I recently wrote about how I’m managing my depression at the moment, and it made me think of another topic that’s equally as important: monitoring my depression. Depression is a sneaky bastard. You might be chugging along, thinking you’re doing okay and then one day you wake up and realize you’ve not gotten dressed or showered in a couple of days and that you’ve crossed the line from functional to not. It’s surprising how it can creep up on you when you aren’t paying attention. This happened to me in the early fall. I thought I was fine at the end of the summer, but as our Comic Con (which coincides with my birthday) approached at the end of September, I didn’t start to work on a costume or plan anything for my birthday even though those are both things I really enjoy. I bought fabric for the costume I wanted to make, but just… didn’t start it. For me, that was a huge sign that the seasonal depression was kicking in early, as well as maybe a bit of feelings about turning the age I am.
Everyone’s depression signs are different, so it’s important to know yourself well. I have friends for whom becoming anti-social is a major warning sign. Not so much for me. I didn’t (willingly) speak to a single soul or go out for most of this past weekend, and it wasn’t a sign my depression is getting worse. I just really treasure my alone time – I got a ton of chores done, caught up on some TV shows, ordered some food I love, read, and went to bed early. It was incredibly relaxing and I felt much better for it. If I had stayed in all weekend and still felt miserable, that would probably have been a sign that something bigger was going on.
These signs are specific to me, but you might recognize some of them in yourself. Or yours might be totally different (for instance, for some people drinking is a big one but my alcohol consumption tends to remain the same regardless). It’s taken a long time for me to learn myself well enough to put the pieces together, and I’m focusing on things I do and not how I feel here. How I feel at any moment isn’t really a great guide to how depressed I am and being depressed doesn’t always involve feeling down so much as not feeling much at all. I’m often not in touch enough with my emotions when I’m actually depressed to recognize it, so my habits are a more reliable sign of what’s going on.
Avoiding new things.
I’ve noticed that the more depressed I am, the more I shy away from trying new things. Particularly new TV shows, movies, or restaurants/foods. I want things that are predictable and safe, generally over and over. New is scary and unknown. Now this is complicated because we all have comfort foods or shows we love, and that’s not a bad thing. And even when I’m doing great I have an obsessive streak that definitely lends itself to things like binge watching, so sometimes I avoid new things because of that – there are several TV shows I haven’t started just because I know when I do I’ll want to watch all of the episodes immediately and I don’t have time to get sucked in right now. But if I find myself watching or eating the same things over and over while avoiding trying something I know I will like but haven’t experienced, that’s typically a warning sign. It’s normal for me to re-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer semi regularly, but if I’m re-watching episodes in really long blocks everyday and that’s all I’m doing (as opposed to just putting it on while I’m doing chores because I don’t care if I miss something), that’s a bad sign.
Avoiding things I love the most.
This goes hand in hand with the first. When I’m depressed I avoid the new, but I also avoid things that I really love or that make me feel very strongly. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe part of me knows that if I’m depressed I won’t appreciate them properly and then I’ll feel worse that I didn’t have my normal response to them. I’m worried they will become tainted if I watch them in a depressive state or something. Or maybe I just want to avoid strong emotions because I don’t have the resources to deal with them. For whatever reason, depression lends me to middle of the road activities. Things I like, but don’t love or have a super strong emotional connection to. Things that are good, but not transcendent. Mac and cheese, not my favorite restaurant. A decent sitcom, not Doctor Who.
Sleeping/staying in bed too much.
This is a really common one, although it’s interesting for me because of my already whacked out sleep habits. For me it comes down to two things. The first is really really really not wanting to get out of bed even though I know I’m not going to get any more decent sleep. Bed feels safe and I don’t want to leave it and face the world. The other is sleeping too much during the day. I don’t think I could survive without naps and I do often sleep a lot on weekends to catch up on what I’m missing the rest of the time, but if I’m literally sleeping the weekend away, particularly if I’m taking long naps less because I’m actually sleepy and more because I just don’t want to deal with being awake, that’s no good.
Letting the little (and big) things slide.
When I’m depressed, I avoid things that are hard. And also when I’m depressed everything seems hard. Returning library books, for instance. Now, I’m often late with this. Not a big deal. Sometimes I forget they’re due, or they just don’t get in my bag when I leave the house, or I mean to go renew them online but I forget, or I think I’m going to finish them in the next day or two. But if I have library books due and I know it and I just don’t return them? Bad sign. I don’t know why I do this. I see them, I know they need to be returned, the library is very close to my house, and I’m not busy but it feels too hard to pick them up, get in the car or walk to the library, and put them in the book drop. This will happen with bigger things too, like making dinner, getting gas, and doing my work – which is obviously not great for my life. When I start to let things slide that aren’t that hard for any reason other than because they seem hard, I’m not in a good place.
Forgetting what I like.
When I can’t remember what I like, it’s trouble. This is a weird sensation. Sometimes I’ll be planning out meals for the week and I won’t be able to think of anything to make. This is not normal for me. I like cooking and I have a large repertoire. But sometimes I’ll find myself thinking “What do I know how to make? What do I even like?” and not coming up with anything better than pasta. Or I’ll be thinking I’d like to watch a movie and I won’t be able to come up with a single title that sounds appealing. It’s not indecision, where many things sound appealing and I can’t choose. It’s apathy, but it’s more than that – like being in a fog and not being able to see more than a few feet in front of you.
These are the primary signs I’ve learned to heed when something is wrong. Although even these aren’t clear cut. Sometimes everything feels hard or I can’t remember recipes because I’ve gotten only four hours of sleep the last few nights, not because my depression is ramping up, and once I have a decent sleep I’ll be fine. Sometimes I’m not sleeping well because I’m depressed. And sometimes I’m depressed because I’m not sleeping well. And sometimes I’ve just had a bad day and want to eat junk and watch 30 Rock and go to bed early and the next day I’ll be better. Tricky business. But it pays to keep an eye on my habits, as well as to consider the confounding factors. If I find myself consistently doing any of these or a combination of them, then I probably need to think about changing how I’m managing my depression.
Additionally, sometimes it pays to indulge, to be kind to yourself. I find that sometimes when I can say, “okay, I know this is because I’m depressed but I really want to order take out and stay in bed today and watch Disney movies so I’m going to do that” it takes the pressure off to be okay. Wallowing is generally a bad thing, but sometimes a little of it can help. Sometimes I really will feel better tomorrow.
It’s just important to be aware of what I’m doing and why, and to set limits so that I don’t get stuck in a downswing or lose multiple days to despair without noticing. There are times when the best thing is to let myself be depressed and useless for a little while, and there are times when this will just make me feel awful and I need to kick myself in the pants and go do something. And there are times when I just need to go to the doctor or therapist and say “this isn’t working for me”. I’m definitely not perfect at knowing the difference, but I find trying to be aware of what I’m doing and why, and making conscious choices instead of just sliding into a behavior because I’m not paying attention helps me feel better and more in control of myself.