What To Do With Depression When Nothing Works

Tips from a fellow warrior.  www.amandaschwabe.com

I can, right now, honestly say that depression isn’t the main colour of my life.  It’s there at the sides, like the fading edges of a rainbow, in the form of tiredness and a bit of “who cares?” when it comes to household chores.  But it is no longer my main focus or my main stumbling block.

I say this to give you hope.

I lived for years with terrible depression and eventually anxiety.  The kind that made it impossible to get out of bed, to eat, to sleep, to wake, to enjoy.  The kind that grips you in a vice and makes every decision and every moment difficult beyond belief.  The kind that makes every simple piece of life overwhelming and just too much, for no reason at all.  Life was a weight that was just too heavy to bear.

Sometimes I could fake my way through the motions of living, and sometimes I couldn’t.

Through those years, I did all the things that are supposed to make us better.  I tried various antidepressants.  I used a sun lamp.  I diligently forgot to take my vitamin D.  And I prayed, first and foremost, for God to just heal me.

He didn’t.

And yet, in time, He did.  I’m at almost-normal levels here, people.  I can hardly believe it myself.

I’ve been on a journey, and each tiny snowflake of healing has snowballed into a life I can live.

This is what He did for me by not waving a magic wand and healing me with a *poof* and some sparkle dust:

First of all, I was forced to accept that I was sick.  No instant solution would be forthcoming.

So my question became, “How do I live with this?” instead of “How do I get out of this?”

And, oh my goodness, there are so many ways to live with depression.  So many answers, so many helpful things, but it has taken me years to find them.  And I hope that there are still more discoveries to come.

I have enough in my brain to write a book, and I’m so worried that I’m missing something else.  Something important.  Something that will be your one thing.  But I guess I didn’t have a one thing, either, and that’s okay.  So here is what I know right now.  Pick just one thing and pursue it.  All these little things, added together, can make for a mostly normal life.

Some of them are basic, and I include them for anyone who’s just beginning this journey and doesn’t know basic yet.  Some of them may be new to you.  My hope is that something in this list will spark some hope in you, whether you’ve been living with depression for years and have tried “everything” already or whether you’re just beginning this difficult journey towards healing.

(If you’re at the horrible place right now of rock bottom, enlist some outside help.  Some of these things, like eating well, are hard to start when you’re already feeling overwhelmed by just breathing.  Tell the people around you what you need in order to get better.  Send them here to read this list.  They may not know what to do or how to help you.  They may not even understand what you’re going through.  Let me be your advocate.)

And now, in no particular order:

Get to know your brain.  Are you an introvert or an extrovert?  A creative or a linear thinker?  How do you function best?  Work from your strengths and ignore your weaknesses for now.  What I mean is, if you’re an introvert, don’t try to act all extroverted and exhaust yourself.  Let yourself just be.  

Accept yourself.  You are who you are, and that person you are is alright.  If you’re awesome at listening but terrible at cleaning, then listen lots and accept that cleaning isn’t your thing.  If you know that you can handle one outing a week before your stress levels get to high, then give yourself some healthy boundaries and protect your sanity.  Accept your limitations with grace, and then live by them.  And don’t beat yourself up about things.  You are so, so, completely worthy just because God made you.  There’s nothing else to live up to.

Protect yourself.  Say no.  Know your limits and stay well inside of them.  Give your life some breathing room and reduce your stress levels.  (Reading Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend helped me with this.  The books Margin and In Search of Balance by Dr. Richard Swenson are also excellent.)

Accept God’s acceptance of you.  It’s much easier to accept ourselves knowing that God accepted us first.  If He can love us at our worst, then surely we can love ourselves, too.  If you never get out of bed and never do anything “useful,” Jesus would still have chosen you.  He would still have died for you.  You are more precious to Him than anything.  Your worth does not depend on what you do at all.

Give your body the stuff it needs to be healthy.  There are many foods that contribute to depression, and many nutrients our bodies need in order to function properly.  Without them, we can’t expect peak performance.  It’s hard to change our eating habits, but it’s well worth it.  Our bodies also need sunlight and exercise to function well.  Sometimes, our bodies need medicine.  I’ll be writing about this more in the future, but for now, if this resonates with you or raises some questions, check out The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.

Control your thoughts.  Notice that I did not say “control your emotions.”  This point goes along with both cognitive behavioural therapy and the biblical principle of being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Hebrews 12).  I’ve written about this before, and you can find more posts under the section called Transform Your Mind.

Say no to guilt, shame, and condemnation.  These messages never come from God.  Never.  Ever.  Ever.  Even if these messages come from Christians you trust, reject them.  We Christians don’t always get this right.  (Don’t take my word for this.  Read Romans 8 and Romans 14.)  You don’t need to ever wallow in shame or guilt, even for things you did wrong!  God’s forgiveness is instant and everlasting.  When we mess up, we can move on, free and clear.  All shame does is hold us back from loving others and ourselves.  It’s useless.  You’re allowed to let it go.

Give yourself a break.  This goes along with #2.  God, who loves you dearly, doesn’t like to hear you being so hard on yourself.  Practice kindness in your self speak.  You are good enough just the way you are.  Right now.  In your struggles, doubts, and pain.  In your inadequacy and imperfection.  You are worthy.

Join a 12-step group.  Living with depression is a lot like living with alcoholism, addiction, codependency.  We all have bad habits we need to break, and some of them come from our brain’s faulty workings.  But we can still overcome them.  Depression isn’t a free license to sin just because we’re having a bad day.  But if we want to live free from bad habits, we need help.  We need support.  We need unconditional acceptance and understanding.  All those things exist in a 12-step program.  Celebrate Recovery is a great overtly Christian one to look for and it is encompassing enough in its focus — “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” — that anybody can join.  If you don’t have something similar in your area, I personally think that any 12-step program might help.  They all function under the same principles and with the same basic steps.  They provide a safe atmosphere for confession, which can bring healing according to James 5:16.  (Healing may come in small pieces and not in one fell swoop, but it’s still healing.)  There is wonderful safety, security, and acceptance under their rule of anonymity.

Use the darn sun lamp.  Don’t buy it and just let it sit on a shelf, unused, like I did.  Better yet, get outside for a couple minutes every day and let the sun shine on your face, on your eyelids.  There’s a reason so many northerners suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  We need sunlight and vitamin D to survive the shorter days.  Our brains require them.

Get counseling.  If you have underlying hurts, wounds, trauma, PTSD, stress, etc., they need to be dealt with.  A good counselor, some great books, a support group — all of these things can help you heal.  In a counseling group I attended, our leader likened this healing process to pulling the band aid off a wound.  We could leave the covering over our hurt and pretend it isn’t there, but the wound would fester and grow under the band aid whether we acknowledged it or not.  Or, in pulling the band aid off, we could endure the pain of cleaning out the wound properly, exposing it to light and air, and allowing it to heal, with time, into a barely visible scar.

The way towards healing is through the pain, not around it.

For me, there was one final step towards wellness after counselling, drugs, learning to control my thoughts, and quitting sugar.  (Quitting sugar allowed me to quit the drugs, by the way.)  All of those things helped and made me know I could survive, but I still didn’t feel normal.  I was no longer spiraling out of control, but I didn’t quite enjoy my life.  Know what I mean?  I wanted to feel like what I imagined healthy people felt like.  I didn’t want every day to be such a struggle to choose right thinking.

So what was my last step towards feeling normal?

Well, there was a clue in quitting sugar, but it was years before I found it.  It was what I ate.  Or rather, it was what I wasn’t eating.  This goes along with my point about giving our bodies what they need to be healthy.  Because this was so huge for me, I’m pointing it out twice.  All of the other things helped and were necessary, but I didn’t feel well until I changed what I ate.

Julia Ross explains it all in detail in her book The Mood Cure, but let me give you the quick basics.  Our brains are made of proteins.  The neurotransmitters in our brains that send messages and control mood are made of proteins.  If we’re not eating the amino acids that are the building blocks of those required proteins, how on earth can our brains function properly?  They can’t.

It turns out that we can actually know which neurotransmitters (NT’s) we’re low in based on our symptoms.  Different NT levels affect our thoughts and moods in different ways.  And we can eat the necessary amino acids to build our missing neurotransmitters and change our mood.  

And, according to Julia Ross, most people notice a positive change within 15 minutes of taking them as supplements.  Not weeks, fellow depression fighters.  Minutes.

That, for me, has been the last step in my journey so far.  I decided to give her advice a try and picked up my missing amino acids from my local health-food store.  I did everything she recommended.  I underlined and highlighted and took note of all the good-mood foods to eat and the bad-mood foods to avoid.

Within a week, the things that were so difficult for me before, like washing the dishes, were easy.  Instead of always thinking, “It’s too hard,” or “Why bother?,” I found myself just doing things.  Is this how healthy people feel?

Should you run out and quit your antidepressants cold turkey to try this?  Probably not.  Don’t mess with your brain carelessly.  But should you look into some of these clues to see which ones you can incorporate and possibly, eventually, use?

Why not?  What have you got to lose?

If you’re in the Ottawa area, I’ve heard of a practitioner who can walk you through this.  Feel free to send me a message and ask.

What about you?  Do you have any tips I should add to my list?  I really want to hear about them!  Any little tip that can make life with depression easier is so valuable.