If you’ve been reading this blog or following my work for a while, you know that about two years ago, I went through a period of depression. It lasted a long time, or what is a long time for me — about a year. It happened while I was finishing my PhD dissertation, and was very much linked to that, I think. A PhD dissertation is one of the most difficult things you can do, sort of like climbing an intellectual Mount Everest with a committee both coaching you along the way and judging your form as you do it.
At the time, I dealt with it by going into therapy, meeting with a therapist once a week. That was a good way to handle the depression, I think. I never took anything for it, which may have been a mistake. Perhaps it would have gone away more quickly, or not hit as hard, if I had been on the right medication. I don’t know. As I finished my dissertation, and particularly after I defended, it slowly went away. I could feel it going away. While you’re depressed, you can’t really feel the depression — it’s your normal. You just feel as though you’re in the darkness, all the time. I used to call it the Shadowlands, and visualize it as an underground place where everything was dark and flat, as though the world were made up of silhouettes. I wrote about it, mostly on this blog, because writing is one of the ways I deal with things. And of course because one of my jobs as a writer is to talk about what I’m experiencing, on the chance that it may help someone else experiencing the same thing. It probably will — we are all human, we experience mostly the same things.
It was only when I started getting better, getting through and over it, that I could feel it — as a sort of dark cloud that hovered over me, and then near me, and then went away. I would tell my therapist, “It’s about three feet away now.” Recently, I realized that the cloud was nowhere near me, and hadn’t been for a year. So this is a post on what happens after depression. On where you find yourself once you’ve gotten over it, and what you do there.
Honestly, this isn’t the best morning for me to be writing a post like this one, because I was up very late last night. I had to buy an airplane ticket to a conference, and spent an hour trying to figure out the cheapest option, and even then it was very expensive, which is always stressful for me. And then I stayed up even later revising a couple of paragraphs in the novel. That felt good — the paragraphs are better now. But as I was doing it, I knew that I would be tired the next day. And tiredness isn’t good for me. You see, once you’ve been through depression, there are some things you know about yourself: (a) you could get it again, and (b) to avoid it, you have to take care of yourself.
So this is really a post about self-care. Before I talk about that, let me add a third thing you know about yourself: (c) you’re stronger now, stronger than you were before, but also more vulnerable. You’re like a reed that can bend with the wind. You weren’t destroyed by it, and you know that you’re not going to be destroyed. But you also know the wind can return.
(Paperwhites growing on my windowsill.)
So, what happens after depression? Well, the first thing is that after a while, you start to experience joy. I use that word deliberately. It’s not happiness, although you can be happy too — but happiness is a fleeting thing, something you can feel for a little while. Joy is deeper. It’s an inner peace and contentment and delight, based on nothing at all but life itself — the experience of being alive. You feel joy because your oatmeal tastes good, with milk and raisins and brown sugar, and because it’s cold outside and the sky is a clear gray, and because you have a warm blanket to wrap yourself in and a book to read. Joy is based on such little things, on breathing itself. The second thing is that you realize how important it is to take care of yourself. Here are the things I do, after depression:
1. I’m careful about what and when I eat. I eat whole grains, and lean proteins, and lots of vegetables and fruit. I give myself regular treats, usually chocolate. I make sure that I’m eating regularly throughout the day, small meals so I can keep up my energy. I never let myself become hungry and drained. And I make sure that my food is delicious, because if it isn’t, why eat it?
2. I exercise. Mostly, I get out and walk, long walks, even when it’s cold. Not just to walk, because that would bore me. (I’m rather easily bored.) I walk to buy groceries, or to the bookstore, or to my favorite thrift store to look at clothes. Walking around with a camera also gives me something to do. I can take pictures and post them later. I also do yoga and pilates, because moving makes me feel good, and being flexible makes me feel good.
3. I get more sleep. Not enough, I’m afraid, but what I’ve noticed is that getting too little sleep is one of the worst things I can do for myself. It starts a cycle, in which I eat too much and the wrong things, because I have to get energy from somewhere and if it’s not from sleep then it’s from food, and I’m too tired to exercise. Getting more sleep is at the top of my to-do list.
(A print I matted and framed myself.)
4. I prioritize my own work. This is difficult, because I have so much work to do: work I have to do, because it’s what I’m actually paid for, and then work people ask me to do, like write papers. And I simply can’t do it all. So I make sure that I do my own work, which means my writing — I make sure I’m writing every day. Which, of course, is why I was up too late last night. But if I don’t do that, I feel terrible for neglecting what is most important to me. It is, in a very real sense, like neglecting myself.
5. I give myself a regular diet of treats. Bubble baths, good books, cupcakes. You need to treat yourself well. You can’t control what goes on out in the world, how other people treat you. (People treat me very well, by the way. But most people want things from me, because after all I am a provider of things — help with papers, recommendations, advice. They want me to give talks and chair panels, both of which I will be doing next week. Write poems — I will need to finish a poem this weekend.) I have a sticky over my desk on which I’ve written, “Are you loving yourself?” When I’m not treating myself very well, I remind myself of this — that I must love myself, and love is a verb as well as a noun. It’s an action. And then I go buy myself lipstick or watch an episode of Dracula.
(A vase I bought at a thrift store.)
6. I go for beauty. I try to make my space as beautiful as I can, which also means that it should be neat and clean. I don’t always get to neat . . . But right now I have a vase filled with daffodils and yellow tulips on my dining table, and I’ve been framing some of the art I have so there’s more art on the walls. And as often as I can, I go to the museums or to hear a concert. I’m going to a concert today, actually. Beauty is therapeutic. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” I treat this as excellent medical advice, and listen to Dr. Wilde. To cure my soul, I engage the senses.
7. I reach out. It’s so easy, when you’re depressed, to curl in on yourself, and you may need to do that in the midst of depression. I certainly needed to — if I were a turtle, I would have crawled inside my shell. Perhaps a better image is the caterpillar inside its chrysalis. I needed some sort of covering, so I could change and emerge. Sometimes I just crawled under my blanket . . . But now I need to reach out, see people. Of course, I see people all the time, because I teach — I’m in constant contact. But the difficulty for me is to be in contact in a way that doesn’t involve responsibility, that is purely social. So I try to keep in touch with friends, make a point of traveling to new places even when it’s expensive. Yesterday, I bought a new suitcase! And I make a point of being on social media, because that’s a way of keeping in touch too.
8. Finally, and this is the last thing I’ll list although I’m sure there are also others, I let go. There are things I just can’t do — I can’t say yes to every request, lately I haven’t even been able to answer every email, and I have such a backlog of Facebook messages! This makes me feel guilty, but I can’t do anything about it. There simply isn’t enough time. I have to do what I can and let the rest go, feel guilty about it if I need to, but if I tried to do it all, I would be there again, in the space where there is no joy and no light.
And my life, right now, is filled with joy and light. It surprised me, really — that I should feel those things, and perhaps more powerfully than I ever have. How lovely it is, how lucky I feel simply to be me, to be able to do the things I do, have the things I have. To inhabit my own brain, which is a constant source of stories.
So there you have it: (a) eat right, (b) exercise, (c) sleep, (d) do YOUR work, (e) treat yourself, (f) go for beauty, (g) reach out, (h) let go. And find joy.
(Dressed for a concert.)