“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen.
One of my struggles since childhood has been with depression. From as early as I can remember I wondered why my school friends found it so easy to just be a kid, while I could only seem to observe their laughter from the fringes, surrounded by a haze of melancholy that I could neither see nor name.
It took a long time for me to admit that part of my story to myself, and even longer to admit it out loud. In fact, as I write this, I’m cringing a little. I’d rather tell you I have it all figured out. How depression is behind me and I have all the answers sitting snugly in my back pocket. But that’s not how it goes with this illness. It finds you in the cracks where you try to seek joy. And sometimes, you wonder if you’ll ever out-run it.
Depression is the secret that pervades many households—the one most hide away from in shame. I keep writing about it because as I learn how to catch up with, and hopefully outrun, this thing, I want to bring many others with me on the journey. And the fact that so many people do hide away makes me all the more determined to bring this thing into the light.
My healing journey has included everything from medication (many pills, many dose experiments), therapy, meditation, exercise, and mindfulness around my thoughts. Expressive writing has also been a big part of that journey, so much so that I now wake an hour earlier than I used to, just to sit and write down my thoughts, check in with how I’m doing, and listen to my heart.
Writing as a healing tool
Depression is a complex illness, so I won’t tell you it can be cured with writing. As you can see from the many helpful healing tools I have mentioned, there are many paths to mental wellness and each will have a different outcome for everyone. But I can tell you that writing is a tool that helps me.
If you would like to try journaling to see if it helps, I suggest giving yourself at least 20 minutes a day to sit and write. I also always recommend journaling in the morning; that way you can think about the day ahead and describe your intentions for it.
Initially you may hate the idea. You will likely want to run from the way you are feeling, but if you remain curious about your emotions and willing to feel them, you have a better chance of moving into a healthier state of mind. So let’s begin.
1. Be present in your surroundings and your body. Ask yourself where you are and how you are feeling in your body, right here, right now. Write it down. This may sound simplistic, but it allows you to ground yourself and bring your attention to your environment.
2. Explore one small need you have in this moment that can be met. This should be something that will nourish your mind or body (or both) and could be anything from taking a walk to sipping on a latte. Why is that need important to you? What would it feel like to meet that need?
3. Write about one thing that is drawing you deeper into your depression right now —something weighing heavily on your mind. Observe what it is and then write down your corresponding emotions, whilst continually asking the question, “why?”
4. Describe your depression as a separate entity. What is its form? Colour? Texture? Sound? As a therapist, there is one thing I always tell my clients: you are not your depression. It’s important to separate the illness from the person—I am not my depression and neither are you. Your identity is so much bigger than your illness. Don’t let depression tell you who you are.
5. Write down 10 things that depression robs you of in your life. Then for each thing, write down one small way you can begin to get it back.
6. Have a written conversation with your depression. Ask it why it’s here and why it thinks it has a right to be in your life. Allow yourself to separate from it so you don’t identify with it as being a part of who you are.
7. Write about a time in your life when you didn’t feel depressed. When was it? What was happening? Write about it in as much sensory detail as you can. Then ask, what was different then?
8. Check in with your thoughts. This step is vitally important. Whether your depression is due to a chemical imbalance, a difficult life circumstance, or the genetic hand you were dealt, your thoughts always have a role to play. Sometimes it’s the thoughts themselves that begin the downward spiral; other times it’s the life circumstance or misfiring brain synapses that generate the shitty thoughts. Either way, the more aware you can be of the message you send yourself through your words, the more self compassion you will ultimately be able to develop. All I ask is that you simply notice and write down your thoughts. Awareness is a huge first step.
9. Have some self-compassion. At my lowest point I hated the person inside my depression. I felt trapped in a cage where joy seemed to happen only on the outside and to other people. I believed I was a failure and that no one wanted to be around me. Self-compassion was at a big fat zero—a common side effect for those dealing with depression. That’s why I want you to be kind to yourself. We are all worthy of love, joy and belonging. Write down one thing you love about who you are and hold on to it. If you can’t think of anything, write down one thing you used to love about yourself. That part of you is still in there.
10. Write down how you want to feel today. Yes, I get it, if you could just change the way you feel, you would. The idea here is simply to shift your focus to a different feeling. Perhaps you want to feel calm, or alive rather than numb. Write it down. Then write one thing that you could do to help you catch a glimpse of that feeling. Then do it.
At first writing may not work out the way you planned, but being intentional with your time will help. Even if you don’t write a word, but still take the time to address some of the questions I have asked, that’s enough to begin with. Doing anything in this state is hard. Congratulate yourself on making the effort.
Let’s face it, as a society we don’t care for people with mental illness very well, and sometimes with the lack of help around it’s easy for hope to slide. But the only thing that makes one person give up, and another keep wading through the trenches, is hope.
I am very aware that finding hope when you are trying to keep your head above water and to simply make it through another moment can feel impossible. Hopelessness is a symptom of depression. But it’s in there somewhere. You wouldn’t be taking a breath right now or reading these words if something wasn’t keeping you holding on. What is that thing? What keeps you taking one breath after another?
My hope for you is that these words provide comfort and a sliver of light in your darkness. If you are dealing with depression and would like to talk to a counsellor who has experienced the same, please contact me at Claire@safehavenbc.com. I offer both online and in-person counselling.