Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Few Words About Depression

I had an email today from a Tucson Citizen reporter - not the one who interviewed me for an article on unemployment in Tucson, a different one. Having been interviewed on my jobless state, was I now willing to be interviewed about seeking therapy for unemployment-related depression? Ummm....

There are two problems with my agreeing to the request. The first, I'm sure you understand, is that the role of Tucson's Famously Depressed Deadbeat, er, Unemployed Person isn't exactly a flattering one. Who knows how being Famously Unemployed in the local paper, picture and all, coincidentally on the same day as my second job interview in three months, may have affected my prospects? Did someone in HR give me a thumbs down for grandstanding? Probably not, but I'll never know. The second problem is, I'm not someone who has sought therapy for depression. Well, maybe a little. Back when my parents were first divorced in 1976, I met with a completely useless, Rogerian student therapist once or twice at Syracuse University, and visited Father Ed at St. Patrick's Church for tea and sympathy. But recently? I think I entertained the notion for two minutes once as an option for the future, when I happened to be in the same building as my mom's old therapist. But other than that, no.

But being obsessively confessional and overly fond of pontificating (not to mention humorously self-deprecating!), I answered the email anyway, with written answers to the reporter's questions. I said that my depression is very minor, more situational than clinical, and that I couldn't afford therapy even were I so inclined.

The reason I'm mentioning all this here, aside from the aforementioned confessional tendencies, is that the reporter's other questions got me thinking about coping mechanisms and the extent to which they help me. That subject seems sufficiently interesting, and possibly helpful, to sustain a blog entry, so here we are.

Things that seem to help:

1. Distraction. In a way, this sounds like a bad idea. We're supposed to confront our problems head on, not turn our backs and pretend they don't exist. That's denial, not coping. Yes, but. One thing I've noticed many times over the years is that it's even more harmful to spend all your time thinking about how miserable you are. Of course you're going to think about that sometimes, if you're acutely or chronically depressed. How can you not? But don't indulge it. If you're having a bad day, then it can be very therapeutic to compile a fixed assets depreciation entry, read a book, prepare for a class, watch a favorite tv show, listen to the Beatles, or do almost anything else that takes your mind away from feelings of helplessness or hopelessness or worthlessness. Six years later, I'm almost grateful that the University of Phoenix made no provision for missing class due to bereavement, and that I consequently had to make a PowerPoint presentation nine hours after my mother died. I probably didn't do a great job of revising my final paper for that class; my concentration wasn't that good. But having something annoyingly irrelevant to do that night probably helped me get through that day.

2. Change the Script. Have you ever seen the film Agnes of God? Meg Tilly plays an innocent, deeply disturbed young nun who gets pregnant and dumps her baby, and yet is a holy, naive, virginal figure who fasts and abases herself and (if I recall correctly) even gets stigmata. Jane Fonda plays the cynical, chain-smoking, ex-Catholic therapist who tries to get to the bottom of what happened and grows to care deeply about her patient. In one key scene, Fonda's Dr. Livingston tries to teach Sister Agnes to fight back against the belief in her own worthlessness that her mother instilled in her. Playing the role of Agnes's mother, Livingston calls her "ugly" and "stupid" and "a mistake," and encourages her to refute these descriptions. (Against the "mistake" charge, Sister Agnes cries out, "I'm not a mistake! God doesn't make mistakes!") I think of this scene often when talking to a depressed friend, or when my own Inner Weasel is trying to tell me nasty things about myself. Nobody is perfect, but telling yourself that you're stupid or ugly, useless or wicked or worthless is not the way to make yourself a better or happier person. Still, we often do what psychologists sometimes call playing tapes, letting negative thoughts replay themselves endlessly in our heads, tearing ourselves down even further. It's important to recognize this behavior and correct it, refuting exaggeratedly negative descriptions of ourselves and replacing thoughts of "I can't" with the knowledge that "I can." Which leads us to the next coping mechanism:

3. Move forward. The essence of depression is a feeling that things won't get better, that you're stuck in the morass of a bad situation and can't get out, and perhaps don't even deserve to get out. If you're feeling hopeless and helpless, a good way to pull free of the mire is to prove to yourself that there are things you can do after all. Maybe I can't magically order up a new job right now, but I can apply for the ones for which I'm qualified and hope. And more important, I can work to make myself more employable. That's what the courses for professional certification that I wrote about last night represent to me: a way forward, to exert some control over my situation and improve my chances of a better outcome in the long run. It should also make me feel better about myself in the meantime, knowing I'm not just shlumphing around waited to be rescued from my fate.

That all seems to help me, but it's not a panacea. Sometimes I'm still fairly miserable, and it's all too easy to reach for food, a coping mechanism that's a short-term mood-lifter but detrimental in the long run. Nor am I suggesting that someone who suffers from chronic or severe clinical depression can solve everything with Sgt. Pepper and being productive. I am, after all, only mildly depressed, and it's not really a chronic condition for me. There are certainly people for whom psychotherapy, with or without appropriate medication or supplements (look into TMG!), is a necessary part of the solution. But these three strategies are worth a try, I think, for just about anyone who suffers from depression.

Do I hope that the Tucson Citizen writer will use me in the article? Not really. I'd just as soon not be Tucson's Designated Unemployed Person. But if I am mentioned, I hope I'm the minor figure in the last paragraph, the wise soul who gets the last word.


Update: John expressed a preference that I not be in a newspaper article on depression, so I just begged off in an email. Ah, well!

1 comment:

barrettmanor said...

I'm with you on distraction. As long, as you say, you don't indulge it. I don't know about you, but I find distraction an excellent way to deal with a creative block. Sort of like Arthur Dent learning how to fly. ;-)