“How Do You Function During Your Depression?”

My Seasonal Affective Disorder’s got me by the scruff of the neck, which means I am staring at screens for an hour, unable to function. My wife finds me curled up in odd places around the house, trying not to cry loudly enough to be heard.

This time of year sucks.

Yet on Monday, I finished off the final draft of my upcoming book FIX to hand to my editor, and last night I switched back to continuing the work on my spiritual sequel to Sauerkraut Station, SAVOR STATION (105k words in, hope to finish the first draft before the 15th). And people ask, how do I do that?

Lots and lots of bourbon.

No, seriously, functioning during depression is a real thing. Too many people let everything go to hell when they’re down, and when their body stops pummeling them with feel-bad hormones they wake up to discover themselves jobless and friendless. A lot of depressions are chemically induced, but you can get yourself depressed by not maintaining the shit you need to do in your life.

And here’s the trick I use to keep functioning during depression:

I don’t expect to feel joy from what I need to do.

I just do it.

Which sounds really dumb, but a lot of people seem to feel as though everything they do should bring them immediate satisfaction – they pay the bills, and hey! They feel like a grownup, that’s awesome. They mop the floor and ding! They got a chore done, check that off the list!

Which works right up until you’re mired in anhedonia and unable to envision any joy from anything.

Worse, when you’re in depression, envisioning doing Things You Need To Do may make you feel worse – “I’m a shitty writer, I’m going to fuck up this novel.” “I’m a hot mess, everyone at that party’s going to hate me.” So if you’re a joy-driven person, depression makes you a sailboat without wind – you can’t go anywhere because the energy that motivated you has vanished.

And I hate to quote Nike, but ponder the “Just Do It” lifestyle. Grit your teeth and say “This will bring me no satisfaction in any way at all, but I need to do it because this is a maintenance task. If I let this slide, it will make things worse later on.”

I’m not normally a Dark Side guy, but let your hatred flow. Sure, you’re a terrible fucking writer. Sure, you don’t want to mop this floor. Sure, you fucking loathe the idea of going to friendly get-together where your buddies will probably ignore you.

Do it anyway. It’ll probably take you a while – my current run-up to a task is about half an hour of me staring, breathing raggedly, remembering that it doesn’t matter if I feel functional, if I don’t do this then my life will be worse than when I started out the day.

You know you can talk yourself out of shit. Trick is, you can also talk yourself into shit.

Do it crappily, if you have to. Write 200 words and erase them all, go to the party and pretend you’re coming down with an illness after half an hour, mop sloppily.

Get it done when you can.

You won’t, always. Depression means you’re never going to do 100% of what you needed to do – note my “curling up on the bed and crying” times. There will be days you just can’t function, and beating yourself up because of what you’re supposed to do will only make it worse.  But if you make a habit out of separating “satisfaction” from “do it,” you’ll wind up with a fairly rigid habit-structure of Doing The Bare Minimum that’ll get you by until you can actually feel happiness again.

At which point you’ll be in a place to feel happiness. I’ve seen it time and time again where someone emerges from a months-long depressive state where they’ve holed themselves inside a cave and blown off all their deadlines, only to wake up to a post-apocalyptic world that knocks them back into Sadness Villa again. It sucks. If you can avoid it, do so.

And if you’re thinking of using this technique as proof that depression doesn’t really exist, or that willpower can solve every problem, please set your head on fire and shove your face into a pan filled with bacon grease. Some days the black dog wins. Hell, some weeks the black dog wins. That doesn’t mean you don’t fight the dog, but for Christ’s sake don’t peddle that sickening lie that the dog’s just an illusion and if you believed in Tinkerbell hard enough then that rabid Doberman would stop chewing your genitals.

But the thing is, when you’re depressed you cannot rely on “happiness” to make you productive. You can, and should, consider drugs and therapy to help. But you can also get there by removing happiness from the equation.

As clinically as possible, analyze the Shit That’s Gotta Get Done Or Everything Will Get Worse. (Let go of all the stuff you can let go; don’t try to be a superhero now, man.) Then do those things and don’t expect to feel better for doing them or anticipate a burst of joy or even think that you’ll do them well. None of those are necessarily true.

But what is true is that depression lies, and though I’ve written a lot of shitty words during my Seasonal Affective Disorder, I’ve also written some gems. I’ve not enjoyed going to many parties, but my friends were happy to see me and they kept inviting me to more parties which I was thrilled to attend when I wasn’t sad. The house wasn’t filled with cockroaches.

That maintenance helps. The more you do it, the more you manage to accomplish on automatic pilot, and lemme tell you, when you can successfully automate yourself to Just Do Things like Work and Friendship during a catastrophic depression, then you are way ahead of the curve.

I don’t necessarily feel good about submitting FIX to the publisher – right now it’s a hot mess and I took big chances with the characters and you’re all going to hate it and my editor is going to savage it and tell me I have to spend months frantically repairing its manifest flaws.

But I didn’t do it for the happiness.

I did it because if I blew my deadline, I would feel a lot worse when June came and Happy-Ferrett looked at the smoking ruins of the fall launch he’d planned.

And so I staved off much more sadness by not trying to foment happiness in my time. It worked for me. And if you’ve not been getting much done, then maybe try it for you.

It won’t feel good. But what does?

2 Comments

  1. JD Moyer
    Apr 27, 2016

    Words of wisdom. The get it done gear. Spot on as usual. Hope the cloud lifts soon.

  2. Stacy Ashton
    Apr 27, 2016

    Yes, this. My three mantras when I’m in the middle of it are “nothing gets better if you don’t eat” and “I don’t have to do it well, I just have to do it” and “I don’t have to get better today, but I can try not to get worse”.

    I like the idea of a maintenance list that includes going outside and keeping up with friends. I get convinced my depression is poisonous to others, which I know is a clever lie depression tells me to keep me socially isolated, but it feels true at the time.

    I try and remember that feelings aren’t facts, and if the thought ends with me not showering, not eating, not getting out of bed, not talking to anyone, not going to the doctor, then by definition that thought is a clever ploy depression is using to keep me ill.

    Thank you for talking about this even in the grips of it. It’s helping me see that hearing someone talk about the experience of depression when I’m not in it myself does not trigger me into the depths – so maybe depression is totally bullshiting me when it tells me I am poison sadness is a bottle. Good to know!

    All I feel is compassion for you, and like I want to kick the black dog in the face for savaging you. You get all the hugs in the world.

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