Habits, Depression and The Importance of DIY


What is depression or a depressive episode?  I am starting to believe that the illness and the symptoms are often conflated, and that having such a perspective either leads to acute treatments such as electro shock “therapy”, or prescription drugs that are targeted at changing some fundamental problem with the brain and its chemistry, or worse, it leads to the patient believing that they cannot be cured or helped even, and this often serves to reinforce a belief in their own state of powerlessness (the power is in the object).

The maxim “treat the cause, not the symptoms” follows a sound logic when applied to purely mechanical problems, but as we know the brain is far from simply being a complex, mechanical organ, or biological computer even.

To treat mental illness as an engineering problem is to deny the environmental or contextual factors involved, but more significantly it overlooks the self-reflective and re-organisational capacities of the brain that mean that not only is it capable of being affected by physical stimuli, it is also able to produce various sensations and experiences itself, from hallucinations, psychosomatic disorders and various placebo effects to name a few.

The subject/object role of the brain appears to be fluid, so that where a mechanic might treat the problem in a top-down fashion, it seems likely that there is often great potential to fix things with a bottom-up approach.  While traditional treatments such as psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling may at first appear to fit the bottom-up criteria as they don’t involve medication or lobotomy (although may often be used in conjunction), their basis remains in observing and then removing or reconciling some sort of broken part, often in the form of trauma.  If only all of these issues can be rooted out, talked-over and resolved, then the organism can get back to functioning normally.  This is the psychological equivalent of many postural training and “functional” exercise methods.  If we deconstruct the human body and stretch or strengthen this, then the whole will work normally again, but as I noted elsewhere on this blog the mechanistic approach to solving what appear to be, or manifest themselves as physical problems, doesn’t account for the magic-like regulatory powers of the central nervous system.

The search for the miracle cure is just another manifestation of our desire for a quick fix.  Simple doesn’t mean easy, and so, in a contrived way we may just have over-complicated things in our mistaken haste to achieve universal convenience.

My personal experience of depression was always that it was something of which I was under the influence, which is normal considering the language we use to describe such a state.  I had no control, and in fact there were two of me: the one who was depressed and the one who was not, but both were blind to the perspective of the other, and unfortunately there was not a third “I” through which I could view the tormented two at a distance.

There is a strong resemblance between depression and a feeling of profound helplessness and the perceived inability to affect change in the world or in one’s own life, so for me they are interchangeable.  Suicide or suicidal thoughts are the final manifestations of a feeling of extreme powerlessness, as if the fight or flight response has been hijacked, turning the organism inside out and against itself.

Self-help is the ultimate form of treatment, as contained within it is a sense of value that cannot be attained through foreign third parties or their chemical equivalents.  Self-help as a system or philosophy or even just the decision to take things into one’s own hands and begin making change, however seemingly small, are massively important to the psychological well-being of anyone who feels powerless.  I believe that for many people who have “tried everything” and then turn to alternative medicine, therapy, education and so on, the much overlooked or downplayed aspect is in the personal symbolism of such a gesture.  We already know that placebo effects express themselves when the subject is in a situation in which they expect them to occur, which may vary depending on whether we have a preference for hospital or witch doctors.  If we have a history of negative encounters with a particular care-giver or other authority that would in “normal” circumstances help us toward well-being and improvement, if the relationship cannot be mended, then the individual must heal through methods of their own making or choosing.

Sometime after reaching the realm of self-harm and self-destruction I took a step back from the edge because I knew all along that it wasn’t what I really wanted, and with that single ounce of strength I had gained from saving my own life I used it to pay the relevant authorities: the counsellor, the psychiatric nurse and the doctor holding the prescription for Paxil shrouded in a halo of promising white light.

I ultimately rejected medication in all its forms for the reason that I didn’t want to rely on them in order to live a normal or balanced life.  It’s at that point that my journey into self-help and towards recovery began.

It’s not until writing this today that I realised not only the importance of self-help and its connection to recovering from depression, but also the extent to which I have been exercising various self-help techniques in their many forms.  Until now I had seen myself as being on a journey of self-empowerment in the direction of autonomy in various levels, but now I see that I have been implementing my own forms of self-treatment to compensate for all the ways in which civilisation and its traditional structures have failed me, and how the pre-packaged notions and customs are uninspiring to me.

For the first time in my life I feel as if I have just unearthed something about myself that I didn’t know, which now helps explain many of my ideas and actions in a new light.  I had previously envisioned experiential art as a method by which to re-wild individuals; to un-domesticate them, to wake them up and introduce them to some of their own power.  I also see much of my lifestyle as being a form of rehabilitation from decades of exposure to and immersion in a hostile modern environment that is mindlessly self-propagating, and that has neither the interests of the inhabitants of the planet, nor its own, more specialised kind in mind.

I realise that in my own quest for happiness and self-empowerment I want to share that with other people too.  As Ai Weiwei said “I want people to see their own power”.

A year or so ago I came up with the idea for a simple DIY antidepressant.  The object of the exercise is to first make a list of all the behaviours that are characteristic of your “symptoms”, and to then begin deliberately doing the opposite when we notice ourselves depressed or slipping that way.  For example, we may overeat or overindulge in sweet, fatty foods, go to bed too late, get up too late and not get out of the house enough or get adequate exercise.  The anti-depressive heuristic simply tells us to eat better, go to bed sooner, get up earlier and move more!

As this concept turned from an interesting idea into something that I practice more and more, it became clear to me that acting out the symptoms of depression was as much a habit as any other, and it no longer seems to me that it is depression driving the symptoms, but that they have a mind of their own because they are habitual behaviours all the same.  This means that we don’t need to stop or wait until we are cured before we change our habits, but also that because they are habits with their own momentum they will take a lot of effort to slow down and reverse or change, and that in the beginning it will seem like we are not progressing because any attempt to change a habit is an uphill struggle.  It takes more than a few sporadic tries to change a habit we may have spent a lifetime unconsciously practising.

I am learning to feel the resistance to change, and the pull of the habitual behaviour which I now see as simply “the easy thing to do”.  I don’t see myself as a lazy person, so this way of looking at things provides a good motivation to change.  Every time I am conscious of being faced with a choice; the old pathway or the new habit, I no longer act automatically.  Awareness gives me the time to react and then reflect on my choice, so that even if I select the old pattern, I do so from a conscious perspective, which makes it more likely that I will develop a sense of “right” and “wrong” about my choices.  That is to say, knowing that I have already decided that I want to change my habits, there is only so long I can consciously move in a direction that contradicts it.

When I do the difficult thing and avoid my old habits I congratulate myself on doing so, as is rightly warranted, and I am actually beginning to feel better for avoiding them too.  As with all habits they become easier over time as they become more automatic, which highlights the importance of consciously choosing which habits to develop and which to change.

Around November of last year I began another little personal experiment which simply involved me going out the house to walk every day regardless of the weather.  I had already identified that staying in and not getting enough exercise was one of my depression-associated habits, so I wanted to see how having a daily dose of movement out in the fresh air affected me when made a priority.  What I noticed, and this is true of all things around which there is a mental block or some kind of internal resistance, is that my thoughts about what it would be like to go out were much worse, and often not at all like the actual experience itself.  Normally these convincing thoughts and feelings would be enough to prevent me from taking action, but during my month of commitment what I was essentially practising was proving to my brain that it was wrong about the real world.  Every time I have a knee-jerk, habitual, emotional reaction to something, or just the thought of it, by taking swift action I get to collect valuable evidence that my thoughts and their ensuing emotions are not well correlated to the reality of things.  But if instead I allow those thoughts to linger, I inevitably end up feeding them, making it progressively more challenging to try and break away from the thought and to engage in the action.

There were many days when it was cold, wet, windy and grey when I didn’t want to go out, but once I was actually outside I felt even better than when I was at home, thinking about how depressing the weather was.  So while in theory we may recognise that the thought is worse than the reality, it takes consistent experience of that fact in order to override old habits and re-calibrate our perspectives.  This re-calibration is at the heart of my journey towards overcoming incompleteness, because it is the thoughts that present a problem and create a barrier between yourself and immediate, in-the-moment action.

Knowing that part of depression / anxiety is feeling a lack of control or order, it makes sense that having a routine is a good method to counteract disorganisation and associated feelings.  To look at things another way, the behaviours we normally associate with our own depression for example, can be considered negative rituals that we automatically carry out.

Recently I have been focused on developing a strong morning ritual that consists of tidying up things left out from the night before, washing the dishes and clearing up the kitchen.  What this does is not only provide the physical space necessary in order to prepare food for the day, but it also creates a palpable sense of psychological space to enable the day to unfold anew.

Before having this ritual I would notice that I would come into the kitchen hungry, but would not cook because the space was a mess, meaning that either I would try to find something to snack on that didn’t require preparation (which was often both unhealthy and insufficient), or I would go back to what I was doing without eating at all.  Eventually I would have to face the pile of dishes, but by that time I would have spent so long in an unfed state of limbo that I wouldn’t have got any work done in this state of “incompleteness”.

So the ritual serves a practical purpose that has multiple, positive knock-on effects in addition to this psychological sense of freedom.

As with traditional rituals my morning routine as well as any other kitchen time involves a ceremonial dress in the form of an apron.  These kinds of details seem to help bolster the routine by signalling to ourselves that a certain activity will now begin, effectively putting us in the right state of mind beforehand.

I have become ever more aware of this sense of “incompleteness” lately, and how it stems from many things that need to be addressed in some form or another, but are delayed or put off unnecessarily.

While tidying up a physical space seems to have a “resetting” effect, the act of putting things away or cleaning something after use can be seen as the necessary steps that bring finality to any process.  It’s not just that mess is a physical obstacle, but that it is symbolic of a failure to get closure and transition to another phase or a whole new endeavour.  I now feel that I have been unwittingly creating a lot of my own anxiety through various projects and processes that I have begun but failed to see through to the end.  Every time I make a negative but don’t make a print from it I am accumulating more and more things to do: I am adding to my incompleteness.  What this means is that I need to continue to develop the discipline (habit) to finish things, which more often than not takes only a small amount of work, but a lot of anticipated effort.  This also means that I need to be more selective with my time, to avoid engaging in things that I am unlikely to finish in one go or that risk lingering unnecessarily, and to invest that energy in achieving completeness elsewhere.

The same idea not only applies to how I organise output, but equally to various sources of input.  If I have some writing on a topic to do, I consciously avoid doing any significant reading until I am done with my own ideas first.  Initially this was something I did to try to avoid being influenced before expressing my own opinion, but now it is equally about limiting my intake of information if I am not in a position to do anything about it.  If I cannot immediately, or in the immediate future, implement any information that is being diffused by various forms of media, then its practical value is nullified and its effect seems to be an increased sense of incompleteness.

I believe that the culture of the global village is responsible for this strange sense of anxiety and dissonance, as we are faced with innumerable, insurmountable problems that we are unable to affect in any meaningful way.  In normal situations dissonance is resolved one way or another, but the invention of high-speed, worldwide, pocket-sized telecommunications means that not only do we have information on tap that is practical in theory, we also have the world’s problems at our fingertips, and this ease of access is contrasted with our relative powerlessness in the face of what we witness on our screens.

Every day there is the opportunity to collect a new, unresolved problem that is effectively beyond our ability to change.  On a simple level we get a taste for what that feeling is like every time we watch a film that lacks resolution: the killer is never found, the criminal escapes being brought to justice or the central character fails to bring some kind of order to a chaotic and turbulent situation.  This is how we react when we know that the events are fake, and why TV soaps leave us with a habitual cliff-hanger, because the writers know we need psychological resolution, and so they dangle it in front of our noses like a carrot on a stick.  But the news offers no such salvation for either its characters or viewers, and instead there is only distraction in irrelevant, wholly-unrelated, often comical factoids.

People need to regain their own power by realising that it doesn’t stem from the TV remote or smart phone, and that reducing or eliminating their use entirely is the single-most important act in restoring balance.  This collective depression can also be fought on a personal level by choosing to make change on a very local level – which is where we are most effective and receptive to the consequences of our actions.

By giving importance to some biased reporting of an exotic and highly-publicised problem you de-emphasise your own situation in favour of a popular point of focus chosen by a third party.  Your role in your own life is diminished every time you allow others to dictate what is important, interesting or relevant.  There can be no dictatorship without media support, but there is always room for dictatorship without government.

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