I’ve fought depression since I was ten years old. It is a soul-sucking, numbing emotion that leaves you empty to the core.
Depression comes in many forms. Sometimes it joins forces with anxiety—a sharp pang of fear giving way to crushing despair. Other times it starts as a simple whisper—a listless idea, the thought that nothing really matters after all. Over time, you become lost in the void. At its worst, depression leaves me numb to the world, screaming to feel anything but hollow. Words fade into the void. Everything is meaningless.
Five years ago, I began a painstaking trek toward mental health. Every inch has been an uphill battle. Through counseling, physical health, and life design, things began to get better. These days, I’m healthy a lot more than I am depressed. I’ve gone from being 80% unhappy to 20%. Clinically, I’m a success story.
That doesn’t mean the depression is gone. Sometimes it comes back to visit. A hollow ghost of the pain of the past, it returns to suck at my soul like a Dementor. No matter how healthy I’ve become, I can’t escape the fact that I am genetically predisposed to depression.
Many people sink into their depression. They hide indoors, eat, and watch television to numb the pain. I have a very different but equally destructive approach. My coping mechanism is to throw myself into busyness. If I can schedule every spare second, if I can be twice as productive today as I was yesterday—I can avoid the void. My depression goes away if I don’t leave it any time in the day.
But that’s not a very effective coping mechanism. It leads to stress and burnout. What started as an escape route from depression turns into beeline to anxiety.
Two days ago, I was feeling the worst I had in a while. I had run out of motivation to push forward. “Just one more project!” my mind screamed. “Just write one more blog post! Or do the dishes! Or make a milestone on a goal!”
But my motivation had run completely dry. The problem was, as I tried to stop, I found myself sinking into depression and a strange guilt. “Shouldn’t I be productive?” my mind thought.
Somewhere deep in my mind, I heard the voices of the people who love me. They were telling me to take a rest. Take a break. Let myself be. So I grabbed my longboard (physical exercise seems to combat depression for me) and skated off toward the river.
I sat down on a bench. The river was peaceful and quiet. It was a beautiful fall day. The setting sun glinted off the water and shone in patches through the brilliant orange leaves.
The scene was serene, but my mind was chaos and pain. I immediately opened my laptop and tried to write, but nothing was there.
I realized I needed to relax. So I did the only thing that made perfect sense.
Shutting my laptop, I set an alarm on my phone for 15 minutes later. My body and mind needed to relax and unwind. It was time to practice mindfulness.
I allowed myself to think about the negative thoughts that were rushing through my mind. They were loud and terrifying, but I knew I needed to accept them. For several minutes, I allowed myself to fully experience those thoughts and feelings. “This is truly how I feel in this moment,” I said.
And then—once I had accepted how I was feeling—I chose to spend the rest of the 15 minutes simply observing. I looked at the leaves. They were brilliant. The edges looked sharp, but I knew their paper-thin texture would make them soft to the touch. They were not solid in color, but partially opaque. The sun shone through them in gradients, subsurface scattering causing a color collage that blended around their veins. The leaves had holes where the sun could shine through in all its brilliance.
The water was still, but still rippled. It was moving in one direction only. It was in no hurry—it would eventually arrive where it needed to be. Water does not need to rush, or to be busy. Water has an endless cycle to repeat, and an infinite number of places to visit. It may appear to dry, but it will never die.
Near the water’s edge was a fence. It was crafted from roughly hewn boards that were stained a dark brown, both by sealant and by time. Its boards were connected in an overlapping pattern. Top, bottom. Top, bottom. The fence was cracked in several places, yet it held.
I breathed in the air. It was crisp and fresh. The cold was just beginning to set in, and there was moisture beginning to collect on the ground. You could taste the crisp nitrogen on your breath. Perfect air for breathing—tainted with only the faintest hint of gas and pollution.
Suddenly, I began to feel thankful and at peace. I loved the water. I loved the leaves, the sun, even the fence. I was happy to be sitting on the bench and observing the display around me. My depression had faded, replaced with a deep mindfulness, a swelling gratitude.
My life—my one and only life—the one I had worked so hard to build, the life I had worked so hard to heal—had in one day begun to sink back into old habits and depression. But fifteen simple minutes saved my life. I was saved to live and breathe and love another day.
In the midst of pain and suffering, simply give yourself time. Space to breathe, create, think. Open air is waiting for you. Even if you need to schedule it.