Right now five years ago, I was descending into a depressive episode that lasted for over a year. I don’t believe that I’m wired for chemicals-in-the-brain type depression, which means that if I’m experiencing depression, it’s because of factors in my outward environment, how I’m handling my thoughts, emotions, and body, or a combination of both. I don’t have an on/off switch for depression–it’s on a scale. Certain conditions or habits of body/mind may lead to an episode that lasts a few days–which I wouldn’t even call depression–and if I persist in those habits, it can last for weeks or months, and the longer I persist in those habits, the worse things become.
I’ve been having a tough week and have been entering back into that depressive territory. It isn’t fun, but it’s very different from five years ago, when I had no clue what was happening and assumed that there was just something wrong with me, and so things spiraled into a severe episode that persisted for a long time. Now I understand that, for me, it’s almost like these episodes have the same cause and effect. E.g.: Not moving my body causes these feelings, which lead to me not wanting to move my body. The causes of my difficulty this week have been mostly physical, I think, which have then carried over into mental territory.
This morning, I sat down and wrote out a list of the warning signs. These are the things that I do, or the changes in my environment, that show me I need to intervene. Looking at this list, I realize that five years ago, I was living like this all the time. Actually writing the list shows me what this is–getting out of touch and out of balance in my body and mind. I want to share this list because I think it’s easy to assume that Buddhists or other people who do regular practices like meditation have gotten to a place where they’ll never have to deal with negative thoughts and feelings again. I do feel frustrated sometimes, like, shouldn’t I be beyond this? But now I think, no, there’s no getting beyond it, only dealing with it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, happiness isn’t about getting rid of suffering, it’s about learning how to suffer well.
Do you have a list like this, either written down or in your head?
The Warning Signs
Consistently poor dietary choices that often lead to poor sleep and thus fatigue (caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, empty carbs.)
Fatigue. When it shows up, this is my opportunity to listen, but if I don’t listen, it will continue to show up.
There will be a certain task or tasks that I can’t get done, even though it’s something that only takes a few minutes or seconds. When I remember to do the task, I say, “I’ll do it later,” but when “later” comes, I never remember. Thus something small and simple may take days or weeks to complete. I often end up mentally rehearsing doing the thing dozens of times before doing it.
Being obsessed with checking my phone.
Always needing something to do or read, even while eating (the phone is a part of this larger pattern.)
Eating when I’m not hungry.
Masturbating when I’m not horny.
Spending a lot of time shopping or scheming about buying things, whether or not I actually end up spending any money.
Talking to myself a lot, forming grandiose views and opinions about trivial things.
Anything that’s out of the ordinary, like buying cards and presents or mailing packages, seems impossible to get together.
Feeling envious of others, left out. Usually this feeling emerges around seeing others with types of friendships or relationships I think I don’t have. When I’m reeeally deluded I may think about starting to date again. (I am poly, but have learned the hard way that this is a very, very not good time to think about starting a relationship.)
Avoiding practice or parts of practice–if I’m feeling fatigued, I may avoid asana, if I’m feeling scattered, I may avoid meditation.
Avoiding social events, or going outside.
My desk and office become really messy.
I spend inordinate amounts of time on “escapes,” which used to be things like games on my phone, but nowadays are usually reading, tarot stuff, or knitting. Which is funny, because I actually don’t think any of those latter three things are escapes when properly used.
Dreading or avoiding my inbox.
Completely checking out re: politics and world events.
What used to be a delight is now an obligation.
Avoiding others, especially family or friends who I think will make emotional demands on me.
Holding my pee for a really long time? (Just noticed this one recently.)
Less tolerance for being cold or uncomfortable.
General feelings and states of mind:
Fear; Overwhelm; Feeling generally broken, like something is wrong with me and I will always be that way; Inability to concentrate; Estrangement from my body; Avoidance; Isolation; Procrastination
This is a really good and pretty comprehensive list. Just curious–does the process of making a list help move you to action?
Oh my gosh, I am SO bad at blog comments. Anyway–Hi Jessi! You know, I think making this list was action in itself. Actually putting pen to paper showed me that I was in an old cycle of negative thoughts and feelings. I didn’t take any concrete action after making it, but my relationship with my mood shifted, which consequently allowed the mood to shift, rather than getting entrenched. I’ll be interested to see if I think of this list in the future, though, or if looking at it will help me act on my moods.
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I can’t say this is a “great list” because it’s full of a but of categorically not great things, but it is a very comprehensive one. You know, it actually makes me think of things that I do daily or that I consider my “habits” (I’m super, super messy for example…) that might actually just be poor self-care practices. Yikes. And what does this say about my state of mind, that I might not even aware about?
Thank you for this post, Emily. Hope you’re doing well this weekend x
Thanks, Alaina! About the messiness thing: I was definitely raised to believe that if you have a messy house, you are a Bad Person, which I think is bullshit even though it’s a pretty deeply conditioned belief. So I don’t want to give you a complex about it!
I noted the messiness thing because of something that happened to me a few years ago. I went on a 5-day meditation retreat and during that time entered into states of concentration that I hadn’t even thought were possible for me. It had a few side effects, and one was that for a couple of months afterwards, I kept my office really clean. Not in the sense that I was vacuuming and dusting all the time, but I just didn’t let things get cluttered because I would put everything back after I’d finished using it. Keeping care of my office like this was effortless, and I didn’t think about it too much. But after a while, it began to get dirty again, which I think was the effects of the retreat finally wearing off (they always do.) So now I know that for me personally, the state of my office is like a barometer for my mental health and clarity, but it may not be the same for you.
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Thanks for sharing your story. Don’t worry I don’t have a complex now 🙂 but it does make total sense that a clean/organized/decluttered space certainly makes for a more clear state of mind. I think it’s a lesson that I could incorporate into my daily life.