Sometimes there’s not a lot to argue about with someone who’s depressed. Maybe they’re dealing with losing their job, getting divorced, or being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Their lives have become hard, their energy sources have dried up. Depressive thoughts and negativity have begun to entrench themselves in their lives, and like weeds that are strangling the beauty out of a garden once full of life, someone’s belief that their lives can get better grows more dim.
“I want to get better, I want to feel like myself again, but I can’t find the energy to do anything. I know walking would help. I know getting out more would make me feel better. Rationally, I realize all that. But I’m stuck. I’m real stuck.”
How can you believe in change again? How can you disrupt the hold that depression has over you?
I’m certainly not here to pretend that there’s an easy answer to that question. But there’s an exercise that I’ve recommended to people over the years – people that are losing their faith in their own ability to turn depression around – that has been helpful.
One woman’s journey to believing again in change…
Kelly was a 35-year old woman who’d initially come to see me with her husband of over a decade. Both were very career-oriented and, as a result, hadn’t paid enough attention to the quality of their marriage. They eventually decided to divorce. There weren’t any children from the marriage, so they fairly quickly split their assets and amicably moved on with their lives. The first few months were good. But loneliness began to creep in. She got tired of being with her coupled friends, without a partner herself. She stopped exercising and starting sleeping late on the weekends. Money was a lot tighter than it had been in the past. A relationship that she thought had potential fell apart, and she began realizing she might never have children of her own. The enormity of her choices and the difficulties she was facing grew overwhelming, and depression began to set in.
When Kelly came back in to see me, she was three years post-divorce, and she was calling it “the worst mistake of my life.” Her husband had remarried. She felt alone and frightened, hopeless and ashamed.
“I’m scared to make other choices. How can I trust my own decisions? So, I do nothing. I go to work. I come home. And do the same thing the next day.”
Kelly no longer believed in herself, or her ability to change. She was losing her battle with depression.
An exercise in making change happen…
I asked Kelly to try an exercise. It might not make sense, but it might help. I’d actually never given it to anyone before. It kinda “came” to me. I listened to my gut and offered her this idea.
“Every day, I want you to either do something you’ve always wanted to do, but never have done. Or I want you to do something that your best friend would say you’d never do. These aren’t life-altering things. I want them to be small things. Like maybe you’ve never eaten a mango, but you’ve always been curious. Or maybe there’s a street that you’ve always wanted to drive down, but you’ve never taken the time. And as far as what you’d never do – make that easy as well. Maybe you’d never be caught dead without earrings. Then don’t wear earrings. Maybe you always eat scrambled eggs. Order them sunny side up. Just something you never do.”
She smiled and agreed, although looking a bit perplexed.
When she came in the next session, she sat down quickly and in a mildly irritated tone said, “Well I thought your exercise was stupid, but I did it.”
“Then a funny thing happened… A friend called me to have lunch. I’d been avoiding her, because her life is going great and I felt like I didn’t have much to offer. But I went, and found myself talking about all those little things I’d done the past week. Is that what was supposed to happen?”
I hadn’t known what to expect. But I’ve never forgotten what her outcome was. She had acted, and begun to change. She started making other changes, small at first, but very real.
And change is where you find hope.
Whether you’re dealing with depression or hiding your depressive symptoms from the world, you can try this out.
And maybe you’ll gain a new perspective on your own life — a life where one small change at a time should never be discounted.
Here’s a questionnaire to determine where you may belong on the spectrum of Perfectly Hidden Depression.
You can hear more about treatment for depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.