By JULIE WHITEHEAD
To look at me, I’m no different than any other Southern girl you’d encounter in the small Mississippi city of Brandon—I’m five-foot-four with dark brown hair down to my shoulders and hooded brown eyes, wearing brightly colored clothes from Belk’s Department Store and shoes by Naturalizer. I carry a white Micheal Kors purse and have a weakness for anything made out of chocolate.
Unless you were around me long enough, you’d never know that ten years ago I had a psychotic break after the birth of my third child and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—a disorder of moods where you swing from one extreme (mania) to another (depression).
I’ve been hospitalized for it seven times for episodes of various degrees and take five psychotropic medications every day, some of them twice a day. I’m on Social Security disability; I lost my career as a freelance news writer because I could no longer interact with people normally, nor could I face the pressures of daily deadlines.
I don’t say any of this to make people feel sorry for me. I just want you to understand that I know highs and I know lows very well. I’ve been in therapy for ten years now and have heard all the advice my therapist knows to give in the realm of attacking depression and capturing joy.
But an area I found myself exploring during my most recent episode of depression was this one–why are small victories so important to bring joy in the life of the depressed person?
You know what I mean. Therapists tell patients to do small things to make themselves feel better. Get up, get dressed, and get moving. Exercise. Exert control in areas of your life you can control—what kind of people and stimuli you expose yourself to. Get out of the house and into the world and help other people worse off than yourself. Why are these actions important?
It all has to do with where you choose to put your focus, according to Connecticut-based art-of-living writer Alexandra Stoddard, author of Choosing Happiness. Stoddard says that happiness can be a choice people make even in the midst of a personal storm in their lives. “You can find joy and look for the good,” she says.
Jo Hebert, a licensed professional counselor in Mississippi, one of the least happy states in the union according to Gallup, says that small victories add up. “A sense of accomplishment, no matter how small, can build courage and strength to face—and perhaps find joy in—another day,” Hebert said.
The first orders of business—getting up, getting dressed—can be crucial in getting a good start on the day, according to Hebert. “Depression steals motivation and energy,” Hebert said “What used to be routine and easily doable becomes a chore. The choice to get up fuels the choice to get dressed.”
I have found that when I suffer from depression, the morning always brings the temptation to just stay in bed—either to get the sleep I didn’t get the night before or to simply get more blessed relief from another day of living a depressed life. But getting out of bed and staying out is a victory over myself and my depression that can be savored and celebrated.
As for getting dressed for the day, for me it’s so very tempting to slog around in pajamas all day, particularly if I don’t plan to leave the house. Or even if I do. I tell myself what I look like doesn’t matter; no one really cares about me and what I look like. But getting dressed shows the world and my disease that I am ready for whatever may come along.
From taking a morning shower to an evening bath, washing hair, brushing teeth, and fixing nails—it’s all some of us can manage to do in a day to simply look good for it. (And smell good). But I have come to realize that giving myself that victory over the lassitude of depression can do wonders for lifting my spirits.
If all I can accomplish in a day is loading the washer and dryer whenever it needs it, I celebrate that accomplishment. Finding ways to reverse the soundtrack in my head of what a horrible housekeeper, parent, caregiver, or worker I am is important to my recovery. I resolve to take my small victories wherever I can get them.
Another strategy to keep myself uplifted and motivated to do the mundane tasks is to arrange to meet a friend for coffee, tea, or lunch. I make an occasion out of it, dressing up and putting on lipstick and body mist. I pray and search for the strength to go to the grocery store, the bank, or for a walk around the block. Staying isolated can be deadly to my spirit. I find reasons to get out.
Celebrating something so basic can create a cascade effect in the depressed person’s mind, according to Hebert. “These moments of triumph are to be treasured and reflected upon as evidence of hope,” Hebert said. “Choosing to focus energy on the celebration redirects the depressed mind from hopelessness (which can become the default) to hope.”
Another element in creating joy in the midst of depression is creating an environment that uplifts me. If I can’t muster up the energy to make up my bed, maybe I can light a candle in a scent I love—vanilla sugar or gardenia. I often can’t tackle the ironing alone and need comforting, uplifting music to accompany me.
Creating an uplifting environment around yourself can help jumpstart positive change within, Stoddard said. Music, light, and order are all weapons depressed people have in their arsenal to fight the lows of life, according to Stoddard. “I find that lighting is very important—it’s cheerful.” Stoddard said. “I like a cheerful, colorful, happy environment.”
Calming, soothing sounds can be good for me as well. But if it suits my soul to rock out to the songs that I loved in high school, I go for it! Only pick songs with positive associations. Now is not the time to listen to any song that further depresses your spirit. “I listen to music—it keeps me company,” Stoddard said.
Small gestures such a lighting a candle, making the bed, or looking at flowers can lend beauty and order to what may be a chaotic environment, according to Stoddard. “I try to always have fresh flowers in the house,” Stoddard said, adding that she usually just buys a small bouquet at the grocery store. “You need something from nature to remind you that the natural law of nature is love.”
From a devotional book to the Bible to my favorite self-help book, in my experience, reading inspirational material can uplift my mood. If the news depresses me further, I don’t read it. I can go without being informed about every crime, criminal, and governmental outrage for a while until I feel stronger.
I often feel like the universe is either uncaring or actively out to get me when I’m depressed. Pray to the God of your understanding for a victory to manifest, no matter how small it is. Many spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, singing spiritual songs, or attending worship, can help the depressed person, Hebert noted. “Prayer can provide a way for the depressed person to lay down her burdens and to trust someone greater than herself to hold her secure,” Hebert said.
Getting myself out of my own head long enough to do something nice for someone else, stranger or friend, has a way of uplifting my own spirit as well. Create ripples of positivity to impact others in a positive way. Write a note, make a call, send flowers or chocolate, or drop some folding money in the street performer’s drum case or the tip jar at the coffee shop. “If you can’t find the rainbow in the storm, be the rainbow for someone else,” Stoddard said.
I find my higher calling working at the local food pantry at my church, handing out nonperishables to needy families that come to pick up food once a month. I stay in the back and organize the food to be handed out and keep the deliveries running. Knowing I am helping someone gives me a boost when I need it the most and gives my brain something productive to do.
“A profound sense of purpose is often lacking for the depressed person,” Hebert said. “But if I am impacting the life of another, I see purpose in my day. Likewise, if that person is appreciative, we get the added benefit of being noticed and affirmed. We get to experience the sense of community, further convincing us we are not alone.”
No one is saying that such actions take the place of medication or therapy. But added up, they can make a life feel more fulfilling and joyful even in the midst of our lowest lows. Even when I don’t believe they can do me any good, a lot of small victories can add up to even bigger victories. Even what I may consider my biggest failure—having no choice but to ask for help with my depression—can set the stage for a turnaround in that it represents concrete action I am taking to help myself.
Julie Whitehead is a master of fine arts student at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi. She has been a disability examiner, a freelance journalist, and a university lecturer. Her creative work has appeared in POMPA, China Grove Press, The 2015 New Southerner Literary Edition, NoiseMedium.com, The Gordian Review, and DefyingShadows.com. She lives in Brandon, Mississippi, with her husband and children.