So my depression episodes tend to be pretty bad and my ability to do things fails. Completely. I’m functionally useless and I just sit at home and surf the internet or read trashy sci-fi or good Victorian romance novels until the depression episode lifts. If I’m lucky, I may brush my teeth every two or three days.
This isn’t a good place to be, so I of course try to force myself to do stuff. Unfortunately, if I try this, I usually trigger panic attacks (or anxiety attacks). The panic attacks aren’t pleasant at all – they feel as if a hand is clenched around my heart, an extreme desire to run away or hide from people, a feeling of terror. It’s bad enough that when I get panic attacks I back off from whatever I was trying to do.
But, this means I don’t get much done.
Me: I’m off topic, but what do you do to manage your depression? I’m having no success with this.
PMPositivity: Therapy and a lot of it! CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] taught me a lot of skills to manage it, for example forcing myself to do things that I can’t even imagine doing in that moment. Stuff like making my friends drag me out to have fun despite my protests about lethargy / not being in the right mood; Going to the gym (really good for depression; Picking up a new skill (painting!); Throwing myself into schoolwork ; Finding new youtube channels i enjoy (personally really enjoy braille skateboarding)
Making sure you do things ‘normal’ people will do will eventually drag your mental state to a level where you’re almost with everyone else, and from there it just becomes so much easier.
Me: Do you trigger panic attacks when you try to force yourself to do things? This happens to me.
PMPostivity: It does, but something that’s really helped me is that the panic is ALWAYS worse than doing it. I’ve never once done something with the intention of bettering my mental health that I ended up regretting. Even if it’s a shitty exercise or if I get yelled at by a random stranger on the street while trying to go out and have fun. Nothing is ever worse than what your brain imagines, and getting started is the hardest thing. Once you’ve gotten that down, everything is so much easier. After doing it enough times, it becomes a non issue.
That same night, I tried the advice. I had been invited to my parents for a dinner with some other family and guests. It was a small thing – eleven adults and some kids, people I’ve known for all my life. I didn’t want to go because I was just coming of a major depression episode and still a bit depressed, but I thought I’d follow the advice. This is what happened.
1 Well, the first thing that happened was that I forgot about the invitation completely, because that’s what happens when you’re depressed. I was only reminded when my dad called me about it two hours before I was to be there.
2 After the phone call ended, I realised I was annoyed that my dad called to remind me. Since I had forgotten about the invitation, I had already planned my evening and now I had to rejig all of it to be at the dinner.
I was also annoyed because (a) Didn’t my parents know that I dislike dealing with people when I’m depressed? and (b) Here I am trying to catch up on all the undone things for the last six weeks and my parents want me to chat and socialise!! and (c) How was I to socialise when I needed all my energy and focus just to do basic tasks like feed the dogs. There wasn’t any thought capability left over to ensure that I acted properly in a group, or to hold a conversation.
I was actually carrying on this argument with my parents in my head and I was really pissed off.
3 Although I had decided that I would go instead skipping the dinner like I usually would, it did mean that I had to force myself to get organised and leave the house – which then triggered a panic / anxiety attack.
At this stage the panic attack was reasonably mild, but I couldn’t focus very well and so I kept doing random tangential tasks that had nothing to do with getting dressed and leaving the house. Things like sweeping the house and fertilising the indoor plants.
It’s not that I was putting off going to dinner – it’s just that when I’m having a panic attack, what I know I should be doing and what I actually do don’t match up. I can’t focus properly and I’m using most of my mental capacity to prevent from panicking so tasks just happen randomly.
Anyway, I left home more than an hour late.
I still was in a panic attack while getting to my parents, so paying attention while driving was difficult, and I had poor manual coordination, and I was twitchy. Not fun.
And I was still having the churning angry thoughts about why I should be going to dinner.
4 Even after all this, I nearly didn’t make it. Before I knocked on my parent’s apartment door, I seriously considered turning back and going home – the idea of having to deal with people instilled so much fear in me that I wanted to flee.
The only thing that allowed me to knock on my parent’s door was what my friend had written – the panic is ALWAYS worse than doing it.
5 Of course, people were already having dinner by the time I arrived. My late entrance put me on the spotlight and I froze – I literally couldn’t say hello to anyone. I quietly got some food and sat at the table, not talking to anyone, not even my aunt who was sitting next to me. So much for being social.
My hands were shaking while I was eating because of the panic attack. However the attack slowly subsided over the next 15-20 minutes. It was a pretty odd time. I was at the table and I could hear the conversations going on, but I couldn’t really follow them and I didn’t try to join in them. If anyone tried to talk with me I could give only the most basic answer. And I tried to draw the least amount of attention to myself and hoped no one would notice me. I really didn’t enjoy those twenty minutes.
Once the panic attack subsided, I was able to hold a conversation and my conversational ability got better as as time went on. But there were limits. I could only deal with one or two people at a time and I couldn’t interact with the group as a whole. When most of the people left the dinner table to sit on the porch, I stayed back with two people to talk. And that’s how I spent the rest of the evening.
I figure that at my best that evening, I was running on about 40% of my social skills.
Interestingly, my capability of thought wasn’t impaired. I could and did discuss economic issues and I talked about how the banking system would be changing in the future. But only with one or two persons.
From my point of view, it was a lot more effort and thinking to interact with other people. Apparently, socialising with others is a complex activity and takes a LOT of thinking, on the spot, to do it properly. When I’m mildly depressed, I’m spending most of my energy and using most of my thoughts to monitor myself and to maintain some ability to function. I just don’t have enough processing power left over to socialise properly.
Did I think it was a good thing that I went for dinner?
When I left that night, I thought to myself that I didn’t particularly enjoy the evening. I’d much rather have stayed home and played on my computer.
But at the same time, I was out with people and that WAS a good thing. Long depression episodes and frequent depression episodes have royally screwed up my relationships with close friends and family. And my wider social networks with casual friends and acquaintances have pretty much all failed completely. Getting back out there and meeting people was useful if perhaps not so enjoyable.
I will probably have to continue doing this in the future. I probably still won’t enjoy it much, and I probably will continue to get panic attacks, but building back out my social networks is necessary.
I’d definitely practice on friends and family first. And I’d get a few people to warn the others that when I show up to an event late and when I’m fairly unresponsive for the first hour, that’s normal for me.
Hopefully, as my friend said, “making sure you do things ‘normal’ people will do will eventually drag your mental state to a level where you’re almost with everyone else, and from there it just becomes so much easier”
First published 4 Jan 19.