Self-Care & Depression: A Conversation

by Hannah Giorgis, Sara Black McCulloch, and Fariha Roisin

Fariha: Depression has always been an elusive reality for me. My mother’s depression seemed like it outweighed my own, so I found overcoming it next to impossible at times. Whatever I felt, I would remind myself, her pain was worse than mine; I had so much to be grateful for, I should just get over it.

I think immigrant kids — first-generation children — feel this a lot: like, the psychic energy from ancestral baggage while going through your teens or twenties. For me, everything is tied to my parents, and yet so much of my instability comes from their unwillingness to talk about my/their complexities, what pains us, etc. — how do you move forward if you can’t have a conversation that heals you? How do you move forward if everyone is in denial? A big lesson I’m learning about family is: things never go away because you want them to.

This year has been about survival. Sometimes it felt too hard to go on, and sometimes it felt nearly fatal. The summer is fucking hard. There are all these expectations of doing fun/cool things while it’s not subterranean levels of cold. Then there’s the hate that inevitably unfolds if all you do is eat in bed and binge-watch Criminal Minds (anybody?).

So I thought, why not talk about it with women? This is why Sara and I started this series — to talk to other women about how we live, to check in, and to be responsible for each other — even when everything feels like crap.

Depression is one of those things I’m finally allowing myself to recognize in myself, and that’s huge because when you give something a language it doesn’t feel as menacing. So, my question for other women became: how do you move forward when you simply can’t? How do you self-care when nothing feels good? In this series, Sara and I never wanted to define self-care as a capitalistic design of buy yourself things (although, of course, buy yourself things! Do you, bb). But we’ve also struggled to define it, and so this is why we want to have a constant conversation about how to actually care for yourself — meaning love yourself — when you’ve never been given the tools to do so.

I recently read a piece by Lidia Yuknavitch called “Woven” and there was a sentence that just killed me: “You don’t have to punish yourself for love.” In that same sense, I don’t need to be depressed to feel as though I’m worthy of good things — I can actually! bypass! all! that! self-inflicted! hate! Maybe everything will still be shitty, but I’ll have my own back for once.

Hannah and Sara, I want to know, in all honesty, how you’ve both been feeling emotionally. Then — better still — I want to know how you’ve been overcoming all your hardships.

Sara: I think I keep circling around an apprehension I’ve had since we started this column: the fear that paying attention to myself would make me self-involved. But I’m starting to realize that being attentive to myself makes me a better person to others, too. It means that I’m a better listener, outside of my own head, and aware of what I’m projecting.

I remember my mother (and she still does this) always putting everyone first and just over-extending herself and stressing herself out. And while I can never match that kind of selflessness, it’s one of the many things I admire about her, but it’s also indirectly caused health problems, or just, at times, anger and frustration. I value being there for other people, but I’m trying to strike that balance. I know that when I’m not dealing with something properly, or avoiding my feelings, or actively stressing out, I can be insufferable when I’m around other people. Or I’m just not present.

I’m still struggling to differentiate between having a bad day and being depressed. I’m also preoccupied with being productive when I’m depressed — especially what productive means to me in those instances. Do you both think about this? Or worry about it?

Hannah: I think a lot about that, Sara — the difference between ~*~having a bad day~*~ and being depressed. There’s this fear I have whenever I start to feel situationally sad, like I’m standing on the edge of a precipice and any acceptance of this new sadness is going to push me back into a depressive state. It’s terrifying to have the stakes of your sadness — a perfectly normal if cumbersome human emotion — become so outsized. But that’s what depression does, right? It distorts. It takes away. It enlarges; it makes you shrink.

I don’t have a magical blueprint for moving through depression, for being a Functional Human Adult with this thing sitting heavy on your chest. I still judge myself so mercilessly when I don’t meet a deadline (hi editors! that’s not often, I promise!) or don’t accomplish An Important Thing on the timeline I’ve set for myself. The practice I’ve been trying to push toward — to be intentional and deliberate about — is being kind to myself when I don’t “measure up” to the sometimes arbitrary standards I’ve set for myself. One of depression’s biggest lies is that you are not enough, that you are never enough. And if that insidious voice is never going to go away, it feels especially important to dedicate time and effort and resources to a loving — if also quiet and sometimes wavering — internal counter-narrative. That isn’t going to just come one day! It takes work. It is labor.

Relying on external validation is easy, right? We have so many examples of what it means to gain a sense of self from what other people say about us, what positions or awards or bylines we get, who chooses to associate with us. And all those things can be incredibly gratifying! But at the end of the day, depression will find a way to make you think every last one of those things isn’t worth a damn. The act of cultivating a love for yourself that isn’t contingent on markers of validation feels not just cute but imperative. I like to do this in list form sometimes, because I’m a parody of myself. When I am at my most depressed, when it feels like there is nothing in the world that can drag me out of my bed, I reach over and grab my phone (because lol paper is on the far side of my desk and sometimes I can’t reach that far okay) to do just that. I’ll open an Evernote doc and literally list out times when I have been proud of myself, when I have moved through something I thought I couldn’t handle, when I have smiled most genuinely. I list things I am grateful for. The practice of gratitude is particularly soothing, I think, because it feels like an exponentially expanding emotion. Once I start to dip my toes into its waters, I find each gratitude rippling outward and reminding me of more things. It is so cheesy, so hokey, so unbearably woo-woo. And I don’t care. I’m not in the business of shaming myself for feeling things, like, yaknow, a human.

Fariha, maaaaan, I hear you — I absolutely feel the weight of generations of varied and overlapping traumas. What immigrant kid doesn’t have some vague sense in their stomach that things are so much heavier than our family lets on? The allure of immigration is always A Better Life — and depression laughs at that. So maybe what we need to move toward isn’t better. Maybe it’s just more whole.

Fariha: Hannah, this: “So the act of cultivating a love for yourself that isn’t contingent on markers of validation feels not just cute but imperative.” I feel that so much in terms of the ~SELF CARE MOVEMENT~ that we have on our hands, or what have you. I mean, if we’re all buying ourselves nice bras// getting our nails done// eating good food, why are we still so fucking sad? There has to be a missing link, which is why I wanted to specifically talk about depression. What are actual methods of overcoming your sadness?

I suffer from the ills of productivity a lot. Being a freelancer and constantly being frustrated about money makes me feel especially uncared for, unloved — because if I don’t have access to the money I’m owed, then how do I buy myself food, let alone something nice? And I feel like that part about being an artist really brings me down. It’s like an ecosystem and if there’s one part that’s off it really discourages you in a lot of other areas. My productivity//work exposure is so tied to my happiness, and I know that’s bad — but how do you pull yourself out of that line of thinking? How do you motivate yourself when you don’t really have the means to? Like you said, Hannah, maybe it’s just about feeling more whole in everything you do. Embracing the ineptitude of things — when things aren’t going your way — allows you to let go and be free of all the things that affect you negatively. Maybe all that any of us can do is to let go. Yeah, maybe that’s just it.

Sara: Do you both always find, too, just how much people value rapid change? In terms of being better, stronger, more productive, etc.? Change is immediately equated with progress. Hannah, I love the idea of practicing gratitude and how it “feels like an exponentially expanding emotion.” I notice (after I’ve come through the low points) that when I’m depressed, everything, including emotions, are pushed to extremes: I catastrophize, I think in absolutes, and the feelings themselves are never varied. Within my emotional states, I feel one thing at a time. So if I’m angry, I stay angry and do/feel nothing else. The way I feel becomes as close-minded as I am and just fuels this ongoing narrative of self-loathing. It’s the proof I think I need.

I wanted to know if you’ve both ever felt guilty for feeling bad or depressed? That guilt — about being open and aware of your emotions — was instilled gradually and almost unconsciously by my grandparents, who came to Canada for something better. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to acknowledge feelings, but they didn’t have time to sit down and talk about things like depression. They also didn’t have a language for it. The goal was to survive and do better, and being sad meant that you were, in a sense, ungrateful. Because things could be a lot worse. My family didn’t believe in therapy and a therapist was a marker of wealth — of people who could afford to pay someone and sit around and talk about how sad they were. It was a luxury to them. It was also considered self-involved. So I find that when it comes to trying to motivate myself, I’m already mad at myself for being sad, you know? I equate it with not working hard enough, too.

Hannah: Yeah, I think there have definitely been times when I’ve found myself feeling deeply guilty for grappling with something as “inconsequential” as depression, when my parents and relatives and more black/Diasporic folks have always had to contend with such obvious, urgent traumas. And of course I know that’s ridiculous — my depression being uniquely mine doesn’t make it trivial or make me unworthy. It’s not less important, just differently important perhaps. That’s still such an easy line of feeling to fall into though, and I catch myself going there more often than I’d like to admit. To be glamorously depressed is definitely a luxury. To see self-care as a capitalist endeavor is a luxury.

Fariha: All my depression feels guilty. It’s also so finicky. I hate that I don’t know when it’s going to rear that ugly head. Feasibly things could be fine and — BAM — I’m done. I’m on the floor. I feel gutted and scooped out. That feeling is so real, and yet every time it happens my immediate reaction is: “Fariha — again? Now? Nooo! Why?” I think the only way I’ve started to not feel that as much has been through sincerely allowing myself to have time off. Or to watch a Criminal Minds episode (I have a problem) because then I can go at my own pace. No expectations. Because what are expectations, really? Just the ego determining something of you.

I was recently reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which is a book I’ve read intermittently throughout the years. It’s so powerful because it’s all about how indigenous cultures — from the Maori People in New Zealand to the Lakota People in U.S — lived their lives and interacted with the concept of creativity. The one thing that’s always struck me about these cultures is the thread that binds them together — and is the true antithesis of capitalism and Western ideological solipsism — is not only their idea of community, but how they are intrinsically aware of the ecosystem in their minds and bodies and the minds and bodies of their people. When I don’t connect with others in a real way, when I am unkind to myself, I feel depressed. I feel angry. When I realize there is no destination, that time is nothing to be concerned by, that I am here to live, honestly, I am a better human being.

Maybe we can start something by saying:

Hey! Babe! It’s okay. Take that time for yourself to do what you want to do. Write a list like Hannah. Read as many books as Sara. Watch that extra Criminal Minds episode like Fariha (¯_(ツ)_/¯) but don’t use it against yourself. Do it, let it go, and move on. You are worthy of your own compassion. After that if you’re still feeling crappy, it’s okay. Embrace it, but find things that really make you feel less like that. Don’t think of the past, or future, be present in that emotion. What does it feel like? What are you doing that makes you feel good? Be in that moment.

Previously: Self-Care Summer

Hannah Giorgis is a writer and organizer based in New York. She likes bad TV, even worse puns, and daydreaming about her future with Andre 3000. You can follow her on Twitter @ethiopienne.

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.

Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth. Follow her here.