Dancing in a Minor Key: Thoughts on recovering from depression
In the spring of 2003, when I was recovering from a bout of depression, I read a book called Sunbathing in the Rain by Gwyneth Lewis. It is based on the author's own experience of depression, and is without doubt the best book I have read on this subject. What drew me to it initially was its title, and also its subtitle, 'A cheerful book about depression'. Part of me wondered how on earth it was possible to write a cheerful book about depression, yet the subtitle also resonated somehow with my own experience. Going through depression is awful, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, and it has devastating consequences for some people. Yet my own experience was that, when I had come through the worst of the depression and was on the road to recovery, I had the sense that there was something perversely valuable about having gone through depression. My sense was that depression had something to teach me about how I was living my life, that I had become depressed because things needed to change in some way. For me, depression can act as a warning sign that all is not well. I don't know if I would use the word 'cheerful', but for me depression has certainly given me an opportunity to reflect on my life and where it is going.
Depression is an intensely personal thing. Those for whom it is a reality will experience it, and interpret its meaning, in different ways. This is partly why I think it can sometimes be difficult for people who have not lived with depression to fully grasp its implications. If a group of people all have flu, for example, they will most likely exhibit similar symptoms. If a group of people are all experiencing depression, chances are at least some of their symptoms will differ. I have experienced very specific physical symptoms when I have been depressed. Some people find sleeping difficult, for example, while other people seem to sleep all the time. Some people may withdraw from human contact, wanting to be left alone, while other people may become fearful of being left alone. I consider myself fortunate not to have felt suicidal when I have been depressed, but for some people this feeling is all too real. Then there is the whole issue of medication, whether it is required, what kind, and at what dosage. Will talking therapy help, and if so what approach? Different people respond to different interventions and sometimes finding what works can be a process of trial and error. I am now able to keep depression at bay with the right sort and the right level of medication, and through my own personal therapy, but this has not come easily.
If treatment for depression is an individual thing, then what we do or don't do while we are living with depression is equally, I think, an individual thing. A well-meaning doctor once told me that I might go to the gym or go swimming when I was depressed. Apart from the fact that I just didn't have the energy to do either of those activities at the time, I've never been to a gym in my life, and swimming is not something I do on a regular basis. My point is that in the midst of depression it is unlikely that I'm suddenly going to start doing anything that I don't do, or don't do very often, when I'm feeling my best. However, for some people, especially in the recovery phase of depression when physical activity can become a bit easier, going to the gym or going swimming might be just the thing that's needed. My thing is walking, which I love, and which helps me physically and psychologically. When I have been going through depression I have tried to keep it up even though I may not have been able to do as much as I normally would. I have found it particularly helpful to walk where there are trees, or by the lake in the park. It has given me a feeling of being connected to the natural world at a time when I haven't always felt like being connected to the social world.
The message here is try to do the things that give you pleasure, that you feel capable of doing. Try to steer clear of things that are likely to make you feel worse, or which your body and mind are rebelling against. For me that has also meant quite a lot of sitting and looking out of the window, playing the piano, doing crossword puzzles, and watching whatever takes my fancy on the television. Finding our own version of sunbathing in the rain, or in my words, dancing in a minor key, can, in my experience, be one of the most important things in recovering from depression.