By way of anonymous introduction, I'm a stay at home, homeschooling mom, member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and wife to a wonderful husband. I’m grateful to Shantelle for asking be to write this because it’s been very helpful to me. I hope I can help someone else too!
My story with depression is a long and kind of complicated one. I've had lots of relatively little bouts of it and a couple dangerously difficult ones. My biggest struggles originated with the traumatic loss of family. Instead of focusing on the timeline of events that transpired, which are, well depressing, maybe I can be more helpful to others by sharing the variety of methods I've chosen to deal with it. These are my experiences only and I can't speak for what will or won't work for anyone else, but I hope there's something helpful in here for someone.
Primarily I think the biggest tool in dealing with depression is perspective. That's a hard thing to say and to hear when you’re grappling with an illness that changes the very way you think and feel at even the most basic level. Depression alters even the strongest person's perception of reality and leaves crippling feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, deep despair, grief and exhaustion, so to tell someone to "be happy" or "look on the bright side" is almost like a slap in the face. I would if I could, and sometimes, even when I can find some silver lining, it doesn't seem to do much good. Those feelings are very real and often mostly outside my control, but I can still influence them some. I can still remind myself that as very real as these emotions feel, they're still just in my head. I'm not actually alone or worthless or hopeless to the people that matter. It does help to be reminded of that from others too. Depression is not something someone can just "snap out of" with enough effort, but it is something that can be dealt with. That perspective doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and practice, and it's a lot easier to talk about on a good day than on a hard one!
To me, how I choose to define depression and myself makes a difference. I am not depressed. I am a mom, a wife, and a child of God who happens to deal with depression, but I don't want that diagnosis to define who I am as a person. I try not to even own it or call it "mine," although sometimes I do slip. Depression isn't a choice, it's an event and for me, like most people, it will pass. It's not my fault or anyone else’s, so it's not a punishment either. I'm not a victim, but I am an active participant in how I chose to deal with it. Depression is a challenge that I am faced with, but I don't have to face it alone, even though sometimes it feels like it. How I choose to frame my life experiences and handle depression can have positive or negative effects on my ability to live up to the potential God created me for. We can't control the events or circumstances that come to us in life, at least not all of them. But we can control how we want to choose to deal with them. So that's the framework from which I'll address my other points.
The thing that offers the most peace and comfort to me is the atonement of Jesus Christ. Until I began this battle, I primarily viewed the atonement as Christ's sacrifice for sin, and it definitely is, but it's so much more! Yes we need to repent of our sins and forsake them and doing so brings us closer to our Savior, but we also need to remind ourselves that because of the atonement we are never alone. We might feel like it, but we are not ever actually beyond the Lord's love, or his protection, or his mercy or his compassion. No matter how alone I feel, I can remember that even Christ called out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" -Matthew 27:46. This reminds me that Christ knows how I feel, even at my lowest.
Even in this example I had to learn to choose what to focus on. Not only the difference between the redeeming and the enabling aspects of the atonement, but I had to choose how to feel about them. For a long time, every time I heard the story of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, or on the cross, I felt horribly guilty. I felt guilty that I had caused that magnitude of suffering for someone I dearly loved. I felt completely ashamed that I would ever need such an awful burden for redemption (even though the scriptures say that we all do.) That guilt kept me from my Savior. Over time, I've learned to focus on the aspects of Christ's life and atonement that I can relate to, because those aspects teach me how he can relate to me. I choose to remember that Christ knew he would suffer in his life, but he chose to come anyway. At any point Christ had the power to say "On second thought, I don't think I'm up for this. It's not worth it," but he didn't. He didn't say that, because he loves me. He didn't say that, because he loves you. We are worth it. He chose to do what he did so that he would be able to understand each of us, to walk with us or sit beside us in our darkest hours, to say, "I understand what you're going through," and actually mean it. He does understand because he's been there. He walked this path before I did, and understands it deeper than I probably ever will. I can choose to focus on gratitude for his friendship and for his love instead of feeling ashamed.
Becoming a mother has helped me understand this also. Before, I often felt as if I was the exception, like God could and should and did love everyone else, but not me. I was sure I was unlovable. Now that I have several wonderful little children, I see how ridiculous that is. I could never love all my kids except one. They're all different, unique, and sometimes quirky but they're all mine and I love each of them individually. My love is not in spite of those individual quirks, but because of them, and because I get to watch them learn and grow and overcome their struggles. As I've started to overcome my depression, my children bring me great joy and a sense of pride and because of that I know I can bring joy to my Heavenly Father and to my Savior as well. That brings me to my next point.
Actively recognizing the ways that depression influences my thoughts and feelings helps me keep it in check. There are truths that I can understand and appreciate on my good days that are completely beyond my ability to feel or comprehend on my bad days. So when I am feeling well, I try to build a firm testimony of the reality of the good things like loving relationships, happy events, hope etc. That way, when I fall into that deep, deep darkness I can remind myself that my brain plays tricks on me and the light at the end of the tunnel does exist even when I can't see it. A perfect example of this is my kids.
The truth is, my kids didn't (ok, don't) always bring me joy. There have been times my children have said or done things about which I knew I should have been immensely proud and genuinely happy but I just couldn't feel it. Times when I logically knew I should appreciate their energy and enthusiasm for life, their compassion and innocence but instead I felt numb, or irritated, or downright frustrated. Then of course the thoughts would come, "what kind of mother feels this way about her own children?" Not helpful! In those times I have to consciously remind myself that my depression changes the way my brain works and giving in to those feelings gives my illness more power over me and my family. I can choose to acknowledge that I feel grouchy and then choose to acknowledge that that's not their fault. I try to see their words and actions from their perspective. They're just being kids. They're just trying to help. They're just excited. They're not trying to be x, y or z that is really getting under my skin. This practice of getting out of my own head and into theirs helps me to act more patient than I feel. It’s not easy, but with time it does help.
Service is another very therapeutic tool. I find that it's really hard to get motivated for myself. I no longer have hobbies to speak of. None of the crafts, books or activities I used to enjoy brings any happiness when I'm depressed. Check lists, routines, reward systems, things that motivate most people, tend to make me feel trapped. Then when I don't accomplish what I hope to, I feel like a failure, so I'm less likely to even make an effort to begin with. However, I can do lots of things for others. I'm relatively sure that if I didn't tell anyone, no one outside my family would even know I struggle with depression, because helping other people is one of the few things that provides relief. Even if I feel like a miserable excuse for a waste of space on the inside, I can bring a smile or comfort to others and somehow that makes my burden a little lighter and my problems a little smaller. Serving in church callings helps, but I have also asked my Relief Society president, Bishop and the missionaries if they knew about people I could help. Attending temple services as often as I can makes a big difference too. Somehow, no matter what I'm struggling with, the temple puts it in perspective and gives me the strength and inspiration I need to get through a little while longer.
Recognizing things that trigger depression helps me control it. Everyone’s triggers are different: grief, loss, disappointment, and for a lot of people, stress. I’m strange in that area. I know I can step up to the plate when someone else needs me. When I really fall apart is after the stress is over. I had a councilor once who noticed a pattern. She compared my stress response to witnessing a car wreck. She says its all tension and adrenaline getting through the stressful situation and taking care of everything and everyone that needs me, but then when it's over and everyone can relax, the trauma starts to really sink in. Everyone else moves on but I can't because all the anxiety hormones melt into depression. I'm still re-living what I should or could have done differently to influence the outcome. Then I spend too much time in my own head and I have a hard time getting out.
I'm starting to be able to see it coming though. When I can predict that stress-letdown-depression cycle I can prepare for it. Most recently I made an appointment with the bishop for right after I knew a semi stressful situation would be over and asked him for a service project, which he was happy to give me. I was able to transition from the higher stress level to a lower one with less of a problem. Elder David A. Bednar gave a Conference talk about spiritual traction and compared it to a pickup truck needing enough weight to be able to get through the mountain snow. I'm like that truck. If I don't have just the right weight at the right time, I get stuck and have a terrible time getting out. Planning ahead to pick up the extra weight where I'll need it, helps me in my journey.
Full talk: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/bear-up-their-burdens-with-ease?lang=eng
Knowing how to ask for help. This is really difficult. I have a hard time asking for help; maybe because of my pride, or not wanting to burden others, or not even recognizing how badly I need it, or sometimes because I just can’t. When depression becomes really bad it's actually crippling in a way. I literally can't express my feelings, I can barely breathe! Even the idea of vocalizing any of my struggles out loud to anyone is paralyzing. I almost feel like if I admit it out loud, Satan can hear me and make it worse. (When I'm well, I can totally see how irrational this sounds, because ultimately God is in control, not Satan. But that's hard to remember when I'm really low.) So I ask my husband to watch the movie "What Dreams May Come" with Robin Williams. This is a great film because while I don't agree on all the doctrinal points, it does remind me that the "easy way out" is not going to be easier in the long run for me or for my family. That particular movie also cues my husband into the fact that I'm struggling without me actually having to express it. Warning: it is a fairly intense movie if you've never seen it before.
Dealing with life when it’s too overwhelming. Another common problem with depression is that it makes normal, everyday things really overwhelming. Being busy outside of the house actually seems to help me if I can ever get that far, where for some people it doesn't help at all. However, a big list of chores at home won't even get started because, for me, it's too overwhelming. I find that when I'm struggling, I have to let my standards slide and break things down into more manageable tasks. I can't clean the whole kitchen, some days I can't even clear the counters, but I can get the dishes done. And if I text my hubby and he celebrates a little with me, I might get the toys picked up in the back yard too. I've learned to celebrate little accomplishments for myself and for my family. "Mommy wins!" is a running joke at our house, because I say it a lot. I'm never in competition against my family, but I try to help be part of the team. So if I can find a new dish my kids all like, "Mommy wins!" If I manage to get a whole chore done during nap time, "Mommy wins!" If we can actually get to church on time, "Mommy WINS!"
I also have tried a variety of ways to trick myself into being motivated. I joined an organizing group on FB called "Get Organized Today (with Mary organizes)" that does regular challenges and people all work on the same things in the same days, posting before and after pictures and cheering each other on. Sometimes I can trade with a friend and we can work together on organizing one room in my house and in exchange, I'll babysit for date night. I've paid sisters in our Ward who were struggling financially to come over and clean with me, not for me, but with me, because we both need the fellowship, and somehow that makes me feel more like a person and less like a service project. There are lots of little ways to trick yourself into getting motivated.
I can do my best to minimize the effects of my depression on my family. My kids need me to express an appreciation and interest in them and their activities even when I don't feel it. They are in their early years and they're just developing their life view and a framework for how they will interpret their experiences for the rest of their lives, and they internalize so much of what they experience in these early stages. However; by the grace of God, they don't always perceive everything adults do, so I can totally fake it! The longer I can fake it the more time I can buy for my emotions to catch up. I do this because, if I give in to the temptation to wallow in my feelings I find myself sinking into a pit where it's much harder to climb out. So, "Fake it 'till you make it" and don't give in to the temptation to feel guilty about not being genuine. Yes genuine is good and honest is good, but being genuinely and enthusiastically interested in everything each of my kids wants me to is exhausting! I just. can't. do. it. all. day. long. So, I do what I can and fake the rest.
Instead of beating myself up for all the (many) things I can't do, I focus on simplifying my routine to set myself and my kids up for success. I've noticed that if I can satisfy my kids needs for attention and interaction first thing in the morning (and first thing after nap) they are less demanding throughout the rest of the day. There's less fighting, less misbehaving to get my attention, less whining. Of course, like most people battling depression, mornings are not my best time. So I try to schedule my mornings to be as relaxed and easy going as possible and give them undivided attention. As they get up, they tumble into my bed. Sometimes they bring a book or favorite toy, and we snuggle and talk until we're all ready to face the day. This helps!
I also remind myself that this actively engaged 24/7 parenting style is a relatively recent phenomenon. Somehow kids grew up to be stable, productive adults before helicopter parenting was a thing. Constantly entertaining them isn't helping my kids learn to function independently. I try to encourage independent play every day, preferably outside.
Since I mentioned Facebook, I might as well expand on media in general. I try to limit my screen time to things that are uplifting and encouraging. So, I don't watch the news. I don't really follow politics. The extra worry just takes so much mental energy I don't have. For Facebook, I either un-friend or un-follow drama and try to have a few positive blogs in my news feed for the days when I really do just need to check out for a little while.
There are also some great apps out there "quality time" is one I use now. I loved "screen time" before they started charging for it. That one is more of a parental control app but I used it to lock myself out of Facebook during hours I really should be focused on more important things.
My Dr., of course, had recommendations. She recommended exercise, which is actually very helpful for some people. Unfortunately, I hate exercise, especially by myself. I've tried exercise videos and I can go 10 minutes max before my kids are climbing on me like a jungle gym. Nothing like a nice yoga workout where you get your balance in a good pose just in time to be bowled over by a three year old and land on top of a six year old! I can sometimes exercise as part of a social thing. I can meet a friend and we can walk around town and end up at a park for our kids. I can join a church volleyball group or exercise group and push my insecurities aside by telling myself "so-and-so organized this activity and she needs the support so I'm going to do my best to be there for her." Exercising with others keeps me from over thinking how I was the only kid in gym class who blacked out running the mile. I have to find a way to put my insecurities aside or exercise just makes me more miserable.
My Dr. also recommended self-massage, which really didn't work until I started adding essential oils. I've found those can take the edge off of the body aches, headaches and the moodiness and help lift some of the emotional weight. I have had more luck doing some deep breathing exercises she recommended with the oils also when I'm anxious or getting that heavy sadness in my chest. I've also had some luck with vitamins and supplements. B complex, D, C, omega 3, St John's wort and turmeric, can sometimes just take the edge off a little.
The only thing that really completely made me feel like a normal happy person again was generic Wellbutrin. My midwife/OB started me on 100 mg once a day as a trial run to make sure I didn't have any adverse reactions. She had the plan to increase it in a month. She said she thought I could take it just long enough to get back on my feet and then wean off. Within a couple weeks I noticed considerable improvement. By a month I felt so much better I kept the same dose for several months until I started to feel the sadness creep back in. I talked to my primary care Dr. and she said that Wellbutrin would not have been her recommendation (she prefers to go the natural, massage, exercise, vitamin/supplement route) but since I was already on it and actually had been borderline suicidal before it, and none of the other recommendations were enough so she agreed to increase the dose to 200mg. That was good enough for a few months, and the darkness came creeping back in. I was hoping to be able to get off the medication eventually and I was afraid that increasing the dose again was pushing me towards lifelong dependency, but I obviously wasn't doing well the way things were. By the time I got up the guts and motivation to go back to the Dr., I was back to feeling like I had without the meds even though I was still taking them faithfully. My Dr. agreed to up the dose again. Unfortunately there was some kind of clerical miscommunication between her office and the pharmacy and they would only fill the RX for the 100mg, which wasn't nearly enough. I called the Dr. office and they wouldn't fix it unless I came back in for another appointment. Between that and the multiple problems I'd had with the Dr. office (this was not their first paperwork mistake) I decided that I was probably better off without the medication so I started gradually weaning off of it. (I have quit an anti-depressant by weaning off too quickly before and that was a rough road! Always follow your Dr.'s schedule recommendation and never rush it or quit cold turkey!)