When I quit my job, it seemed so plain to me: I needed to quit my job. I love to write. I had already researched freelance writing extensively. The plan fit. I knew the path wouldn’t be easy, but I felt pretty euphoric about it.
And then I crashed into an emotional wall and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap. We had plenty of money in savings (not just in stocks), but when our investments took a nose dive within two weeks of me quitting my job, I found myself with twinges of panic flicking my sternum. Perhaps that was the beginning—I don’t know; I can’t pick it all apart. At times, I still felt fine: felt solid about my choices, felt good about the future, felt silly and happy. But other times, the panic grew to overwhelm me. Twice, sobbing, I called my husband in such a fit of panic and depression that he came home from school to be with me. Having him near me, even if he was still in the office at home working, kept the panic at bay just enough that I could function.
I couldn’t write about it; even though I knew it was thoughtful honesty that brought many people back to my blog time and again, I felt like a fraud for writing about self-care when I felt so awful, and I felt too embroiled in how I was feeling to have any clarity to write about it. I couldn’t write, or at least I felt I couldn’t write very well, about anything, and the pressure I felt to be writing was enormous. It was overwhelming. Every time a person asked me how my magazine writing was going, I cringed. Every time a person told me I should write a book, I felt trapped. Even as I realized my feelings weren’t logical, I felt like many of these very supportive people were really trying to trap me, to let me know they knew I’d fail. I stammered out half-true responses that felt utterly inadequate. The truth was, I was frozen in my writing developments. A sense of doom and anxiety overwhelmed me when I tried to move forward with writing. Any time I could sense my husband was frustrated or annoyed (and that’s not infrequently right now, since he’s under the pressure of a Ph.D. thesis), I was certain—without even asking him—that he was mad at me, and rightfully so. Self-given epithets that I thought were gone from my mental vocabulary came creeping back in. You’ve always been lazy at the heart of it all. I fought back with all the powers in my self-care toolkit, and still I felt inadequate for the challenge. Time and money I spent on self-care (exercise, acupuncture, cooking), even though it was entirely legitimate, made me feel guilty and left my brain largely free to question my life. Why couldn’t I write, after all? What did it mean about me? What was wrong with me? Was I doomed to cycles of deep depression for the rest of my life? What was the point of my life, anyway? If I wasn’t contributing by doing meaningful work, what was the point of me being here at all?
In the moments and hours and days I was overcome this way, I felt like I was spiraling downward, and I didn’t even know what to do. One day I was mostly okay; the next I felt awful. I struggled with the idea that I was even depressed. Then the month we spent outside of town house-sitting for a friend left me even more isolated within my own mind. At that time, my husband began hearing back from the various companies and organizations who had been so gung-ho to hire him just a couple of months before. “I’m sorry to tell you we have a company-wide hiring freeze.” ” . . . hiring freeze.” ” . . . hiring freeze.” “Not hiring right now.” “Don’t have funding to hire you.” “Would hire you in a heartbeat if I could, but I can’t.” Oh God, I thought. Have I given up the financial stability of regular employment just to ruin us?
(“You’re not ruining us,” he responded to my latest flood of tears, his arms around me. “We’ll get through this. No, I don’t regret marrying you at all—don’t be silly. We’re going to be okay.” His own fears and stress, legitimate and irrational, had to take a backseat to soothing mine; knowing that deepened my guilt.)
I was taking the steps I knew to work through the anguish: keep doing normal activities. Don’t force yourself to do everything, but maintain your life’s rhythms. Reach out to people you feel you can trust. Exercise. Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to take some time off to get to feeling better, I told myself determinedly. I thought about going to apply for new jobs, but that thought panicked me as well. I felt trapped within the vortex of emotions that tossed me around over and over, no matter what route I took.
In the vein of being gentle with myself, I went to the library to check out a couple of novels (randomly plucked off a shelf) to read. When all else fails, escape into another world. I started one novel and finished it the next day. I started the second novel on the third day. At first, I couldn’t get into it, and I laid it aside. Later in the day, with a heavy heart, I climbed into bed to try reading again. A few more pages into it, I found myself more ensconced. My eyes darted across the lines, reading, to a passage within the book where the author interwove the lives of the characters with the theology of Paul Tillich. Infinite possibility, Tillich said. We have in our lives in every moment infinite possibility—the choice at any moment to choose from a broad set of choices the path our lives will take next. Even when we feel trapped, we have options. It’s what we choose in a given moment that gives us the next set of options that will appear before us. It’s the challenge of our whole lives to have the courage, over and over, to accept that our lives are broken by their very nature, but still to choose to lean into our lives to let ourselves become more fully the people we are meant to become.
My breath caught. I reread the passages about Tillich, I considered how the author was weaving the meaning of his work into the book, and when I breathed again, I felt like my chest was able to open more widely than it had in months. . . . That’s the task before us that brings us closer to God’s intentions, Tillich says. That’s why we are here—not to perform any one particular act, but to have courage in becoming more fully who we are meant to be. We are all afraid of death and fate, loneliness and guilt, meaninglessness. Those deep-seated fears are at the heart of many of our untrue actions. What’s before us in our lives is to be as true as we can, accepting those fears but not letting them keep us from developing the best of who we are.
I fail at expressing these ideas adequately. Despite being religious, I am no regular student of theological writing, and I am not a theological writer. Nonetheless, when I gleaned the concepts from the novel, and later as I researched the concepts further, I saw the truth of Tillich’s theology reflected in my own life. And when I saw my life from that vantage point, where before I had felt stuck, I saw options spreading out before me. I saw that I didn’t have to find the ultimate answer to any problem in that moment. I didn’t have to have the answer to the big questions. I saw that, instead, I had to make one good choice that would open up to me new choices, and then I had to choose a good choice again. I had to choose true choices that would let me be more fully the genuine version of myself, and that action repeated would bring me more fully into the person God placed me here to become. And I saw that, even when I stumble into decisions that fill me with fear, doubt, or uncertainty, the options again are before me—new options, but options that give me the opportunity to choose a true path for my life again. I saw that those choices might—but wouldn’t necessarily—lead me to any enormous, grand action in life, but that they would lead me to be a more complete version of the person I was set on Earth to be—which is to say, to lead me to a good, purposeful, genuine life.
So . . . first things first. I knew I was feeling depressed. I knew that every year, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder: starting in about October and ending about March, I find myself feeling gloomier than I feel the rest of the year. Okay, time to make a good choice, if an expensive one: I did some research and found that the Mayo Clinic says that SAD lamps do clinically appear to create positive results in many depressed people. Okay, the Mayo Clinic is good enough evidence for me. I read a bunch of reviews of various lamps and ordered a mid-priced 10,000-lux, full-spectrum SAD lamp. When it came in, I began sitting under it each morning for 30 minutes while I ate breakfast. Within three days, my energy level began to improve, and my mood calmed a bit. I began to crave sitting under the lamp, and on gloomy days, I started turning it on for as long as an hour. I told my husband that I didn’t know whether it was a placebo effect or an actual result of the lamp, but I was glad we’d bought it. If nothing else, the lamp made me feel proactive in treating my depression.
We moved back into town into our new, long-term house-sitting location—a block from the apartment where we’d lived for 2.5 years. Back in my home base, I felt more connected to the community. I felt soothed by the proximity of the large city park. I was able to go to the gym more easily, and I returned to a more regular routine.
My husband, rather tentatively, brought up with me the book Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. He’d read about someone who’d had great success in moving beyond depression with the book. He asked me whether I’d be interested in him getting me a copy of the book, and I told him yes. Lo and behold, the author’s premise is that depression, most of the time, isn’t just a mental state that’s brought on by or can be fixed long-term by taking a pill. Instead, depression is our body’s way of telling us we need to make some changes in our lives. Depression doesn’t mean something is terribly wrong with us at our core; depression just means we need to reconfigure pieces of our lives to fit who we are and what we need—to get ourselves, appropriately enough, unstuck. The book offers a systematic approach to figuring out what might be causing us emotional issues from a purely biological standpoint (thyroid problems, food intolerances, sugar crashes, etc.); considering and enhancing what is working for us in our lives; and discovering what isn’t working so that we can work on changing our life elements that are not in line with who we’re meant to be. One of the tenets of the book is that we write prescriptions for ourselves to give ourselves permission to pay good attention to what feeds the best in us.
Between Tillich and Unstuck, I grew deeply aware of the fact that I have created space in my life for myself to heal if I will just take advantage of it. I’ve spent many years sick and worn down. For most of my life, I’ve been sick far more often than most other people I know (even during the last two years, wherein I have felt much better than before while spending more time, energy, and money on good self-care than most people I know). Since I became an adult, the sicknesses have piled up at different times with financial stress, school stress, family stress, job stress, romantic stress, commuting stress . . . and—especially as someone who is very emotionally and physically sensitive—I’ve often been overloaded. When I left my job, part of what happened is that my body began unloading some of that stress that I hadn’t been dealng with entirely. I had been dealing with the stress in the best ways I knew how, yet I obviously hadn’t dealt with it fully, since upsets about past stressors rose to the surface within weeks once my time was free. It’s no wonder I felt overloaded!
I began to see this stage of my life differently. “I have to take care of me,” I told my husband I’d realized. “I’m the only me I’ve got. For what it’s worth, I’m the only me the world’s got. I’ve tried to care for myself, but things have just stacked up to reach critical mass, and I feel like my body is acting that out. If I take care of other things well but don’t take good care of me, I may lose myself—I often lately feel like that’s what’s happening—and then I’ll have nothing. If I take care of me, even if it means focusing largely on taking care of me to the exclusion of other things I’d like to do right now, then that means I’ll be able to give more when I’m more healed. And by the nature of what I’m doing—by learning what habits and actions I need in my life—I’ll be working on becoming a better version of myself as I go.”
Becoming deeply accepting of the idea of expending lots of time and energy on healing myself has been a godsend for me. My regular exercise is a gift. My new plan to nourish myself with a frequent-flyer-mile trip to see my best friend (who moved to California in the fall) is exciting. My energy spent on meal-planning and cooking is extensive, but nurturing. My slow breakfast under my SAD lamp is pleasurable. My energy is more relaxed, and my thinking is clearer. My stressors, though still inevitably present, are easier to manage. I’m starting to feel like I can manage life again.
Though my husband’s Ph.D. student salary is small, we have been careful to set up our lives so that we can live on what he makes for the time being. (If taking this step meant we depleted our savings, it’s less likely it would be healing. If it meant we went into debt, it’s likely it would be harmful to my self-care, as I know from the past that debt is a huge burden on me. But neither of those should happen with this set-up.) Our set-up gives me the very fortunate opportunity to explore what feeds and heals me. If I’m writing or contributing financially in other ways at this time, that’s great. But I don’t actually have to be. Even writing this, it seems almost blasphemously self-indulgent to state that it’s okay for just taking care of myself to be my first priority of my life at this point, but I have learned—my body has been forcing me to learn—that if I don’t remain flexible in learning how to care for myself, if I don’t make myself a priority, I will end up depleted . . . and lost. Making good decisions about taking care of myself means making responsible, thoughtful decisions for my life, with an emphasis on being aware of my physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs. And those good choices will naturally lead me to other options for a trajectory toward a life that’s more healed, more fully developed, more meaningful, and more giving.
The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich—A series of talks given by Paul Tillich, in book form, about our purpose, the struggles therein, and how to cope with those struggles. I have done a bit of research on Tillich and his beliefs and existentialism since reading the novel that started me on this process, but I haven’t actually read all of The Courage to Be itself yet. It just arrived at my library’s hold desk for me to pick it up yesterday.
Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon, M.D.—The work that this book asks you to do is pretty intense, given that you’re probably depressed (or at least pretty down) if you start reading it, but if you want to avoid medication and think finding the ideas and strength to make life changes has the slightest possibility of transforming you, it’s definitely worth a read.
The SAD lamp I use every day—I originally looked at getting one that cost twice as much, but this one has mostly good reviews from several sources. Research indicates it’s best for your eyes and for your depression to get a full-spectrum, 10,000 lux light to use for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I like that this lamp can be put on a stand so that it’s a bit above your eyes instead of staring straight at you. I can read a book or use my computer while still getting the benefits of the lamp and without getting bad eye strain.
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel—this is the novel I was reading that improved my perspective on life. Perhaps I just read it exactly when I needed it, but I think Kimmel does an amazing job of tying the novel’s pieces together while keeping things real. I’m looking forward to reading her other novels and her memoirs now.