Bad Words and Good Days

“How was your day?” My wife asked me, looking into my eyes hopefully. I didn’t say anything. I just looked back at her and thought of how to answer. And then I cried. It wasn’t an unusual day. Nothing happened. It was no different from the day before and no different from 15 minutes before she asked. Why cry? It is not enough to describe depression as a long series of bad days. Depression is waking up in prison in the pre-dawn darkness of your execution day with no hope of anything changing. The sun never rises, the dread never relents, there is no escape, everything reminds you that you are in jail, everything repeats the sentence pronounced against you by a judge you’ve never seen: you shall die while you wait to die. So some times when my wife or another innocent bystander dropped by my jail cell and asked how I was doing or how was my day, I cried.

As I began to heal from treatment resistant depression, I started to notice the way I answered the question: “how are you doing?” Specifically I noticed when I had a day that wasn’t as bad as the one before, or when I had a couple of days that felt a little better, I was hesitant to answer the question honestly. I was hedging my bets. I would never say “I had a good day.” The most I would say was “today wasn’t as bad as yesterday” or “I’ve had a lot worse days than today.” This made me curious. Why would I hold back hopeful information?

A quick analysis of this habit gave me an answer. I was so used to feeling bad that I had developed a defensive strategy to protect myself from people, places and things that required me to expend energy. I knew my tank was low from the moment I woke up and I had to be careful not to run out of gas. When I was having a little bit better day or two, I would not say so because it meant people might begin to expect more from me; more that I was pretty sure would not be there when I needed it. Keep expectations low. Keep my words in line with my dark reality. And there is another aspect of it. The depression never lifted very far or for very long. Every time I thought I might be getting better it boomeranged against the back of my head. They say many prisoners of the Nazi death camps would not leave even when the guards ran away and left the gates open. They couldn’t accept the possibility of change when they’d been hopeless so long. Hopelessness is its own kind of paralysis.

I listened to my words more closely and discovered how much I used the word “bad.” I used it a lot: I feel bad, I had a bad day, things are going badly. It seemed like I should do something about this. It seemed like I might be the person repeating the jail sentence over myself again and again. Maybe if I could find new words it would help me change. It couldn’t hurt. So I changed my words a little at a time. There were lots of adjustments that emerged once I got started. Using the word “bad” turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I’m not going to bore you with my list of negative vocabulary words I had to weed out of my life, but I will share the most significant one because I’m pretty sure it will help you. What we decided to do was to substitute “hard” for “bad” when it came to describing my days. At first, when my wife asked me how my day went, I’d usually stumble over bad and get to hard. Before long, I would say it had been a hard day, and not too long after that I began to say this: It was a hard day, but hard days are not bad days. Hard days mean I am working, I am trying, I am moving. You see the difference? Bad days are just days to endure. That is what the depression jail cell is; something to be endured, not lived. Hard days are working days. Hard days are the days spent lifting weights and building our body and studying for a career. Hard days are preparing for the day I get out of this cell. Soon the hard days felt like accomplishments instead of feeble scratches on the cell wall marking off the passage of time. Eventually I had the confidence to say “today was not as hard as yesterday” and that led to “today was a good day.” And they really began to be good days!

While this transformation happened I found out that my tank was not as empty as I thought it was. One day about six months into the walk out of depression, we went to visit friends. As we sat in their back yard talking, the inevitable question came: so how are you doing? I said I was having a lot of hard days, but then for some reason I began to think of things that had happened since I’d made the space for healing. I ticked them off: I had not been able to read anything for about two years, but now I was reading again. I had not been able to workout more than one day a week, but now I was working out 5-6 days a week. I had not been able to listen to music, but now I was enjoying it. I had not been able to write, but now I had started to write a novel. Sitting there I realized that I was doing great compared to where I had been only six months ago. I saw that I was no longer in jail at all! Depression is a distortion of our image. It is a funhouse mirror that we use instead of reflecting on our true state. Language plays a large part in perpetuating or breaking the image. Try it out. Find your own distorted words and make your own substitutions. Stop pronouncing your own death sentence. Sentence yourself to life. Ask your friends to help you see you more clearly. Let me know if I can help you. I’d be glad to do it.

Side note: Many of the things I’m writing about began around the same time. It may be that some are more significant for your healing than mine. The combination of these things is potent – kind of the opposite of what they tell us about dangerous drug interactions. Emotional bandwidth, making space for healing, getting a new perspective on medicine, changing our words, and a few more things I’m writing articles about have the potential to combine in ways that will move the immovable object that’s sitting on our chests. We can walk out of this jail. Believe it.