I have a pet dragon. She emerges from her cave every November, breathing fire, scaring little children and casting huge shadows across the land. She's benevolent, mostly, but she feeds on my anxieties and insecurities and tries to convince me that things are worse than they really are.
I'm my dragon's keeper. She lives inside me and I feed her a steady diet of gratitude, love and contentment (also Reese's peanut butter cups and Sauvignon Blanc). This keeps her happy and docile, like well-fed kitten. Eleven months of the year my dragon is a great pet. We keep it real with each other and the odd time when she feels like making an appearance, we can usually talk it out and prevent the scorching of many small, medieval villages.
But my dragon is no match for November.
Why does she choose this time of year to come out? It might be the changing of the seasons, the increasing darkness, the general greyness of the days. Or that the freshness and sense of possibly of autumn and the new school year have now worn off and we've settled into a glum, bored existence waiting for something new and exciting to happen. Two months ago it was all "we CANT WAIT to get back to routine" and "isn't autumn THE BEST" and "this is my third pumpkin spice latte TODAY." Not anymore.
Or maybe it's pre-holiday exhaustion, knowing that despite annual promises to the contrary, I will probably overdo it yet again with the scheduling, the gift buying and, of course, the guilt that comes with failing to meet the impossible standards I’ve set for myself.
The point is, my dragon is manageable most of the time, but November seems to bring a perfect storm of circumstances that cause her to lash out. The things we simply bicker over the rest of the year can lead to scorched earth in November. This is the time of year when everything gets blown out of proportion and everything is a catastrophe. Her motto is "kill first, ask questions never." She's a real hoot.
I didn't even know I had a dragon until my husband pointed it out. Turns out that in addition to hiding under the bed for four days each month, he also spends most of November in a defensive crouch.
"I just feel off," I said to him one November day several years ago. "Like I can't get motivated to do anything. I just want to lie in bed until March. Maybe April."
I thought I was making an innocuous comment about how I was feeling that day but he looked at me thoughtfully and waited, the way one might with a small child who's been told to count to five but can only make it to four without help.
"This happens to you every year around now," he finally said. "You just change. You're not yourself."
Well that's interesting.
The more I thought about Novembers past I realized there was indeed a pattern. Seasonal affective disorder? Mild depression? Maybe. I'm hyper vigilant when it comes to my mental health and I've never been afraid to ask for help when it's needed. And I've also taught myself how to manage my dragon on a daily basis. So when you need to kick the self-care up a notch, when a long walk, bubble bath, or relaxing massage aren't cutting it and your dragon starts to stir, two things have always worked for me: self-talk and making a plan.
Self talk sounds a bit ridiculous but I have to be honest, it works. I talk to myself in the voice of uber-me. The me who doesn't take any shit and finds pity parties exhausting and pointless. The me who is not unkind, but if given the option between brutal honesty and gentle suggestion will always choose the former; the me who would (obviously) be played by Jennifer Aniston in a Horrible Bosses dentist type of role. Or Estelle Getty from Golden Girls.... I'm still working it out.
The point is, self-talk grounds me and makes me listen up. It's like a parent using your full and/or middle name. Sometimes the only person who really gets you, who can be totally real with you, is you. No one can call you out, reveal your flaws, and give you the straight goods like you can. When a girlfriend says "come on, you have a great resume, you're super talented, of course you'll be able to go back to work whenever you're ready," you probably mumble your thanks and think she's just being nice. But when YOU says the same thing, with a little practice and determination you can respond with a confident "hell yes I can!" and allow yourself to think of all the reasons that is a 100% true statement. Self-talk isn't just for kicking yourself in the butt, it's about giving yourself the real facts, remembering what's true and awesome about you so you can go out and SLAY.
As for making a plan, sometimes the only way for me to work through a problem or convince myself that the sky isn't falling in on a certain area of my life (my daughter's ADHD, my finances, career, or current level of "fitness", for example), is to make a plan for dealing with it. And we're not talking power points and software downloads here, ladies. Sometimes that plan is just a list of simple, tiny steps I can take to manage the issue. Sometimes it’s just about forcing myself to clear my head of meaningless, unhelpful noise so I can sit down and focus on what needs to be done. And for some reason, having these action items floating around in my head is not enough. I have to write that shit down to prove to my dragon that I'm on it - that she can relax and quit it with the scorched earth.
To be crystal clear, this is not a "how to manage your depression" blog. If you are, or think you are, depressed, go to your doctor. Do not pass go. But, if you just need some coping strategies to manage the ornery dragon that's convincing you all your problems are monumental and won't STFU, this might work.
In the meantime, if November gets you like it gets me, try reading The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking. Because if the Danes can survive their long dark winters AND be considered some of the happiest people on earth, there’s hope for all of us.
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