The Toolbox (TW: depression, suicidal thoughts)

Today is what I’ve previously referred to as a “Gray Day”. It’s one of those days when I feel like I’m covered by a big, gray blanket that refuses to lift no matter how hard I try. My hopes for the future are muted like a television on a commercial break. My confidence and self-esteem are on hold. They’re in there somewhere–I can feel that they’re still alive–but it’s like they’re in suspended animation, waiting to be reactivated.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things which get me through days like this, because of course I always do. Sometimes that process feels like crawling up a sheer cliff with my fingernails, but somehow I manage it every time. Which is good–I don’t want to stop fighting, not just yet. There are so many things left to do, and so many people I still want to meet.

Sometimes, it still surprises me when I remember not everyone needs these tools the way I do. For some folks, a warm drink and a Netflix movie is enough. I’m very happy for those people.

My toolbox used to be a lot emptier. Those were hard, empty days. But there are things I’ve learned, slowly but surely, over the years. I’ve decided to share them now, both as a reminder to myself and in the hopes they can help someone else. That’s very important to me; especially on days like this. To be honest, helping others through this quagmire is probably the biggest thing which keeps me going a lot of the time.

This list is neither complete, nor absolute. It’s ever-changing, ever-growing, and utterly subjective. To put it in simpler terms, “Your  mileage may vary”. Don’t take any of this as gospel if it doesn’t feel right to you. But these are all things which have kept me breathing over the years, and which continue to. On good days, they even help me move forward instead of just survive. I hope they can help you do the same.

  • IMG_0297Creation. When I was younger, my dad (and a lot of TV shows) taught me that it’s always easier to destroy than it is to create. This is true, though of course not all destruction is negative. What is negative, though, is thinking that I have no worth, and nothing to add to the world. This was the “logic” behind my deeply suicidal period when I was 14. I honestly believed that I was consuming more than I was worth; I was taking up precious wordly resources that were needed by others who were contributing more to society than I was. Therefore, the “logical” conclusion was that I should cease to be. That way, intelligent, “worthy” people would have enough to eat.

    Even though that chapter of my life was a long time ago, I can still feel those tendrils of “logic” coiled around my heart. They whisper to me occasionally, reminding me that every second I exist, I’m taking up “too much” space. These whispers have lost a lot of the power they used to hold over me, thankfully. A big part of this is the relationships I’ve formed. I know now that I really matter to some people, and that’s an important tool against this type of thinking.

    But by far, the most powerful weapon I have against these awful vines is creating. It doesn’t matter what kind of creation it is. It can be more abstract pursuits, like writing; or it can be something so simple as baking a tasty cake, or growing a beautiful rose bush. I’ve made something, something which adds beauty or pleasure to the world. Someone out there benefits from it. Sometimes, that person is me, and that’s good too. It reinforces the thinking that I deserve to be happy…or at least have a belly full of delicious cake. ;)

    Creating things is hard, even when your mind is free of strange, whispering burdens. That means there are a lot of days when I just can’t face the idea of creating anything. But none of that doubt matters in the long term. What matters is knowing I can, and that I will create something at some point. And that the things I create have worth and importance. If not to me, then to others.

 

  • Relationships. A lot of my life has been spent being entangled in abusive, unhealthy relationships. I have 25 years full of blaming myself, hating myself, and being scared almost entirely because of things other people have done and said to me. It’s horrifying, to think about all the time those people have stolen from me, and all of the pain they casually caused me.

    Ironically, the cure for an abusive relationship (in my experience, anyway) is actually more relationships. (Though not with more abusive people, obvs.) Sometimes, reaching out to other people is the hardest fucking thing in the world, especially when Ol’ Gray is whispering to me that I’m worthless and no one cares. But I have to do it anyway. There have been many times on Twitter when I’ve forced myself to talk about how I’m feeling, or what I’m going through. Sometimes the thought of sharing makes me feel physically ill, but I do it anyway because I always feel better afterwards. I feel less alone, even if no one replies. I know that I’ve been honest, that I’ve named the monster inside me for what it really is. As a bonus, I know that talking about it may have helped someone else recognize what’s lurking in their mind.

    You need to form bonds with healthy, happy people. You need to surround yourself with alternate points of view. You need to help your community of friends, family, and acquaintances lend you their perspective so that you can see what’s happening in your own life objectively. This is actually one of the main reasons so many abusers work hard to isolate their victims; they don’t want you to feel supported and loved, because then you might realize how little they actually care about you. They fear the confidence and power you can gain from having a true support system. Depression is like carrying around your own miniature abuser inside your head: It never, ever wants you to seek happiness with other people, and it is always first in line to tell you that no one will ever love you like it does.

    That, by the way, is a huge fucking lie.

    Forming relationships takes time. But it’s essential. The friends I’ve made online and my mother are the two linchpins in Team Me. I know I can reach out to either of them at any time, and receive unfettered support. Not only that, but I can support them in turn. As a good friend of mine once pointed out, helping to heal others contributes to your own healing process. Once again, it also reinforces the message that I matter, and other people want (even need) to hear from me.

 

  • Knowing I am not alone. This dovetails nicely with forming relationships, of course, but a lot of times what keeps me going is knowing that there are so many other people out there struggling with the same things I do. I would never wish these kinds of burdens on anyone else, of course, but knowing I’m not in the jungle by myself is such a relief. One of the first reactions I have to someone feeling sad is to immediately remind them that they are not alone. Even though I might not have the same exact problem(s) as they do, there’s a strange kind of comfort in knowing your suffering isn’t unique. (For me, anyway.)

    A lot of this probably comes from the isolation I suffered as a child. I was told relentlessly that “other people would never understand me” and that I was “above them” or ” too unique to ever fit in.” This was on top of a nasty part of my brain which whispered that no one really loved me and that I was worthless. And of course, whenever I would fight with my friends, these theories would be “proved” to me, thus reinforcing that I would never be accepted.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is utter and complete bullshit.

    “There is nothing new under the sun,” Sherlock Holmes once said. He was referring to crime, of course; his disappointment at not having enough of a mental challenge was palpable. But to me, this sentence was the beginning of my understanding that nothing I’ve gone through (or will go through) is truly unique. That thought might bother some people, but for me it was utterly liberating. Knowing others have suffered as you have means that there’s a chance they’ll understand your suffering, and be able to offer you comfort or (worthwhile) advice. They won’t look at you, tap their foot, and demand to know why you aren’t “energetic enough”, or why you can’t “just try being happy for once.” They “get it”. Which means that, for a few  minutes at least, you can take your mask off.

    In a similar vein, knowing that people have gone through worse ordeals and come out the other side can be incredibly helpful. One of the most helpful things someone on Twitter ever said to me was opening up a bit about their own relationship troubles. Theirs made mine pale in comparison, and I knew then that if they could get through what had happened to them, then I could get through what was happening to me.

    Be careful, though. Comparative thinking is one of those things where your mileage definitely varies, because it can be dangerous to constantly compare yourself to others. You might see someone else’s “highlight reel” and think you’re unworthy. Depression twists things constantly, making mockeries of things which should be hopeful. So take this one with a grain of salt, and don’t push yourself to feel or do something if it doesn’t come naturally. Nobody wins that way.

 

  • “The only way out is through.” This was a quote shared with me by a very good friend of mine, who has been with me through over a decade of trials and tribulations. At first I thought it was a bit corny, but during a particularly dark moment, I suddenly realized how invaluable that simple sentence is. It forces you to think in terms of moving forward and making progress. There are a lot of sayings which get trotted out when you’re in pain emotionally, and not all of them are helpful. But this one works because, at its core, it’s actually a goal. There’s an implied end point, where you finally get to leave the jungle you’re desperately navigating. At times when your hope has been eroded, having an end point to reach for can be incredibly helpful.

    I also like this statement because it makes no commentary on how you feel, or what you’re thinking. It makes no demands on what you will feel, either. During bad times, I’ve had well-meaning people tell me things like “This will make you stronger” or “You’ll look back on this and feel grateful some day.” Well…I can see the intent behind these, but the thing is, I already know that. I already know that the sun will shine again. The problem is that it’s not fucking shining right now, and I need a way to navigate that. My favorite part of this sentence is that it understands I’m going to be different from now on. I’ve been changed by whatever has happened; but that change doesn’t have to define me.

    Setting goals is one of the most powerful tools in existence; this is why focused prayer and mantras work so well. For me, this simple sentence brings to mind moving through a dark tunnel of choking jungle vines and foliage, pushing through my exhaustion and my pain, and eventually coming out the other side. I may be bruised and bloodied from the trip, but goddammit, I made it.

 

  • Reading.books460 This one kind of found me by accident, but I’ve found it’s one of the most potent cures for a Gray Day. I spent most of my childhood as an avid reader, but it wasn’t until the destruction of my most recent romantic relationship that I truly realized how much of a balm reading can be for me. The simple thought of, “Oh my gosh, think how many amazing books there are out there which I haven’t read yet!” got me through some of my darkest times. I love reading, I love writing, I love authors, and I love books. That love is like a bedrock foundation; something I can always return to when I’m feeling unstable.

    Something else I found helpful was starting to write book reviews. Writing always makes me feel better, but sometimes creative writing is beyond my reach when I’m feeling Gray. But a book review only requires me to be honest. As a result, there have been many tough times that I’ve gotten through because of reading. (Even when the book isn’t that great) Bonus, my #MandarayReads hashtag has allowed me to connect with a lot of my Twitter followers and get a bit of company when I’m feeling lonely. We can all have a good laugh, and making other people laugh is quite possibly the most healing thing of all. Not only does it help me strengthen my relationships with my support group, but it makes me feel like I’m adding something valuable to the world… which of course flies straight in the face of that awful depressive “logic” I mentioned earlier. :)

There is a sadness which has settled into my bones. I don’t know if it will ever go away. I don’t know what challenges I will face because of it. But I’m here, and these are some of the things which help keep me here. Some days, that’s all I can ask for.

6 thoughts on “The Toolbox (TW: depression, suicidal thoughts)

  1. it’s funny/interesting how the MI/mental illness’ manifest themselves, isn’t it: my dad is diagnosed with depression, and i know him first hand. When he struggles, he sleeps more and more and more. His internal thinking is “i’m tired, I should go to sleep”. And then he does. For me, I have been diagnosed with bipolar – so when the mania comes, caffeine gets heightened. That is one thing I have noticed over the course of my 37 years – depression seeks depressing things; excessive energy seeks staying wake for days/abusing caffeine/making art projects; my depression after mania = suicidal thoughts….i’m no good….VERY emotional-shocks to the system. Great post – keep walking/moving towards that light until the light decides it is time to take you;)

    • It is fascinating, isn’t it, how many forms mental illness can take? To me that’s always been a reflection of how different we each are. (And of course how different each type of illness is, reinforcing that there is no “blanket” cure) Not only are our brains different on a chemical level, but our experiences and influences are different, too. The similarities are telling, too; for instance how mental illness manifests (or how people choose to deal with it) can be very indicative of the culture the individual(s) find themselves in. I can see why it’s a tough field to research–it’s definitely a tough field to live in.

      • yes, yes indeed. One can never rule out subjective, individualized experiences and thoughts: after all, we shape our reality, as much as it is shaping ours, no? There is a ‘fine line’ – ‘genius/madness’ & it also corresponds with addictions of various chemicals/substances/poisons and the like. And THAT, is the hardest part – being able to untangle it all, if just for a brief moment, to see where it all ends and begins. Great post again, and the best thing that will keep this field getting better, is all of us banding together through forums and discussions like these. ;)

  2. Thank you for your honesty in sharing your experience, and for taking the time to make this list. What you wrote about “knowing you’re not alone” reminds me of a quote by Dr. Brene Brown from an RSA clip on the power of empathy: “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” [You can watch the full 3-min clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw ] As you well explained in your post, it’s not other people’s miseries that comfort us, but the recognition that there are people out there who genuinely understand what we feel and are willing to connect with those difficult emotions in themselves in order to better connect with us.

    Keep writing, you’re an inspiration. :)

    • Good suggestion with the clip. I’ve seen it before, and you’re right, Dr. Brown’s words are very appropriate here. I’m reminded of the saying “misery loves company”. Part of it’s true, and certainly there are folks out there who enjoy distress as a form of emotional currency, but for me it’s been less about commiserating and more about finding people who have an expanded understanding of what I might be going through. (And helping expand their understanding in turn) There are far too many folks out there who have very little empathy, and spending time with them can be a bit like dragging yourself through an endless desert.

      And thank you. :) I’m honored you found my post so moving, and I appreciate you commenting.

  3. Pingback: Psychotherapy 101 | InkBlots and IceBergs

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