Like Magic – that’s how I used to describe any positive effect had an unexpected cause. So when my stomach is soothed by eating mango ice-cream after being stuffed with sushi, it’s like magic. A couple of years ago, and prior to taking a job as a live-in summer camp counselor, I was struggling to manage varying degrees of anxiety and depression. The duration of the camp was 3-4 weeks, and I thought it would be difficult for me since I would have little time to myself. However, after a week, while I continued to feel anxious, feelings of depression had virtually disappeared. This was particularly surprising because during that time in my life, I struggled more with depression than anxiety, so its absence was highly noticeable. I had little time alone, but quite a bit of leisure time. We definitely were not overworked.
So depression was gone like magic, but as far as I remember, it came back like clockwork once the camp was over. My time at the camp and a few other similar experiences have taught me a lot about how depression works for me and the most effective ways that I can manage it. Recently, I was telling my doctor that I had begun to realize how some of my normal thinking patterns and behaviours – which I previously thought were helpful – actually compound the symptoms of depression. As I discuss in another blog, once I begin to head into a deep depression, these thoughts and behaviours actually prolong that experience. Working at the camp made a difference because, from morning till night, my thoughts were oriented outward rather than inward.
To be clear, I’m not saying that depression is a symptom or product of self-centered thinking. I’m saying that for me, feeling depressed caused me to self-isolate, which meant most of my thoughts were focused on myself. When someone is injured, the pain is legitimate. Once the injury has been addressed, excessive focus on it will only compound the pain of the experience. In the same way, the pain of depression is legitimate. But focusing outward, at least for me, has been massively helpful in making my experience less painful and more manageable.
I still do feel depressed at times, but when I get stuck in a depressed state it lasts for a week at the most and not months. Everyone’s experience with depression is different and what works well for me now would have had a different effect when depression was constant and not recurring like it is now. I also didn’t know that my depression would become less severe. I actually thought it would stay that way or get worse, not realizing how much of an impact my environment was having on me. So while I didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome, I did have important tools which helped me to improve myself while the dynamics of my environment slowly began to change. I’m grateful to God for giving me the willingness to find ways to do better, even when I didn’t know how to feel better. I suppose the phrasing I use now makes my actions sound commendable, but at the time I experienced it as a desperate search for pain relief. However, I am intentionally recognizing how valuable it actually was. I’m also grateful for persistence, which allowed me to stop and avoid maladaptive coping behaviours that would have blocked the benefits of the improvements I eventually made.
I’m equally grateful for the changes in my environment, as long as they took to emerge. Once they began to match up with the changes I was making on the inside, I was able to reap benefits I hadn’t even expected. Until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which environmental factors were diminishing the fruits of my efforts. The eventual effects have been great, but I had no idea they were coming. They just showed up – like magic.