(Content note: depression. Obviously.)
I’m currently pulling out of a depressive episode — not a horrible one, but not a trivial one either. I’ve been looking at one of the shittiest aspects of depression — the self-perpetuating nature of it, the fact that the depression itself kills my motivation to do the things I need to do to help pull out of the depression. And I think I have a new insight as to why that is. (For me, anyway — not sure if this is true for anyone else.)
Depression is generally a motivation-killer. But for me at least, it’s not an equal-opportunity motivation-killer. It does reduce my motivation to do much of anything — but it’s especially murderous when it comes to my motivation to do self-care, to do the very things that would make me feel better. Exercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are the things that are hardest to do when I’m depressed.
And I think the clue is in the phrase “make me feel better.”
Exercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are all things that make me feel better. But they are also things that make me feel, period. That’s not some sort of goofy coincidence. Feeling better means feeling, you know, something. To some extent, self-care makes me feel better because it makes me feel something.
And feeling is exactly what I don’t want to do when I’m depressed.
Depression, among other things, cuts me off from feeling pretty much anything. It disconnects me from my emotions. Hell, it disconnects me from pretty much everything. At its worst, being depressed feels like being wrapped in thick layers of cotton wadding, which little or nothing can penetrate. Emotion, physical sensation, other people, even my own basic experience of my own consciousness — all of it feels distant, unreachable. This disconnection is a core defining feature of the illness — and it also serves a function, if it can be put that way. I get depressed when there are things happening in my life that I can’t cope with. For me, depression gets triggered when I have two or more horribly stressful things happening in my life, and my brain goes, “Nope. Too much. To hell with that. Not gonna experience that. Time to shut down.”
So when I’m depressed, things that make me feel better are things that I resist — because I don’t want to feel anything at all.
It’s often said that the most dangerous time for a dangerously depressed person is the time when they’re just starting to feel a little bit better. When depressed people start to feel a little bit better, two things happen. We’re feeling something at all — which means we’re actually deeply experiencing the shitty depressed feelings instead of being cut off from them. And we’re starting to feel motivated again — which, if someone is dangerously depressed, can mean they now have the motivation to hurt themselves, something they might not have had when they were in the deepest part of the pit. (This is one of the reasons suicide risk goes up in the first few weeks that people are on anti-depressants — and thus, it’s one of the reasons people need to be monitored very carefully during this period.) I’m not dangerously depressed in that sense — I’m not suicidal, and I’m not self-harming except in the sense that when I’m depressed, I don’t always take care of business and my self-care sucks — but I do experience this “Holy shit, do I really feel this bad?” thing when my depression starts to ease and I’m starting to feel a little bit better.
When I’m feeling okay — when I’m not in a depressive episode — these self-care things aren’t a struggle. In fact, I actively enjoy them. Exercise, eating well, meditating, masturbating, going outside, seeing people — these are some of my greatest pleasures, some of what make me feel most alive and most connected to the world. But in one of the shittier paradoxes of depression, the very fact that they are deep pleasures, pleasures that make me feel alive and connected — that’s part of what makes me push them away.
I’m not sure yet how to apply this insight. But I’ve found in the past that having some intellectual insight into how my depression works — and what works to pull me out of it — does help. It’s not a magical cure-all, but it does do some harm reduction. As I’ve written before: The habit of skepticism, the habit of knowing about cognitive biases and the ways our brains deceive us, makes it easier for me to trust my knowledge of what’s really real rather than my lying depressed brain. It doesn’t make me feel any better in the moment — but it gives me a lifeline, something to hang onto, a sense of trust that I won’t always feel this way. Sometimes, when I’m depressed, it’s like riding out a bad drug trip — it’s like, “I can’t see it at the moment, but I know this isn’t going to last forever, so I just have to hang in there and feel like shit until it lets up.” So I’m trying to document these insights, in the hopes that the next time I have a bad episode, I’ll have yet another lifeline. The more I can remember, “Depression lies, and in my case one of the biggest lies it tells me is that I’ve always felt this way and always will,” the easier it is to ride it out.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.