Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Power of No

by Holly West

This might end up being a strange post, especially for a blog that's mainly about the writerly life. But I find it tedious to write about writing or about my writer's life week after week so today I'm making a slight departure. Except it's not that much of a departure because I have countless writer friends who, like me, suffer from depression.

I've discussed my own depression before. Since age 30, I've done a fairly good job of managing it with the help of talk therapy and medication. Prior to seeking treatment (roughly age 0 to 29) I was a pretty big mess. I don't even like to think about my childhood and early adult depression because, well, it's depressing.

Even though my depression is generally well-managed, I do have some downslides now and then. I'm not talking about the blues--I'm talking full-blown, I can barely function, depression that knocks me to my knees. The scary kind of depression that makes me question why I'm even alive, where making it from one minute to the next feels like an impossible task. Like I'm on the edge of an abyss and one wrong step will cause me fall into nothingness--and maybe falling into an actual abyss wouldn't be all that bad.

2014 was a bad year for my depression. Which is kind of odd considering it was the year I finally became a published author. The reasons for the depressive episodes over the course of the year varied (and to be fair, I did make a very big move at the end of the year that would've caused anyone anxiety) but altogether, I realized that maybe I hadn't been doing as good a job managing my depression as I had thought. I went back into therapy and combined with the fact that my life circumstances eased up somewhat, I felt a lot better. I had it under control!

Then 2015 came along and I found myself wallowing again. Those lessons I thought I'd learned just a few months earlier flew straight out the window. After a couple of bad weeks, I finally told myself, oh hell no. There is no effing way I'm going to let this continue. I'm TIRED and I'm DONE.

A hallmark of my own depression is thought patterns that circle around my mind's drain until I'm powerless to save myself. An obvious answer to managing the resulting depression is to nip these destructive thoughts in the bud, not to let them take hold--but for some reason, I'd never really tried to do that. If something bothered me I'd just think about it and let it fester until bang, I'm back on the edge of the abyss.

Somehow, it seemed that if I was worrying about a certain thing--it didn't matter if it was something I had any control over--I owed it to whatever it was to give it my time. I was beholden to those thoughts. Letting go of them (especially if they involved someone else) meant I was betraying them.

That's just not true.

After this last bout with depression, I decided that I'm not going to worry about anything that A) I can't control B) doesn't apply to my current life situation and C) involves other people's issues. Of these three, C is the hardest. Letting go of other people's issues feels like I'm letting go of them and finding the balance between caring/helping without losing myself in the process is a challenge.

My simple strategy is this: using the above criteria as a guide, whenever I realize that my thoughts are headed for dangerous territory, I tell myself "no." I pretty much have a zero tolerance policy at this point. I don't let the thoughts get started so there's no way they can take hold. I just don't allow myself go there, no matter how innocuous they might seem.

In the early days of this experiment, I was telling myself "NO!" probably every two or three minutes. Mostly silently, but often, aloud. It was exhausting. But I just kept doing it. I'd be driving down the road (solitary driving is an activity that triggers these circular thoughts for me) shouting "No, no, no!" over and over again at myself. A couple months into the practice and it's better now. My life has settled somewhat, which helps, but on the whole, I have to say "no" a lot less often because I've gotten out of the habit of worrying.

Worrying is a habit? It absolutely is, and it's a terribly destructive one, at that.

There will always be legitimate things to worry about in life. This isn't about putting blinders on and pretending that bad things don't, or won't, happen. But my own tendency is to worry incessantly about things--legitimate or not--and use that as an excuse for not taking action. Why do anything when you can just sit and worry about it? So much easier.

And worrying about others is pretty natural, too. Particularly if you have children. I get it. That doesn't make the "no" strategy any less valuable, however. The key is to decide what thoughts you're going to give priority to and throw the rest away as much as possible. How will you spend your precious brain-energy? Are you so busy worrying about "what-ifs" that you're not doing something that could actually help a given situation?

I'm sure that as soon as something in my life drops and ratchets up my anxiety again, I'll be screaming "no" at myself in the mirror a dozen times an hour. Or I'll have to come up with another tool to help myself function during the bad times. But this one has worked well so far, so I think I'll keep it in my arsenal.


John McFetridge said...

Yes, whatever works, keep doing that ;). I know for myself a breakthrough came when I started to understand the difference between unhappiness and depression and that they required different approaches to treat. Mostly so I didn't smack people when they said, "Cheer up," or swear at them and say something about how I wasn't unhappy, I was depre-- well, you get it.

Holly West said...

I have to say that shutting all of these thoughts out makes me feel a little bit disconnected--maybe even uncaring. There's some guilt associated with that but every time I feel it I say "no." :-)

Unknown said...

I'm not sure you're giving yourself enough credit. Telling yourself, NO and trying to collect your thoughts isn't really a "simple" trick. You've come so far in how you know yourself and in your plan to manage the depression and that is not simple. It's a long hard journey and you have accomplished so much and deserve all those great things. I'm so glad to know you!

Unknown said...

Holly -

we are very much in the same boat. I still fight with those negative thought patterns. My path has been about learning to love myself. My self-esteem has grown which has quieted those negative rotes. Not entirely, but a lot. I have a long way to go though. I just concentrate on take steps forward. :)

Kristi said...

Holly _ I've found that doing exactly what you are talking about - essentially telling my thoughts to STFU! Is the ONLY thing that works for me, as well. I'm glad to hear it is working for you. xx