Toss Yourself a Life Ring


Toss Yourself a Life Ring

It’s nice if someone notices we’re drowning in our own thoughts, but most people won’t. Not even if we’ve placed our innermost dark secret right under someone’s nose. Or, if those closest to us suspect something’s got us down, most won’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything at all.

That’s okay if we’re an adult. It may not feel good but if you’ve made it to adulthood with depression, it’s your responsibility at some point to seek help. You can’t wish and hope someone or something will come rescue you. (My girlfriend says, “Hope is not a strategy!”) It’s not someone else’s responsibility, it’s ours.

The World Health Organization statistics and Youth Mental Health First Aid respectively show that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Still, far too few children and adolescents receive appropriate care. That means if you suffer from depression as an adult, there’s a 75% chance hindsight will reveal the telltale signs were already in plain sight.

This post isn’t about what others should be doing for those of us who struggle with depression. It’s about what we need to do for ourselves when we sense life’s barometric pressure shifting.

I’m talking about storm systems that are inevitable in nature and life. For some of us, we’re more easily swept up in life’s emotional disturbances. Sometimes they’re gloomy passing thoughts, like an unexpected gust of wind. Other times, they’re mind blowing, sustained, raging forces that spin out of control and everything around us feels unmanageable, overwhelming, and hopeless for days.

In the past, when I’d get emotionally triggered, I could go from small craft advisories to a Cat 5 mind-spiraling intensity in a matter of minutes. Author Pia Melody describes in her book, Facing Codependence, this type of polarity as an inability to moderate one’s emotions. It’s one of five primary symptoms of codependence. It’s thinking in extremes: good or bad, black or white, high or low, we’re in or we’re out, it’s all or nothing.

As a young person, I failed to learn to see beauty in the color gray.

I experienced these inconsistencies as an innocent little girl watching my mom struggle with her mental health, prescription pill addiction, and obesity, and my father who was mentally sick (but in another way-that’s for a different post), obese, and a chain-smoking alcoholic.

In our house, it was feast or famine. We either had a fridge full of food or it was bare besides a jar of Miracle Whip and Tupperware containers full of moldy leftovers. This was largely dependent on whether we had extra money, or my mom was on the latest fad diet.

Cupboards were either stocked with Frosted Flakes or Grape Nuts; Corn Pops or plain Cheerios; Oreos and Chicken in a Biskit or Wasa Multi-Grain Crackers (like eating cardboard) and pita bread (it should just be called pita because it’s definitely not bread); Oscar Mayer Braunschweiger, hot dogs, and whole milk; or a week’s worth of oven-baked Lawry’s garlic salted chicken breast and a gallon of skim milk (and skim isn’t milk, it’s a diluted tablespoon of Vit D milk mixed with a cup of water).

When I was twelve, my parents split. In good times, my mom had a job. My mom was a voracious reader and on weekends she’d tell me about the latest self-help book she’d read. She’d enthusiastically promise me I could accomplish anything I set my mind to and encourage me to write out my goals.

On her bad days, I’d come home from school after cheer practice at 4:30 in the afternoon and the house would still be still dark. She hadn’t even been out of bed. When she did finally emerge like a ghost in her white, terry cloth zip caftan and matted hair, she’d complain about her latest illness and bodily pain.

Needless to say, witnessing this day after day, month after month, for years left its mark. By the time I was fourteen, I would lie in bed at night envisioning dying the most horrific death I could imagine. I’d force myself to mentally endure a fiery death or drown in freezing cold open water. My reasoning was if I could mentally hack it, I could escape my version of living hell if I couldn’t figure out how to survive it.

Fortunately for me, the power of envisioning the extreme opposite and living into possibility, ironically something my mom taught me, saved my life. (Ironically, because my mom took her life by suicide when I was eighteen years old.) My soul clung onto the idea that I could create a better future for myself, and this is where I owe my mom a world of gratitude.

In seventh grade, my mom cared enough about my well-being to start me in counseling. She must have realized the reasons surrounding my dad’s departure would leave irreversible scars. But I don’t think she was aware that her mental illness was also permanently etching a marred branding of its own.

The benefits of counseling and a lifelong focus on my personal development is as vital to my daily health as brushing my teeth and getting a good night’s sleep. In my opinion, it should be for everyone!

Most of us are not raised with the tools to work through conflict and life’s emotional wind storms—and yet, they’re inevitable. Too often, we wish others would nurture us and care for us as we desire when, in reality, we need to learn to give ourselves what we need.

I benefit from medically treated depression and I still need to manage and take responsibility for my day-to-day emotional well-being. Some days, I’d rather just work from home and not interact with anyone and that’s okay. It’s when it turns into three or four days or I’m not doing the things I normally do during the course of my day, week, or month that my awareness perks up and I get curious.

In Live Your Gift, I call this self-regulation “Optimal Me.” It’s a list of seven to ten consistent, habitual activities that are part of my routine when I’m functioning on all cylinders. They are things like making my bed in the morning, putting all the dishes in the dishwasher before I go to bed, working out regularly, having my car washed weekly, etc.

They’re signposts I’ve learned to watch for, and if I’m not getting them done, they send my brain a signal that I may be treading water in an unhealthy headspace. If I’m off my routine, it allows me to toss myself a life ring because, guess what, in today’s expansive ocean of busy-ness and faces buried in phones, most will walk right by you and not even notice you’re in distress. 

I know I’m not alone in this struggle to stay clear of all the debris twisting around us. It’s easy to get hooked by things out of our control. What do you do to keep your ship moving forward and out of the trough? Do you have an Optimal Me list? If so, what’s on it? 


Dana V. Adams