Getting off the couch after depression

Depression makes you lazy. You wouldn’t expect that; when you’re depressed, you can’t afford the tiniest bit of laziness, or you die. But it teaches you to do the bare minimum to survive; that doing things is hard and unpleasant; that none of your dreams more ambitious than going to the movies are achievable, so you might as well give up; that the best state is a very slightly good mood and rest; and that you could be comfortable and entertained forever in this state, because there are so many great books. This isn’t quite learned helplessness; it’s not about relearning you can do things, it’s about relearning their worth.

Addiction seems like a good model; what Natalie Reed writes about staying off heroin hits home, even though there’s no comparison between shooting up and reading Sherlock fanfiction.

But the part that became most meaningful about it was how simple the rhythms became. In the depths of heroin addiction, I only ever had to be really concerned with exactly one problem, and for that or anything else at all there was only ever exactly one solution. For most of us, our lives are cluttered with worries and concerns and anxieties and responsibilities and desires and needs and hopes and dreams and identities. […] But in heroin, all of that, all of those things that terrified me and filled me with anxiety and that I had such a hard time investing with a sense of meaning, all of it could fade to nothing but a more or less dismissable, nagging whisper in the background.

I was lucky, picking something as safe and easy to kick as reading. (It was luck; it came close to being alcohol.) But that’s apparently something any coping mechanism does, pushing aside worries about work and rent and when you’ll eat next, and easing down into something delicious and comfortable.

Dieting is probably a better model; the scale and stakes are closer to commensurable, safe use is not only possible but the norm, and you want to cut down rather than kick. I’m looking at addiction because 12-step programs and cultural images of recovering addicts are actually usable, whereas dieting is full of fads and awful norms and silly pressure and gender stereotypes.

The point is that there is a model at all that you can follow. It’s way overkill and it was designed by and for people with completely different problems, but it’s applicable, and you can tinker with it. If you’ve spent your depressive episodes thinking “That’s all well and good, but I am not physically capable of following your advice“, it can be a little shock. So it’s not very hard; you just need some courage to overcome the learned helplessness, and some willpower to keep going. It’s also a little complicated to tell learned laziness apart from backslides into depression; as usual, the acid test is whether you can do things by trying.

What you lack is perspective: remembering that things outside your narrow focus matter and can get better, before it’s too late and they come down on your head. Until it comes back, you have to stick to a painful system with no visible purpose. But if you’ve made it through depression you must be used to that, right?

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