'Just Go for a Run': Testing Everyday Advice for My Depression
So, it turns out I’m getting better at depression. That isn’t to say I’ve stopped suffering it, or that it is any less debilitating when it sneaks up after a two-year hiatus and pile-drives me into a blistering agony of mental carpet burns topped with a patronising tousle of the bed-hair, like a nostalgic school bully. No, what’s “better” about me is spotting it and moving quicker through the self-blame method of diagnosis.
We all have down days, and that’s what you hope these are. Only they stopped being a day or two of feeling blue that can be whiled away with the distraction of a conspiratorial sofa and questionable DVD collection, and have merged into weeks since you were last able to feel anything but disappointment on waking up, and the choice between showering or just smelling like a tramp’s undercarriage has gone beyond struggle into pure resignation.
Being especially practised at denial, I decided that I, a mere mortal with a solid history of depressive episodes since childhood, could fake my way out of this oncoming tsunami of debilitating black fog using the advice that people who have never experienced depression trot out – an experiment that could surely only succeed [sidelong glance to camera]. I would improve my diet and exercise, force myself to take up hobbies, I would “soldier on until it passed” and thrust myself (reluctantly) into social situations. I even tried “looking on the bright side” but it turned out to just be glare on my TV.
'Diet and exercise, that’s all you need’
I ran. I walked and ran and dragged my posterior off my perch of pity and pounded the pavements daily – belly full of broccoli and wine politely declined. They say that a good walk does wonders for the mind, and the evidence largely points to exercise being a good thing for depression. But with a dirge of self-loathing eating away at me, moving my little legs just churns my mind into misery butter. My rump has ended less plump, but I returned home each time bearing a greater weight of anguish than the one I’d left farting on the sofa.
‘Why not take up some new hobbies? That’ll keep the blues away’
I took up tap dancing and pottery, because those are “fun” and “creative” and “sociable” and oh-just-pass-the-sick-bucket. Determined to make most of these fantastic opportunities (translation: I’d paid in advance and I was brought up tight) I committed to attending every class, even on days when you couldn’t drag a coherent sentence out of me if you rammed a dictionary up my hoop and shook me upside down. Have you ever tried to “Shirley Temple” while your face is Squidwards and your soul yelps like a pup being kicked with every hoppity-skippity? It’s less fun than it sounds. But, y’know, less plump rump and all that, plus I have some truly diabolical wonky pots to inflict on anyone who irks me in the runup to Christmas.
‘Just soldier on, it’ll pass eventually’
I made myself continue with the routine of turning up for work, in body at least, but I stared blankly out at the world, hollow-eyed, bracing myself for the inevitability that someone would try to engage me and expect more than a whimper, in the same pained way you brace yourself against a well-intentioned back pat on fresh sunburn. You would think they had have been happy for the respite from my shrill cackle of a laugh, but clearly the silence unnerved them like it does the cinema audience in the run up to the generic knife-wielding-psycho-jumping-out-of-the-closet moment.
‘Get out there and mingle, that’ll cheer you up’
I tried to stay social. I managed to drag myself to Soho to “enjoy” a decadent free lunch (ignore your mother, they do exist) with free champagne and exquisite company. It was an occasion I’d been dreading – the one diary entry I couldn’t wriggle out of in favour of weeping into the cat – but it was all going well until my dear friend whisked me off my seat to dance in the street. All sounds very bohemian, doesn’t it? Like actual fun. Except the dam broke, my facade crumpled and the poor dear man’s shoulder was dampened with the unending sobs of a broken woman not blessed with waterproof mascara.
“What’s wrong?”, he begged. “Tell me what happened so we can fix it,” he cajoled. But that’s just it – not a damn thing. My life, to all intents and purposes is more than tickety-boo: stellar job, sparkling friends, loyal cat (I know, that’s something of an oxymoron), all my own limbs and a pretty penny in the bank.
He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t telling him who or what had upset me, he insisted I confess. So I did. I told him the truth, bluntly: “I just don’t want to exist any more.” This was met with the usual horror of one whose mental health has only ever been in fine fettle: “Don’t say that!”. But I did, because, well, he had asked. There it was, the hideous ugly brutality of depression in one simple unwelcome answer. “I would quite like it if the universe could excuse me from the table now please, not for any tangible reason other than, y’know, the constant crushing torture of existing.”
So I’d admitted it. Tearfully. In the middle of Soho. It was out there now and I would deal with it using the only method that has worked in the past, I would call the GP … After a few more days of denial for good measure, of course, because I hadn’t thoroughly exhausted the “maybe you’re just not trying hard enough” method. Still, this time round, I descended through mere weeks of near-catatonic dysfunction instead of months, and that’s truly something. So yes, I’m getting better at depression, at knowing when to admit I need the help of dear Mr Pharmaceutical and his little pill pals to function, knowing I did try hard enough and that I just can’t fix it on my own.
While some of these alternative methods work for many people, they didn’t work for me. But if the worst you end up with is a few wonky pots and toned thighs while finding that out, what have you got to lose?
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.
This article was amended on 30 June to clarify that this is an opinion piece and not a scientific assessment, and to highlight the scientific evidence base for using exercise to treat depression.