Beating Back the January Blues
I suffered a major depressive episode this January, my first depressive break in eight years. Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t written for Psychology Today in over 90 days. My pen stopped because I knew I should write about my relapse, but I was afraid of the impact my openness might have on my other work (Board Chair of the Dallas Theater Center).
My silence wasn’t a conscious decision, but a slow opting out, an unwillingness to let my mental health world collide with my theater world. For those of you who are Seinfeld fans, I adhered to the George Costanza dictum of separate worlds. Why? Two reasons:
- I wanted one place in my life where people did not talk to me about depression and suicide. Sometimes the cumulative weight of these stories requires a safe place to refuel my spirit. For me, that place is the Dallas Theater Center.
- Despite all the lectures I have given about the need for openness about mental illness, I was afraid. I feared my openness might hurt this institution I love so much.
Keeping my worlds separate works well when I’m healthy, but this winter, the cumulative stresses piled too high. I do a fairly good job of explaining what happened in the blog below, but leave out a few critical points.
My father died on January 22, 1985 at 58 years old. Dad and I had not reached the point in our relationship where we understood and respected each other. We loved each other, sometimes with gritted teeth. Even though I was 25 and supporting myself, he had not yet accepted me as an adult. I felt this fact outrageous at the time, but as my own children reach their twenties, my dad’s narrowness seems infinitely more forgivable. He felt quite comfortable inflicting his mores on me, whether I accepted those mores or not. He wanted me Catholic and virginal until marriage (hopefully to another Catholic with bonus points if my future husband loved Notre Dame football). I had other plans.
Photo by Richard LeVieux
What’s strange in this original blog is that I never acknowledge my father’s death as part of that January sumo wrestler. I also omit that, even though my therapist and my CONNECT group strongly encouraged me to see my psychiatrist and have my medication adjusted, I refused to take action. I wanted to heal naturally, fearing the slippery slope to the psychiatric ward.
Instead, I did relapse. I will be publishing "Walking the Walk" on Psychology Today next week that explains what happened. Giving myself a little credit – I did take action far earlier than in 2001 (when I went 9 months before having ECT) and in 2007 (when I waited 6 months). In 2016, depression hit in January and I had my first session of ECT on January 29. I’m not fully recovered yet, but as of February 26 my depression is clearly in remission.
I am publishing the original article untouched, because the message is revealing. Don’t try to gut it out alone. Accept help, even if it means you might not like what the professionals recommend.
Beating Back the January Blues
written on Martin Luther King weekend 2016
Each year, January stares back at me like a giant sumo wrestler ready to sit flatly on my chest. I race through the fall into December and totter over the cliff into the clammy arms of this predictable fate. Some years are worse than others; this year hit harder than most. The negative self-talk rose from a rumble to a roar with a consistent refrain.
Each of my three major depressive episodes started in January. Those of us who manage depression know ignoring the problem does not solve the problem. This time I decided to take action.
What have I done differently?
- Heed the Warning Signs: My past major depressions had several things in common. All happened in a period of transition where I felt uncertain about my purpose or value in the world around me. In each instance, I was also injured and couldn’t run. Finally, I was living in reduced sunlight due to heavy rains or a change in climate to the snowy Midwest. This year, my transition is the stony reality of growing older. We are empty nesters. I’ve reached the age (55) where the genetic lottery picks off its victims. Good friends are getting sick with diseases that can actually kill them. We’re planning a move out of the house we’ve lived in for 16 years. I’m doing fewer talks on depression (which is a good thing), but have not yet found the solid ground of where I feel I’m making a critical difference. I got hurt in early December and have not been able to log miles, as I usually do. Furthermore, the kicker, 2015 was the highest annual rainfall in Dallas recorded for 115 years (probably longer but that is the extent of the record keeping). Not to mention the stock market crashing, chaos in the world, etc. For me, these factors are a danger zone.
- Be Vulnerable: Strangely enough, I hesitated telling my CONNECT support group (a local support group for people who have had or are considering ECT) that I was in a negative state. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want them to lose hope that if they recovered from their current depressions, they might relapse. My need to be the Super Well person was a figment of my imagination. They responded with tenderness, tissues, and advice, reminding me that I had been through this and emerged intact. One young man shared his maxim for plowing through his depression: make the objective of every encounter to make the life of the other person somewhat brighter. That stuck with me.
- Respect my Inner Introvert: In this hyper-extroverted world, it is hard to remember that I need quiet time. Sometimes (most times, if I’m honest), I’d rather curl up with a book than be at a loud party making small talk. I sat home from a few events like this, and cancelled a trip with my husband to the World Economic Forum, which promised to be a high octane, no sleep, no solo time event.
- Pull Out the SAD Visor: It looks crazy, but I have a Seasonal Affect Disorder visor that I’ve been using 30 minutes a day. I swear in two days I felt completely different.
- Use an Alternate Form of Exercise While Injured: Nothing beats running for me, but I’m trying. Walking, yoga, anything to keep up the 180 minutes of exercise a week.
- Check in with the Professionals: I’ve set up appointments with my psychotherapist and checked in with my psychiatrist.
- Maintain sleep.
- Double Down on Meditation Time: Normally I meditate once a day, now I’m doing a 15-minute morning and evening meditation.
- Reconnect with Friends: I have been so busy over the fall that my friendships have been neglected. I’ve reached out to several friends, taken time listen to their stories, share mine and laugh.
- Be Aware of Key Moments: In the midst of a very low day, I read a few pages of The Soul’s Code by James Hillman. Hillman talks about small inputs from the world that can create significant change. I’ll include the quote at the end this blog. While I sat in the locker room at the Cooper Center one day, a woman who had lost her husband to suicide approached me. We’d spoken before; she’d read my book. She told me that she always regrets that people don’t know what a wonderful person her husband was, that his legacy is marred by suicide. I assured her that no one judges her for what happened, and she assured me that wasn’t her worry. She feared that suicide had wiped his life’s slate clean. I didn’t have a good answer, but the next time I see her, I’m going to ask her to tell me a favorite story about her husband. At the same time, it was as though she was an appointed angel to remind me that suicide can never again be an option, and my depression must be managed in its early stages. Suicide cuts too deeply, leaving far too much damage in its wake. I owe it to my family, my friends and myself to care for myself when the problems are small.
Here’s the Hillman quote. The past few days, the sumo wrestler of depression is off my chest and I’ve regained my footing. Perhaps acknowledging his presence was half the battle in getting him to leave.
I am different from anyone else and the same as everyone else; I am different from myself ten years ago and the same as myself ten years ago ; my life is stable chaos, chaotic and repetitive both, and I can never predict what tiny, trivial bit of input will result in a huge and significant output. I must always remain acutely sensitive to initial conditions, such as what or who came into the world with me and enters the world with me each day. On that I remain dependent.
James Hillman The Soul’s Code