Monday, September 27, 2004

Depression

Depression is partly genetically determined: you inherit it from your parents. I'm serious. Depression is a mental disorder that has a chemical component and you have to be biologically predisposed to it or it won't manifest. That's why people can undergo the exact same stressors and some will become clinically depressed while others won't. Maybe people without depressive characteristics respond to stress by drinking or eating poorly or overcommitting themselves to too many projects. People with different mental disorders might respond to stress by going manic or delusional, etc. And then there are those of us that just go into depression.

It's a chronic condition and like other chronic conditions, the symptoms can be alleviated with treatment. Mine is greatly helped with medication and therapy, but like other chronic conditions there are good days and bad days. On the bad days, the depressive symptoms "flare up" : the despair, the crying, the anger, the self-hatred, etc. On those days, you just have to tend to the symptoms and take it easy on yourself and just do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better. One of the most effective short-term ways to reduce the depressive symptoms that I've found, is exercise.

Yes, believe it or not, on days when I've taken my meds but still I feel like complete crap and the demons of doubt take over and I just want the pain to stop, the best thing I can do is get myself to a gym and hit the cardio machines. I put my feet and arms through the motions of the machine, an emotional zombie unable to break the frozen stare that masks the feeling of desperation underneath. I'm convinced that my life is bleak and will never be anything but bleak and as many times as I've failed all I have to look forward to is more failure. I suck.

But after maybe 15-20 minutes, the exercise prompts my body to produce more stablizing chemicals, like dopamine and endorphins. Slowly, my mind begins to turn from the really bleak, hopeless focus and the negative mind chatter stops. I become distracted by what's in front of me ("is that parking lot open now?" or "wow, really small kids are in that karate class"). Between 20 and 45 minutes, the mask begins to thaw and I finally start to feel a bit more human. By the time I get off the machine, the worst of the gloom has lifted and I'm able to go on with my day without the punishing mind chatter. At least for a while.

Maybe when I start the exercise, I'm so bad off that I actually start weeping as I operate the cardio machine. I have, in the past, just bawled during a workout. Yes, at Bally's. Yes, so what. I am one of the world's great weepers. I'll cry just about anywhere, I don't care. I've opened up and wept on the el, while standing by a flower bed on Michigan Avenue (the Magnificent Mile part), while walking down the street downtown during rush hour, in church, at a live music performance (watching, not performing, although I'm sure it's just a a matter of time..) and at several of the major airports throughout the U.S. Oh, yeah, I have no problem with public crying in broad daylight.

But crying on a cardio machine doesn't last long. As the machine works my body, the chemicals start to straighten out (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins) and by the time I'm done with an hour workout, the depression is better. The improvement is temporary and it could be slight, but I can rely on it. Thank god.

Besides that, the depression just has to run its course, like a herpes outbreak or a bad arthritis day. You treat the symptoms, take it easy on yourself and don't bother trying to elicit sympathy from people who don't believe depression is chronic condition. Anyone who deep down thinks you should just snap out of it (concentrate on something else, make a decision to have a good day, etc.) is not your ally at this time. Avoid talking about your depression with them.

I wish I had a good depression website to recommend, but I don't. Does anyone else?

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