A Change of Weather


Years ago, at the end of my first serious bout of depression I remember waking up one morning feeling fine. I gingerly explored all corners of my mind to see where the heaviness was hiding. I couldn’t find it. After several weeks of rock bottom, I found myself not trusting this new state of being. There was nothing to fight, no darkness to push through before I could go about my day. When you’ve been fighting for so long, waking to find the enemy has disappeared during the night is disorientating.

The last several years have been heavy. After Mum was diagnosed it felt like every phone call was a threat. There was the constant awareness that things were going to get worse. Even the good moments were overshadowed by what was to come. Even though it was a relief when she died, it marked a new phase of sadness. The sleepless nights that come with raising a child added to the precariousness of my mental health. It was quite a surprise last week when I realised that for the first time in a long time I felt completely fine. I searched for any residue of sadness, but it wasn’t there.

Although I can’t say exactly why I’m feeling better, I can take a guess. I’ve let go of friendships that were doing more harm then good. That was hard. But as the saying goes, don’t hold onto a mistake just because you’ve spent a long time making it. It’s hard to recognise when someone you love isn’t good for you. It’s almost impossible to untangle and let go. I’m started actively putting time aside for creativity. I’m standing up for myself and asking for what I want, when I don’t get it immediately I’m learning to negotiate to get the best outcome I can. I’m taking the time to exercise and eat healthy. I’m reading some fantastic novels and listening to podcasts full of interesting ideas. My brain is getting fed. I’ve started pursuing some ideas that have been simmering away for some time. I’m being proactive with my emotional, mental and physical health. I know the storm clouds are likely to reappear. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make the most of this sunshine.

The Black Dog

I don’t like saying that I have depression. I prefer to say that I’ve battled depression or that I struggle with depression. To me, saying that I have depression implies ownership. The last thing I want is to encourage it to stay. It’s not mine, I didn’t ask for it and I would very much like it to go back to where it came from. I’ve tried medication and therapy, but the black dog still comes back to haunt me. 

Sometimes it’s arrival is sudden. I’ll wake up in the morning with it in bed with me. Before I had Lucy I would know it was going to be a tough day when during my morning ride the dominant voice in my head would be screaming about what a failure I was. It would tell me that I couldn’t make it up the hill. That I was too fat to be out there on a bike. To turn around and go home. On those days I knew that I had to make it to the top of where ever I was going. Because if I could beat the voice and make it up the hill I could get through the day with minimal damage.

Other times I can feel it coming. It’s like there’s a long shadow that falls and turns the atmosphere ice cold. I know what’s coming. If I exercise, socialise, read and maintain a level of miscellaneous activity I can delay the arrival. This happened over the weekend. I felt it coming. I almost cancelled my regular Sunday dinner arrangements, but I’d already promised to take dessert and I couldn’t think of an acceptable reason to bail. Dinner was great. I was quiet. I couldn’t think of anything much to say. We ended up walking around the neighbourhood looking for Christmas lights. Even though I love Christmas lights, it all just felt bleh. I walked in silence surrounded by other people’s chatter. After I left I got a text.

‘What’s going on?’

Telling people that I’m not ok but I’m ok is hard. Sadness is not a bad thing. Hermits used to be people who got depressed, disappeared from society and then reappeared when they were better. That’s a romanticised version anyway. The truth is I can function with the black cloud over my soul. It’s not pleasant and there’s no fun in it but I can do it. It’s difficult for other people to watch but I’ve spent years learning my boundaries. Knowing when it’s just sad and then when it’s time to haul myself to the GP for some external assistance.

The hardest thing now is trying to figure out when it’s grief over depression. They are very close cousins. But grief has a purpose. It’s something that I need to walk through. Engaging with the sadness of grief can bring healing. If I entertain the activities of depression it gets worse. It’s a delicate balance that I’m yet to work out. I’m not sure if I ever will. But until I do I’m going to do all the things I know are good for me. I’m going to go for walks with friends, socialise, read good books, dance around my kitchen to music that I’d be embarrassed to otherwise own. I’m going to look after myself. Because as much as other people care, when everything is said and done I’m left standing by myself. My tribe is always behind me but I’m the one that must face this ugly black thing. I’m determined not to let it win.

This Too Shall Pass

During the school holidays I babysat a friend’s kid for a day. I’d already booked Lucy into the gym creche so I could get a workout in. It was easy enough to add the eight-year-old to the booking. However he wasn’t eight. He was a very offended ten-year-old. It’s funny how age makes up such a big part of your identity as a kid but these days as a thirty something I often struggle to remember how old I am. My birthday is in two days and I think I’ll be 35. I’m not actually sure.

Life hasn’t turned out how I expected it to. In my early twenties most of my friends got married. That’s quite normal in the church crowd. I waited patiently for my prince charming, he either never showed or I scared him off when he did show up. Of the four girls I was bridesmaid for, only two are still married. While I still want the fairy tale, I have a much better understanding of what makesup a desirable relationship. Dating in your thirties is scary. It feels like I’m fishing in a very shallow pond.

My romantic life aside, there’s so many other things that I expected to be different when I reached my mid-thirties. It was never a clear expectation, just this vague feeling. I was hoping to go on and complete post grad studies after my psychology degree. But losing one parent and having the other be diagnosed with a terminal illness was a major distraction to my studies. My grades were not reflective of my potential and it took a lot longer to finish the degree then I would’ve preferred. My career is kind of in a no man’s land right now. I’ve got a job that’s great for what I need, but I’m not entirely sure what the next step is. There’s so many other things about my life that aren’t what I thought they would be.

I used to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I was raised in an environment without domestic violence. As I’ve grown up it’s become clear to me that depression is a common trait in my extended family. Combine the genetic predisposition with emotional and physical violence, my poor brain didn’t have a chance.  Even with years of therapy, there are still days I wake in a dark cloud of depression. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better equipped to deal with the cloud when it turns up.

The psychologist that introduced me to Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) will always have my thanks. ACT encourages patients to be present in their world without investing in the emotions. It’s so much more than that, so google it. There’s heaps of free resources. Anyway, back to the psychologist.

One of the greatest things she ever said to me was ‘motivation is a falsehood. Don’t wait until you’re happy to do something. Do it sad if you need to. But just do it’. That changed my life. I’ve learnt that while depression can turn the world grey it doesn’t have to stop me from doing stuff. Doing stuff won’t cure depression. It’s a ghastly beast to battle. But at least my washing gets done or bills paid, life is a little less messy then if I had submitted to the black dog.  

Another strategy I employ on the bad days is the strategy of the non-negotiables. A good friend shared this with me, it’s what he used on his bad days. What he did was to pick three things that set the standard for a ‘good’ day. No matter what else happened as long as those three tasks were complete he could spend the rest of the day hiding from the world because it was a good day. At first it seemed too simple.  But then I started doing it and it worked. My three things are leaving the house, do some form of exercise and to talk to a friend. From experience I know that if I stay at home on a sad day my emotions are just going to spiral downward. I also know that I always feel better after exercise and talking to someone. Remaining immobile and hibernating in my head is a recipe for disaster.  

I hope I’m not coming across as though I have the answers. There is so much pretentious and tokenistic advice out there. I know that continuing to hope for a better day is hard when you’re deep in the darkness. Sometimes it’s a long and lonely fight just to feel ok.  But please, do what you can to hold on. Because it will pass and you will be ok.