Specifically, MY depression …
When I updated the “About” page a couple of months ago, I included the following statement:
My symptoms no longer occupy as much column space as they used to. But I often include some ideas that have helped me effectively deal with those symptoms. I feel like they’re in regression. So if I can help someone else get closer to dealing with theirs, or at a minimum, let them see that someone else is making it out of the blackness and that there are possibilities, then that’s a good thing, too.
With that in mind, something “significant” happened over the weekend that I’d like to share. Significant for me, anyway. Let me give you the background first …
I’ve been carrying around a George Foreman barbecue grill … not the type that you might have in your kitchen. It looks like a Weber grill. It’s electric, so it’s a lot easier to use than a charcoal or gas grill.
Anyhow, the last time I used it was back at The Last Resort in August … and it’s been riding around in the trunk ever since. It’s been unused because, well, I never cleaned it. For the last ten months, I’ve been carrying a disassembled, greasy, filthy grill around as we’ve traveled over 10,000 miles through 16 states. I took it apart, packed it away just as I got it, but never cleaned it – neither the grill or the little pan that catches the grease (which I had put inside zip-lock baggie so none of the coagulated grease would leak through in the car).
I’ve had a lot of chances to use it and thought about it quite a bit … but not the way you’d expect. At least the way you’d expect it to for those with healthy minds. Thoughts of the grill became a way of beating myself up. To tell myself, “Look at what a piece of shit you are, Jeff. You can’t even man up to clean a freaking GRILL! You’re no good. You’re a bad person. You’re worthless!”
Not only that, I’ve probably let at least $250 of meat rot in my cooler over that time period – food I bought with the idea of cooking it and not doing so… because it was more comfortable for me to avoid facing my own failure as a person. “Jeff, you’ve failed as a human being. Look at yourself – you can’t even take care of yourself the way anybody else would!
Meanwhile, as the food rotted, I was continuing to live off fast food: pizza, drive thrus, convenience store sandwiches – anything to avoid facing that grill! “You’re lazy. You’re fat. You deserve to be fat! This is who you are and this is who you will be. Forever!!!!”
So that’s the background. That brings us up to about three weeks ago.
Now, I’ve been making progress dealing with my symptoms, as you know if you’ve been following the blog. The depression has lifted considerably. Anxiety has not reared its head in quite a while. The overriding symptom, the one controlling those other two and more … is inertia. Continuing to do something because it’s easier than changing. I’m doing better on it. For example, I’ve been using the crock pot I bought. I’ve been using the electric skillet as well. But there’s still resistance. (Before embarking on this journey, I wasn’t keeping my apartment clean … and if I was letting dishes pile up there even when I had a dishwasher, it certainly hasn’t gotten any easier facing dishwashing when I have to heat water in an electric kettle, pour it into a bucket and do my dishes by hand!) So I’ve still been resorting to fast food for a decent percentage of my meals. I’d say that for most of the last four months, I’ve been cooking about three out of seven dinners a week.
But like I said I’ve continued to break the inertia. At our last campsite, the Circle M, we had a stand-up grill at the campsite. I joked with someone about it being one of the few grills I’ve come across where my first reaction wasn’t to think about when I last had a tetanus shot! So I wound up using it almost every night to cook. And it was great! I mean, it was enjoyable! Burgers, steak, chicken, Italian sausage … “enjoyable” is an understatement.
But here at Otter Creek? No grill. Not even one a rusty one.
When we arrived, I had a pork tenderloin in the cooler. I had bought it last Wednesday afternoon and had been marinating it in the ice ever since. So on Saturday afternoon, when I thought about what to have for dinner, I naturally thought about the tenderloin. And because of having done barbecue so much at the last place, that’s what first came to mind. Then I remembered – no barbecue. And then I remembered the George Foreman.
So then began the mental conversation, but not the same one I’ve had before regarding the grill. Who’s the conversation with? With “Anti-Jeff” I suppose, the demon that’s been living inside me for so long.
Anti-Jeff: “Ha! I’ve been waiting for this. The George Foreman is dirty!”
Me: “Yeah, it’s dirty. But I can just clean it.”
AJ: “You haven’t been able to clean it for almost a year. You won’t clean it now because you’re weak. What makes you think you can clean it now?”
Me: “I’m not the same person I’ve been. I’ve been getting better.”
AJ: “No you’re not. You’re just fooling yourself. Besides, it’s filthy. It’s probably been building up mold. Why even bother to look? You know you’re not going to do it.”
Me: “That barbecue last week was so effin’ good.”
AJ: “That was easy. This won’t be. Just go get some pizza. Why bother putting yourself through all that?”
Me: “Screw it.”
Now I’ll be honest: there were a few more back and forths in that internal conversation. But the resulting “Screw it” happened. And with those two words, I got up from the picnic table, got the box out of the car and opened it. After pulling out all the other pieces and finally getting to the grill, I discovered it wasn’t moldy. It hadn’t eaten away at the surface of the grill (something else I imagined might have happened). It was just … filthy. And as it turned out, the grease coagulating on the surface made it easier to clean! A lot of it came right off, with no elbow grease needed. And I had a delicious pork tenderloin … with enough left over to have sandwiches the next two days. And, I cleaned the grill and cooked up all beef hot dogs the next night!
So, now … if you’ve been following the blog because of key words like “depression,” “anxiety,” and “PTSD”, then this next part is for you.
I’m going to ask a semi-rhetorical question … and I want you to hold off answering it right away, okay?
Putting myself through that whole ordeal was stupid. Letting a dirty grill get the best of me was stupid. Wasting all that money on food … going through the motions and then having to toss it was stupid. Am I right?
Let me answer for you: NO. None of that is stupid. The anxiety. The dread. The avoidance. The fear. The sweat beading up on my brow and the heart racing at twice its normal rate. None of that is stupid. “Stupid” is judgmental and there is nothing about the experience to judge. Those feelings were as real to me as the pain I might feel in my arm if I had a pinched nerve in my neck. Would I be stupid for thinking the pain was in my arm when the cause was located elsewhere? If one of your friends was experiencing that, would you tell them they were stupid? Of course not! But that didn’t happen to a friend. It happened to me. And if you’re like me, that judgment comes easy.
We don’t need to have others judge us – we do a pretty good job of that ourselves. And if you’ve suffered like this for a long time, I’m pretty sure telling this to you will have a low probability of helping you. Close friends would tell me for years that I was being too hard on myself and it never took. It’s only been through hard work … work that’s taken months while being on the road (not even counting years and years of therapy and medication that never seemed to result in much progress) … that I was able to reach the point where I could finally clean off that damned grill!
Now I’m not a therapist. I have no medical background. I am not qualified to tell you what you need to do. The only thing I can do is tell you what has worked for me. And by the way, while the rest of this is addressed to the generic “you”, it’s only for presentation: please know that these are all things I’ve had to realize for myself. If you’re interested, read on.
- Accept that you don’t have a true sense of your own self. If you feel incapable of changing or getting better, you might tell me, “well, that’s good for you. But I’m different!” I used to have long conversations with my buddy Larry about this. He’d offer up all sorts of ideas and suggestions and moral support … and I’d answer with a “but …” each and every time. He finally said, “Do you agree that your friends have a different view of who you are than you do?” When I agreed, he then asked, “Can you accept that, if you see yourself differently, that your view might be wrong instead of theirs?” It took quite a bit of effort, but I finally agreed. That was the starting point for me: if I was wrong about how I saw myself, then it meant I could change my perception. I might have thought that was beyond my ability, but that was okay.
- Don’t listen to Nike and Nancy Reagan. In my opinion, phrases like “Just do it,” and “Just say no,” are such bullshit! Not only do they over-simplify the work that needs to be done to overcome things like depression and anxiety, they only reinforce negative feelings about yourself when you can’t “just” fix yourself. I can’t tell you how many well-meaning friends have told me, “You just need to start being happy!” Or, “I think you like being miserable. Otherwise, why don’t you just change?” They used to really piss me off, to the point of wanting to slap them. (I never did.) Finally, I just recognized that they’re well-meaning, but don’t have a clue as to what’s going on. Even friends who went through a particularly upsetting or depressing event like losing a job or a spouse or anything else from which they recovered. Going through a depressing experience is not the same as having depression or another mental disorder! When that happens, just thank them for their concern and let them know you appreciate that they care. They do. They just don’t know how to help. And by the way? Those friends like that? Don’t ever discard them simply because they keep up with the Nancy Reagan impressions. I haven’t … and some of them have come through with a tremendous amount of loving support! You can never have too many friends.
- Stop judging – be kind to yourself. Speaking of friends, how about being a friend to yourself??? It takes practice to recognize when you judge. It’s second nature to belittle yourself when you’re like I’ve been. To see yourself as unworthy or incapable, or to downplay any progress you’ve made. What I did was to make a list of all the things I felt were bad about me. I then put it in the perspective of a friend – if I had a friend who was suffering from depression or anxiety or low self-esteem, would I believe anything on that list was true about them? The answer was, “Of course not!” This helped … at least it helped me to recognize that I wasn’t being very nice to myself. I’ve kept that list. Keep yours, too.
- Change your “inner-speak” from negative to positive. Here’s where the hard work starts to happen. This was tough for me. I can’t tell you how much I felt like it was all just bullshit! I started a log, writing down “accomplishments”. I started small. Did laundry today. Big deal. Everyone does laundry. But if you haven’t done laundry for weeks and have been wearing dirty clothes? That’s an accomplishment. You may think, “That’s pretty bad if you have to sink so low as to be proud of yourself for just doing the laundry!” But remember – that’s judgment. Not allowed. (That’s why it helps to have that list I mentioned in the last point. One of the things on my list was, “you think little stuff you overcome aren’t worth patting yourself on the back”.) Take baby steps. Maybe it will progress to bigger things, maybe it won’t. I don’t know that my accomplishment log ever had anything “big” in it – that’s judgment, too. But I was gradually able to separate judgment from actions and stop feeling that I wasn’t able to do anything!
- Eliminate pessimism. Anxiety is, by definition, “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Pessimism is taking that uncertain outcome and expecting the worse. Once again, I started making a list of events that had caused anxiety as I was going through them, along with the outcome of each event. Pretty soon, I was able to see that there were more things on that list with a positive outcome than a negative one. I even went so far as to put a little sign on my dashboard. I’ve referred to this in earlier blog posts. That one little thing has helped tremendously. This goes a long way towards helping you with changing that inner-speak to positive, by the way. And oh … almost forgot … these lists aren’t a one-time thing. You should add to them on at least a daily basis. At some point, you’ll think, “I don’t have to do that anymore.” I’m not, for what it’s worth … but I waited for a month until after that first thought came before I actually stopped making the list. I now end most days expressing gratitude for good things that happen and recognize situations that might have thrown me for a loop in the past, but didn’t.
- Don’t be afraid to change, even if it’s a big deal. For me, that change involved retiring from work and becoming a vagabond. I’m not suggesting that you have to something that drastic. I felt I did, but that was me! I was in a drastic mental place that called for drastic measures. Some people commit themselves to an institution – I committed myself to the wide open spaces. You? Maybe the change you need is to get off your ass and exercise. Release some endorphins. Maybe you need to get out of a bad relationship. Maybe quit a job. Maybe get off political blogs. I don’t know that you need to necessarily change anything other than fixing your inner-speak and working on pessimism. Only you know what has to change. Be willing to embrace it. A word of caution here – PLEASE don’t do anything drastic on your own. Talk to someone close to you about things you feel you need to change. Talk to more than one person, if you have them . Talk to your doc or your therapist. The last thing I want is for you to do something drastic because, “that’s what Jeff said to do”. Like I said, I am NOT a qualified therapist. I’m only telling you what worked for me. And you can do pretty much everything in this list while staying at home, right? Right!
- Find something outside of yourself to focus on. For me? I got Frank. He’s a living thing that depends on me. He loves me … and he could give a shit about who I am, or what I do, or where we live. But I’m responsible for him now. If a dog isn’t your thing, get a cat. A goldfish. A turtle. Or if you can’t have pets, then go volunteer somewhere. Do you know how to read? Go to a retirement home and read to the residents. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Or join a group and share (Back when I was living in New Jersey, I joined ASCA – “Adult Survivors of Child Abuse”. I would have continued going, but there weren’t any meetings within driving distance after I moved to Charleston. It helped hearing how others handled things as they came up and sharing things I learned with others helped, too.) Find something … anything … to make you think about something beyond yourself. And by the way – if you volunteer, pretty soon you’ll have a lot of new stuff to put on that “accomplishment” list, too.
- Accept yourself as you are right now. I’m not perfect. Neither are you. Neither of us ever will be. You’ll have good days and bad. And it has nothing to do with whether you are a good person or a bad person. As it says in the Sermon on the Mount, rain falls “on the just and unjust alike.” That’s not to say that bad decisions can’t have a lasting impact on a life. But even with that, if you don’t accept yourself and all your faults, you’ll never be able to love yourself enough to reach a sense of peace.
- Don’t give up. I almost did. I’m glad I didn’t now, but it wasn’t always like that. And do whatever it takes to keep going. You’ll be sure to hit a point where you say, “Screw this.” Please don’t. If there’s a day when you decide not to do your list, or get caught up in a bad experience, do what you can to keep the impact to that one day. If you decide not to add to your accomplishment today, promise yourself that you’ll follow through tomorrow … and when tomorrow comes, keep your promise!!!
This is hard work. I will tell you that it might get easier, but I don’t know when. Suddenly, one day, you’ll recognize that you’re different. That’s the way it was for me. I was sitting at a campsite one day and I suddenly realized that I felt at peace. That I wasn’t in a good place, waiting for the “other shoe to drop. I was happy and not fearing the worse. Do you know what I mean? The work was showing gradual improvements, but the realization was sudden.
And it wasn’t until then … and a bit more time feeling that peace … that I reached the point where I was able to attack a dirty George Foreman grill. Oh, and by the way … I’m cooking burgers on the clean grill tonight. Again. Fourth time in the last five nights. Be patient with yourself. Let yourself fail a few times. Or more than a few! You will. It’s okay. Be kind to yourself. It’s worth it. It won’t happen overnight. Don’t worry about how long it takes. Whenever you reach that point, it will be worth it! You’re worth it!
I started this post on Sunday evening. Monday turned out to be a pretty bad day. In the space of 24 hours, my phone took a dump … followed by the laptop not booting up … followed by Frank getting loose while I was in the restroom and running off.
First off, Frank was retrieved by a couple who decided that he must’ve run off from the campgrounds, seeing as how he had his lead still wrapped around him and it was just down the road. He was back in my arms in about 15 minutes … even though it seemed like an eternity going through it! (Thank you, Guardian Angel over lost dogs!)
I spent the rest of the day dealing with the phone and laptop. Calls to Amazon and the manufacturer. Calls to a local repair tech. Calls to Verizon. Trying to figure out how to surf on my freaking Kindle, typing with the on-screen keyboard. It seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong, did. (Except that I got Frank back, of course.)
Yesterday morning, instead of getting right back into it, I decided to give myself a break and punt. Frank and I went to visit the National Historic Site at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam / Sharpsburg. Now before I started out on this healing journey a year ago? If those things had all happened in one day, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t be around today. Hell, six months ago, it would have ruined a good amount of time … I certainly wouldn’t have simply let it go the next day and gone off on a sightseeing trip! I would have brooded over it for at least a week, if not more (and this is despite the sign on my dashboard about “things will work out” … remember, I said to be patient with yourself, that you’ll fail).
Anyhow, we had a great time. And when I got back, I turned the laptop on for giggles. It booted up … despite it not having booted up the more-than-three-dozen times I did the same thing on Monday! (I wonder which guardian angel was in charge of that one?) The phone I still have to deal with … but the upset and anger and frustration from Monday was left behind. That’s something for the accomplishment list, don’t you think? :o)
This is all my two cents. Do with it what you will. Next time, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled blog about Frank and camping and road trips and other stuff like that. Tomorrow, we break camp and leave Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley for the south Jersey shore!
This special episode was brought to you by Spectrum Industries, proud manufacturer of the George Foreman Grill. We help knock out the fat! And by Blue Buffalo All Natural Dog Food. Made with only the finest natural ingredients and real meat.
Thank you for tuning in. :o)