How to fight depression

44 comments on How to fight depression
5 minutes

Depression and I go way back. My first serious depression fell when I was 16 and lasted months. I spent a couple years of my early 20s depressed, and then again in my early 30s. That depression was so strong that I hoped my car would veer off course and hit a brick wall hard enough to end my suffering.

My last serious depression fell in my late 30s as my first marriage crumbled away. It was the worst one of my life, made so by the trauma of our ugly divorce. Were it not for a core, immutable desire to be there with and for my children, and were it not for some key people who encouraged and supported me, I would not have survived it.

Early 30s, very depressed, pretending in public that I wasn’t

I am not qualified to say what causes depression. Especially yours, if you suffer. I do think that for some it’s just part of how their brains are wired. I think I have a touch of that kind of baseline melancholy. My default setting on the happiness meter rides just below the midpoint.

But what I figured out during my last major depression is that, deep down, I believe that I can’t affect what’s wrong in my life. As a result, when wrong things pile up I drown in them.

I’ve come to see that, for me, this feeling is much more nurture than nature. I lived a childhood where I had little agency, even through my late teens. And so I entered adulthood with the false belief that I simply had to endure things that were not as I wanted them to be, even when they were harmful to me.

It’s largely not true, of course. Sure, some life problems really just have to run their course. But with effort and sometimes persistence I really can solve many of my own problems. And so when the blues start to descend, today I take action. This has kept me from serious depression for about a decade now. Maybe it will help you, too, if you suffer. The concept is simple enough:

Pick something that is wrong that you can fix, and fix it.

Obviously, it’s ideal when what you pick is among the most impactful things wrong in your life. But perhaps that’s beyond you right now. Fortunately, you really can choose anything that’s wrong. You can even use the word “wrong” loosely — you can “fix” anything that would be improved by your time and effort. Whatever you fix brings two benefits:

  1. It shrinks your load of wrong things in your life, even if by only a little bit.
  2. It fills your brain with all sorts of feel-better chemicals. I don’t know whether it’s the dopamine or the serotonin or the oxytocin, but I do know that it pushes the dark feelings away a little for a while.

This helps keep gray sadness from turning into black depression. If I’m full-on depressed, if I can do this it brings me back to gray sadness. I don’t enjoy gray sadness, but I function well enough there. And if I keep fixing what I find to be wrong, sometimes this even restores me to full vitality.

The difficult things life simply deals you can really pile up. They sure piled up on my wife and me in 2017. It’s been very hard. We’re not through all of it yet. I’ve had some deep sadness over the last many months.

But because I keep fixing wrong things I haven’t succumbed to that enveloping blackness. I can’t fix it all — some of what’s wrong in our lives is beyond our control. We just have to ride it out. But as I’ve written before, here, things always change; the difficulties you face now are never forever.

But whatever I can fix, I do. Some days my sadness has been intense enough that the biggest thing I could fix was to make the bed after I pushed myself out of it. You have to scale this to your ability on any given day. Give it the best you have, even if today’s best happens not to be very good.

Sometimes I’ve been able to fix small things, like tidying up a cluttered room or washing a mountain of dishes in the sink. Sometimes it’s been medium-sized, like when I spent most of a Saturday getting safety-related repairs made to Margaret’s car. Sometimes it’s been big, like working with Margaret last fall to move her parents into assisted living.

Sometimes the thing I’ve fixed has been my own negative attitude about something, when there were more accurate and positive ways to look at it.

If you’re suffering today, you may think I’m off my nut, that this is too much to ask. I understand. I’ve been that depressed. But can you find something to fix today and see if it helps? Can you try?

If you are unable to act on anything, you need help beyond anything my little blog can provide. I’m not a mental-health professional; I’m just telling you something that works for me.

If you suffer, I hope this helps you today.

When I write about depression directly like this, frequently your comments ask if I’m okay. The answer is yes: I’m all right. Life’s just been extremely challenging and occasionally deeply disappointing, and I’m very sad about it. But because I keep fixing the wrong things that I can, I’ll pull through the rest of it and be even better on the other side.


44 responses to “How to fight depression”

  1. Michael McNeill Avatar

    Sounds like you have found a way of dealing with your bad days, Jim. I hope things continue to work out for you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Michael. Things will work out. The challenges we face will all end.

  2. Heide Avatar

    Thank you for writing this courageous and helpful post, Jim. Courageous, because we live in an age when so many people try to cultivate a “persona” online, or a perfect public image of their life. And helpful, because you’ve given at least one reader today a way to feel just a bit less powerless and “stuck.” I hope the moments of profound sadness you describe will fade as you move into the year ahead.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you H! The great thing about a blog that isn’t materially part of me putting food on the table is that I have no need to create and protect a persona.

      The stuff we’re dealing with sucks but it will also all end. So I keep getting up every day and fixing what I can until then.

  3. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    I have had feelings like this my whole life too. However dark it would be, something would always pull me out of it. Either faith, my kids …. sometimes work, As you get older your own health issues, as well as the health issues of other family members become more worrisome. Trying to do what is best for aging parents can be very difficult. I hope the new year brings relief from at least some of your concerns.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nancy, I’m sorry to hear it. I didn’t know.

      Part of what we are living through here involves aging parents, so I know exactly what you mean.

  4. Rhianne (@forthedistractd) Avatar

    This is very practical advice, I like it – so many things seem out of my grasp with depression advice (changing your mindset completely for example ha) – but this, this I like! I’m so sorry about your 2017 – mine was similar with losses that still weigh very heavily, even after nearly a whole year – and physical sickness that is starting to chip away at my resolve. But I’m working on fixing that, and I’m definitely going to try and work on other things now – little and big. My word for this year is focus – and I think focusing on fixing the things I can fix, seems like a step in the right direction.

    Keep doing what you need to do for yourself and your family Jim – as you say, things always pass and time always keeps going on, even if we feel stuck.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Rhianne! I’m sorry you have your own heavy challenges. I hope your 2018 is lighter and happier!

  5. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

    I’m just glad to see you have ways of coping.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve developed them over the years. They’ve made a big difference in my life.

      1. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

        I feel that way too about my own ways of coping.

  6. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Thanks for this. You have clearly set down a concept that has been, in a raw form, swirling around in my brain. Although my default on the happiness meter may be somewhat higher than yours, 2017 was a difficult year for me too.

    As one who has a religious faith, I have never forgotten the advice of an old priest I used to know: Work as though everything depends on me and pray as though everything depends on God. One of these times I hope to figure out how to do both at the same time. Your post today may help here.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t lean on God enough in prayer. Especially when times are tough. That’s something I need to improve.

      1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

        Don’t we all.

  7. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Interesting post and comments. I’ve been “sad” more than ever, since my Mom passed away in 2011. I also had a bad few years after my Dad passed in 2003. My girlfriend at the time wanted me to take anti-depressants, so I did for the proscribed period, but they didn’t make me feel better, they made me feels nothing; so I stopped. I’ve always been sort of one of those people that can get “down”, and have difficulty functioning for a few day, but I think I have old fashioned “melancholia” , rather than clinical depression. I also remember being sort of joyous as a kid, at overcast days, and didn’t feel much for sunny ones!

    Unfortunately for me, since my mothers passing, I’ve found myself at a job I don’t like (which actually disappeared), and in a city I don’t like, with very few friends. The things I used to rely on to bring me back, like working on some film processing and printing, or photographing some interesting people; haven’t been available to me. It’s been a struggle, but I’m relocating as soon as I can, and getting my collections out of storage to surround myself with the things I love to do!

    Clinical depression is a serious thing, and should be treated as such, but “maudlinism” and “melancholia” are entirely different and you can work yourself out of them!

    Good luck to all and let’s “happy up” in 2018!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve done the antidepressants too and, like you, they didn’t make me feel happy. They put a floor under my depression but didn’t solve it.

      I think that I’m just always going to be a touch melancholy but I can avoid depression through action.

  8. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I’ve suffered with bouts of depression at various times in my life, the worst of it in the years immediately following a very difficult divorce. It was during that time that I sought out a professional who helped tremendously. I understand it better now and have learned coping skills. I will say that it did help me to find pieces online like the one you’ve written here today and understand that I wasn’t alone in the way I was feeling. Thank you for writing this. It may really help someone.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve sought professional help too, more than once. It was good and valuable.

  9. Tony Gomez Avatar
    Tony Gomez

    Thank you for your post on depression.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re welcome!

  10. Kurt Ingham Avatar
    Kurt Ingham

    Thanks, Jim. This was an unexpected topic and an important one.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The nice thing about this being a personal blog is that I get to write about what I want. Today, i wanted to write about this!

  11. DougD Avatar

    Good man, self awareness and figuring out what works for you are a huge benefit in so many areas of life.

    Your advice fits well with my project manager method of problem solving. My job as a project manager is to turn one big enormous expensive risky problem into a whole bunch of little problems that can be solved, and distribute the cost and risk. I’ve found that approach helpful in my personal life too.

    We engineers are helping one of our co-workers who lost her husband to cancer. He was a hoarder as well and she was overwhelmed with the colossal mess in her back yard. So we had a talk about “Yeah we can’t fix ALL of this now. But, we do something about this today, and that next week, and once the scrap wood bin gets emptied at work we’ll take the company pickup on a Friday afternoon and run a load when nobodys looking” And 2 months later it’s in a pretty good state.

    As long as you can do something about something you’re in a pretty good state. Being able to do something for somebody else helps you too.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yesssss! Take something big that seems intractable and, if you can’t see how to break it all down, at least break off pieces of it and handle those pieces. In time hopefully you’ll have broken it into a small enough thing that you can break it all the way down.

  12. Bob Cardwell Avatar
    Bob Cardwell

    Thank you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re welcome!

  13. Schmitt Avatar

    This is so important – thank you for being open about it. I thought for several years that I “couldn’t be that depressed” because I had no problems going through the daily motions of life. Turns out I sure was – but it was really bad there for a while, when the grey monotony collided with situational pain-caused depression compounded with SAD!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m generally pretty functional even when badly depressed, so I get you.

  14. dan james Avatar

    Jim, as others have said, well done for writing such a brave and honest and helpful post. So refreshing to have this kind of depth.

    I think with anyone, even without any kind of diagnosed depression, there are times when everything feels overwhelming. Your advice to pick one little thing and make a positive change to it is excellent in these situations, and inevitable leads to feeling better and a gathering of momentum and hope.

    Hope you and Margaret have a brighter year.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes – momentum and hope. Just keep overcoming the obstacles you can.

  15. James Cockroft Avatar

    Thank you, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re welcome!

  16. Create Space Avatar

    Hi Jim, I think you have said something very powerful here! And the reasons being are 1. it needs to be said and 2.I don’t know if you noticed but all your replies come from men (I’m unsure about Bodegabayf2?). This is huge…as men don’t talk…men don’t share…men suffer in silence. Please consider using your talents for photography with your experience of depression to voice what so many men need to hear and talk about. Best wishes. Marie

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Marie! Yes, most of the respondents here today are men. We do suffer silently more often. Here’s hoping this helped someone today.

      1. Create Space Avatar

        Well it certainly helped! Look at how many responded and it encouraged them to reach out and share their stories and that’s the biggest thing-breaking the isolation and silence around mental health! Keep blogging!

  17. juztbeingmekristinjay Avatar

    After reading your post this sentence stood out the most to me. ” the difficulties you face now are never forever.”

    coming from me that also has suffered depression. this statement couldn’t be anymore true.

    What I wish for you is nothing but happiness that will come your way, and do remember after it rains there is always sunshine.

    best wishes to you, and whatever that may come your way, stay strong. Cause each and every single individual is exactly that. strong

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you — yes, it’s true, today’s troubles will eventually end. And the sun always eventually comes out.

  18. writeava08 Avatar

    Depression is a serious case, I suffered from depression too and I know I’m still not fully recovered from it. Because i can still feel it , I’m still triggered from some things. I know some people said that they can understand depression but they really don’t , especially from my family … they sometimes think it’s just a drama , an acting … anyway thank you for writing about this

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      People who haven’t been there often just can’t wrap their heads around it.

  19. […] via How to fight depression — Down the Road […]

  20. Stories BY Alexis Avatar

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is wonderful to read of your resiliency and determination. Keep up the great work and may your happiness radar be where you want it to be … Cheers, Alexis.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you so much! Here’s hoping my experience can be of use to someone else.

  21. enjoythejourney912 Avatar

    Very well spoken. I can relate. So many things that I didn’t ask for or expect have happened in my life, but like you said….I look for one thing or two each day to “fix”. Thanks for your words.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy my words resonate with you!

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