When we are thrust into the whirlwind of a depressive episode, whether it last for a few days or weeks or more, eventually there is the breakdown, and eventually there is the comedown. And many of us wonder, and fumble over what to do next. What to do to ensure we don’t draw out our episode, and to keep a bad state from poisoning the potential of a new day. I don’t think any of us in our right minds would say that we want our episodes to last longer than they need to, but many of us are stuck in patterns of behavior and thought that prevent us from moving forward and moving effectively beyond an episode. After a meltdown, I feel like a wrung out dish towel, like I’ve just had the crap kicked out of me. I’m often foggy, slow, and confused. And I’m often grieving—grieving the time that I lost to my recent bout of depression. It’s an exhausting, difficult place to be. And yet, I’ve found that there’s a rare opportunity during our depression hangovers. And they’re something like the golden snitch—they’re hard to see, hard to catch, but if you do, you may find an unexpected jolt of energy and liveness with which to greet the time that is now before you. Here are the tips, and insights, that I have found that have helped me achieve this clarity and energy following a meltdown brought on by depression. Some of these tips may seem simple, but really, nothing is ‘simple’ when you are within or recovering from a depression — expect to work, expect it to be difficult, even the seemingly simplest of things.
Part One: You and You
1. Get the ball rolling.
As we all recall hearing in our high school physics classes, “An object in motion stays in motion, an object at rest, stays at rest,” most people, depressed or not, can relate to the experience of having a task at hand, and feeling that the most difficult part of it was mustering up the momentum to simply get started. Of the actual transition from inaction to action. Some of us feel this every or most days when we are depressed to some degree. But, following a breakdown in which we’ve hit an emotional peak of psychological pain, we eventually do make it to the other side, whether we realize it or not. After an episode we have reached what I call the hangover territory. We can stay here, and if we do nothing we risk simply drifting back into the gravitational pull of the shadowlands again. Or we can begin to make the small, laborious steps towards actually feeling better, and in depression hangovers, progress is in our power more than we may realize. Sadly, when we are catatonic or in a state of such hysterical anguish our brains are performing differently, our perception of ourselves and our world is morphed, and there isn’t much we can do but seek out help and ride the wave. But in hangover land, we may be face down on the floor, metaphorically or maybe not, but the winds have calmed and we may find we have energy, maybe not much, but more than yesterday. We may find we can pick our heads up off the floor.
Often this feels like too much work. As much as we try, I don’t think there will ever be a way to communicate to a non-depressed person how exhausting, draining, and taxing depression truly is. I’ve stayed in hangovers for months until eventually just hitting more breakdowns because the work, the work of hygiene, clean clothes, brushed teeth, leaving my house, socializing, working, felt too daunting. And all people are, for the most part, pretty damn lazy. But if you have major depression and you want to heal, you can’t afford to be lazy. You have to summon every ounce of energy and willpower when it is there, to take one step, or one army crawl towards your recovery.
If you can, leave your house. And don’t be like me, who for years, wouldn’t leave the house without heavy sunglasses and skull crusher headphones to create a barrier between me and the world. Leave your house and go someplace you like and actually be there. Whether it be a pet shop, a coffee house, a nature preserve, a library. If you can, bring someone with you, because isolating and withdrawing is still too easy. If you don’t have a support person, or one on hand, the internet can be a wonderful opportunity. Join a Mental Health forum and make a post, or reach out to a member. Reach out to a human being, in whatever way is possible for you.
2. Self Care
Depression hangovers are where I think that the pampering side of the ‘self-care’ movement can actually do us some good. Whether treating yourself to a luxurious bubble bath, or a high end face mask, or just relaxing in your best lingerie and bathrobe to classical music and some delectable aromatherapy—you are communicating compassion to yourself through your body, even if your mind doesn’t want to cooperate. Paint your nails, put on some red lipstick, and dress up for no reason. The visual change is sometimes enough alone to shock me out of a serious funk. Relax as though your life depends on it. Sometimes, for some of us, it does. Allow yourself to be carried away by delicious scents, sublime music, and stunning beauty (you!). Going from the outside in can often be a clever way to work with your mind, still trying to get it’s bearings after a difficult spell.
There is a degree of self indulgence in the self care movement that used to turn me off. It still does, in certain contexts. Nevertheless I do think, following spikes in our depression — we don’t bounce back right away, hence the hangover metaphor. Our minds and bodies have to be coaxed back to the land of the living sometimes. And that’s simply what it is. Do the things that engage your five senses in a way that excites you. For some, that can involve treating yourself to a particular dessert at your favorite restaurant, or it can mean going to a dog park and playing with all the puppies. Reading romantic and mystical poetry in a bathrobe helps me sometimes too. We may not believe we deserve or are worth this level of indulgence, but shove those thoughts and feelings to the side. I feel this myself, many of us do. Do it anyway.
3. Don’t ruminate
Now really is not the time to backpedal mentally and think of all the things you did wrong or how you could have avoided this episode. Some grief is common as you begin to brush yourself off, but the blues over losing some time to depression tend to actually dissipate on their own if you don’t hang on to them. However, obsessing over everything you did wrong, bashing yourself for being depressed, bashing yourself for being sad and negative, bashing yourself for not being able to will yourself out of the episode sooner, not only accomplish nothing—mentally it’s like running in a hamster wheel where the wheel eventually picks up so much momentum it trips you up and you’re stuck to spin helplessly in its cyclone, only to emerge injured and bruised.
There will come the time for honest self-reflection and analyzing your episode. But this needs to be done from an objective standpoint when you are clear-headed and should be done with the intention viewing your episode as a learning experience and of helping yourself when future triggers inevitably rise up again. What event(s) triggered this episode? Was it internal or external? And how did your mental response feed and nurture depression instead of aiding you in a difficult moment? Fostering awareness slows down the moments in retrospect, can help you understand why you fell as hard as you did, and over time, assist you in arming yourself for similar situations in the future. But during a depression hangover, you’re often not there yet. Like any kind of hangover, they eventually wear themselves out but you can’t expect your mind, mood, and physiology to snap from 0 to 100. During your come down, thoughts about the who/what/when/where/WHY/how inevitably arise—but do not engage with these thoughts. Remember that we are not our thoughts, we have thoughts, and we can choose to react or not react to them as simple mental events. Meditation can help here, if that’s part of your practice, as one of its key components is not learning how to control your thoughts, but to detach from your thoughts. To, in essence, claim your power back from your thoughts.
The Company You Keep
1. Misery loves company
It can be incredibly validating and can even be absolutely necessary to share your experience with someone who truly ‘gets it’. Sometimes it is wonderfully cathartic to just let yourself vent and bemoan how much major depression fucking sucks with someone who also struggles and is familiar with the terrain. But I’ve learned that it is best to exercise caution and restraint in these kinds of relationships and truly consider what you both bring to one another. Over the course of our lives we do and will encounter people who have resigned themselves to their ‘fate’ as a depressed or mentally ill person. Sometimes this is a phase, sometimes it happens to us too, but there are some people who have settled into themselves as depressed people, and being miserable and negative has become something of a lifestyle. They understand their world through this lens, maybe all too well. And at times these can be incredibly toxic or difficult relationships because these people will never have your best interest at heart. Because they see no possible recovery for themselves, the support they can offer you is limited. If you are in any kind of relationship with someone who also suffers from mental illness, make sure you are both unshakeable rocks of support for one another. That you both truly want the best for one another. That you both have hope and love and belief in that person making it to a better place. That you both are there for each other when you collapse, and that you both are there for each other to celebrate progress. People who have resigned themselves to their depression will never be fully there for you, and may even resent you once you begin to make substantial progress. While you may still care a great deal for this person and want them to be a part of your life — or alternatively, if this is a person with whom it simply isn’t feasible for you to cut ties with — always, always honor your boundaries when you are in a weak or vulnerable state, and exercise caution while in their company. Though they may not do so consciously or with intent, these individuals will deplete you and drag you down with them if you are not careful.
2. Are you the toxic person?
Do you feel entitled to judge others a certain way who are not struggling like you and will never understand? Are you cooking yourself in a soup of resentment? It may feel vindicating to make a snappy comment and make someone feel bad for mentioning how things are going well in their life. But in the long run, this not only strains your relationships, it does damage to you and your progress as well. Hanging onto our bitterness only prolongs, drags out, and energizes our suffering. A moment I regret in my life was in college, I was predictably depressed, and my best friend was about to go out of the country for an internship and her beta fish had somehow lived to be about six years old and mine had just died. She mused, in a moment of true humility, “I can’t believe it—I’m going to Germany and my fish is alive.” I poked bitterly at my pizza and shot back, “Must be nice. I’m not going to Germany and my fish is dead.” I remember the satisfaction of that bite I took out of her. I remember, instead of admitting that I had just been the asshole, trying to justify my bitterness by concocting narratives about how my friends did not appreciate their health and took for granted all that they had. I convinced myself that I had a right to be sour at my friends who partied all weekend and didn’t seem to take their classes as seriously as I did when I was going blind at art school. The rage I felt was sometimes palpable, that all these healthy, well-adjusted people did not know the anguish of physical and emotional limitations preventing them from living the life they wanted.
If your cycle once you begin to come down from a breakdown is to go into resentment and anger you are merely poisoning yourself and driving others away. Sometimes we convince ourselves when we’re being ‘negative’ we’re just being true to our experience and being open with others. There is a way to be graceful about sharing your situation with others, even if you are are deeply struggling. Whether you are ‘toxic’ or not depends largely upon how you feel and think about the people you share yourself with. Hold yourself accountable. Not only for your loved ones but also for yourself and your progress, because you won’t accomplish much of anything with a bitter, jealous, resentful heart.
3. Don’t procrastinate on damage control
While I did just say that this moment is not particularly conducive to rumination and going into full on detective mode to try and piece together how this breakdown happened — I do also insist that if we behaved in a destructive, hurtful way to our loved ones, if we made certain decisions that threw others lives into chaos — we must absolutely attend to this. Struggling and suffering with one or more serious mental illnesses does not give us the right to be assholes, and we must hold ourselves accountable if we went into Tasmanian devil mode during our episode.
If you owe someone a serious apology — apologize. And don’t resent them if they don’t immediately forgive you or need some space and distance to warm up to you again. Accountability is never about aiming to manipulate another person to react to your admission of guilt exactly the way you want them too. Own up to your mistakes and be genuine in your apology. Do not project your bad behavior as simply being an unavoidable trait of your mental illness. I know that it can feel that way when we’re in the thick of it — that we have no ability to reel in our darker impulses and vices when we’re in the throes of madness. But that doesn’t make it okay. You should never expect your loved ones to just roll over and take whatever bullshit you throw at them simply because you’re suffering.
I acknowledge that this is no small feat to ask of you, as I fall into these spaces myself. I often feel, when I come out of the shadow realm — that I’m constantly apologizing to my friends and family for the same crap that I just can’t seem to stop pulling, again and again. I am trying to get better at this… I am actively working on it.. but, unfortunately, it is a process, and a messy one. So. When I drop off the grid for months on end without warning, or make a cruel, snappy comment at someone for no good reason — when it comes time, once again, to own up to my shit and apologize yet again I do it. Even though I feel shame and embarrassment that I haven’t been able to completely shake these behaviors.. there is notable progress.