Feeling good caught me by surprise. Now, it’s part of my emotional landscape.
I’ve lived with depression for as long as I can remember. Admittedly, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it as such in my preteen years. But what others most likely saw as “teenage angst” or hormone imbalances, I can now discern as the burgeoning manifestation of my most debilitating mental health symptoms, like suicidal ideation.
Years passed, and when I was about 21, my doctor shared that, in addition to depression, I also had borderline personality disorder (BPD). The condition, characterized by difficulties regulating emotions, affects an estimated 1.4 percent of the adult U.S. population.
I learned that it wasn’t unusual to have both conditions. In fact, BPD does typically co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, mood disorders, and impulse control disorders.
Once I knew this, I began to accept that frequent depressive episodes would be part of my life.
Depression affects people differently — mine made me slow, as if I was in power-saver mode. Cooking and other household chores would feel like mammoth tasks. In the most severe of these periods, I would stay in bed and only move when I needed to use the bathroom.
When these symptoms became particularly disruptive, my doctor recommended that I start taking medication.
Now, almost 5 years later, I have been on various types of antidepressants. Initially, I was shocked at the positive effect they had on me. I didn’t feel cured, but I could function, so their power was a revelation.
Not to mention, the thoughts that used to tell me to harm myself were gone. For better or worse, they were replaced with a sense of emotional blunting, making me feel like I was in a dull vacuum.
My mental health would still ebb and flow, and there would be days when I’d feel too fatigued to go about my regular activities. But after a while, I became skilled at noticing the warning signs, like sleeping for longer than usual.
So, with the help of my therapist, I constructed a plan to help manage my symptoms. It helped me develop better habits, like scaling back on work and being consistent with my self-care. I learned to live with my depression.
No wonder I felt so distressed when I realized it had been a while since I’d consistently followed my plan.
I was in the gym when I noticed how good I felt.
At first, I thought it could be the endorphins, but as someone who’d been exercising regularly for months, I knew what that felt like, and I could tell this wasn’t the same.
Upon further reflection, I realized that the chronic emptiness and sadness I had become accustomed to hadn’t been present for a while — perhaps a few weeks at least. It was the first real break I’d had from a depressive episode in over 4 years.
However, instead of celebrating my improving mental health, I began to panic. My mind went to a study I’d read about how people with BPD have a higher risk of being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I was worried that I’d experienced the inverse situation.
After talking about it with my therapist, I realized I didn’t have a manic episode, which can be caused by bipolar disorder. Instead, my depressive episode had simply ended.
With the help of my therapist, I’ve realized that my earlier obsessive worries and thoughts were attempts at avoiding disappointment. I’d also become so used to feeling empty that it was a shock to my system when that familiar feeling was gone.
Even now, my mental health varies, but I no longer feel like I’m faking my way through life. I no longer have to internally debate whether I’m joyful — I feel it. It’s no longer such a battle to fight away my negative thoughts, and I’ve cut back on my drinking, which I sometimes used as a coping strategy.
Even though I feel better, it’s taken a while to adjust to my new normal.
I’ve also noticed how rarely people discuss the feelings that arise, such as resentment, after a depressive episode ends. As author Lois Shearing reflected on Twitter, “If [happiness] is easy and attainable now, why couldn’t I always have had it?”
I’ve also been frustrated with the lack of available resources to help manage the new normal, so here are some of my top suggestions.
Experts have confirmed that journaling can reduce depression symptoms. Ever since my therapist introduced me to it, I’ve tried to make a habit out of it.
I’ve tried to intentionally document the good days I have, as well as the bad ones. Should my symptoms make their return, I know these entries will be instrumental in grounding myself and reminding myself that I can experience joy, because I have in the past.
I’ve introduced a specific type of journaling into my practice, known as mood journaling. It involves documenting your feelings and thoughts, so you can identify and better understand them.
I’ve found mood journaling particularly helpful in easing my concerns over the absence of my depression symptoms. Through daily documentation, I was able to show myself that I displayed a wide range of emotions and feelings throughout my days, and learned to trust that this is OK.
Mindfulness is the practice of training your mind to become aware of the present moment. By teaching people to focus and redirect their thoughts, mindfulness grounds them by making them aware of surrounding sensory stimuli.
Numerous studies have supported the benefits of mindfulness on stress reduction, anxiety control, and the reduction of negative thoughts. A meta-analysis even found that mindfulness improved symptoms of depression.
Although all these benefits alone are impressive, it was only after I learned that mindfulness can increase people’s compassion toward themselves and others when I began to be intentional with my practice.
Until then, I didn’t believe I deserved to feel good. I think that’s why I was so surprised by how I felt that day at the gym. Although I know I’m not defined by my mental illnesses, living with them conditioned me into thinking I would have a poor quality of life, but this does not have to be true. Even though I’m mentally ill, I do deserve — and it is possible — to feel good.
That said, this is all easier said than done. However, mindfulness was pivotal in teaching my mind to stop worrying about the past or future. I am still a work in progress, but teaching myself to be in the present has helped alleviate many concerns, and taught me to be gentler with myself.
I find it a lot easier to stick to a routine during the bad times. It keeps me focused on maintaining consistency with things that typically help me manage my condition, like treatment and exercise. However, it’s harder for me to adhere to a routine when things are going well for me.
Recently, I found myself slipping into previous bad habits, and I decided to take this as a sign to create a new routine. Not only has this helped when it comes to managing my day, but it will also benefit me in the long term, when it comes to ensuring I stay stable. After all, I refuse to be the reason my low moods return.
Whether you feel fear, resentment, or anger due to the reduction or cessation of your depression symptoms, it’s vital to allow and accept these feelings. It’s also essential to learn how to embrace your new personal mental health landscape, even — or especially — when it includes positive feelings, like joy.
Like Bambi tentatively taking his first steps, it’s OK to be cautious. But it’s also necessary to trust yourself. From there, trusting the joy is the easy bit.
Medically reviewed on April 14, 2022
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