One aspect of depression can be that in your day-to-day life, nothing memorable seems to happen anymore. All days look and feel more or less the same. Your life has become something like drifting around in a gray, flat ocean where nothing can be seen but this endless expanse of water. Behind you lies the same. And before you, towards and past the horizon? Nothing but the same.
Any boats that once might have sailed there, appear to have sunk. Any faraway islands seem to have been swept away by these slow, never-ending, relentless waves. Even your last seagull has drowned long ago:
This “ocean effect” demoralizes you in several ways. Because the perspective is so endless, monotonous, bereft of any orientation points, we can just as well say it leaves with you no perspective at all. This not just kills any shimmer of hope. One of the other things this does, is it drowns your memory into the same sea: because all your days seem equally gray and shapeless, if someone were to ask you what exactly you did three days ago, you would find it hard to tell.
To prevent your memory becoming such a shapeless blur (and to lift you up a little by reminding you that you actually did do something) therapists will often advise you to keep some kind of diary. Every evening, jot down briefly whatever you did that day. Just record your activities, things that happened: from getting up to work chores, shopping, meeting someone, afternoon naps, cooking a dinner, watching a news show, and so on.
But in the case of serious depression, my own experience is this general diary idea can be too ambitious and will not always work well. There are two main problems here.
In the first place, sitting down to systematically remember everything you did during a day requires focus, some degree of clarity, and discipline. Your depression may already have gone deep enough to rob you of those requirements. Then your diary assignment may easily become a task too difficult and time-consuming to keep up. Writing an actual diary will become a burden, and in your mind it may turn into one of those many failures you feel guilty about.
The second problem is of course that if your depression has already gone far enough to render you fairly inactive and passive, keeping a diary can also expose and stress that fact in a stark, undeniable way. Every night you begin to fill that diary, you are going to describe how your day had too little activities again, too little variety, too much mulling or sleeping or failing. So faithfully recording your complete days may become a kind of recurring evaluation that can depress you even more than you already were.
If this applies to you, I want to propose an alternative strategy that is simpler, safer, and may work out in a more positive way. Instead of keeping a complete diary, try keeping a one-item-per-day journal.
You should see this not as a full-fledged journal, but more like a notebook where after each day you need to write down only one short note: of the thing or things you think you’ve done best (or not entirely wrong) that day. Even if you think you did nothing well, there may have been some small thing you still managed to notice or even enjoy, more or less. However insignificant it may seem.
In ocean terms: you don’t write about the wideness of that endless dull ocean or how depressing the entire day at sea has been. Instead you just note that for one brief moment you were able to appreciate the sight of the sunrise over the water. Or that you actually did catch a small fish. A sardine.
In real-life terms, typical end-of-day notes might be like this:
“Because X came in this morning, made a pot of real coffee instead of instant stuff. First time in weeks.”
Or: “Got postcard from grandma today. She’s a bore, but she means well.”
Or: “Out of cigarettes, so forced myself to go to the shop. Back with a stash.”
Or: “Cat was out again for most of the day, but tonight sat in my lap for a while.”
Or: “Finally got online to pay the electricity bill.”
That’s all. You get the idea. For each day, one such small note of one small, unimportant, but slightly positive event is really all you need. And believe me, however depressed you are, there always is one such small thing that will come to your mind. Just try to think of something. It will work. Didn’t you at long last wash your stack of dirty dishes, even if this was only because you didn’t have any clean ones left?
This works not just as a modest exercise in positive thinking. After a while, when your notebook has several such one-a-day notes, every glance through this journal will demonstrate clearly that even though you were very depressed, in fact you were still a little bit alive somehow. You were seeing, noticing things. Maybe even doing something.
Of course if after some weeks or months you succeed in climbing out of the deepest ravine of your depression again – drifting ashore from your ocean, I should say – you should keep the habit of leaving one daily note in your booklet. When you begin to feel a little better, more small positive events may surface that deserve to be written down. So in the end, your notebook might gradually evolve into a real journal or diary.
For a brief general view on keeping a journal, see the post Journal, Diary, What’s the Difference? in the blog of creativity coach Quinn McDonald.
• tip: umm… this post was the tip.