the hard day plan

Creative Commons 2014 © Matt Deavenport
Creative Commons 2014 © Matt Deavenport

The walls shimmer with shifting blue shadows. The lapping sounds echo off the tile floor. The smell of salt water fills my nose.

I plunge into the cool water without hesitation, letting it envelop me completely, closing over my head, caressing my face, pulling me under, but not against my will. I open my eyes to observe the wavy blue depths I now inhabit.

My feet push off the bottom, my arms propel me, clumsy but somehow still elegant, through the uneven waves. Under here, I hear nothing but the rhythmic workings of the system that keeps the pool full and clean, and, occasionally, when I tune in, the beating of my own heart. My head breaks the surface momentarily so I can suck down a deep lungful of air – the silent, perfect world broken – and then I am under again.

I don’t know what it is about water. Pool water, lake water, ocean water. Bath water, even. It cleanses me, somehow. Washes away my anxieties and fears, the squicky lies my depression tells me, and the tendency I have to ruminate on issues beyond my control. It brings me back to a more primal, more present, me.

Maybe it’s a womb thing. Maybe it’s a childhood thing. Maybe it’s a vestige of some primordial something or other. Whatever the reason, water makes me feel reborn. It is a physical reset that tells me, “Yes. You can do this. You can survive.” Nothing can touch me in the water.

***

When I met with Blake to be photographed and interviewed for her project, We All Believe In You, I didn’t know what I was going to say. For a long time, I have been quite open about my struggles with depression, but suddenly, it seemed like my story was too small. It didn’t compare to the tales of immense struggle and pain that other people had been telling. I don’t self-harm and I have never attempted suicide, and it seemed like that meant my pain and my experience of mental illness were less than.

Blake did away with those fears immediately, asserting, quite forcefully, that everyone’s story is relevant and everyone’s experiences are important. We talked briefly, about when my depression started, about how it has affected my life, about how I have dealt with it. She asked me what advice I had for other people who may be experiencing similar difficulties, and I told her, “Have a plan in place before the hard days come.”

I forget this advice all the time. In the middle of a depressive episode, it is really easy to forget all of the things that I have previously done to make myself well again. So I have posted a list on my wall, entitled, helpfully, Self-Care Cheat Sheet. It lists 12 things I can do to make myself feel a little bit more okay when I feel depression tapping me on the shoulder.

Recently, I finished reading Jes Baker‘s book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls. (It is a revelation. Read it.) She has a whole chapter dedicated to mental health, which made me do a kind of happy dance. Then, as I read it, I stumbled upon something awesome:

Her main piece of advice for those of us who struggle with hard days – so, everyone – is to have a plan in place ahead of time.

Whoa. THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I SAID.

So that was pretty cool. And it also gave me a bit of a push to revamp my Self-Care Cheat Sheet. Now, instead of 12 items, it lists 53. It’s tucked away inside my journal right now but I fully intend on making a poster out of it for myself, bright and colorful and pretty, so I can put it somewhere where it is very easily accessible. (When those hard days come, they come fast, and I don’t always have time to remember where my list has been stashed before I am curled in bed, unwilling and unable to drag myself out of it, come hell or high water.)

Some of my items:

  • Pet an animal. Visit the SPCA if possible.
  • Sing along to Taylor Swift. Loudly.
  • Light a candle in the dark and watch it dance.
  • Have a bubble bath.
  • Take 5 deep breaths. Then another 5.
  • Wash the sheets and roll around on them while they are still warm and smell amazing.
  • Go to the movies alone.
  • Make tea.
  • Snuggle a baby.
  • Indulge in some (controlled) retail therapy.
  • Swim.
  • Smile. Fake it til you make it.

***

My skin felt too tight, my limbs twitching with barely contained energy that zipped through my veins like tourists in the treetops of Costa Rica. I wanted to crawl out of myself for a while. I could feel my teeth gritting, trying to tamp down on increasing anxiety and restlessness.

I went into the bedroom, changed as quickly as possible, and headed into the hallway. I tapped my foot impatiently as I waited an interminably long time for the damn elevator to arrive. Didn’t it know I was on the verge of collapse?! Finally, it dinged and the doors slid open. I wedged myself in between two other passengers and watched as the numbers rapidly descended. The doors opened once more, spilling us all out into the foyer, and I hurried around the corner, swiping my key fob, and pushing open the door.

The shifting blue shadows. The lapping waves. The smell of salt water.

My whole body relaxed.

***

Do you have a hard day plan? What does it consist of? Feel free to share the things that make you feel more human in the comments. <3

the hard day plan

yes to being alive

I came to a realization the other day. Not a fun one, either.

I am closed down.

I am joyless.

I am sleepwalking.

I have been saying no for a long time. As a method of self-preservation, which seemed like an honorable, even necessary, choice at the time. I was emotionally devastated after my miscarriages, and I needed to take care of myself. That is true. But I took it too far, curled too far into myself and shut out the light completely. And if I’m being honest, I have been saying yes (the wrong yes) to inaction and complaining for much longer than that. For years. For most of my life.

I wanted to travel. Instead of saving the money and going, I complained that I was too broke, then spent all my money on other things.

I wanted to be a writer. Instead of sitting down and writing, then sending those pieces to publications, I complained that I would never get noticed.

I wanted to find a purpose. Instead of pursuing what I was interested in, the things I already knew were my passions, I turned away and complained about not knowing what my path was.

It was all so much easier. Saying no, protecting myself, taking the safe route and never taking a chance. Those things are so easy.

But I can’t do it anymore.

I have this deep fear of wasting my life. Soul deep. It paralyzes me sometimes. Okay, it paralyzes me a lot of the time. It gets so huge and so overwhelming that I end up freezing, doing nothing, so overcome with the need to make it count. So, of course, I have ended up doing nothing most of the time. Which is such a waste.

Oh, the irony.

The other day, I finished reading Shonda Rhimes’s book, Year of Yes. I powered through it in a matter of days. Everything she said spoke right to my soul. Spoke right to the thing in me that was saying no to everything that came up in my life. And I realized that I was hurting myself. By saying no to living, I was attacking the core of who I am.

 

I want to live. I just want to live while I’m alive. I want to be here. I want to take up space. I want to say yes, I want to fail, I want to succeed, I want to try and try and try some more. I want to open up to life. It doesn’t have to be big. I don’t have to be Shonda Rhimes or JK Rowling for my life to be meaningful (but hey, if that’s in the cards, great). I just have to, you know, live.

So from now on, I am saying yes. I am saying yes to things that scare me. I am saying yes to stepping outside of my comfort zone, to taking steps, to doing. 

From now on, I am saying yes to being alive.

yes to being alive

the depression chronicles: radical self-care

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I was doing all right. The day had been a little lighter than the ones that had come before it, but anxiety was knocking at the door again, a bit of darkness pressing its face against the windows, and I knew that I was going to have do something a bit bigger, a bit stronger, a bit more radical.

So I hauled myself out the door. First things first: get out of the house.

I didn’t have a plan. I headed to the mall, thinking I would run some errands, but as soon as I set foot in the cool, echoey interior, I knew it was a mistake. Malls are depressing places; I rarely ever see people smile there. I hustled out as fast as I could and headed to my go-to happy place: the library. But I knew that I had too many books at home to read, and the growing pile, far from giving me pleasure, was starting to feel like a chore. Instead of heading inside to peruse more chores, I stopped at the threshold and went into Second Cup instead. I bought myself a green tea lemonade and a croissant, plonked myself down at a window table, and enjoyed my snack. I didn’t pull out the book I had stowed in my purse, nor did I pull up the Feedly app on my phone. I answered a few texts, but mostly, I just sat, and ate, and drank.

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When I was done, I headed back out into the sunshine, with the vague notion that I would head to the river valley and find somewhere shaded where I could sit and write for a while. The previous day, in my counselling session, my therapist and I had talked about grounding techniques: take your shoes off and walk in the grass, literally hug a tree, put your hands in the dirt and let it sift through your fingers. She laughed a little, and apologized if that sounded too hippy dippy for me, but it sounded exactly right, and I thought that now was the time to put those ideas into action.

Walking past the imposing Fairmont Macdonald, I noticed there were some flowers out front that I had never really noticed before. I cut back across the street I had just crossed to check it out, but the benches were all full in the sun, many of the flowers looked like they hadn’t been watered in weeks, and there were three or four people sitting around, smoking. I try to avoid secondhand smoke at the best of times, but now that I have someone else to worry about, I am militant about it. This was not where I was going to rest.

I continued on past the hotel, to a staircase I had never ventured down. It took me down into the river valley, to my favorite path, which I have not been on much over the summer. It is my running route, but I haven’t been running for the past three months because of my leg injury, and I hadn’t realized how deeply I missed it. Not only the act of running, but the location. A huge smile spread across my face as I meandered past the trees, occasionally stopping to press my hand against the rough bark of one.

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Eventually, I slipped my shoes off and put them in my purse. The pavement was hot under my feet, almost unbearable, but the shock of it, the here-ness of it, brought a huge smile to my face. Sometimes, when I am very depressed, it feels like there is a wall between me and the world, a wall that I cannot break through or knock down, no matter how hard I try, and so I cannot feel anything. I can see the world, but I don’t feel part of it. I can objectively feel the air and smell the smells and see the sights, but there is no subjective experience attached to it. Here, curling my toes against the hot asphalt, feeling the roughness of the tiny pebbles against my skin, I came slamming back to reality with such force I am surprised I managed to remain standing.

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I went on like this for nearly two and a half hours. Turning left when I usually turn right. Breaking into a near-run, skipping whenever I felt like it. Not only returning people’s smiles, but actively seeking them out. At one point, I wanted to go down to the river, so I found a little path that took me to the edge of an incline, which I slid down on my butt, and found myself just a few feet from the water. I sat on a tree branch, so knobbly that my derriere was asleep within minutes. But I sat there for nearly half an hour, taking pictures, drawing, and writing in my notebook. My shoes squealched in the mud, and I watched as four or five ducks swam in front of me, circling and quacking and completely oblivious to my presence.

After a while, I had to head home, because I was ill-prepared for my adventure and had neglected to bring either water or a snack. As well, I have to pee about every five seconds nowadays. But I went home with the biggest smile on my face, having immersed myself in pure joy for the afternoon, a kind of radical nowness, and it was exactly what my soul needed.

How do you practice radical self-care?

the depression chronicles: radical self-care

making friends with myself

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It feels as though I have been at war with myself for some time. I think that is an accurate description of depression: an introspective war. Part of my healing process has been to negotiate a peace treaty, a ceasefire, a truce instead of antagonism.

More than that, I needed to become friends with myself again.

It hasn’t been easy. But it has been easier than I thought it would be.

I started with affirmations. My therapist asked me what Bryan would say to me when I was in the middle of a bad episode, what sort of things would penetrate the darkness and bring me back to the light, even just a little bit. Even just a pinprick. Then she wrote them on a note card and I taped it to my bathroom mirror. That was three months ago. That note card is still there. It reads: You are amazing and I love you. 

My task was to say those words to myself every day. Look myself in the eye, and say, out loud, “You are amazing, and I love you.”

It felt ridiculous. It felt absurd. I was embarrassed the first few times I did it. I made Bryan leave the adjoining room once because I felt so self-conscious having him hear me saying these words to myself. But I did it. I made it a habit; every time I came into the bathroom, I’d catch my own eye, and say it. Sometimes I’d even throw in a wink.

Slowly, it began to feel less ridiculous.

Slowly, it began to feel more true.

And I noticed that some other things were changing, too. It became easier for me to focus on the good things that I was doing, rather than wearing “bad thing” blinders. I was able to look more objectively at the things I was attempting to achieve, to see the real progress I was making and not just the setbacks. To see my worth as a person. Bryan and I went for a long walk in the coulees in Lethbridge and on the way back, sweaty and dusty, I caught sight of my reflection in the sideview mirror and thought, “Hm, I’m really pretty.” It was an idle thought, a moment where my guard was down, and those words traipsed right on in as if they belonged there. Words that I had never thought before.

I think of myself in different terms now. Not “the depressed, complicated, hard to handle girl.” But smart, creative, capable. The girl who is good at her job. The girl who has a million creative outlets because she can’t contain it all within herself. The girl who is a great sister and a great friend. I used to think it was silly to think that men might be flirting with me, because why would they want to flirt with me, but now I shrug and think, Why wouldn’t they flirt with me? That subtle shift in thinking has led to a cascade of difference.

I look at myself with more kindness now. I practice self-compassion every day. I still tell myself I love you. I don’t know what it is, therapy or medication or becoming my own friend again, or some combination therein (definitely some combination therein), but I have never felt so good in my life. If I ever have, it has been lost in the mist and murk of childhood memories.

Nothing is perfect. I still have bad days. Days that are as dark as they have ever been. But for the most part, for the majority of my time, I am doing just fine.

More than just fine.

I am doing well.

making friends with myself

The Depression Chronicles: Volume One

I have been depressed for a long time. I’m not 100% sure when it started; sometime in my early teens. I have spent over a decade of my life dealing with this insidious disease, and I think, after a while, it became part of my identity.

I mean, of course it did, right? Depression isn’t a quirky habit that you pick up and then drop a few months later, it isn’t something that you try on and then decide isn’t right for you. It is something that you don’t get to pick. For a long time, I thought it was my own fault that I was depressed. That I couldn’t “just choose to be happy” like so many people desperately wanted me to.

A little part of me kind of … liked it. I felt like being depressed made me a special snowflake, somehow. I felt like it made me a little bit different. Like no one could understand my special brand of pain because I was depressed. 

I hate being depressed, don’t get me wrong. It is awful. Feeling hopeless, like life isn’t worth living, even when your life is actually great, is one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had. To look around you and know, intellectually, that you are damn lucky, but to still feel like you’re living in a pit of despair is a war zone of guilt and agony. How dare I be unhappy when I have so much? It’s terrible. Which makes me feel even worse to think that some part of me wanted the depression to stick around for a while longer so I could continue thinking that I was special. But depression is not a simple problem, and deeply ingrained thought processes are not so easy to change, and I am learning to cut myself some slack.

Six years ago, my doctor prescribed me an antidepressant. I carried that prescription around in my wallet for a long time. Months. Eventually, I lost it. (Maybe on purpose, I don’t know.) I never did fill it. I had a vehement opinion about taking medication; it was great and life-saving and life-changing for other people, but it wasn’t for me. More than any other aspect, in my mind, depression had come to define me. Maybe I was afraid of giving that up. Maybe I was afraid that being happy because of a pill meant that I was fundamentally broken, and that I would be living a lie; like, “I’d rather be myself and miserable, than be happy and fake.” I never could quite parse out why I was so resistant to the idea of medication.

Fast forward six years. I have been battling depression for all of those six years. On and off. I have done yoga and exercised daily, changed my eating habits for the better, started getting enough sleep. I have practiced meditation and gone into therapy. I kept a gratitude journal and practiced bringing mindfulness into my life. I changed careers. All of these things worked, for a little while. But, inevitably, I would end up right back there in that pit of despair. I think it turned into a kind of hubris, believing that I could do it on my own, that I had to do it on my own, even long after it became clear that I could not do it on my own.

And so, a few weeks ago, while laying in bed, tears soaking my face, I said to Bryan, “No matter what I do, I always end up back here.” There was a pause. “Maybe I need to try medication.”

Last week I went to my doctor. She asked me a lot of questions about my symptoms, how I was feeling, what life was like for me right now. She flipped back through her notes. She said, “The first time we talked about this was in 2009.” Flip flip flip. “Then again in 2011.” Flip. “And 2013.” I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had thought that dealing with it on my own made me stronger or something, healing myself by myself. Like I wore my constant suffering and struggle like a merit badge. She closed my file, laid her hand on top of it, fixed me with a kind smile. “You have done enough on your own.”

I had to get here on my own. I spent a lot of time over the past 13 or so years suffering. But I made a lot of healthy changes in my life too in order to help with it. And there is no one in the world that could have said to me, “You have to take this medication. This is the right and only way.”

I’m willing to try it now. I am willing to see if it will help. I am willing to see if there is the possibility that I will not have to suffer with this illness for the rest of my life, a belief that has plagued me for years. Every day now I take a little white pill, and I stare at my reflection, try to see if I feel any different.

It has only been six days, but I am seeing a difference: for the first time in a long time, I feel real hope.

The Depression Chronicles: Volume One

Doing Something is Better than Doing Nothing

This past month has involved a lot of sitting. And a lot of sleeping. And a lot of not engaging with the world in general.

It has been a less than fun time, because I feel like I’m being eaten alive by depression.

Yay!

Things have begun to lighten somewhat in the last week or so. I have somehow managed to get off my ass and do something every once in a while.

Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.

I often find it difficult to get my butt in gear. Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) it feels so much easier to stay on the couch and let Netflix play the next episode (and the next and the next). Then at the end of it, I feel like a zombie, and I kick myself for not getting anything productive done. So, to squash that guilty feeling of hiding from the world through television, I either watch more TV, delve into a book, or go to sleep. (Obviously, I have nothing against reading, except when it is being used as a means to hide from life instead of get more from it.)

About a month ago, we implemented a new system in our house that has made life a lot easier: Sundays, we prepare for the week ahead by doing some deep cleaning (kitchen and bathroom), laundry, and meal planning for the week, as well as a little bit of relationship housecleaning where we discuss our past week, what we have coming down the line over the next week, and the state of our finances. I cannot even explain to you how much this has changed the dynamic of our home.

Suddenly, the bathroom takes 15 minutes to clean instead of an hour (don’t even ask how often we used to clean it). Suddenly, we have clean clothes when we need them. Suddenly, we are communicating better and feeling closer to one another. Suddenly, when we sit down on the couch to watch an hour or two of television, it doesn’t feel like something guilty that we have to sneak, in case all the other tasks we should be accomplishing happen to see us.

On those days, I feel better than on most other days, because doing something is better than doing nothing. 

I try to remind myself of this when I am drowning in depression. Sometimes it works. More often, it doesn’t. But on those days when I say to myself, “Hey, self, you’ll feel so much better if you get up and do something” and then I actually manage to get up and do something, it is like a tiny miracle.

And maybe, if I keep telling myself that, the balance will tip, and more often than not, I will do something.

For now, I will be gentle with myself and remember that the nature of the beast that is depression means that doing things is hard. And it doesn’t make me a gross failure to not be able to do anything, or to only be able to do the tiniest of things. And to forgive myself, and try again. And again and again, as many times as necessary, because that is what life is. Trying and trying and trying until something sticks.

Doing Something is Better than Doing Nothing