The other day, I faced a startling realization: I haven’t been depressed in a very long time now.
Some people might react to that news with, “Yeah, and…?”
But plenty of others wish it could be them, that they could finally kick depression once and for all. The idea of not waking up dreading every day of their lives seems like a foreign concept.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had sad moments, even a few days in a row when I felt “down”. I also faced an incredibly difficult grieving process a few years ago, after the death of someone I loved. But as people with depression know, grieving can be a trigger for depression, but they’re not the same thing.
It has been years since I faced the daily agony of feeling exhausted, disinterested, tuned out, miserable, and hopeless, for no apparent reason. For me, that’s the worst part of depression: Not having a solid “reason” for it, something you can name… Something you could fix.
Every day you struggle with this perplexing mystery. Why does life seems to be an endless struggle, and why do you feel trapped and defenseless? Why can’t you just be normal?
I can’t answer that question for you. All I can do is analyze my own answers, and hope that this helps someone out there.
A few months ago, I spent a day ripping the sod out of my front yard. I wanted a garden (food, not flowers), and I was sick of looking at all that useless grass. It was a waste of space, and it was in the way of what I wanted.
So, I dug it up. By hand. In the humid late-spring heat, with a few quick thunderstorms interrupting me. I worked through those, too. I had the music cranked up loud, I was soaking wet and filthy, my back ached from dragging wheelbarrow loads of heavy wet sod down the hill behind my house, and I was about three beers deep into a six pack. At about 3:00 pm my kids came walking up the road after getting off the school bus, and I was met with two bewildered stares (from my boys) and one “what the hell are you doing” from my daughter.
I suddenly realized how I must look, and cracked up laughing. There I was in the front yard, with bluegrass blaring, slathered head to toe in mud, day drinking and tearing up the grass like a lunatic.
And despite cuts and bruises and bugs in my hair, I was having the time of my life. My life has been full of these moments for the past few years now. More importantly, my life has been noticeably lacking in extended periods of despair and emptiness.
So, what am I saying? You should get drunk and roll in the mud out front, and you’ll be miraculously cured of depression?
Well, no. For one thing, please refrain from alcohol or other substances if you’re struggling with depression. It doesn’t help and often hurts. And mud and bugs aren’t for everyone. So don’t take this story too literally.
The point I’m making is that over the past seven years, I’ve filled my life with the things that matter to me. This all began with a decision to move to a new state, to a place where I felt comfortable and happy, and more importantly was away from the things that made me unhappy.
Then, over the years, I gradually worked toward building the life I want – or the closest approximation that I can manage right now. I don’t live on a farm, but I am able to garden now. I never did get the time and freedom to homeschool, but my kids are enrolled in a tiny community school a stone’s throw from my house, where I can be actively involved. The perfect relationship didn’t materialize out of thin air, but I worked hard on myself and was able to attract a mate who has done similar work on himself. I even had a fourth baby, under what can only be called stupid circumstances, but I did it my way.
Your dreams, the things that you find fulfilling, and the things that you find oppressive, differ significantly from mine. So, doing exactly what I did probably wouldn’t help you. But what I do urge you to do, is spend some time thinking about those things in very specific terms. Outline them, get familiar with them, study them in the sense that they are real to you. They’re not imaginary. They’re real things you can accomplish – not always down to exact details, and certainly not instantly, but you can begin bringing elements of them into your life.
The second thing is to identify what makes you unhappy, and begin taking the steps away from that. I don’t mean this advice to sound condescending; I know there are some situations in life that we can’t escape, and I certainly know from firsthand experience that depression makes you feel helpless. So yes, this is much easier said than done.
But if you’ve ever climbed a mountain, or just a tall structure of some sort, you might remember thinking to yourself, “don’t look down”. There’s no need to freak yourself out or cause panic by monitoring every step of the way, looking back at the dangers that lie behind you. Just focus on each step up, no matter how tiny it might be. Focus on forward movement, any forward movement, whatever you can handle at the moment.
It didn’t happen for me overnight. In fact, I still haven’t reached all of my goals. But I think the reason that my depression has disappeared is that I’m working toward them. I don’t believe human beings were meant to look at screens all day, then pay bills, then eat bland food that spent weeks or months in a factory or on a truck. I don’t think our bodies were designed to sign forms and swipe credit cards, and sit on a couch or ride mostly effortlessly everywhere we go.
I don’t think children should all learn the same things, be pushed along the same path, be produced like little products in a factory, and then be dumped into the world to follow the cookie-cutter path prescribed for them. And yet that’s been the reality for most of us. When we want to do something a bit different, instead of receiving encouragement we’re asked, “but are there health insurance benefits” or “isn’t there a city ordinance against that?”
Yes, we ask little kids what they want to “be” when they grow up… But the acceptable answers are all jobs, and only certain jobs, and pertain very little to anything but making money. Try answering that question with, “I want to live in a van and collect animal skeletons” and see how much encouragement you get. But hey, a life of minimalism can be very freeing. And who doesn’t have a secret weird hobby that makes them happy?
I think we were built to imagine, aspire, and work toward meeting goals. And I believe when we’re not doing those things, when we’re just going with the status quo, when we’re just plodding along doing what we’re “supposed” to do and “expected” to do… Depression is the result.
(There are other contributing factors to depression, and I don’t mean to ignore those, but this is a blog, not a book)
It won’t happen instantly, and I don’t mean to imply that if you just “try” a bit harder, you’ll beat this. Everyone faces different challenges along the way, and some are far more difficult to overcome than others.
What I am saying is that most of us have never actually examined this part of ourselves: What brings us happiness, and what doesn’t. We’re taught to value material objects, yes, but not activities. Not experiences. Not even social connection, most of the time. And certainly not the way of life that is right for us. We’re all essentially expected to live the same one. And that way of life is not right for all of us. If you’re depressed, I wager it’s because the life you’re living is not right for you.
I hope one day, in a few years, I’ll be reading a blog or tweet or Facebook post by you. I hope you’re saying, “Wow, I haven’t felt depressed in a really long time!” In the meantime, keep taking those baby steps forward… In whatever direction you’ve decided upon.