I found a beautiful but short-lived quiet in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I had given myself permission to take the week “off,” so I felt absolutely no pressure or compulsion to make phone calls, check email, post on social media, or be “productive” in any way. My mornings involved sitting in front of my happy light while drinking coffee and working on the crossword, followed by yoga and then whatever I fancied. It was a nice way to end the year and I felt excited to wash my hands of 2020 and begin anew.
Unfortunately, this week hasn’t been going quite as smoothly. The news continues to be crazy. My dog was hit by a car! (She’s fine, thank God) And I’ve struggled to return to professional routines while maintaining that sense of inner calm I had just days ago. It’s disappointing. I guess I forgot (again) that just because the year changes, life doesn’t magically readjust. I started 2021 with all the same demons I carried with me through 2020. It’s just more frustrating this year because last year was such a suck-fest.
One of the demons that continues to creep along beside me is chronic mild depression. This existed long before my miscarriages, and while I’ve done a lot of work on my grief to move through the pain of pregnancy loss, I’m not sure I will ever be fully free of mental illness.
A lot of people don’t understand depression, and I think it stems from a basic misconception of the word itself. We think of “depressed” the same way we think of “sad,” and we’ve learned that when people are sad, they are usually sad about something. “What’s wrong?” is the most common question I get from friends and family when I tell them I’m feeling depressed. And it doesn’t make sense to them when I my answer is that nothing is wrong, feeling depressed is just how I am sometimes.
Depression for me is more about energy. It’s not a feeling of sadness about something specific, but rather an inability to take pleasure in anything generally. Usually, this leads to a conversation about all the wonderful things in my life and the importance of practicing gratitude. But this is another misconception. Because you can be grateful for all the things in your life and still have low energy. I often experience enjoyment and gratitude during bought of depression. It’s just that the feelings seem muted, like I’m watching a movie through a window rather than being in the room.
My husband sent me a TikTok video recently of an inspirational speaker who equated negative thought patters to weeds, explaining that they will take root anywhere and grow with no help whatsoever. Conversely, positive though patterns, like orchids or roses require the right environment and proper care in order to flourish. I love this metaphor. Firstly, because for the life of me I cannot keep my plants alive; but more so because I think we all need to put in the effort to prune our weeds and maintain our mental gardens.
But if you’ll allow me to take this metaphor a bit further, for those of us who battle depression there’s an extra step, because our soil isn’t accommodating. We have more work to do for our garden to grow. That’s just how it is. This is one of the reasons I started making what I call “Happiness Charts.”
About five years ago, my husband and I were in Maine with his parents, and I remember sitting at the edge of their dock looking out over a smooth, icy lake and snow-capped trees, and noticing how peaceful I felt. I wanted to figure out how to give myself more moments of peace like that throughout the year, so I began listing all the activities that brought me joy personally as well as those things that made us feel like closer partners.
The first chart was pretty simple: We wanted to leave the country once a year, escape into nature once a quarter, and do something active together once a month. And these simple goals worked well for us until we moved to Seattle. I, in particular, found that regular time in nature wasn’t enough to compensate for how much I missed family and friends back in Chicago. As a result, we had to think differently about what brought us joy as a couple and as individuals. We’ve iterated a couple times since then, and this year my husband and I each have a chart of our own, plus one for our relationship.
My personal chart this year includes the following: Once a quarter visit my immediate family. Once a month spend time with girlfriends in Seattle. Once a week do something active as well as sometime creative. Our relationship chart includes things like camping, game nights, dinners/date nights, etc.
It seems silly, but I’ve found this an incredibly helpful process and practice for a few reasons. Firstly, it forces me to sit down and think about the activities that renew my energy rather than deplete it. Secondly, it reminds me to actually prioritize engaging in those activities. Finally, it gives me a visual reminder of all the things I’ve done for myself throughout the year so that when I have down days, I have proof that I didn’t have a down year. One of the most intrusive thoughts for any depressed person is the one that says it will always be like this and you will never feel better again. It’s not true, so I encourage you to give yourself something to prove it.