Depressed? Try volunteering

I caught this article on Motherboard and it really, really got me thinking.  The article itself is certainly worth the read, but I’ll try to summarize the points and add my own spin on it.

The article notes that volunteering helps with depression.  This happens a few different ways:

  • First, there are mental and physical benefits to volunteering.  Volunteering can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of hypertension and make you physically feel better.  This happens, in part, by noting that oxytocin (feel good brain chemical) gets released when you regularly volunteer.
  • Volunteering helps you keep things in perspective.  It gets much harder to be depressed when you are working with someone much less fortunate than you.  I’ve always found this to be a helpful strategy, to be honest: On moments when you are depressed, compare yourself to someone who has it worse than you.
  • Volunteering gives you social connections and social interaction, a challenge for people who are depressed.

It’s actually the second point that I want to talk about more than anything else, because that’s something I’ve always found to be powerful: Volunteering gets you out of your own head.  Let me point back to a blog entry I made some time ago about depression and rumination: Thinking obsessively about yourself, and your own problems, can be tied very strongly to depression.

That’s where volunteering can come in.  Not only are you exposed to people in legitimately worse situations than you, but it can help you out of your own head, as it is much harder to think about yourself when you are trying to help others.  Sometimes, your brain needs that extra kick in the butt to stop the thoughts of yourself.  And that’s where volunteering can come in.  According to the article, there is no volunteering that is better than others – doing good means feeling good.

I do want to add one clarification here, however: I’ve made volunteering sound like a selfish exercise designed to the volunteer feel better. That’s not the attitude that you should have when you go to do good. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with volunteering because you want to feel better and are hoping to build some social connections and make a difference.  But I would remind you that the only way to truly reap the benefits of volunteering is to do so by approaching it from an ultimately selfless perspective.  Go somewhere with the hope of doing good, and the rest of it will fall into place.

As always, I am curious to hear your perspective.  What good experiences have you had with volunteering in the hopes that it will help control depression?  How about negative ones?  I know I’ve felt both ways when volunteering, and I’m curious to hear other perspectives.  Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Why talking about mental illness helps

I’d almost make the argument that the thing that makes the most sense about depression is that it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Like, none.

Understand that this is just my perspective, but hear me out on this one.  Depression, anxiety, mental illness, the works, they make no damn sense.  I mean, isn’t one of the things that makes us human the ability to control our own thoughts and act independently?  “I think, therefore, I am?” and all that?

Which is why having a mind that works against you so darn frustrating.

Call me crazy here…okay, don’t, I do that enough on my own…but I think that one of the reasons that depression is so frustrating, confusing and mystifying is that it goes against the very thing that makes us human: Our ability to think.  Humans are fundamentally logical and emotional creatures, right?  I firmly believe that there is a piece of our own minds will always believe that it is in control.

Of course, that isn’t the case.

Even now, even as someone who has been living with depression for years and doing so in a very public forum – it still makes no sense to me.  How is it that people who are so successful, loved and popular can still suffer so?  And I ask myself this question despite the fact that I am someone who has depression.

So, that brings me back to the crux of this blog entry: Why I think that talking about depression/mental illness in an open, honest and public manner helps, and why I always encourage others to do the same.

I think it helps us make sense.

I firmly believe that the idea that we aren’t in complete control of our emotions and thoughts is a truly alien one, something that most of us struggle with on some base level.  To that extent, I think that talking about mental illness helps.  It helps us process what’s going on in our brain and make sense of the thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing.

I obviously don’t have all the answers to mental illness – if I did, I’d be a lot richer, and at least a little bit happier.  But I would suggest this: If you are one of the people suffering in silence, do what you can to change that perspective.  Talk about it.  You may not have access to a supportive network of family or friends, but I think you’d be surprised at the amount of online support groups that you can participate in – anonymously or not.  Even the act of sitting there, and formulating your feelings, can help process your emotions and make a positive difference in your life.

And, on a personal note: I’ve found that this blog has helped my advocacy tremendously, and not just because it gives someone else a chance to read my thoughts.  By putting “pen to paper,” so to speak, it gives me a chance to organize my thoughts, examine my feelings and reevaluate the way I handle my own recovery.  It’s also helped me to rethink some of my public advocacy, in particular the portions related to stigma – it’s not just stigma that matters, but self-stigma.  

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Am I onto something here?  Let us know in the comments, and have a wonderful day!

What recovery means

People who have recovered from addictions to alcohol and drugs are often very, very cautious with how they describe their recovery, and that’s for good reason: Relapses are, tragically, all too frequent.

It didn’t dawn on me until much, much later in my life that the same applies for people living with depression.

First, a look at some broad facts: According to one study, ” at least 50% of those who recover from a first episode of depression having one or more additional episodes in their lifetime, and approximately 80% of those with a history of two episodes having another recurrence.”

In other words, sadly, the more depressive episodes you have, the more likely you are to have another one in the future.

Making this personal: The worst depressive episode I’ve had in my life, and the most extended, was my freshman year of college.  Therapy and medication helped me learn to live again, but I had a pretty hard-core relapse my senior year, and then another one a little after grad school.  Periodic ups and downs followed, but I’d say those were the three worst “episodes” of my life, with the most dehabilitating consequences.  As I got older, the intensity of these episodes began to wane, as I became better at recognizing depression for what it was, coping with it’s symptoms and seeking additional help as appropriate.

That’s not to say they went away.  They didn’t.

I’m bringing this up to make a point: Recovery is not an end state.  It’s not a destination.  For most, it’s a journey.  For some, they’re lucky: One episode of mental illness, one bout with addiction, and they are done.  You lucky, lucky sons of…sigh, anyway….

For most who have ever suffered – depression, anxiety, addiction, whatever – a relapse could always be just around the corner.  This means that you can never let your guard down, because you’re never really, truly “done” with mental illness.

Is this a bad thing?  Well, I’d be a heck of a lot happier if I never had to worry about this again.  But the specific reason I am bringing this up is to remind people who suffer that recover is not the end state – it’s a perpetual one – and that relapses are okay.  They are part of the disease with which you suffer and not endemic of any internal weakness.  Recurrences shouldn’t be dealt with via self-flagellation and scolding – they should be treated as a natural flare up of a disorder that can be dehabilitating without treatment.  Don’t yell at yourself.  Don’t hate yourself.  And don’t think that your any recovery must be permanent or you are failing.

Recovery is a journey.  Not a destination.

Fangirl: The book that reminded me that Writing = Therapy

As I’ve said before, one of the things that has helped me cope with my anxiety/depression issues.  There’s a few reasons for this, and I’ll get into that shortly, but I wanted to write what basically amounts to a thank you note to Rainbow Rowell, author of Fangirl, and talk a little bit about how I found a wonderful creative outlet…and, maybe, how you can too.

First, my personal history.  Ever since 8th grade, I’ve loved to write.  Like most young, male teenage authors, the first thing I ever wrote was…uhh, Star Wars fan fiction.  It was terrible, but that’s completely besides the point.  At the time, it made me extremely happy, and why not?  It gave me the opportunity to create, and feel like I was part of a franchise that I adored.  During my teenage years, writing continued – I wrote two full-length novels (unpublished, of course, probably because they were pretty bad).  In college, as the anxiety and stress continued, I tried my hand at poetry.  Again, it gave me…something.  The chance to express what I was feeling, and in putting it on paper, leave a piece of it behind.

What I remember the most about these novels, even more than their plot, is that they helped me cope.  Novel number one was about my family history, the loneliness that came with it and just being a teenager in general.  Number two was working through some of the challenges I had in my family at the time.

Both novels gave me hope.  They gave me a sense of control.  And in my worst, most loneliest moments, they gave me something to hold onto.  Not for nothing, but novel #2 never made it through revisions.  Once I came to peace with what was happening in my life, I more or less stopped writing it.

This was all in high school.  Fast forward fifteen years: I’m married, two wonderful kids and a State Representative.  To my surprise, I managed to achieve a dream and become a published author, but a non-fiction book: Tweets and Consequences.  

It was around the first half of 2015 that I hit a rough patch with my depression, arguably one of the rougher ones I had hit in years, maybe even since college, when my depression and anxiety really first began/exploded onto the scene.  At the time, I remember feeling misreable and just so helpless, searching desperately for a way out that I just couldn’t find.

What wound up pushing me to a better place was writing.  And what helped get me there was Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  From the book:

In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life-and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

The book resonated with me because the main character, Cath, is clearly having major adjustment issues to college (as I had) and discovering who she is.  She uses her writing to cope and get her to a better place, and the book details her struggle in terms of finding a voice that is authentic and truly belongs to her.  Cath is clearly a talented writer, and the book explores her writing journey, meshing with her adjustment to college, family separation, romantic experiences, academic struggles and more.  I’d also argue – and many others have also made this comment – that Cath is clearly suffering from some form of depression.

And that is exactly where the book hits a chord for me.  I remember there being one scene where Cath is in an advanced writing class with older students, and the professor – a big time author, if memory serves – is asking the class why they write.  One student answered “therapy.”  And that’s a note that just rang so, so true to me.

For me, writing was always a therapy for a variety of reasons:

  • It allowed an escape.  An idealized world where every situation could be reasonably thought through, all alternatives explored, and all potential problems dealt with accordingly.
  • It allowed me the chance to work through problems, to put myself in someone else’s shoes.  In a sense, I think writing allows you to sort the various parts of your head and put them somewhere better.
  • It allows you to mark the moment.  And I don’t mean remember.  I mean something stronger.  To carve it into your consciousness and make sure that the emotional core of an event – everything you are trying to deal with – are always remembered.  Every feeling, every sensation.
  • You can play God.  Play the hero, play the villain, whatever you want.
  • Ideally, you can work through your past, and channel it into something good.  I think that’s an important theme of my overall mental health journey: Once I realized I could go public, and help other people in the course of doing so, I became a better public official and a better person.

To those of you who write, in any form, for mental health purposes – I feel you.  And to those of you who don’t – maybe give it a go.