I was the biggest fucking downer on the planet. At least, that’s what my friend Kevin told me. Specifically, he said, “Dude, you’re the biggest fucking downer on the planet.”
And Kevin isn’t the only one who expressed this sentiment.
Andrew, my former roommate, told me that I was “a total bummer to be around.” Then, he broke our lease so he could move in with his brother.
Tanya, a woman I dated for several months, suggested that I “should put on some big-boy pants and stop with the goddamn pity-party.” Then, she dumped me for someone who was “refreshingly less miserable.”
Geoffrey, a former boss of mine, told me that I “lack enthusiasm,” and “don’t seem to give a shit about much of anything.” Politely, I explained that “the reason I don’t seem to give a shit is because I don’t.” Then, for some reason, he fired me.
That’s not all, of course.
My friend Lauren described me as “what would happen if Negative Nancy and Pessimistic Patty somehow had a baby.”
My friend John proclaimed that I was “the world’s tallest party pooper.”
My friend Mike insisted that I was a “mental midget.”
And, my friend Nick, who is hardly a beaming ray of sunshine, regularly complained that I was “just like that dreary-ass donkey from Winnie the Pooh.
Hearing these things wasn’t fun, but I can’t fault those who said them. The truth is, they were right. And, they simply didn’t know.
They didn’t know that, almost every morning, I waged a battle inside my own mind. They didn’t know that I struggled just to get out of bed. They didn’t know that I could go days without eating, or speaking, or seeing another human being. They didn’t know that, far too often, I wondered if life was worth living. They didn’t know that I had chronic major depression. And, I was sure that if I told them, they wouldn’t understand.
It’s impossible to explain depression to those who’ve never had it. It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to be in a psychological prison, aching for a way out, if even just for a day. It’s impossible to express how it feels to lose the desire to participate in life. It’s impossible to articulate what it’s like to feel numb inside, to be void of all positivity and joy, to feel utterly hopeless and worthless, to think the universe has conspired against you, to feel vastly alone, even in the presence of others.
It’s impossible to fully convey this kind of darkness to the uninitiated. And, should you try, there’s a good chance you’ll receive classically banal advice, like: cheer up or just think positive or choose happy! Of course, these are merely things that happy people say.
Those who believe that happiness is a choice have never been on the whirling rollercoaster through emotional hell, fueled uncontrollably by a depressive episode. They’ve never been tortured by the insidious monster that feeds mercilessly on the human spirit. They’ve never stood at the bottom of the abyss, gazing upward through a smothering fog, wondering if they’ll ever see beauty again. They’ve never woken up in the morning and wished they hadn’t.
When you’re living with depression, happiness is not something you can flick on, like the dangling light in an old, abandoned saloon. Nor is depression something you can flick off. When you’re living with depression, happiness is not a choice. If it were, millions of suffering people would have chosen it long ago. I certainly would have. Because, when you’re living with depression, you’re not really living at all.
My depression surfaced when I was in college, though I never considered that I might have a lifelong affliction. I thought of it just as a passing phase – a common case of the blues, brought on by my waning days at the University of Wisconsin. After all, the party was ending, and soon I’d be thrust headlong into real world. I’d have to get a job and pay bills and buy a dust ruffle and kitchenware. I’d have to take on all the responsibilities of a fully functioning adult, the mere thought of which left me paralyzed with dread.
After graduating, I moved with some friends to Chicago, still fearful of what was to come. My friends adjusted quickly, finding well-paying roles in finance or real estate or pharmaceutical sales. They bought condos, threw parties, joined gyms, and got girlfriends. They went to networking events and nightclubs and the nicest new restaurants. They all seemed to thrive in post-college life. But, for me, things only got worse.
I spiraled further into depression, gripped and suffocated by panic and angst. I spent much of my time in bed, listening to the ambient sounds of a world passing me by. I yearned to be in a different time or a different space, anywhere but here. I thought this feeling might ebb, but instead it persisted, for days, weeks, and months, until one morning – and for the first time in my life – I woke up wanting to kill myself. And, when you wake up wanting to kill yourself, something is horribly wrong.
Over the next several years, I consistently sought treatment, in almost all its various forms. The results, however, were disappointing at best. I sat on the couches of psychiatrists and counselors, wondering why I was paying them. I took a dozen different antidepressants, and not one provided relief. I tried hypnosis, acupuncture, and light therapy – and, while these things surely work for some people, to me, they all seemed like practical jokes. By the time I turned 30, I began to lose hope. I considered myself a lost cause, predestined to live out my days with irremediable depression.
Then, I decided I’d had enough.
I decided I was going to change.
I decided that, come hell or high water, I was going to figure out how to not be the biggest fucking downer on the planet.
I immersed myself in scientific research, self-help, and philosophy. I made phone calls to teachers and mentors. I went to workshops, retreats, and seminars. I became dedicated to learning how to live with joy. And, after a great deal of experimentation, I came up with a regimen that worked for me – and still works, as long as I stick to it.
I can’t guarantee that it’ll work for you, but I do know that it won’t hurt. And, should you choose to give it a try, you’ll need to do the following:
Someone once said that “the first step toward getting somewhere is to decide that you’re not going to stay where you are.” And, I couldn’t agree more.
This is truly where the work begins.
I began to experience a shift only after I made the decision – no, the unbreakable promise to myself – that I would no longer succumb to the ravages of depression. And, no matter how much you’re suffering, you can make yourself the same promise. Do it today, and expect a better tomorrow.
Stop the search for happiness.
There’s a funny thing with us humans. We spend our lives trying desperately to find happiness, and yet, we don’t even know what it is. We can’t explain, describe, or define it; we just know that we want it, because it’ll make everything peachy. Time and time again, though, studies have shown that our never-ending quest for happiness is quite often the very thing that fucks us up.
Trying to find happiness is a futile effort, likely to exacerbate your depression. Stop the search for happiness, and start taking action steps toward creating the life that you want. When you do, you won’t need to find happiness. Eventually, happiness will find you.
Forgive me for the Stuart Smalley reference, but have you ever thought that maybe you really are good enough and smart enough, and that, doggone it, people like you?
The language that we use with ourselves has great power, and negative self-talk is a hallmark of depression. If you’ve been telling yourself the story that you aren’t good enough, chances are you’ve come to believe it, even though it isn’t true. Thankfully, you can use affirmations to start telling yourself a different story. And, you can start today.
You may think they’re cornier than a stack of shit-pies (I did), but the fact is, affirmations work. And, they’re not to be mistaken with positive thinking. Positive thinking – like the kind described in The Secret – is really just wishful thinking, and can often lead to avoidance. Affirmations, however, are a form of proactive thinking, and can lead to deep, personal transformation.
Kamal Ravikant, the author of Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on it, pulled himself out of the depths of depression by repeating the phrase, I love myself.
Tony Robbins used to say I am fucking unstoppable to himself, over and over, until he believed it, and became who he is today.
One of my mentors suggested that I repeatedly tell myself I’ll handle it, and it’s significantly reduced my anxiety.
Choose an affirmation that makes sense for you, and repeat it to yourself. Whenever you have negative thoughts, catch yourself, and shift those thoughts to your affirmation. As you do this, you’ll begin to form new neural pathways that condition you to think differently. Yes, it is possible to rewire your brain. All you need to do is change your story.
Change your story, change your life.
One year at sleepaway camp, I took an afternoon walk through the woods, only to discover my bunkmate, Jared, sitting cross-legged under a tree, eyes closed and palms facing the sky. When I asked him what he was doing, he moved not a muscle and whispered, “Shhhh. I’m meditating.” Looking back, I wish I’d had a more open mind, and asked Jared to teach me his ways. Instead, I called him a weirdo, and refused to talk to him for the rest of the summer.
What I used to dismiss as new age nonsense has positively changed my life in more ways than I thought possible. Meditation has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve focus and concentration, increase self-awareness, and promote better physical health. And, for me, it’s the only activity that effectively tames my “monkey mind,” or what neuroscientists have recently named the default mode network (DMN).
Your DMN is most active when you aren’t focused on anything in particular, and your mind is wandering from thought to thought. At best, these thoughts can be inspired and entertaining. But, when you’re depressed, these thoughts can be morbid and destructive. Meditation has a quieting effect and significantly decreases activity in the DMN. And, when the mind does start to wander, those who regularly meditate are much better at snapping out of it.
Practice meditation daily, and you’ll reap the rewards.
Develop an abundance mindset.
Of all the strategies I use to mitigate my depression, abundance thinking was the most difficult for me to adopt. It’s also been the most beneficial. And it required me to change some of my core beliefs.
For years, I operated from a scarcity mindset, angry that all the world’s goodies seemed to go to everyone else. I wondered why those around me were getting recognized, getting rich, and getting laid, and I wasn’t. Maybe, I thought, there’s just not enough to go around. Of course, this kind of thinking isn’t just debilitating; it’s downright inaccurate.
The world, in fact, is a place of abundance, with limitless opportunities. Remind yourself of this every day. Open yourself up to all that the world has to offer. As Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote in his book, Real Magic, “try to imagine a state of unlimited possibilities as being possible for you.” When you do, you won’t be depressed by what starts to unfold.
Practicing gratitude has long been touted as a remedy for depression. But, sometimes it’s hard to be grateful, especially when you feel like jumping off the nearest overpass. Luckily, you can start by practicing “gratitude lite,” a term coined by Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.
In his pioneering experiments, Emmons has found that a remarkably simple gratitude practice can have a profound effect on one’s mental state. And, for what it’s worth, I concur. “At the dispositional level,” explains Emmons, “grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, and optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.”
Before you go to bed at night, think of five things for which you are grateful. Better yet, write them down. These can be common, everyday occurences, like seeing a beautiful sunset or learning something new or hearing your favorite song on the radio. As Dr. Emmons once wrote, “Gratitude is, first and foremost, a way of seeing that alters our gaze.”
Spend time with friends.
When you’re in the throes of depression, the thought of seeing other people can be painfully nauseating. But, isolation fosters depression, and countless studies have shown that social connection improves both psychological well-being and physical health.
Brene Brown may have summed it up best when she said, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
At least once a week, make a point to spend time with friends. Plan dinner, grab coffee, or meet for happy hour. Get it on your calendar, and take a few extra minutes to appreciate that these people are in your life.
When necessary, say Fuck You.
When I think of the people who have sent me hurtling toward depression, I cringe with shame and indignity. It’s a pathetically long list, filled from top to bottom with the names of liars, cheaters, manipulators and just plain dickheads. But, the old saying is true: People will only treat you one way: the way you allow them. That’s why you must be able to say Fuck You.
Fuck You, by the way, is more than just two little words that help us deal with society’s most trivial nuisances. Fuck You is a mindset. Fuck You is knowing that, until the day you die, you will stand up for your values, make your own needs a priority, and never let anyone treat you badly.
When you’re able to say Fuck You, you’ll maintain strong personal boundaries and rid your life of toxic people. And, subsequently, you’ll be happier. After all, it is our inability or unwillingness to say Fuck You that typically keeps us in bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad situations.
Embrace the Fuck You way, and magical things will happen.
Pursue your passions.
I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret when I think of the years during which I never pursued my passions. Certainly, depression makes it hard to feel passionate about anything. But you can reinvigorate your spirit with a remarkably simple activity.
Think about what you love doing, or what you loved doing when you were a kid. Think about how you might spend your time, if you had the financial abundance to do anything. Think about those you admire, those whose careers you wish you had. Think about what makes the hours fly by like seconds.
Whatever your passions are, pursue them wholeheartedly. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.”
If you’re not sure what your passion is, this shouldn’t depress you further. Research shows that simply trying new things can increase dopamine levels in the brain, contributing to sustained levels of contentment. So, get out of the house and try new things. Eventually, you’ll find one that lights you up inside.
Set weekly goals.
Just hearing the word “goals” used to depress me. I couldn’t help but think of corporate plodders, wielding dry-erase pens and scribbling inconsequential to-dos on an office whiteboard. But, the fact is, setting weekly goals has become vital to my well-being. And, it’s done wonders for my depression.
Of course, when you have depression, setting goals is only half the battle. Actually doing what it takes to achieve them can be a laborious, uphill slog. You’ll almost certainly fall victim to procrastination – because, procrastination is one of depression’s hideous relatives. That’s why I suggest the Two-Minute Rule.
Look over your list of goals. If there’s a task you’ve been putting off, try doing just two minutes of it. Write for just two minutes. Paint for just minutes. Clean for just two minutes. If you do it for just two minutes, chances are you’ll end up doing it for much longer.
One of my least favorite places to go is the gym. And, one of my least favorite things to do is, well, go to the gym. Of course, exercise is, by far, the most widely recommended way to stave off depression. I don’t know why, but it took me a while to realize that you don’t need to go to the gym to get exercise.
You can do yoga, play badminton, or jump on a trampoline. You can go swimming or dancing or hiking or biking. You can hula hoop with your kids or practice Kung Fu. You can clean your garage or pull weeds in your garden. Or, you can take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Just do something physical. And, you only need to do it for 20 minutes.
Stay off social media.
I can’t think of anything worse for a fragile human psyche than social media. It’s no secret that using social media can lead to depression, anxiety, envy, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and all kinds of other problems. It’s also a colossal waste of time. Imagine what you could accomplish in your own life during the hours you spend scrolling through the highlight reels from the lives of others.
If you think you’ll be missing out on something by staying off social media, I assure you that you won’t be. In fact, you’re already missing out by staying on social media. You’re missing out on real life. You’re missing out on genuine, face-to-face interaction. You’re missing out on the beauty that might be unfolding just outside your window.
Stay the fuck off social media. Either that, or limit yourself to 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening. If you must use social media for business purposes or otherwise, consider adjusting your newsfeed. You might be surprised by how much better you feel.
Laugh as much as humanly possible.
Whoever coined the phrase, laughter is the best medicine, was really onto something. Studies show that laughter releases endorphins, activates neurotransmitter serotonin, relieves physical tension and stress, boosts the immune system, and protects the heart. But, depression can make you wonder if you’ll ever experience laughter again. That’s why you need to seek it out.
Instead of watching the morning news, which is nothing if not depressing, I watch the previous night’s episode of The Tonight Show or The Late Show. For every hour that I’m working, I take five minutes to watch reliably funny clips on YouTube. Before I go to bed, I watch ten minutes of stand-up comedy. I read funny books, see funny movies, and spend as much time as I can with ridiculously funny people – including my next-door neighbor, Etta, who happens to be four years old.
Depression is no joke. Make a conscious effort to integrate laughter into your daily routine. You’ll be tickled you did.
Remember three things.
For every ten or so people who have never experienced depression, there’s someone who has. Remember that you’re not alone, even if it feels like you are. Know that there are people to talk to, people who will listen, people who will understand. This should give you at least some measure of comfort.
Life is not a smooth ride. But, it is a wondrous one. If you make the decision – no, the unbreakable promise to yourself – to do this work, and depression creeps in, remember that it’s okay. It’s okay to feel bad. Give yourself a day – or even a few days – to fully experience your emotions. Curl up and cry, sit solemnly in blackness, and scream obscenities into your pillow. Let these feelings move through you.
Then, wake up in the morning, and remember the promise you made.