If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I went through a period of depression that lasted for about two years, although I wasn’t depressed the whole time. It came and went. It was no surprise: those two years were the years I was writing my PhD dissertation, and although I doubt much research has been done on this, I think working in such an intense way, for such high stakes, can and certainly does lead to depression — many of my friends who have done PhDs report similar experiences. Of course, I was also teaching full-time and I had a child. Those made finishing the PhD even more difficult.
The depression ended some time after I received my diploma, and it hasn’t come back since. But now that I’ve had it, I’m aware of it: sometimes I can see the shadow of its black wings. I can feel when they come near me. They never would have when I was younger, but this is what I believe: those of us who do difficult creative work can’t do it without making ourselves more vulnerable to things like depression. To do any creative work well, you have to open yourself up — to the world, to other people, to whatever is out there. And you have to make the barriers in yourself, the barriers that keep out your own fears and desires, thinner. Because in order to write well, you have to feel things, understand things, and that means the membranes between yourself and yourself, and yourself and others, have to be permeable. You become more vulnerable to all sorts of things. If you’re going to be sensitive, and you have to be as a writer, you can’t have a thick skin.
So I find myself managing my moods, living in a way that leaves me feeling balanced and healthy. Well, as much as I can. At least, I have a much better idea of how to do it now than I did when the depression first hit. (I did the right things, by the way: started going to a therapist, started working on recovering from what is not a mood, but an illness.) I’m going to write what I learned down, in case it helps anyone else. Here are the things I pay attention to now:
1. Sleep. You must get enough sleep, and not only sleep but also rest. I don’t get as much sleep as I should, but if I don’t, I know that I’m going to teeter on the edge of sadness, and I will feel as though there is something wrong with me, or with life, but no: it’s just a lack of sleep. It’s purely physiological, and I know that I will feel better once I get some rest. So I don’t push myself as hard as I used to. I know my health depends on it.
2. Food. When I told my therapist how I manage my food, she initially though it was strange, that there might be something compulsive about it. But I told her that I did it to manage how I felt throughout the day, so that my mood was always stable. I think everyone’s body is different, and everyone has to learn how to do this for themselves, based on how different foods make them feel. But I feel best when I eat whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and veggies, and healthy treats. Four meals a day, about 400 calories for the first three, about 600 for dinner. Each meal has to have whole grains, lean proteins, and fruit or veggies. Except the treats. So a typical day will be oatmeal with milk, orange juice, and a chai latte for breakfast; a cheese sandwich and an apple for lunch; something sweet for a snack (like the brownies I make); and beef stew with vegetables for dinner. I try never to get either full or hungry. I try to make sure that any grains I eat have whole grains in them, and while I eat plenty of sugar, I buy the organic kind — those brown crystals — because I’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to affect my energy level as much. It’s pretty simple, really. I drink water, tea (herbal except for the chai in the morning), and sometimes juice. And I eat low-fat but not non-fat (cheese, mostly). I think non-fat foods just make you hungrier.
3. Exercise. I hate gyms. So I don’t go to gyms. It’s pretty easy getting plenty of exercise in the life I’m living now. Since I’ve moved into the city, I haven’t had a car, so I either walk everywhere or take the T. I can easily cover five miles just running errands. I walk every day, and when I have a chance to, I choose to walk rather than taking the T. But I find that yoga and pilates, morning and night, help me stay balanced and feel healthy. I haven’t been very good at doing them recently, but I feel so much better when I do! It’s something I definitely need to get back to. And I want to set a good example for my daughter: I want her to see that her mother is healthy, and cares about her health. But mostly, I want the feeling of calm that it gives me. If I can stretch and do yoga for half an hour in the morning, I know that I’ve done something good for myself that day.
4. Pleasure. I think you have to deliberately do things that give you pleasure. Every day. It may sound silly to say this, but being able to take a hot bubble bath at the end of the day changes my perspective significantly. Playing music. Walking by the river, which is so beautiful in autumn. Going to the art museum or a concert. Making sure that each day, you do something that pleases you, that if possible brings you joy. Even, for me, walking through a bookstore . . . You have to treat yourself as though you were someone you loved.
I have some more thoughts on this topic, but I have other work to do tonight — perhaps I’ll write more about this some other time. I’ll end this post with a picture of me by the beautiful river:
Light in the Clearing
Shadowy awareness is exactly right; even on bad days I am in a much, much better place than I once thought possible, but it’s never entirely gone.
I think for me, though, the causality might be reversed. Because I am sensitive, because my brain is such that anxiety and depression and joy all seem like perfectly reasonable (if intense and often uncomfortable) reactions to the world, I create. As long as I am able to channel it into writing and music and other such constructive outlets, I can maintain a sort of balance. Art and narrative make it bearable.
Then again, I’m not sure I would have believed that in high school or the beginning of college.
Thank you for this post, Theodora… very helpful, indeed. Depression is something I’ve struggled with on and off for most of my life and, while it’s manageable for now, anxiety is ongoing. So I always appreciate it when people are willing to share their experiences. I agree, wholeheartedly, that writers and all sorts of artists need to keep their sensitivity intact – it’s vital. It can make life difficult to deal with, at times, but the trade-off is so worth it!
Mags, other people talking about depression helped me so much at the time, so I try to talk about it when I can! 🙂
Thank you for this, Theodora.
You’re very welcome! 🙂
When I had a huge episode of depression 13 years ago, my new therapist quickly
saw I had to stop taking care of everything and learn to let other people help me with
care of my head injured son and other things I stubbornly did not want to delegate.
She also told me I had to focus on my art, my writing. Saved my life. She is still my therapist and I have changed so much. Adventurous and mostly comfortable letting other people do some heavy lifting. Good to share this. Thank you, Theodora.
Art and writing really do help a lot. And yes, you have to let other people help you. For me it was mostly therapy, but there were also friends who talked to me about their own experiences, and that was always good . . .
Thanks for this post, Theodora. I’ve struggled with depression since I was a child, but have not had an episode for years now. Diet and exercise have been critical to my managing this hereditary trait. People talking about it and sharing their experiences help remove the stigma that still exists around depression.
You’re right, Sarah. Sharing is good. It is amazing to know you’re not alone and I have many good friends who have to
cope with it. It’s my shadow and I will always have it, but if I keep
it in it’s place it’s handy for writing truthful brave things, or
fiercely cleaning house. This site has so many good things in it,
that I thank Theodora again and again.
I will chime in with a thank you, and a thank you to all who’ve replied… because I too have struggled with major depression most my life. It is a good part of why I write and paint. It is not something I thought I would survive – but here I am, late thirties and writing, creating, living. Though when it gets bad I can’t create and that is its own positive feedback loop, not totally dissimilar from writers’ block.
Knowing (from talking with people, but more often from reading) that others had/have this illness and kept creating and kept living, that was vital.
So is eating well, time in nature, and exercise.
Again, thank you everyone.
Thought-provoking and helpful, Theodora. May I copy the latter part, starting with “…I find myself managing my moods…”, and share it with psychotherapy clients that I think might benefit? I could share it with or without attribution, or with whatever attribution you’d want. It’s such a good summary.
-Margaret (Peggy) Squires
Peggy, yes, absolutely. Please feel free to share! And you can attribute to me, or not, as you wish. (If you publish it, then please attribute it to me, but otherwise I’m not picky.) 🙂