I’ve wrecked my foot and haven’t been able to walk for months which has been a lesson in patience (minus the times I’ve chucked a few plates at the wall in frustration, but patience is not one of my greater virtues) as well as a sharp reminder of the power of exercise to lift mood. I’ve always known it, and there is a mass of research to back it up, but there is a great difference between knowledge and understanding. When somebody says “this is going to hurt”, you think, in a vaguely abstract way, yes, this is going to hurt. Then it starts and it HURTS.
I’m not talking about exercise as in running a marathon, just a gentle stroll in the fresh air which is a reminder that, even when I’m stuck in an episode of depression, life goes on. The sun comes up, the flowers bloom and the trees stand majestic, impervious to freezing winds and lashing rain, which is a reminded that adversity is a part of the whole. There is something comforting in their indifference and nature’s quiet acceptance of the cycle of the seasons, fresh green life bursting forth only to gently subside in the burnt reds and oranges of autumn. The only constant in life is change, both good and bad. It’s just that we tend to forget the good because we concentrate so hard on the bad.
In the bleak midwinter of depression, it’s hard to remember that. It’s hard to remember life at all which is why it is so important not to pull the covers over our heads (duvet diving as it is known among depressives) and not to draw the curtains against the day but to leave the house. I know how difficult that is (god, how I know. Sometimes it takes me an hour to open the front door) and how every step we take is leaden and our bodies ache with the effort. Years ago, I met a man on a beach in India who did my Vedic horoscope. I know, I digress, but what he said, startles me even now. He predicted that in the year 2000 I would suffer a catastrophic lack of energy.
And so I did. It is a perfect description. I’ve encountered periods of depression all my life but not that brutal moment when I fell flat on my face and couldn’t get up again. The thing about depression (as well as those dark demons and the black dog’s fangs snapping at our throats) is that it is physically exhausting. Well, why not? It is a physical illness. I know people think of it as purely mental because every cognitive function is, literally, depressed, (the very idea of reading a book when I am unwell is laughable) but it is an illness of one organ in our bodies. It could be the liver, it could be the kidneys but, in the case of depression, it is the brain – which governs pretty well all of our bodily functions. The list of physical ailments connected with depression is startlingly long: headaches, abdominal pain, and musculoskeletal pains in the lower back, joints and neck. If I had to sum up depression to anybody who is a stranger to it, I would say imagine having a bad hangover with an evil dose of flu, and there you have it.
There is no such thing as a mind and body disconnect which is why, when we can’t do anything about our heads, we can at least do something about our bodies and that is to get them moving. I have three rules when I am depressed. One is to get dressed. I might lie down on the bed again, fully clothed, and I definitely don’t bother to put on makeup because an hour later, I look like a racoon. Tears and mascara are not ideal companions. The second is to do the washing up which might seem like a small, domestic act of no importance but is, in the scheme of things, the most fabulous achievement. The third rule is that I leave the house. It might just be a stagger to the local shops to buy a pint of milk but it connects me to life in a way that nothing else will – and makes me feel that I am living a life more ordinary. When you are depressed there is nothing more delightful than the ordinary. Normal! What a wonderful word.
As for my wretched foot, it is certainly a pain (in every sense) but actually it is merely an inconvenience. I might be chucking plates at the wall but I am doing it in an upright position rather than flat on the floor, which would be awfully messy. As anybody with depression knows, far rather a wounded foot than a wounded mind. Speaking of which, I’ll just hop off now and get some fresh air.