My first thought upon waking was, "It is very dark." I rise several hours before dawn. My sleep is troubled--it has been for years--and consciousness is a break from the nightmares which accompany Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This time of year, as the days shorten and the nights lengthen, has often placed me in a deep depression and high states of anxiety. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I seek out extra therapy, sessions and make sure that, no matter how cold it is outside, I bundle up and get out in the sunshine for the light and the Vitamin D.
When I thought, "It is very dark," I was not only referring to the science of the Northern Hemisphere approaching its winter solstice. It is a very dark time in the United States of America as we watch the surreal but all-to-real parade of the President Elect's cabinet choices. His "diplomacy" has already imperiled us. I was sensitive to the misuse of the acronym for Post-Traumatic Stress disorder after the election, i.e. "PTSD" standing for Post-Trump Stress Disorder. But, oh, do I understand.
I want to share a key factor about how I have survived through over two decades of being a person who has mental illness. While I wish it were otherwise, the mental health system in this country is light years behind being what it needs to be to serve all the people in this country who have mental illness. Strides have been made, but I fear and believe that many social services are going to be cut by the next administration.
So how do you hold on when your brain is telling you that everything is awful, that it shall always be this bad, that you will never feel good again? You hold on. You do everything in your power to make healthy choices to get you through this bout until the sun shines inside you again. You rely on yourself, because sometimes support networks (family, friends, mental health providers) may not be able to reach you as you stumble around in the dark, through the real long night of the soul.
Self-reliance is a very American ideal. Pioneers settling land had to be self-reliant until they were joined by others and able to form communities. Immigrants still have to be self-reliant, until they too are joined by others. My relatives came to New York from Ireland and were lucky enough to find support within the Irish-American community. My Great Uncle Frank was the youngest of ten brothers and grew up in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He had no way of earning a living so he decided to immigrate to American. He got off the boat in New York in 1927 at age nineteen.. He was a wiry but very wee little man. All he had were the clothes on his back. As he made his way through out of the docks, he was stopped by a cop of horseback who said, "You there! Where do you think YOU'RE going?" My Uncle Frank told me he was terrified, and thought he would be placed on the next ship heading back to Ireland by this police officer who seemed the very image of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Frank managed to sputter out that he had only just landed in New York. The giant cop leaned down, and Frank thought he was going to get a lashing with the cop's truncheon. Instead, the officer said, "So you'll be needing a job then, lad? You go right around that corner, walk up to number 12, and tell them Officer Murphy sent you and you need a job." My Uncle Frank followed those orders, and worked as a longshoreman for the next four decades. Frank had help, but until that moment when Officer Murphy offered the lifeline, Frank was on his own.
When it is dark, you need to hold on until the light returns. You need to find out what will help you cope. I do not mean to imply you are alone, as in not another human being cares about you. But when I am suffering from depression and/or anxiety, it feels as though I am alone. Some days coping means staying in my nightgown and robe, cuddling my dog, and binge watching television episodes of "House Hunters International." This year I'm not doing as badly, so I have a list of what I must do to stay strong:
- Set a regular wake-up and sleep time. I get up at 6:00 a.m., and am in bed by 10:00 p.m.. I may have risen earlier or had trouble falling asleep at night, but having specific points for waking and sleeping keep me on track.
- Pay attention to nutrition and eat healthy. I have survived months of depression subsisting on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Now I take the time to cook simple but health-giving meals, full of vegetables, some protein, and healthy carbohydrates. I also make sure I eat at regular intervals. I limit my caffeine to one cup of coffee in the morning.
- Limit stress. This is far easier to say than to do. Some of these are measures which I use constantly, and some are temporary fixes. When I wasn't feeling well at the beginning of the month, I deactivated my Facebook account since I couldn't bear to read one more political story, or read one more person's dire predictions of "THE FUTURE." I did not read the news or watch the news on television. My usual arsenal: I pray. I get out and walk. I do breathing exercises. I listen to music which feeds my soul. I do puzzles. I watch comedy shows. I look at funny animal videos on YouTube. I have two wonderful dogs. I stay in touch with the people I love. I need to direct myself because stress will enter your life no matter how vigilant you are. So I build up my coping skills, and gird myself with happiness and relaxation.
- Reminders that, "This too shall pass." I am a history buff, and so I read about people who had to survive atrocities, and who were able to hang on. I have many examples in my family history of people who managed to cope through terrible times and were able to move on to happier, richer periods of life. Post inspiring quotes around your home where you can see them. Watch inspiring movies like "The Shawshank Redemption." You will make it.
Do not dwell in or on the darkness. The light shall return.