Imagine (or recall) yourself as a second grader. It’s a Friday afternoon in May, and the weather is beautiful. After school is out, you will get to play late outside, and you have the whole weekend ahead of you. But it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and school doesn’t get out until three. The minute hand on the clock won’t move, and even the second-hand seems to drag.
This scenario may ring a bell for you or not, but most of us have had a time in our lives when time seemed to drag out endlessly. I’m deliberately using this relatively neutral scene because there’s the other, much more negative version of this– time standing still during an accident or disaster of some sort– the kind that may or may not lead to post traumatic stress disorder. But one way or another, we’ve all experienced the time dilation effect.
Let’s leave aside time dilation in trauma and emergencies for discussion some other time. I want to focus on the more hum-drum version, the non-emergency time dragging sensation. The thing that didn’t occur to me until I had been providing psychotherapy for quite some time was that when someone is depressed, that time dilation effect can make depression even worse. Not only am I depressed, but the time seems to drag on endlessly, with no foreseeable end. And unlike one’s second grade self on Friday afternoon, there is no weekend in sight.
This is a time for courage, often courage in the face of hopelessness. Remember, hopelessness is a symptom of depression. The courage involves being willing to do something– anything. My motto, both personally and for others confronting this problem, is “something beats nothing.”
There was a time in my early 20’s when I was going through a punishing depression. I would sit alone in my room and just sink lower and lower into depression. Somehow, I learned that I had to simply get out of the apartment, get into motion, go see anyone, go do anything. At the time, I called it distracting from depression, because I found that I would go meet up with someone or do something and I would forget that I was depressed. Viewing life the way I do now, I would describe the experience differently– I would say now that I was NOT depressed. If one is able to experience connection with others, some level of amusement or happiness, simply get into a neutral mood state– that’s a condition of being “undepressed.” Yes, I often returned to a depressed state when I went back to my apartment, but in the meantime, I didn’t feel down. I got out of the time stasis bubble of suffering.
Mark Twain supposedly said that the best way to cheer oneself up is through trying to cheer up someone else. This basic idea is one of the key concepts underlying all the 12-step programs– you can help yourself by helping others. People must like it, because there are oodles of 12-step programs. But one doesn’t have to be a 12-stepper to use the concept. And there are many other tools. But they all start by some kind of action. To me, that’s the key. I remember thinking to myself at one point in my depression, “If I’m going to be depressed, I might as well be depressed in the park,” thereby allowing myself to get into motion. I had a client one time who used what I call the power of negative thinking: he was depressed to the point of suicidality, so he would buy a lotto ticket twice a week just after the numbers had been drawn, thinking, “My luck is so bad, if I kill myself that will be the time my numbers hit.” The last time I heard, he had gotten into a new career and was very happy. Yes, he was using a kind of reverse psychology on himself– and anyone who wants to copy his example is welcome– but he was also taking action. It gets the clock moving again.
Trail image James Matter, 2012 Pacific Crest Trail, northbound north of Shepherd Pass