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Don't let the smile fool you —I am NOT a happy person.
Throughout the 10 years of my ongoing war with depression, I've become an expert at how to appear happy even when every vein in my body is screaming at me to cut it open.
But I'm not here to be graphic… at least not right away.
I'm here to tell you that I know how it feels. The sadness. It starts off in your legs sometimes. Or maybe this time, in your arms. It creeps in oh, so slowly… as if it thinks it can catch you off-guard. It can't. In fact, you're always highly aware of its presence. You can always pinpoint the exact area in your bones where the depression lies dormant before it slowly sprouts to life.
Sometimes it slinks in on the only night off you've had all week from your draining job. Maybe it comes in mid-laugh the one day you're finally feeling good enough to go out with friends. Or perhaps you start to feel it in the middle of watching a play when one of the characters on stage mentioned something that reminded you that you were not supposed to be enjoying yourself. I'm sorry. I completely understand.
Experiencing life the way people like us experience it means that there is something (a chemical imbalance?) very real inside of us that doesn't want us to be happy, that doesn't want us to enjoy ourselves. It's not fair. It's not right.
All we want is to be able to exist without the foreboding feeling that creeps into our legs, our arms, that makes us feel sluggish and exhausted. We don't want to feel it take over our body, creating a wound in our chest that festers with the infection of the depression. We want to fight against the (self-inflicted?) pain that oozes from the infection, taking command of every nerve-ending in our body so that our insides scream louder than our vocal cords cannot. When the enemy has chosen to perch itself on the bones of our own rib cage, it is only natural to prepare our weapons and take aim against ourselves.
To tell you the truth, I have been to Hell and not-quite-back with the depression. I have had nights where I've stared at my ex's pistol, the enemy inside me yearning for me to use it. I've sat in my car for hours on end imagining my car ramming into storefront glass. I've launched my fists at inanimate objects out of sheer hatred for myself for just being so damn sad.
Unfortunately, I am very well-versed in the area of using my body as target practice. I'll be the first to admit I've done it, and the first to say it isn't healthy. I promise this is not another one of those "it gets better" articles. I, for one, know it doesn't… at least not for some of us. This is just to help you survive the days you really wish you didn't have to live through. This advice may not be perfect, but with the date of this article as proof, it has kept me alive until now.
1. Find something cold.
I used to work in a very popular, very busy restaurant. It had a walk-in freezer.
I would serve dozens of customers, using my pasted-on smiling face. All the while, "justletmediejustletmediejustletmediejustletmedie" was the mental soundtrack to my otherwise flawless service. When I got overwhelmed by emotional turmoil boiling up inside me, my body would get really hot. My mind would start to race and focusing on anything other than the fiercely repetitive suicidal thoughts was impossible. My breathing would become labored, as I would start to panic about not knowing how to stop my thoughts, and how to control the intense sense of helplessness I had bubbling inside me. All I could think about was death and the sharp objects I had around me. All of a sudden, I felt a desperate need to be colder. Everything was just way too hot. I came to find out that stepping into the below 40 degrees freezer would instantly bring me back to reality.
The shock value of standing in the ice-cold environment was enough to calm my mind down. I would stand in the freezer and breathe in deeply, allowing my entire body—inside and out—to fully experience the chill. It was almost medicinal for me. My mind was wiped clean. I could focus. The dissociation and anxiety that came along with the suicidal thoughts finally quieted themselves for a bit. I was able to know what it was like to have my mind be mine again.
Find something cold. A freezer. The outside on a Fall or Winter night. A cold shower. A frozen water bottle. Ice water. When you start to feel your mind distorting your reality into something negative, use the cold item or place you were able to find. Step in it, hold it, pour it on yourself. Here's a reminder as well to be safe. Make sure you don't stay in the cold or hold your item for too long—no longer than a minute at a time. This is to help you, not harm you.
2. Fight your negative thoughts.
Okay. I know what you're thinking: "That's what everyone says!" But wait. I'll explain.
Imagine you're in a boxing ring with your thoughts. A dark shadow of the depression on one side, you and your mind on the opposite. You lock eyes with your opponent. You feel antsy and discouraged, but that's nothing new to you. The bell of doom rings and your match starts. With every one of the depression's swings that lands, you hear an insult aimed at you ("you're a worthless piece of shit") and you feel the part of your body that was hit weaken a bit. You spend most of your time in the ring dodging the blows that will eventually land in the next swing. All you are focused on is making it through this round alive… but then you have a radical idea - you actually fight back.
Instead of using up all your energy missing the swings, you actually decide to throw some fists at the depression. When you're hit and hear, "You're an idiot," you swing back with a left hook and once it connects, you shout back "No, I am brilliant!" The depression stumbles back and you gain strength. With each blow that connects with the shadow, you shout back positive things about yourself. Each negative thought is overcome by the sheer force of you fighting back.
I find myself doing it a lot. Negative thoughts start to entrap my mind and I have to gather everything in me to denounce the thoughts and change them into something positive. It's really hard at first and it will require lots of dedication, but once you get the hang of it, it'll be so rewarding. But in order for it to be the most effective, you have to put just as much energy into mentally throwing a punch at the depression, as you would put into throwing an actual punch.With every insult hurled at you, you have to defend yourself and respond with the upmost aggressively positive thing you can say about yourself. I know it sounds really cheesy, but eventually, with time, you'll say positive things automatically. A good place to start is by talking in a mirror. It'll be awkward and feel really funny at the beginning, but the reward is great.
Meditation is so important. I used to be the person who whenever meditation was brought up by a friend or my therapist, I'd politely nod and agree, all the while having no intention of taking any time out to meditate. I completely understand if you have no desire too—I didn't until recently. But hopefully, eventually, you'll give it a try.
I had reached a point in my war with the depression where medication didn't work because I refused to take it. Praying didn't work. Lying to myself didn't work. Crying didn't work. I would go in to my therapy sessions and cry for whole hours about how shitty I felt and my therapist (I'm sorry, Michael) would feel so helpless. I was—and still am most days—in so much emotional pain. He knew not to mention medication to me because it never amounted to anything. We discussed talking to other people about the depression, but I guess I was born with some sort of rope around my vocal cords because even the thought of telling anyone outside of that room what I struggled with made my voice mute. So getting me to meditate? Nearly impossible. To actually expect me take time out of my busy day of being lethargic, depressed, and unproductive to do something that required real effort? Hell no. Wasn't happening. Never. But honestly…eventually, I did.
Now, I'm not saying meditation is a cure at all. But it does help. After months of ignoring advice and repeatedly cycling through my negative thoughts and feelings, I finally… finally did it. I went to a meditation group. Anyone who knows my shy, antisocial ass knows that that is an accomplishment. I was late arriving and I knew no one. But something inside me told me to go in anyway. I'm glad I did. I went in worried and anxious and I left feeling lighter and calmer. Even as I was writing this article, I began feeling the familiar tendrils of the depression seeping in. I lost focus and for a while, I couldn't make sense of the words on the screen. I stopped, did a 10-minute meditation, and my mind was clear enough to continue. I will admit, though, that currently, I'm listening to a two-hour and 50-minute long video of healing frequency music meant to block out negative energy. That works too!
Meditate. One minute. Five minutes. 10 minutes. In bed. In the shower. In the car (not while driving). And although it would be best to keep it repetitive, let's be honest, it most likely won't happen when you're really, really depressed. I know I don't do it regularly, but whenever I do get done meditating, I always wish I did. Meditating regularly may take a while to get to and that's totally okay. Just start. Try it a few times. See where it takes you. I will list some meditation and frequency music videos I use below.
I've struggled my way through a war with the depression and I wish I could say I've come out unscathed. I wish I could say it was over. I wish I could say that at some point in my young life, the overwhelming emotional despair subsided and I'm now living a productive life as a playwright and actress. Unfortunately, none of it is true and I still struggle with the weight of the depression every day. Maybe I will become that playwright one day or something else that'll make me look in the mirror with pride and a real smile on my face, and say, "I've struggled through depression to get here." I hope it works out that way for me. But we all know depression. We know its struggles. But at least we're surviving. We're surviving.