My wonderful and talented friend Gillian Marchenko is working on a book about depression. The other day she posted this on Facebook:
“Oh dear, this weekend I did all sorts of 'real people' things; friends threw me a surprise birthday outing, I helped with a baby shower, I traveled with my older girls to visit family... Now, I'm home. I'm exhausted. And I have to work on the revisions of my depression book due Friday. You know when you are standing on the edge of the pit, looking in? For some of us with depression, we get to that point in our journey when we know we are close, and we need to handle ourselves with care and drink hot drinks, take baths, breathe, and pray, and ask God for help. Well, I'm there today. And I really want to focus and write. If you are the praying type, will you pray for me? I also want to thank God... b/c I know not all of us are there yet when we see the pit and can take a couple steps back. If that's you, let us know. We'll pray for you too.”
Sometimes, even though I have been living with depression for 20 years, I fall right into the pit and I don’t even notice until I land on my face.
I don’t have bipolar disorder, but my moods and energy have always cycled between high and low. I think this is normal for most people, but the fluctuation is a bit more frequent and intense for those of us with mood disorders. I don’t remember when I began to recognize my rhythm, but at some point I realized there were times when I felt more capable and productive. Knowing these episodes would be followed by a down cycle, I would ride those waves of energy until they fizzled, washing me up on hard ground in a heap. Even then I would drag myself a few more meters for good measure, until I was too tapped out to tackle even the smallest tasks. Say, going to the grocery store or washing the dishes. I would retreat and recover, sequestering myself for days, weeks, or even months, doing little more than watching daytime television.
There’s an addictive component to this crash and burn pattern. The wave is intoxicating. The wave builds on a myth of self-worth. We live in a society that values accomplishments—and has very specific ideas about what constitutes an accomplishment. Long hours, large paychecks, corporate titles, and advanced degrees? Yes. Hot drinks, warm baths, deep breaths, and prayers? Not so much.
I think the great fear of people with a mood disorder (well, my great fear anyway) is that if we aren’t accomplishing as much, as quickly, as the people around us, we are considered failures. I’m always sure I’m being judged. So I try to work more, work harder, work until I burn out, forgetting that my brightest and most helpful offerings come when I slow down.
I know now that self-care is a necessity, not a luxury, and that there is no greater achievement than taking good care of yourself. Because if you aren’t being kind and gentle with yourself, if you aren’t respecting your boundaries, you won’t be able to fully participate in this thing called life. Oh, and you will be completely miserable. This applies to anyone and everyone—whether or not you have a mood disorder.
I still fall victim to the siren call of the wave, sometimes. Sometimes I still fall into the pit. And I’m going to try not to feel guilty about doing what I have to do to climb out. Even if it doesn’t look like much to the rest of the world, I know those baths and warm drinks are a huge accomplishment. And that day, that day after I climb out of the pit and remember to take a deep breath in the sunshine? That, my friends, is a major award.