The End of Winter

On a recent Sunday morning, I was struggling. Struggling to get out of bed. Struggling to complete the tasks necessary to get ready for church. Struggling to look at the day ahead of me with anything but dread. Struggling to move. Struggling to talk. I felt profoundly tired, but the day before, I’d had a wonderful, bright day with friends, having lunch and seeing “Hello, Dolly” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I wondered if I was dragging so much on this morning because I’d been so active the day before. But, I realized I’d taken naps several days that week. Feeling uncertain, I asked my husband if I seemed more tired than usual.

Tyler agreed that I did seem more tired. Then he said, “But this time of year is always hard on you.” That truth sank into my bones and sparked some vivacity for the first time that morning. I felt like I should have realized on my own that this stage of winter was most likely to blame for my recent struggles and lack of energy, but I hadn’t. And with those words, I understood the why to all my questions. I also understood that things would get better, as they tend to when spring returns. And that made facing the day less bleak. 

Then Tyler asked me if I wanted to go to church. I said yes. He got up, but I didn’t. He reached out a hand. When I took it, he literally helped me to stand.

I didn’t stop being tired. I didn’t stop dreading the two normal events for our Sundays. I’ve had worse bouts of depression—far worse. But that didn’t stop this from being a bad mental health day, as rainy a day inside my brain as outside.

Things were better in an hour or so. Not because I went to church (though I did). Not because I ate a magical breakfast (a banana and a dollop of peanut butter). Not because I prayed or meditated. Those things might have had a somewhat positive affect, but the core truth is that the weather in my brain just happened to get a little better. It might have swung the other way and I would have needed to ask Tyler to take me home after church instead of to lunch with his family. (This happened a couple times while we were dating and engaged.) But I did feel better. I could think more clearly. Standing up wasn’t so much of a struggle. Neither was talking. Nor being in another’s presence. (Tyler is excluded from that last part, presumably because my brain has decided that he and I are made of the same stuff, in a way literally no other person on the planet is.) 

I worry about what my life will be like later. If I’m able to have children, how will I handle a day like Sunday? My history of depression means I’m more likely to struggle with depression postpartum, during grief, and before menopause. And, of course, sometimes there aren’t particular, noticeable triggers for depression or anxiety. Sometimes it’s just weather. 

For now, I’m immensely grateful for my husband, who helps me stand when I’m struggling, and tells me it’s okay if I need to change our plans. 

The past few weeks, despite the amount of rain we’ve had, have been better. Still, I’m looking forward to spring. 

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!

Rainy Brain Lies

I give a weather report for my brain when I have a bout of depression or anxiety (often both). It usually sounds like “scattered showers” or “pop-up thunderstorms” or “overcast” or just “rainy.” This past weekend, it was scattered showers. I could feel fine, not notice a problem, but twenty minutes later be sobbing in the bathroom. Between rain showers, Tyler asked me what it feels like. One of the first things I thought of was, “Rainy brain lies.”

Depression lies. Depression tells me I’ve failed, I’m worthless, I’m unwanted and unloved. There’s no convincing my brain to stop lying, or stop raining. It’s weather, you can’t control it. The best you can do is dress for it. Depression lies like a bully. After a while of saying “No” and “Not true” you realize that your arguments aren’t making a difference to him and they aren’t going to. But it’s important to keep telling the truth and to not let yourself believe the lies. That’s hardest to do, of course, when they are based on an element of truth.

I told Tyler that rainy brain lies because mine had just told me that I’ve wasted the whole summer. All the warm weather and hot dogs and baseball games and swimsuits and light dresses I’d had the opportunity to enjoy, I’d wasted. True because I didn’t meet all my goals for the summer; false because using my time differently than I had planned isn’t wasting it. False because I did thoroughly enjoy aspects of the summer, even if, truthfully, I never did buy a new swimsuit.

So I know what my brain is telling me is, ultimately, a lie. One meant to hurt me because rainy brain is a jerk and a bully. I catch the lie, then tell myself the truth.

Except, my emotions are brown water barely contained behind a levee. The surging rainwater fills it to the brim, leaking down the earth and cracking the stone. My emotions react to the lie instantly, causing water to burst out as if a huge bar of soap had been dropped into an utterly full basin of water. I tug back against the lie, and there’s no getting back the water that’s spilled over, but the rush lessens. The water goes back to it’s overfull, dangerous, roiling place, lapping at the edge of the levee. But it’s back.

And then my brain lies again.

If I lean into one lie, even for a moment, the water gains strength and my mental levee is that much harder to shore up. That much more water escapes.

Of course, this is when I have access to a range of emotions. In longer, deeper episodes of depression, I don’t. I have the lies. I have fear. I have self-condemnation. I have exhaustion. And I have the rain. Emotions like joy and silliness and contentment and anger and irritation are the chimneys on houses, occasionally peeking over the waves. And the lies are worse. This weekend, the lies were “You failed” and “You can’t do anything worthwhile” and “You’ll never accomplish your goals.” But in longer periods, the lies are, “You’re useless” and “You’re worthless” and “You don’t deserve any of the good things or people in your life” and “No one really loves you and no one ever will.”

One of the weirder things about depression in my estimation—and I’m by no means an expert on depression or anxiety or surviving either—is that because the rain is in your mind, things in your mind can help you. It’s not like breaking your leg and putting an ice pack on it. The ice helps with the pain, and that’s important, but your leg is still just as broken once the ice pack is off. With depression, the ice pack itself helps you heal.

Or, as Andrew Solomon says in one of my favorite TED talks, if you have brain cancer and feel better if you stand on your head for 20 minutes each day, “it may make you feel better but you still have brain cancer and you’re still probably going to die from it.” But if a depressed person does the same thing, and it makes that person feel better, “it’s worked because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, you are affectively not depressed anymore.”

Watching a gif of a fox on trampoline can help. Sitting on the porch with your roommate’s dog can help. Listening to your mother’s favorite song can help. A single song isn’t going to suddenly end your depression, but if it helps, you do it over and over. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Sometimes the point is that you really, really should brush your teeth if you at all can manage it. Sometimes the point is that you know you’ll feel worse if you don’t eat, even though you aren’t hungry and even though getting up sounds like the most unpalatable thing that you could possibly do. Some things just need doing, and there are people who suffer such extreme mental illness that they are completely incapable of doing them. But for me, during my longest bout of depression, I cut out everything possible so that I could make sure I ate at least twice a day and brushed by teeth twice a day and showered once a day.

Late Sunday night, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Modern Family because it was raining in my brain. Immersing myself in the show, which was familiar and made me laugh without requiring a lot of brain power, helped. So did the end of Look Who’s Talking?, which I hadn’t seen in years. When I got into bed, I played music for a while so I wouldn’t feel so alone and so I could focus on something other than the lies my brain was trying to tell me. And those things helped the rain to stop. But if inclement weather is troubling your brain, when you can’t find a way to make the rain stop, I hope you can find the umbrella and boots you need to keep sloshing through.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher.

Every freshman at my alma mater had to attend a certain number of enrichment presentations—skits or lectures or plays—for our ‘intro to college’ class. Of those I attended that first semester, I only remember two. One was about consent (yay!), the other was about…well, courage, I guess. It was called Major in Success and attempted to get us to buy the speaker’s book (I did) and to think about what really makes us happy. He told stories about other college students he’d met and helped, about gloriously successful people in their respective fields who’d once been doing other things. He encouraged us to find a way to make that really happy, fulfilling thing in our lives our major, and promised success would come.

It’s a little hokey, but the part I most remember was when he asked the question, “If you could do whatever you wanted and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” Talking it over with my roommates that night, I said I wanted to be a novelist. The rightness of that moment solidified in me and has defined by long-term goals in the decade since. Judgeship was out. Law school was out. History teacher was out. I realigned my life and goals and on I’ve marched since then.

Until November 9, 2016.

I’ve had no desire to publish since that date. None. It evaporated. Or exploded. Or was sucked out of me in that single, pain-blurred moment I can barely remember when I opened the BBC news election page and realized Donald Trump had won. My desire to publish had been a constant of my identity and inner world for nine years, and it’d been whispering in my head far longer than that. I felt robbed, horrified, and guilty that people were at risk of losing their rights if not their lives, but I merely felt bereft of my dream.

Then things got worse.

About a week after the election, I was fighting depression and didn’t know it. I lacked vitality, energy, motivation. I could not get enough sleep. I didn’t know why I couldn’t write letters and call representatives like I had the week after the election. I didn’t know why it was so hard to craft a tweet, though I kept retweeting. I had trouble praying. I kept writing—completing NaNo—but took none of my usual joy in it.

As my depression worsened, I would sit at my computer feeling wretchedly guilty for being so inefficient, so distracted, so unproductive, but every email I read cost me something, as did every paragraph of my answer. I couldn’t drive across the street to the store for food and Christmas shopping made me want to lie down and never get back up. In the evenings, I lay on the couch and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or two. Then I went to bed.

I had almost no appetite so I let myself eat whatever I felt like or whatever I easily had on hand. The one time I tried to bully myself into eating an actual breakfast with actual nutrition, I made a dozen breakfast casseroles in a muffin tin and forced myself to eat one standing in the kitchen. I threw the rest away a week later, feeling like a ridiculous failure that even reheating had been beyond me.

Caught off guard by a coworker asking about NaNo, I confessed that I felt like I was dying. He assumed it was because NaNo was hard or I was behind on my word counts. I wasn’t.

I don’t know if the election result was a trigger or just bad timing. The situation was never far from my mind, though. I felt despondent, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless, and unable to face the next year, let alone the next four. I didn’t want to die or be dead, but I wanted to be unaware. Not hiding in a hole somewhere, more like unconscious. I wanted to sleep away the next four years. That’s all I felt capable of doing. And I felt incredibly guilty that I wasn’t joining those who I knew were already fighting for people’s rights.

After about a month of this, I emailed my best friend, telling her I wasn’t okay and asking her to pray for me. Explaining my symptoms was the first time I thought I might be depressed. In her reply, she gently suggested the same thing.

Just having a name to it helped. I read up and talked to more people about it. I ordered books and sweatshirts. I found a graphic novel that made me laugh aloud and read it over and over. One weekend when I had a cold, I left work at noon, went through the drive-thru for a dozen Krystals, got in bed with a book, and read it. I ate Krystals, read, fell asleep, woke up, finished the book. I ate more Krystals and started another book. I didn’t get up more than necessary the entire weekend and refused to feel guilty about it because I had a cold. Nevermind that I was also depressed.

I’m not really sure when I came out of the depression. I got up the Monday after Christmas knowing a friend was coming for the day, but until then the house was empty and still. I organized books, cleaned, started laundry, then met my friend for lunch and had a great day with her. She’d suffered depression the year before, and I could tell she understood what I’d been going through by the way she nodded and leaned in as I spoke, even before she shared some of her struggles. We looped arms and walked and walked, swapping book recommendations and snarking at bad Christmas novels on the second-hand bookstore’s clearance racks. It was the first really good day I’d had since the first week of November.

But I didn’t know if I’d be okay the next day. (I didn’t know that about depression until my first good day, how every new day is laced with uncertainty: Will today be the day it comes back?)

The next day was another good day, except that was the day Carrie Fisher passed away.

So many others have written about what she means and meant to them. I won’t add to it, except to say that I’d been following news of her closely since she first fell ill, and I’d been revisiting some of my favorites of her work. That day, once she was gone, I finally started listening to The Princess Diarist on audiobook. I wanted to sink into her insight and humor and honesty. I wanted to hear her voice again.

Perhaps an hour into the book, my desire to publish surged back. I could feel it returning, slower than it left me, beating in me until it was solid. I don’t exactly know how Carrie Fisher inspired that, but I believe she did. My depression didn’t magically go away—I still had some bad days, but none of them were anywhere close to the bad days of December. I also had more good days than bad, then a whole week of good, then I stopped counting how long since the last bad day. My energy is still a little low and my progress is slow, but I’m working again. And I want to publish one day.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. If Donald Trump stole my dream, you pulled me back to it.