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: