How I recovered from my depression
This past September marked the two-year-anniversary of the culmination of my depression and the most severe collision I’ve had with suicidal thoughts, which I’ve described thoroughly in a previous post. Although a very dark time of my life, it eventually became the beginning of my journey towards recovery.
September also marked my third month without anti-depressants, and I can honestly say that they’ve been my happiest months in a very long time. Obviously, this didn’t all happen overnight: Change has to come from within, and getting better takes hard work. Every step that I’ve taken and all deliberate actions I’ve made over the last two years have led me to where I am today, and that’s really important to keep in mind.
In this blog post, I’ve tried to write down most of the steps I took to get better. I’ve listed the 12 points by importance in relation to the chronology of my depression, naturally starting from the beginning. Furthermore, I’ve written a separate post on what I think is the most important aspect of my recovery, which will be published soon.
Firstly, I just want to state that I’m not naive enough to think that I can cure anyone’s depression. This post is not scientific in any way, it is merely a subjective account of my personal experience. I do hope, however, that sharing this may be of help to someone. It’s an encouragement to anyone suffering from depression to take the necessary actions towards leading a happier life, because it is possible.
Secondly, I want to mention that every person’s journey is different. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Nor is my rediscovered joy of life a guarantee that I will stay happy; depression has been a recurring part of my life, and I may never be fully free from it. Sure, there will be bad days – we all have them – but I think the key is to learn to live with them and know that without them, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good days (so cliché, but so true).
1. Ask for help!
This is the best thing to do. We don’t realize this, but our thought patterns and ensuing actions are so ingrained in us that change is almost impossible if we try to go it alone. Depression can be caused by physiology as well, which means something in your body is abnormal, and that there is no way for yourself to cure it. Talk to friends and family about it and seek professional help, even though there is so much taboo still associated with mental illnesses. If you can’t afford a professional, do what you can to find the money; beg and borrow if you must, however, I can’t recommend stealing. Some countries even offer free help or reduced rates if you fit into a certain category determined by age or severity of your depression (admitting to suicidal thoughts will get you on top of any list).
Personally, asking for help was something I struggled with a lot: I didn’t want to tell my family, because I know they would never understand. I didn’t tell my friends, because I wanted to appear like I had my shit together. I did, however, tell my then-partner, who was convinced that going the medicinal way was too dangerous… that I’d get addicted to the fake happiness and that I’d never be able to be happy on my own. While this may be true for some, it’s not a given. Medicine momentarily numbs you from the most painful feelings and can help you regain the tiny speck of energy and hope you need to keep on living.
2. Let go of the unwanted
My experience tells me that whenever I’m depressed, it’s because something specific is dragging me down. It can be anything, really, but often more than one thing at a time; certain people, material things, geographical placement, position in life, unfulfilled dreams and, the worst one yet: A lack of purpose, unidentified values and goals, which combined create a general feeling of being lost. The last ones are hard to tackle, because the reasons behind an existential crisis differ for every person. I can tell you what helped me, but it’s such a big topic that I’ve had to write a separate post on it.
While solving your existential crisis can be extremely difficult, the other things mentioned are relatively changeable! If someone is bringing you down, not supporting you, not believing in you or helping where they can – you have to let them go! Whether it’s a partner, close friends or family, you are better off without them. You may not have to cut them off forever, but at least until you’re better. Make it a priority to only surround yourself with positivity.
Likewise, this applies to your position in life and geographical placement. Is your education not right for you? Drop out. Is your job not bringing you any value? Quit. Is your town uninspiring? Move. This is definitely easier said than done, because there are often practical and financial issues related to these aspects, but the important thing to keep in mind here is that we are able to change every single circumstance that we live under, and it’s so vital to realize that you are the only person who has the power to make you happy.
It may not always seem obvious as to which part to change or who to cut off, but, use your intuition when deciding on these things – it simply never fails.
3. Take your time
At the peak of my depression, I was no longer showing up for classes or putting in the required work, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to pass my exams. I started having panic attacks and calling in sick from my internship. In not being able to uphold the two things that meant so much to me, I felt like a failure and eventually had to realize that without a properly functioning body and mind, I wouldn’t succeed at anything. So, I put my studies on hold.
I learned the hard way that you have to listen to your body before it’s too late. If it needs an entire day (or week) in bed or on the couch watching Netflix, do that! And do it while letting go of any type of guilt. Sometimes it’s necessary to pull the plug and disconnect from all inputs and just recharge by yourself. Don’t feel bad about doing nothing, it can certainly be good for you. And if that means eating takeout every day, it’s kind of a win-win situation, right?!
And remember, most importantly, that change doesn’t happen overnight; all the little baby steps you take towards getting better will eventually add up and become big steps. But, as mentioned earlier, you have to be willing to work for it, which in itself can be really rewarding. Let me tell you one of the best ways to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment:
4. Ensure small victories in your life
My psychologist made a very big deal out of this when I was at my worst. She used the euphemism of a staircase that had very large steps – too big to climb – and your job is to cut these steps into small and manageable steps.
What you do is set up little goals for yourself that are easy to complete, which, upon completion, will give you a sense of accomplishment. It can be something as little as watering your flowers, making a dreaded phone call, cleaning the dishes or doing a load of laundry – even getting out of bed! You don’t have to do them all in one day but do one thing a day and you’ll help yourself in the long run.
Whatever tasks you have on your to-do list, ensuring yourself these little victories in your everyday life will change your mindset from “I can’t” to “maybe I can,” and that makes a huge difference when you start taking on bigger challenges.
5. Talk to someone going through the same thing
Talking to someone who is struggling with the same things that you are or someone who has either gone through or is currently going through depression can be such a relief. Sometimes, trying to explain how or what you’re feeling will help you understand yourself better and see things in a different way. Hearing someone’s thought processes and experiences can also be very useful in helping you understand that you are not the only, first or last person to experience this. It gives hope that others have recovered from it and are now doing great, and maybe they have some great advice on what helped them. It doesn’t even have to be someone you know; I actually found it easier to talk to people that I didn’t know very well. And some great friendships have formed subsequently.
I also found that opening up about my struggles made the whole aspect of “mental illnesses” a lot less scary; it’s almost as if saying it out loud takes some weight off your shoulders. Even though mental illnesses are still stigmatized, people don’t react as strongly to it as I first presumed. In fact, I found that the people in my social circle who appeared the happiest, most mentally strong, calm and stable are, or have been, dealing with the same issues. And those are the ones you would want to learn from!
6. Clear your conscience
This may be a little unusual, but another thing I’ve done that has lifted a lot of weight from my shoulders is apologize to people who I feel I’ve done wrong to. From making a stupid comment to an acquaintance 10 years ago to hurting someone by being inconsiderate and selfish, I’ve been able to silence some of the white noise in the back of my head by addressing the actions I regret. It definitely takes a lot of courage, but I found that people really appreciated the effort and I felt so relieved afterwards. Luckily, with today’s technology, you won’t even have to do it face-to-face, although that might be a more considerate way of doing it.
Furthermore, I made a conscious decision to not only focus on the wrongs, but to also spread love whenever there was something positive on my mind. It can be as simple as complimenting a stranger, telling your friends that you appreciate them, or it can go deeper. I, for example, wrote a long letter to my former English teacher in high school to thank her for everything she did for me and how she inadvertently impacted the direction of my life. Not only did it make her very happy, she invited me to be a part of her life even after all these years. Spreading joy will undoubtedly bring joy into your own life and it is so easy to do.
7. Reconnect with your passion(s)
Depression has the ability to wash away all feelings and emotions, including the passion or interest in any topic that used to get you fired up. My advice would be to do everything you can to reignite that passion and make it a top priority.
The first thing I did after going on leave from my studies was to start my blog. I didn’t have anything specific in mind, the important thing for me was just to write and take pictures. Writing and photography have been a part of my life since I was a child and have always been my passion, but somehow, I’d lost it along the way, and I made a revival a priority. I figured that if it could make me happy once, it should be able to make me happy again, and I was right.
If your equipment is outdated, upgrade if your finances allow it, as it may give you that extra boost to get out and work with it. And again, connect with others – sharing an interest can be a great start to rekindling old friendships or making new ones.
8. Give yourself something to look forward to
This one is a little tricky, because during depression, even the thought of going food shopping can take your breath away, let alone planning something that doesn’t involve the comfort of your own home. But think about it. Is there something that you’ve always wanted to do or see? A place you want to go? Food you want to taste? A sport you’ve wanted to try? It doesn’t have to be something out of the ordinary or ridiculously expensive, it just has to be something that makes you want to get up and out. A good idea is to team up with someone and have them help you plan something, maybe even go with you. Going with someone may mean that you don’t back out as easily when the day of the activity arrives.
Furthermore, here is a great reminder that the way we think about things is key, and probably the first and most important thing we need to work on. The following quote, which I wish I’d read in 2017, encourages the reader to change their mindset about the mundane, everyday aspects of life: “You have to start romanticizing your life. You gotta start believing that your morning commute is cute and fun, that every cup of coffee is the best you’ve ever had, that even the smallest and most mundane things are exciting and new. You have to, because that’s when you start truly living. That’s when you start to look forward to every day.” (Source: Instagram, @lightworkerslounge)
Another tactic that I absolutely love is changing your thought pattern from “I can’t be bothered to clean” to “I deserve to live in a clean space” and “I don’t want to exercise” to “I deserve to live a healthy life,” and it’s something that has stuck with me ever since.
9. Do something that makes you feel alive
Once you’re starting to feel a little better, you’ll have the energy to do a bit more. Energy breeds energy, which is exactly why exercise is so good for you when you’re feeling low. (I’m not going to tell you to exercise, though, unless you really feel like it, because forced exercise is HORRIBLE! And if you decide on giving it a go and end up quitting, you’ll feel even worse – it’s a downward spiral and trust me, you don’t want to go down it).
However, there are plenty of other ways to get your heart racing and your body filled with endorphins the natural way. Personally, little things such as music, movies and books can make me feel as many and as big emotions as the more adventurous things, such as skydiving, doing karaoke in front of a big crowd or booking that solo-trip to South East Asia. Do whatever works for you, but I strongly urge you to get out of your comfort zone and do something that makes you feel brave, grateful, empowered, exhilarated, and most importantly; ALIVE.
10. Live in the now
This is one of the things that is easier said than done, but one I found to be completely necessary: You have to let go of the past, stop worrying about the future and focus on what you have here and now.
If you have unresolved issues from the past that can be dealt with, do it. Address it, get it over with and get over it! Seeing a psychologist to help you deal with some unsolved trauma is obviously ideal, but if your issues don’t go that deep, the above-mentioned act of clearing your conscience is a great way of getting rid of the background noise or reigniting the passion for your hobbies for a more enriched life.
Regarding the future, it’s going to happen whether you obsess over it or not. Work towards something that will make you happy, plan for the near future if it gives you peace of mind, focus on the positives and believe that things will be okay. As someone who suffers from anxiety, I know that this is unbelievably difficult, but remember that you don’t have to have the answers to everything now. Cut the bigger tasks into smaller tasks, make lists to make things more manageable and take it ONE STEP AT A TIME.
If you need some help on how to live in the now, you can read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Although an extremely difficult and abstract read, it may help you focus on and appreciate the little things in life.
11. Don’t take life too seriously
One of the main reasons I was depressed was that I felt like I hadn’t found my purpose in life, that nothing really made me happy and that there was no reason for me being here. There was nothing that I wanted out of the life that I’d been given, nor did I feel that I could contribute with anything significant, so, why should I even be here?
I had no religious beliefs to keep my hopes up, no particular talents to work on, no desire to start a family to care for, no career aspirations that were worth mentioning and no yearning for wealth and materialism at all. In today’s society, it doesn’t feel like there is much else to strive for, so, what was the point, I kept asking myself. The conclusion I came to, which to some may be discouraging but is comforting for me, is this:
There is no one solution, no higher meaning, no right or wrong. It doesn’t matter what you do, who you are and where you go – life can be exactly what you want it to be and what you decide to make of it. You can choose to follow the path that has been chosen for you by society or you can create your own journey, but one thing is common for the two: you’re fully responsible for your own happiness.
It comforts me to know that I, as a person, am insignificant for the bigger picture, and that during that one millisecond of life’s course that I’m here, I can choose to do and be whatever I want. One day, nothing will matter; everything and everyone will be forgotten. There was a time before you and there will be a time after you, and one day, the world as we have known it will not exist. My contribution to the course of history will more than likely be insignificant, and that is perfectly fine.
So, in order to be happy, you must live your life right now, however you want. Create moments that make life worth living for you, form the ideal connections and keep chasing your version of true happiness, because no one else can do that for you.
12. Realize that your journey is yours
This was the most important one to me. To be happy in life, you have to live it your way. A square peg will never fit into a round hole no matter how hard you try. For some, following every single pattern that was set out for them may be comforting and may be able provide real happiness. For others, not so much. That was the case for me, and I’ve written a whole post about it, which you can read soon.