More than The Blues

Our corner of Ohio has been getting whalloped this winter. More than 3 feet of snow fell in a two-day period on Christmas Day and the day after. Living just off Lake Erie presents some unique challenges, because the way that storm systems move across the lake create very tight bands of precipitation called lake-effect snow. On the ground this means that one area/town/community can get tons of snow while areas just a few miles away will get nothing but a few flakes.

Then you have days like today. In a 48 hour period almost all the snow has melted because it hit almost 60 degrees today! I had a brief window to go outside and fill the bird feeder and bath, scoop about a ton of dog poop, put away flower pots that didn't get stowed before the snow, shovel out a few icy areas and generally tidy things up. Soaking up the sun for a couple hours did wonders for my mood. It was good for the dogs' cabin fever, too, because digging for moles and following deer tracks is way more fun than staring out the windows at acres of snow.

My mood needed a little boosting because I've been struggling lately. I first started experiencing symptoms of depression in high school but in those days (the mid '90s) it wasn't widely known that teenagers could have Major Depressive Disorder. It was bad. I was suicidal for years, but I finally got professional help in college. The campus counselor, Pam, was my first therapist and I credit her and the campus doctor for saving my life. The depressive episodes have come and gone through the years, but I've learned to use my skills and rarely need meds any more.

Depression is an interesting beast. It is one of the most prevalent mental health issues in the country, but there is still stigma and confusion surrounding it. The CDC reports that between 2009 and 2012, in any two-week period 7.6% of the population over 12 years old reports having depression. In 2015 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 16.1 million Americans over age 18 experienced a major depressive episode within the previous year - that's 6.7% of all adults in the US!

Depression is more than just the blues, but it's difficult to describe to people who've never experienced it. Depression feels like perpetual darkness. Your body hurts, your mind races, you can't remember the last time you smiled or laughed or felt happy. You don't enjoy doing things that you used to enjoy, and no matter how much you love someone, you don't find comfort or pleasure in being around them. You sleep constantly, or not at all. Thinking about getting through another day, trying to meet your obligations and putting on a face of normalcy for the rest of the world feels as daunting as a forced march through a mosquito-infested swamp. The sadness seeps into your bones, into your soul. It is an excruciating way to live.

Another type of depression is seasonal affective disorder, which is characterized by depressive symptoms prompted by decreased sunlight during the winter. This is what I experience more often these days than major depressive episodes. My poor husband notices it every year in February/March when my concentration starts slipping and I want to sleep even more than usual. One of the best treatments for my SAD is a full-spectrum light box. I first started using one when I lived in Alaska, and my mom bought me my own a few Christmases ago.

A combination of talk therapy and medication is an effective treatment for most people with depression. There is some exciting research into new treatments, but I'll post more on that on a different day. There are a number of lifestyle changes that can support healthy mental wellness, too, like exercising (ugh, such a struggle for me), good nutrition, not isolating, finding supportive people, and being kind and patient with yourself as you recover. But one of the most important things you can do is educate yourself about what ails you. Start learning how to treat yourself with loving kindness and know that you're not alone in your mental health struggles. It's important to note, though, that lifestyle changes alone are not enough to ameliorate the symptoms of major depression. The most effective treatment is evidence-based talk therapy like CBT and/or DBT in conjunction with anti-depressants. Certified mental health professionals can also evaluate your symptoms and provide helpful treatments for trauma or other issues as needed.

Going through the pain of having mental illness is what eventually led to  me finding my calling as a therapist, so I'm grateful for the struggles I've had, painful though they were. The National Institute of Mental Health is a great place to start learning evidence-based information about depression. And in the meantime, get outside when the sun is out, be kind to yourself, and know that growing well is a life-long process.