I’m not sure if there is a way to cure depression. Most people with depression will struggle with it off and on throughout their lives. I had a really rough patch in 2009–10 that was incredibly difficult to climb out of. I’ve always had some issues regarding depression and anxiety, but this period was the first time I ever contemplated suicide. I was so afraid of those thoughts, but luckily was aware enough to know they were a symptom of a disease and not to be acted on. It was terrifying though, and I hope to never get that low again.
My family had just moved out of my childhood home after being caught in the foreclosure crisis, and I was dealing with finally being extricated, in a somewhat traumatizing way, from a seriously unhealthy, unhappy home in a rural town no one in my family even wanted to live in. I knew this foreclosure and our new life was a blessing, since we finally moved to the city as a result, where we could more easily commute and jobs and friends were more plentiful. But still, 20 years of pent up fears and yearnings were not going to just vanish because the situation changed.
I didn’t really unpack for almost a year after we moved into the new house. I had spent years afraid of being kicked out of our house because of my father’s own struggle with depression causing him to often neglect the mortgage, and I think I still didn’t trust that we would stay in the one we were now renting for very long. My bedroom was a forest of boxes, moldy cups and bowls, garbage. I was neglecting myself, and also my 4 pet rats. The last part is really hard for me to admit – I’m so deeply shamed of how I neglected those poor animals that I occasionally have nightmares about it, and haven’t had a pet since. I didn’t know it at the time, but on top of the things going on in my family life, I was also struggling with a genetic illness, a traumatic brain injury, and undiagnosed ADHD. My life was an absolute wreck.
I had not been in contact with most of my friends for a year or more. I had been working 3rd shift an hour from my home in Indiana before the move, while they had mostly all moved to Cincinnati. I was socially out of practice after a period of prolonged isolation, awkward from only really interacting with family members for most of that time, and desperately lonely in a sort of new town (most of my cousins lived in the city, so I knew a lot of people, but some of those connections were from high school or earlier so I didn’t really know if I could reach out). I was aimless.
But eventually, I was tired of being in despair. I decided to try to swallow the shame of the way my life had gotten so off track, and start doing something about it. It was really hard and in no way a linear process. I had a ton of set backs. I was a flake and a mess, literally. But I was determined.
When I was growing up, my father would tell me, probably mostly to convince himself, that happiness is often a choice you have to make, not something that happens to you. I decided I would only stop being miserable if I made the choice to work at being happy, or at the very least rebalancing my emotions. I started with something very little – forcing myself to go out and socialize, even when I desperately wanted to curl up into a ball and hide in my mattress on the floor of my disgusting bedroom. I also decided to give my rats away to a friend, since I was unable to care for them, and that shame and guilt was compounding the depression and anxiety that was already crippling me.
Little by little, the more I forced myself out of the house, picked at the mental scabs in my brain, and practiced smiling (surprisingly helpful), I did genuinely start to feel better. I don’t know if it was just time allowing my brain injury to heal, and giving myself a break (I’ve always been very unforgiving, not only of my own faults but of others’ as well), but I felt the dark cloud gradually thinning out. I named my problems, confessing my thoughts of suicide and deep depression to my mother in an email. Just writing the issue down and being able to examine it in an external way really was helpful.
Over time I was able to recognize my depression and the signs that I was slipping before it got too far. I started exercising, which helped more than most things I have tried (I tried Zoloft in high school with no affect whatsoever). I learned that laughing, moving, socializing, staying aware of my emotions, practicing a sort of healthy detachment from them, treating them as phenomena no different from a bruise or a sinus infection, all helped greatly.
This is something I still have to work hard at every day. I still find myself listless, detached, and with a knot in my chest that keeps me paralyzed sometimes. But I know what it is now, so it doesn’t break me. I know that when that happens, it’s often because I’m overwhelmed in some way, or there’s an issue I need to address emotionally, or my hormones are out of whack, or I’m not getting enough exercise, sun, nutrients, or sleep. I know that it is not an intractable thing, that it will pass like joy, like even my chronic pain which comes and goes, like anger and like a rainstorm.
All I can say is this is what works for me, though it’s imperfect. Therapy can help too. Medication can help a lot of people and is always worth trying. Allowing myself time to wallow and knowing when enough of enough helps. But connecting with people, spending time outside my own brain, is really really important. So is time alone. I used to hate being alone, but now that I live with a wonderful man in a densely populated area, and work at an enormous company, I have learned to really like time to myself too. It’s really just about finding the balance in your emotions, in whatever way works for you.