Since starting this blog back in July I have primarily written blogs for those struggling with dual- diagnosis, those in recovery, and spiritual seekers in general (plus the occasional “just for fun” post.) I’ve had over 7,000 visitors, plenty of retweets and favorites on Twitter, but today I write for an audience of–one-me–but you are welcome to read along.
As summer fades into fall and the daylight hours shorten I tend to slump. This has been, unfortunately, a regular occurrence in my adult years. Suffering from bipolar one disorder my main concern is slipping into psychotic mania, but depression is a very real part of the bipolar cycle. After my last manic, an episode resulting in incarceration, the depression that set in afterwards was severe. My employer during the prolonged months of depression had to sever ties– it was more of a mercy killing than a firing.
If you have ever experienced depression you know first-hand how hopeless you can feel. I woke up like that today and stayed in bed for a good two hours before shuffling off to work. Fall is officially here and I have fallen.
Before I write another word let me stress the importance of seeking professional treatment and never abruptly stopping any prescribed medication if you are dealing with mental health issues. That being said, I have some time-tested tips that have helped me in the past and that I will need to start applying immediately.
A better prescription. My psychiatric prescribing nurse keeps close tabs on my mood levels, especially during the fall and winter months when daylight is in short supply and my mood frequently takes a downturn. A couple of years ago I was spiraling downwards and we discussed the possibility of medication. Reluctant to go that route I asked if there was anything else I could try. “Cut out the sugar and exercise every day,” was the prescription. She noted, however, that this is a tall order since the quick fix of a sugar high appeals to the depressed and when you are despondent exercise isn’t that tempting.
As hard as that prescription was to implement it really worked. I’ve picked up a few other pointers along the way and the full prescription looks like this:
Replace sugar with complex carbs. I’ve found that I can’t just cut down on sugar. A little taste and the cravings for simple carbs grab ahold of me. So today I will stop cold turkey. (Mental note: call my wife and have her hide or give away the case of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts we just brought back from Hawaii.)
Cutting out the sugar has its drawbacks. Carbohydrates raise the level of that desirable brain chemical serotonin that enhances your sense of well-being. The problem with sugar is that there is a quick and sudden crash, leading to the desire for more sugar, more calories, more weight gain and the inevitable feeling of being fat, sluggish and sub-human. Vegetables, fruit and whole grains can give you the carb boost without the sugar crash. (I have peaches from a friend ripening on the kitchen counter to look forward to tonight.)
Get moving. Nothing gets the serotonin flowing like a little exercise. Though the automatic payments are still coming out of my checking account, I haven’t darkened the doorway of my gym for several months. What’s more, my go to exercise of choice, a four-mile walk around my neighborhood, hasn’t made it into my repertoire for some time. I live in Arizona. It gets freakin’ hot in the desert and that dampens my desire to exercise. But it’s cool enough now–time to get moving.
Worship the sun. The reason I have chosen walking as my exercise of choice is that it gives me a chance to get outdoors. Sunlight, even if obscured by clouds, boosts my feeling of well-being. Even when I worked a two year contract in Oregon, where the sun rarely makes a full appearance, getting outside regularly really helped my mood. Hence another reason to go for walks (outside, not on treadmills).
Cut out the “energy.” Caffeine is not an anti-depressant. Try as I might, no amount of diet Red Bull has ever snapped me out of a funk. In excess, the “energy” in energy drinks has made me nervous, jittery and anxious … but not happy. Worse yet, it wreaks havoc on my sleep patterns and has me running to the medicine cabinet in the middle of a sleepless night for Benadryl to knock me out. If there is anything more vital to combatting mental illness than regular sleep I don’t know what it is.
Nuzzle a pet, care for others. My wife is a dog person. We’ve always had a dog around the house. The amazing thing about pets is that they intuitively sense when you are down. Our first dog, a rescue mutt named Kizzy, was typically found at my wife’s side. However, I noted that when I was feeling down Kizzy would leave her “mother’s” side to cuddle with me on the coach … something she never did when I was feeling fine. My ex-wife’s boxer Keesha was the same way. She had a way of nuzzling away the blues when I stopped by after a particularly horrific bender during my drinking days.
Having a pet to nurture provides a great opportunity to commit to the care of something besides yourself. Similarly, having others to care for can be very therapeutic. I remember my first sponsor cutting me off when I tried to thank him. “You are doing more for me than you know,” was his response. I understand that sentiment now. It’s time to pick up a new sponsee and be more attentive to my wife, daughters and grandchildren.
Embrace creativity. Painting, photography, music, knitting, journaling, etc .. The ways to explore feelings and express yourself are limitless. I’ve found it more than a little therapeutic to throw myself into creative activities I really enjoy. Despite six years of piano lessons, a grand piano in our great room, and a sense of duty to tinkle the ivory, the piano is not my outlet. It’s not about forcing yourself to do something you think you should do; it’s about finding an enjoyable creative outlet. I write … often about some inappropriate place I peed … but I write all the same. Although it takes some amount of willpower to start when I’m feeling down, I can lose myself in writing once I get started.
Consider supplements. Studies suggest omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 help mollify the mood swings common with depression. Being an addict, I was hoping that supplements would provide some kind of quick fix. This hasn’t been my experience. But when the mood darkens I work them into my routine.
Get quiet. Lastly, the big one for me is to regularly find time to get quiet and look within. Mindful relaxation or meditation is key. Stress and anxiety exacerbate depression and complicate recovery. Often there are nagging issues that only come to the surface when I get still.
The past couple of days, since returning from vacation, I have let this practice slip as I have been readjusting my sleep patterns. Over the next few weeks I will post about meditative practices as I tend to do what I write about. Meditation has always helped in the past.
So that’s what I know. That’s what I’ve done with noticeable success. To be honest, I rather curl up in a ball in sleep the day away. But this is the prescription I will follow. Sunday I go back to regular blog posts but I will blog in a few weeks about how it is going.
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