I periodically write letters to myself, letters I can read when I’m not doing well. When I’m feeling better, I have a sense of perspective and acceptance that I can lose when depression closes in. Here I’ve put together not so much a letter as a series of lessons I think I’ve learned about recurrent depression.
When the depression is heavy on you, it can be hard to hang onto hope. But there are some things you know are true, things you can believe no matter how depressed you are.
#1 Things change.
You’ve been depressed before, and you are depressed now, so it’s easy for you to think that things never change. But they do. Remember there are also times when you have not been depressed. Times when you have found some hope. Times when you felt comforted. It is the nature of life to change–nothing remains the same. You know that’s true. So remember that even in the midst of this darkness, things are changing, even if you can’t see the changes right now.
#2 You can’t step in the same river twice.
That’s a quote (from Greek philosopher Heraclitus) that has long resonated with you.
Even if you think you have stepped back into the River of Depression, it’s not the same river you stepped into before, and for that matter, you’re not the same you. This time the river is not a bewildering, surprising mystery to you. This time you know what its surges feel like. And this time, you have some knowledge and experience that you didn’t have in the past. You have some strategies for helping yourself. You have a therapist you trust, or some favorite readings, or some rituals you know can comfort yourself. You have a friend who can bear to hear the truth of your pain. You have the experience of having lived through this before.
#3 Your suffering is not unique–and your suffering is unique.
What I mean to say here is that you are not the only one who suffers. Everyone suffers. Often you will think that’s not the case. You’ll imagine that others around are going about their lives with a sense of control and well-being that you can only dream of. But the thing is, if you get a chance to talk with them on a personal level, you’ll find it isn’t the case. The truth is, they feel alienated in their marriage, or they are grieving the loss of their mother, or they are wishing their mother would get lost. They hate their job, or they worry that everyone at their job hates them. They are in recovery from addiction, or their spouse is in recovery, or they both should be but aren’t. Whatever the issue is, it’s difficult to be in this chaotic, demanding world, and most people are doubting themselves just as you doubt yourself.
Remembering this can help you feel both less inadequate and more compassionate to others.
At the same time, the fact that everyone suffers doesn’t mean your unique suffering isn’t a big deal. It matters. It’s real and painful and shapes how you experience everything around you. Not everyone else will understand or empathize or even acknowledge your pain, but you know it’s there and deserves respect and acknowledgment.
#4 Kindness (to Self and Others) Is Crucial.
You can’t make your depression go away by scolding, berating and shaming yourself. That only sets you up for another cycle of hating yourself.
What you can do is meet your own pain with kindness. You can forgive yourself for not being able to get out of bed, for your lack of focus and motivation, for the times in the past when you haven’t been kind to yourself. You can tell yourself, “oh, honey, I’m so sorry that you’re suffering.”
You can also bring kindness to your family, who loves you but sometimes might get impatient with you anyway. You can kindly assume that the stranger who seemed rude to you in the grocery store was exhausted or distracted. You can give people, including yourself, the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, people are doing the best they can under sometimes trying circumstances.
#5 It’s okay to take intensive care of yourself.
You have spent a lot of time and money trying to get better. You have gone to therapy, a lot, and to psychiatrists and to yoga and to a nutritionist and for massages. You have read a lot of books and blogs and articles.
All this time, all the effort, and the financial investment are all worthwhile. It’s not a virtue to neglect yourself so there’s more money in the bank account. Your children don’t benefit from inheriting a few thousand more dollars. They benefit from having a healthy mother who can fully engage with them, pay attention to them, support them, listen to them.
It is not selfish to care for yourself. It is a gift to the world to be the best version of yourself that you can be, so you can give your kindness and creativity and warmth and intelligence to others.
#6 Setbacks are normal.
It would be nice if you could be sick, go to the doctor, get will, and have the whole thing be over with. Unfortunately, recovering from trauma and the accompanying depression isn’t that straightforward.
Sometimes you will feel better. Then sometimes you won’t. When you don’t feel well, you will often think, “oh no, here I am again; I always end up in this depressed place.” But that’s not true (see #1 and #2).
A setback, a new depressive episode, yes, it sucks. But it’s part of the non-linear path to getting better. And you do keep getting better.
#7 You might need a lot of support.
If it were easy to get well, you would have done it already. It’s not easy, though. It’s damn hard and sometimes feels nearly impossible.
So you might need help, as human beings often do when they try to do something difficult. There is no shame in this. Everyone needs help at different times in their lives. Just because you don’t see it in your friend or neighbor doesn’t mean your friend doesn’t ever need help. A lot of people hide it.
If you are able to share with others that you are sometimes weak and vulnerable and that you sometimes need help, 1) you might get help from them and 2) you are giving them permission to show that they are sometimes weak and vulnerable, too. This is a gift to them. Also, it opens up the possibility of a deep and meaningful intimacy between you.
#8 You don’t have to be ashamed.
Everything about you–all your beautiful characteristics, all your pain, all your depression and doubt and confusion–every single thing is human. It is something that human beings experience. It is not you being a freak. There is no way that you are the first person to think or feel this way (see #3).
If the way you think or feel or need help is normal and human, then it follows that it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is not wrong to be the way you are.
#9 You have a calm, wise person at your center. Listen to her.
When you are relaxed and calm, you’ll notice that you have a core self who knows what she needs. She is able to see the big picture, to be non-reactive, to make good judgments. Listen to her.
Sometimes she will tell you to do something scary, like leave a bad marriage, or change what you are studying, or quit your bad job. If she keeps telling you that, you can believe her. If you are afraid to do what she recommends, reach out and get yourself some help (see #7).
If you are so distressed and agitated and dysregulated that you can’t find that wise voice inside you, remind yourself that she exists and will emerge in time. Try not to make major decisions when Anxiety is screaming in your ear. Seek out situations that calm your mind and body, so you can find that wise self at your core. She is there, though if you haven’t been listening to her, it might take a little while to get acquainted again.
#10 You deserve love and compassion.
You have suffered. You have a wise, good person at your center. You are trying to be well. You want to hope.
You deserve love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Try to give them to yourself, and try to spend your time with others who will also give them to you.
CREDIT: Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash