“Losing your life is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing is to lose your reason for living.”
― Jo Nesbø
― Jo Nesbø
For over a week I've struggled with the thought of writing this piece...should I or shouldn't I? It's not as if I haven't shared personal things in this blog before--allowing complete strangers, but a bit more nerve wracking, close friends, to peer into my most inner thoughts. But then, several conversations with friends, spurred me into taking this giant leap and placing my fingers on the keyboard. By writing this, my hope is to take away some of the stigma surrounding this very touchy subject.
About a month ago, some sort of switch was flipped in my brain. I went from feeling quite content, with moments of elation, to a solid state of yuck. There was no warning per se and within a couple days, I knew I was in trouble. I woke, morning after morning, not even looking forward to my coffee or bike ride. I knew this feeling. I remembered having it back in 1997...and that scared the shit out of me.
Everyone has their own definition of depression. I have friends who say "they never get depressed", and I wonder what that would feel like. How would it feel to go through life never feeling this dark cloud follow me? I'm not a jealous person by nature at all, but I'll be honest, I am quite jealous of the mental health of these friends. For me, I have a very distinct line which tells me "I'm in trouble" or "this will pass". Each year I'll have several short bouts when nothing seems to click, I don't feel connected to anything and it's a struggle to get myself moving. These usually only last a couple days, and if I force myself to get on my bike or go for a run, and hang out with friends, everything clears up quickly and I feel back to normal. Then there are those very rare spirals when the depression feels both circumstantial and biochemical. It usually begins like the shorter bouts, not wanting to hang out with friends, ride etc., but quickly turns into having everything, aside from sleep, feel like pulling teeth. I still get up, get dressed, go to work, and do chores, but anything outside of that becomes a false promise to myself and those I love. My normal decisive self becomes wishy washy with even the smallest decisions and the brain power it takes to make any decision zaps me to the point of needing hours of sleep.
Until this past month, I hadn't felt this dark wave roll over me for over 15 years. That one left me flat on my back for two months. I was in Bend, OR, one of the most magical places I've lived--an outdoor lover's dream--and all I could muster was the strength to work. At that point in my life, I didn't have the skills to cope or the knowledge to understand what was happening to me. Each day I allowed to pass, the darkness settled in deeper and deeper. I don't know how I found the strength, but one day I realized I had to do something, so I went out and bought downhill skis. I had been backcountry skiing all winter, but some force out there steered me in another direction. That same day, I signed up to volunteer at Mt.Bachelor ski resort to help set up race courses and marshall the gates, in exchange for a free ski ticket. The switch was flipped. I went from feeling the lowest in my life to feeling excited about life once again.
When I noticed myself having the exact same feelings as those I had in '97 last month, I created a plan right away. I forced myself to keep riding since my bikes tend to tether me to the ground, I forced myself to still do some social things--although I still feel rotten for canceling on several friends--and I forced myself to tell a couple friends about my struggle--something I've rarely done in the past. I also called my health care provider to set up therapy sessions "just in case", a safety net in a way. Essentially, I told myself "I may not be in control of my emotions right now, but I am in control of how I deal with them". In addition, I decided to make one giant change from '97, something that has worked for me during my small bouts of depression, and that is to fake being happy. For some reason, if I fake it--and I'm not talking sugar coated, Pollyanna fake--my mind and body begin to think it's true...and then, usually, it becomes the truth.
So here I am, almost exactly a month from the beginning warning signs, and surprisingly enough I feel much better. No, not everything seems to be great or normal again--the connection to my bike still isn't where I'd like it to be, I'm still craving junk food (almost always a warning sign), my sleep is still a bit fitful and I'm not partaking in as many social activities I normally do--but I'm doing the work and it's paying off. I can't say where I'd be or what my mental state would be like if I didn't take these small steps, I don't really want to know, I'm just relieved I forced myself to take a U-turn so I didn't waste an entire summer.
Many thanks go out to my friends who were understanding and caring during this time as well as those who chose to share their own experiences/struggles with me (it is because of them I chose to write this). I know it seems odd to profess my love and thank an inanimate object, but honestly, I'm not sure I could pull out of these funks without my bikes which I will now lovingly refer to as my life rafts. Now, let the summer roll on!
*For those interested in reading about the actual effects of exercise and depression, this is a good article. Since this was written, many more studies have been done--all coming out with the same results that prove exercise is one of the most effective forms of antidepressants.