Ways to Beat (Abate, Reduce, Assuage?) Depression Without Resorting to Drugs (Not That That’s A Bad Thing)

I’m no mental health professional.  I have a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, so if you want to know the difference between a gerund and an infinitive, I’m your girl.  If you want a professional opinion about your depression, I’m afraid you’ll have to call someone else. But I do know a thing or two about depression because I’ve lived with it, on and off, my entire adult life.  I’ve been therapized and medicated, and while these things are awesome for some people, I’ve found they aren’t for me.  At least not right now, though if I find myself in a bad enough way that I think I’m a danger to me, no way will my pride stop me from seeking outside help.  So if you, oh brave depression sufferer, have loved you enough to get help, go you.  I mean it.  Go.  Freaking. You.

But right now, I’m not there.  I’m just battling low grade depression, which is sorta like a low grade fever, only without the diarrhea. Over the years, I have developed a toolbox to help me combat this disease, this affliction, this slimy green monster from the abyss who seems utterly determined to make me slit my wrists.  (Fuck you, mo fo, I say to him.  No way.  If you think that’s going to be the end of my story, you’ve got another thing coming.  My story ends with a victory dance.  Or a snorkeling liaison in Tahiti gone terribly awry.  Or a Beverly Hills party that ends in a blazing inferno started by the introduction of a bonfire to my little, red, tequila-doused dress.  I’ll die in a hospital bed surrounded by the ones I love.  Or eviscerated by the shrapnel that remains of my car when it veers off the road during a midnight rock-n-roll road trip.  But suicide?  No way.  This disease has already taken enough from me.  It doesn’t get the end of my beautiful story.)

Which sounds brave.  Until I’m smack dab in the middle of a months long funk that won’t break, until this hopelessness feels like a dark tunnel with no end, until the voices in my head that see no point in any of this start to override the voices in my heart that tell me this world is magic, and I am one of the most charmed pieces of it.  When that happens, a girl needs skills of the coping variety.  Here are a few I’ve discovered.

1.  Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. Bed.

Yes, I know your bed is warm and squishy, and it’s the only thing that really understands and loves you.  Yes, I know the world can be scary, and the sunlight can hurt your eyes sometimes, and people can be motherfucking assholes.  Get out of bed anyway.  Because as nice as your bed seems, it’s play acting.  After you’ve been in it eight hours or so, it starts conspiring with monsters in your head that want you dead.  So get up.  Think of one good thing, one reason, to move.  Your kids.  Your cat. Juevos rancheros.  Coffee.  A shot of tequila.  I don’t care.  Just get out of bed.

2.  Eat things.

This may be just me, but one of my favorite things about being human is yummy food.  This is why I will never be a size two. It’s also why, no matter how sad I am, I will get out of bed for the leftovers from last night’s Mexican dinner because I had the presence of mind to. . .

3. Leave the house.

Yes. Your house is your safe place.  It also smells like a person who hasn’t showered in three days.  Is that you?  Shower, you adorable freak of nature with surprisingly pungent armpits.  It will take five minutes.  You’ll like the minty scent of your shampoo.  Then put on some clothes.  And walk outside.  You will be blinded at first.  The people will seem sinister and/or cold. But keep at it.  Give yourself a minimum time you must spend outside.  Say, “I must walk around this godforsaken town for an hour before a can return home to my squishy bed.” Chances are, you will find something that takes your mind off your pain.  A baby will smile, or a dog will lick you, or the sign outside a Mexican restaurant will beckon to you (mostly because it is emblazoned with a picture of a margarita).  You will go inside.  The waiter will take a shining to you, see you typing this article on your iPhone, and say, “Are you texting me?  Don’t forget to send pictures.” Oh, wait.  That’s me.  That really did happen, because I took my own advice and left the house, and then I could. . .

4. Flirt.

I’m serious.  Flirt.  Nothing makes you feel prettier and more momentarily alive than a joyful interaction with another human being.  (If you are impulsive like me, you’ll need this next bit of advice.  Don’t take the waiter home.  Don’t.  Do.  It. Just flirt.) If you can’t find a flirt-worthy human, hug a dog.  Or a cat.  Or a rat.  (In moments of crisis, I have hugged all of the above.)
5.  Take off your cape.

Stop being Wonder Woman.  (Or Superman, as case may be.)  Depressed people are usually very sensitive, which means they have often spent much of their lives taking care of other people.  They are good at listening, so they wind up being other people’s free therapists. It’s great if you have a friend who listens to your problems, and you give back. Those give-and-take friends are the people who get you through your dark times. But if you have friends who spend all their time dumping on you, if you consistently walk away from them feeling drained and depleted, you can’t do that right now.  Your energy is precious. You are fighting for your life. Draw your proverbial lines in the sand.  Steer clear of drama.  Steer clear of emotional vampires.  Steer clear of anyone whose interest in you is based on anything but authentic love.  You deserve love.  And peace.  And recovery.  Give yourself the gift of healing.  I give you permission to protect you.  You are not a bad person for doing it.  You are preserving the precious resource of you for planet earth.

6.  Talk to yourself.

Don’t act like I’m crazy.  You talk to yourself all the time.  It’s usually just inside your head.  Now I’m asking you to do it out loud, maybe while lying in that bed you can’t get out of.  (It’s ok if you couldn’t get up.) Say, “________ (for the purposes of this article, your name is ________), I love you, and I want you to know I’m going to protect you. It’s ok to be where you are.  It’s ok to be sad and angry.  I’m going to hold you through this.  I’m going to walk you through to the other side, and when we get there, we are going to be stronger and better than ever.”  I always am astounded by the beautiful emotion that flows through me when I do this for myself, astonished by the simple power of actively loving me.  There are enough people in this world who hate you and judge you.  Don’t be one of them.  Actively become your own safe place.  Actively become the person you can trust.  You have no control over what anyone else says to you or does to you or thinks about you.  But you have power over you.  Treat yourself the way you wish everyone else would.  Say all the things you need to hear.  Be your own best friend.

7.  Say thank you.

How fucking hokey, but sometimes, it works.  The worst thing about depression is you get stuck in a black mind-rut that makes you see the bad in everything. But the truth is, even though the bad is there, jumping on your brain like a sumo wrestler, the good is out there too.  What do you have in your life that you are glad is there?  I’m a recent empty nester.  I remember so clearly all of the days I woke up to find my children sleeping in the room down the hall, all the bedtime stories, the family dinners.  Retrospectively, it seems like heaven.  But I was depressed sometimes when they were there too.  Life wasn’t a Hallmark card.  There were abusive boyfriends and overdue bills and unfulfilled dreams and mean bosses.  Still, I had so much to be grateful for.  What beauty are you missing right now?  Just notice it, if only for a minute.  It may pull you out of that rut for a second or two, let a glimmer shine through the darkness in your mind.

8. Forgive you.

Forgive you for being depressed.  Forgive you for all of the ugly things you’ve done, the fucked up places inside you no one else knows about.  Everyone else is just as fucked up as you are.  I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m a fiction writer.  It’s my job to know how fucked up everyone is.  Perfectly good people make boring, flat, unbelievable characters because we all know they don’t exist.  Give yourself some slack.  You are an interesting, three-dimensional character.  With depression.  So sue you.  No, not really.  Don’t sue you.  Forgive you.

9.  And if you can’t do any of this today

10.  Take a nap in your squishy bed, and try again tomorrow.

P.S.  I may not know you, but if I did, I bet I’d love you.  Either that, or we’d fight over who got to stay in the squishy bed the longest.  Or eat the leftover Mexican food.  Or pet the fuzzy rat.

P.S.S.  For the record, the tequila shot is mine, kid.  Don’t even think about it.

P.S.S.S.  I always talk about music in my blog posts, and I didn’t in this one.  In the interest of not breaking with tradition, I give you “Graceland,” by Paul Simon from what I consider to be one of the most perfect albums of all time.  He expresses the pain of loss so beautifully.  “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed, as if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.  She said, ‘Losing love is like a window in your heart.  Everybody sees you’re blown apart.  Everybody hears the wind blow.’  I’m going to Graceland.”  My loves, may we all find our Graceland.

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CHURCH

I’ve been having a pretty hard time lately.  (Tawni code: when I say I’m sorta bummed, it means I’m trying my best not to fling myself off a cliff.)  I haven’t talked about it much because I don’t like talking about my pain when it’s happening.  I’m like a dog.  I just want to hunch in a corner and be left alone and lick my wounds.  I might bite you if you ask too many questions.  I will certainly lie and tell you I’m fine.  I will write about it when it’s over though.  (If I write about it when it’s happening, I sound like a histrionic teenager.  There are lots of amputation and crucifixion metaphors involved.  Trust me.  The world never needs to read this shit.)

During the the past month, I ran home twice to the mountain where I was raised, as I often do when my world is imploding.  My precious family is there, as is the church my beloved father founded. I attended church, trying (and failing) not to cry like a crazy person as my brother led the congregation in singing the old songs that speak so deeply to the secret places in my soul.

I also did a lot of praying on my father’s grave, which for me is the most sacred ground in the world.  Daddy’s grave sits in an unembellished desert cemetery.  There are no rosebushes, no carefully tended lawns, no finely hewn sculptures.  Just simple people buried in simple graves, most of them grown over with yellow weeds and cactus.  Years ago, I went to be near my daddy and was greeted by two rattlesnakes coiled on his headstone, ready to strike.  That’s how “Old West” Daddy’s grave is.  Often, hawks visit me there, and once, inexplicably, a lone black lab puppy, when I went to mourn the loss of my beloved elderly black lab, Octavio Pawz.

Daddy wanted to be buried in the middle of nowhere.  Actually, he wanted us to dig a hole on the mostly uninhabited New Mexico mountain where we lived, put a post in the ground, prop him up against the post, and throw some dirt on top.  We found out after his death that the government frowns on those sorts of shenanigans, so we did the next best thing, which was bury him in a pine box in an unadorned cemetery a few miles from the church he founded.  His red tombstone is engraved with a hawk, his name, my mother’s name, my brother’s name, and my name.  Timothy John Hackett, Beloved of Christine, Bryan, and Tawni, it says. I love that we are all enshrined together like that.  I love that my soul is permanently tied to the souls of some of the people I cherish most in the world.  I love that maybe someday, hundreds of years from now, someone will find that marker and know nothing about our lives except that we belonged to one another.

My father was a falconer in life, and since his death, he often appears in my dreams as a hawk.  This week, noticing the profusion of weeds on his grave, I whispered, “Daddy, it looks like no one loves you, but I do.”  Just as I said that, I saw a stain around the face of the hawk on his headstone, looking like the shadow of a halo. I realized that the stain was in the shape of my mouth.  In the 22 years since his death, I have kissed that hawk on his grave so many times, it’s permanently marked with an imprint of my love.  Moved, I wept.  To me, that dark spot said something about the sacred power of love to last long beyond the supposed finality of death.

But in spite of all that praying, and the myriad other stuff I was doing to try to pull myself up by my proverbial bootstraps, I just kept feeling worse and worse with every day that passed.  It was like my bootstraps had been stretched way too far and were simply refusing to yank up anything.  Yesterday, after I dissolved into a puddle of tears in the middle of the Walmart vision center, I drove to Daddy’s grave. Kneeling there in that ugly dirt, I threw the pretty prayers out the window and cut to the chase, telling God that I felt like I was dead inside, and I needed nothing short of a miracle. I think there were F-bombs involved. Ok, there were F-bombs involved.

Today, I was scheduled to leave New Mexico and fly off to Minneapolis to visit my beloved soul sister Polyxeni, one of the few people who actually knew I was suffering and why.  She understands me so intimately, sometimes we dream the same dreams on the same nights.  In fact, we became friends because she approached me, a near-stranger, to tell me she’d had the weirdest dream about me.  The “weird dream” ended up being a picture I had drawn for someone I love very much, a picture that meant a great deal to me, and I hope, to the person for whom I drew it.

Polyxeni is one of the strongest people I know.  She has one of the truest hearts, some of the most unshakable faith, I have ever seen, which is why she was the person I called 30 seconds after the personal apocalypse that gave birth to all this depression.  She loved me so much, she started to cry with me.  “Polyxeni,” I said, “you can’t cry too.  I need you to be strong.  I need you to keep believing.”  I said it because I knew I was going to fall off the edge of the world.  My knuckles were already white, losing grip, peeling away from stone.  I knew I needed someone strong to catch me.  And she did.  Every time I fell, she wove her heart and hands into a net that saved me. Thank God, thank God, for Polyxeni and all of the other human angels that bear me up on invisible wings when I plummet.

This morning, before dawn, I woke up with a beautiful sense of peace and joy, which is odd, because most recent mornings, I’ve felt as if a ton of bricks came raining down on my head before I even opened my eyes.  As I was flying out of Albuquerque, I had a transcendent experience watching the sun rise over the world.  Of course, language can’t do it justice, but suffice it to say that something about watching those colors explode over the Sandias while listening through my headphones to Hozier sing about going to church woke up the best part of me, the piece of me that believes and hopes and fights for her truth. I haven’t seen her for a while now.

Watching the dawn unfold like a intricate web being pulled between mountains, one pink strand at a time, I wished I was a painter, knowing there was no way I would ever capture the perfection of that moment in words.  Gratitude for the gift of life swelled inside me.  I was acutely aware of the holiness of my own breath.  I was in awe of the mystery of my blood pounding centimeters beneath my skin.  When Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” gave way to Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” I felt the old, bitter woman in me shut her lips tight, sensed the delighted little girl in me starting to shimmy.

I missed that little girl.  She sees all the colors, not just the black.  I’m not sure that she’ll stay forever.  Maybe it will only be a week.  Maybe a day.  Maybe an hour.  But even if she disappears again, at least I know she’s still  there, sleeping inside me, ready to wake up when the next gush of life’s sacred water washes over her like a flood.  I’m glad she’s here right now, whispering in my ear, reminding me as she always does, that even at its worst, life is a fucking miracle.

(P.S. My inner child is a big fan of F-bombs.)

(P.S.S. I promised myself many years ago that I would be transparent and live a life of truth, meaning I would wear my ugly and my pretty on my sleeve as often as possible, be true and honest about what I really was and what was going on inside me, even if it made me look bad.  Clearly, I failed at that while I was depressed, but I’m making up for lost time.  I often have people tell me that they are jealous of me because they think my life is always easy, and I’m perpetually happy.  I just wanted to clear that up.  It’s not, and I’m not.  Life is a sometimes heady, sometimes horrifying combination of beautiful and agonizing for everyone, I think.  My beautiful loves, we’re all in this exquisite mess together.)

(P.S.S.S. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, here are Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” and Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.”)