I have been living with depression for more than thirty years now. That is not as bad as it may sound, because during this time I have grown and learned a lot, even to the extent that I can now honestly say I am grateful for the experience. You will notice that I said “living with depression” and not “suffering from depression”. My choice of words highlights the most important change that I have experienced during this time — the change from a victim to somebody taking charge of her own situation. When the pandemic hit us, I found myself in a better position than many others, because through my years with depression I have learned a lot of things that I can use now. Here are some of them:
1.I realized immediately that I would have to be very careful to survive emotionally, while most people were firstly concerned about their physical safety. Which is very understandable, but in the long run not the best way to tackle this huge challenge. I was just as scared of falling into a deep depression as I was of catching the virus. Thus I could use my fear to spring into action and prevent a relapse rather than wait for it and then try to handle it. Firstly I made a list of things I had to do before and during total lockdown (in South Africa we had three days to prepare). This gave me something to do while it would have been very easy to fly into a panic about the unknown before us and be totally paralyzed by fear.
2.While my age put me in the category of high risk, it also put me in the category of people who have grown up in a society where consumerism was not as huge as it is now and where we were not used to having as much personal freedom as we enjoy now. Thus the idea of being careful with our resources and adhering to the government’s regulations was not as scary as it could have been. (A number of rather bizarre and petty regulations that were imposed on us is rather another story.)
3.I knew how important medication is if you need it. Gone are the days when I repeatedly tried to wean myself from my medication, only to fall back and suffer unnecessarily. In the days before lockdown I made sure that my prescription was fulfilled to avoid any kind of crisis later on.
4.I knew how important lifestyle is for general wellbeing. Although I have accepted that I would probably use medication for the rest of my life, I have also learned not to put all my hope on medication without adapting my lifestyle. Moderate exercise, eating healthy and sleeping enough (among other things) are extremely important to maintaining my mental health. Maintaining these habits during lockdown was not too difficult, because they have been ingrained in me for several years.
5.I have learned to embrace gratitude. Yes, we all know one should always be looking for the positive side of things, but making it a daily practice takes it to another level. The Facebook group Active gratefulness that I started a few years ago, has helped me just as much as it has helped the members. It is, however, important to remember that there is something as toxic positivity, where a person choose to try to ignore the hard side of life and always present a happy face, even though things are going badly.
6.I have learned to nurture the important relationships in my life. Before Covid-19 I considered myself a small group person and thus the prohibition of large gatherings was no problem for me. However, during the various stages of lockdown I have learned that I really prefer one-on-one conversations and that I can stand small talk even less than before. During hard lockdown I formally invited special friends to have a virtual coffee and online chat on the platform of their choice. In doing this I actually had more contact with friends than I usually have. (It was interesting — and sometimes upsetting- to see who enjoyed it and who turned the invitation down because they were not comfortable with technology, but also not willing to learn.)
7.I have learned how to use social media (in my case mainly Facebook) to establish and maintain meaningful relationships, even with people I have never met in person. During my years as a writer working from home and being alone for long stretches of time, Facebook has become an important factor in my life. Through trial and error I have learned to avoid its pitfalls and use it strengths. The result was that when Covid-19 struck, I already had a filtered audience on Facebook and very little exposure to false and negative posts.
8.I already knew the danger of fake news and misinformation when the pandemic hit us. My life with a husband and sons who make their living in research, has also taught me the value of information that has been validated scientifically. Although I could not avoid it completely, the waves of misinformation and fake news about Covid-19 did not hit me as hard as it hit many other people.
9.I already knew that gaining weight would be dangerous for my mental health. This may sound silly to anybody who has never struggled with weight issues, but I have known for a long time that it affects me badly when I feel negative about my body. As one grows older, your motivation for maintaining a healthy weight changes from worrying about your appearance to concern about ongoing health and longevity. I thus knew from the very beginning that I must not fall into the trap of gaining even a few kilo’s, as it would pose a serious threat to my physical but especially my mental wellbeing.
10.I knew I had to continue being creative, which in my case involves writing romance novels. I was lucky in the sense that my choice of genre is a perfect way to escape from the hard reality of the pandemic. I kept on writing, even (and especially) when I did not feel like writing. The principle of “eating your frog” works perfectly for this — when I have done a little writing, the day usually was saved. The trick is not to set too high an expectation for yourself. It does not have to be thousands of words per day, it even does not have to be very good writing, as long as you can just produce a few words when you set yourself the task.
Takeaway: Having experience of living with depression can actually be beneficial in the time of Covid-19. If one can accept this fact and use it deliberately, it can be of great help to yourself and to your loved ones.