This past week, May 5th to 12th, was Mental Health Week, which led me to reflect on my personal experience with depression, something I have struggled with multiple times throughout my life.
There is a misperception that depression is strictly an emotional or mood disorder; the truth is that depression affects every aspect of one’s life. Depression affects how one feels, how one moves, how one thinks, how one behaves. And, for me, the hardest part was how it affected my ability to set and meet goals, or to find the motivation to do more than just survive the day.
Depression robbed me of my drive, my ability to initiate activity, my ability to concentrate, retain information, and to recall words and/or thoughts. During my periods of depression I was physically, emotionally, and mentally fatigued. I was exhausted, and every movement required more energy than I could muster. The fatigue and the lack of motivation made it hard to do the simplest task. Brushing my teeth became a chore that was utterly draining. What made this even harder was people telling me I could “just snap out of it” or “get over it” if only I “tried harder”. They didn’t understand that it was taking everything out of me to exist. That I was trying as hard as I could, but that my best just wasn’t cutting it. This led to frustration, guilt, disappointment, and conversations with myself in which I continually beat myself up for not being able to get things done. And these conversations of self-abuse just led to more exhaustion, frustration, and depression.
Many of us are perfectionists, and expect more of ourselves than other people would ever expect of us. This makes the lack of motivation during depression even harder as our expectations for ourselves don’t change with the depression, but our ability to go about our daily life does dramatically alter. I had to learn to find success in lowered expectations. I had to give myself permission to lower the bar, and applaud myself for anything and everything that I was able to accomplish. I had to learn to focus on small steps and small successes. It started with getting out of bed. I would lie in bed, while a constant dialogue ran through my head, telling me to get up, knowing I should get up, but not being able to find the energy to actually get up. And, if I actually began to move out of bed, I felt like I was moving in slow motion, every movement required so much energy, and I felt drained just moving from the lying position to the sitting position. But then I learned to see this as a success. When I am not dealing with depression getting up from bed is an action that is so natural and automatic, that I give no thought to it. But when I am dealing with depression it seems equivalent to scaling a mountain. I learned to see it as a success, and to use getting out of bed as a springboard for the other daily activities I needed to achieve. I reminded myself that if I didn’t get out of bed, nothing else would be accomplished. Getting out of bed is vital to the day, it is a hard first step, and so I congratulated myself for completing that first step.
I learned to break tasks into small steps. Brushing my teeth was broken down into going to the bathroom, getting the toothbrush, putting the toothpaste on the brush (such an easy step to skip), and then properly brushing my teeth for the full two minutes. Each of these steps required enormous energy from me, and so I gave myself credit for each small step. By doing these small steps, and acknowledging the successes within them, I was able to move on to the next task.
It is extremely difficult to let a lifetime of perfectionism and high expectations slide. It is not natural, and it takes effort. But, for me, it was the main thing that helped to move from task to task, congratulating myself along the way for accomplishments that on a normal day I wouldn’t even notice doing. The depression robbed me of being at my best, and the only way I could work towards getting back to my best was to acknowledge that I was in a different situation, lower my expectations, and find success in small steps. Each day I would try to do a little more, but I would try to understand if I was unable to do something. The self-abuse of negative thinking was part of the frustration in dealing with my depression, and it exhausted me. I had to work hard to realize that I was emotionally draining myself when I beat myself up for not being at my best, for not meeting my high, and unrealistic, expectations. When I gave myself permission to focus on new, smaller, goals, I had less of the negative conversations in my head, but it wasn’t easy.
You can’t force motivation. It cannot be called upon by will. But neither is it best to wait for motivation, or one can be waiting a long time. Instead, I have found it best, in my experience, to take small steps to move towards motivation. To see success in lowered expectations. Part of depression is feeling like things are never going to get better, so when I can concentrate on small successes, I see that things can move forward by small increments, and maybe, just maybe, I can work my way out of depression. I can try to switch my focus from the fatigue and inability to do normal activities to seeing that I am accomplishing something, even if it is as seemingly simple as not sleeping all day, or sitting outside instead of inside, or only having a two hour nap instead of a four hour nap, or brushing my teeth with toothpaste.
This isn’t the case for everyone. The treatment of depression is different on a case by case basis. I have required medication and therapy, and other treatments, in addition to the work I do on myself. Success in lowered expectations and small steps is not the cure-all, but, for me, it was a vital component in my moving from a place where getting out of bed required every ounce of physical, emotional, and mental energy, to where it was so natural, I barely gave it a thought. It wasn’t a quick road from one to the other, and there were a lot of setbacks. It isn’t easy to drop being a perfectionist, but with work, time, and medical assistance, I was able to work my way back to motivation.