When I was growing up, my Dad used to just take off.
As in, literally.
We’d come home from school (those times when we lived with him), and Mum would say, “Dad’s gone up north”.
He was a wild man, a man of extremes.
I look back and can only imagine the inner chaos he must have been feeling. Because my Dad, I’m certain, suffered from un-diagnosed depression. And on days like today, I totally understand why he would just jump in the car and drive toward the sun.
It’s 9 degrees in Ballarat as I type. Overcast with a light drizzle. A perfect day to curl up in front of the fire and feel gratitude for the roof over my head and the food in my belly.
And about 8 weeks ago, when the weather first turned, that is how I felt; happy to experience the seasons and appreciate my lot.
But a shift has occurred – maybe seasonal, maybe not – and I can feel the early rumblings of depression within.
If I didn’t pay attention, I might think its sadness….but experience tells me it’s not.
It’s quite physical. A tightening in the centre of my chest and up towards my throat. A reluctance to move in my body. A slowness to react in my brain.
When I have to be around colleagues, days like today have always been tough.
They mark the beginning of my ‘Pretend Phase’.
“How are you Clare?”, I’m asked on these days.
“Good thanks!”, I pretend, with a smile.
I stand in front of a group of people on these days, facilitating with apparent confidence and skill. But inside the volume on my negative self-talk is getting loud.
“How did it go today?”, I’m asked. “Great!”, I respond.
I don’t mention that I had to stop myself walking out of the building a few times. That actually I’m thinking this is all too hard and I don’t think I can do it any more.
The Pretend Phase is where I’m at right now. How about you?
Listen to your body for a moment.
Is there heaviness anywhere?
Do you wish you could avoid everyone?
Is the idea of closing yourself away in a private office and not having to ‘play along’ sounding appealing?
Are you finding it just that little bit harder than normal to think through a problem?
If you relate to these, maybe you’re just a bit flat and it will pass by tomorrow.
Or maybe, like me, you need to pay attention.
Realise that unless you take proactive steps, the early rumbling of depression will start to unfold and expand; permeating your mind and your body, until one day you just can’t fake it.
And by this time, you’ll be quite ill. Your ability to care for yourself and get yourself back to good health will be severely compromised.
So, what are we to do, fellow Pretenders?
Well, I don’t have all the answers. But I’ve been at this stage many times, so I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.
First of all, I’m not going to pretend. So far today 2 people have said, “How are you Clare?”, and I told them the truth. I said “Not great today actually. I’m feeling a bit heavy”.
Faking feeling good doesn’t help. It just takes energy I don’t have. Neither of them fell off their chair. The sky didn’t fall in. I just now have two people who know I’m not having a great day.
Second, I’m going to go for a brisk walk after lunch. The weather is awful, and I don’t like exercising at the best of times, but I know I need some help producing those endorphins that will lift my mood.
Third, I’m going to pay careful attention to my self-talk. When I was an inpatient at the Melbourne Clinic, I learnt that even if I can’t ‘switch off’ the difficult feelings just like that, I can ‘switch on’ helpful thought patterns.
I’m going to put some post it notes up on my laptop to remind myself of my strengths, and I’m going to say it to myself all day long.
“I’m really capable”. “I’m great at my job”. It sounds lame, I’m sure, but if I let my thoughts follow my feelings I’m on a slippery slope. I’ve learnt that my thoughts – and behaviours – really can shift my feelings, if only I’ll swallow my scepticism and practice what I’ve learnt.
And finally, I’m going to be kind to myself.
Every hour or two I’m going to watch a funny clip on youtube, because I know the psychological benefits of laughter are quite amazing, and will help me feel better.
I’m going to finish the two ‘non-negotiable’ tasks on my to-do list, then head home a little early.
I’m going to book an appointment with my counsellor, because having someone you can totally let your guard down with is helpful.
I’m not having a wine tonight, because even though I would enjoy it, taking a depressant when I’m a little depressed just doesn’t make sense. I’ll have some chocolate instead.
I’m going to make sure I go to bed by 10pm, because I know a consistent sleep pattern will help my body heal itself.
In a few weeks I have to work in Brisbane, and I’m going to allow myself an extra few days there to soak up the sun.
I know myself well enough to know that tomorrow will most likely be a challenging day too… they don’t go away overnight, these early feelings of depression.
But I know what it is I have to do to help myself. I know that a slide into that dark place of despair is not inevitable, if I just nurture myself, one day at a time.
And most importantly, at least I don’t have to pretend.