Depression is an interesting topic, and this time of year is appropriate to discuss it. Before I go into further detail, however, I need to put my proverbial cards on the table: I am stuck in a particularly harsh spell of depression, and not for the reason you might expect. I’ll go into the details about my own problems later.
Depression is a rather difficult condition to describe, and not straightforward to diagnose, as most other mental disorders are. Personally, I would describe depression as a lack of mental energy; not specifically a lack of motivation, but the simple inability to function. If you are depressed, then you probably don’t feel like doing things that you want to do, much less the things you don’t want to do. Having too much on one’s mind can cause this, but being distracted or otherwise unable to think straight is not all there is to it. Being momentarily frazzled is part of daily life, but becoming chronically frazzled is a much more serious problem. While anyone who has had to deal with a stressful holiday season can probably relate, I’m talking about a response that is disproportionate to the offending stimuli.
Depression isn’t caused by external stimuli, as it is a mental illness, but can be exacerbated by them. People who suffer from depression can lead happy lives, and even be quite energetic overall, without needing to turn to drugs. However, there are certain thoughts that gnaw at us from the backs of our minds, and the slightest reminder can instantly drain our energy and keep us from being able to get out of bed in severe cases. If it seems like I’m conflating depression with PTSD, keep reading, because there are specific differences. When it comes to depressing thoughts, there is neither rhyme nor reason as to why such thoughts cause such responses. For example, if a person suffers from depression, and they are emotionally “cut down” by seeing someone wearing purple, no amount of digging into a person’s past will ever provide an explanation as to why seeing the colour purple makes them depressed. For this reason, many therapists have no clue how to tackle the subject of depression; as I mentioned, the response is disproportionate to the stimulus, and often quite irrational. Allow me to provide an example of a problem I have to deal with: recording anxiety.
I get quite anxious before recording a CAD tutorial, and I have no idea why. I’ve never had a problem with public speaking, and while I’m not fond of how my voice sounds in recordings, it took me about ten seconds to fix that problem (I simply speak with a much thicker accent in my videos than I do in normal conversation to compensate for the audio distortion). So, why do I get nervous before recording a video, to the point where I keep procrastinating whenever I decide to make one? There is no reason, none whatsoever, for me to have this problem. In fact, there is a model that I started work on over a month ago that I want to finish while recording, but every time I’ve sat down to do it, I can’t seem to force myself to do so: “one more cup of chamomile tea, one more ASMR video, one more set of breathing exercises, THEN I’ll turn on the microphone,” but one more is never enough, because my mind just isn’t working properly. Fortunately, I’ve had other things to do (such as hunting), so I’m not just sitting at my desk doing nothing. In a previous post, I discussed taking breaks when you find yourself stuck; in case you couldn’t tell, that was mainly a motivational letter to myself. Unfortunately, getting outside hasn’t been enough for me, either. There is another source of stress that I have to deal with, but I’ll discuss that in a later paragraph.
In the interest of logic, I’m going to jump back and forth between general assessments about depression, and personal examples from my own life. I’ve already discussed irrationality, and now I’ll move on to irritants, i.e. the stimuli that cause this mental illness to rear its ugly head and derail people’s lives. To the best of my knowledge, seeing the colour purple isn’t a real example, and that’s because I wanted something as obtuse as possible to illustrate my earlier point. However, a reminder of a person’s prior failures is a much better example. To use an example appropriate for this time of year, one who is estranged from their family may be driven into a deep depression if surrounded by people whose families are all coming home for Christmas. The obvious solution is to avoid contact with family-oriented people round this time of year, and also not turn on the television and be exposed to advertisements for sappy Christmas films. Now, I can hear people typing away like mad, telling me that people shouldn’t be alone at this time of year, and that estranged loners need to make their own families, or some nonsense like that, and I would normally agree with that solution, but not for someone who suffers from clinical depression! People with depression have disproportionate responses, partially, because their brains focus mostly on the negative parts of their situation, so they are very quick to find flaws in any “solutions” that anyone might propose. This, unfortunately, leads to the belief that depressed individuals want sympathy, not a solution, or they simply want to wallow in their own misery. In truth, the solution to a depressed person’s problem is not to find a way for them to work with the problem, but to work around it instead. “Outside-the-box” thinking is required, by which I mean that conventional social expectations ought to be cast to the wind. In the case of holiday depression, I genuinely mean that a person should be allowed to eschew participation in a holiday tradition if it makes them happy. If you want a particularly humourous example, go watch “Christmas with the Kranks.”
Assuming you decided to keep reading, rather than take a break to watch a Christmas comedy, I have a somewhat amusing tangent to take you on regarding my own attitude toward Christmas. I’m not particularly crazy about the holiday, largely because there are so many other things that I enjoy about this time of year, such as hunting, skiing (occasionally at the same time), and ice-skating. I’ve never had to put up with nonsensical Christmas traditions since I was 14, when I started college. Prior to then, my mother would insist on dragging my father and I on a two-hour road trip to visit her brother (whom she hates) because their mother (whom she also hated) always took an eight-hour road trip every Christmas to stay in his house, and “the whole family” should be together on Christmas. So much for staying home on Christmas, and “the whole family” never included my father’s family. After my first winter break in college, I dug my heels in and flatly refused to go anywhere, and called my mother out for subjecting the three of us to abuse every year. Why would someone who hated her own family insist on visiting them, rather than my father’s family, who was much closer, and more pleasant to be around? However, that’s not the funny part. The funny part is that, ever since, we’ve never had snow on the ground on the 25th of December. I am adamant about having a white Christmas, since we usually get our first snow in October, and winter doesn’t truly end until April. I’ve suggested celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January as a solution, but no-one seems to want to do that.
As much as I had considered deleting much of the previous paragraph, I decided to leave it alone, because it actually makes it quite easy to transition into my next point: self-sacrifice. There is nothing wrong with giving up something of yours in order to improve the life of another, but you must still put yourself first. That is not to say that all things you do must, in some way, benefit yourself. Rather, what I mean is that it is possible to give too much to others. When everyone is indulging their feelings of generosity, then you have nothing to worry about; give to others as much as it pleases you, and others will give to you in turn. However, my mother’s abusive family always had a tendency to take advantage of generosity; these are the people who will send you on a guilt trip for not giving enough, yet they themselves won’t give everything they can. This is relevant because my little dissection of depression is about to take a very dark turn. You have been warned.
Depending on whom you ask, depression may not be pathological, but an ingrained personal delusion; a feeling of inadequacy brought upon them by a long-term abusive relationship. Abusive relationships, contrary to how they are typically portrayed in popular media, are rarely violent. One party wears down the other with guilt and passive-aggressive insults, and assuming that the recipient is indeed a victim, i.e. compliant, then punishment in the form of violence is unnecessary. However, when the would-be victim is of considerably stronger character, and unwilling to be controlled as a puppet, then the abuser turns to more aggressive means to get what they want, including violence. The most commonly posited solution for dealing with an abuser is to simply leave. However, this is not always feasible, and if the would-be victim is somehow trapped, then it becomes a contest of will with the abuser. Since abuse is a common tool of sociopaths, who do not accept defeat and will never change their behaviour (because they think there’s nothing wrong with themselves), they usually win. In the case of abusive parents, this means twenty years or more that children have to endure being told, among other things, that nothing they ever do will ever be good enough. Such insults are easy to ignore when coming from strangers or even enemies, because the only ones who can truly insult you are those whose opinions you value. We grow up seeking the approval of our parents (and siblings, if we have them), but if they won’t give it to us, then no amount of praise from the outside world means anything. This perpetual inability to ascend beyond the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy, or even the second, depending on how severe the abuse is, leaves an individual emotionally stunted, and thus bearing many of the symptoms of a mental illness as a result. It is, therefore, in an abuser’s best interest to keep their victims depressed, so that they silently surrender and relegate themselves to a life of dependence. It is no coincidence that abuse victims display the symptoms of depression, including chronic pessimism, a practise of always looking at the bad side of a situation. Ironically, the latter symptom results in depressed individuals being so much fun to be around that no-one wants to help them. Without help, abuse victims have no means with which to satisfy their social needs other than crawling back to their abusers, which is exactly according to the latter’s plan.
If you’re wondering whether or not abusers know everything from the above paragraph, I assure you that they do. Most probably can’t articulate it as well as I just did, but they know bloody well what they’re doing. After all, abusers are typically sociopaths, who are known for being extremely calculating, unempathetic individuals. However, since sociopathy isn’t the topic of this post, I won’t go into any more detail than I already have. It is relevant only to the extent that those who suffer from depression should stay as far away from sociopaths as possible. This brings us out of the dark portion of this article and into a much lighter topic: what you can do to make yourself feel better if you have depression (aside from taking antidepressants, which I don’t recommend). The first step would be to identify the reason for your depression. If you’re surrounded by happy, loving, supportive people, then if you’re depressed, it’s probably a chemical imbalance that could be fixed by changing your diet. I’m not kidding, improving your diet can improve your mood. Improving the quality of air that you breathe also makes a huge difference, as anyone who suffers from seasonal allergies will tell you; the difference between seasonal bad moods and depression is that depressed people are much more sensitive, and the moods are much more severe. However, even if you think that the problem is entirely chemical, and nothing to do with the company you keep, you should still think critically about the people in your life. No-one wants to admit that their own family could be abusive; abusers always train their victims well to place all blame firmly on themselves, and so victims reflexively make excuses for their abusers. Anyone reading this who has known someone in an abusive relationship will probably agree that the signs are obvious from the outside, but almost invisible to the victim. Perhaps, however, the reason for a person’s depression could be a combination of factors. In any case, I’m not against taking drugs, but save them for a last resort.
More complex causes for depression, naturally, require more complex solutions. As I’ve already mentioned, if an abusive relationship is the problem, then getting out is an obvious solution, but it is rarely an easy one. Fortunately, I’ve dealt with enough sociopaths throughout my life that I’ve figured out ways to flush their proverbial toilets and have a good laugh at their expense. However, there is a limit to what sort of retaliation you have to worry about from a coworker: most will not risk getting fired or arrested just to get back at you. In the case of an abusive domestic relationship, getting the occasional moment of retribution, and especially showing enjoyment at it, can be physically dangerous. Just as abusers don’t immediately subject their victims to the most horrendous conditions, instead slowly tightening the figurative noose, a victim who wants revenge needs to start small, perhaps with something the abuser doesn’t even notice, but would find irritating if they did. The best method is to turn the emotional table about-face, by which I mean the victim must learn to delight in their abuser’s suffering. I am not saying that hatred is a far more useful emotion than despair or fear, rather I am suggesting detachment as a solution for depression. It’s a simple solution, but much like running away, it’s rarely easy, and requires some further explanation before I can conclude.
My generation (the dreaded millennials) have appropriated the term “trigger” from psychiatry, referring to an inciting event that can cause panic attacks in individuals with PTSD. This is relevant because, returning to my obtuse example from earlier regarding the colour purple, sometimes certain thoughts can trigger a spiral of depression. While there is neither rhyme nor reason, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to pick the process apart. Once again, I return to my own life to explain. My mother loves to shower me with ludicrous suggestions for what I should do with my life, because she knows (as well as I do) that I can’t make a living by selling wargaming miniatures, but she also sees me squandering my potential as an engineer (wait, I thought I wasn’t a “real” engineer? Make up your bloody mind, mum) by making jewellery as well. Most of her inane ramblings don’t bother me anymore, but there is still one that gnaws at me, one thought that I must still learn to detach myself from: going back to school. I’m not going back to school any time soon. While I began the process of looking into getting a master’s degree about a year ago, circumstances have prevented me from following through. Fortunately, the only master’s program that I’m eligible for within reasonable commuting distance is “engineering management,” and as long as the job market acts as if I don’t exist, I see no reason to pursue a degree that serves no purpose other than to make money. I don’t need to attend an institution in order to learn something, attendance is truly required only if I desire to work in the field, and require a piece of paper certifying that I know what I claim to. There are benefits to attending classes beyond simply getting a degree, of course, but none of those are particularly important to me at the moment… and I just realised that I’m going into much more detail than I originally intended to about this example. Now picture thoughts like this flooding my mind, infecting my dreams, and waking me up in the middle of the night. Mere disruption of sleep, as well as lack of sleep, can exacerbate depression. Whatever thoughts might keep a person up at night dominate the mind, and make focusing on important tasks rather difficult. A single triggering thought can lead to an entire chain of hypothetical circumstances, worries, or even bad memories. The key then, is to find a way to disconnect these ideas from each other, so that the mind can rest. Regrettably, I don’t have an answer for this one yet, but I’ll update this post as soon as I figure it out.
Those who have depression are, frequently, their own worst enemies. Some become complacent, partly because depression allows sufferers to indulge their own laxity to an unhealthy degree. Change isn’t easy, after all. On the other hand, some sufferers of depression aren’t good at communicating their problems, and therefore no appropriate solutions can even be offered. After all, how could we know how to fix a problem if we can’t even identify it? Likewise, social cohesion is considerably thinner than it used to be, with more and more people retreating into themselves, and not even noticing the cries for help in their midst. There are plenty of perceptive people, however, but they may not know what to look for. What those individuals need to watch out for is not chronic sadness or lack of bubbling enthusiasm, but a lack of energy. It may seem like laxity at first, but if a person loses interest in something that was once their passion, it may be depression. I don’t have all the answers, far from it, but I hope someone out there finds my Christmas ramblings helpful.