Have you ever been really depressed?
In case you’ve never encountered the actual disease that dementors are based on, let us visit a quote from David Foster Wallace, who once famously called depression “the Great White Shark of pain.” It’s long and confusing and turns in on itself again and again, but so does being really fucking depressed:
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
Yeah — it's a lot. If you need a breather after that, here’s a video of one of my favorite drag queens putting makeup on another one of my favorite drag queens. And the first year of a corgi’s life. His name is Gatsby.
The emotional weight of depression is such that it eventually becomes downright existential. Simply existing requires maximum effort, which makes a feat like recovery feel all the more impossible. But, it is possible. A mixture of time, medication, self-care, therapy (in an ideal world where medical resources are seen as, you know, a basic human right), or any number of combinations of methods for treating mental illness will help you make it through depressive episodes. For some people, this is cyclical. For others, it is a reaction to circumstance. Either way, the illness is treatable, not your fault, and you will make it to the other side — again and again, if you have to.
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But in the meantime, you have to eat. In the midst of struggling with a severe and debilitating mental health issue, you’re also saddled with the practical realities of staying alive. It’s no easy feat. When getting out of bed seems impossible, how are you supposed to do something like eat?
I just so happen to have a lot of advice on the matter. While I don’t by any means have this whole Being A Person While Also Having Chronic Mental Illness thing figured out, I do have a few tricks up my sleeve. And like any good Taurus, a lot of my best depression hacks have to do with the business of being fed.
Here are my three top tips for eating well when you are really fucking depressed.
1. Choose a few “base foods” you can either add to or eat on their own.
When I’m really depressed, the simple act of thinking of what to eat feels like more work than it’s worth. Having anxiety and OCD just compounds the problem; obsessive concerns about cleanliness and dishes are at odds with depression’s whole make-opening-your-eyes-a-Herculean-task sort of setup. When I find myself at such a nutritional stalemate, I turn my two best friends: instant ramen and baked potatoes.
You can dress up ramen and potatoes with as little or as much as you want or can. They each take minimal prep and do not require any time standing in the kitchen, tending at finicky dish components. A bonus is that one of my favorite foods, green onions, goes beautifully on both — as does Sriracha and egg.
Think of a couple of foods that you love and can easily build off of depending on your energy level. Things you can cook in one pot — or no pots, as is the case with potatoes! If you’re aiming for maximum nutritional bang for your buck (let’s face it — you can’t always eat three square meals and snacks when you’re super sick), try making a simple carbohydrate like toast, rice, or pasta, and adding whatever produce or protein you have on hand. It’s a good idea to cook more of your base food than you plan on eating in one meal so that you can easily reheat the next time you’re hungry.
2. Get alllllll the frozen food, including produce.
Your freezer is your best friend. Being depressed also makes the act of acquiring food rather difficult — it really sucks the life out of life across the board. When you do make your intrepid journey to the grocery store, be sure to stop by the freezer aisles and stock up as much as space and budget will allow. If there’s a brand of frozen burritos you like, get two boxes — buy a jar of Pace and a tub of Daisy if you’re feeling fancy. Think bare bones when it comes to frozen meals: what will have the most protein, be the most filling, and make you feel a little more human? Are there any freezer meals you yearned for as a kid that your mom wouldn’t let you buy? Get them. While you’re here, get your favorite ice cream. Buy easy, accessible things that might just spark a flicker of joy — and if not, they’ll at least taste good.
While you’re here, stock up on fruits and veggies. Single-serving smoothies are a depression staple of mine, and I like to get all my favorite fruits in freezer bags that can make three or four smoothies anytime I’m up for it with no worries about anything going bad. I get a lot of veggies this way too. Cauliflower, broccoli, corn, peppers, and onions are a couple of my staples. Like my base foods, these are a staple of my regular meals and grocery trips. Not only does it help me stay prepared for bad days or weeks or months, it means that the foods I eat when I’m depressed are also the foods that I eat. They’re comforting, predictable, routine. They’re grounding mechanisms when I feel unmoored by my mind. Eating them gives me a sense of normalcy, no matter what else is going on.
3. Give yourself permission to get fast food, and use it as an excuse to get out of the house.
One of the deadliest symptoms of depression is self-isolation, and as someone who struggles with agoraphobia regularly as it is, leaving the house to get food is sometimes my absolute best effort — and that’s okay. It’s okay if you struggle with that too. Eating out is a luxury, but fast food is often more convenient and cheaper in the short-run for low-income families.
One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done for myself has been making food value-neutral: food is fuel, and the best food for a depressed body is sometimes any food at all. We tout “Fed Is Best” when talking about babies, but the same is true for grown-up humans. Eating food is your priority here. The nutritional quality of that food is not something everyone always has the energy to think about, and that is okay. You are allowed to eat fast food not just because you’re depressed and you need to eat before you faint, but because you exist. You don’t need my permission to fuel your body however you wish or need to, but I’m giving it to you anyway. Some of us need it, and that’s OK too.
Make leaving the house to get food for yourself a celebratory occasion. Change your clothes, even if it’s a new T-shirt over the same pair of sweats you’ve been wearing for two weeks. Who cares?! Look at you leaving the house, getting food and shit! You got out of bed! You’re nourishing yourself! You’re still here!
You’re my hero.
OCDame is a column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart, too.
Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at email@example.com.