The Slough of Despond

Now I saw in my dream that… they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was “Despond.” Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt… because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

The Slough of Despond is a nasty, miserable bog of guilt that sucks people in and is almost impossible to escape. In The Pilgrim’s Progress it’s an allegory for sin but I think it can be more accurately described as Depression. Yes, capital-D, clinically-diagnosable Depression.

Knowing someone stuck in the Slough of Despond can be difficult, draining, and generally lead to depression itself. I know this because I am scandalously intimate with the Slough. It’s my Unhappy Place. I’ve lived with it since I was 8 years old.

One of the hardest and most important things to realize about the Slough of Despond is there is no pulling someone out of it without their equivalent investment. They have to want out and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a tough pill to swallow. It is easier for those of us in it to shirk advice and empathy and manipulate others into enabling us to continue our wallowing instead. After all it is a familiar, safe pain and that is far simpler to deal with than change.

I’m lucky. I’ve gone to therapy on and off for most of my young adult life and it’s actually helped me. I have friends who flat out refuse to enable my fuckwithery.  Moira, my coauthor, my best friend, my sister, has told me more times than I can count, “The ditch you’re standing in is rapidly becoming a grave,” and that there was no way in hell she was going to climb down there with me– but she would be more than happy to sit at the top shouting encouragements until I climbed my sorry ass out of it.

I’m sure you can imagine how I felt about having to do all that work on myself alone… But I did it anyway. Got mud under my nails and dirt in places that it won’t ever come off in the process.

Except it’s not that simple.

Sometimes, I go back.

Because the Slough clings to everything it touches. It is comfortable and safe and the awful things it whispers about me and my loved ones and the world are disturbingly seductive. (Hello, deep seated fears of rejection and success, my old friends.) The difference between now and those days before I crawled up out of the muck is that I don’t want to stay down there any more. I’ve learned what it’s like to be warm and dry in the sunshine sitting beside my friends and breathing freely and I really like it.

How does one claw ones way up out of the Slough? Easy. You don’t even have to move to take the first step on this one: you have to want it. There is no climbing up without the Slough without being intrinsically-motivated. All the carrots on sticks in the world will not help on this one. As for what will motivate each individual, I can’t possibly begin to say. You have to do your own soul searching on that one.

Now that we’ve established you want to feel better here’s some stuff that I try. Maybe it’ll help you, too.

(Disclaimer: a lot of this post is going to be written in second person based on how I talk to myself. I am writing from personal experience and am neither singling out another person nor suggesting that I am in some way more knowledgable than a trained professional. Got it? Good.)

  1. Do Something
    You’re miserable and want to die? Your life is spiraling out of control?Yeah, alright, that’s pretty shitty but obviously The Slough of Despond wants to control your life choices and your death choices.  How about defying it and trying not dying for a few days? The literal opposite of what you’re doing sitting in the Slough of Despond. Do all that hokey positive affirmation shit your therapist tells you to do; do the dishes or make your bed; talk to someone you know loves you about things that don’t make you miserable; seek out a new experience even if it’s sitting quietly in a coffee shop you’ve never been to before; pay your bills; make a list of your wildest dreams while taking a bath.
    Remember, you’re in control here, not the Slough, and you have all the time in the world to exercise that control instead of giving in to the Slough. Be a stubborn asshole about it, alright?
  2. Do Nothing… for a little bit.
    Set yourself an alarm for 8, 12, 24 hours. Spend that time being as miserable and isolated as you want to be. Then, when your alarm goes off, get off your ass and make a concerted effort to go Do Something.
  3. Perspective Take
    Why aren’t your friends talking to you? Boy, have I got news for you: Your friends don’t hate you and they aren’t angry at you. It’s not because you’re boring or worthless. It’s because they have rich, engaging lives of their own that do not always revolve around you. Yeah, I know, how dare I accuse myself or someone else of being egocentric, what a bitch move, right? But it’s true; we’re self-centered and not every silence or terse response is a rejection or expression of displeasure. The odds are the other person is busy, sick, preoccupied, sleeping, or literally any possibility I’m not going to list them all.
    Again, they have lives of their own and inner depths that you may have no clue about and you’re not a fucking mind reader. If you’re worried about something someone says or does or doesn’t say or do then ask about it like the rational person you aspire to be.
    Addendum. This will suck to read but here it is anyway: If it’s not the above then your friends aren’t talking to you because you probably pushed them away all by your own damn self. Do you only ever complain or wallow in their presence? Do you find ways to blame them for your continued misery? Do you take your frustrations out on or try to control them  because you feel out of control yourself? Congrats, bro, you hecked up. They aren’t your misery sponge. Being a misery sponge is unrewarding and exhausting and unhealthy and no one wants to be abused that way. If you’ve been treating another person like your misery sponge then, yeah, they probably don’t want to talk to you and you are responsible for recognizing this, apologizing for it and changing your behavior like the rational person you aspire to be.
  4. Make Something
    This is equal parts #1 and #2 and may help with #3. In my experience the Slough of Despond is as cyclical as it is all-encompassing and suffocating. There’s nothing anyone can say to me when I’m there that I can’t somehow counter with negativity and an excuse to be more miserable and sad. So I write things. Most of the time it’s pretty terrible writing but it’s birthed some pretty fabulous poetry, too, but most-importantly? Writing let’s me tear myself up wandering in circles in the Slough of Despond until I’m good and ready to stop without dragging any of my loved ones down with me.You guys know the poems I write all the time about my ex girlfriend? She’s a huge facet of my personal Slough and she really wanted me to stay down there; it was ugly. When I write those things and they turn out well I post them here for catharsis and call a friend who can help remind me how horrible that ex was for me. I feel a lot better afterwards. Give it a shot with your creative medium of choice and see what happens.
  5. Get Some Perspective
    This is different from perspective-taking because this one is all about you and how you can recognize where you fit in your own world and the grand scheme of things. All that mumbo jumbo.For me getting perspective was a clumsy epiphany in my therapist’s office to the effect of, “Holy shit the sun is still gonna rise tomorrow.” I found the constancy of the universe comforting. My misery did not influence the cosmos, did not cause cataclysms, did not stop life from going on. I was miserable as fuck, sure, but the sun would rise in the morning anyway. I would still be physically present unless I chose to change that fact and I was in control of what I did with every single day. As cheap and cheesy as I know this sounds, I realized could start changing myself, my situation, any day; if I fucked up then I could try again the next day, too.

Alright so these are cheesy-ass platitude-sounding pieces of advice but the truth is they worked for me when I internalized them. They were hard to act on. I have broken down into hysterical and, frankly, pathetic tears more times than I could count. I’ve had so many unsatisfying and nauseating arguments with my abusers and my friends and had to recognize the abuser in myself, too. Getting out of and staying out of the Slough of Despond is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and continue to do! But it’s worth every ounce of effort I put in every single day to wake up in the morning and be able to see value in the world and myself.

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