The Black Dog

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I have had depression for as long as I can remember. It has taken different forms over the years. As a young child, it was loneliness. I always felt like I was alone in this world. I never felt truly known or understood. Just that I was kind of floating through life, not connecting with anyone. As a teenager it was full-blown despair. The world was a miserable place inside my head. I hated and loved with equal fervor. My friends, my family, all people broke my heart. I loved them all, but I hated myself and I hated the way I interacted with others. I was a failure, an ugly, stupid, untalented nobody. In those years, my parents got me help. But it was a wash. I was put on a series of medications that didn’t really help, they just made me numb. I was hospitalized multiple times for suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. School felt like a prison. I hated waking up in the morning. I was bored, lonely and terribly sad. When I turned 18 I weaned myself off of the medication and tried to manage my depression on my own.

In college, my depression morphed into angst. At that point I was married to my High School sweetheart and we lived in an apartment and both attended separate colleges while working part-time. We were very busy. Not much time for anything but the immediate demands. I was lonely, again, but only for friendship. I finally had a true partner by my side. Someone to ground me, and it helped immensely. But I still felt disconnected from the rest of the world. I had always had big dreams of saving the world. And my desire to do so peaked in college. The only problem was, I had no time to save the world. I was too busy studying, being a wife and working to pay the bills. We were quite poor, but didn’t even realize it. We were so happy to be married and our material needs weren’t huge.

After having my first child, depression became intense boredom, of course loneliness, and a constant feeling that I wasn’t living up to my potential. I fought those feelings through two more kids. I wasn’t working, just caring for the babies. But I always wished I could contribute to my family financially and I needed an outlet to use my talents. I started a business, and things finally started to improve. I also began taking birth control, to help with mood swings. I am otherwise still unmedicated for my depression.

I now finally feel like my depression is under control. I’m still haunted by the black dog. But I know how to handle him much better now. I can see him coming and I’ve tamed him fairly well. It’s still a major issue in my life though. And at times, it’s all I can do to manage it so I can function. I am not a doctor, of any kind. I am no expert and some of my advice may just plain be lousy for you. But after years of struggling with depression, these are things that I’ve learned that help me keep going.

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Photo by Leah Molinari

Get out of bed

Many days out of the month, it takes all my effort just to get out of bed. The world feels heavy in the morning, overwhelming, unknown and I want no part of it. I just want to hide in my covers. My bed feels safer than anywhere else. I’ve learned that indulging my desires to hide are not helpful overall. I’m so grateful that I have children, a husband and a business partner that all depend on me. I don’t want to let them down, and that is a huge motivator. I get out of bed for them. I also have a puppy sleeping in my bed with me. If I don’t get out of bed to let her out, she’ll pee and I’ll have to clean it up. External motivators are huge. 

Fill your schedule…just so

I also get out of bed because I have too much to do. I’ve learned that keeping pretty busy is beneficial. There is a very hard to find sweet spot between busy and overwhelmed. But I try to live in that zone. Choose responsibilities carefully and limit that ones that are reoccurring. I can do almost anything once in a while and with proper mental preparation. But I find it very overwhelming to have a weekly commitment of any kind. When I’m in a busy season, I also schedule blocks of time with empty space and I’m not allowed to fill it. It gives me built in down time, which is essential for anyone who needs time to recharge on a regular basis. Find your perfect scheduling balance and protect it fiercely. You’re doing everyone else a favor by being consistently engaged in life, but not overwhelmed.

Make your contribution meaningful

Staying in bed and avoiding my life for a day is very tempting, but my work would just pile up and be overwhelming for me another day. I have made myself indispensable in my own life. No one else can cook, do laundry or answer the work e-mails. Some days I wish I had delegated better, but most days I’m grateful that I’ve built-in a challenge to myself to get it all done regardless of how I feel. This system definitely backfires when I’m physically sick, but I just learn to let it go and give myself grace when the house falls apart without me. Create tasks that only you can complete creates more external forces to give you a nudge. 

Check your chemicals

The most effective medical treatment I’ve found for my depression is birth control. My depression is very hormonal. When I was younger, I was mis-diagnosed with Bipolar Depression because my hormonal mood swings were out of control. But the doctors never bothered to address the hormones and attempted to balance my brain chemistry instead. There is a very real chance that if you suffer from depression, either your hormones or your brain chemistry is off. It’s definitely worth discussing with a doctor. The scary part is, it takes time for medication to work and it can be hard to find the exact dose you need to be your best. But it ‘s worth the experiment. For me, the birth control makes me think more clearly. Before birth control, during PMS specifically, I would think irrationally and make poor choices based upon my “feelings”. Then a few days later I would hate myself for making those choices once my head cleared. Now, not only are my emotions not as intense, but I can clearly sense when they’re hormonally based vs. “normal”.

Find someone to talk to

I would highly suggest a counselor if your insurance covers it, or  you can afford it. It’s so refreshing to be able to say all the things I want to without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings or sounded like a whiner. She gives me an outsiders’ perspective and helps me weigh the realities of a situation. But I also have other friends with depression and anxiety. And it helps immensely to talk to them about our individual struggles. We encourage one another and challenge each other to press on. Find someone that you can be honest with about your black dog days. 

Find a hobby

A hobby for this purpose is something that makes you feel alive. Something that awakens your spirit and gives you purpose. This is no small task for some. But everyone has at least a few to choose from. House projects like painting, or sewing feel purposeful to me. I also love walking in nature and remembering that much of life is beautiful in spite of how I feel. Appreciating the path of a falling leaf, or the ebb and flow of migrating birds are both two of my favorite soul revivors. Sometimes, even when I feel truly dead inside, I force myself to do one of these things and it helps me take a step out of the mire.  Make a list of things that provide powerful soul food for you and remember to use them like medicine when you need to. 

Exercise

All the studies prove this one. But this one is the hardest for me. It doesn’t feel like it works. At least not just any exercise works for me. I’ve cried on an elliptical many times, and didn’t feel better for it. However, a walk outside almost always takes at least the edge off. Is it the endorphins though or the scenery? I suppose both. A bike ride might be effective for me as well. I love the feeling of freedom that it provides. But again, outdoors…Indoor exercise that works for me is sex. Ha. But also I love to dance and totally let loose. I know lots of people that swear by yoga for this purpose. Get your body moving somehow, and momentum should take over somewhat. 

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Photo by Ash Imagery

Spend time with God

It never fails. My best days begin with God. Before I get out of bed, I try to at least thank God for the day. Even if I don’t mean it. Just saying it makes me realize it’s a gift. Gratitude can undo a host of negative thoughts and emotions. I’m also inviting Him to join me on my day. I’m not alone. I’m never alone. Starting the day with Him reminds me of that. I also have a better day when I read my Bible. It puts life into perspective for me. Life is bigger than my worries. God has always had a plan and has always been in charge. My problems are not strange to Him, nor do they offend Him. I am moving forward, with His help.

Change your circumstances and your perspective

A lot of my victories over depression have to do with my circumstances changing. Some people are truly miserable, because their lives are miserable. The times I’ve felt loneliest, I didn’t have great connections with people. When boredom-depression struck, it was because my life was genuinely boring. When angsty-depression struck, it was because I was obsessed with giant, global issues and wasn’t doing anything about them. I’ve since made better friends, filled my days with activities that are meaningful to me and have done what I can to help with various issues that I’m passionate about. If changes can be made in your life to help your depression, then do what you can to make them.

Change your perspective

We have all heard stories of incredible people that in spite of their circumstances, made the best of it. A lot of my victories were due to a change in perspective. A book that was instrumental to that change was One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp . It helped me to appreciate the everyday gifts in my life. There is a key section of the book where the author appreciates the delicate beauty of a soap bubble as she washes dishes. Beauty is all around us if we open our hearts to it. Seeing the world this way is refreshing. I’ve also learned much about taking a step back to appreciate what I have. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and not truly see where you stand and the good things surrounding you. I may feel stress or sadness, but what I have is a life full of gifts if I chose to see them that way. Challenge yourself to appreciate the good in your life that you already have. 

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Get a pet

I’m a “dog person”. I suppose a cat or some other creature might work here too, but I’m going to advocate for a dog. A dog will create another external motivator. It will force you to take walks in nature. And dogs are just joyful creatures. When my mutts wag their tails, their whole bodies wiggle. I can’t look at that and not smile. They love me, unconditionally even when I genuinely suck as a human being. They don’t ask much of me, so even when I feel like I’m failing every human in my life, it’s simple to meet the needs of my canines. And when I just can’t get myself out of bed, they are quite companians. They don’t judge, they don’t ask questions. They are just there because they want to be close to me. Rescue an animal that needs you, but who’s needs are easy to meet. 

Bottom line. No one else in the world is you. No one else brings to the table your unique gifts, talents and personality. God created you because He wanted to. You are the result of His talents. The world needs you. So do what you have to do to be engaged in it. Don’t hide your light and don’t let it go out. Depression doesn’t own you. It may be a constant struggle, but keep fighting.

 

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