When Depression Glues Me to the Couch

I’m in my mountains. Truckee, California. I call them mine, because I’ve been coming out here for three months a year for the last 14 years. And, usually, they are my happy place. A chance to slow down, to be more connected to nature than usual. To be on trails—running, biking or cross-country skiing.

But things are different this time.

I’m in the house I own with my ex. Filled with memories and my failure. What’s wrong with me, that I could not hold my 28-year marriage together? The house, with its lovely mountain view, is also a reminder of what I do not have anymore—financial security (I wrote about that back in March here). The house will either be sold, or my ex will keep it. In either event, I will, at least temporarily, lose the connection to nature that has nourished and sustained me for so many years. Yes, I acknowledge that I lived with great privilege. And, I wish I were a better person, a black belt in non-attachment and gratitude, able to move on with ease. I’m not. Instead, this is all depressing.

And there’s my health. A new diagnosis of Addison’s Disease, which continues to involve increases in my medication, as my potassium does not seem to want to settle down into normal range (I wrote about that last month here). My energy has returned, but the ongoing stress of regular blood tests, bad results and worried doctors is also depressing.

And it’s October—normally I would have come out to the mountains in the summer (and then again in the winter), but I couldn’t bring myself to come this past summer. My failed relationship felt too raw. Now I’m here, and I see that I have not healed enough. The grief rushes in, threatening to drown me. Plus, it’s cold (2 degrees Celsius) and dark in the mornings (we did a group post about the challenge of fall dark here). This past weekend was not only cold, but also a drizzly grey.

So, getting off the couch has been hard. I feel glued to the familiar, sun-faded fabric, where I used to spend easeful hours reading with my cat curled up close by. I lost her in April. Instead, now I’m watching endless Netflix, clicking on whatever the next show is that the algorithm proposes to me, too lazy to even choose. Reading feels too hard. My attention flees the page with restless lethargy.

As for getting outside in the mountains? Why bother? All this supposedly healthy outdoor exercise and I still ended up with a disease. An inner critic tries shaming me off the couch. You lazy piece of crap, you’ve got nothing better to do. Another voice in my head tries berating me off the couch. Just get the f*&%#k up. Fruitless.


Then there’s a quiet, gentle voice, barely audible at first. You will feel better. I promise you. You love the mountains. It’s never been about the exercise. It’s about joy. I retort that joy is impossible. Yes, the gentle voice says, that’s true. I won’t promise you joy. But being out there will be a tiny bit better than being glued to the couch. You don’t have to go for long. You don’t have to go hard. Go outside. Take some breaths of fresh air and be with the trees you love. Netflix will be here for you when you get back.

The gentle voice convinced me on Saturday. I went out mountain biking. My first day of the season, which is barely the season anymore. I felt less tentative than expected, given my sticky bum, so recently unglued from the couch. If I was in a better mood, I might have said that I felt bolder than expected. But I didn’t feel bold. I just didn’t feel scared, as I’d anticipated. There were even passing moments of almost-joy.  Moments I overcame obstacles. Moments of flow. Moments when I danced with my bike. There were the trails, too. Familiar. Beautiful. Peaceful and wild. That’s enough. For now. A glimpse of the possible. In the future.

Given my experience on Saturday, I thought it would be easier to get out on Sunday. It was not. The glue set hard overnight and the couch would not let me go. A new voice in my head had all sorts of excuses. It’s foggy, rainy and cold, it could be dangerous on Castle Peak. There might not even be anyone else out there. Extra risk. It’s a whole different world now if something happens to you. A medic-alert bracelet isn’t much help if there’s no one to find you in the first place. Plus, there won’t even be a view. Why bother?

Again, the gentle voice intervened. She made several deals with me. I could finish my latest television binge first. I didn’t have to run the trail, if I didn’t want to. I’d take extra medication with me. I could listen to my book, Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake, about all things mushroom. I’d turn around if it seemed dangerous, no shame.

Toward the top of Castle Peak in fog and Mina at the summit.

My bum had racing stripes from tearing away from the couch. I worried it would re-affix to the car seat and I wouldn’t get out when I got to the trailhead. Even as I got out of the car, I had doubts. Tears hovering in the wings. The first comfort were the cars in the parking area. The benefit of having been couch bound and coming hours later than I normally would. I wouldn’t be completely alone. I set off at a hiking pace, promising myself that I’d only run when I felt like it. Which turned out to be within 100 meters of starting. Every so often on the first half of the ascent I’d scale back to a hike, only to find that my bodymind wanted to keep running. Running felt better. As I reached the final steeper sections of the ascent, I moved into a fast-hiking pace, which is all I’ve ever really done in those bits, since it’s faster (something I learned when I was doing long trail events). At the top, the fog closed in on every side. There was snow on the spindly trees and shrubs still clinging to the rock at 9,000 feet. Unusually, there was no wind, so I could hear the ticking sound of small clumps of snow falling to the ground. Looking over the edge, the drop down to the valley below seemed even more precipitous than usual, because there was nothing there. I was inside the clouds I’d seen from below.

My last day on Castle Peak and I could see no further than a few feet in front of me.

The perfection of the metaphor was somehow comforting. I told myself that I was going to be okay, even if I had no clue yet how that would happen. I lingered on what I could see. As I listened to Merlin Sheldrake talk about the complexity and phenomenal resilience of lichens, I took in the bright green lichen on the rocks, geological time made manifest. My life, a blink of an eye.

Then the chill overtook me and I knew it was time for me to head down. I started at a slow run, re-discovering my agility as I went, recovering my confidence with every step and every misstep I navigated, until I hit cruising speed. Again, there were brushes with joy. Grief rinsed through me, too. I got back to the car with a sense of energized calm. I will be okay. It will take time. I will be okay. It will take time. I will be okay. It will take time.

Back home, the couch was cleared of glue. I could sit and read a novel. I know this is a cycle. I hope it is a spiral, in which each time I’m glued, I can remember sooner that getting outside helps clear a tiny portion of the clouds of depression. And even the itty-bitty-est more ease is something, after all.

In this way, I’ll climb toward the light.


Mental health, lifting weights, and getting out of bed


Today I shared on our Facebook page this piece about weight lifting and depression.

The tried and true Harvard study from the 1990s found that the heavier the weight a person used, the more depression improved. A similar study from Duke University found that depressed participants who weight trained for four months, four times per week for 40 minutes overcame their depression without medication. The Duke researchers found that for every 50 minutes of exercise each week, the rate of depression decreased by half. 

Great news right?

But I shared it with a “your mileage may vary” proviso. Not everyone who’s depressed is able to get out to lift weights. Sometimes, some days getting out of bed is a challenge. You might know that exercise helps but knowledge alone isn’t enough to motivate. I also worry sometimes that people will think treating depression is easy. Just get some sunshine and get moving! But in real life, it’s often not that simple.

So I also like these:

An aside: I’ve got a different, but related, worry about sharing good news stories about cancer and exercise. See Exercise Tied to Lower Risk for 13 Types of Cancer and How Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk. People may start to blame people with cancer for their illness (you could have fought it with exercise!) and over-estimate their own immunity if they’re regular exercisers. Exercise may help but not always.