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.
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:
- It shrinks your load of wrong things in your life, even if by only a little bit.
- 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.