About 6 weeks ago I broke my hand. It was a little thing, one small bone in my right little finger, but it affected my life fairly significantly. For a start, I wasn’t allowed to work, do any physical activity and had to shower with my hand in a sealed plastic bag. Sleeping was uncomfortable, I was told I couldn’t drive and typing was excruciatingly slow and frustrating. Writing with a pen was pretty much impossible.
The second week I was in a cast, I got really depressed. My motivation to do anything was pretty much gone and I claimed success when I did one task in a day. There were days that I didn’t claim any success.
I did ponder quite a bit about how I was feeling and what I could do about it. In short, not much. That is, I could do a lot, if I had the energy, enthusiasm and no broken hand. The last was optional, but it sure didn’t feel that way. Because of the need to give my hand every opportunity to heal, there were a range of things I would not allow myself to risk, a range of things my partner would not allow me to risk, and a range of things work wouldn’t let me do. This last left me financially quite vulnerable as I had not built up anywhere near 4 weeks of paid sick leave (I only actually had 1 day).
There were small victories. I thought to myself – what do one handed people do? What if you are born right handed, biologically speaking, and lose your right hand? Well, most things must be possible, since I am sure that not all one handed people have personal carers. So I experimented and learned to do things one handed. Washing dishes, for example, is possible one handed, but tricky. You need to use some fingers to anchor the plates and bowls down, while your other fingers swish the cloth/scrubber. Cutlery requires a different technique and so on. Hanging clothes was tricky, but once you get the hang of pre-grabbing a peg and then pinning the clothing to the line with your small fingers and opening and pegging with your index finger and thumb, it becomes not such a bad thing to do. Some tasks were not practically safe enough. Chopping vegetables was out, working in the shed on any number of projects was too risky and exercise would jar my hand (not to mention the fear of being stuck and in pain).
What slowed me down was not inability, but rather enthusiasm. My sleep cycle crashed and whizzed out of my control. Even now I have insomnia problems and my hand is mostly healed, and being really tired all of the time is really crap. I had constant background pain – not enough to take pain killers for, but enough to be annoying. Additionally there were many things I wanted to do, but wouldn’t let myself do. Some of this restriction was safety based, some practical and quite a few financial.
With a rapid drop in my physical activity, my body didn’t know what to do with itself. I have empirically seen this happen before: athletic people who suddenly stop physical activity become depressed. I have not seen any tests on it, so can’t scientifically state the two are related. However if you consider that exercise creates endorphins and keeps your body streamlined and energetic, having all this drop out of your daily routine is likely to mess up your mood. It certainly messed up my appetite and digestive system, which I am fairly confident messed up my energy levels.
I pre-emptively tried to prevent the effects of cabin fever by looking for something to learn. I succeeded in the first week by launching into an investigation into music/sound theory as it affects the brain (and I highly recommend that you check out Daniel Levinson’s “This is your brain on music”). By week two, this had faded out for me as my physical lethargy reached new heights and I found I needed to sleep every couple of hours. No matter how much I slept, I just couldn’t seem to wake up enough to feel energetic.
Without energy and drive I found that my diet changed. At least I think that was the order. I couldn’t be bothered to make meals, especially with how hard it was to actually make them. My partner was working and wasn’t always there. Additionally my pride was leading me to find short cuts rather than ‘be pathetic’. This dropped my nutrition level down, which I am sure didn’t help with my depression.
Another factor that didn’t help was a mild existential crisis. In our western world, men are measured as successful if we earn money. Here I was on unpaid sick leave, not earning money. While I logically know that this is a farce, it didn’t help me to not feel really bad about not earning money and paying our bills. I found myself very reluctant to spend anything on anything, which combined to make me feel powerless. If I am not the money earner, who am I? Which then lead to thoughts about the work I do. Professionally I am a social worker, and I have specialised in mental health, or more to the point, Wellbeing and Thriving. My current paid employment doesn’t really tap into this speciality and so I feel somewhat out of sorts about it. (As an aside, I did this to increase my foundation strength in social work, but can’t help but question a whole bunch of things).
In my private life, I help out quite a few people who are somewhat lost or unsure about their lives. I do this as a non-religious Seva (service to the public). I have the skills, they need the help, and so long as I don’t do it for ego or foster dependency, I might as well help out.
I also perform circus skills (which I get the occasional paid gig for) and play with a medieval group (all unpaid, and surprisingly expensive on the whole). I enjoy the social contact these give me and the skills I learn from them.
Circus skills (twirling, fire, juggling and contact) are the only thing I have very little doubt about. I enjoy it and I don’t feel that I am out of balance about it. Everything else leaves me wondering “Should I be doing this? Am I enjoying this? Do I have to do this? Where is it getting me? Am I doing too much?”
Theoretically I know all the things one ‘should’ do to break depression. I found that for the first week of depression I thought “this is natural; I will allow it to be”. The second week of depression I thought “this is annoying; I should do something to stop it”. The third week of depression I got quite worried, because I was still doing nothing about it except feel like crap and worrying. Knowing how to fix it wasn’t enough. I had to both want to do something and also have the personal resources to actually do it. Somewhere around the fourth week I finally hit that tipping point. I had enough energy to do things to create more energy to keep on doing things that would pull me out of the depression. I am comfortably out of the other side now. I am also out of my cast and able to do things.
I am wondering whether any of my actions actually made a whit of difference. When I was in the depression hole, being sucked into the gravitational morass of darkness, I really could not do much of anything. It was only after skimming the outside skirts of my depression centre that I started leaving that behind. Did I really pull myself out, or did I get flung out naturally? I am sure there are things I could have done to make things worse, and I am quite aware of several that I did do (fearing sleep, over dosing on caffeine and sugar, eating poorly, not walking when I could have). Was my escape from depression pretty much define by the external factor of the type of cast I was wearing?
It seems to me that a great deal of theory was actually quite useless to me. Knowing what I should do seemed to have very little effect on what ended up happening to me. It was very frustrating to watch myself and not actually bring myself to do anything useful about it. In hindsight, I think “surely I could have…” but at the time, no, I couldn’t. So, instead of saying to people “what you should do now is…” I am going to say “when you find that you can, here is a list of things that may help”.
In short, knowing wasn’t enough. By the same token, having some energy without knowing wasn’t good either. I needed both knowledge of what to do AND energy to do it, and for that, I had to wait.