Depression sucks. I’ve struggled with severe depression for almost two decades. I tried various medications in high school but never liked the side effects or the stigma. The last one I tried, at 19, killed my sex drive. I had just started dating my first girlfriend, so that was a deal-breaker, because priorities. I haven’t taken meds since. Medication is necessary and useful for many people, but I have decided that it is not right for me. I still struggle with depression, but I have figured out how to manage it.
This article is not meant to imply that you can will your way out of being depressed. You can’t. I can’t, either. But I have learned how to get through the days and have a fulfilling, generally happy life that I never thought was possible as a sad teenager.
This is not advice. This is not finger-wagging. This is my experience. What works for me may not work for you. Take all of this with a grain, or even a big old shaker, of salt. If anything, see this article as general guidance. Pick and choose what might work for you. I’ve learned how to manage my mental illness without the medical industrial complex and I want to share my story.
The Mood Cure by Julia Ross is an amazing book that my former therapist recommended to me. It promotes managing depression, anxiety and other mental illness through, among other things, food and supplements. I highly recommend it. This book got me started on the path to healing my depression naturally about five years ago. Using some of its techniques along with others I discovered through trial and error, I am happier and more stable than I have ever been.
I still struggle — in fact, I’ve been pretty depressed for about a month now. My depression episode this last month made me turn in this article three days past deadline, because I felt like a fraud. But then I realized this was the perfect time to write it. Yes, I am depressed right now, but I am muddling through. I’m showing up for my comedy shows, getting most of my work done and, most importantly, I’m alive. Sometimes that is all you can ask for. Here’s how I do it, even when life feels impossible.
For me, going paleo changed my life in many ways. Yes, I lost a significant amount of weight. But more importantly, my moods improved, I had more energy and I was able to devote more time to stand-up comedy, my main passion. (Going paleo also cured my severe allergy to cats. As a lesbian, this greatly improved my dating prospects.) Because going paleo was a lifestyle change and not a fad diet, I’ve been able to sustain it for almost three years. The Mood Cure promotes an eating plan similar to the paleo diet and was my jumping-off point for this big change. It might be different for you: maybe your moods will be helped by going vegan, eating every three hours, cutting back on sugar or something else entirely. Your mileage may vary, as with everything on this very biased, very personal list.
I started taking 5-HTP because of The Mood Cure. I recommend checking out the book and/or website, researching this supplement and checking with your doctor (if you have one) to see if it works for you. From WebMD: “5-HTP works in the brain and central nervous system by increasing the production of the chemical serotonin. Serotonin can affect sleep, appetite, temperature, sexual behavior and pain sensation.” I like taking this supplement because it is a natural way to support my messed-up brain and I don’t personally experience side effects. I hadn’t taken it for years, and went back to it during this recent bout of depression. It has helped immensely.
I also take fish oil every day, as recommended by my former therapist. In addition to being good for your brain, it’s good for your heart and joints. It’s also inexpensive. I was never good at taking my meds when I was on them, but these days I am accountable to my supplements by adding them to my daily to-do list (because I am a nerd). I also take magnesium, which is known to be a naturally calming mineral. I take Natural Calm, which my bodywork healer recommended. Because I live in the Bay Area, of course I have a bodywork healer and of course I trade my IT skills for her services, because the Bay Area is beautiful and magical like that. Check with your doctor, healer, therapist or The Mood Cure checklists to see which supplements might work for you.
My tiny studio gets no natural sunlight and there is no outdoor space in my apartment building. I have to make a serious effort to get sunlight and I still don’t get enough of it. It has been proven that sunlight, more specifically Vitamin D, makes your brain function better. I try to walk the three miles around the lake in my neighborhood at least once a week and bask in the sunlight outside of my favorite cafe whenever I can. It’s difficult when you work inside all day, so I find activities that I already do inside, like journaling, and take them outside. I can journal sitting by the lake just as well as I can sitting in my dark apartment. In fact, I get more out of journaling when I am soaking up fresh air and the sweet sight of random dogs.
I was in therapy off and on (mostly on) for the last seven years. My therapist recently moved back to New York so I decided to take a therapy break. It’s been over six months without a therapist and I am surviving just fine. But I didn’t realize how much therapy had helped me until I stopped. Yes, I am currently in a bout of depression, but I have a wealth of self-care tools from my many years in therapy. My therapist supported my choice not to use medication and we strategized how to make that possible.
My tools include EMDR tapping techniques, meditation and the many tools listed in this article. Years ago, my therapist told me about Rachel Maddow’s experience with depression and how she manages it. I still take comfort and strength in the fact that Maddow, a badass, accomplished, brilliant woman, struggles with depression while remaining wildly successful. She talks about how she can feel depression coming on, and structures her life to support her depressive episodes while still functioning. This inspired me to also view my depression as an inevitable part of my life and find ways to manage it without falling apart. Check out Maddow’s interview with Terry Gross, where she talks about her experience with depression.
5. Showing Up
I was a mega-flake in my teens and early twenties. Getting out of bed and showing up, for everything from school to work to supposedly fun things like dinner with friends, often felt impossible. “Decisions are made by those who show up” is the only inspirational quote I display in my apartment. I scribbled it in capital letters on a post-it and stuck it on my desk — and I look at it every day.
I am a comedian, and this week I was booked in five shows. I’m depressed right now, and wanted to flake on every single performance. I thought up elaborate excuses to get out of each gig. But I fought that destructive instinct and forced myself to show up for every one. I’m glad I did. It took me years to learn the value of keeping my commitments, and I’ve never once regretted showing up. When I have bailed in the past, I’ve almost always regretted it. Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” Yeah, I find his movies overrated and his personal life abominable, but he’s right on this one. Force yourself to show up and then take it from there. Nothing good comes from staying in bed. So much beauty, learning, love, light and healing can come from simply getting out of the house.
6. Reaching out to Friends
Lean on your support system. It’s why you have one. It’s freeing when I reach out to friends, and I’ve found that a lot of folks in my life also struggle with depression. Even though it feels scary and vulnerable and maybe even weak, let your loved ones know you’re struggling. Let go of your pride. Find out how others cope with their depression. Get out of the house or, if you just can’t right now, ask a trusted friend to come over and be with you. Good friends are there for you in good times and bad. Let them support you. Let them love you, even — and especially — if you’re struggling to love yourself right now.
7. Flexible Schedule
I am a full-time freelancer who has primarily worked from home for the past three years. It is not an easy life; I am constantly hustling to pay the bills and I don’t get benefits like sick or vacation days. Not everyone has the ability to work from home and/or freelance and I’m lucky that I have been able to make it work. It is crucial for my depression. When I was a full-time student and a full-time office worker, I often struggled with attendance when my depression hit. I had days, weeks, and sometimes even months when I couldn’t get out of bed.
Because of episodes when I couldn’t get out of bed, I was sent to a wilderness program for troubled teens in high school and failed two classes in college. Now when my depression hits, I can structure my schedule to suit my mental capacity. When I’m depressed I need to sleep more, have more alone time and prioritize self-care. When I’m feeling good, I can work extra hard and take on more assignments. I’ve built my life to support this inconsistency, and am able to slow down and speed up when necessary. My clients don’t know when I am depressed because I set my own schedule. I am able to take on less or more work without having to explain myself, and I will never go back to a 9-to-5 schedule.
All right, I’ll be totally honest: I know exercise works but I don’t do it enough. It increases endorphins and stuff and blah blah blah. I’ll file this under “What I Should Do More Often and Don’t.” Maybe admitting this publicly will inspire me to carve out more time for sweating.
How do you manage your depression? Let me know in the comments or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.