I've been using exercise as a way to escape my depression for longer than I care to admit.
Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for Star Trek: Beyond, because that's just the kind of blog this is. I don't spoil the ending or anything, but if you're super sensitive to spoilers, just come back after you've seen it. Don't worry, it's worth watching on its own merits.
Second, more important disclaimer: I have never been diagnosed with capital-D Depression, so this is largely a story of self-diagnosis and self-treatment, and I acknowledge neither of those are super healthy, but here we are ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Also, let's be 100% clear - if you suffer from depression, or believe you do, what follows should in no way be construed as advice, but rather, as simply documentation of my own journey. I also know that for many people, exercise simply isn't an option, because the enemy that is depression saps them of the motivation needed to get out the door. In that regard, I acknowledge I'm incredibly fortunate. I definitely have some tips for motivation that I'll share down the road, but I'm not going to pretend they'll work for everyone.
I didn't really expect this blog to get quite so serious quite so soon. I knew depression was a topic I had to address eventually, but I figured I'd get some other stuff out of the way first. Unfortunately, the direction of the blog tends to be dictated by the thoughts that pop into my head during my workouts, so, here we are.
I suppose it really all came to a head last Sunday, when I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness and exhaustion, after a week full of social interaction. I mentioned this to my friend, confused as to why I wasn't content and enjoying one of the many forms of entertainment I had available to me, and got the simple response of "oh, yeah, that's just depression."
That thing I'm always (literally and figuratively) running from finally caught up to me. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it shows up with a vengeance.
I don't know what it was about Sunday, specifically, that triggered it. Perhaps I hadn't exercised enough, or perhaps I was simply coming down off a week-long social high. It doesn't really matter - it happened, as it always seems to eventually.
This journey I'm on is largely about building up self-confidence, and becoming the kind of person I think I can be, and that many of my friends like to tell me I already am. And perhaps they're right, in which case, this journey is just about realizing that. But the ever-present villain in this story is depression; it's the thing telling me I'm not good enough, not smart enough, and doggone it, no one likes me.
For years, I've used exercise as a tool to keep it at bay, and it's largely been successful. Dipping my toes into meditation is mostly about finding another weapon in that battle - training my mind to identify and avoid negative thoughts before they overwhelm me.
I often like to envision an Aikido master, pausing to identify to threat, then using the momentum of the negative thought against itself helping me to realize that those thoughts have no weight, no power. As a largely evidence-driven person, I can often use logic and reason to deal with these thoughts when they're polite enough to come at me once or two at a time.
Unfortunately, it doesn't help when the thoughts and feelings inevitably swarm, coming at me like a cloud.
These are the cases where, like in Star Trek Beyond, the only way to deal with the swarm is to blast awesome music and go really fast.
And it works, for a time - I go for a bike or run outdoors, and the cloud is gone. I'm sure there's some science behind this if I dig into it; the release of endorphins, the increase in Vitamin D from the sun, or maybe just the brief feeling of accomplishment. It feels good to throw yourself against the world and win, even if it's just for a moment. I do know that if I don't push myself hard enough, and/or exercise for long enough, then the effect doesn't stick.
Unfortunately, unlike the movie in question, the cloud will inevitably return. All I've done is bought myself a brief window of sanity, the length of which is often unpredictable. This is where I'm hoping meditation will pick up the slack, and allow me to better control those thoughts before they turn into an overwhelming cloud of despair.
There's reason to hope, at least. This morning was the first day I noticed the cloud starting to form before it engulfed me, though I know that without my bike ride, I was in for a rough day. Perhaps sensing it coming and reacting accordingly is the most I'll be able to do - I really don't know at this point. I'm certainly under no illusions that meditation is a magical panacea for all of life's woes, but so far, even my brief time with it has convinced me there are noticeable cognitive benefits - but I suppose that's a topic better left for another post.
All of this said, I'm acutely aware that the act of self-diagnosing and self-treating is almost certainly self-defeating, and that at some point I should likely talk to someone about this. I acknowledge that exercise is a band-aid over larger issues, and the only real difference between drinking away my problems and exercise is that one is better for my body and is something I should probably do anyway.
I don't know why I'm so stubborn, as my friends who have been to therapists all speak highly of the experience. Perhaps I want to believe that my situation isn't that bad, but if I'm being honest with myself, I think I just want to see how far I can take this on my own before I need to bring in the big guns.
So, that's where we stand - one old, reliable tool against depression, and one new, possibly-maybe-almost useful tool. I can't really offer more than that, because at this point, I just don't know where we go from here, beyond to say I'm more hopeful than I have been in the past, because at least now I'm openly acknowledging what I'm facing - both to others, and to myself.