I’ve had depression all of my adult life. And it’s not something that can be cured, but something I have to learn to live with. Chronic illnesses can be sneaky; I could go weeks, months, or even years without experiencing any major mental health issues. Sometimes I forget I even have them because I’m coping so well, but it doesn’t last forever, eventually the black cloud comes back to stay for a while. Depressive episodes are different from bad mental health days; they seep into every area of your life, overwhelm you, and take a lot longer than a day or two to subside. In my experience they’re also different to ruts, as they’re not something to ‘break out’ of, rather something you just have to get through until it’s moved on.
The most important factor in surviving a depressive episode is being aware of it starting. This comes with practice, and a lot of self-reflection. I’ve found that keeping a journal is really useful in identifying patterns of triggers and behaviour that signal the start of a depressive episode. You don’t have to write in the journal every day if you can’t or don’t want to, but keeping some record of your emotions and mental health is really useful. If you notice a pattern of triggers, you may be able to prevent a depressive episode before it becomes too much. Or if you notice a pattern of behaviours you can be aware that a depressive episode is on its way. Just having a heads up can make all the difference in how you cope. You can start to take the necessary steps early to take care of yourself, rather than be blindsided by it.
How to survive it
1. Don’t try to beat it (be patient and kind with yourself. It’s an illness)
If you broke your leg, would you immediately start walking on it in the hope that it heals faster? Of course you wouldn’t, so why should your mental health be any different? You’re not succumbing to your illness, you’re healing. Be patient, and be kind to yourself. Depression is not a sign of weakness. You are not a failure for falling ill.
2. If you can, let others know (So they can be understanding and maybe help)
I’ve spoken before about the importance of a good support network. Not everyone is lucky enough to have supportive family and friends, and if that’s you, reaching out to people online may be another option. If you’re in therapy, let your therapist know what you’re going through. Being honest with people who care about you means that they can work with you to help. They’ll know what kind of behaviour to expect from you and won’t take offense if you don’t seem like your usual self.
3. Self care overload (Ride out the wave)
Reading The Self Care Project really challenged my views on self care and I will be writing a post about it in the future. I’m really guilty of putting others needs before my own but when I fall into a deep depression, it’s a glaring signal that I need to take care of myself more than anything. Press pause on all of your avoidable obligations. If you’re waiting for a sign to finally put your needs first – this is it. Self care is different for everyone, it’s not always bubble baths and face masks (although they do help!). If you’re really overwhelmed you might be starting from the beginning: Showering every day, getting 8 hours of sleep every night. Make sure you’re not worsening your depression by neglecting basic needs. If this is too difficult, refer to the previous point – enlist the help of your support network to ensure accountability.
4. Celebrate the small victories (Gratitude)
The journey out of a depressive episode is a long and tumultuous one. I thought for weeks that I was better – turns out I was just busy and distracted from it. But that doesn’t mean that every day is the worst day of your life. A walk outside, a haircut, finally doing the laundry. A smile, a laugh, a day without a panic attack. These are the small victories along the way that show the end is in sight, that you’re surviving this and it’ll all be behind you one day. Acknowledge these moments and celebrate them, whatever that means to you. I like to write down all the things I enjoyed and am grateful for on a good day, so I have a record of it to look back on for the bad days. Sometimes I’ll buy myself a gift like a new book or candle as a reward for making it through another day.
I hope you found this list helpful, and you can refer back to it any time you feel the black cloud arriving. Arm yourself with the right knowledge and tools and you can overcome any obstacle. If you’re currently experiencing a depressive episode and it doesn’t feel like life is worth living right now, know that it will again eventually. There’s always someone to turn to, and there’s always a reason to keep going, even if you can’t see it yet.