(DISCLAIMER: I am not a qualified counsellor, psychiatrist or doctor. I am just describing what works for me. If you are suffering with depression I urge you strongly to reach out and get help. You do not need to suffer.)
I have suffered from bouts of depression since I was a child. Depression is not having a bad day, or feeling blue, though both of those are unpleasant. Depression is a soul-crushing, heart-lacerating misery that debilitates and destroys everything in its path. Do not deny it or under-estimate it.
That said, over the years I have found ways to help myself, and believe me, helping yourself, feeling you have a little control over something that feels like it is controlling you, is a real relief. Journaling is one of those ways.
So what to do if you find yourself at the bottom of the depression mine shaft? Or even if you are just having a bit of a black dog kind of day?
Get out your journal.
Write down how you are feeling RIGHT NOW, in this moment. As my counsellor often says, you can’t get to Edinburgh if you don’t know where you are now. (Think about trying to plan a journey that way – impossible!)
Stop and take the time to feel what is going on inside your body. Do you have particular sensations associated with this low mood? If so, where are they? Write them down. They may be indicative of trapped emotions.
How are you feeling emotionally? Write that down too – a list of adjectives if that is all you can face doing.
Does an image that describes how you feel come to mind? Describe that. For example, for me a real, deep depression feels as if my ribs have been ripped open, and my heart repeatedly slashed. I feel it bleeding inside my chest. Yes, it is a horrible image, but that is exactly how I feel, and describing it, in as much detail as possible, can be a huge relief.
Do not judge your feelings as you record them. Do not judge yourself as selfish or unfeeling because you resent the fact that your husband is not doing much to help with your crying baby, or that you are angry because your boss does not recognise how hard you are working.. Have a good rant, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to protect anyone’s feelings. You are not being a martyr or a victim at this point. You are just recognising how you feel. Do not feel bad about what you write. Admitting these feelings exist to yourself is the first step to healing, and no one else is going to see what you write.
If you don’t feel anything, write that too. An absence is just as important. Describe the void in as much detail as you can. You may even find, as you progress, that you begin to pick up on little gimmers in the abyss, feelings you didn’t know were there. Write those too.
As you write, you may find other feelings coming up from underneath the ones you are describing. Get those down. I often find that underneath my depression is anger, and underneath the anger lies a need not being met. When I identify what it is I want that I am not getting, I am right in touch with the small child inside that feels unloved, whose needs went unmet. Do not judge the need. Simply recognise it. Is there a way you can get what you need now, in a healthy way? Now you know what it is, you can ask for it.
Whatever else you do, try to write daily, and get whatever miserable feelings you are having onto the page. Once you have let them out, keep writing. You may find more positive stuff coming through behind, and perhaps even ideas of things to do to help, comfort and console yourself.
Above all, be gentle with yourself.
Show yourself the same compassion you would to a friend in need. (We often don’t do this, conditioned as we are to berate ourselves for the smallest failing.)
This is a process of continuing orientation and expression. If you were on a cross-country walk, you would stop regularly to check your map and compass, to be sure where you were, to work out which was the next direction to take.
In the same way, depression is a long journey. You need to be taking your own emotional temperature, checking your compass, as regularly as possible. So make time to write often.
In my last spell of depression, I worked in my journal like this three or four times a day, for several days, then continued on a daily basis long after. That probably sounds like quite a lot of effort. On the other hand, you might take a pill three or four times a day if told by the doctor that it would make you feel better. And this will make you feel better.
Why? Because it gets the toxic feelings out of your body and mind, and puts them somewhere else – onto the page.
NOTE: Do not reread what you write when you are still ill, or at all. That would be ruminating on your feelings, and will encourage you to judge, feel guilty or ashamed. Just get it down. You are looking for TRUTH, not BEING GOOD.
You may find it helpful to write on loose sheets of paper, rather than in your journal proper. This way, you could opt to burn the pages, ritually releasing the feelings, and freeing yourself.
Whether you are in the midst of a long bout of clinical depression, or just having a low spell, I encourage you to try this way of journaling. I hope that it will help you to release your pain and move back into the sunshine.