‘It’s just part of you’ – what I’ve learned about living with chronic depression

I’ve felt blue throughout my life, but self-acceptance and good habits can help

Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

I WOKE UP at four this morning and had trouble getting back to sleep.

I just couldn’t stop my brain from worrying – and all my usual fixes, my equivalents of counting sheep, weren’t helping.

So I tried to settle myself down by thinking about good things – any good thing, like the well-received meal I’d made a few hours before… or about how I was approaching another anniversary of coming off antidepressants.

“You’ve done four years living without ‘happy pills’!” I told myself.

And then, I thought: ‘But are you happy?”

“Well, no. Not especially,” was the answer that shot back, straight away.

Feeling blue will probably always be a part of me”

It hit me then – although not for the first time – that feeling blue will probably always be a part of me.

I mean, I’ve had four decent years since I gave up antidepressants: these days, I’m not often found crying or hiding under the duvet; frequently, I feel in good spirits, and I’m even joyful sometimes. 

But depression still casts a cloud over my life. I reckon that I still suffer from what medics call a dysthymic disorder, a type of chronic low mood where symptoms aren’t numerous or severe enough to meet the criteria for major depression.

In my case, this means my self-esteem is poor most days, I have difficulty making decisions, and often feel hopeless – which is, frankly, seriously tiresome, given that I’m almost 55 and have struggled ever since I was a child.

But that’s the thing about chronic depression: it’s tough experiencing the depression itself, and then there’s the double whammy of realising that it might never go away.

Reaching for ‘happy’ can make you feel worse”

“It’s getting harder and harder to remain positive,” wrote a fellow chronic depression sufferer on an Aussie website, pretty much summing up how I feel when I get particularly tired of it.  

“Just when I seem to be making progress another blow hits me out of left field,” they added. “I’m looking for hope that it will get better!”

But the thing is, when you’ve been depressed, on and off, for most of your life, you learn to understand that there are limits on how much things can get ‘better’.

It’s OK to hope that the crushing type of depression – that hide-under-the-duvet feeling – will eventually go away, because it usually does. At least for a while. 

But I try not to hope that I’ll be ‘happy’, one day, because reaching for happy can make you feel worse.

I think that something about being human – particularly in our modern world – makes us want to move on from the difficult, leave it behind decisively, like the happy ending in a book or a film, and then try to live that way forever.

But one of the roots of my depression, I think, is setting my sights and standards too high – for myself, for the people around me, and for the world in general – and then not coping very well if those expectations aren’t met.

And if you’re always reaching for perfect, or for happy, it can make neutral or difficult feelings a lot more difficult to live with when they – inevitably – return.

Try and accept yourself, warts and all”

An ex-therapist tried hard to get me to reframe my outlook, saying that we should perhaps aim for something more realistic than ‘happy’. How about ‘content’, for example?

Therefore, my latest attempt to counter my depression – thank goodness, there are always new things to try, in psychotherapy books, newspaper articles and podcasts – is about trying to accept the way things are, starting with self-acceptance.

I first learned about this from the psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, who critiques a lot of self-improvement thinking because it’s about looking for an unsustainable ‘best’ self. It might be more realistic, Nicholls argues, to try and accept yourself, warts and all.

Certainly, it can be a relief to accept your fallibilities, as well as your ‘good’ points, as just part of being a human being.

But, at the moment, my wife is better at accepting – and forgiving – me than I am myself.

“It’s just part of you”, she’s taken to reassuring me recently, whenever I’m apologising for being awkward, or silent, or angry because of my moods.

And while I’m grateful for her kindness, I wish that I could be so accepting of me.

Things don’t really get solved”

The self-acceptance drive has also led me to try and make peace with my chronic depression.

One of the reasons that I’ve been drawn to the writing of the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron recently is that she doesn’t buy in to the conventional happiness arc, either.

Instead, she urges us to accept that imperfect situations – like being depressed, on and off, for years at a time – are just a part of life.  

“We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is things don’t really get solved,” Chodron writes.

“They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

‘Good and helpful’ mechanisms”

Having accepted that I will feel depressed from time to time, I’m also looking for ways to ensure that the feelings don’t come around too often.

Another person who posted on that Aussie website stressed the importance of maintaining the activities and routines that make us feel more positive, as a way of countering long-term depression.   

“I think if we can keep all our ‘good and helpful’ mechanisms in place, surrounding us, so that way we are able to take on and beat as often as we can, those daily challenges, (it) is a massive thing,” they wrote.

One thing that really helps to keep bad thoughts at bay is meaningful activity because – as the Flow work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shows – we’re at our most content when we’re engaged in something that absorbs us.

In other words, we need to find the things that we like doing and do them as often as we can – a trick that the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger learned at a particularly early age.

The meaning of your life”

“When you’re born, your first instinct is to survive,” Wenger says. “Then you must find the meaning of your life.”

Wenger found meaning in his obsession with winning football matches, but we don’t all have to go to such extreme lengths to bring more contentment into our lives.

How about getting better at the guitar, learning a new language, or committing to running a 5k? One positive thing about modern life is that there are plenty of potentially ‘good and helpful’ mechanisms out there for us to explore.

And if we can just keep going, maybe we’ll find the one that works for us…

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