quite simple.
This is how I understand it. When we experience a trauma, especially as children when survival is paramount, our brain puts the experience in a box, and doesn’t process it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the experience doesn’t affect us. It leaks out in anger, nail biting, wetting the bed, loss of speech, inability to eat, insomnia, etc. As we get older, current events trigger these very old emotions, because they have not been brought out into the light. By rooting out the initial memory then stimulating both sides of the brain, whether through sound, touch or visual (or all three, in some cases) the two halves of your brain work together. And it heals itself.
This may sound like magic, but it’s far from it. Every other part of your body just needs a little help to heal itself, in most cases–neosporin and a bandaid for a cut, food for a bout of hypoglycemia, a wrap for a sprained ankle. The body does the healing. So too can the mind, with the proper set up.
If you are trying therapy and it isn’t helping you, while EMDR is pricey, I would highly recommend considering it. If you can’t afford it at all, you still have your brain and the internet. There are people who do sessions for free on YouTube. Find one that works for you, and give it a go!
#2: I take functional supplements.
Let me be clear: If medication works for you, more power to you! This is not meant to be an anti-medication diatribe. I just wanted to see what I could accomplish, before attempting medication. And, now, I’m happy with where I am. I reached this point through a ton of experimentation and journaling, to determine how things interacted with me personally.
Seriously, guys. Journaling is the bomb. A nice journal costs fifteen bucks and a pen costs you nothing, if you steal it from your dentist.
First of all, when I started, I did not appreciate how much seemingly harmless vitamins can affect mood. It goes both ways. Be cautious! Don’t take more than the recommended amount. Whenever I overtake E, D or B, I find myself struggling with dark thoughts for a few days. The pattern is too consistent to deny. The big winner for me was 5-HTP and I am going to very briefly try to explain how it works.
Kids who endure trauma at an early age lack the serotonin-production capabilities that “normal” (ugh, who’s normal) children have. Serotonin is 5-HT, also known as the happy chemical. If you don’t know what it’s like to lack this, imagine you’re underwater, know you need to breathe, but still can’t make yourself want to get to surface. It’s a serious, serious bummer. You can’t even think about wanting to be happy. Everything, even the simplest of tasks, feel impossibly complicated and possibly pointless.
Enter 5-HTP! This little, naturally occurring amino-acid aids in the body’s biosynthesis of serotonin, which gave me a fighting chance at making better decisions that fed into my overall health–like going to bed on time, eating healthy breakfasts, going for walks, reading instead of surfing the internet, and trying to change my life in key areas. It was like coming out from under a pillow and realizing how easy breathing really is.
Before 5-HTP, I literally could not think.
Side note: 5-HTP is a chemical and, as such, can interact with other medication or chemicals found in foods. This is where careful note-taking, research and experimentation come in. But you can do it.
#3: I manage my thoughts.
Once I had a baseline of general mental well-being, I was able to see when my thoughts were feeding into the depression. The chemical imbalance was beginning to level out, now it was time to change old ruts of thinking. This is the part that takes day to day, sometimes moment to moment attention. It wasn’t easy, but once I started letting no negative thought slip by, I began to realize how many lies I’d spent a lot of my life believing. For example:
I’m just not good with people. I’m awkward. I can’t seem to get it right in groups. Relationships are my weak point. I’m so dumb sometimes. It’s always going to be difficult.
Then, once I identified these thoughts, I was able to start telling myself the opposite when they popped up:
I’m getting better with people. That was an awkward moment. I am getting better and better in group settings. Relationships are complicated for everybody. I’m just a little nervous. It’s going to get easier and easier.
Once you become aware of something, you can change it.
#4: I practice mood journaling.
This has become so important to my development. When I stop mood journaling, I know that something is very wrong and it’s important that I take a moment (or hour) to figure out what’s happening in my head.
I’ve explained in another post, but my method for mood journaling is to look up the Emotional Scale (I use this one) and, at the end of every day, list three emotions that really popped out at me. I include a simple happy/sad/neutral face then an down or up arrow, to bring out trends in my emotions, and identify whether I might be dealing with a bad mood or a depressive episode. Knowledge is power!
Mood journaling is helpful, because it takes the mystery out of food sensitivities and situational sensitivities. If you start to notice that you get depressed every time you eat blueberries (I KNOW that’s ridiculous, bear with me), and have the entries to prove it, you can eliminate blueberries. If you begin to notice that you leave a certain group of people or person feeling terrible, every time, you can limit contact with those people/that person. It’s no one’s fault, and you don’t have to be buddy-buddy with everyone or anyone, just because they want to be! This might be one of those lies you believe and don’t even realize it!
#5: I moved out.
Whether or not you believe in empaths, I can tell you without hesitation that I am one. I feel other peoples’ emotions in my body. For example, there have been times were I could not go to sleep even though I desperately wanted to, only to discover that a family member had been tossing and turning until exactly the same time that I finally drifted off to sleep. I have gotten a sudden pain in a limb, only to discover that a family member had injured themselves in that same limb. I have walked into a room and gone from peaceful to agitated, only to discover an argument had transpired between two of the individuals.
With all the research being done on mirror neurons and the nature of consciousness, I don’t see this as magical, special or particularly mysterious. And I don’t really see it as a gift. Some empaths do, I know, but that’s not me. Not yet, anyways. My personal belief is that it’s a childhood intuitive ability that gets overdeveloped as a survival mechanism, due to trauma, and doesn’t get turned off when we’re adults. Anyways.
Once I moved out of my parents’ house, these powerful “ties” to family members began to shrivel a bit, almost like an unused muscle, and I started to feel more energetic. It was as if I had been a bucket, full of holes, and moving out allowed me to start plugging those holes. I have made progress in areas of my life to a degree that was literally impossible when my energy was being used in family dynamics. NOW! This is not blame my family members! It is not in the least bit their fault that I took on everyone’s emotional issues. That was entirely on me to figure out and heal, and I have, which ironically enables me to have better relationships with them.
But moving out has still been the best decision I’ve made in 2020, even though living alone during the quarantine made for a weepy first two weeks. Yikes. That was tough. Talk about being faced with yourself!
Moving out has forced me to deal with my own issues, instead of patching up everyone else’s lives and finding my purpose in that. And it revealed to me that a lot of the emotional gunk I was dealing with wasn’t even mine. That really blew my mind. Now, when I suddenly feel terrible, I think, “Maybe this isn’t all me.” That lets the mood shift and, often, I’ll find out that I was right. A loved one was just having a rough day!
Now, if you want to move out but can’t right now, um, that makes perfect sense–hello, quarantine! I couldn’t move out for years. So, how can you create distance between yourself and your family? It could start by saying, quite simply, that you need this hour on this day to be completely left alone. It might be taking yourself to the park. It might be going on a hike, alone, even if a family member wants to join. Space can be a state of mind; I can tell you that, if I chose to, I could still be too connected to my family, even from forty miles away.
Create a little distance. See what happens.
#6: I reevaluated how I spent my time.
There is almost no better feeling that having a calendar of things you genuinely, completely want to do. As someone who spent the better part of my life trying to people-please and determine my behavior by a bizarre, arbitrary average of what everyone else did, I can attest to this.
Obviously, if you’re a mother, you have to feed your children whether you want to or not. Obviously, if you have a job and want to keep it, you have to actually go in to work. These are not the kinds of things I am talking about when I say stop doing things you don’t want to.
I’m talking about totally optional things! I used to talk when I didn’t feel like it, answer questions I wasn’t interested in, and prove things to people that didn’t care about me in the least. I went to events that I knew would leave me feeling exhausted and spent, when it would have been better for everyone if I stayed home. I used to force myself to interact on a group level when I should have just reached out to individuals. Perhaps I don’t seem as nice as I did then, but I have a whole lot more energy for genuine kindness and availability. And you’ll never have to worry if I’m hanging out with you, for any other reason than I actually want to.
I’ve never appreciated what a gift that was, until recently. Sure, it’s disappointing when someone doesn’t want to hang out with you, but I’d rather they be upfront than pretend.
This goes for people, places, projects, everything. Be honest. It’s cheaper in the end. Start eliminating the optional things that give you no joy, and start including more of what does. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how those things you thought you had to do, will be replaced by people, places and projects that bring you, and others, real joy!
And those are the ways I have learned to manage my depression! As a final word, I am not saying being sad is a bad thing; but when sadness and grief occur regardless of life circumstance, when you cannot see anything through a positive lens, when the sadness keeps you from contributing to the world and bettering your own life, it might be time to make a change. It was for me! With the help of EMDR therapy, functional supplements, thought management, mood journaling, distance from family and eliminating optional things that are no fun, life is looking pretty bright. If you decide to try any of these or have any more suggestions, do let me know in the comments!! 🙂