Five Practical Things That Helped Me Survive Depression

Last week I wrote about the 18 months when I was in a deep depression, as I went through treatment for aggressive breast cancer, as well as a heart-wrenching breakup.

I feel grateful that I’m here a decade later, no longer contending with the demon that tortured me for so long.  And I’m also acutely aware of how many people are currently struggling in that deep, dark, disorienting place we call depression.

Maybe as you read this, that’s you.  Maybe you feel lost or sad or sinking or hopeless, and you’re wondering how to survive this dark season.

While I recognize everyone’s experience and story is different, there are some things that are universally true about depression.  If you’re struggling today, here are five really practical things I did that helped me survive depression.  Hopefully they’ll help you, too.

        1.  Talk to a trained mental health provider. 

During the depths of my depression, I was cornered by a journalist as I was leaving my apartment building one day.  He told me that a Yale grad student had committed suicide by jumping off the top of the apartment building that morning, and asked if I had any comment.

My first thought was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  And I knew immediately that I needed to get help.  That afternoon I called a therapist and made an appointment.  I ended up meeting with an amazing psychologist twice a week for the rest of my time in New Haven.  She referred me to a psychiatrist, and I also got a prescription for Lexapro.

It’s important to talk to your family and friends about how you’re feeling.  But nothing replaces the expertise, objectivity and experience of a trained professional.

If you’re depressed and you haven’t seen a mental health provider yet, here are a few ways to get started:  

  • You can get a list of in-network mental health providers from your insurance company.
  • You can check with your H.R. director to see if they have an Employee Assistance Program, which often offers therapy sessions for free. 
  • You can connect with a therapist on phone or video chat, via organizations like Talkspace. 
  • You can call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

 2.  Break life down into small increments.

When I was feeling really low, a well-meaning social worker patted my hand and told me to take it “one day at a time.”  And I was so overwhelmed by her advice.  Because one day was a whole 24 hours of fear, anxiety, pain, nausea and vomiting.  Even an hour seemed too much sometimes.

So I broke life down into its lowest common denominator: one breath.  I told myself to take life one breath at a time.  Because if I realized that if I could breathe, and then breathe again, and then breathe one more time after that, I would survive.

The same goes for planning your day.  When you’re depressed, you’re fragile and often not capable of taking big strides.  So take small steps instead.  Just let your feet hit the floor – and celebrate the accomplishment of getting out of bed.  Make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and drink it one sip at a time.  Do your errands one at a time, and praise yourself for each accomplishment.

Take life one breath, one step at a time, and you’ll get through this.

 

        3.  Experience life through your senses instead of your feelings.

Depression lies to you.  It tells you life isn’t worth living, your goals are impossible, there is no hope, and there’s no chance of a better future.  If you let your thoughts and emotions and feelings have the biggest say while you’re depressed, you’re going to feel worse instead of better.

The best way to silence your mind is to listen to your senses instead.   Wear colors that make you happy.  Buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers and put it on your nightstand so it’s the first thing you see when you open your eyes each morning.  Wear fabrics that feel good on your skin.  Savor what you’re eating and drinking.  Take a walk and notice the breeze, the smells, the colors, the clouds, the trees.

 

                4.  Transform meaningless pain into meaningful creative expression.

When I was in the hospital for a month, an art therapist came to see me, and asked if I’d like to paint something.  I was so angry and overwhelmed and scared, I didn’t have the capacity to paint a dainty scene (she suggested a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.)  I told her I wanted a room with four blank walls and a 5-gallon bucket of black paint that I could slosh against the walls with all my strength.

Instead of painting, I ended up writing.  And writing.  And writing.  I wrote about my cancer treatments, my symptoms, my feelings, my emotions.  Naming nebulous emotions and organizing my feelings into a narrative helped me feel more in control of my story.  It clarified what I felt and why.  And it turned meaningless pain into a meaningful story.

If you’re struggling with depression, find a way to transform your pain through creative expression.  It might be painting, drawing, dancing, writing, cooking, decorating, quilting, knitting, scrapbooking, playing music or…???  Whatever resonates with you, keep creating, keep transforming, keep finding ways to outwardly express your inward feelings, and transform your experience into meaningful expressions.

 

 5.  Refuse to quit.

In 1952, a professional swimmer named Florence Chadwick attempted to swim from Catalina Island to mainland California.  The day she attempted the swim, the weather was cool and foggy.  As she swam, Florence became more and more exhausted and discouraged.  Her mother, riding in a nearby boat, kept telling her, “Keep going!  You’re almost there!”  But Florence gave up, and begged to be taken out of the water.  After she was pulled into the boat, the fog lifted and she realized she was only half a mile away from her goal.

At a news conference the next day, Florence said, “All I could see was the fog.…I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”

Struggling with depression is like swimming in the fog.  It feels endless and impossible.  Depression lies to you and tells you you’ll never make it.  But if you listen to the encouraging voices of people around you, and if you refuse to quit, you’re going to make it.

Even if you had a bad day yesterday, get out of bed today and try again.  Even if you don’t feel like it, try again.  Even if life seems impossible, try again.

In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe,

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

 

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