If depression comes, try this

I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who said to be an expert at something you have to put in at least 10,000 hours. If that’s the case, after three-plus years of couch time in the last decade, I declare myself the expert on couch time and mental health. So I have some things for people to consider as they face big stretches of time in solitude or restricted society.

I don’t mean this post to be funny; I mean it to be helpful for the many who, like me, suffer in “normal” times from depression and/or anxiety that can be debilitating. I mean it also to be helpful for people, like me, for whom “normal” times includes not only a chronic mental health diagnosis, but a chronic physical health diagnosis that depresses the immune system.

This morning I posted a check in for community on Facebook: Have you brushed your teeth today? Maybe I meant that as funny, but the more the responses rolled in with laugh emojis and a question about bras, I realized I did not, in fact, mean for it to be a joke. I meant for it to be a real check in for people who may not be used to sitting around their house for hours on end and might forget to do the very basic and usual hygiene even while scrubbing their hands and singing “Stairway to Heaven” a hundred times a day.

Some of the things I have tried to incorporate into my daily life since saying farewell to the couch (though there are still days when my brain and my body insist on a couch day and I find I have not yet done one or any of these) include:

  • Brushing my teeth after breakfast whether I want to or not.
  • Getting dressed, especially in jeans that make lounging on the couch less comfortable.
  • Making a list for the day and adding “Brush Teeth” to it, so I can cross it off because I have already done it or remember to do it if I haven’t.
  • Reviewing the list in silence and for some time. Some might even call this meditation. While I review the list, I look for things I can accomplish easily and quickly (like brush my teeth), but also things that will make me feel more comfortable in the space I’m spending my day in. My husband will laugh at this last phrase, because right now, there is no space in our house that is untouched by the renovation to our living space that was started in January, before “shelter in place” became a possibility. But, still, I try. I make the bed by pulling up the covers, though I am usually doing so while a big hairy cat reclines on said covers and the attempt is neither complete nor neat. I try by putting dishes in the dishwasher and towels in the washing machine and changing the cat box with some regularity.
  • I also look for things on the list that will bring me joy or create beauty. And, if there isn’t one, I add it. It might be as simple as “replant succulents” or “read a poem,” and sometimes I never actually get to that item, but I know it’s there so I don’t feel like my day is full of drudgery and nothingness.

I think that is my best advice from the depths of my understanding of despair. Remind yourself that whatever is in front of you is not forever. Of course, chronic illness (mental or otherwise) is forever, but the moment you are in is not. This is true of the tortured moments as well as the joy-filled ones, as well as those that seem endlessly full of nothing.

As people become less physically interactive, depression is likely, and if you don’t “normally*” experience depression, it may come on gradually and you will suddenly find yourself not doing things like, I don’t know, brushing your teeth. A day of this is not depression. Two days, though, starts a trend you don’t want to extend.

I joked with my boss the other day, as I was saying goodbye until “whenever” as she and her husband made the hard but right decision to close the antique mall, that maybe this will bring back “over the fence” neighborly conversations again. That’s a good social distance, don’t you think?

And I joked last night, as I realized I had NOT brushed my teeth all day, that not doing so was MY social distancing practice.

Truth is, I don’t need any help with social distancing. I am the kind of person who has enough to do around me at all times (cleaning, making, reading, cleaning, de-cluttering, re-cluttering, and cleaning), that I don’t generally get bored by being stranded to my home. If the weather warms up or if I learn how to use my garage propane heater without fear of demolishing the neighborhood, I will gladly spend the next month in our garage, attempting to complete all the projects stored up in there. The opportunity to be at home with no pressing appointments is this home-body’s idea of a good holiday. But you are not me, and these coming weeks and/or months may be difficult for you.

And, even with all the things around me that could be done, I’m also the kind of person who can spend a solid afternoon in my head, plotting and planning things I could make from the piles in the garage.

A few years ago, my mother chose to move into an assisted living space and yesterday the news came down that she will be in “lock down” mode for the foreseeable future. The residents had been able to visit with each other, just not outsiders, for the last week or so, but now they are to stay in their rooms, with meals being delivered to them.

This will be hard for my mother, who moved to this place because she felt socially isolated in her house. Here, she has friends just a few doors down and they aren’t able to play cards or share meals any longer, or gather for book club. This is necessary and gives us (my siblings and I), peace that precautions are being taken to keep her and her friends healthy, and, yet, I feel so sad when I think of her in isolation like this–away from everybody.

But this also provides me an opportunity to become creative again in ways to keep connected to her with the things she likes that I can share via text or phone call. Things I was a slacker at pre-pandemic because her life seemed so busy with friends and cards and all those doctor appointments. I already see my Facebook feed filled with people finding new and fun ways to stay connected as well as share ideas for creative adventures in social distancing.

It may feel like we are living in a petrie dish right now, but the one thing we know about petrie dishes is that they grow things. See what you can grow, what you can create, what story you can tell your grandchildren about the great pandemic one day. May your isolation mean good health for you and yours.

And, if you are one of the helpers who does not get to self-isolate because your ability to heal, feed, or protect others keeps you in the bottom of the petrie dish: thank you. May you be well.

To all who are doing what they can to flatten the curve and reduce the number of people who will die because of this disease, thank you. This is holy work.

Oh, and thank you all for brushing your teeth.


*I keep putting the word normal in quotes because each day I find it harder and harder to define it.