The very last thing in the world you feel like doing when you're depressed is taking care of yourself. Frankly, you are not your favorite person at that point. But it's precisely then that self-nurturing is so critical. Because you can, I think, love yourself out of depression.
I know the territory: I was diagnosed with major depression in 1987; and then with bipolar disorder in 1994. So I've been living with bouts of crippling darkness for nearly half my life. Maybe because I'm a lawyer, I've been trying to figure out loopholes since the day I was first diagnosed. If you promise not to scoff, I'll share with you some simple self-nurturing tricks I've come across, that don't necessarily cure the depression but lift it for a while. And as anybody who deals with depression knows, you're grateful for whatever light somehow seeps into your life. So give them a shot—you may just find you're feeling better in spite of yourself.
1) "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
It works! And I know the show is still on TV because I watch it every night I can. Here's the thing about Mary Tyler Moore: she's the total antithesis of depression. She's plucky, cheery, perky—everything you're not. And yet you just can't help but love her. She opens up a little space in your heart for sunshine. But the show is anything but saccharine. Take my favorite exchange between Mary and her boss, Lou Grant:
Lou: "You know what? You got spunk."
Mary (ducking her head, embarrassed but pleased): "I know."
Lou: "I hate spunk."
I laugh every time I think of that exchange. The show is guaranteed to yield at least one genuine smile per episode. And we all know what they say about smiling: it can actually change your neurochemistry so you begin to feel more positive overall.
So try Mary, or if you can't find her, try any of the older, more innocent sitcoms. When we're depressed, we need to believe in a world that neatly resolves its problems in thirty minutes. "Cheers" is great, or "The Andy Griffith Show"—just the opening credit sequence (with the whistling) makes me feel a whole lot better about life.
Reading is such a saving grace: it distracts, it informs, sometimes it even ennobles. But one of the cruelest things about depression—and antidepressant medications—is that they often make sustained reading difficult. I find that it's hard to focus on a book when I'm really feeling down; nasty thoughts insist on intruding. So although I'd rather be knee-deep in Anna Karenina, I turn to magazines. They require far less commitment and attention than books—and if you're like me, when you're depressed you have very little energy to give to anything besides the depression.
A word about mental health and fashion magazines: for years I refused to read them because they made me feel terrible about myself. I'm not a supermodel. I'm not even as pretty as the girls in the ads for dish soap. Yuck, I'd think to myself as I turned every page; it was hopeless. But then after my first book Manic came out, I suddenly found myself doing photo shoots and TV shows and documentaries—and I discovered the astounding magic of makeup artists and retouching. With the amount of makeup that gets slathered on and the miracles of photo manipulation, even Quasimodo could look like Angelina Jolie.
So I realized that fashion magazines are all about careful illusion, and I came to appreciate the artistry that goes into them. Now that I know it's all fake, I can indulge my desire for Manolo Blahniks without sacrificing my sense of self. It's a wonderful diversion—an escape into artifice, which is sometimes the next best thing to art.
3) Frozen yogurt
Frozen yogurt has come to my rescue more times than I can count. It's more reliable than my medication, less expensive, and when eaten in moderation there are no side effects other than pure pleasure. Frozen yogurt to me represents a softer, kinder, sweeter world. It's not a necessity, it's something I give myself simply because it's delicious and I deserve it—even, or especially, when I'm depressed.
But texture is important: I advocate the kind that comes fresh from the yogurt store, not the pre-packaged, hard-as-a-rock variety you find in supermarkets. A creamy consistency is infinitely more soothing. Even if you think you're too depressed to get up and get out to the store, I highly recommend making the effort. Who knows? By the time you've gotten up, dressed yourself and driven to pick it up, you may be feeling better, if only because you're now a part of the functioning world. I've often been motivated into a better mood just because I needed my fix.
Then come home, grab a spoon, curl up and watch that old sitcom or read the latest magazine. It's my foolproof routine, and the comfort is cumulative. At least until that very last bite, I feel safe and cozy and protected from harm. Depression? What depression?