What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut? Even though I’ve written about this in several posts—“12 Ways to Keep Going,” “Getting Through the Rough Spots,” and “12 Strategies to Help You Recover From Relapse”—I fail to remember the pointers when I’m there myself. My present mood dip isn’t a mammoth relapse, thank God. But it is enough of a wake-up call to go back to the building blocks of my recovery program and see if something is missing, or—even if I’m doing everything right—find a few more tools that can help me get to a better place. I list them here as much for myself as for you.
1. Go easy.
Even though I’ve read the saying “Easy Does It” in needlepoint for 22 years on the walls of twelve-step support groups, those three words have yet to sink in. The only time I stop to consider their wisdom is when I’m hurting and I have to go slower because I can’t function at regular speed. I’m trying to become as gentle with myself as I am with others, but the progress is slow. Whenever I do manage to take the pressure off of myself in any way I can–by giving myself a longer deadline on a piece, or scratching out all items on my “to do” list that can wait until next week–I breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.
I fight tears because I associate them with relapse. At the worst of my depression, I cried enough buckets to take care of “water day” at the kids’ school for at least a decade. So whenever the wetness begins, I try my best to interrupt the process. However, tears have healing faculties, as I explain in my piece, “7 Good Reasons to Cry Your Eyes Out.” Your body essentially purges toxins when you weep. It’s as if all your emotions are bubbling to the surface, and when you cry, you release them, which is why it is so cathartic. Whenever I allow the tears—a 10 or 15-minute crying fit—I always feel better.
3. Help someone.
This one is tough when you’re not feeling well yourself, but I’ve never walked away from an act of charity feeling worse. I think it has something to do with tricking your mind and body (and the person you are helping) that you actually have your stuff together, so together, in fact, that you are able to offer assistance. I suspect God plops people in front of you that need your help when you want to do nothing but crawl back in bed and ruminate. At least that’s how it happens to me. In the process of extending my hand, I am reminded that, although I feel alone in my pain, almost every human being is suffering in some form or another, and that if we see our pain as part of the collective pain of human suffering, we have each other and are in it together.
4. Keep doing what you’re doing.
Um. Duh? Yeah, okay, this one is kind of obvious, but really freak’in hard when getting through a simple task feels like competing an Ironman…in crutches. When I’ve got that familiar knot in my stomach—which feels as if I have just robbed a bank and must to confess it to the priest that scares the hell out of me at church—I try to break up my responsibility into miniscule pieces. If I think, “You have to compose three erudite, substantial blog posts today,” there is a likelihood that I will throw up or at least not be able to eat all day. But if I say, “In the next half hour, you have to construct three simple sentences,” I’m much better off because that I can do. So instead of throwing my arms up and yelling, “To hell with it!” I can take baby steps and do the thing that I am doing.
5. Look for signs of hope.
Here’s where I sound like a scrupulous, devout, whacked-out Catholic, which is somewhat true, although I don’t wear my hair in a tight bun or have anything to do with polyester. It’s just that I need signs of hope. All around me. Because it’s so easy to sink into despair and sadness and hopelessness. But if you have something small in front of you—for me, it’s rose petals—that signifies hope, then you can always make that jump from darkness to light, even while sitting at your desk.
6. Repeat your mantras.
My mantras change everyday. Today I am going with “You are okay,” and “You are loved by God.” Sometimes I utter them in between sentences, while I try to breathe in deeply and exhale. I almost always repeat mantras while I’m in the car, because it keeps me from shouting something nasty at the car in front of me. They do help.
7. Remember victories of past and present.
I will also list—either on a sheet of scrap paper or on the gray matter of my brain—a few victories in my recent history: recovering from a devastating depression that almost took my life, 22 years of sobriety, maintaining a career despite profound mood fluctuations, and celebrating 15 years of marriage, when the divorce rate among bipolars is estimated to be as high as 90 percent. All those things I have done, which is why whatever it is that’s going on now won’t keep me down.
I don’t know if prayer helps. I mean, I can’t prove it. But it certainly makes me feel like I’m doing something proactive, a small thing that could very well help my odds of feeling better. And, like a placebo, having trust in some benevolent deity is going to be beneficial even if there isn’t a benevolent deity. But I do think there is. It goes back to hope—the golden rope out of the pit of despair. If we can keep a grip on that rope, we can never fall too far back.
9. Surround yourself with people.
This one is counterintuitive, as well. The last thing you feel like doing is talking to a person. You might be fine conversing with a computer, a mug of coffee, or a bowl of cereal. People are somewhat unappealing. Unfortunately, isolation never helps you feel better. I have conducted studies in my own life. I always think isolation is the only thing to do, but my brain is just craving it much like my stomach craved a Big Mac when I was pregnant. Whenever I followed through with that one, the flame-broiled thing (or is that Burger King’s invention?) caused me serious heartburn. When you force yourself into a circle of people there is a slight chance of your forgetting how miserable you feel. Not guaranteed. But possible.
10. Say the Serenity Prayer.
When all else fails, pray the Serenity Prayer. Ask God for the strength to accept the things you can’t control: your great aunt’s genes that predispose you to more turbulence in your life than you would like and neural circuits that are firing at each other like the Union army against the Confederates in the American Civil War. Ask God for the courage to change the things you can: surrounding yourself with people when you want to shut out the world for a year; eating almonds, spinach, and salmon for lunch (with lots of Omega 3s) instead of the delicious chocolate cake that is sitting on the kitchen counter; and making an appointment with your shrink to sort out what’s going on. Most importantly, ask God for the wisdom to know the difference.