If I don’t abide by a series of habits, I will be a motionless puddle of doubt and fear. It’s taken me most of my life to figure this out. Until my twenties, I dissolved into said puddle on the regular, losing weeks and months of my waking life to the dark D.
I remember feeling this way as young as 6. It took several bouts of hypnotherapy before I was able to crystallize the origins of this pattern. Things occur in phases of upswings and downswings. When I’m good, I’ve very, very good: highly productive, a master Pep Talker. But when I’m low, I shut myself out of any social interaction and lie listlessly, binge-watching shit tv, silently screaming on the inside, interrupted only by bouts of sobbing that can go on for hours.
It’s taken me years to gently, slowly, soften these levels of up-and-down, so there’s more moderation in my moods and my energy.
Until my twenties, I experienced depression as an emotional state. I felt powerless, incessant self-loathing. I attacked myself. I self-harmed physically and then by placing myself in abusive situations, rejecting many versions of healthy love that approached me.
As I’ve gotten older, I sought out healthier options and the external causes of stress & sadness diminished. Yet I still experience stretches of inexplicable fatigue. Sometimes I just feel shitty, physically, even though emotionally, I’m fine. This has been the scariest part- the idea that depression can manifest as a solely physiological event. A few things have helped me manage it.
Disclaimer: This post is my individual journey with depression. It’s not medical advice. Health is complex, and each person’s journey is their own.
Feed Feed Feed
The first major game-changer I discovered was nutrition.
I was in my mid-twenties and living in India. I lived with and worked for my boyfriend. It was very toxic, and I was very deeply in love. We worked insane hours and I followed his terrible habits: incessant pot smoking, too many cigarettes, and practically no food. We lived off a constant river of very sweet chai, and every other day, we’d eat greasy dal and rice from a street vendor. Prior to this, I’d been an avid cook and everything I was used to eating was fresh and homemade. This went on for over a year.
When I finally moved in with my sister (a chef), I was a pallid, scrawny wreck. She surreptitiously passed me shots of vegetable juice twice a day whilst feeding me actual homemade meals. Within two weeks, I felt a startling shift in my brain. Until that point, I felt I was always teetering on the brink of screaming or sobbing. My boyfriend and I enjoyed a jubilant fight life, up till 5 am most nights screeching and slamming doors. I felt hysterical often. One day I felt suddenly panicked, left work early, and came home and sobbed for 12 hours straight. Neither of us could fathom why I was so upset. I had zero idea why I was crying, but I couldn’t stop.
I would have never guessed I was starving myself of essential nutrients. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop eating. I just mirrored my boyfriend’s habits. I didn’t want to be weird and insist on eating a meal- it felt wasteful and indulgent. So if I was hungry, I just smoked or drank chai. The vegetable-induced shift was like a dust storm clearing in my mind. One morning, my boyfriend showed up at my door at dawn, jealous that I was hosting my best friend for the week, and something in me snapped. I literally picked him up and chucked him out the door like a mangy cat (he was physically weedy on account of his all-pot, no food regime).
I was only marginally less volatile, but my emotions began to place themselves in favor of my preservation.
The changes in my mental patterns were so dramatic that the cause was irrefutable. Over the following months, I developed a healing relationship with food, and became a little obsessed with sprouted mung and scrambled eggs. It’s now a knee-jerk reaction that I throw colorful fruit and veg at my problems (it doesn’t always work, but at least now I’m crying with rainbows inside me). Home-cooking is now a major priority for me, and I’ve been lucky enough that it’s my cultural norm, and that I’m able to sustain it with my freelance lifestyle.
Move Like A Monkey
I’m aware our current obsession with the optimization of the body privileges the young, the wealthy and the able bodied. It disturbs me that no matter which way I turn, exercise has turned into some form of self-improvement, to move away from the body-as-now, into a state of perpetual “transformation” in which a very specific kind of ideal is suspended on a distant future horizon. I struggle myself with my own biases regarding fatness and other unruly expressions of my body.
Yet I must move to stay afloat. I discovered last year that I have a condition called Lipedema. It’s a chronic condition that causes fat cells to become inflamed, to become totally resistant to normal breakdown by usual metabolism (i.e. the fat will not burn off by diet and exercise). It affects the legs mostly, and sometimes the arms. It’s a newly recognized disease and it affects pretty much only women. Research is ongoing and there’s very little understanding about it in the mainstream medical field.
Growing up with Lipedema severely impaired my body image. Movement is helping me reclaim my body as something beyond an aesthetic object. I grew up as a bookish, nerdy kid in a small Arab town in the 90’s. I didn’t exercise because it was for Other People, namely thin White girls named Cecilia, who could run a kilometer in 6 minutes effortlessly, while I bobbled my sweaty, thigh-chaffing, preteen body across the finish line, dead last. My favorite pastime was to eat architecturally ambitious sandwiches while drawing or reading. I was a floating head with a single connection to my right hand. The rest of my body, my heart, my core, my thighs and feet, were remote planets without wifi.
So when I finally stumbled onto exercise on my own terms, I was in the final year of my undergrad in North America, doing hot yoga in the dead of winter. I loved the slowness, the inclusivity and the way my body could make these beautiful geometric shapes. And sweating like a pig was expected, so I never felt like the outcast. (Also a side effect of Lipedema is hypermobility, so I’m naturally very flexible, which is kind of cool). I discovered I was graceful, and also- zing- I discovered endorphins.
I discovered how deeply angry I am.
Around 5 years ago, I added weight training to the equation. I had a great job and invested in a trainer. I discovered, like most adults who work on a computer all day, my posture was shit and my back was really weak, which occasionally triggered the worst nerve-pinching muscle spasms in my neck. Strength training resolves my pain and makes tasks easier.
Something else happened too. The numbing powerlessness that would overtake me was slowly countered by different emotions. I discovered how deeply angry I am. So, so, SO much anger. Just an overall sense of rage. Working out in the most bro gym ever, where homophobic ideals were casually discussed like the weather, I almost wanted someone to pick a fight with me. It felt a lot like when I was younger and figured out how to stand up to bullies.
Seeking fights is not smart. But harvesting that emotion is certainly more useful to me than feeling the the draining, pulling, collapsing feeling of depression. The anger helps me power through pushing against weights bigger than me. Subconsciously, the heavy inertia I feel during depression is also a weight I can move. My muscles respond. Connecting with my muscles emotionally has been incredibly therapeutic. When years of childhood trauma were released last year, it was a physiological release, a deep conversation with my hips and thighs.
This month, I found myself in another panic-induced hole. It happens occasionally, life is like that. A close family member is dealing with cancer. Care-giving is draining. I found myself questioning all my life choices, feeling like a failure, because that’s just how I process hard situations- I take it out on myself. When I eventually managed to drag myself to the gym, I was immediately reminded of just how much the simple release of endorphins does to clear my fog.
(I should clarify here that it is because non-medicating tactics have worked thus far, that I haven’t sought medication. I have also used talk-therapy, hypnotherapy, and other alternative therapies to try to shift the situation at different times. If at any time, I feel like none of these things are working, I’m open, albeit terrified, to seek further means. I believe medication is a tool, and it’s crucial to equip one’s self with the necessary tools to heal & maintain health.)
My Body Is Wiser Than Me
As I moved into my thirties, I shed the bad relationships and situations that were making me miserable. I chose a loving supportive partner, invested my time seeking creative collaborative friendships, and discovered that adulting is an artful balancing act. Depression stopped manifesting itself as an emotional experience- I feel less sad & self-loathing- but it continues as a physiological one- I now experience it as physical fatigue, a kind of debilitating draining that makes keeping my eyes open a battle, even after a solid night’s rest.
Or at least I thought this was the problem. Also a doctor tried to convince me this was the problem. A half-hour consult with a GP and his answer: he threw Xanax at me with zero questions and zero indications of side effects/risks. And the pharmacy accidentally gave me a double dose. Again, I think medication makes sense when it makes sense- but this particular prescription seemed really undercooked. I didn’t take them. I buried the problem, and it continued for several more years.
When I received my Lipedema diagnosis last year, things started to make sense. My body is full of inflammation. This is the most likely physiological cause of my fatigue. I started to correlate my habits to my energy patterns. It took self-worth to believe I was “allowed” to require specific habits. I found that cutting out meat & animal products cured my acne. And my digestion improved, as did my libido. Acne is inflammation. So I figured, if there’s inflammation on my face, it’s my body trying to tell me something. Trusting these tiny signals from my body seems to work for the most part.
But trusting myself is impossible if I’m always beating myself up for not trying hard enough. I have had to do a massive upturning of my deepest belief: the body is not to be trusted.
Instead, I’m relearning that my body is a site of deep wisdom, capable of understanding information my conscious mind cannot. So if I’m tired, its because my body genuinely needs to rest. And if I can’t “keep up” with the rest of the world, it is perfectly acceptable for me to slow down to a pace that works for me. And maybe my slowing body gives company to others who can’t keep up.
The expectations of output I’ve had on myself are questionable. Way too high, and to what end? I’ve had strangers ask me what I’m trying to prove, when I’ve tried to balance full time work & full time study, side hustle & volunteer work, while trying to be there for my family and workout 5 times/week all at the same time. I had to pull several all-nighters every week to stay on top of everything. My body broke down several times along the way. But it was only once I had this diagnosis, something tangible to point at that was verified by experts, that I took a deep breath and conceded that I have limits. Even though my body has been yelling for mercy this whole time, it still took a White dude in a coat to look at me sympathetically and give me permission to chill the fuck out.
Something’s wrong with this picture. And I know I’m not alone.
Last night, I held my mother as she sobbed and sobbed into my arms and, all the while, she kept apologizing for crying, for being “weak”. For the past 6 months, she’s been the primary caregiver to our other family member battling cancer, and it’s taking its toll on her. She just can’t relax her expectations, and it’s hard to watch and know that my voice is a distant squeak compared to her inner thunder. But there it is. I can see how it makes her hurt, and if I can’t learn from that, I’m missing something.
In my daily affirmations, I have a note about honoring my body when it needs to rest. I’ve had to acknowledge my power and worth as a being to do this, by believing I am an important part of an interconnected whole. It’s by believing that my waking actions are contributive and necessary to the people around me, that I can allow myself to rest.
My fatigue days are fewer and pass quicker, probably because I’m a little kinder at managing my energy, and I’ve committed to it as a daily practice.
Routine & Riyaaz
Getting out of bed is the hardest part of depression for me. I developed a morning routine so it gives me a reason to get out of bed. I have to love every part, or I wont do it.
It started with breakfast. Its my favorite meal and I like to eat the same thing every day. I go through phases of eggs & toast, oatmeal, pancakes. But whatever it is, it’s high protein and delicious. On insane schedule days, I still wake up 2 hours before so I can eat and digest in peace.
But the first thing I like to do when I wake up is morning pages. It’s a well-worn practice that is coming back into fashion, of writing 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness in longhand. There’s a million articles about morning routines and how to optimize your life. Although I am interested in being a magic robot, it also just feels good to write. I’m way less anxious. I’m not too bothered about being crazy diligent about it. Some days I don’t write. And I no longer fuss about writing 3 pages. I write until I feel settled or I run out of time.
After, I read a goal card/affirmation list. I’ve written a few small pages of things I really want to achieve, and I read them out loud. They’re written in the present tense, as though they’ve already taken place. It’s goofy and I resisted doing it for ages. But it works. I reckon it’s signaling my subconscious that’s in charge of all my tiny reflex decisions. The tiny decision that opens my project tab vs. a youtube window. When I’m around other people, I read it silently to myself, to allow the words to swim their way through my eyes. After a year or two, I change the list because my goals change, and I’ve seen that most of my goals are accomplished. It’s pretty magical. Even if it isn’t actually responsible for changes, it feels good in my belly.
Then I do my Riyaaz. Riyaaz means daily music practice. I’m a singer and it’s my most important goal, to be a really, really incredible singer. To be good enough to teach. I’m not really a “natural” and started singing in my mid-twenties, so I mostly grew up hearing that I was shit at it. Believing in myself has been a journey. Especially believing enough to make it something I do first thing in the morning every day. I still struggle with this. But I started small, kept the bar really low, and I have to trust my body every single time. I have to get right out of my head, and all the buzzing and vibrating that happens in the exercises feels quite delicious, and is a really powerful way to start the day. Also, having attended to my most important goal before lunch makes me feel very accomplished. Even if I lose the rest of the day to fatigue/depression, I still am moving forward. I have seen a lot of progress in the past year of doing this, it’s been the best decision I made in 2018.
My singing practice transitions organically into a 5 minute candle meditation. I just stare at a candle for a few minutes and allow all the buzzing feelings from the vocal exercises to travel around my body, up and down my chakras. I do some healing visualizations, and feel my body do these automatic rotations around each chakra. A yogi once told me that was energy traveling through the body, and that’s what it feels like. It is literally energizing.
After I’m done this, I sit down to my delicious breakfast. It’s a very indulgent way to spend a morning, and on crazy days, maybe it doesn’t happen. But it happens sometimes and often enough to be a habit. It’s as safe a space for me to venture to, as my bed. A little neutral zone that steadies me before facing things that are out of my control. And giving so much time and love, food and sound and color to myself as soon as I wake up has completely changed the game for me.
Of course to believe that I was worth any of this has taken me years, and the continued hitting of my head against a brick wall, and finally deciding I had nothing to lose by trying to believe in myself. And I see it as a practice- if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it, so if I spend too many days away from these habits, it’s easy for me to slide back down into paralyzing self-doubt. I have to stay moving.
I am doing my best. The physical routines have given me distance enough to detach a little from my feelings. I’ve had to outsmart myself. Use my depressive thoughts against the depression. If I feel insignificant, then my failures must also be insignificant, therefore I have nothing to lose by trying. Observe myself as conflicted, and allow that to just be, without judgement. If I’m sobbing, I’m not simultaneously apologizing for sobbing. I let go that extra layer, and I feel peaceful, being an imperfect, chaotic thing. This is my own definition of my mental health. It has felt like making a boat out of driftwood while trying not to drown in the middle of a stormy sea. Every day I check for leaks, and now I can focus on the wind, on navigating forward.
There’s our pain, and there’s our resources. I’ve had a lot of the first and enough of the second to find my way to wherever here is. Asking for help is becoming second nature, letting go of shame has been the most useful action. Depression is powerful, and it pushes us to think we are nothing, we have made nothing.
I’m finding my way out every day by seeking pleasure. Allow myself to feel pleasure. I’m convinced modern Western culture has drained us of true pleasure, thanks to a history rooted in puritanism. My feminist anger helps me stay connected to this need for pleasure. It’s political, not personal, is what I tell myself on days when I doubt I deserve it.
Why is it so hard to get okay with just being?