A few weeks ago I was hit with depression for about 4 days. I lost my energy and enthusiasm for anything. I just wanted to sleep and sleep until the exhaustion and gloom left.
This doesn’t happen so often any more. I’ve lived overseas for over 4 years now- the first year was definitely the hardest. Though I absolutely love it, it is more challenging and exhausting than I ever imagined. In this adventurous journey- raising a family, building an international business and living in a foreign land- I have to carefully manage my energy levels- mental, physical and spiritual- more than ever.
20 years ago I struggled with depression often, and it reached a terrifying low point in the spring of 1994, during my junior year at university. When I entered the university years I walked into big, unexplored territory- intellectual, spiritual, emotional territory. In the excitement of it all I lost my balance then struggled to gain it back. I lacked wisdom and self-control to manage my mental and emotional health. Things got out of hand, and I plunged down further, coming out of it less often, until I couldn’t tell when it would come or go anymore. I got scared enough that I sought out some help, first some medical advice, then some spiritual- fortunately, I was pulled out and began a revival in my spirit that has been going steady ever since. However, the threat of falling into depression again never fully disappeared. Rather than having the possibility removed, I began to learn how to keep better distance from it. Afterall, I didn’t need to play with it if I didn’t want to. I learned I had far greater responsibility for my depression than I realized and gradually began to take up that responsibility.
It is possible that I am one of those people with a tendency to be melancholy, to fall into depression. Since the dark experience many years ago, I’ve acknowledged this disposition. But instead of looking for excuses to indulge in it, I’ve turned my focus on reducing my vulnerability to depression by working on the things I do have control over. I’ve built skills and routines to help me stay clear of it, and to pull out of it sooner when I happen to be caught up.
Hopefully, most of you reading this do not have any struggle. But if there is even one of you who does, then it is worth writing this essay just for you.
I simply want to tell you that you are not alone, and that there is great hope, even when you cannot feel it nearby.
It is easy to assume no one else feels what we feel (or has the ‘absence’ of feeling, if that is the form your depression comes in). The calm public exterior we see on others, the confident words we read on blogs (like mine), the ‘down-to-business’ or worse, the ‘smiley-happy-people’ world we interact with can lead us to believe that others don’t struggle like we struggle. When we are in leadership positions, or know that others are looking to us, or up to us, we can feel particularly isolated in our dark times. Feeling like we are letting people down can make the gloom even worse.
But there are things we can do to help ourselves, to keep better distance from the threat. Though there may be many factors contributing to depression outside of our control, there are many things we can do to reduce our vulnerability to it. We are not helpless.
Here are some things I pay particular attention to to reduce my vulnerability:
– I am careful to get more restful sleep.
– I am careful to get more solitary time to recharge emotionally and mentally (I am an introvert with ‘good social skills’). I have social limits that I must respect.
– I am careful about what forms of ‘entertainment’ I expose myself to, especially sensitive to the effects of certain kinds of music and movies.
– I am careful about what I put in my body, including medications, sugar, processed foods, articifial substances, and stimulants.
– I invest heavily in my spiritual life- I maintain a strong sense of connection with God through Jesus. I am connected to some thing good, loving and stable outside myself.
– I have developed skill for ‘framing’ my situations into a positive or constructive storyline- even my struggles and failures have purpose.
– I have cut down my exposure to people who reinforce a negative, or fearful view of life.
– And, I swim.
Years ago, when I was in that darkest season of depression, when my spiritual life was neglected too much to gain much strength from it, I think the only thing that kept me from sinking into complete apathy was my triathlon training routine. Somedays, it was the only thing that could get me out of bed and on my feet. When the darkness hit often the only way I could feel some life was to go out and get into the rhythm of my stroke, or cadence, or stride where I could finally feel blood, oxygen and electricity pump through my system again.
Now I have built up a pattern of health, and have a lot more experience, more tools, and a broader perspective to help me when I feel the threat of depression looming nearby. I recognize the threat earlier then scan my condition more quickly and take some steps to add or remove something critical from my day to prevent most falls. But sometimes I do take on too much and fall into it. It was like that a few weeks ago.
It was the fourth day. A great part of me, the depressed part, was not in the mood to do anything but sleep, and I was feeling the momentum pulling on me to go deeper, to start willingly wrap the heavy, warm blanket tigher around myself. I had not been able to swim for a couple days before but I was headed downtown on my scooter to do a couple tasks- I had my swim bag along like an emergency car kit. When I caught a glimpse of the sea it started was calling me. Just enough of my mind was in control and knew from experience that if I could just get into that water, just slip into the rhythm for a while I would feel some energy, perhaps enough of it to break out.
And I did.
It’s not that my enthusiasm instantly returned, but as I swam for an hour, blood started pumping, oxygen starting flowing, neural signals started firing in a focused, constuctive way. It was no ‘happy pill’- it was more like I got a little jump-start on my nearly dead battery, or a slow-drip IV with just enough electrolites injected into my anemic blood. I came out of the water with a mind recovered enough to think clearly about what to do next.
With that boost I had gained a window of time with a choice to make: take it and get busy refreshing my health and rebuilding my focus, or waste it by wrapping myself back up in the ‘heavy, warm blanket’ of depression hoping something will change without putting out any of my own effort. I was given a chance to build momentum in either direction at that moment. I received the energy from that swim as a gift, and used it to take a few steps foward, out of my gloom. This is what I mean by taking responsibility.
One popular author might advise you to Eat, Love, Pray. My advice is to Sleep, Pray, Swim.
You are not alone. Go swim. It will do you good.
PS- Feel free to write me if you want to talk…