Self Care in the Pit of Despair

Trigger warning: mild reference to self-harm, suicidal ideation, anxiety, mood disorders, and vampicorns.

Well, folks, looks like it’s that time of year again, when I want to sleep 16 hours a day and fantasize about a truck wheel rolling over my head. Ahhhh, autumn…

My mood tends to tank pretty quickly once we pass the equinox. With more darknight than daylight, it can get tough to stay chipper and I didn’t start the season out being very good about spending time with my happy light. That, and it’s been pretty stressful for a lot of darned good reasons that aren’t about to go away.

But I am determined to not have another really bad winter already! Determined!

…Yeah. It’s great to tell myself that, but I haven’t been doing much about it lately. Last week, I was busily shelving books down at the library before school got out when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, lightheaded, and hot. I stripped off my jacket and whined to the librarian, who immediately asked me if I’d eaten today.

She knows me pretty well, that lady.

So yeah, there’s room for improvement, and I’m ready for a revamp. Just deciding not to be depressed doesn’t usually work for me, but altering my behaviors can definitely lighten (and shorten) the mood. And perhaps the first thing on my alteration to-do list should be:

Eating and drinking. Even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I’m busy. Even when there’s ‘nothing to eat’ in my fully stocked disgustingly-privileged-middle-class-American kitchen. There is something to eat. Eat it.

The light. It is easy. It is mounted on the wall right next to the desk I sit at every day. For normal people who live in normal places, it is right outside that window that your normal house has. Embrace the inner kitty. Bask.

Compliment all the humans. This is a bit of a weird one, but I swear it helps me. When I get to where I absolutely despise myself, it helps to turn some of that focus outward. I compliment cool earrings and swanky clothes. I compliment smiles and hair and jobs well done and beautiful laughs and anything. People love it. And it makes me feel less loathey. (Another way to turn focus outward? Public service! There are always people in need! Check out justserve.org if you need ideas.)

Doodley-do. Again, this is weird, but it works for me. Sometimes when I’m really down in the dumps, I scrape, cut, and pinch myself. I tend to do it on my arms, particularly my left arm. But if I take a sharpie or one of my inking pens and doodle beautiful patterns on my arms, I don’t do it. I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but it helps me.

Stretching, meditation, and/or yoga. I feel like a doofy, entitled, time-wasting hippie every time I start, but I always feel calmer by the end. I’m terrible at meditation when I get in low moods or when the anxiety’s running hot, but I can still stretch out and I feel better afterward.

Reading with loved ones. Usually my kiddos, but often students at the school too. They love it, I love it. ‘Nuff said.

Busy, but not too busy. This is a very fine line to tread. Sitting around moping because I don’t feel like doing anything isn’t going to improve my worldview. But being so busy that I’m stressed out of my mind won’t either. The trick is to be busy and useful, but not so much so that I’m at a dead sprint from one thing to the next and feel like I’m going to start dropping balls at any moment. Balance is key.

Actual sleep. I just want to stay up until I’m passing out from exhaustion because I can’t bear to be alone with my thoughts in the dark, and then sleep until two or three in the afternoon the next day. Is that too much to ask? Well, when I have a million children to get to school, it is. Go to bed, Jill. Future You will thank you.

I’ve had this idea rattling around in my head for a picture book about a little unicorn who goes to a Magical Creatures Convention to get her hoof in the door with the elite GOODLI club, buuuut accidentally gets bitten by a vampire instead. Not quite the impression she was hoping to make. Her hopes and dreams vanish in a puff of sparkly purple smoke and she’s left trying to figure out where she fits in now.

Sometimes I feel like that little vampicorn. I want to be all glitter and cupcakes all the time, but sometimes I’m just not. Sometimes I’m bats and hematophagy instead. And that is okay! I will always have these mood cycles that make it hard for me to know where I fit into the world when I feel like a different person from one month to the next. It’s. Oh. Kay. My mood disorder is such that I know I’ll come around again, even when I don’t feel like it. The badness won’t last forever. And until it goes away again, taking better care of myself through the badness will make it all that much more liveable.

So as the seasons shift from summer to winter, and maybe you’re getting ready for another harried month of NaNoWriMo, just take a minute to check in with yourself. Maybe you have a little room for improvement in your own self care too! Your alterations to-do list will probably look a little (or completely) different from mine, and that is great. Know what helps you, and do it!

Until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: How To Keep Writing When Times Are Tough

So. You may have noticed that the promised maps never showed up last week. I’m sorry. It’s been a bit harder to find my feet again than I thought it would. Things should be reaching their final conclusion very soon and I should be a little steadier somewhat after that. In the meantime, I’ll try very hard to get those maps to you before the month is out. Thank you for your patience! Until then, here’s a reblog by Leanne Sowul at the ever fantastic DIY MFA to tide you over!

How To Keep Writing When Times Are Tough

by Leanne Sowul

Life has ups and downs, and often our writing path follows them. When I was pregnant with my son, I had a horrible first trimester. I was sick, tired, and depressed for what felt like every minute of the day. My writing suffered. I stopped working on my novel; I didn’t blog for two months. Similar things happened after my grandmother passed away, and when I found out that my best friend had cancer. When my real life suffered, my writing life did too. I told myself that it was only natural to have trouble writing when times were tough, but it still caused me grief on top of what I was already feeling.

The good news? After a few of these tough periods, I learned some tricks that helped me keep writing through them. I hope none of you are going through a difficult time in your life right now, but if you are, or might in the future, here are a few things you can turn to:

Ready to read the full article? Click this link to check it out at DIY MFA! Enjoy!

Dealing with Depression

Heads up, y’all!  Today, I’ll be discussing my own dealings with depression and how this affects me as a writer and a human.  If you’re not feeling up to reading about depression, including references to self mutilation and suicidal ideation, maybe go check out this cool video about biodiversity instead.  Or, you know, do both! Cheers!

It’s very tempting to start a post like this with statistics and definitions.  I want to talk prevalence and symptoms and stuff like that, because it’s so clinical, so quantifiable.  It’s concrete and factual, about a thing that can so often feel hidden and only quasi-real.

But in the interest of keeping things brief, I’ll skip all that.  I’m not a psychologist, I’m a patient, and I can only write what I know.  Here’s what I know about depression.

I get down sometimes.  I can’t always predict when it’s going to happen, or how bad it’s going to be.  Sometimes it’s just several days of being glum and unfocused and listless.  Sometimes it’s weeks and weeks of hopelessly wishing there was some graceful and acceptable and not-sucky-for-the-people-who-love-me way to just not be alive anymore.  And then eventually I slog my way back out of the tarry hole I’m in and things are better.  Often, things are great, and stay that way for weeks at a time.  But then I peak somewhere and start my decline again.  I go through this cycle maybe four times a year, although I’ve never really counted, but it’s always hardest in winter and easiest in summer.  I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember, well before I moved to Alaska with its pronounced seasonal shifts.  The first time I specifically remember thinking about suicide, I was somewhere around eight years old, and I’ve been fantasizing about it off and on ever since.

Depression reminds me of the time I was still figuring out my intestinal disorder, became severely malnourished, and lost the ability to properly taste food; everything took on a strange metallic taste that just made it that much harder to force myself to eat.  Likewise, depression affects everything, tinting the taste of my every thought, my every reaction, my every emotion.  It takes the bad things and places the blame on me, no matter what.  It takes the good things and tells me I don’t deserve them.  It makes it harder and harder for me to engage healthfully and happily with those around me, because I don’t deserve them and they would be better off without me.

This is especially devastating pertaining to my children.  A parent constantly works hard to do right by their kids; depression strangles the joy and amplifies the pain.

For me, there is a terrible guilt to depression.  How can somehow who is so blessed be so sad?  It’s not my darling husband making me sad, who works so hard and loves so completely.  It’s not my sweet sons making me sad, those cheerful boys who always get good grades and never ever get in trouble at school or at church.  So what’s wrong with me?

The answer is probably a bit chemical, probably a bit learned.  I don’t know the exact nature of it, and I don’t think knowing would make one lick of difference.

It’s hard for me to tell exactly how far it extends, too.  I know that it changes my perception, but I don’t know if it changes others’ perceptions of me.  Can they tell?  I know they can sometimes, when it’s really bad, and those are the times when it’s hardest to make myself keep going out.  But those are the very times when I need to keep working at the school, keep going to church, keep talking with my friends.  When I drift away from those things because I don’t want people to know, I sink deeper and deeper and deeper.  That’s when things start to get out of control and I begin hurting myself.  Sometimes the pain helps me to feel a little more control.  Sometimes it stands in as a small punishment in place of the larger one I think I deserve.  Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing it, or even that I am until I see the damage.

How does it affect me as a writer? As a volunteer at my kids’ school?  As a teacher at church?  As a wife and parent?  In every aspect of my life, depression settles first like a shroud, just a gray veil that I see the world through.  But as it gets thicker around me, it’s hard to stay connected.  I forget things: birthdays, appointments, walking the dog, eating.  I find it harder and harder to connect with the people around me, whether they’re family or strangers, on the internet or in real life.  It’s difficult to write because anything that feels genuine sounds melodramatic and whiney, but anything else feels incredibly false.  It’s difficult to work and volunteer because I feel so useless.  It’s difficult to love because I feel so unlovable.

Not everything about depression is terrible, at least not for me.  There are a few things that this struggle has granted me that I don’t know if I would have been able to learn otherwise.  Greater depth of emotion.  Stronger sympathy for any kind of suffering.   The desire to comfort people going through struggles.  An incredible love and loyalty for those who help me through.  I don’t know if I would have these qualities any other way.  These are deeply personal things and vary person to person, but this holds true for me.  Besides this, I worry that if I were to blunt my ability to feel the very deepest of my depression, I would similarly be shaving off my ability to feel the pure joy and true elation I so often do between those bouts of sadness.  I’ve never been any other way, so I don’t know.

This in no way means that I don’t fully support the use of medication under the advice of a doctor.  My illness is such that I respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy, but requiring medicine is a reality for many people struggling with mental illness.  This does not make them weak or a failure any more than a cancer patient requiring chemotherapy is weak or a failure.

I’m not sure why I’m posting this here.  This is, after all, a writing blog, and depression is certainly not just for writers.  Besides that, I feel least like a writer in my deepest bouts of depression.  But I felt like it should be said.  There is an awful loneliness to depression, in that it feels like nobody understands how deeply it aches.  Maybe one of you readers feels that ache right now.  If it’s any comfort, you’re not alone, even when it feels that way.  I wish I had heard that message more when I was younger and at my most fragile.

 

Things that help me:

Give someone close a heads up when things are getting bad. I always tell my husband at the start of a bad spell, and he helps me get through. A relative, a friend, a spiritual leader, a trusted teacher: anyone who loves you would be honored to stand with you.

I keep the national suicide hotline programmed into my phone, and those wonderful folks are glad to chat for as long as they are needed.  They are so kind.  If you feel like things are starting to get out of control, look up your region’s hotline and give yourself easy access.

When I begin to sink, it’s so so important that I stay busy.  The distraction is nice, but more important are the connections to other humans.  Staying busy, whether with work or with volunteerism or just playing cards with my family, makes me feel more valued.

Exercise.  This one is so hard to hold on to when I’m in the pits, but it makes a huge difference. Whether I’m exercising by myself or with a sports team, it helps me to feel more alive at a time when I otherwise feel numb and exhausted all the time.