12 Steps to Overcome Depression
Looking back, remembering dark days, I've become more and more aware of things to do and not to do to avoid going down the bleak road that leads to depression. Because so many people—friends and people I don't know—shared their own personal struggles with depression with me after reading another article I wrote, I have developed a 12-step program using the things that helped me come back to find light and joy.
For me, depression could not be described as misery. I didn't care enough to be miserable. A friend called me one night from the emergency room and said he could not stop crying and was there trying to get some help for his depression. I didn't cry often when I was depressed. I think that would have helped. Some of the actors on television who are in the commercials for antidepressants look exactly like I felt—like zombies. I sincerely do not want another person to feel the way I felt at times, and I can only hope these steps will be a ray of light, if only for one person.
Twelve (Difficult) Steps
These are things I remember from the years when I went through spells of depression. I now monitor each of them conscientiously because I never want to visit that place again. These steps will not be easy ones to take. Remember that they are steps toward the light.
1. Invite light and color back into your life.
If you are like I was, you want the house to be dark to match your mood. Don't do it. Open the blinds, curtains, shutters, whatever, and let the light in. Your emotional self will try to recreate itself in your surroundings, and it's up to you not to give in to it. The same goes for what you wear. If you find yourself reaching for everything black in your closet, make yourself drag out that red sweater, even if it's the last color you "feel" like. It's a statement to your depression that you're not buying into it and that you're eventually going to win this battle.
2. Remember these words: "Without music, life would be a mistake." –Nietzsche
When driving in your car or listening to music at home, dark songs will draw you in if you let them. Keep it upbeat. I'll never forget one day the Dooby Brothers lifted me from a very bad place. Since then, Listen to the Music is a huge favorite.
3. Choose books, T.V., and movies carefully.
Be careful about what you read. I read Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar during one of my worst periods of depression and couldn't get some of the images out of my head for weeks. If you can't stomach something uplifting, go for neutral or "potato chip books," as my friend from New Jersey calls them, the books that occupy your mind but don't necessarily challenge it. The same goes for television. Stay away from the morbid and sad. If you can't handle comedies, watch the History Channel. It's interesting and bland.
4. Search out other people. Solitude is what you want, not what you need.
This is big. The thing we all want to do when we're depressed is to be left alone. This is what you don't need. Make yourself get out of the house. I can remember dragging myself to a meeting one night because I knew I should go when all I wanted to do was sleep. That meeting was the spark that stopped a downward spiral. Sometimes we don't want company, but don't want to be alone. I have learned that Barnes and Noble is a wonderful place to be. Find a chair and read and work in a little people watching. The library is also good. You aren't forced into conversing, but you are not alone. Being around others makes us feel part of something and in dark times, we need that feeling, that we are connected to others (even if we don't want to talk to them).
5. Food matters. Don't undermine your efforts by eating incorrectly.
Don't binge eat. One of the hardest things for me, even now, when I'm melancholy is not eating. I think probably a large percentage of the population is on some sort of antidepressant and the other half is on lots and lots of food. Granted, overeating does have a calming effect; however, it also contributes to a feeling of not having control and ramps up the worthless, hopeless feelings. In addition, I find that when I consume large amounts of salts and preservatives, it makes me nervous, which usually leads to depression, although the two seem contradictory.
6. Be cautious with caffeine. It can lead to physical issues.
Be extra careful about coffee intake. When we're depressed or just mopey, we want something to pick us up. This is how I developed my 15-cup-a-day coffee habit, something that I am working very hard to overcome. If you feel you must have a lift, try tea. It gives a bit of a lift and much less caffeine. (A note written months later: My caffeine habit also led to atrial fibrillation. Don't think it can't happen to you, as I did.)
7. Speak to only professionals about your depression. Confiding to friends and family does not work out well.
This is one of the most important things as far as I'm concerned. Your friends and family are not the people to talk to about your depression. They are not trained to give you the right advice. Like my mom, they'll likely tell you to "get yourself in a better mood." Also, when you're back to your usual self, you may not like the idea of others knowing your personal challenges. Find a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, a professional who knows what to say to you and how to help you. So many friends who read my article, Depression: The Bell Jar, have asked me: How do I know when I need to see someone? My standard answer is: When life becomes something to be endured. You may have a day like that or even a week like that, but after three weeks or a month, it's time to make a move. Also, make a list of "emergency" numbers. There are numbers available for desperate people. The problem is that desperate people are not going to go to the phone book or computer to find a number to call. Find at least three hotlines when you're having a good day and write them down to use when you need them. They may say suicide hot-lines, but they will listen to you and help you even if you are not to that point.
8. Other depressed people have no answers for you; they have none for themselves.
One of the biggest mistakes I made during my dark days was aligning myself with others who were negative, depressive, and always ready to share their problems. We do that because we think: "Oh, I'm not that bad. My problems are not that large." At some point, I pulled away from other depressed people, but I wasn't quite ready for good relationships either. I went through a period of being alone. It was okay. As I began to feel better, I felt more confident about making friends again and the ones I made are still around and enriching my life every day.
9. Naps are one thing; sleeping to escape the day is another.
Try to avoid it. Long-term use of antidepressants, unless your doctors see a true need for them, is a bad idea.
Although at times it can be extremely difficult, try to avoid sleeping during the day. It is so tempting when both your body and mind hurt and all you want to do is close it all down, but it leads to sleepless nights and feelings of worthlessness. If you start taking anti-depressants, remember that they are not meant to be a permanent solution to life's problems, but a temporary aid to help us when we need help. As soon as you feel ready, taper off of them. Find your own joy, not something that comes in a bottle.
10. Exercise changes the chemicals in your brain. Make yourself do it as much as possible.
Okay. This gets difficult. When you're down in the mouth, as my dad used to say, the last thing you ever want to do is exercise. Even when I'm in a fabulous mood, one of the last things I want to do is exercise. However, it's one of the things that helped my dad when he was anxious and one of the things the wonderful therapist I saw recommended. Don't do anything fancy. Just walk. Walk outside if possible. Go to a park or just walk in your own neighborhood. The outdoors is wonderful medicine. Take advantage of it.
11. If you are not a believer, pray to the Universe, to your Higher Self, to someone/something.
Whatever you perceive God to be, pray to that God. Do it every day. If nothing else, ask for help to drag yourself out of the dark. You may pray every day for a month and feel absolutely nothing—like you're praying to a rock. But one day you may feel yourself surrounded by love and the peace that passes all understanding. So you must pray every day. And soon perhaps, like me, instead of asking for help, you'll be giving thanks for the help you've received.
12. Never, ever give up. Visualize the day that you will wake up in the morning and want to get up. It will come.
The final step is a big one. Don't give up on yourself. If your family gets enough of your sadness, if your friends avoid you because you're a downer, if you hear the tapes of your parents' voices in your head every day, telling you your faults, even then, you must never, ever give up on yourself. I have a friend whose favorite movie line is from Tom Hanks' Castaway. I don't know the context, but Hanks' line was: "Never give up because tomorrow the sun will rise, and you never know what the tide will bring." We must live that way.
The Light Is Always There, Waiting
It is not the Light that becomes lost. It does not dim, go away, or fade. It is always there, waiting for us when we return.
I do not pretend that most of these things come easily. The easy thing to do is give in to the darkness. These things take effort. These steps are the way home, back to the light. A woman I know calls depression the devil. Let's give the devil its due: It has a certain draw, appeal, magnetism, as do all dark things. And we must be strong enough to resist.
Get well. Use these steps. Find other things that will help you take one more step back to joy. Come back to the light and see what the tide might have in store for you. You never know. I wish you Godspeed. I am living proof that those days can become a vague memory, dredged up for no other purpose than to remind me of where I was and where I am now. I did it and you can do it.