Misery Loves Company, 6 Ft. Apart & Masked
Well folks, it's that time when we shove our holiday decorations back into the depths of junk closets and trade them for dusty humidifiers and SAD lamps. We locate the same jar of Vicks we purchased four years ago, splurge on the good tissues and stock up on vitamins B, D, and anything else we can find to substitute sun. Covid numbers have spiked, friends and family have fallen ill and acquaintances have passed, however, I find myself in an odd, privileged space where I am not primarily concerned with the ever-present pandemic, because I am in stuck in a vacuum of gray, a vortex of ubiquitous dread, if you will. These are just fun ways to say that I have depression, and since I am sure that my very patient husband is tired of hearing about it, I turn to you, blog people; for solidarity, an outlet, and to see if I can make some sense of it. Follow along, and we will find out together!
Those who haven't experienced it, or who are on the other side of mental health issues (myself included when I am not in the thralls of it all) like to present a curing cocktail of exercise, health food, meditation, etc..all of which is scientifically proven to turn that frown upside down by giving our brains rewards and prompting them to pump out dopamine to a beat comparable to the quickness in What's Your Fantasy by 1990s American-Gabonese rapper and actor Ludacris. Yeah, it's that kind of blog... but I think that you are sucked in now, so stay close (but not too close-pandemic and what not). In our current social climate, I feel like I have to say this: I believe in science. I know Earth is not flat. I trust that Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon, that vaccines are life-saving, and that Rudy Giuliani's hair is sprayed on. I know that there are behaviors that will improve my mental health if performed consistently. I know this, and have lived this. It was through exercise and diet improvements that I once ended a rocky relationship with an excess of 60 pounds and a heavy Zoloft prescription. Science also explains why this isn't fool-proof.
My longest run without depression was between 2016 and 2020. 5 years ago, I sat in the office of my very fit doctor while he made sure none of my tattoos were done in a basement, and I began to doze off. He asked me if I was okay while he flipped through my chart, undoubtedly looking for my history of drug use (an unfortunately dull history). I explained to him that I was having a hard time with the Zoloft that my gyno had prescribed. Sure I hadn't had a panic attack since my third or fourth dose, but I felt constantly car-sick and exhausted. I was having trouble staying awake at work, and although I wasn't afraid that I might stop breathing at any given moment for no particular reason, I wasn't fond of feeling queasy all day, and still didn't feel like I was able to adequately take care of my 6 year old son. (This was the only medication I had tried, and I know that it works wonders for some. This next part is my personal experience, NOT a suggestion to stop taking, or to avoid starting medication to support mental health.) He asked me if I wanted a different medication, or to wean off medication altogether. When I questioned the validity of the latter, he flashed a smile and asked if I'd be willing to change my diet and get my heart rate up for about an hour, 4 times a week. I said "sure". The next day I started jiu-jitsu.
Okay, I don't know if I actually said sure, and I don't know if it was the next day, but didn't that flow super well?! While it may not have been the next day, it was soon after. My husband had trained for years and had given up trying to convince me to join. A Saturday after my appointment with fit-doctor-man, I woke up before my husband, put on some sweat pants and headed to a women-only self defense class. I could write an entire book on my experiences with jiu-jitsu. The relationships, injuries, feelings of insecurity, power and independence, the competitions, the tears, sleepless nights and bruises...this list doesn't encapsulate what I have truly gained from that sport, and so I won't even try here. Long story short, my anxiety went away, I got back to a healthy weight and was the strongest I had ever been. And then, in early 2020,...yeah, you know. I lost my main source of self-care. The gym was quick to adapt, and my husband and I were able to do classes virtually, but like I mentioned...jiu-jitsu was much more than just a class and a form of exercise.
I am a radical optimist. I force gratitude on myself when it does not come naturally, and to his chagrin, do the same to my husband. That, and my innate ability to stay busy kept me okay for the bulk of this pandemic, but in December I could feel it oozing out a little...the depression...(isn't "ooze" so perfect?) Sometimes, mental health disorders appear and reappear so dramatically that you know the instant it clicks. It's like as soon as the first note of a U2 song sounds and you groan "ugh, these guys", and just buckle in for the anthem. But for me, most often it's a slow chipping away, an erosion of my energy that happens over time. I don't know if it's my gender, the many hats I wear, or a pathology, but when I start getting tired in this way, I have a list of things to blame, and then make excuses as to why I can't change those things. And before I know it, I don't want to get out of bed, I lack the neurological strength to make wise decisions about my health and otherwise, and I am listening to Lana del Ray mixes when I can actually manage a shower ("ugh, these guys).
Fortunately, this past bout of brain sadness occurred during a time when it was almost impossible to distract myself. I was on a 2.5 week vacation from work. We were not traveling for the holidays. Grad school was between semesters, and my open mic was between events. I had nothing to throw myself into for the first time in years (hmmmm....). And what I discovered, was that during this time that I had to really live with my poor mental health, I was drawn to things that made me feel innately safe. I was using blankets a lot, drinking warm liquids, reading for pleasure, hugging my husband way more than typical, forcing my son to have conversations with me, playing video games that I loved in my youth, and I even sought out a clarinet and began to relearn an instrument that I had abandoned 15 years ago. Looking back on that time, it truly seems like I was trying to take care of myself in the gentlest of ways, and it ultimately worked.
When we are depressed, our hippocampus actually physically shrinks. This inhibits our ability to regulate emotions and form strong memories. But that's not all! The science is clear that exercise and overall health does, in most cases support good mental health, the science is also clear that when depression takes hold, we become more and more incapable of making those decisions that are helpful.
This is just a handy image to show parts of the brain that are affected by depression. I use to talk about the frontal lobe when I led groups at a rehab I worked in. I'd refer to it as the "STOP & GO" center of our brains. When functioning properly, it will tell us to STOP when we are about to do something stupid, and tell us to GO when we are about to do something rewarding. Unfortunately for most of us, sometimes those things overlap. Anyway...when we are depressed, the frontal lobe just doesn't function properly.
If anyone is actually still hanging around, we have come to the end (thank goodness, huh!). I am coming out on the other side of this most recent period of murk. Things are still a little foggy, but I am going to do things a little differently this time. I know that I can't rely solely on that one big thing to help keep me OK, especially not in these times of Covid. I am channeling my radical optimism to take some lessons from the last month. I won't throw away the things that kept me secure during the rough patches, and when I am able to get back to the things that left a void, like jiu-jitsu, sitting on a friend's couch and laughing with a glass of wine, and hugging my mother... I sure as hell won't take them for granted.
FYI: Depression Hotline information-
Athens City Contact Details:
Type of contact: Crisis Hotline.
Contact phone numbers: 1-800-475-8484 / (740) 593-3344.
Other known details (for example type of organization): Careline Tri-County Mental Health and Counseling Services.
Other Ohio Depression hotlines: