not technically depressed but is this as good as it gets?
June 30, 2014 6:06 AM   Subscribe

I believe that popular wisdom holds that contentment or real inner peace is the goal for those who have been depressed and who have pulled out of the hole. But what about people who have been unhappy since childhood, for example. One popularly cited data point for whether someone has diagosable depression is they lose interest in what they've loved doing, and this notion assumes that they've had a chance to develop hobbies or friendships at some point until they became depressed. So short of having had hobbies or friends to return to, at what point do people "stop being depressed"? (I know that there are manuals that professionals use to tally up symptoms, but I am asking not about technical definitions of depressed versus not; I'm asking about the experience. Has anyone experienced a bright line shift in their thinking?)

I hate to ask a question that seems so big or open ended and yet limited to essentially friendless people, but I've had confidence issues and experienced unhappiness since childhood, and I am nearing my thirties. There are a lot of people who go through a lot worse, but my coping mechanism has never been strong. All through life I've had very few close friends--probably none--and I have trouble getting close. True intimacy is so, so unlikely for me, although my psychiatrist keeps telling me that I need to take steps to be vulnerable. Emotional openness will lead to closeness, intimacy, connection, which I actually do crave.) Anyway, I have been getting professional help for months now and believe that I have pulled out of diagnosable depression. I have tried a drug, and it didn't do much for me. It made me feel ill for weeks, though, so I'm not likely to try another medication, and the professional with whom I work has not even suggested it.

But the question that I've posed to my psychiatrist two or three weeks in a row now is whether this, my life as it is now, undepressed, is as good as it gets. Maybe I will one day find blinding happiness through some sensational, situational turn of events, but short of that, have I found my baseline?

I can't explain it properly, but I had more hope about my prospects several months ago when I started therapy for the very first time. In the intervening time, I have made steps toward progress that include a lot more physical exercise, forcing myself to do certain social things and to be more assertive in social and professional contexts. So I have improved my life in some commonly suggested ways. And in general I feel more functional and, as I described it, "much less consistently miserable."

Has anyone had a similar experience with pulling out of depression? Have you always been able to tell whether you are depressed? Have you experienced identifiable contentment after having never experienced it in your life?

Sorry for writing such a long, meandering post. I am feeling better but am looking to see that there is hope for more.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what will happen with you, but it takes a long time to get better.

I have always been an anxious and depression-prone person.

I had an episode of severe depression and anxiety starting in 2003. It took a year after the worst part of that episode before I really felt that I was starting to recover, and it was probably two years until I was back at my baseline "pretty good most days, not so great sometimes, kind of lonely and mopey".

I started talk therapy two years ago, no meds, no CBT. I'd say that, like you, I experienced some immediate turnaround - but major improvements took over a year, and I feel like I'm still seeing change and improvement now. (Even after my wonderful therapist took a position supervising other therapists - I haven't seen a therapist in about five months.)

I had a life setback last week, but what's struck me is how much, much more capable I am of handling it and of identifying the feelings and dynamics around it. Just yesterday, I was thinking to myself "I know how I need to power through this, and I bet that after I do power through it, I will have gained so many coping skills". I would never have been able to think that before.

I think I'm a lot happier than I was before - it's not a blinding "whoa, I am happy now" feeling, but I recognize that my thought patterns have changed. I spend a lot less time on the unhappy kinds of thoughts and feelings and much more on the happier kinds - I am not a different person, but where before I was maybe 75% a sad/mopey person and 25% a happy person, now it's reversed.

I don't think that even yet I've found a ruling passion to pursue, but I've taken some steps in that direction.

IME, it takes a long time to recover from serious depression.
posted by Frowner at 6:36 AM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Anyway, I have been getting professional help for months now and believe that I have pulled out of diagnosable depression....

But the question that I've posed to my psychiatrist two or three weeks in a row now is whether this, my life as it is now, undepressed, is as good as it gets. Maybe I will one day find blinding happiness through some sensational, situational turn of events, but short of that, have I found my baseline?

You are nearing your thirties. So you have spent the better part, let's say, of three decades with a self that has been depressed and closed-off and afraid to be vulnerable. None of that is your fault, and I don't bring it up to shame you; it's just the past as I'm hearing you describe it.

You are seeing someone who is helping you (and good for you for doing this! It's an important step and not always easy to do) and after a few months you're at a point where, you believe, you are no longer technically depressed. You are "much less consistently miserable." But this has only been a few months, at best.

So the short answer is no, "much less consistently miserable" is not as good as it gets, and "not technically depressed anymore" is not as good as it gets, either. But to get out of those things, you are going to have to build you a new self, one piece at a time, mindfully and with the help of people you trust. You are just starting out, just beginning to learn to flex the not-depressed parts of yourself. You're not going to soar yet; all those good feelings are powerful and your self -- which is still living with the thirty-year posture and muscle memory of being depressed and closed off and afraid to be vulnerable, that self is going to shut down those feelings until it knows it can trust them. Because they are powerful and your self probably feels vulnerable in the face of them.

You are building a new self. That takes time. Your new self is only a few months old. You need to get used to it first. So, good for you for seeing someone who is helping you. Keep going, because in this time when you are building your new self, it is quite possible and indeed likely that without help your old self will re-assert, and you will want to be mindful of that and intentional about what parts of your old self you cultivate and what parts you don't.

But give it time. It gets better if you keep working on yourself.
posted by gauche at 6:39 AM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Hey anonymous. It sounds like you've been really busy improving your life. It's like being in training, I think. You work hard, you get tired and you wonder if you are making any real progress at all. After a year or two you'll look back and find it remarkable how much ground you've covered.

The difference of course is with sports training you at least know what you're aiming for. You can see the goal, you know why you're doing it and where you'll be if you get it right. If you've been depressed all your life (and I certainly think that is possible and unremarkable in the context of depression) you don't even know what the fuck not depressed is, or how it feels. What are you aiming for with all this talking, medicating etc? Who are you trying to be? What is it meant to feel like? Who can tell you? Could you hear it if they did tell? Would you believe them if you heard? I wouldn't have. I didn't.

I can't give you an example of a bright line shift, or a turn of events leading to 'blinding happiness' but I do enjoy myself most of the time now and rarely think about doing the things I used to. The self destructive stuff is mostly over. My hard days are pretty mild compared to what they were, and not at all frequent. There wasn't a snap of fingers moment, so don't feel like you've missed some key puzzle piece. I somehow got to where I needed to be, and it was slow and took work and no one else could do it for me. I probably could have had more effective help to get there but I (mostly) don't begrudge taking the long road, decades were wasted to depression itself anyway. It doesn't really matter now. My life is pretty great (to me anyway), and I'm still working on it.

You're working on it. You're fronting up. The part of you that knows it's worth it is engaging in that work, the other parts will get in the way for now because that is what they do. You don't 'wipe out' the depressed part, it just atrophies as you exercise the functional parts and let them run the show. They get strong and incrementally you become a different person (as everyone does over time). I'm sorry my answer sucks in terms of not giving you a route but you're on your way.

PS Drugs... I'm not saying you should or shouldn't take medication but there are lots of different types. Many make me sick, some don't. Some I don't like for other reasons. Some did not much at all, some were far too heavy handed. You can always try things, see how they go, and move to stop or switch if you don't like them. If something helps you for a while, it doesn't mean you have to take it for ever. If I go back to the training analogy, sometimes you just want to strap your knee until you ligament whatchamacallit heals.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 6:55 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's like getting out of a bad relationship. It's better to be out of the bad relationship. You know you're better off out of the bad relationship. But getting out of the bad relationship is only step #1, steps #2 through #999 are "what the hell I do now". You've done the big thing, now you've got to start paying attention to all the little things that got neglected all this time, like making friends and having relationships and hobbies and, well, everything. It's enough to be overwhelming, so just take it one step at a time.
posted by Sequence at 6:59 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Has anyone experienced a bright line shift in their thinking?
I don't really care about my thinking anymore. Well, I do when I do, but generally, it's just a bunch of blah-blah-blah. I use my messed up thought processes in combination with too much coffee to generate writing, and sometimes it comes out coherently and I share it with people and they find something worthwhile or funny or weird in it. And sometimes thinking is useful... Like, at work, sometimes I have to think for a while to know what to do... But, um, mostly, the thoughts I have about myself and the world and whatever—I kind of see them as symptoms, things that arise for various reasons, stuff I get stuck on, a landscape, weather, whatever.

This is just a pet theory but I think there's a type of depressive who would resonate with Camus's statement that "to begin to think is to begin to be undermined." They have a kind of ongoing thought project with a strong perfectionist force, basically: "Why are things so bad? Really, why?" I've spent years thinking about this, reading anything I could get my hands on, etc. For no great payoff. Cognitively, this "project" seems to be closely associated with my depressive tendencies.

That's also why meditation is such a relief for me. (Although it's not only that; it can also be quite painful and confusing.) It's a space for being without engaging in any strong thought project. Some meditation instructions literally say just this: "Sit for a while and let go of your thoughts as if they were basically unimportant." You can come back to them later if they are in fact important. But for some number of minutes, your nexus of cognition—with its decades of built-up mental patterns—is not the engine of the universe.

Buddhist theory puts "thought" in the same category as the other "five senses." I like to picture someone who started on a passionate project in their teens to smell the ultimate truth, the solution to life. They might smell a tomato for a while and go "yes, this is nice, this might be it," but in a few minutes they would be disappointed and confused again.

The concept of depression can be helpful, but it can also play its own part in this intellectually dramatic world view, which interprets feelings and thoughts as highly significant, and pictures a large, looming difficulty hanging over life, and which turns into a self-replicating meme of disappointment and disengagement.

In my depressive headspace, it seems utterly ridiculous that one could derive actual enjoyment or happiness from something as trivial as cooking soup. But thinking about cooking soup, judging it, has nothing to do with the actual experience of chopping, sautéeing, boiling, etc. And it's true that the activity itself doesn't seem to create happiness, like drinking water quenches thirst. You can easily cook soup while being totally angry and hopeless. But you can also just cook soup and not be too involved in this great quest for happiness. Then it's just quite something! I'm surprised every time!

Sorry if this is a bunch of irrelevant hooey for you, as might easily be the case. It's just kind of the perspective I have at the moment. I still quite easily fall prey to depressive moods. But generally I feel a levity to life, or at least the possibility of it.

I've been dealing with some really dumb and "depressing" crap lately, having some trouble sleeping, etc, and this morning I sat in meditation for the first time in a while, and as always tons of thoughts came up, quite strong emotional thoughts (about a girl, a roommate, work, the world, etc), but my intent to meditate was present enough that I recognized the need to just let stuff go and breathe. The timer chimed, I got up, and spontaneously laughed!

It's not even that one has to do formal meditation, although I think it's a great thing to learn. For me, the whole "letting go of the need to solve everything through building up a web of accurate thoughts and judgments" is much more important. Sometimes I practice that by just drinking tea, walking, riding my bike, or whatever.

Loneliness is a different issue... I have plenty of experience with loneliness, but I'm not totally stuck in it anymore. I can basically relax around people, even if I'm not the most charming personality around, I'm still, um, a person.

I also like to have some stuff to look forward to. The present moment is nice and all, but it's not always so fun, and then it's good to know that next weekend or whatever, something will happen, I will go somewhere, do something, listen to something, or whatever.

There's lots of stuff to engage with out there, too. Music, theatre, film, meditation, biking, cooking, reading, writing, singing, hiking, knitting, etc etc etc. I think a lot of people are scared of learning new things from scratch, or don't really know how to approach it, but that's another topic... Anyway... Back to work!
posted by mbrock at 7:06 AM on June 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

You can make real friends, find fun hobbies, etc in your 30s. Life is way better than "not miserable" when you spend it with people you like doing things you enjoy.
posted by steinwald at 7:07 AM on June 30, 2014

In my experience, the transition from depressed to not-depressed can be a lot quicker than the one from not-depressed to content. This is especially true if your depression has been hanging over your head for years: your brain may feel better, but you don't quite know what to do with it. You may still have some of the unhealthy thought patterns that accompanied your depression, even if they no longer hold as much power over you. You may not have learned the habits that can keep your brain active and interested, because they didn't work for you before. You basically have to retrain your brain. It's a gradual process. You can't really take shortcuts: right now, they will likely feel inauthentic and gimmicky to you because they don't line up with the way your brain is used to thinking (and many of the quick fixes are inauthentic and gimmicky anyway), and so they will backfire.

The baseline gets better, and so do the highs and the lows. It just takes time. You're doing everything right so far; don't give up. If you continue to keep track of your progress and continue to make an effort with lifestyle changes, you'll have something measurable to hold on to, which can help a lot. I know "it's the journey, not the destination" is a cliche, but there really is so much to be found in the process of moving forward.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:15 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

So short of having had hobbies or friends to return to

Life is activity. You can't just enjoy "life" as an abstract. You have to enjoy whatever it is that you do during the day. If what you do is sit on the couch, you have to enjoy that. If it's not making you happy, you have to find other things to do. Keep trying new things until you find a way of life that works for you. Basically, look for those hobbies (in the broad sense) and those friends - things you like to do and people you like to be with.
posted by mdn at 8:21 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too grew up very depressed and isolated. I have a lot of trouble taking risks because my mother believes that it is better for me to be quiet and isolated than to fail at anything. Failure was not allowed. I moved as far away from her as I could and I promised myself that I would say yes to anything that wasn't morally or legally wrong. Any time anyone asked me to do something, I was in. I joined clubs, became a leader, spoke in front of people- basically, in a frightened, shaky way, broke out of my shell. I had some theater experience from when I was a child and I used that to get through much of it. And I was happy. And I did enjoy it.

I am going through a stressful time in my life right now and I am noticing that my bad habits are creeping back in. I am staying home too much and staying too isolated, and getting depressed again. Thankfully, this time around, I do have friends who are checking on me and getting me out. They are saving my life.

So, yes, you can overcome this, because I did, and I'm really not that remarkable. But you do have to work at it and you will have bad days along with the good. But the good days are really good and totally worth the effort.

Finding a good church that teaches directly from the Bible, instead of the feel good fluff that I grew up on, really has helped me so much, way more than any doctor or pill. That being said, doctors and pills are very valuable and necessary to get out of the deepest pits. I did need them both at one time when I was very deep in the hole. I can now see when I am getting close to the edge and I have plans in place (more sunshine and exercise, etc.) for when I get close and need to pull out fast.

It is never too late to start living the life that you want to live. Oh, and one more thing, anything is better than death. So, if maxing out your credit cards and living on the beach for a month is what you need, then do it. So long as you are alive, you can fix things. It always gets better.
posted by myselfasme at 8:51 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few thoughts....

1st many drs. I have spoken to see depression as primarily a physiological issue. The brain, for whatever reason, is not producing or receiving the chemicals it needs. (I am not a doctor)

The importance of this distinction is that "there is not something wrong with me" in the psychological sense of "who I am".

There are ways to bring the body back from that imbalance. Some people have success with western medicine, others with meditation and acupuncture, yoga or running. All of these, and others I'm sure, focus on bringing the body back to balance. Poor diet, or sleep, or lack of exercise, or continued isolation from other people can all contribute to depression. We need those things to be healthy.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, at 18. For over 20 years I though "content" was as good as it was going to get. Over the last couple of years I have sought out different forms of treatment that have shown me otherwise.

What is important is to have some realistic short term goals. Happiness doesn't come from looking at what I don't have vs. what I do. It comes from looking at what I do have and what I can do.

Also, "Happiness" is not a static state (any more than depression or sadness is). Over our lives these change, we change in our relationship to them.

If you are not immediately called to do something, or be with people, you love and enjoy you have a great opportunity of an almost infinite world of possibilities to explore.
posted by jeffe at 8:56 AM on June 30, 2014

I just turned 30. I've had general depressive symptoms for probably half my life. I couldn't even tell you if it's clinical depression, bipolar, anxiety, and maybe a little ADHD thrown in there, because none of the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors I've been to have been able to pin it down, despite charging me lots of money to do so. Now, I'll also say that nobody more than me hates hearing a story where a person says they've been depressed for a long time, because it usually gives me an immediate sense of a lack of hope. Still, I bring it up, because I've gone through so many different emotional situations in my 20s that maybe something in there can help.

Since the following is kind of long, I'll go ahead and extend an offer right here if you ever want to talk privately about anything.


First of all, I don't think I'm actually clinically depressed, wherein I just feel down for no discernible reason. I have some pretty damn effective outside influences that jackhammer at my psyche on a daily basis. One of them, my dad/boss, just called me in since I started writing this to question my dedication to the company we run and basically call me out on whether I'm mentally fit to keep working here. So now, I'm crying at my desk. God, this is not sounding encouraging, but even that discussion gave me some useful thoughts.

I'm personally kind of down on psychiatrists. I went to one a few years ago and we tried just about every type of medication you could think of. "Maybe, you're bipolar. Let's try this for a month." "Maybe you have adult ADHD, which is why you can't concentrate at work. Here's some Vyvanse as well." Turns out the Vyvanse greatly increased my ability to focus on the distractions I'd make for myself. Previously had tried three different SSRIs with no effect. Tried an SNRI (Cymbalta/duloxetine) and a dopamine reuptake inhibitor (Wellbutrin/bupropion). At least, bupropion has NO sexual side effects. Also had some augmenting Abilify in there somewhere, which is the one drug I ever took that actually made me gain weight, and, man, was it effective in that regard. Didn't do crap for my mind, though. Also tried lithium for about a year, and I couldn't discern any major differences, so I just flat out stopped it. I know it's not recommended to do that, but I didn't have any problems with it; lithium's not as scary or high maintenance (never even took a blood test) as the internet makes it sound. In my case, it doesn't seem like it's a chemical imbalance. I do currently take 2 mg a day of Klonopin/clonazepam to deal with anxiety that would make it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning. Having had a major panic attack just two weeks ago when I ran out of those pills for a week, I can say that a) they must have been helping keep me calm before I went off of them, and b) DO NOT go off benzos cold turkey.

But since I'm not a doctor, I would not think of suggesting that you not go to a psychiatrist, because my experiences are only my own. However, I would suggest being completely and maybe even a little belligerently honest to your expensive shrink about whether you feel your meds are doing anything for you. Aside from the clonazepam, which has a specific function for me, and the Vyvanse, which was just like a super strong cup of coffee to me, I never felt a damn thing from ANY of the various meds I took. BUT I kept going back for almost a year and a half, taking hours off from work each time, waiting around, and then telling my psychitrist that "eh, maybe I felt something or maybe I didn't, it's hard to say." So I'd get another month of the same meds that did nothing, and it would take me a while before I finally said, "this isn't working." And then, we'd just try something else, and the process would repeat. Don't do that. If something doesn't work, catch it quickly, change to something else, and if lots of things aren't working, feel free to call that out and say so. I don't feel any better or worse now, having been off meds for a couple years. They don't work for everyone.

And this brings me to the other aspect of psychiatrists: they are the most expensive type of counselor. I usually scheduled longer meetings with mine (at much greater cost), so we could talk about...stuff. He said some things that still stick in my mind to this day, but we never talked ourselves into any solutions, and a lot of the talking time did get spent on talking about the meds. I spent $10,000+ on my psychiatrist and the only thing I got out of it was knowledge about clonazepam, and my GP fills those prescriptions now.

I've been to every type of counselor, and I can honestly say I don't see any real advantage to having a Ph.D vs an LCSW vs any of the other acronyms. I think it entirely depends on the person you're talking to, and that sucks, because it's hard to find a good one. However, I think they CAN be helpful, and I've had a few that have been in specific situations. The key is to assess them as quickly as possible. Go into your first meeting with a list of what you want to accomplish in your therapy. Make sure they have a clear idea of what you're there for. I also think it's good to have someone that pushes you along and/or gives you legitimate homework to do between sessions (not just "I want you to think about blah.") Don't fall into the expensive trap of working with someone that starts each session with "what do you want to talk about?" If you do have something you need to get out there, write it down ahead of time and be efficient in how you communicate it. Then try to get back on track if it's a deviation from the path you want to be on. I've spent countless time having weekly conversations that make you feel good for about an hour, then leave you dangling for the remaining 166 hours of the week.

You need a counseling goal, and if your counselor seems like the type that just wants to have a weekly open-ended conversation, ditch them. Feel free to not schedule another appointment or take a break to try someone else or think about whether you want to go back to the person. If they try to automatically schedule you for another week at the end of a session and you're not sure about it, make up an excuse why you can't be there, and tell them YOU'LL get back to them to reschedule. That usually will end things right there unless you do indeed reschedule, but, again, don't keep scheduling appointments if you feel you're not getting your money's worth. And it's not just the money. How much TIME can you afford to go down the wrong path when you're constantly hurting? You've got to evaluate THEM as much as they evaluate YOU.

And, once again, you really need to set counseling goals. It CAN be effective that way with the right person. I just recently realized that I'm seeing a couple's counselor for my relationship and another counselor to deal with codependent behavior I seem to have AND going to a weekly Al-Anon meeting to help with the latter behavior. HOWEVER, I'm not actually working on any of the things that could be helping me directly improve my crippling habits, certain thought processes, and life in general. So, this week, I'm going to talk to my various counselors and tell them all this and rework everything, so I can actually focus my own active-self-improvement DIRECTLY. This is the sort of thing you have to evaluate in counseling: is it working? If it isn't, another angle may be necessary.

Also, pump your counselors for book recommendations. If they actually keep up with their profession, they should be reading the newest books themselves and should be able to recommend good, pinpoint ones for you. The book might help move you along faster than the counseling at a fraction of the price.

I hesitate to recommend a book that I've only just started, but here goes. My counselor recommended a book called Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. It's about positive thinking, but it rejects the notion that you can just replace negative thoughts with positive ones. He talks about how the brain is inherently wired for to absorb negative experiences, because our ancestors needed to focus very clearly on them because there could be life or death consequences. Positive experiences just sort of float in and back of our mind, because we don't take the time to focus of them and ingrain them into our brain. His general premise is that you don't need to have everything in your life go right to become a more positive and happy person. You're sort of like an empty vessel, but you can fill that vessel slowly with just about ANY positive experience (the smell of fresh cut grass, someone thanking you for letting them in on the road, a really delicious meal, etc.) He points out that in order for your brain to write down this information and start changing your synapses and engaging in all the neuroplastic behavior it's capable of, you need to focus on that one positive experience for at least 10-12 seconds. Eventually, you can fill your empty vessel with a lot of positive thoughts of any type, and even if you have much more major problems that aren't being directly solved, you'll feel much better and happier and more positive as a whole. I really need to dig into the rest of the book that explains the specifics of the "how" for doing this, but I've tried the 12-second focusing thing a few times, and it does seem to work. So, I think it might be a book worth checking out, and I need to get back to it myself.


I just wanted to share my own experiences, and I hope they'll be of some help. Life feels like crap a lot of the time, but I think it's solvable. And if one thing doesn't work, don't fall into despair as I have often done. Just try something else. That's the only way to keep moving towards the inevitable solution, whatever it is for you.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 11:21 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been in a similar position, but think that for folks like us, pulling out from under all "this" is our lives' work.

Born basted in a family full of anger, bitterness, fear and resentment based on generational poverty, mental illness and abuse I've later come to realize that no one in my family ever was "happy."

Growing up where I did, with the people I did, its no surprise to me to find that as a child I had no concept of what "happiness" was, other than some cliched shit on TV, though I certainly knew sadness, bitterness, jealousy and apathy and living in that atmosphere unconsciously took them as my own, not knowing any different and used them to protect me.

I've spent more than 30 years with various degrees of unhappiness, prior to this I'd have sworn that i was fine, I was well, that shit happens, but it didn't bother me; but its only been in the past two years with good therapy and lots of thought and introspection that I've actually understood my thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Understanding this all in the past, was one thing but the subsequent work to really understand, acknowledge and engage with my life, my experience and my feelings now in the present moment knowing I am no longer bound by them is the hardest part of all, and something I still struggle with on a daily basis.

On the one hand I understand more, see myself more clearly, and see myself more truthfully but while my burden is lighter, I still find myself dragging it along with me like a torn parachute, that snags on life's difficulties and sometimes trips me up when things get tough.

But even so I know that the only thing I can do is to pick myself up and go on and hope that with every step the parachute frays a little more, until there will be nothing and I will be free.
posted by Middlemarch at 12:35 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You deserve a lot of credit for managing your depression and for building tools that help you function.

I've thought about this question a lot. When I studied computer science, this was called the problem of the local maximum. Let's say that you build an intelligent moon rover. You want it to reach the highest hill or mountain that it can find but its sensors can only see a few feet at a time. It has no map. How does it know to keep climbing? How does it know the difference between a plateau and a mountaintop? Well, it can't know. Not without an external reference.

For what it's worth, I think there is a higher peak for you. Thing is, you're on a plateau right now, so that next peak will require venturing out, taking a risk and probably even losing elevation, backsliding. That's okay, be gentle with yourself.

What we're really taking about here is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. That's the mountain you're climbing. The idea is that you will always be striving to be a better version of yourself. Your baseline can go higher.

Some MeFites (IIRC) created the Lifeboat Project to help people grow in their friendship skills. ( Modern life can be very lonesome and the first step in building intimacy is asking directly for a deeper friendship with another specific person. It's very much a leap of faith kind of thing to do. Good luck!
posted by Skwirl at 2:33 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, happiness can happen.

Happiness can be learned. Your current basal set point is not high, but that doesn't mean you can't change it. Happiness is both something that happens to you, as when you wake up either in a good mood or a blah mood or a crummy mood, but it is also something that you can tinker with and arrange to reset to a higher level.

However you don't primarily get to be happy by trying to be happier, you get to be happier by trying to do something else and happiness comes along as a side effect. For example, you say you have no hobbies. Say you take up painting. Chances are painting will just feel pointless and silly and you will feel inept, because, being a novice you will be very bad at painting.

However if you accept your ineptitude and keep on painting you will (maybe) get better at it. If you study painting you will start to understand it more and not just think, "It's a painting" but "The artist did something interesting with strong contrasting colours" From there you start wanting to do something interesting with strong contrasting colours yourself and sometimes you fail but you get better at it.

Eventually - all going well, you will both get a feeling of success and accomplishment when you succeed at something you are trying to do and you will also start to experience flow where you are so caught up in painting that you are in a state of happiness while you do it.

This is how you reset you happiness set point. I used painting as an example but a great many other things work as well, such as becoming effective in your relationships, or making a difference in your community, or studying music, or writing naughty erotic fiction, or anything that you can make into work that interests you. It doesn't have to be creative. For many people making other people happier is good because happiness tends to rub off.

Even better, there are numerous projects that you can work on that all have the capacity to increase your happiness so you can work at several of them simultaneously.

At the same time there are things you can do actively to make yourself happier. One of the most important things you can do is to love yourself even more than you do now. I don't mean that you should accept yourself and say self affirmations, I mean that you should go out of your way to do things that show support and affection for your current self and your future self. This requires a bit of objectivity, so the kind of questions you can ask yourself would be what would you do for yourself, or advise yourself if you were your own best friend or lover. For example, you might buy yourself a box of cookies. Cookies will purchase a very little fleeting happiness. But if you distance yourself a bit more you might not buy the cookies because you have observed that they make you feel guilty. You might love yourself enough to not buy the cookies. Conversely they might not make you feel guilty but you could make yourself happier by baking yourself cookies instead of just buying a box of Mr. Christie. Examining these things is worth the trouble. You can go about actively making yourself happier the same way you would go about making another person happier.

And of course making another person happier is often a very good way of increasing the local happiness level with the side effect of increasing your happiness.... but this can easily backfire in the wrong situation with the wrong person where they take advantage of you instead of aiming for a non zero sum game.

Yet another thing you can do is watch for the things you do that make you unhappier. For example let's say you occasionally lose your temper at your spouse because you are over tired and cranky. Not surprisingly you can learn that a few things like this are adding to your unhappiness. A huge amount of sorrow can be forestalled by learning to say, "I'm way too cranky and miserable right now to talk to you. I'd only say something nasty and hurt your feelings."

Another thing that helps you work on your happiness is taking note of the many things that make you unhappy that are simply physical things. For example you may hate your job because by the end of the day you are always exhausted and cranky and hungry. Figuring out that there is nothing wrong with your job it's just the exhaustion and hunger making you unhappy and mad means that you can work on that fatigue and hunger, or at least wait it out and not blame the wrong situation. You probably already know how depression makes everything seem hopeless and sad and futile. My rule of thumb is to assume first that all bad moods are physiological rather than real, or situational.
posted by Jane the Brown at 2:57 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's a slow, gradual process, slow, baby steps, lots of being patient with yourself. If you've been unhappy since childhood, that's twenty odd years of practicing unhappiness that you have to contend with. Not a quick and easy thing to remedy.

For me, there has been years of therapy (art therapy worked well for me in terms of parsing out what was muddled up in my thinking) and some back and forth in progress. It took time and real effort and practice to change my ways of thinking and behaviors.

I really appreciated the insight that there's a constant cycle of change - good, then bad, then good, then bad, indifferent, exciting, repeat. No matter who you are, life constantly moves and changes. You constantly move and change. Gradually, I relaxed about expecting a strong and sudden (permanent) change to happen. I kept going to therapy, and at some point, the balance shifted towards more appreciating the good moments and a little less dwelling on the bad ones. I let go of some of the expectations that had been ingrained in my head that had played in an underlying loop of unhappiness. I learned to be kinder to myself. The process has a way of snowballing - when you're kinder to yourself, you feed yourself good food, try to get better sleep, and that helps give you energy to force yourself to smile more, be with people more, take social risks a little more. And each little step brings confidence. Gradually, those things will bring people closer to you. It won't be easy, but in sum, you can have a higher baseline. It does take work.

I hope you will find one day that you're feeling better, and you'll feel a deep joy and gratitude towards yourself for putting all the work in for getting you there. It doesn't take away all the fear and shittiness out of life, but that joy will be as deep and true a feeling as anything you've ever felt. You realize you do have power over how you feel and you are able to make your life better. Good luck!!
posted by ihavequestions at 6:59 PM on June 30, 2014

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