I stared at the ceiling as wakefulness poisoned my body. That’s really what it felt like: poison. My limbs felt as though they had anchors tied to them. Rising from the bed was an Olympic feat. By the time I was fully awake, my joints ached, my heart panged with relentless, unnameable sorrow, and my mind was bloated with anxiety and self-loathing.
That was how I started my day every day for years when I lived with untreated depression. I’m not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression each year. Over half of those people are women.
I write a lot about my post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, but not as much about my depression–at least not directly. But depression is a serious matter, even without other conditions compounding it. Even before I was traumatized, before I touched any drugs, depression controlled my life in many ways. Depression is probably why I became involved with an abusive man. Depression probably led me to start taking drugs. Without depression, I probably wouldn’t have the other problems I have. Despite that, It took me years to recognize my depression, and even longer to do anything about it.
I’m a mom, so staying in bed wasn’t an option. If it was a weekday, I’d begin gathering clothes for my girls. Dress them, wash them, fight with them over shoes; then usher them outside so I could load them into their vanpool to daycare. After that, I was free to return to the plush embrace of bed. Weekends were worse. On the weekend, there was no going back to bed. I had to wade through the slog of insatiable fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with serious depression, caring for two toddlers all the while. Imagine what things were like before they had daycare.
I tried the pills. They didn’t work. I started therapy. It helped a little. For the remaining day after a session I felt noticeably lighter. By the next morning, however, the depression was back. Nothing lasted. Nothing helped enough.
My husband suggested exercise, and offered to train me. I already knew that studies showed exercise could help combat depression and anxiety. It just never crossed my mind to try it. Fitness was not something I’d ever done. When I was a kid, I considered myself an intellectual. I thought sports were for jocks, and that jocks were all stupid. It was a cliche, of course, one born from bad teen movies, but I believed it. Plus, I was skinny, so I didn’t “need” fitness, right?
Fast forward fifteen years. After growing three whole humans inside of my body, plus the sluggishness of depression, I was no longer a svelte, carefree poet. Nor was I really creative or productive at all. The depression had robbed me of all that. When my husband offered to train me, I figured, “why not?” That’s how I discovered the practice that would change my life. Not with determined enthusiasm, but with a shrug.
Spending most of your life skinny does not mean you’re in shape. I had to start off slow. Really, really slow. At first, I strained to slide my hands below my knees. Eventually, I could reach my calves, then my ankles. When I finally touched my toes, we celebrated.
But we didn’t stop. Once my hamstrings were loose enough to bear it, my husband intensified my routines. We alternated kettlebell workouts or runs with yoga and other stretches to keep my muscles supple. Even after all the preliminary practice, the new stretches burned. A routine called the inchworm became my special adversary.
When my husband first showed me the inchworm, he made it look easy. He began in a downward dog, then handwalked outward while holding his feet in place. When his body was in plank position, he began walking his feet, inch by inch, toward his hands.
“Inchworming,” he said. His soles stayed flat to the ground with each step. When he finished, his feet were between his hands, and his back was bent down in perfect parallel to his torso.
He completed it in less than sixty seconds, and barely broke a sweat. I thought it would be easy. By that time, I was loose enough to be able to do a decent downward dog. The handwalking was also no problem. When I started inching my feet, though, my anger began to build. Keeping my feet flat meant searing pain in my calves. I couldn’t get beyond my shoulders without falling over. I was furious.
People say depression is anger turned inward. I think that’s true. I’m an abuse survivor, so I have a lot to be angry about. When I began exercising, the pain and anger that had been stored in my muscles started to release. I began to feel less sad, and more angry. Failure led to rage. When my husband corrected me, I snapped. One day, when I responded to stumbling by smacking the ground and swearing, my husband stopped me.
“Betty,” he said,”you have to relax. How many years did you sit around never working out? You’ve actually made really good progress. I’m impressed. But you’ll never get good at anything if you flip out whenever you make a mistake. You need to calm down.”
He told me to sit, right there in the grass where I lay stewing in sweaty anger, and talked me through a short meditation. It didn’t work out so well. I couldn’t control my thoughts. My mind kept wandering, going over the most recent failure, or back farther to much darker memories. Next time, we tried walking meditation, and that was a little better. Having a moving sensation to focus on helped me control my thoughts. From that point forward, mindfulness became a part of every work out. The anger started to fade, and so did the sadness.
I wish I could say there was one magical day when I woke up and no longer felt depressed. That hasn’t happened. I still battle depression. I’ll probably always be sensitive to criticism. Depression is an illness. It can’t be run off, or “gotten over,” the way so many people seem to believe. But exercise helps. It gives me something to do besides sleep, and the hormones my workouts release combat the neurochemical imbalance that causes my depression. I can go whole days without feeling the deep, piercing sadness that marks active depression. Most days, when I wake up, I look forward to the morning ahead. Life no longer feels like poison.
After sending the girls to daycare, I begin each morning with a light stretch. I plant my feet on the floor, fold my hips, and place my hands in front of me. I walk my hands outward until my body is horizontal to the floor. Then, I inch my feet toward my hands. My soles stay flat now. When I walk my feet between my palms, I feel a slight pull in my hamstrings, but nothing more. I hold the position, and breathe. When I’m done with the inchworm, I move on to the next stretch. If I fall, I stand back up. Each day, I try a little harder.