Three months ago today, I hit rock bottom and realized that I undeniably suffered from depression. It was a realization a long time in the making, but once I hit the point of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew I needed to get help. I drove two and a half hours to my mother’s house, spent the weekend receiving the guidance and encouragement of my family, and on Monday called to schedule my first therapy appointment. It would be one month before I ever saw my therapist. A month after that, my second appointment would be canceled due to her being sick. Another month after that, yesterday, I missed my appointment due to traffic – a major accident created stand-still traffic on the highway to the city where my therapist’s office is located.
My battle against depression is one that I have fought with the help of friends and family, but not with the help of a professional. Perhaps as a result of that, I feel like I haven’t made much progress in three months. This isn’t true – it’s all-or-nothing thinking, a cognitive distortion in which I think that because I have not reached my goal, I’ve actually accomplished nothing at all. In reality, I’ve come a long way. I went from not eating to eating, from letting my house fall into disarray to keeping up with the cleaning, from having panic attacks at least once a week to not having them at all. I no longer believe that my family could be free to live happier lives if I was just out of the picture entirely. All of these things are wins, but my negative mind ignores them because there is so much progress left to make.
Yesterday, I replaced my car of ten years with a newer vehicle, purchased from a friend at a very agreeable price. My old car was falling to pieces, riddled with mechanical failures of all sorts – the new one runs smooth as butter. On Monday, two days from the time I write this post, I start a new position at the agency where I work. That position comes with a significant pay raise and an increase in authority that shows my employers find me competent and trust me to be involved in more significant projects. One week from today, I get together with a group of some of my closest friends to play Blades in the Dark. I’ve been wanting to play this game for months and most of the people in the group are over the moon that we’re finally about to get it on the table.
I have every reason in the world to be happy, but I’m not.
The illogical nature of it drives me up the wall. I feel stupid and ungrateful for daring to be sad about the state of things. I try to record the things I should be grateful for in my journal to help me remember how much positive I have going on. The fact that so much of my depression is centered on self-loathing feels ridiculous when I think about the huge amount of positive support I get. My family thinks of me as a responsible husband and a capable father; my coworkers are constantly baffled by the skills and intelligence I demonstrate on the job; I have an online following that is both highly encouraging and very understanding. How can a person who receives such universal praise and encouragement come away feeling like he has no value? Why do I hate everything about me when no one else does?
I have learned that there is very little logic to depression. My heart doesn’t check in with my brain first to make sure that it makes sense to feel sad. And the bigger picture often gets lost in the minutia of day-to-day struggles. Rough day of potty training with my son? I’m obviously a bad parent across the board. Make one impulsive financial decision? I will always be doomed to insecurity. Feel unmotivated to read, play games, or write? Anhedonia will steal my passion for everything and I will drift through life unfulfilled. My mind takes small issues and catastrophizes them, making them into problems of a much greater scale than they truly are.
Without the help of talk therapy or medication, I’ve tried to expand my personal lexicon when it comes to understanding my mental health. My research has led me to terms like all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing – they are cognitive distortions, ways of thinking which are unhelpful and generate further negative thoughts. They are called distortions because, as I’ve demonstrated above, they are frequently untrue. Our minds treat them as facts when in reality they are a hypothesis that does not stand up to empirical evidence. But when we are in the thick of these distortions, when our mind has been trained to think this way over years and years of practice, breaking free is a process that takes time and patience. Now that I understand this facet of what’s wrong with me, I want to be free of it right away, but it doesn’t work like that. Just like memorizing a text or training your body to have muscle memory, restructuring your thought process to no longer include cognitive distortions requires you to work at it on a regular basis.
My work has taken many forms over the past three months. I’ve filled two journals with negative thoughts and the evidence that counteracts them. I’ve read multiple self-help books to give me techniques to try and build my positive thinking skillset. I’ve written things I like about myself and spoken encouraging words in the mirror to try and build the confidence to more easily recognize my inherent value. I’ve studied meditation at length and meditated regularly from the simple act of vipassana meditation focused on the breath to more intense meditations on subjects like non-attachment or metta, loving-kindness towards myself and other people. These techniques have had varied levels of effectiveness for me, but now I’ve reached a point where I feel like I have built a tolerance against them. Just as the body becomes accustomed to a medication and needs higher doses to experience the same benefit, I think my mind has adjusted to these techniques and now needs a different approach in order to make more progress.
It’s 5 AM now, the time when I would normally get up for work on a weekday. My typical routine is to go and exercise for a period of time, then meditate briefly before eating breakfast and taking a shower. I exercise both out of a desire to change a body that I believe to be both unhealthy and unappealing, and to influence my brain chemistry to produce what I need to be happy. I meditate to bring me calm and peace, to train my mind to avoid getting caught up in negative thoughts, and to remind myself to be compassionate towards myself and others. As much as I wish that they didn’t need to be daily practices for me, I’ve learned the hard way that if I stop, my body and mind both start to go in a direction I don’t want them to. Building self-discipline has been yet another frustrating aspect of this entire process.
I want to be able to be myself and be happy without having to go out of my way to engage in all these special practices. It feels fruitless, in a sense – like I am replacing the coping mechanisms of gaming or Netflix with walking and meditating. Perhaps the latter mechanisms are more “approved by society,” but if they are all just different ways to cope than am I really making progress? Am I truly getting better if I still need them? My mind is inclined to think that I am not, and that leads to discouragement – I don’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling like depression is looming over me, ready to pounce the moment I let me guard down and drop any of the practices I have started.
I wish I could say I was writing this article because it builds up to a meaningful conclusion with a positive, encouraging lesson about battling with depression, but that’s not the case. I’d love to have a cute gaming metaphor or a story about how my tabletop group helped me so I could connect it back to the theme of Adventure Rules. But as a writer, putting these words on the page is cathartic for me in a way. Even if I don’t post them, just getting it out of my system helps me to process everything. I think that may be part of why I haven’t felt motivated to write articles for the blog recently – what I am “supposed to write” doesn’t line up with the words that are organically welling up inside of me. I don’t know yet how to manage that balance – connecting every game I play to depression somehow seems very impractical and also like a huge bummer for my readers. Perhaps the answer will come in time.
For now, all I can do is keep going. I’ll get up, put on my jeans and a t-shirt, and walk around the apartment complex to get my heartbeat up a bit. I’ll then bring it back down with a quick meditation, and maybe write a list of things that I supposedly like about myself or some things I should be grateful for. It’ll probably take the edge off until the first thing goes wrong today, and then it’s a tossup whether I recognize the cognitive distortion as it’s happening, or hours after. Each day is a battle. Whether or not it’s a battle that is steadily leading towards victory, I can’t say yet. But I’ll keep fighting it, if only because three months ago I reached the place where I wanted to give up the fight – and that’s a place I know I never want to be again.