Read in a novel last night that the only cures for depression are exercise and helping others.
My own experience: helping others is an unreliable way to relieve depression.
I’m thinking also of the comment from Roger Ebert’s blog that I previously noted about how it’s a crime to make others less happy, and how all crime starts with making oneself unhappy. The way this works in real life is that most people act from wells of woundedness as well as from geysers of gratuitous generosity.
When my desire to help you springs from my woundedness, from my impulse to be healed, then the result, I’ve found — having been on both ends of the equation and an observer of the process — is often a deeper wound well, more unhappiness, less healing and joy. I think this is because if I help you in the hope and expectation that something good will happen because of my help, I am setting the stage for disappointment and resentment. It may not go as I envision. I may not feel as good as I hope. You may react to my help negatively. You may not acknowledge or notice my help. You may react positively but not as positively as I need. And so on. It can go wrong in so many ways.
This is not a reason not to help others. It’s a suggestion that it may help to be clear about where the urge to help and heal comes from, and a suggestion to not necessarily rely on it as a depression cure.
Exercise, on the other hand, has never failed (except when I’ve been on the verge of the flu) to make me feel emotionally lighter, friendlier, more open, less burdened. This is true when I exercise outside — walking in town, in woods, on the beach — and absorb the creative healing that nature itself can provide, and it occurs even when I work out with weights inside, as I do most days.
I think exercise is a depression cure (or treatment, rather) to the extent that it’s meditative, that it’s a focused distraction from dwelling on and in anxiety, fear, grief, resentment, bitterness, regret, sadness. Just a half-hour break is enough. When I exercise I’m transported in a way that I rarely am when helping someone else. All I have to attend to is the movement, instead of another person’s anticipated or perceived response to me, instead of wondering what damage I’m doing as I try to heal.
P.S. Daphne Merkin writes an interesting account of her most recent bout with severe depression in the NYT.