the ups and the downs

Posted on October 9, 2011 by

This is a post about a little thing that’s a big thing.

I need to start by saying this: I’m not a therapist.  I’m not a doctor.  If you need a therapist or a doctor, I am in no way meaning to contravene the advice and guidance you get from them or from other professionals.

And years ago (finally, it’s years ago) I lived with depression.  I lived with it every single day.  I woke up with it; I went to sleep with it; it stalked me down the halls and sat with me at dinner.

I had never known anything else; it is likely that I lived with it from childhood onward.

So I didn’t know what it was like to wake up without anxiety.  I didn’t realize most people felt relaxed and happy when they left the house in the morning.  Hell, I didn’t even know what happy really felt like.

I was born in the seventies.  It was 2001 before I saw through the grey mist for the first time.

And when I did–when the clouds parted and I got a glimpse into something larger–it was like getting new glasses.  I understood so much more about people, about the world, about my own life, and I had tools!  I could actually use what I knew to learn to respond differently to the world around me.

I began retraining my brain.

Anyone who knows brains will tell you: your brain changes according to stimuli.

But it isn’t just the stimuli around you; it’s also the stimuli inside you.  When you are depressed for an extended period, it changes the architecture of your brain.  Your brain is a different shape because it’s been depressed.  (Or anxious, or exhausted, or whatever).  It actually adapts to that way of being and makes it easier to be that way in the future, and harder to be a different way.

So for example, if you’re living with depression, it’s easier to continue to be depressed–biologically–than it is to begin to be happy.

And if you are bringing yourself out of a depression, your brain will need support and help and patience as you reshape it.  It’s like physical therapy.  Day one, you can barely get out of bed; day 100, maybe you can walk to the end of the hall; day 365 you go for a gentle run around the block every day.

People who are depressed often have trouble experiencing pleasure.  So it seems odd to suggest that pleasure could be a path out of depression.  But it is, in fact, part of the picture.

Sometimes the antidepressants can do a good job of tricking your brain into trying a different path for long enough that you can start to build new habits.  And sometimes they do other things.  We don’t really know how or why they work (for some people and not for others, for some time and then they stop, once but not before or after) but for some people they do.  And anything that helps with depression is, well, help.  A step in the right direction.  That’s a good thing.

But even if you’re like me, and the drugs just don’t seem to help (brain fog is miserable.  Utterly, completely miserable.) there are ways to get there.

One of those ways is ease–doing the easeful thing.

One of those ways is grace–being graceful with your own limitations.

One of those ways is distraction and surprise–and not feeling guilty because you’re supposed to be miserable is a practice.  You get better at it with time.

There are more: companionship.  Abundance.  Touch.  Food.  Motion.

And accessing them is a skill.  Using them is a skill.

A learnable skill.

Harder to learn in the midst of a depression?  Yes.  But even then, not impossible.

Repeat from above: this is not  a substitute for medical care or therapy.  Not.

But it is a way to make it more effective.

The more you access pleasure, the easier it gets.

So yes, pleasure practices are for you, too.

I have an old piece where I wrote about some of the toehold things I did to get some traction.  Depression is a many-colored thing.  Your mileage will almost certainly vary.  But if changing your habits around pleasure interests you, get on my list (the form is over on the right).  There’s more coming.