Perhaps I talk too much about overcoming mental illness. I’ve been asked to talk more about how I coped with mental illness when I was deeply depressed. That might help a wider range of people. So here is my “Depression Survival Guide”.
These are the six things I actually did while deeply depressed that kept me alive. This is not exactly advice. These are the things that worked for me, and they worked every time I did them.
1. Show up.
No matter how depressed I was, I forced myself to show up to my friends’ events. I showed up on time and I showed up late. I showed up and enjoyed the whole event and I showed up and left after ten minutes. I showed up so tired and depressed I fell asleep. I showed up so manic my friends barely recognized me. I showed up alone and I showed up with friends. I showed up to Birthday parties, concerts, punk shows at dive bars, church barbecues, political fund-raisers, random get-togethers at peoples’ houses. It didn’t matter.
When I was deeply depressed, seriously mentally ill, nothing was more important than to get out of my room and connect with other human beings. There is a good reason why I put this first. When I was at my worst I showed up a few times to my friends’ art shows and didn’t even speak to anyone. I was that sick.
Here’s something to remember. Those same friends later told me, “you’re like our number one fan. You have always supported us, even when our closest friends didn’t.” I don’t think they even noticed that many of the times I came to their events I didn’t talk to them or anyone. What they remembered was simply that I was there.
2. Stop complaining.
Complaining literally wires your brain for depression, because it allows you to play the role of a helpless victim who is hoping that mere sympathy will encourage someone else to become a savior. Here’s a deeply uncomfortable truth: we all become who we pretend to be.
Pretend to be a helpless victim for long enough and that is exactly what you will become. I interrupted my own complaining and asked other people to interrupt it too when I noticed that I wasn’t doing a good enough job of shutting down the negative talk.
3. Recognize that you are delusional.
When seriously depressed, it is more than a feeling. I lose interest in the world around me. I no longer enjoy activities I used to love. The people I care about merely annoy me. Meanwhile I feel like strangers and acquaintances are actively hostile, and I begin to believe that my friends are conspiring against me.
And the worst thing is that I don’t see that it is me that has changed. I think the world has changed.
This is the place where depression connects with my more serious mental illness, my hallucinations. They both can make me delusional. Surviving depression always required me to notice and to name, to say out loud to someone else, that I was becoming delusional.
It didn’t end the feeling, but it changed my mind-state. Feelings come and go, but a mind-state has lasting consequences.
4. Change your surroundings by moving your body.
I always walked a lot before I owned a car, and this was a blessing. Forcing my body to interact with the sun, wind, rain and temperature changes kept me physically alive.
Since this is not advice, and is a record of what I did to survive depression, I need to emphasize that this only worked when I walked outside and exposed myself to the elements. Indoor “exercise” never helped me.
5. Read books more and look at screens less.
Reading a physical book has never led me to depression. But staring at computer and phone screens has. When I was too tired to walk, I read. Reading led me to learn new things, and it also, through the fantasy of fiction, allowed me to imagine new possibilities. The focus required by reading also took my mind off of its constant need to distract itself.
The more I think about this issue, the more I think that it is the focus required by reading that helped. But I also will say that, to this day, the feel and smell of an old book improves my mental state.
6. Don’t worry about your motivations for connecting.
One of the best friendships I ever formed happened entirely because I was basically stalking some girl that (as it turned out) I only liked because she had a hip punk-rock hairdo. I had been trying to show up at places where I knew she would show up. One day, at some rock show, I started up a conversation with a musician because I was too nervous to talk to cute punk rock girl (hey, I was young.) I never did get up the nerve to have even a single real conversation with her, but he turned out to be one of the best and longest-lasting friends I’ve ever made.
When I was truly depressed, I needed to connect. And sometimes that meant I needed to stop caring why I was connecting. Caring about intentions and motivations, whether my own or other peoples’, has never helped me deal with any mental illness.
I think I’m going to end on that point.