Tag Archives: depression recovery

Writing Your Own Survival Guide

“Hey, Critter!” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here. I need to tell you…” But I can’t finish, because my imaginary raccoon raises a paw to stop me.

“It’s gonna have to wait,” she interrupts. “Something has come up.”

My words catch in my throat; it’s not like Critter to show up with an agenda. Our little chats are usually about whatever is frying on my sweaty little mind. That’s how I like it.

I feel annoyed. And confused. And then a little worried.

I frown at her a moment, my mouth pressed tight while I spin the wheel to see which reaction I will be going with. I’m ready to open with a windy “Oh-no-you-didn’t” tirade, but the pointer stops on worried.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Oh God, please don’t say you’re leaving. Don’t leave. Don’t leave!

Critter tilts her head at me.

“All of a sudden, you look constipated,” she says. Then, she sniffs three times. “But you smell fine.”

“Just tell me what’s happening,” I say. My forehead is getting prickly.

“We’ve got to get ready,” she finally says. “We need a plan.”

“What for?” I ask, my voice squeaking like a pubescent boy’s. I knew it, she’s leaving. My imaginary friend is leaving me. Jesus, that’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. Oh god…

“Winter.” she says, looking into my eyes as if that explains everything. “Winter is coming.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask, with an eyebrow raised hard in the universal expression of WTF. “This isn’t Game of Thrones.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me. Like I’m the one being an idiot.

Then, she narrows her eyes and sighs, like she’s trying hard to swallow-back some sarcasm.

“What does winter mean to you?” she asks.

My stomach drops. For me, winter means dread. The darkness and heaviness that plague me all year swell hideously when the weather shifts in the fall. Winter means I lose the sunshine, fresh air, and easy activity that sustain me. They are replaced by cold drafts blowing on my nervous sweat. Windsheild-scraping, parka-wearing and bundling up my thrashing-mad children. It makes me want to cry and go back to bed.

I have no idea why anyone ever decided to settle the northern parts of the world.

My body hates winter because shivering for seven months in a row sucks snowballs. My brain hates it because it feels like drowning and starving at the same time.

When I picture winter, I see the dirty grey sky looking all blurry because I am peering up from underneath the ice.

It makes me shudder.

“I’ve been trying so hard not to think about it,” I say quietly. “I don’t understand why you brought that up.”

Critter’s face softens.

“I know,” she says. “You didn’t want to ruin the summer with anxiety about fall. But we’ve got a problem. Fall’s here. Winter is coming. And we don’t have a plan.”

Suddenly, I understand. I run my hand through my hair.

“You’re right,” I sigh. “I need a plan. Crap – I can’t believe I haven’t started preparing.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Critter soothes. “Let’s start now.”

Those three words have saved my life repeatedly: Let’s Start Now.

So here goes.

Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links, which means I learned how to play around on Amazon and create buttons for some of the stuff I wrote about. If you make a purchase through these links, Amazon will send a small fee to the Critter and I. My furry friend has asked that I spend it all on cat food. The wet kind. Although that’s probably not going to happen (sorry, Critter, that stuff stinks), we are grateful for your support! Also, full disclosure: making these links was really fun.

My Winter Depression Survival Plan


When I don’t commit to a plan, my lows get out of control; I sabotage myself and act like a dick to the people I care about.

No more burning bridges and sinking deeper into the cycle of messing up, hating myself, and throwing good things away. I can’t wait until spring to feel human again.


Making a plan helps. It makes it easier to get moving and do the work I need to do. I feel more confident knowing I won’t have to try to come up with solutions after I’ve slipped into dysfunction. It will be easier to get up and try.

Having a plan also helps me win the argument against the voices in my head. They tell me to stop acting, because I don’t really have a problem, and nothing can help me, anyway. I know that stuff is garbage, but it gets to me. My best chance to beat it is to get a head start.


  1. Reach Out
  2. Take Care Physically
  3. Seek Pleasure
  4. Find True North


  1. Reaching Out

Struggle Buddies

At least once a week:

  • Call, message, or arrange a visit with someone who can handle me, and talk about my struggles
  • Let them empathize, relate, and share their strategies
  • Take their caring and encouragement in
  • Reciprocate
  • Thank them and appreciate our connection


At least once a week:

  • Reach out within a Facebook group where people share some of my same challenges
  • Share something that is giving me heartburn
  • Encourage at least one other person
  • Share stuff that helps
  • Celebrate each other’s wins.


At least once a month:

  • Check in with my counsellor
  • Ask for help with the biggest thing that is weighing me down
  • Commit to feeling what is there and saying what I need to say
  • Open up to one new task that helps me handle my fear, despair, and exhaustion in a new way

2. Taking Physical Care


  • Every morning, use the UV light for Seasonal Depression
  • Every day, take brain-support supplements (fish oil, Rhodiola, and 5HTP)
  • Every two months, check in with the naturopath to monitor and adjust dosages
  • If this stops helping (or if side effects get out of control) talk to my doctor about going back on antidepressants.


  • Set an alarm to chide me when it’s time to turn off the computer, TV, and phone.
  • Turn my stuff off at bedtime, even if I still have work to do.
  • Make sure I finish all my chores and prep for the morning before I flop into downtime
  • Bribe myself as extensively as necessary to finish those chores
  • Build a Netflix-watching nest out of snacks and blankets
  • Have one good book beside the bed to entice me away from the TV What I’m currently reading
  • Do yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, and listen to guided meditations when I’m too wound up to sleep
  • Get serious about weaning the baby


  • Schedule exercise around all the crap I have to do
  • Multitask as much as possible (take the jogging stroller on errands or to the park; ride bike to Starbucks for writing mornings, workout at the playground while the kids play, make an obstacle course for all of us in the living room, etc.)
  • Go to at least one interesting fitness class per week all by myself
  • Buy groupons for classes I can’t normally afford
  • Let my embarassment about being out of shape motivate me to work on my weak spots between classes
  • Let my sense of impending burnout motivate me to get to drag myself to class

3. Seeking Pleasure

Feel Better Music:


No more than once a week, indulge completely in something that I usually have to avoid: chocolate, cheese, or anything with ICING


Lose myself in stories that make me feel like the world is twisted and beautiful enough to fight for:

  • The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and Talking Dead
  • Game of Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire
  • Anything by Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Yann Martel, Alice Hoffmann, or Lawrence Hill
  • Re-reading the Harry Potter series


  • Massage – as often as our health plan will allow
  • Painting my nails
  • Getting the wherewolf waxed off my face


  • Date night
  • Girlfriend visits
  • Starbucks writing sessions, runs and bike rides all by myself

4. Finding True North

As needed, I will bring out writing, film, and webcasts by people who help me find my bearings:

  • Deepak Chopra
  • Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Ekhart Tolle
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Patton Oswalt
  • Daniel Tosh
  • Amy Schumer
  • Kristen Bell

So that’s me; now what about you?

Whatever it is that triggers you, Dark Little Critter wants you to face your villain standing up.

Make YOUR survival plan. Do what works for you. And yes; blasting the Stones while you squeeze fudge sauce onto a bowl of peanut butter and bacon bits IS therapy, if that’s what lifts you out of the gutter.

Think about what gets you out of bed, and write it down. All of it. Make it happen as you schedule each day, week, month, and year.

Turn back to it when the manure hits the propeller. Adjust when it’s not working.

And always remember, you are the author of this Choose Your Own Adventure. You are the only one who can rub the genie’s lamp (or any other part of him) and arrange for the day to be saved.

A Constant Process of Coming Back

“Holy crap, you’re back! Where the hell have you been?” I blurt.

It comes out too hard, like an air-bubble blast from a ketchup bottle. I groan.

I have been sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop open. My butt has warmed the grooves of my grubby wooden chair, and my heart feels tight in my chest.

I am supposed to be writing, lightening the world and my debt load one essay at a time. But I am not writing. I am drowning.

I have got to get these words moving.

I have banged a title across the top of this document. It is my summoning incantation, an invitation for my muse to come and show me the way out of the crushing pressure in my head.

And she has appeared. I heard the dry tick-tack of her raccoon claws jogging my way. I turned my head, and saw her furry grey form approach.

But instead of relief, I felt a cold flare of anxiety.

My armpits began to prickle. This isn’t the sweet comfort I was hoping for.

That’s when I spat criticism at my dearly-missed friend.

Now, my Dark Little Critter has stopped beside my chair. She doesn’t answer my rude question. Her face is blank.

She cocks her head to the side and stares at me, then rises up on her hind legs and begins to sniff. She puts her paws on my thigh and leans in for a stronger whiff. Her head sways back and forth and her nostrils dilate, sniffety-sniffing, taking my measure.

Finally, she stops, and sits back on her haunches.

“You’re in strange shape,” she says.

“You have no idea!” I answer. “I’m stuck! All gunked up. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t sleep! Can’t parent, or wife, or write. I’m full of garbage. Where the hell have you been?”

My voice cracks and my heart hammers.

Critter stays seated at my feet, looking up at me. I become hyper-conscious of my face – my cheeks, mouth, and nostrils. They all seem to be snarling. I try to force them to relax, but they won’t listen. There is a numb disconnection between me and my body, and I am awful.

“You’ve been gone for months!” I suddenly cry. “How could you leave me like that? I’ve been floundering without you. Everything is bloated and stiff: every muscle, every thought. I’m in agony. I needed you, and you didn’t come.”

Now, there are hot tears in my eyes.

Critter’s face softens. Her green eyes seem to melt into puddles of mossy light.

Looking into them, I feel like I’ve slipped into the heart of a deep cave. I see a pool of cool water, rippling with light from a source I can’t explain. In this space that should be dark and cold, I feel penetrating comfort.

Critter’s voice brings me back to my kitchen.

“I know it’s been too long,” she says. “You’ve been unhealthy. It’s been hard for me to watch.”

“You were watching?” I ask. “Why didn’t you come?”

“Because you never asked,” she said. “I watched and waited, and hoped you would reach out, but you never called.”

Now I feel sorry. A wave of it rolls over me, dousing my hot blades of anger.

She’s right. I didn’t call. I had felt the freezing stress, rising higher and higher up my body. My toes went numb, my groin screamed alarm, and my chest squeezed blue. I was strangling inside the pressure of fear and despair, but I never called out for help.

I had forgotten that was an option. I lost the words to say and the numbers to call. I went horribly blank.

Two blinders had covered my eyes; one said that I was alone, trapped in a world where no one and nothing could help me. The other said that no one would help me, even if they could, because my darkness was too sticky and gross. I was unbearable to touch.

“So you kept your mouth shut,” Critter interjects, having seen this story scroll across my trembling brow. “How did that work for you?”

“Not good, Critter. Not good.” I admit. I take a full breath and sigh it out slowly, feeling the weight of my mistake.

I didn’t call for help when I needed it. I didn’t open up and give my friend a chance to help. I made her watch me drown, and attacked her when we finally came together. That must have been painful.

This truth, seen directly, is sad, but not crushing. I am surprised that I can fully feel my regret, and somehow draw strength from it. It feels like next time, I will remember this, and I will do better.

I look up at my fairy god-rodent. She is crying.

“I’m sorry, my friend.” I say. I scoop her up and hug her to my chest. It feels like I have shed a chain mail sweater. My burden is suddenly lighter, and there is no more barrier keeping warmth away from my heart.

I bury my nose in the Critter’s thick, coarse coat, and inhale the dusty spice of her body. She sighs.

This is why people love pets, I think, wishing that I wasn’t allergic to real fur. I would get the most intuitive, raccoon-looking cat I could find and love that thing with all my soul.

“It’s not about holding a furry body so much as choosing to open up ,” Critter says.

“Mmm-hmm,” I agree. And it starts with being honest with myself.

I hold my imaginary raccoon for one more breath, letting the warmth of our embrace penetrate right to my spine. Then I let go, and she hops down from my lap.

I notice that the cold pressure around my lungs has released, but a weight has settled down on my lap. It doesn’t interfere with my breath, but it begs to be handled.

I look down, and see the weight take on a physical shape. It is a grubby bar of steel, and there is a number stamped into it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Critter.

“That is your work. You need to make something out of it. Take your aching and turn it into something useful,” she answers.

“Oh. Okay,” I say. “But what does this number mean? I can’t quite make it out.”

“That is the number of people you need to help. You don’t need to know how many just now, but I’ll tell you, it’s a lot.” She explains.

“Whoa,” I say. “I think I see five digits!”

“Yep. But don’t worry about that. Just start working, and start helping.” she says.

“Okay,” I say. My chest is getting warmer. This feels right. “What happens when I hit that number?”

“You’ll see,” Critter answers, and her eyes sparkle.

I really want to know what is making her smile like that, but I know damn well she’s not going to tell me. It makes my eyebrow wrinkle, but I give it up for now.

“Alright,” I say. “One more hug, then.”

“Of course,” she says. “Then, get to work.”

And now, I am.

Today, I want to leave you with a few thoughts:

First, we are all drifting in the same ocean. No one is so wretched that the world has created an entire, extra-horrible ocean just for them. The universe is way too busy maintaining the physics of every atom, planet, and star system to single out one pitiful human. We are all in this mess together.

That means that you are not alone in your darkest times, even though your weather may be stormier at the moment than others’.

If you feel like you’re drowning, reach out your hand.

Ask for what you need, and try not to blame people for not reading your mind.

Apologize when your fear makes you mean. Get back on track.

Find people you can trust to listen and help you get oriented when you’re lost. They may be friends, professionals, or figments of your imagination. Call on them as needed. Allow them to support you.

Return the favour when someone you love falls into the ocean.

And most of all, never stop trying until you grasp salvation. It is near, even when you can’t see it. Remember that. And find it.

A Tag-Along for Target Practice

Last week, I told you about my village, the circle of family and friends whose support gave me the energy to crawl out of my latest depressive relapse and care for my girls during my husband’s work trip.

All the help and connection I received lifted me up and got me moving. I rolled one good day into another as I enjoyed and looked forward to each opportunity to exercise, write, and be more than an aching brain.

But when the friends went home, the Facebook chats trickled to a close, and the post-workout highs wore off, I was right back where I started: alone with my spiralling thoughts and the crap-crusted carousel of my kids’ incessant needs.

This is where my depression lives, and the place where I built cerebral training camp.

My plan looked like this:

First, I would clean up lunch, which neither child would have eaten. I would scrape their plates onto mine and shoo the girls into the living room while I stress-ate my second helping.

Then, I would wrestle the one-year-old into a clean diaper and referee between her and the four-year-old until we had litigated our way through two or three storybooks.

Finally, I would lay the toddler down for her nap, and set the preschooler up with a craft of some sort so I could retreat to my room and follow a guided mindfulness meditation.

The first day after my husband left, we went through the preparatory steps. The girls and I were pretty worn out. Little One went down to sleep without protest. I checked on the Big One, and saw that she seemed to be drifting off in her room.

I tiptoed into my room and climbed up onto my bed, the only tidy spot in the house. I took out my phone, turned off the ringer, plugged in my earphones, and called up the body scan meditation at palousemindfulness.com.

I had just lain down and closed my eyes, when Big One’s smurfy voice intruded in my quiet.

“Mommy, can I come and cuddle with you?” she asked.

“It’s Mommy’s quiet time, Sweetheart.” I answered, my eyes still shut.

“What’s in your ears?” My daughter chirped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m listening to some relaxing words,” I said.

“Go play,” I thought.

“Can I listen, too?” the four-year-old asked.

“Hmm…,” I said, frowning.

“Pleeeeeeease, Mommy? Can I please listen to your relaxing words with you?” She begged.

I cracked an eye and looked at her, considering. She raised her arm and started sucking on the back of her wrist, leaning into her curious self-soothing reflex. Above her purple sleeve, she blinked her giant globes of chocolate brown, silently pleading.

I saw the outer corners of her brows sink and her breath snag in the top of her chest. The needle on her anxiety gauge was creeping toward the meltdown zone.

We have been living at the upper end of my girl’s anxiety range for awhile now. I have been searching for ways to help her let go and relax. This slightly annoying request actually presented an opportunity.

I was painfully aware that she had been watching me crawl through a long string of bad days. I had felt her eyes on me many evenings, as I slithered up to bed the moment her dad emerged from work.

I knew she had heard me say, “I’m too tired to play,” too many times, because she was starting to use that line on me when I asked her to tidy her toys or brush her teeth.

I realized that I needed to show my girl the other side of overwhelm. I wanted my anxious, frustrated daughter to see me working, building calm and strength. I hoped to plant the seeds for her own rebellion against the evil empire in her thoughts.

And someday, I wanted to explain that she was the reason I was doing this work. I needed her to know how badly I wanted to be there for her and her sister, and that all the times I had to tap out of motherhood made me sad, too.

“You know what, Honey? Let’s give it a try. I’ll turn up the speaker, and we can listen together.” I said.

My Big One grinned as she clambered up onto the bed beside me, and laid her head on her daddy’s pillow.

With that, she became my first, and only, bootcamp recruit.

We lay there softly, and the recording began. The instructions dissolved, though, before they reached my ears. All I could feel was the quiet, covering us like a blanket.

With my eyes closed, my other senses reached out. I could hear my daughter continue to gently suck her arm for a few minutes, then felt the bed jiggle as her hand came down and she nestled her body into a supine posture of openness.

My firstborn’s peacefulness was sweet and comforting, like home-baked pastry. I took a deep breath, and my throat welled up: such a rush of gratitude and relief.

A tingling in my chest told me I had just released a tight cramp. My heart had been gripping sadness, a sweaty fistful of grief about my girl’s ear-piercing meltdowns and all the things that were tougher than they needed to be.

As I breathed in the quiet, the wad in my chest unfolded further. I saw a hopeless feeling in there. It hovered behind my daughter’s worries and her never-satisfied restlessness, the way that she kept pushing away her peace and sleep, and sliding deeper into my familiar, miserable spiral.

Looking at these feelings was hard. They were sucking me in, dragging me back to prior moments of grief, frustration, and guilt.

But thankfully, amazingly, I realized I didn’t need to go there.

Because of mindfulness, the mental-ninjutsu I have been working so long to learn, I had another option. It gave me a perspective I could reach for beyond the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

Counselling, books, and guided meditations like the one I was currently ignoring had helped me see a helpful truth about depression and anxiety. I recognized the chilly muck of rumination, the old, grey thoughts and feelings that trap my brain like quicksand.

Those painful feelings wanted me to do something, but I was so terrified by their strength that I became paralysed, enthralled by my grief instead of taking action to care for it.

I caught myself as I was about to dive in and wallow in memories of every difficult moment with my daughter. I remembered I needed to do something, to take care of my feelings. So I took a breath.

I listened to it whisper in through my nostrils.

I felt my chest tense up as I tried to bring the air in deep.

I felt the breath slowly drain out, dragging against the back of my throat.

I felt the absolute quiet in the pause between my breaths.

I remembered that my girl was right beside me. I heard her breath, even and deep. I realized she was asleep. She had let go, and was doing the thing she needed to be restored.

I listened to my breath. It was not so even, but it was there. My lungs were doing their restorative work, and I realized, so was I.

Even though I was struggling, I had shown up, and I believed that I got stronger each time I consciously decided to let go of those old, worn-out thoughts.

I squeezed my feet, let them relax, and felt a flow of warmth run down my body.

I am going to do this,” I said to myself. “I am going to make this work.

I know you are,” came a small, furry voice.

I could almost feel a puff of warm breath, and a tiny, wet nose tickle my ear.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dark Critter,” I whispered to my imaginary raccoon.

Anytime,” my dark friend answered. “By the way, you’ve slept through it.

Wha??” I asked. I suddenly realized the recording was silent, and the baby was stirring in her room next door.

“Aw, crap!” I said out loud, startling the four-year-old.

Better luck next time,” the Critter chuckled, and I knew she meant that there would be a next time, because I was going to keep at it.