Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Depression: Techniques

I have wanted to tackle the subject of my depression for a long time now.  Maybe ever since I’ve started this blog.  I’m still not sure how I want to do this but several instalments like the “NT:” series might do the trick.  

Depression is an interesting subject inasmuch as so little is known about it in the general populace.  It is subtly different for everyone. It is chemistry, it is hormonal, it is weather, it is personal trials, it is external, it is internal and it is misunderstood. Small wonder.

For me burnout and depression are separate but related things.  A crash and a burnout are also separate but related.  My definitions of each come first:

1) Depression is a state of being, a dark state of mind, soul and body.
2) Burnout is an event of undetermined length culminating, but not exclusively, in physical exhaustion.
3) Crash is a physical and psychological paralysis.

All the above have varying degrees of intensity.  These are by no means scientific definitions they are simply mine to communicate with.

My depression started when I was young.  It may have been due to my baseball tribulations, but I doubt it, and I don’t remember exactly when it all started.  It’s been cyclical ever since, like an old friend it’s been with me on and off for most, if not all, of my life.  

As I said above, it’s a state of being where darkness exists in my mind and soul.  I cannot push it away, or anger it out, or will it to change.  Heaven knows I’ve tried.  

The effect on my mind, as I explained it once to a family member, is akin to seeing nighttime in broad daylight. When night comes, it feels good, like relief.  The darkness of night blends with my own veil in my mind and I cannot see my gloom, it is no longer starkly highlighted against the brightness.  My perception becomes much clearer somehow.

Physically it feels like a 100-pound cape – that’s 62.5kg metric - draped over my body.  It’s not keeping me from moving, but certainly hindering.  Every single movement is effort.  Gliding, floating, effortless, and freedom are not in my vocabulary then.

I’ve tried various techniques, one of which was mind over mood.  This is willing a bad mood away by sheer concentration.  For example, if you are sad, you make an effort to go to the fair and enjoy it!  Needless to say, this didn’t work. Mind you this approach is a problem that we all suffer from in various ways: we power through that which makes us unhappy.  Heck, this very technique is so pervasive we don’t even know we’re doing it. We even have a phrase for it: “you can’t always do what you enjoy”.  

Some of us will immediately start rationalizing this phrase and this is my point exactly.  It shouldn’t be rationalized. It shouldn’t even exist.  The motivational speakers I’ve heard say different, their trick is a positive outlook, their approach quite simple: enjoy everything!  I have tried to enjoy everything, but I guess reality is different for me.  

I was doing the work and putting in the effort, motivation notwithstanding.  Thusly I powered through the second ½ of grade school, 2 first years of high school, the first half of university, all of CEGEP, second half of my time in I.T., ½ of my time as project manager.

On the other hand, I enjoyed my last three years of high school, the Comp-Sci portion of university, my time in CTS, and team leading when I was a manager at Nortel.

And the rest?  That’s the clincher. I didn’t enjoy, nor did I hate, the rest.  But that makes the Enjoy column rather weak, or at least never enough to counterbalance the minus side.  

The more energy I sucked into powering through something I didn’t like, the worse the aftermath.  Ultimately, this is what led to my demise.  I had powered through too much to recover, the effects being cumulative. I was tough, I was smart, I could make it, and that’s what I was expected to do.  I put myself aside for too long and I burned out.

So, contrary to popular belief powering through everything is not the answer.  

There is another technique for semblance of control of depressive state: observation.  This entails paying attention to triggers and sometimes even root cause can be identified.  If nothing else, just searching for the event that started the darkness is enough to satisfy.  It’s like troubleshooting your own emotional state through causality.

This has much better results, but is tiring work, as I need to keep myself in check constantly. The upshot is astoundingly simple: stay the hell away from things that make you depressed.  Chocolate is a huge thing for me.  I love chocolate.  Milk chocolate, to be precise, is my most favourite food after pecan pie.  I can no longer eat pecan pie as I have developed intolerance to nuts in general and pecans in particular.

A chocolate bar will make of me a quivering mess of depression.  Of course it’s a sugar thing, but the result is exactly the same.  I found this trigger by paying attention.  I’ve even run experiments to prove this.  Chocolate is actually the only food I’ve identified as being a trigger.  Chocolate is the only food, but not the only trigger.  This would have been way too simple.   Worse still, often, there are no identifiable triggers at all!

The first issue with observation is that it’s easy to slip into navel gazing.  I must be diligent to observe but not get suckered into doing nothing else.  History is important, yet I must not get stuck in the past.  The second issue is this wealth of information can be dangerous in a depressed state, as it gets exponentially harder to let go of past mistakes and regrets.

Sometimes observation is hard to come by.  When hiding in plain sight as it were, a third vehicle can come into play, which I’ve already talked about: writing.  This only takes the edge off, but can be a salvation.

A fourth technique entails wearing the depression, as a greatcoat.   This is a manner in which to live that isn’t as incapacitating.  This is the hardest to describe.  Maybe the end of the movie A Beautiful Mind explains it best.  Our hero, John Nash, still has the three characters haunting his schizophrenic mind.  John knows about them and ignores them as best he can.  

Habit is the final hammer.  And a hammer it is.  When motivation is non-existent and when all others have failed, the only thing left is the habitual actions I have day to day.  Getting out of bed for instance will be accomplished by rolling over until I fall out.  Starting the day begins with a shower to wash up after bio-break, since I’m already in the washroom and partially disrobed.  Getting dressed is a subsequent action to being naked after a shower. And so on.  It’s all automated actions and it’s all habit.  But habit is surviving, it’s not living.

Fortunately, I no longer have to haul out the heavy hammer every day...


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