The Lower Brain: Not Broken, Just Human

Man looking out window. Photo: Sarah Small (Getty)

I’m super depressed and don’t know what to do about it. Drinking, going to see live bands, hanging with my friends, and my usual gym routine aren’t helping. I can’t really talk to my friends about this stuff – maybe I could, but I’ve never tried, and I think it could be weird and lead them to not want to hang out with me anymore. The closest person to me was my ex-girlfriend but we broke up three months ago and I don’t want to rely on her. One of the reasons she broke up with me was that she felt like I was her only support system, which I can see now is true. I rebounded by hooking up with a bunch of women and it didn’t cure my blues, although it was fun on those nights. I went to therapy once and hated it. I just don’t think it’s for me. I’m not addicted to drugs or drinking so it’s not like I’m going to go to NA or AA (though I think that’s a great choice for those people who need it.) I seriously feel like I need a system to help me live my life or something. I don’t want to go on medication and I’m not joining a cult. What should I do?

– Probably Definitely Broken

not broken, depression advice

Dear PDB:

Hi. You’re not broken. You’re human. Humans express our pain in a variety of ways. Some of us drink too much, fuck around, go out to tons of shows and get frustrated that it isn’t fixing our shit so we go to even MORE shows and lose sleep, work out too much, work out not at all, eat too much, eat not at all, make ourselves puke, cut ourselves, buy everything we can and then some more, set things on fire (literally or metaphorically), obsess over online trading, obsess over fantasy sports to an unhealthy extent (not the normal competition with friends, but missing sleep or work deadlines over it), start physical fights for no reason, etc. We go out on eight million dates, we self-isolate in our homes, we curse people out in traffic, we suddenly get panic attacks at the thought of driving, we withhold sex from our partners as a form of control, we cheat on our partners, we steal stuff…the list goes on.

I haven’t done nearly all of these things but I’ve certainly done some of them. And probably so have you. The trouble is that these are surface distractions and fixes for something deeper underneath. I don’t mean that you’ve been carrying around some big tragic secret for years, although that may be possible. In fact, it may be a lot subtler than that.

The process of recovery and healing is seldom as simplistic as it’s made out to be in many films. Like, sometimes the big secret is that you don’t actually think you deserve to be loved. Or you think you’re stupid. Or you think you’re not as talented as anybody else so you shouldn’t even try. You uncover beliefs you’ve held onto for a long time, beliefs that no longer serve you. Then you figure out a better system of living and behavior. You may end up reading a book or two or listening to a helpful audiobook. See what I mean? Doesn’t sound like the stuff of a major third-act reveal in a movie – “I NEVER REALIZED MY MOTHER WAS A BANK ROBBER! THAT’S WHY I STEAL FROM COSTCO!” – but it’s real.

Previously: The Lower Brain: Taking It Too Slow?

Your girlfriend did a lot of emotional labor for you. Trust me, I’m not blaming either of you. There’s no blame to go around here. We live in a society that says “men deal with fixing physical shit, women deal with fixing emotional shit.” She stayed in it for her reasons, you stayed in it for yours, and then she broke up with you. I sincerely appreciate that you aren’t asking her to shoulder the burden now. That’s awesome. That’s growth, man. You’re respecting her boundaries and you should be proud of that. That in and of itself is a clear step in the right direction.

I know you’re half-joking about the cult thing but it’s dead on. That IS why some people join a cult! They feel a lot of pain and don’t know what to do, and a cult provides a system for living. Of course, it also replicates a dysfunctional abusive family structure and tends to suck away money and free will and isolate people from their families. We don’t want you to do that. But simply seeking a system that works for you (and doesn’t hurt anybody else)? That can be incredibly helpful.

I won’t try to sell you on medication. I’m not a doctor. I can just say the right medication has helped me get my brain above water when I’m drowning, and then I can do the other work of changing my life. But I know people who’ve never used medication and have done great.

I’m a big fan of Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. It details his work in co-creating the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA. Read it and learn about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). There are no drugs involved, and no religion, although some of the meditation and relaxation techniques come from Buddhist inspiration. You’ll learn about exercise, nutrition, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) exercises you can try at home. If you want, there are MBSR satellite groups all over the world, and they use Full Catastrophe Living as their textbook. It helped me when I was a suicidal 21-year old, and may times since. There’s an audio component with CDs or audio files, but the book will explain where to get them.

Now, I know therapy sucked the one time you did it. But there are so many different forms of therapy. It isn’t always sitting on a boring couch talking about your feelings (although, fair warning, you may encounter many boring couches in your therapy adventures.) I like the aforementioned CBT because it’s action-oriented and includes homework.

I often describe looking for a therapist as car shopping. You’re going to test drive a few before you decide. Many therapists are willing to do an initial in-person consult for free. Some are not. They should at least be willing to do a free phone consultation with you. You may find you prefer a therapist with a particular gender, or someone with the same cultural background in which you were raised.

More: The Lower Brain: Too Shy

I like that you have a gym you go to. I like that you go out to shows. These are good things. Keep doing them, in moderation. But make a schedule for yourself. Schedules are key for folks with depression, because our brains trick us into thinking there’s no point in getting up and we should just sleep all the time. And time passes differently when you’re depressed.

Here’s my weekday schedule: I start work at 7 a.m. every day because I work with some folks based on the East Coast, and I live on the West Coast. I don’t like getting up that early but it does help me. On an ideal day, I wake up, I meditate in bed, I get up and brush my teeth and take my Prozac and put my contacts in, I stretch, I make a healthy breakfast, I sit down to work, I take frequent stretch breaks, and then in the later afternoon I go to the gym or take a walk before doing other work or going out at night. I might go to the chiropractor or my shrink. I might go to a movie. I might read a book. I might go on a date. I might take a nap at some point. I might spend time with people who are also working on making better choices.

That’s an ideal day. That’s not my every day. But it’s what I strive for. It doesn’t sound thrilling, but it keeps me happier and healthier than I otherwise would be. And these foundational practices support me when I travel, or when something tough happens, or when something awesome happens.

Step by step, day by day. Hour by hour if you need it. I’ve had times when I wanted to die so I checked in every fifteen minutes while I was awake. The thoughts come and go, the feelings may go up and down. Don’t try to fix it, cure it, make it perfect. Just keep breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Go easy on the booze and other substances these days. Treat yourself kinda like you’re getting over the flu. You got this.

I swear it can get better. It really can. You just have to take tiny steps each day to make it better. Everyone has their own recipe; you’ll find yours. But you must reach outside yourself and ask for help. You aren’t all-powerful and you aren’t impervious to pain. We teach men that they are supposed to be that way. It’s absolutely bonkers and impossible. Asking for help is a sign of strength. And by writing to a stranger on the Internet, you showed some of your strength. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more within you. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you.

If you have a question and need some advice, email Sara at [email protected]