Looking up After the Downward Spiral

For the past couple months, depression has been heartily beating my ass. This is not the first time. I’ve stumbled into this swamp countless times over the course of my life, but it’s been especially difficult this time around, and even harder admit how bad it’s gotten. Even after years of recovery, plenty of introspection, and an abundance of self-knowledge, my capacity for denial and rationalization is mind blowing. In the same way I was incapable of seeing clearly the damage caused by my addiction, I’ve been unable or unwilling to admit that I’ve gotten tangled up again, and it’s been especially difficult ask for help.

If I’m being honest, I deal with a baseline depression all of the time. It’s something I have had to confront, and lean into. The things I’ve learned in therapy, in recovery circles, and through spiritual seeking have allowed overcome this baseline depression to an extent that makes it possible for me to live a happy and healthy life. In my best moments, I’m even capable of experiencing joy, which is something that has only become possible in recovery. The challenge for me is in the maintenance of my practices, all of those little daily things that keep my tank full. I’m a person who has to work hard to just to reach a baseline, harder if I want the good stuff, and sometimes, I get tired. Sometimes, I just get sick of doing the things I need to do to be well. Sometimes, I get downright belligerent, throw on some Joy Division and begin flirting with the idea of fucking things up a little bit, throwing some furniture against the wall, just to see if anything interesting emerges.

A few weeks ago, I went to see my therapist. It had been a while since I stopped in to see him, which is a piece of information that fits into the bigger picture of this particular spell of depression. Before he had the office door fully closed my mouth was running like a diesel engine, spewing all of my glorious toxicity into the room. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me, I told him. I can’t write. I don’t have the energy to follow through with my commitments. I’m so frustrated I could combust. I can’t sleep. When I finally sleep, I wake up before sunrise with my mind racing. I can’t stand being around anyone. I can’t focus. My libido looks like a flat tire. My clothes don’t fit me. I haven’t left the house in three days…

When I was through, he said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re depressed.”

No shit, right?

But for me—Mr. Self-knowlege, Mr. Introspection, Mr. Recovery—it felt like hearing a word in native tongue after decades in a foreign land. It fit so perfectly I literally sighed. It’s always more simple than I want to make it out. I’m depressed. I’ve been here before.

Before now, I’ve been on a good long run of happiness and wellness. The last time I was this deep into a depression was the winter and spring of 2013. Being the curious guy that I am, I want to know…why? Why, when my life is better than it has ever been, am I this deep into the swamp? I’m realizing there is no single answer to this question. There may be no reason at all, which is the absolute worst thing to confront. But what my therapist helped me get my head around is the idea that I didn’t just suddenly end up here. I wasn’t fine one day, and woke up depressed the next. Depression, in my experience, is a downward spiral as opposed to a sudden drop. It’s a slow unraveling, an incremental process, and in my experience it’s so subtle a descent I don’t realize where I’m heading until I’m in the thick of it.

I don’t know how useful it is for me to try to work my way back to figure out the point at which this particular rough spot began. Lots of things, big and small, have happened in the past few months. I think the main point I’m realizing as I have begun pulling myself out of this dark spot is that, for me, it’s never one event that lands me here. It’s always a process. Maybe I lose my insurance, and can’t see my therapist. Maybe after that, I take a job that is not right for me that involves sitting in a cubicle and staring at a screen. Maybe I know it’s not right, but I take it so I can have insurance. Perhaps, because this job is not right for me, I come home so burnt out that I decide not to cook a healthy dinner, but order a pizza instead. After I eat the pizza, I don’t feel like going for my usual walk, so I turn on netflix. The next morning I am tired, so I don’t journal or meditate. Maybe I do this for a month. Maybe I gain some weight, and start feeling shitty about my body. Maybe I don’t sleep as well because I’m eating a bunch of junk, I’m anxious about work, and I’m not exercizing. Then I’m tired, and I feel shitty about gaining weight, so I don’t feel inspired to hang out with friends. Instead, I start spending lots of time on social media because it kind of feels like I’m hanging out with friends. Then, a few months later, I lose the job that wasn’t right for me, and also lose the insurance. Then I’m stressed out about money and insurence, and because I’m stressed, I get irratable and start being an ass to my wife. Maybe we talk less. Then I start feeling like a shitty partner, so I get more frustrated. I haven’t talked to any friends in a while, so I don’t call anyone to talk about it…and on, and on.

I realize this example is simplistic, but the important idea for me rests in looking at the bigger picture. No one thing caused me to end up here. A variety of small changes that took place over a long period of time contribute and compound on top of my baseline depression until I am skunked. As a side note, I could swap out depression for addiction here, and we’d have a pretty little picture. I’m convinced most relapses, whether it's mental health or addiction (if there is even a distinction) happen this way. I have no doubt I’d land there eventually.

So, I’ve arrived in this place where I know generally what the problem is, and I am faced with the need to somehow get myself up an running again. The idea of depression as a gradual downward spiral has been helpful in thinking about my path out. I’m pretty sure it’s going to have to be an upward spiral. In other words, the journey out is going to take a significant period of time and small, incremental actions. I hate confronting this because, like anyone else, I want a quick fix. I want to feel better now. I want to wake up tomorrow energized, I want to journal, meditate, exercise, eat healthy meals, hang out with friends, write and read fiction, blog, be of service, and do all of the other things that allow me to live fully. But right now, I can’t just do all of these things. In my experience of depression, the inability to just just do what you know will help is the defining factor. If you’ve experienced depression, you understand. I just don’t have the bandwidth.

To put a positive spin on all of this, I have plenty of experience with depression, and I know there is hope. I have been asked several times as I have reached out for help, “do you feel like hurting yourself?” I appreciate this, because I have been suicidal, but at this point the answer is a definite no. I know, even through the darkness, that recovery is possible. I know I will emerge. So, today I am focusing on the upward spiral, the small actions. I have enough energy to write this blog post. I plan on going for a walk and reading a student’s story. Maybe I’ll do the dishes. Compared to last week, this is progress. Compared to last month, this is tremendous headway. I’ll worry about tomorrow when it gets here. Today, this is enough.