During my brutal battle with anxiety, depression, and being gay in the church, I struggled deeply with finding relatable, insightful words about how to survive depression. I found a lot of general, obvious advice: exercise more, find a good therapist, and get on meds being the top three. But when it came to real-life, personal advice from other strugglers, I found very little.
Every experience of depression and anxiety is different, and I do not begin to dream of dictating what will help others and what won’t. I can only speak from my own experience, and share what helps me – and only me – get through the day when the Back Dog visits. I also find, though, that sharing stories – regardless of how much I relate to their content – is medicinal. It is the authenticity of sharing, and less the advice itself, that can be so powerful.
In this spirit, I thought I would share my own personal tools and insights for living with a Black Dog.
The first, and hardest lesson I’ve learned about anxiety and depression is that the Black Dog will always be by my side. Through the providence of genes and whatever other mysterious factors, he was given to me at birth, and I will take him to my grave. Where I go, he goes.
The temptation of recovery is to believe I am done with recovery. The greatest temptation of overcoming mental health challenges is the belief in graduation. The humbling truth is that my vigilance must never end, and it is when I believe I am cured that I am most vulnerable. I will be in recovery, and employing survival skills for my whole life.
At first this feels humiliating and depressing, but it eventually turns into a profound freedom. Depression is so dark, and living without it so wonderful, that the constant self-care becomes a gift. I love life – I love friendship and partnership and books and coffee and animals and all the millions of other wonderful things that life gives me – and my constant vigilance gives me these gifts of life.
The second hard lesson I’ve learned is this: when I am in the throes of an episode, I need help. My own tools are not enough. All the skills that I’ve honed over the years, which I will get into shortly, are merely preventative. They help me to keep from spiraling, but once I do spiral into an episode, my own skills are not enough, and I need outside help. I need therapy, I need to tinker with my drug dosage (at the behest of a doctor) and I need the close care of family and friends. Depression is mortifying in how it robs us of our faculties for survival. In a full-blown depressive episode, the most important tool for survival that is left to me is the ability to ask for help, and I need to act on that tool before it, too, is taken from me.
With these two hard lessons of depression out of the way, let’s talk about the practical tools I’ve learned to keep from sinking into depression. All of these tools are complimentary – they are vital for my health but also cannot and should not take the place of traditional medicine and therapy.
My 12 step sponsor taught me this old recovery adage: when I get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, I am more likely to spiral into an episode, hence HALT. I later added overstimulated – the O – discovering that, as an extreme introvert, I spiral fast if I’m exposed to over stimulation for long periods of time.
We all have different thresholds for how much we can take on. I already work gargantuan hours: I’m a full time manager at a local grocery store, I teach yoga, I write this blog, and I’m graduating from school, along with all the other jobs life requires of me. But when I overbook mysef – when I book more than 2 or 3 major projects in a single day, I start spiraling.
2. Work the 12 steps
Recovery programs are not for everyone, and I know they have come under very critical scrutiny over the decades, but the 12 steps have transformed my life. I don’t believe the 12 Steps are effective as a primary intervention – if you need rehab or therapy, then you need rehab or therapy – but as complimentary medicine they can be powerful. The fellowship and literature of the 12 steps have given me crucial tools for living. Depression often comes with a myriad of other symptoms – codependancy, addiction, abuse, over eating, self harm. The 12 steps principles are effective – for me at least – in addressing the symptoms and the deeper life beneath them.
3. Read the Tarot
This is the most controversial tool I’ve ever found, especially for a Christian. To clarify, I don’t believe in using the Tarot as a method of divination. I instead use it as a tool for personal talk therapy and insight, much the same way I use yoga as a centering method rather than a vehicle to worship pagan deities. Whether the Tarot can be used decoupled from their occult origins is an important conversation to have, but I won’t pursue it in this post. The archetypal images of the tarot help ground me, and help me to reflect and have a discourse with myself. They bring me out of the panic and trigger insight within my being. They can help bring enormous calm. I know that there is an enormous stigma attached to the Tarot, especially for Christians, and I find that a great loss, as they are an incredibly effective tool for mental health.
4. Read and write
For me, reading and writing are an act of bringing order to chaos, and I’ve learned that an important indicator of my mental health is how much I read. Working the mind, just like exercise, is an important way to stave off depression. My world narrows into a tiny slit if I don’t read and write, and my depression thrives in tiny worlds. Depression is claustrophobic, and the mind needs wide vistas to roam. Books and writing offer it such a world.
While doing things that you love has no meaning in the midst of depression, engaging daily in things you love can provide a bulwark against the darkness. Reading is something I love – and something I believe others should love, too.
5. Do yoga or a mindfulness practice
I’ve already written about the important lessons I’ve learned from yoga, but it’s always worth repeating again: mindfulness and yoga are powerful tools for mental health. Very often, I feel as though my brain is a chamber that shrinks with time – like a room in Alice in Wonderland – leaving me crushed and helpless inside. The very act of yoga opens up the space in my brain, and I don’t feel like my mind is being crushed. In the absolute stillness yoga offers me, I can breathe.
Apart from all the other neurological magic yoga and meditation work in the brain, they also give me the very practical ability of recognizing when depression or anxiety might be on the horizon, so I can act accordingly. Usually I only know when I am panicking, or depressed, and when I’m not. Yoga and mindfullness teaches us to detect when it might be coming, and gives us tools to help prevent it.
An important caveat, though: yoga and meditation can exacerbate anxiety or trauma, so it is important to proceed with caution.
6. Develop habits
Every morning, I wake up, make breakfast, and read the Bible, a 12 Step devotional, and Meditations on the Tarot. I then settle down to the one or two primary projects I’ve set for myself that morning. Sometimes it’s school, writing, or something else. Then, mid morning, I do yoga, and then I head off to work in the early afternoon. Every saturday I go to my 12-step meeting, and every Sunday I do a week review, where I sit down and contemplate the previous week and prepare for the next.
I’ve always resisted routine. I prefer free-spirited chaos over a regimented life, but I’m amazed by how much routine and habit helps to save me.
These are just a few of the crucial habits that help sustain me. If I were to write all of them, I could fill a book. The common theme throughout, though, is making music out of the noise of life, be it through archetypes, routine, 12 steps, or words. Order and creativity are powerful balms for a broken mind. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the tools differ for everyone. Find your own tools for your own journey. Hopefully, together, we can continue to find a way through life with our companion, depression.