Let Your Good Habits Carry You

Fall is here.

Like many of you, I’ve had an intimate relationship with low grade seasonal depression since I was young. I grew up in and have always lived in the Northwest where the days are dark and short for half the year. I remember sitting on the school bus in middle school telling my friend that I had the “blahs.” No one in my world back then knew that the blahs could be serious and that they could also be treated with better diet, exercise, therapymeditation, petting a dog, vitamin D supplements, trips to Arizona in the winter, and a small dose of an SSRI during the worst times. Now we know, thank heavens. But that doesn’t mean that the blahs don’t make their appearances for me—right on schedule every year.

Those of you who fight seasonal blues (and here I’m talking about dysthymia; major depression must be treated by a professional or a team of professionals) will know what I mean when I speak of the feeling of dread that comes that day in fall when you first look outside and see nothing but endless drizzle. The inside of you drizzles too.

This year when the funk came for me, I remembered something a friend once told me: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what you knew in the light.” In the light, we engage our best coping mechanisms—the good habits we’ve intentionally honed over the years to give us a sense of well-being. In the darkness, we want to curl up into a ball and pretend we don’t have to do the laundry or take the kids to school.There was a time when I couldn’t have made myself get out of bed and go for a run (my exercise of choice) when the dark skies and rain came. Fortunately, more than a decade ago I made a commitment to running and by now going for a run isn’t a question or an option; it’s like brushing my teeth—something I just doregardless of how I feel or what the sky looks like outside my window.

Here’s the good news for those of us who fight the blues: A good habit removes the question of whether or not to get out of bed. A habit practiced in the good times can support you during the worst times (be it the seasonal blahs or grief due to loss or major life-cycle transitions). A healthy habit may not minimize the pain of a difficult state of mind, but it will give you something of yourself to stay tethered to when your thoughts run amuck. If you dance Salsa every Friday when you feel good, keep it up when you feel blue. If you are a member of a writing group or book club, get yourself there—whether you feel you can contribute much or not. Maybe you swim three days a week. Keep suiting up and getting in the water—even if you cut your workout in half. Show up for the activities that normally give you pleasure when you don’t feel oppressed by fog and heavy dew. In the good times, those activities make you happy; in the bad times, they serve to remind you of who you are—or who you will be again when the fog lifts.

My first funk of the year has passed, as funks will do if you wait long enough and treat them kindly. A few Saturdays ago, I suited up and, although everything in me didn’t want to do it, I put in 18.5 miles. When I reached my car that day, I mercifully felt the cloud suddenly lift. It took four hours and some nasty chafing under my bra strap, but I beat the particular demon I’d been struggling with. I watched him turn on his heel while I was stretching. He just shook his head and muttered, “I don’t know why I bother with her. She can always outrun me.” And though I know he will be back, I also know how to function in relationship with him—by staying true to my happier self.

And you can too. Be patient and gentle and never, ever give up on your healthy habits—let them carry you when you can’t carry them. The blues aren’t your fault, but it is your task to relate to them in a way that takes away their power.

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