Before I even dig in, how many caveats can I put at the beginning? I am undiagnosed, unmedicated, untherapized… I am not a medical professional, and I’m sure this is all woefully unscientific. I know for an absolute fact that I don’t have things half as bad as millions of people on this planet… I know the severity of my purported mental illness pales in comparison to so many others…
And yet, I have depression. I get depressed.
Not “sometimes I feel sad.” Not “sometimes my empathy gets the best of me” (though it certainly does).
I experience, at times, and continue to experience, a sensation of apathy, sadness, listlessness, pointlessness, self doubt, and downright misanthropy that is untethered to specific experiences or ideas… A weighted blanket malaise that makes it hard to care about anything, and focuses the majority of my thoughts toward some vague hopelessness that doesn’t have a single solution in sight.
This has been going on for as long as I can remember, and while sometimes it’s just a matter of wallowing in it, I’ve learned one huge mental “trick” to changing my entire outlook on this plague of my personal mental health.
Before I go any further… Everyone’s different. Talk to a therapist (I want to, but haven’t yet). Things like diet and exercise and sleep make a difference, but it’s not panacea. I’m not telling you how to solve all of your problems, or even claiming that I’ve solved mine. Instead, this whole thing is an effort to A: be as transparent as possible, and B: offer some kind of insight into a “tool” that has worked wonders for me.
Bad Guy Brain
I don’t exactly know when I started using this term, or even thinking in this way… But it is perhaps the single largest differentiator in how I handle my lowest lows in recent years. At some point, I started to truly acknowledge that brains are, well, entirely run on chemicals and electricity… They are systems like any other – and while they might be more complex than we can comprehend, we do know a thing or two about systems in general…
They’re finicky, imperfect, and often prone to error. The more “moving parts” (and the brain has plenty), the greater the potential for trouble… And to me, that’s fucking LIBERATING.
When I’m in a slump, when a single thought spirals into an entire day of negativity, when I get out of bed and I can’t help but feel the weight of the world… I give it a name. When Bad Guy Brain shows up, I kind of know what to expect. I can warn the others around me… And most of all, I know that it’s probably temporary. A hitch in the system. If I’m not like this all the time, then each and every encounter is likely impermanent.
That stuff helps, but it’s just the start.
Far more importantly, this accusatory Bad Guy Brain moniker allows me to separate the sensations from my sense of self. It’s not ME that thinks all those terrible things, it’s a piece of my biology acting up. It’s not ME that thinks nothing matters, that my friends don’t care about me, that all of my efforts are wasted and doomed to dust… It’s my neurobiology and/or some triggering thought (or not) that have clouded my generally positive (or at least neutral) disposition.
It’s not ME… It’s my brain being an asshole TO ME.
Recognize and React
Nowadays, I can almost feel it as a physical sensation – that something isn’t quite running right upstairs – and that too is both helpful and empowering.
In the past, these kinds of thoughts (and the spans of time they seem most persistent) became a new reality. It was simply how I saw the world, and I had no choice but to accept all the baggage that comes with it.
Now, however, as persistent as it may be, I can see those mental patterns in a different light, somehow separating my internal monologue from the pernicious pieces of it that want to drag me into apathy, inaction, and desperation.
It’s hard to describe precisely, but instead of being a “depressed person,” I feel like a person with a depressed brain. In separating the sensations from my sense of self, things don’t seem so hopeless… They seem annoying, and that’s WAY easier to deal with.
When Bad Guy Brain decides he’s taking over the day, I can respond accordingly. Maybe that’s just letting myself rest, and seeing the source as some stress that needs a bit of time to dissipate. Maybe that’s acting in spite of that jerk who wants to keep me a bedridden sadsack, and pushing myself to practice or spend time with friends or do any old thing that injects some joy into that problematic brain chemistry. Or maybe, just maybe, I stay terribly depressed and don’t do anything about it at all – but at least I’ve got a shred of perspective about what’s actually going on.
This act of naming, of personification, has allowed me to build a barrier between my worst mental moments and the sweeping view of my life in total. When I feel the depression setting in, or even take note of some largely unprompted downswing in mood, I have a place to point the finger.
The “disease” becomes a systems error, not a character flaw…
I dunno, this is kind of a post without a final point. I don’t have a neat little wrapup or perfectly styled piece of parting advice… Just that for me, separating the activities of the brain with how I feel about myself in an overarching kind of way has become a powerful coping mechanism.
You aren’t only your present thoughts… And when the system is a little haywire, an attempt at some objective (ish) self observation can make a magnificent difference. It won’t make the feelings go away, but in my experience, recognizing the physicality of the often faceless problem makes it far easier to deal with.
I’d love to hear if this helps, how you manage, and how I can make things easier for you. Never forget, we’re all in this together.