I was thinking it was about six months since I realized I was depressed and decided to do something about it, so maybe it would be a good time for an update on my Depression Recovery Plan. Then I went back and looked and actually, it was mid-November when I wrote about crying in the middle of Creamery Field, December 1 when I wrote about deciding to do something about it. That’s not even five months. I had to count more than once to be sure — December, January, February, March, eleven days worth of April… yeah, not six months. But six months is a rather arbitrary number anyway, so update it is.
I did my reading, learned what the internet had to offer about sleep and depression (plenty, as it happens) and created my plan. Well, created it, then evolved it, then evolved it some more. The current plan:
- No food after seven PM, especially not sugar, but really, not anything. Not even tea.
- Overhead lights off at 8.
- No internet or games after 9:30.
- Actual bedtime with lights off, book down, room set up for sleeping (heat off, all random lights, ie on power strips and appliances, off) by 10:30, including listening to a sleep meditation if I feel like I need it.
Sounds easy, right? Nope. It’s by far the hardest part of my plan, because even though all those things are in my power, the actual sleeping is not really in my control. Also, because I’m surprisingly unmotivated to do what I know is the right thing to do. Night time is when human beings typically have the lowest level of motivation — it’s a thing we use up during the day, and run out of by evening, which is why exercising in the morning is more likely to be successful — and I have to force myself to follow my own rules most of the time.
What I want to do is to play stupid games until midnight, and only grudgingly turn the lights off. What I want to do is read until I’m finished with the story I’m reading, regardless of what hour it is. What I want to do is have a snack at 9:30 or so, probably something a little sweet, and a big mug of mint tea. Ugh. It’s so hard to be a grown-up.
That said, I’m using technology to track my sleep, and wow, the difference not eating after 7 makes is really astounding to me. Literally, it’s worth at least a full hour of sleep, which for me is the difference between 6 hours or so a night and 7 hours or so a night. And not obviously! Not in a really clear “Oh, I ate at 8 so didn’t fall asleep until 12,” sort of way. I can still fall asleep, I just don’t stay asleep. Consistently, if I have eaten something after seven PM, then regardless of what else I do, I will be awake more in the night, and my sleep will be more restless.
Also, incredibly consistently, eight hours of sleep — which I very rarely manage — is a trigger for two good, cheerful days in a row. Not just one! And, also consistently, after a week where I average under seven hours a night, the clouds start gathering again. My motivation disappears, it’s hard to get up, and I don’t bother to fold my clean clothes, if I can even manage to get the laundry done.
At least for me, the research and history connecting depression and sleep is not wrong: I am doing much better when I get enough sleep. In the time that I’ve been tracking, I’ve averaged 7 hours 25 minutes a night, which includes a couple weeks of under 7 hours. The best week I had was 7 hours 44 minutes, and looking through my morning words reveals that it was also the most productive week I’ve had this winter. What a coincidence. (Also, yes, getting rid of the roosters has probably had a HUGE impact on my depression level. I wasn’t tracking my sleep in the summer and fall, but I’m definitely getting a lot more sleep now that I’m not listening to roosters crow from 3AM on.)
If you remember my post on exercise and depression recovery, you’ll know that I concluded that walking 7500 steps a day would be my goal. In November of 2022, when I was first realizing that I was depressed, my phone tells me that my average daily step count was just over 5000 steps. My average step count for March of 2023 was just over 10,000 steps. So I basically doubled the amount of walking I do. My 2023 average is 8007 steps, including all the rainy days of winter. Shine on, self. Has it been good for me? Yep.
Vegetables, specifically. The relationship between depression and nutrition isn’t nearly as obvious as the relationship between sleep and depression, but depression shrinks your hippocampus and eating healthy foods — aka lots of vegetables — grows it. My goal was to eat 8-10 vegetables a day. Sadly, I do not have a technology tracking my vegetable eating for me, so I have to rely on my own memory, which is never a good way to get accurate data. I’d guess, though, that I’ve averaged about 80% success, maybe a little higher? I certainly haven’t given up on it: most days, I eat a veggie heavy breakfast, and I think about ways to incorporate vegetables into all my meals.
Oops. I see that I never wrote my post on appreciation and mindfulness. I thought about it! And the short version — which maybe I’ll try to expand on later this week — is that every day I give myself an appreciation experience. It’s like my happiness practice, or a mindfulness exercise, where I take a deep breath, then use my senses to find something to appreciate. Look, listen, smell, touch, or taste — looking is often the easiest because Arcata has plenty of pretty flowers and beautiful clouds, but birdsong is often a winner, and a warm beverage on a chilly day is delightful when you pause to savor it.
And yeah, it can be hard to appreciate things when you’re depressed. Depression is such a gray fog. It takes an active effort to look for glimmers of light when you’re feeling nothing. But I make the effort and it helps.
TRACKING and Time
This has been a recovery of ups and downs. My first weeks of my DRP were a nice fast zoom into a hypomanic state, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I think messed up my sleep, which is probably why I slid back down again. The weather didn’t help: endless rain is hard. I used to love the sound of rain on the skylight; now I hear it and groan as I pull the covers over my head to hide.
And Sleeping, Walking, and Eating are not a miracle cure, because they require motivation, and motivation is hard to come by when you’re depressed. I can tell myself all I like that I will feel better if I go for a walk, but when it’s pouring outside, staying in bed just seems so much nicer. (Every single time — every single time! — I do feel better when I take the walk, even if I get soaking wet. Does this knowledge motivate me? No, it does not.)
But tracking my sleep, steps, and routines has been extraordinarily helpful, because I’m a person who can be swayed by good data. I’m using an Apple Watch, a habit tracker, and a journal, and the three tools in combination let me see what factors are affecting my mood. Not always, of course. Things happen, good and bad, and influence me unexpectedly. But tracking = paying attention, and attention (or awareness) is the first step toward happiness.
Also, though, Sleeping, Walking and Eating your way out of depression takes time. And consistency. Eating lots of vegetables every day helps my energy level as long as I keep it up, but as soon as I stop, the benefits drift away. It’s a set of things to do for the rest of my life, really, not a miracle cure. Obviously, that’s kinda fine? It’s not like sleeping enough every night is a burden. But you know, sometimes I want ice cream at 9PM. And sometimes I want pancakes for breakfast, and sometimes I don’t want to walk in the rain.
All that said, the other day I wrote an email in which I said, “I’m mostly happier than I’ve ever been before. My life is great.” And that is actually how I’m feeling about my life these days. Most of the time, I’m pretty happy, and I love my life. I think my depression fight is a lot like having Celiac’s — if I’m careless, I’ll be sick again. But as long as I’m paying attention and avoiding gluten (for the Celiac’s) and sleeping, walking and eating vegetables (for the depression), I’ll be fine. More than fine, really.