Ways to stay chipper
I’m resolved to be happy, to enjoy life. In the summer months, happiness comes easily. I’m active, whether alone or with friends, and never short of energy or enthusiasm. But when fall comes I start to feel the tides of darkness encroaching, dragging me down. Now’s the time I have to make a note: Depression Alert! Because I’m prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder and live in Seattle, because I suffered depression throughout my 30s and my brain chemistry still teeters on that brink, and because I’m a damn complex and moody alcoholic in recovery, I need to be careful.
I once read that depression evolved as a survival strategy to prevent us from doggedly pursuing unrealistic goals or otherwise squandering energy without a high return. I envision some primitive humans all gung-ho to build a tower to the gods despite all setbacks; some kind of “fuck this!” switch had to evolve somewhere along the line. More practically, in fall and winter there’s just not as much food out there for a hunter-gatherer to net, so we developed the impulse to hunker by the home-fires to avoid fruitless expenditures of energy.
The trouble comes when my brain decides to categorize the entire enterprise of living as a fruitless expenditure of energy. I look around: the house will never stay clean; dishes and laundry never stay done. My bank account acts like a storage tank with a gaping hole at the bottom. I gleefully deposit checks only to see that some damn auto-deduction – the gym, car insurance, internet – has slurped up half of it before I even drive home. I keep getting older and ricketier plus people seem to forget about me if I don’t keep showing up for social stuff. Doesn’t that make all of these unattainable goals? Shouldn’t I just give up and hunker by the home-fire?
I choose not to take prescription antidepressant drugs because, lucky for me, my depression is only seasonal and not debilitating. It’s just the daily challenge of my emotional weather. I want to learn to navigate life in stormy as well as in clear sailing. Wisdom, I believe, gets pounded out in that struggle. I don’t mean to poop on meds or those whose brain chemistry leaves them no other option. Chemistry is chemistry. For myself, though, I envision my depression as a pit of darkness I have to circle until spring, walking a narrow, angled, and slippery path on its perimeter. The tactics below help me pick my steps. But if I were to fall in (become clinically depressed) none of them would do any good.
- I filled with a low-level dread but have no clue what it’s about.
- I may or may not decide I’m scared of finding myself broke and alone.
- The prospect of socializing seems an Olympic event, demanding coherent remark after coherent remark like a series of hurdles I barely clear.
- The prospect of going to work feels like storming a hostile empire of steel, concrete, and synthetics, where nothing natural or charming can survive.
- The world’s goin’ to hell in a handbasket.
- All I want to do is to eat cookies and nap peacefully.
What to do? I fuckin’ pray. I don’t want to, but I do. I ask god to help me remember how to live. God, I have found, is all about can-do and positive action. It doesn’t empathize with lackadaisical whining, but counters, What can you do now? It tells me I already know the answer. And I sort of do.
Whether I feel like it or not, I have to FORCE myself to…
- Exercise – take a ballet class, go for a run, something
- Make coffee/pho dates and go to more meetings
- Go outside and do SOMETHING – anything! Rake leaves, walk the dog
- Practice gratitude; love others; be of service
- Meditate more
- Eat healthy, for god’s sake!
- If it gets really bad, bust out the Happy Light, St. John’s wort and/or 5 hydroxytryptophan
All these tactics help a little. But I also have a secret list of unofficial aids that help me – things I’ve never seen in magazines.
- Make something – bake, draw a picture, knit
- Light candles to an impractical degree, maybe even in daylight
- Play happy music
- Smile and yawn more – both give your brain a lift
- String up indoor Xmas lights irrespective of Xmas
- Watch no TV; avoid pop-culture magazines; limit social networking
- Practice mindfulness, focusing on loving what I am doing now
Here’s my thing with mindfulness: sometimes, it can get boring. I mean, obviously, it’s a discipline, so if I’m getting bored, that means I’m not practicing well. Still, I’ve developed some tweaks to make it more interesting – and most of them involve pretending. Recreational pretending, in my opinion, is vastly underrated. My brain chemistry doesn’t seem to distinguish much between real and imagined sources of happy, cozy thoughts. In fact, pretending, if executed skillfully, can feel like a little uplifting, drug-free trip to another place.
- I pretend…
- that I live in a charming, romantic country or exotic tropical place. My home is in some village of France or on the island of Fiji. I can smell the odors of baguettes or tropical flowers. This can work when you’re driving if you pretend you’re touring quaint vistas.
- that I’m super rich but eccentric and choose to live exactly as I do
- that I live in an amazing dollhouse. I was once on a ladder fixing a small window that looks in on my living room. Inside, the evening sun was lighting the space with a warm yellow, and it looked to me like a weirdly classic doll’s house with every detail delightfully realistic. I can still call up that feeling which changes mess to fantastic precision.
- that I’m a 14th century monk used to abjuring all physical comforts, but just for today, I’m cheating!
The goal of all these quirky imaginings is actually to practice love and acceptance. The act of assenting to the circumstances of our lives – calling them good – is what brings contentment. I’ve developed these roundabout means of doing what you can practice directly: loving everything your senses bring you, loving being alive.