One of the most frustrating and painful aspects of depression is the way it immobilizes the sufferer. Getting out of bed or off the couch, hitting the pavement, the gym, or the track are all good ways to begin busting out of your mental hoosegow. But you feel like that crowbar hotel has every brain, bone, blood and muscle cell in lock-down. You’re so paralytically sad or nailed-down numb you feel you’ll be in stir forever.
What you need is a jackrabbit parole. For this, you sometimes have to fight.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne does his criminality fieldwork in a squalid Bhutanese prison. The opening scene has him squaring off against a huge, savage opponent. “You’re in hell, little man,” the thug tells him, “And I am the Devil!” The not-yet Caped Crusader’s reply connects the impending dustup to his heroic quest: “You’re not the Devil,” Bruce counters before deftly taking this Goliath apart. “You’re practice.”
Depression can seem like that sort of hulking hector that just wants to rain knuckles and hellfire on you till your skin falls off. But if you shift your perspective a little, you can see the Big D as part of your training—as practice for challenges that lie ahead, gauntlet paths to helping others or making your own life stronger or more rewarding.
Common advice for staving off or overcoming depression is to focus on hopeful, positive thoughts, cultivate gratefulness, etc. And these techniques can work, sometimes very effectively.
But sometimes they don’t work that well, because depression seems to have leached out of your wetware all capacity for joy, gratitude or motivation. Working up good feelings about anything feels impossible partly because it’s too blandly ingenuous to be attractive. You can’t get interested in the prospect even if you admit that theoretically it could push you out of the pit. Despairing apathy is on you heavier than Haystacks Calhoun.
The so-called positive thinking anodynes can seem so mind-numbingly vanilla it’s hard to pay attention to them. We all want harmony, peace and love in our lives—true that. But not all the time. We also crave friction, conflict and chaos, vicarious if not actual.
Greenhorn fiction writers sometimes make the mistake of populating their stories with the kind of people they want in their lives—sunny, amiable souls who are all unfailingly nice to each other. The result is tales whose dramatic slackness deadens your brain like Thorazine. We need our interest and our energies roused by a little spiky drama, even sometimes a dose of apocalyptic upheaval. This is true of novels and films that attract us, and when we’re bummed out, it can also apply to methods of fighting depression.
William James points out that when “the loving and admiring impulses are dead, the hating and fighting impulses will still respond to fit appeals.” So you can try to think of depression as a worthy opponent.
A few cautions here: First, it’s important to distinguish between useful scrappiness and self-destructive rancor. You don’t want to just sit there raging against the fact that you’re depressed. When you hunker down in hateful inertia, you tend to aim the dudgeon gun at yourself.
So if the warrior energy you’re cultivating boomerangs back as self-targeting truculence, recognize that you’re reinforcing the depression rather than freeing yourself from it.
Second, don’t pretzel-twist yourself over external conditions that you really can’t change—the futility will only drag you deeper.
Third, fighting depression is not about mere venting or taking revenge on someone who’s done you wrong—studies have found that those approaches can actually make you more depressed.
Remember that you can’t really defeat the Big D by taking it head-on in some mental superdome. It’s not an offensive line you can mow down with a blitz of furious execration. It’s more like a raging mud monster whose assaults you learn to nimbly deflect.
Inertia is the first thing you have to beat. What do you do if a big sweating sumo scoundrel tries to pin you to the mat? You toss him off, or worm your way out from under him. Either way you gotta get up, dude. Gotta move your bones, Missy. Go ahead and tip on out of your crib.
I ain’t saying that’s easy. Sometimes it’s almost impossible. Even getting dressed can seem a Herculean labor when you’re dug in deep. Still, there’s a big payoff for summoning the willpower to get moving. You probably know from experience that a walk or a run or a few reps at the gym will lift your mood. Once you make the first move to get up and don your sweats, you kindle that kinesthetic flame that can fire the rest of your workout and blast away your glacial brain doom for a while.
(And hey, if you can’t do it today, don’t give yourself a hard time. I’ve had many days where I’d read this sort of advice and feel powerless to follow it, and then I’d feel guilty, as if my catatonic depression was actually self-indulgent languor, and that misdiagnosis just made things worse. Sometimes all you can do is hang fire till a little spark returns. Sometimes a soldier’s best strategy is to retreat, rest, and observe.)
You can’t be exercising constantly, so you need a sense of purpose to take over where the physical part of the battle leaves off. It helps if there’s a constructive element in your efforts, a desire to reduce suffering or jack up the quotient of joy in the world, even in the humblest ways.
One method is to fight depression by going after its proxies and proximate causes. Scope out some of the world’s creeping abuses that, in Bruce Cockburn’s words, “rob life of its quality and render rage a necessity.” It helps to target societal or institutional ills that you can actually do something about, however small and incremental your efforts might be.
Bummed out about starving kids? Consider giving a little cash or an hour of volunteer time to a hunger organization, and let yourself feel good about that. Hacking mad over the scourge of human trafficking? There are all kinds of ways to battle evils like this, and the world needs you to fire yourself up and fight. William James, who had his own run-ins with soul-stomping depression, made his life more meaningful and satisfying by devising ways to help others similarly afflicted.
So how do you get started when that marble-limbed torpor weighs you down? There’s no big secret here, no recondite papyrus-scrawled wisdom unearthed in Qumram caves. It’s as simple as Bob Marley’s exuberant call to action: Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.
At least get out of bed or off the couch, and try to haul your ashes out the door. If you can run a little, great. If not, at least walk. You want to beat depression, it helps to fight gravity first.
So come on. Try getting tactically pissed off. Stop being the anvil and start whaling on those mulligrubs. If not today, then tomorrow. Infuse your thoughts and activities with a little contrarian grit, and the energy will follow, eventually.
There are good reasons why stories of heroes bring the protagonists to some bitterly low point before they start scrabbling up again to confront and vanquish their foes. Think of Odysseus doomed in the Cyclops’s cave, nasty old Polyphemus chowing down on his Ithacan comrades. It has to look like all hope is shit-canned and no cows are ever coming home—only then does the champ’s resurgence hit the visceral bull’s eye with such precision and power.
The rhythm of life itself, and especially of lives radiating—or reaching for—strength, wisdom, compassion and triumph, plunges us to the depths sometimes. One example is the way depression drops us into a cutthroat psychic arena, a cage match with a jackleg heel. This honking black-hat will body-slam you and try to pile-drive all the hope out of your soul. He’ll pummel your spirit flatter than hammered shit.
Okay, but this is your story, you get to write the ending, and you’re packing more zap and mettle than you think. Comes a time to rouse yourself, clamber up and bust out with punch and pluck and kung-fu aplomb, no matter how draggy or despairing you are at first. The Big D is not the Devil, he’s practice, and you can redirect this donnybrook toward your own true north.