Imagine being handed a Sudoku problem to solve. An Expert level problem, and all you have are Intermediate level skills.
You'll, ostensibly, mull over it. Perhaps the mulling will become obsessive. You may think about the Sudoku problem at regular intervals, pour over the numbers, other tiny details whenever your mind has a spare moment. And then, if in spite of your best efforts, you're still left with an incomplete Sudoku box, you may begin to despair over your inability to solve the damn thing.
That's precisely what every episode of depression feels like. A Sudoku problem that's actually an episode of violence, trauma, or a history that's too complex, too expansive. And I simply don't have the skills, resources, help, know-how I need to figure it out.
I could be one neat trick away. A single clue may separate me from victory. But until I unearth that trick, until that single moment of clarity hits me while I'm on the pot reading a trashy novel, my mind will dwell in misery, in confusion, in not-understanding, in self-blame. And there's nothing I can do about it.
What I do when I'm solving a hard AF Sudoku
I've had one anxiety attack in my entire life. I've been diagnosed with clinical depression three times. My therapist tells me that I should be really proud of the way I've turned out, considering my personal history.
'Considering my personal history' That's like a consolation prize. What she's really saying: you never stood much of a chance but you did well with what you've got.
That's the equivalent of a participation certificate you got at a fancy dress competition for wearing a sari and pretending it's a costume. Knowing that a saree is not a fancy dress costume.
But my therapist has also told me to be kinder to myself. So I will graciously accept her compliment. I should be proud of myself.
Most days, I am proud. And I have a long list of things to be proud of. For starters, I'm not a drug addict. I have a steady job I can hold. I never miss therapy. Most nights I catalogue my thoughts in a Thought Diary. This Thought Diary has four columns - Date, Situation, Thought, Feelings.
Exactly like Name, Place, Animal, Thing. And at the end of every week, I go over those thoughts line-by-line with my therapist.
I swim when I suspect the onset of mania. I go for a walk when I find myself making too many bad jokes that no one is laughing at. Or when I can hear myself being the center of attention.
When I have bouts of insomnia, I walk up and down my living room for hours and yell at people who are not present, till I'm spent. Sometimes I'll compose an email and resist hitting Send.
When I need happy-hormones, I ask my husband to cuddle. We call it "choto-time". (Choto roughly translates to cuddle in Gujarati. I know, it's embarrassing. Apologies to husband). Often, I'll demand it at 2pm in the afternoon and he's on a conference call. But we find our ways around it.
I practice mindfulness. I do Progressive Muscle Relaxation when I'm angry. I color. I stitch embroidery patterns. Twitter and Facebook sometimes make me feel manic, at which point I close those tabs. If a nightmare recurs, I delve deep into the roots of the fear that caused it and then read up and dissect those fears and spend another hour discussing them with my therapist. I go to great pains to ensure that the particular nightmare doesn't come back again.
All of this is to say that a large portion of my conscious energy is expended trying to keep my subconscious and unconscious happy. I'm always on the alert - hawkishly waiting to detect minor chinks in my thoughts that, unresolved, can become full blown meltdowns. Or months wasted away in a cloud of misery. It's a hide and seek game. I seek. The depression hides. My task is to sniff it out and stamp all over it before it gets cozy in its hiding spot. Smell a Sudoku problem from a mile away, present it to my therapist, and go at it on war footing.
On most days, I win. But it's always a task. An every-day task. I understand that I'm vulnerable to depression. (If I was a child I'd be described as "at-risk"). So I can't let my defenses down. I cannot afford to ever not be conscientious about my mental health. I have to always, actively, keep the darkness at bay. I cannot experiment with substances, because I will become an addict. I cannot guiltlessly spend a day binge-watching television, because one day might become two. And then a week. And a month. And if I'm not careful, it'll slip right back. And climbing out of the trenches after I've slipped in is very, very hard.
A single digit uncovered is a victory
The Sudokus some of us are dealt are more complex than the Sudoku of others. Some of us are more limited in our Sudoku-solving ability. Where that gap in the complexity of problem and ability to solve it exists, depression may creep in.
Over time, I've cultivated in myself an appreciation for – if not the ability, at the very least – the dedication with which I Sudoku-solve. An acknowledgement of my own resilience. And on days I don't self-combust, victory.
Then one more victory. Then one more. I've begun look at my own Thought Diary with more love. To recognize the ingenuity in choto-time. And to see, in the deepest, truest way, that my therapist is right. Considering my personal history, I should be proud of the way I've turned out. It's taken a lot of work.