I've wanted to write about mental health for a long time. I hoped that one day I'd have mastered the intricacies of my mind, and perhaps then I would have something of value to share with the world. I now understand that the moment of absolute clarity that I'm waiting for will never come. However, I've become better at living with my mind and perhaps that in itself is a story worth sharing. In this article, I describe my encounters with depression and how I defend myself. I won't go into very much detail, both because the subject is quite personal and since I do not want to bore you.
I want to stress that everything I say in this article is explicitly regarding my mind, and therefore may not be something you can relate to. I'm sharing this because it's important to talk about mental health and get rid of the stigma around it in our society. Nothing more, nothing less.
I was born into happiness. My memory of childhood may be slightly inflated, but I reckon it's mostly genuine. Childhood was an abundance of joy. I didn't even label it as happiness because it was just my norm. Only now do I appreciate how lucky I was to be taken care of by such a loving family and to grow up in Kerala. Sadness was an infrequent, interim guest that I didn't quite have the opportunity to get to know very well. Happiness was easy. I didn't have to make any effort.
For middle school, I moved to the city of Abu Dhabi. This is where the years of bullying began. I felt sad sometimes, but mostly I felt rage and hatred. I used those emotions to motivate myself to be the best possible person that I could be. At the same time, unknown to me, I was also losing that happy, carefree side of me.
Failure is subjective. We all have small failures every day, but some failures can be life-altering. In 2015, I was finishing with my degree at the University of Bath when a string of PhD application rejections (about ten of them IIRC) and my final year thesis difficulties shocked my mind into a two-month-long depression. I didn't leave my room for most of that time. Until then, I never could relate to people who were depressed. Why be sad when you can work on solving your problems, so you don't have to feel sad? Now I know that the powerlessness you feel when depressed is something that can't be conveyed, only experienced.
At the time, I had no tools for dealing with it. I was way too embarrassed to speak to anyone about it. When thoughts of self-harm started creeping into my mind, thankfully sanity kicked in, and I forced myself to see a doctor. The doctor was very kind to me, and I felt a lot better from merely talking to her. A week or two after that, I managed to put a smile back on my face. I had a surprisingly happy summer that year.
Psychologically, I went through a drastic change during and following that crisis. I even shifted from an INTJ to an INFJ personality type as I started prioritizing my feelings more! I never wanted to experience that level of helplessness ever again, so I started building my defences. They took time to grow and surviving many battles.
I classify my defences as preventative, corrective or both. I list these below in rough order of importance.
Warm, sunny days. These are unfortunately in short supply in the UK. I can't control the weather either. I hope to meet the 100% Sunshine Girl someday.
Cycling. I cycle roughly 5 hours a week or 100 kilometres. I used to prefer running, but knee and back injuries forced me to quit running. Cycling helps me stay slim, which in turn helps me feel better about myself, aka self-esteem. I love reaching that zen state where my mind is too tired to have any thoughts. So therapeutic!
Morning gym sessions. How is it that aching muscles feel so good! I hit the gym about three times a week.
Plenty of me time. As much as I love my friends and family, I find it very draining to be around people for too long. I charge up when I'm by myself. Therefore, I reserve some evenings and weekend days for myself. Sometimes, I even stay at home for a holiday.
Spending time with family/friends. Love is the best thing we do. I feel very grateful for my family and close friends. Over the last five years since my first depression, I have also learnt to speak to them when I'm feeling low. The simple act of just telling someone how you feel can be so immensely uplifting.
Keeping the house clean/tidy. This is usually my first step to getting life back in order when depressed. I feel distraught when the house is a mess.
Eating healthy and not skipping meals. I tend not to cook very much, but I do try to have a balanced diet and stay away from sugary/fatty foods. Recently, I experimented with intermittent fasting. This was such a resounding success that I'll be writing an article dedicated to it.
Not overworking. Having overworked in the past and burned out badly, I'm determined never to experience that again. I try my best not to let work eat up my personal time.
Keeping myself so busy that I don't have time to worry. When I'm idle for too long, I start having depressing thoughts. Therefore, I have lots of hobbies to keep myself busy. Currently, these include programming, reading, writing, learning Spanish and playing the piano.
Reading. I already mentioned reading, but it's worth emphasizing. Books are a happy place for me. I find a lot of inspiration in the books that I read.
Avoid fast food at all costs. I like to indulge myself under normal circumstances. However, if I'm not feeling good, I know from experience that fast food will only take things further downhill.
Professional therapy. I find it a lot easier to speak freely to a therapist than to someone I know. Therapy could be a preventative tool too, I guess, but it's a little too expensive and time consuming for my taste. I have only tried therapy once in 2019 when I felt utterly lost. Thanks to my excellent therapist, after just four or five therapy sessions, I was able to get back on my feet.
There are also lots of things that I experimented with that didn't work for me:
Sometimes, I wonder what life is like for people who are just happy by nature and don't have to work so hard for it. Maybe everyone works hard at it. Some just make it look easy.
My current mental health defences are rather high maintenance and not 100% reliable, but they're good enough that I think I can make it through at least one human lifetime. Still keen to make optimizations where I can though! If there are any defences that you've tried which worked well for you, I'd love to hear about them.
Apparently, we get happier the older we get. So, maybe we just need to wait it out.