Being depressed but taking small steps is a major deal, even if you don't realize it at the time
In the wake of a particularly messy breakup and the stinging pain of the loss of my father, I went through a life-altering bout of depression in 2016. It wasn’t just the many days and weeks where I couldn’t get out of bed, but suicidal ideation and a general sense that I’d never be whole again. When I look back at that era, though, I’m really proud of myself. Not just for the giant strides I took towards staying healthy (i.e. finding the right dosage of anti-depression meds, going to therapy at least once a week, and cutting off toxic people), but the little steps that added up to something greater: the ability to heal and recover.
Take, for instance, the act of showering. I can remember one particular day when I was going to attempt this seemingly simple act. It had been a brutal week in terms of my depression, and I just wanted to do something normal. It took me hours to get from the bed to the shower, even though it was just a few feet away. But I can remember vividly how good the hot water felt and how nice my shampoo smelled when I eventually made my way in there. It was a minor victory, when I felt like I was continually losing.
Most times, however, even when I could find the strength to get up and do something, it would trigger emotions like frustration, anger, and even more sadness. The vicious cycle of feeling worthless would reset when I realized something as trite as brushing my teeth could make me unravel. This all was, experts assure me now, par for the course when it comes to the all-consuming beast that is depression.
“Depression can suck you of energy, motivation and hope. When you struggle with depression, It is common to struggle to do basic acts of daily living, like showering, brushing your teeth, nourishing your body and getting adequate sleep,” explains Los Angeles-based therapist Jackie Shapin.
The depression, adds therapist Saba Harouni Lurie of Take Root Therapy in LA, “makes it physically difficult to get yourself moving, and since you may feel that your life is meaningless, it makes sense that everyday tasks would be difficult to complete.”
My dog was actually a really significant part of helping me get back on track with daily life. After all, even when I was feeling exhausted both emotionally and physically, I had to take her out for her walks and feed her dinner and give her lots of belly rubs for being Very Good.
That routine gave me a sense of normalcy. It was a big deal, for instance, when I took my dog to the park, instead of just around the block. Not only did it show me that I could move my body when it felt sluggish and weak, but it got me out of my solitude. A walk at the park meant coming across other people who would greet me with a smile and a hello. While they (probably) couldn’t tell I was suffering, it was nice to have human interaction that felt reassuring, even if only for a brief moment.
In addition to the occasional dog walk, I would give myself little to-do lists for the week, that included things as mundane as washing my face. Even if it was something “silly” like giving myself a pedicure, I wanted to hold myself accountable to do something that would get me out of my head for at least a few moments. I’d often skip those things on my list or get mad at myself when I couldn’t complete them, but I didn’t see at the time that doing those little, everyday tasks were actually part of my healing.
Finding the courage to be a functioning person in the world when I just wanted to hide was actually getting me closer to a place of health and happiness. I didn’t realize that with every time I ate a full meal or went to the bank to deposit a check (sometimes in my pajamas, other times in regular clothes), I was slowly, but surely coming out of my depression. I felt like shit, mind you, but these were still some serious triumphs, even if I couldn’t see it then.
“Fulfilling any task when you are feeling depressed is difficult, which means it takes motivation to complete a task,” Shapin says. “Small steps are what lead to larger achievements and it is important to recognize any accomplishment, no matter how small someone may see it.”
It’s true: I can’t tell you how often I would get takeout or delivery because I couldn’t fathom even trying to prepare something to eat for myself. On the days where I could make my own coffee or PB & J, I was actually making strides.
Lurie points out that these seemingly innocuous daily tasks remind us that we are still capable. “They can offer a bit of a reprieve from the depression, even for a moment, and they can also give us something to celebrate.” These victories, she says, can keep adding up to something greater and bigger than we realize in that moment.
It sounds cliche, but the one-day-at-a-time thought process absolutely applies to depression. Those days where I could get out of bed to take a shower allowed me the days where I could go to the park, or read a chapter of a book, or have a healthy meal.
Of course, there were definitely some days that I would backslide and tasks that seemed commonplace become difficult again. I remember one time that I went to run errands and found myself crying in the car and then at the grocery store. I eventually worked my way back to these tasks. Everyone is different, and while my particular bout of bad depression lasted a year, others’ might be going even longer.
“The best thing someone can do that is struggling with depression is to have patience and compassion for oneself,” says Shapin, even when your brain is telling you to feel anything but. “Remember that you are not choosing to feel depressed, and that judging yourself or shaming yourself for struggling will not help you feel better, but will likely make you feel worse. Your number one job right now is to keep yourself alive," Lurie explains.
I know I was incredibly hard on myself. It was frustrating as hell (what 30-something hasn’t made her bed in three weeks? Or falls to pieces at the thought of answering text messages? ), but that’s part of what makes depression so cruel. Even if you want to get better, the disease wants to keep you stuck with this way of thinking.
If you’re reading this through a grey fog that seems like it’ll never left, that’s totally understandable, but I also know that whatever you do today, even if it’s a small thing like answering an email, combing your hair, or picking up dry cleaning, it matters.