Sheena Madden draws from 20 years experience of depression to pass on the coping skills she has honed over time.
When I’m depressed I’m irritable and often angry. With the world, with myself, with my children, with anyone who happens to piss me off. And most people piss me off when I’m depressed.
The thing about irritability as a key indicator of depression is that it goes against everything we’ve been taught. Depressed people are supposed to be manageably sad. This trope is so ingrained that I even believe it myself a lot of the time. Although I am – slowly – getting better at spotting my depressive episodes coming down the tracks, they still creep up on me a few times a year.
Every single time, once I’ve come through it, I can look back with beautiful 20/20 hindsight and pinpoint the moment I should have realised that a tidal wave of emotion followed by days of numbness and acute despair was about to hit.
To all of the call centre workers I’ve roared at, drivers I’ve given the middle finger to and friends I’ve snapped at: I’m sorry, I was depressed. That sounds glib, but I say it with sincerity. Irritability as a symptom of depression is not given the weight it deserves because it pisses people off.
People can deal with a sad friend who lies listlessly on the sofa for days on end, but a girlfriend who screams at you because you forgot to bring home coffee, or an employee who barks at you when you ask them for an update on a project?
Forget it. Patience wears thin very quickly.
It’s also really easy for people to think you’re using your depression as a scapegoat for being a total bitch. People can deal with sad depression. Angry depressives are harder to show sympathy for – mostly because we work really hard to reject sympathy. We don’t want it – yours or our own.
We beat ourselves up in the privacy of our own minds when we’re like this. It’s like the storm before the calm. It’s actually much easier to tell yourself that you’re a piece of shit and a failure and beat yourself up for that than it is to show compassion for yourself.
That’s crazy, right?
The things our minds do when left unchecked. I do tend to bang on about meditation and mood tracking a good bit these days but that’s only because I know what my mind gets up to when I’m not there. Sneaky little bitch.
It’s this tendency to be irritable when I’m due a depressive episode (or in the midst of one; it’s still hard to tell) that prompted me to suggest writing this article for rogue. I figure I’m not the only one who could use a bit of advice on how to navigate the day when I’m in the throes. So I’m taking the time to draw from my own extensive experience (over 20 years!) of being a person who lives with regular depression in the hope that I will both remind myself of the coping skills I have honed over the years, and pass some of them on to anyone who might find them useful – whether you live with clinical depression or have ‘down days’ every now and then.
A word of warning, and one that is crucial to heed: if you suspect that you have an undiagnosed mental health condition or if you feel unable to cope, visit your GP or engage with professional mental health services.
I am most certainly not a healthcare worker and these tips are not a replacement for professional advice. In order to manage my own depression, I have been engaging with medical professionals for years and I still do when I don’t feel that I can cope by myself. I have been prescribed all sorts of medication, had a psychiatrist, a psychologist and ‘done stints’ in a mental health hospital. I do regular therapy, DBT, meditation and pay attention to what I eat and how often I move in order to manage my depression day-to-day.
There is no shame in managing your mental health well – and if that means you need to visit the doctor every now and then when the going gets really tough – then that’s the right call. Just like when you have a high temperature and a chesty cough that won’t shift. Go get it sorted.
That being said, here are my top tips for getting through the day when you’re so down (in my case, read: pissed off) you can hardly move.
- Ring in sick
Mental health should be treated with the same respect and seriousness as physical health. There are some great companies and employers out there who realise this, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go before this is the norm. The only way we can normalise mental health being treated the same way as physical health is if we start with ourselves. So if you don’t feel well enough to go to work, don’t go. If you work in an environment where you can tell your boss or HR that it’s mental health related and you feel comfortable doing that, great. But don’t let breaking the stigma be another stressor for you either. If it’s more comfortable for you to feign a fever, then do that. You can work on fixing the system when you’re feeling better.
- Divest yourself of responsibility
…or as much of it as you can. The aforementioned ‘ringing in sick’ should help with some of this but not in everyone’s case. For instance, I am self-employed and I’m a single parent. My depression doesn’t always show up at the most convenient times. In fact, it usually decides to coincide with particularly busy periods (thank you cortisol!). When I know I’m not going to be able to make it through a day of parenting and working, I call my son’s father and let him know I need his help. Then I make a list of work deadlines I need to reschedule. I email the clients I know will be expecting to hear from me that day to let them know I’m not feeling well and that our meeting will need to be postponed or the deadline will have to be extended. Thankfully, I have great clients who are always understanding. I’m also in a position whereby, mostly, I can be honest about my reasons for needing to take a day. This has not always been the case for me and I don’t take it for granted for a second. When you’re feeling depressed, rearranging work commitments and finding babysitters will seem like a mammoth task but the alternative is battling through the day and pretending everything is ‘normal’. This usually brings the whole house of cards toppling down. Been there.
- Eat whatever you want and don’t go for a walk
OK, here’s where my ‘I’m not a healthcare professional’ disclaimer definitely comes in handy. I say this with the strong proviso that eating well and regular exercise will help you manage your depression. However, I know when I’m angry-depressed the last thing I want to hear is ‘you should get out for a walk’ or ‘you should make some nice, comforting vegetable soup for yourself’. Fuck right off. If you’re in the mood to do those things – great, do them! If you want to eat Dominos in bed while watching Virgin River, do that and don’t for a second double-arrow yourself with guilt about it. Commit to your duvet day. Do it with gusto. I’m hereby giving you permission to do whatever the fuck you want to (again, not a healthcare professional).
If you can. Most of the time when I’m depressed, evenings are better than mornings. You might be the opposite or you might feel shit all day long. Not one of us is the same as another. One thing that begins to lift me, whether I’ve been depressed for a day, a week or longer, is when I give myself a clean body and a clean environment. When I show myself that I’m worthy of those things. I know how hard this step is. In fact, if you have a friend who you suspect might have depression, a key indicator is how well they are (or, as the case usually is, are not) looking after their personal hygiene and their environment. Nobody is saying you should apply a full face of makeup and clean the house top to bottom. But the power of a good shower or bath, clean pyjamas and fresh bed sheets cannot be overstated. You are worth those things, at the very, very least.
Allow yourself to sleep when you need to. But don’t give yourself a kicking if you find it doesn’t come easy. Sleep and depression are so strongly linked and one usually impacts on the other. When I’m depressed, I want to sleep all day and stay awake all night. Some people sleep for a lot longer than usual while others can’t drift off at all. If you find it difficult to sleep at night, the above-mentioned tip of giving yourself a nice environment and a clean body could form part of a bedtime routine. I’m not going to pretend to be particularly well-versed on sleep hygiene, but I know what works for me: avoiding alcohol (just don’t drink when you’re depressed – it never, ever helps), hot shower, fresh sheets, reading in bed, the ‘Deep Rest’ guided meditation on the Calm app. If I still can’t sleep I read some more.
These are a few of the things that work for me when I’m in crisis mode and I need to get through the day whilst having a bout of depression. They’re not going to work for everyone – but I hope some of the tips help some people. Again, I feel that it’s important to state that I know my depression well after over 20 years – we’re old frenemies. I would encourage anyone who feels they can’t cope or may be living with an undiagnosed mental health condition to seek professional advice in the first instance. And please try to remember: it’s a moment in time. It will pass.