Posted in Depression, Health, mental health

Don’t Let the Depression Monster Get You

drivingIt feels like I have battled depression all my life. I am familiar with a great many strains of depression. Depression is like a bacterial infection. It might go away on its own if left alone, or it might turn into a life-threatening disease. So the key is to get it under control early.

At its worst, the depression monster clouds you with a paralyzing feeling of doom and despair. I have only had this a few times and it made me very sympathetic to those who opt for a way out of this life.

In most cases you have the inner resources to defeat the depression monster. Myriads of people have resorted to meds and they can take the edge off. The trouble is there are side effects. I was prescribed meds by my doctor and I bought them. But I was so low that, knowing how depression medication can also make you suicidal during the first couple of months, I decided not to take the risk. I chose rather to live with what I knew and understood than introduce an element that could feed the monster.

Having spoken with people on medication I have learned that the lows are not as low, and the highs are not as high when they are on meds. It sort of puts you in a middle zone, numbing your senses. People who read this and have experience with medications will be able to tell you much more about how it works. I am not an authority. But I have also seen how medication can cause someone to spiral out of control, emotionally.

You may need to get medical help for depression. If you do, be sure you work closely with your doctor.

But, if like me, you decide to control this monster on your own, there are some things that have worked for me which I will share with you.

I was “down” a lot as a kid and a teenager. Some of it had to do with my home life. Some of it had to do with my temperament. I have the melancholy temperament common with artists and musicians.

We moved away from my friends and it took me years to find friends again, so I was alone a lot.  I was bullied a lot and had constant anxiety as a kid about getting on the bus in the morning or walking down the hallway at school because that is when my bully and his buds targeted me.

I had several things going for me as a kid. One was regular meals and good nutrition. If I were a doctor, this would be the first thing I would check if someone presented with depression. The second would be social support in terms of friends and family or at least associates. The third would be stressors.

Each of us has our own story of how the depression monster was fed and grew in our lives until one day he was out of control. My monster was out of control after I had my second child. Somehow I managed to clamber out of the deep dark dungeon I found myself in. I don’t remember much about that time, but what I do remember is that I told myself I would never let myself get so low again because it was too hard to get out.

As I write about this I have a great sense of inadequacy because of how I have failed to consistently tame the monster. However I am continuing, knowing there are things I have done that have definitely reduced the size of this monster and kept him at a respectable distance.

The first thing you have to realize about this monster is that you will have to fight him on your own. Nobody can do it for you. So you have to get some weapons. You have to understand your enemy. You have to track him, watch what he does, what makes him diminish, watch what empowers him.

What works for someone else may not work for you. You might find some of the things I share helpful while others will not work for you at all. You may have already discovered some things that help you. The only thing I say is don’t rely on unhealthy habits and supports because, even though they might appear to work, they will bite in the end. I’m talking about addictions. Unhealthy substance use and addictive activities. Remember, you want to be in control of your mind and your body. This feeling of control is the most powerful way to stave off the depression monster.

Some of us have already succumbed to addictions. And there are many different kinds. Be gentle with yourself. But make it your responsibility to choose the most healthy and wholesome course.

Cognitive behavioral counseling is the most effective form of counseling for depression and it is sometimes coupled with medication. In fact, medication is most effective when it is used in conjunction with counseling. Cognitive behavior counseling helps us change our thinking and behavior. Unfortunately, counseling costs a lot of money. And people who need counseling often don’t have insurance to cover the cost. So, you have to seek your own counsel.

I looked across at my doctor’s report in his office when he left the room for a minute and he had written down, chronic depression?? He was suggesting that I find a friend and go for regular walks. He said his wife did this. A good friend can be more helpful than a counselor.

There are so many little things I have done to keep my personal monster at bay. A lot of things I do without thinking. Some are pretty random. I’ll share a list I’ve managed to come up with. Honestly, this subject requires a book but I have tried to condense it.

  1. Light therapy. Don’t stay in a dark room during the day. Open the blinds and let light in. Turn on lights if you have to. Yellow or warm light is better than blue light. There are also special lamps you can get to stave off depression. Do some research. I have a friend who tans in the winter to get light. But heed the warnings about tanning.
  2. Keep relationships healthy. This takes a lot of work and will be a lifetime job. There may be friends you need to drop. There may be relatives with whom you need to spend less time. Conversations to avoid. Take time to study conflict resolution skills and how to share your needs and desires effectively. Express appreciation to others too, so that they will like to be with you. Limit negative influences, and this includes news articles, talk shows, videos, social media, etc. Guard your heart. Stay upbeat.
  3. Don’t watch movies in the morning or afternoon. This is when you want to be using your creative energy on important things. Movies are for the time of day when you wind down. They are a passive activity.
  4. Find a no-brainer game to play for half an hour to an hour a day. Generally a maximum of two hours because you don’t want it to turn into a mindless addiction. If done the right way it can put your brain in neutral and give it time to reset. People who are depressed are often over-thinkers so they need to put their thoughts on hold for awhile. Other activities can do this too.
  5. I’ve already mentioned nutrition. We used to own a restaurant and we frequently saw that vegetarians were the most unbalanced emotionally. They came in stressed and couldn’t make their minds up. You may vehemently disagree with me, but I am only speaking from my own experience. I can sink into a depression very quickly if I don’t have protein consistently on a daily basis. But people with other body types might be different. A small piece of meat or cheese twice a day is very helpful for me. And another reminder, eat vegetables every day for mental health. As far as supplements go, I suggest you consult your doctor or naturopath in addition to doing your own personal research.
  6. Don’t beat yourself up. Be gentle. And be firm. Learn your rhythms and work with them. What I have found very helpful, for instance with household chores, is to tell myself to do a small thing to clean up a room every time I walk into it. Disorder contributes to depression, so you want to focus on bringing order into your life. But don’t beat yourself up. Instead, learn to be consistent. Don’t allow yourself to become slack, but give yourself slack, if you know what I mean.
  7. Find the wholesome thing that brings you joy. It might be window shopping, going to a park, listening to music, painting, playing guitar, volunteering, making creative desserts, poking around at thrift stores, fixing things, hiking, taking photographs. Incorporate these things into each day.
  8. Realize that you can either have the body you want or eat the foods you want. You choose. I learned long ago that I will never be able to eat as many potato chips or donuts as I want. I struggle with getting to my ideal body weight, so I have told myself this will be a process that will take time. In the meantime, I watch that I don’t gain. It is the least I can do because gaining weight is depressing for me.
  9. Root out thoughts of hopelessness and despair. Thoughts like, “I can never do this. I am a failure. I am worthless.” The list is long. Begin by identifying your habitual negative thoughts and then work at reframing them. For instance, “I may have failed at a few things, but I can try again. I have also succeeded a few times and there is a good chance I will succeed again, soon, if I don’t stop trying.” “I am a very worthwhile human being by virtue of the fact that I am on this earth. I have a purpose and I am going to find out the unique ways in which I can make a difference.”
  10. Avoid the downward spiral. This requires recognizing it. Recognize what triggers it. It may be negative thought patterns. It may be wrong foods. It may be the time of month–Midol has helped me. Or it may be nothing you recognize. Sometimes you may just have to get up and show up and tell yourself that tomorrow will be a better day. And if you can’t do that, then you ought to seriously consider seeing your doctor because you could be suffering from an underlying medical condition.

If you try even a few of these suggestions you will find it makes a difference. Come to think of it, I haven’t even mentioned sleep and exercise, which are huge.

I fight this battle consistently. I think it helps to realize that it may be a bit futile to think I will actually slay the monster.

I try not to become too fixated on the monster. Instead I divert my attention elsewhere. I distract myself and work on developing healthy patterns. The monster seems to have less power when it is not the centre of attention.

When I focus on keeping my hope and joy alive, the depression monster kind of shrivels and sometimes even vanishes, for awhile.

Posted in Children, Food, Health, Home

Are You Getting Enough Vegetables?

veggies for breakfastIt’s always been a challenge for me to incorporate enough vegetables into the family diet. I tell myself things like, There’s Tomato in the Pizza. My A&W Buddy Burger has Onions in it. I had Sweet Potato Fries.

I once served a homemade lasagna to a mother and her family and she asked me at the table, Where are the vegetables? Well, clearly there was tomato in the lasagna, and my homemade recipe has a whole package of spinach in it. But she was looking for a salad, I imagine. I didn’t serve the customary Caesar salad with the lasagna.

A friend of mine has a salad for lunch every day. I can’t seem to force myself to do that. I guess I’m still a picky eater, like when I was a kid. I know my mom worried about getting enough food into my stomach.

Back when I was a child there was not so much emphasis on a balanced diet. I had “Tomato Soup” out of a can and “Noodle Soup” out of a box for lunch regularly. Sometimes we had my favorite, “Campbell’s Vegetable Soup.” I didn’t mind the few vegetables floating around the alphabet noodles, which I loved–the bits of carrot, a couple of peas and the occasional lima bean.

I remember two things I liked when I was a kid, besides Alphabet Soup. Macaroni and cheese, and corn. That was until the day I ate too much of it.

I have to confess to having a constant level of anxiety over providing the right diet for my children when they were growing up. I tried a lot of things. For instance, I insisted on nutrients in my bread and refused to buy “white” bread. When I baked I used unbleached flour, and I added wholesome ingredients like raisins, or nuts, or oatmeal to cookies and cakes. I also made carrot cake or zucchini loaf for dessert. The kids loved these and never complained about the vegetables. When we had pizza, I sometimes sprinkled extra chopped red or green peppers and cheese on top. They never minded. And later I began to serve pizza with vegetables and dip…or no dip, just carrot and celery sticks, maybe broccoli or cucumber slices and peppers. I also made the obligatory Caesar salad with my lasagna!

We had a two spoon rule at our house. When the kids turned their noses up at a food, we would say they had to eat two spoonfuls. That way I was sure that at least they were ingesting some nutrition on a regular basis. I was always conscious of needing to get something substantial into their little tummies.

I know there are women out there who have got this, but I am not one of them. I am still very aware of the need to serve vegetables more regularly in our home. A green salad every day would be my ideal but here I sympathize with the children. Please, don’t force me.

One mother I knew when my children were little would certainly have aced the vegetable exam. She and her family had the rosy cheeks and bright eyes and clear skin to show for it. She religiously incorporated fresh vegetable salads into every lunch and dinner. From her I learned how easy it is to mix cucumbers, tomatoes and onions and add a bit of balsamic vinegar and oil, and, voila! A salad! This was a regular staple of hers.

When I go to my mom’s home the salad is often missing from the table. And this is true of my house too. But I’m doing something about it. Maybe not as regularly as I would like. I reassure myself by telling myself that everything counts. Today I cooked Butternut Squash Soup. The other week I made a Turkey Vegetable Soup. I recently added broccoli to my rice casserole which also has onions. It was delicious! Sometimes I even make a salad.

Breakfast can be another opportunity to sneak in vegetables. Mostly on weekends, I add sliced avocado or a grilled tomato to my breakfast of eggs and sausage or bacon, or fry a vegetable hash of potatoes (pre-cooked in the microwave), red and/or green peppers and of course onion. During the week I will sometimes eat leftovers for breakfast that contain vegetables.

There are days when I just start to fry an onion and then throw in some chopped vegetables, whatever I have in the house, to create a main or side dish. It always seems to turn out alright, whether I add celery and carrots, or broccoli and mushrooms, or zucchini. Eggplant, ochra and bitter melon don’t lend themselves quite so well to this method. But even shredded cabbage works!

I’ve also learned that it is relatively easy to grill vegetables. Simply brush them with oil and put them in the oven. I like to use my toaster oven. A few weeks ago I did this with brussel sprouts and they were amazing. Zucchini and asparagus work well too.

When I go to a restaurant I try and incorporate a salad into my meal. This is a time when I take advantage of having selection. Or, at the least, I will choose steamed vegetables with my main course. There is a place that serves an amazing grilled salmon salad with roasted asparagus and almonds. I have this regularly. Another thing we do is always order a vegetable dish when we have Chinese food.

I know how much better I feel if half of my food intake consists of vegetables, according to current dietary recommendations. I have not reached my ideal and I don’t know if I ever will. But, as I said, every bit counts. Even just two bites per meal.