Life

How to fight depression

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.

JimG

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.

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Music

Driving and Singing: Paul McCartney, “Too Much Rain”

Friday mornings of late I’ve been sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. I love to sing! But as every song ends, so does this series, today. 

2005 might well have been the hardest year of my life. My wife was divorcing me, I got to see my sons only occasionally, I had white-knuckled grip on addiction recovery, and I lived in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood while still paying the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again.

I even lost my dog. I’d say I was living in a country song, except that I didn’t own a truck.

It’s easy to make light of it now because I’ve recovered and my life is on a good path. In every way, those days made me a much better man, and I’m grateful for that. But it really was an awful, crushing time. I sought every lifeline and clung desperately to each one.

ChaosAndCreation

One lifeline came from out of nowhere, thanks to Paul McCartney. I’ve written before of another time his music kept me from going over the edge, and a song he released that year did it again. The CD it is from, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, could well be that committed optimist’s most introspective and brooding work. And I was absolutely in an introspective and brooding place then, so it worked for me. But then there was the song “Too Much Rain,” which stood in counterpoint:

Laugh when your eyes are burning
Smile when your heart is filled with pain
Sigh as you brush away your sorrow
Make a vow, that it’s not gonna happen again

It’s not right, in one life
Too much rain

I’m not an optimist. But once again McCartney’s optimism reminded me that there’s a path out of every dark time. And so I looked for reasons to laugh, smile, and sigh, even though my life was a painful mess. It wasn’t easy. But soon I found myself on that path toward happier days.

Click Play to hear Paul McCartney sing “Too Much Rain.”

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Faith, Growth, Preservation, Stories Told

A place to start

This happened 25 years ago. I’ve told this story here twice before: in 2007 and 2011, but I rewrote it this time.

Only the rough neighborhoods fit my budget. I’d just graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute and had landed a job in town, but times were tough and the pay was poor.

On the way to see an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, I passed through the tree-lined Collett Park neighborhood with its American Foursquare and Craftsman Bungalow houses. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, it was a cheerful, well-kept neighborhood of sidewalks and wide front porches. I admired its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its concrete streets. I noticed a For Rent sign in the front window of a tall house wrapped in red Insulbrick. Even though I doubted I could afford this neighborhood, I stopped and rang the bell.

A view of the neighborhood

A view of the neighborhood

A large, gruff man in a thin, wrinkled, v-neck T-shirt and pale chinos came and looked me over. I asked about the apartment and he disappeared to find the key. He showed me around the side to the entrance and as soon as I entered I was sure that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the fresh rugs. The walls were recently painted or wallpapered. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.

Suspicious of this wide-eyed kid, Steve began to size me up by asking where I went to school. When I said Rose-Hulman his voice rose a note toward tentatively cheerful. He said he went there, too, back before the war when it was still called Rose Poly, but he couldn’t hack it and went on to work 30 years at the post office. He talked as he led me through, alternating between Rose stories and calling out one or two features of each room.

In my car, in front of the house (on the right)

I was glad he was talking, because I was excited and didn’t want to betray it. A built-in cabinet and chest of drawers consumed half of one of the bedroom’s walls. In the enormous bathroom, white porcelain tile covered the walls to four feet high. Original antique fixtures were still in place, including a claw-foot tub and a sink with separate hot and cold taps. In the kitchen, an early-1950s Tappan electric stove, gleaming in white and chrome, stood across from a long, shallow farmhouse sink. A built-in table and benches filled a tiny breakfast nook. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs were either glass or ornate brass ovals. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house in 1935 after he married his wife Henrietta, that it was almost 100 years old, and that the original owner had built the apartment for his mother-in-law by blocking off three rooms of the house and adding the kitchen and den.

The kitchen – boy, did I need to take out the trash

The history charmed me as I noticed some of the place’s shortcomings. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom walls north of the porcelain tile were painted bright pink, I would have to supply my own refrigerator, the house had one furnace and Steve controlled the temperature, and Steve made clear that tenants could have all the friends over they wanted as long as they were white.

Whorehouse pink bathroom

I wanted the place. I decided I could live with the faults and I would cross the color line should it become necessary. I drew a breath, sure he was going to set a price beyond my budget, and said, “I like it. How much?”

Steve drew back and narrowed his eyes at me for a minute. Then he said he’d had a lot of trouble with recent tenants; he had just evicted a “coupla girls from Indiana State” for having a string of different men staying overnight. He wondered aloud if I could afford it and if I would cause him any trouble. He examined me — and in that instant I was sure that he was setting the rent just outside what he thought I could afford. After a long pause that made me fidget, he barked: “250.”

I reeled, dizzy with disbelief. That was less than what I’d pay for a dump in the rough neighborhoods. “I’ll take it,” I said quietly. He leaned well into my personal space, frowning. “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “I can pay the first month’s rent right now.” He backed off, took the check, shook my hand, and that was that. I had a home.

At my front door

I can’t imagine renting on a handshake today, but I lucked into a great situation. Steve and Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. They even got rid of the pink bathroom walls, peeling away nine layers of wallpaper under that paint! Steve passed away within the year; after that, Henrietta took care of things herself. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said to me several times, and never raised my rent.

I could furnish the place only sparsely at first. I owned a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a broken black-and-white console TV. I bought a recliner and some tables at a used furniture store. I accepted charity from Mom. Soon I had the place suitably appointed.

Just moved in; light on furniture

I started building my budding adult life in my little place, and invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there with me, relaxing, watching TV, talking, sharing companionship and company. My parents visited from time to time. My brother would drive to town and we’d go out for drinks, or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d order dinner and watch movies all night. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a close friend and some of her friends over for a toast of sorts when she graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. I even made a nice dinner for my boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by this time, a different one). We all squeezed into the little breakfast nook to eat. My little apartment was at the center of many of my activities and so of my world.

Easy like a Sunday morning

But I’d soon suffer some sad and lonely years. My relationship with the first girlfriend fell apart at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully. These passages let me see some ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships. Most of my other friends were graduating and moving away, and I found it hard to make new friends. I felt lost and stuck; I grew depressed. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to push past these challenges. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.

Breakfast nook

I took lots of long drives to escape my feelings, but at the end I always had to go home and face myself. In that, my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the hardwood floors, the low rent, and the good landlord: it was a a comfortable and safe place learn to be me. I did a lot of things there that I enjoyed and that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked. I taught myself how to cook. I watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I lay on the floor in the den listening to album after album, singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing.

I finally made some friends, through the local computer bulletin board community, and we routinely gathered in person. Still, I frequently wished for companionship, thinking that it would make the rest of my problems go away. When I found companionship, to my confusion the rest of my problems were still there. I found myself unable to make things better on my own. I entered therapy for the first time. And I started looking for God. I’d never sought him before, but my problems were bigger than I was and I figured if anyone could handle them, the creator of the universe could.

In my room

And so the seeds of change were planted in me in that apartment. Between God and therapy, I began to heal where I was wrong and see where I was all right to begin with. I started to learn how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty lies in its limitations and its imperfections.

At home in 1992

At home in 1992

For more than 20 years, when my days were troubled my dreams were filled with this apartment. It represented comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I still miss the place.

When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood. The last time was a few years ago. I found the house now sided in gray vinyl, the concrete steps beginning to crumble, the painted trim peeling, the hedges overgrown. Much was the case up and down the block; the first signs of decline. Houses in neighboring blocks showed serious neglect. The neighborhood was becoming rough.

Unloved and uncared for in 2007

By that time, Henrietta’s health declined to the point where she had to sell the house, after having lived on that street all her life. Henrietta passed away a couple years ago, well into her 90s.

Henrietta’s life moved on, and so must mine. But still, when I drive by, I want to park and go in. I would probably be surprised not to see my brown recliner there, the TV remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.

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Growth

Re-integrating joy

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

PICT0610 sm

A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.


Originally posted in April, 2007.

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Stories Told

Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea of course

I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before or since. My full class load was delivering six to ten hours of homework every night. I tried to keep up but it involved too many late nighters. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep. As my fatigue mounted I became increasingly isolated and my health began to suffer. I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.

That’s when I came across this record.

McCartneyCover

This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The music gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, I learned later that Paul produced and engineered the album himself, and except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda he played and sang every note.

McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through. I did, and now I’m fine all the while.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2011.

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Growth, Life

How this blog kept me from going over the edge

I spent a good portion of this year in a bit of a funk. Several things in my life just weren’t working out like I wanted; I wrote about it here. I kept taking action as best I could to improve my circumstances and slowly they have gotten better. But the funk lingered.

West Park Christian ChurchI’m prone to funks. I’ve learned that when they don’t pass on their own I need to do two things:

  • Shake up my routines. I’m a bit absent-minded; without set routines I’ll forget to do things like brush my teeth. But when I’m in a funk, the routines feel very stale. Changing some habits around helps everyday things feel fresh.
  • Do the opposite of what I want to do. If you’re prone to funks, too, you know how easy it is to let inertia take over. You sleep in later and later. You don’t keep up with the housework and the place starts looking unkept. Stuff like that. As much as I can, I force myself to do something I don’t want to do. The accomplishment is a small victory.

Freshness and victory are the very oxygen my internal fire’s dying embers need.

But how to implement these? I started thinking about what I was enjoying, and I realized that my best pleasure has come from writing in this blog and reading your comments. So, I wondered, how can I do more of that?

I don’t know if you noticed, but a couple months ago I quietly shifted Down the Road from a Monday-Thursday schedule to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.

It’s because I now get up early every day – 5 a.m. I use the quiet morning time to write.

You’ve got to know how hard it is to get up earlier. But it accomplished both goals. I had been sleeping in as long as I dared; I had been going to work later and later. Getting up earlier was the opposite of what I wanted to do, and doing it upended many of my routines.

It also had an wonderful and unintended side effect: it eased my insomnia. I’ve always been a bit of an insomniac but it’s been particularly bad for the last few years. But getting up an hour earlier led predictably to a couple rough weeks because I was never sleeping enough. And then one day I found myself nodding off at 9 p.m. And it happened again a couple nights later, and then it became pretty routine. I have trouble sleeping only one or two nights a week now (this is a big improvement!), but even then sleep does come. Sleeping better has helped me feel more human every day, which has also helped lift this funk!

I learned several years ago that my feelings are like the dashboard in my car. They tell me things about how my internal processes are doing. And for me, a funk is like the oil light on my car’s dashboard – when it lights, pull over immediately, because continuing could seize up the engine. Funks can turn into major depressions. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime and I’ve usually needed external intervention to recover. So it’s very important to nip funks in the bud.

Mission accomplished this time, and it’s all because I made myself get up earlier so you’d have more Down the Road to read.

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It’s hard to be depressed when life has joy.
Read about my first hard lesson in this truth.

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