I had a very bad day recently. Maybe you know the kind: you slept poorly, you’re hit with some kind of task that boomerangs into five other “urgent” ones and your toddler won’t stop hitting you, even while he clings to you like a sweaty, sticky needful barnacle. You’re saddled with the mess at home on top of your stressful work day because your partner had his own bad day. Your laptop isn’t working right, your passwords need resetting because companies keep getting hacked and your neighbor’s dog pooped all over your backyard again. Everyone tells you how ‘tired’ you look, and your hair is acting stupid. Just aggravation upon aggravation. You began with the day with good spirits, but as it wore on, they’ve congealed into grumpiness and irritation. No wonder you’re in dire need of a stiff drink, and soon.
Bad days happen to everyone. It’s just life, the modern condition, whatever you want to call it. It’s called ‘being the mom,’ as my sisters and mom friends sometimes say. Or just being a person, really. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a bad day at some point.
But when you’re under the shadow of depression — or clawing your way out of it — a bad day can seem calamitous. The pile-up of irritations can turn into an insurmountable mountain of existential sturm-und-drang. A sharp word becomes a harbinger of imminent breakup or divorce; comments on your tired appearance spark a self-loathing so intense and heated you just want to slice your skin off because you’re so freaking ugly. I remember at the darkest point of my post-partum depression, a bad day became a living example of how profoundly worthless life was.
But even if you’re ‘recovered’ from depression, a bad day creates shadows in the mind. Is this the beginning of a new depressive episode? Why can’t I deal with this like a normal person? Am I going to lose it again? Suddenly a constellation of irritations becomes a collection of possible evidence. It’s not as easy to let go of a bad day when you’ve dealt with depression, because it might be the start of a pattern. And, what if it’s bad enough> And it happens often enough? You worry it could just spin you back into the black hole again.
But with a few mental tricks, I have learned to deal with bad days — at least, some of the time. I’ve learned not to think in terms of a day when a day becomes shitty — to break the day into segments, and just get through, say, the next three hours. I’ve learned to not personalize everything — especially emotions. If I’m getting angry because my little Budgie threw food at me and got my shirt for work all dirty, I tell myself, “You’re feeling the irritation of a mother whose toddler keeps throwing food at her,” which helps me remember that many, many other parents have dealt with this and have felt what I have — and that irritation is a normal reaction, and that it will pass. I also try not to say a day — or emotion — is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and instead use ‘difficult’ or ‘rough’ or even just ‘irritating.’ It’s still honest, but more specific, and that helps keep me from black-and-white thinking.
The real trick, I realized, was truly understanding that depression isn’t just about stress, anger or sadness, or any kind of so-called negative emotion. Yes, depression can be sparked by dark emotion and big events — but being sad or angry or overwhelmed doesn’t make one depressed. Everyone is sad, or angry, or irritated, or furious, or stressed, at some point in life. Buddhist lesson number one: no one truly avoids suffering in human life.
In fact, if you are or have been depressed, what I’ve learned is that it’s not the bad days I need to worry about. The days to worry about are the ones that seem eventless and even peaceable on the surface — but you’re going through the motions. You feel almost like a puppet, impersonating what a good partner or worker or mother or sister or friend looks like — but none of those roles or words or actions feel like they’re coming from you. You need to start to worry when you can’t remember the last time you genuinely laughed or smiled out of pleasure and joy. When everything feels grey and tiresome and profoundly boring. When all you can see are people’s grotesqueries — when even their flesh seems surreal to you. When, underneath the hum of an ordinary day, you start to wonder, “What is the point of all this?” or “Does this even matter?” or “Do I even matter?” You’re living life and doing things on one level, but inside you feel depersonalized, profoundly isolated or alienated. In such conditions, the ever-popular yet elusive quality of authenticity seems impossible — because the core of your innately good self or soul feels eroded.
And when this happens, negative patterns of thought and feeling can seep in. You might know these negative patterns: everything is shit, ohmygodifthishappenslifewillfallapart, nothing I ever do is good enough and I’m a worthless piece of shit, why bother. (In other words, all shades of catastrophic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.) And these patterns can calcify in your heart and skew your perspective so insidiously, you realize they haven’t taken root until you meltdown into heartbreak or explode with anger.
And then it’s really ‘Oh, crap, I’m depressed AGAIN’ time.
I don’t know why these kinds of days pop up. Maybe you’ve spent a little too long accommodating other people’s needs, whims, directives, expectations, stifling your voice and own needs to the point of feeling like you’ve shrunken yourself to fit into a life and role. Maybe the structure of life around you — work, relationships, emotional dynamics, routines — is becoming unsustainable. Maybe there’s such a deficit of pleasure in your life that your soul has turned into a dried-up pile of dust.
But now I know enough to know that these quiet, busy yet strangely hollow days are the true warning signs. The dark, hollow days are actually rich with information, telling you where in life you’re stifled and where you want to grow. They tell you what you’re scared of — but also where the most opportunity is for growth. But in order for this knowledge to be truly useful — and not overwhelm you in a cloud of doubt, fear and unbearable despair — you have to take some kind of action, even if you feel it’s hopeless or weighed down with inertia and lethargy.
And so, I take baby steps: I let my loved ones know I’m struggling. I try to ask for help as best as I can. I try to treat myself gently and kindly, as much as life’s circumstances allow me to. I try to rest and sleep enough and ask for patience and understanding of myself and from others. I try to do something that truly feeds me beyond basics like exercise and sleep: travel and explore a new place, work on something creative, design something, have someone give me a truly deep, loving hug, write a letter to my best friends, have a heart-to-heart with someone who loves me.
And sometimes — often, actually, it does help.
I wish I could tie a neat bow at the end of this post and tell you that’s all you need to do to keep the wolves at bay when it comes to depression. The truth is, I don’t know. There are so many types of depression, first of all — one couldn’t even begin to generalize. But for me, I wonder: Is depression something that I will deal with all my life? Does it ever go away? Are we always recovering from it? Or do we just learn to live it, one eye out for the shadows?
I don’t know anything, really. I’m just one person out here in the wilds of the Internet, trying to keep my head high, eyes wide and heart open for my son and my partner and my family and friends — and for art and magic and nature and everything else that makes life beautiful.
I suppose the journey towards recovery is like everything else: one step, one day, one hour at a time, even if a few of them happen to be difficult. But hopefully, they all add up to something wonderful at the end.