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What Happens to a Depressed Brain at Night

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When discussing addictions, the acronym HALT is used to describe states of being you should avoid.

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

Studies (and a hefty dose of anecdotes) show these are states in which people are more susceptible to their addictions. While I’ve never had an addiction, I’ve found parts of this acronym apply pretty well to my mental and emotional well-being.

Hungry doesn’t bother me so much, and (barring about a year period in my very early 20s) I wouldn’t consider myself an angry person in general. The last two though, are where I run into trouble.

Being lonely or tired throws my depression into overdrive in an incredibly short amount of time.

I’ll start with tired, because it’s an easier explanation: I spend a portion of my energy most days fighting lies in my head with truth. The whole concept of “what you feel vs. what you know” is one I reference fairly often, but it goes something like this:

Brain: Wow, no one’s texted you in like an hour. You must have no friends.

Me: Hmm, that doesn’t seem quite right.

Brain: Pretty sure it is. In fact, given how much you value relationships, your lack of friends who care enough to communicate with you is a big deal. It’s just logic: you want relationships, but have literally none. No one cares about you. You’re worthless.

Me: No. Logically, I don’t have literally no friends. I have some really great friends who love me deeply, and I know that. And I know (regardless of temporary and misleading feelings) that I am loved. God loves me, my wife loves me, my family loves me, my friends love me and my dog sure as hell loves me.

Brain: OK, fine. I’ll come back in an hour when you’ve noticed you have no plans this weekend.

The problem with being tired is I have no more energy to fight these battles. It’s also when I’m least likely to go anywhere or do anything (because I’m tired), which makes it worse because then I’m all alone and my brain has more ammunition to point out how alone and worthless I am.

This happens more than I’d like, and I’m fully willing to admit that some of the times it happens, it’s because I suck at self-care. I have a propensity to jam a lot of things in my schedule and overcommit myself, because I’d rather be moving and doing than sitting still.

Which is actually a surprisingly nice segue into the other one: Lonely. Because when I don’t jam a lot of things into my schedule and overcommit, when I can’t be moving and doing and have to be sitting still, I tend to get lonely.

And loneliness is my kryptonite.

It’s why I hate the nighttime. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been awful at falling asleep. I remember getting in trouble consistently as a child for still being awake, reading Archie Comics when my parents went to bed. The thing is, it’s not like I was trying to stay up. I just can’t fall asleep because my brain won’t stop going.

Apart from making me tired the next day (see: the first half of this post), the problem with taking hours to fall asleep is it gives you an unprecedented amount of time to just lay there. Alone. In the dark. Thinking.

This is when my brain is at its worst.

Even now, when I’m home alone I have this overbearing feeling I should be somewhere, doing something. I never know quite what to do when I have hours alone at the end of a day. I could watch a movie or some TV on Netflix (what’s cable?), but I can’t shake this feeling I should either be accomplishing something or have people who I’m hanging out with.

It makes me feel alone. It makes me feel worthless because no one’s around or talking to me or wanting anything to do with me (because of course they’re not, it’s the middle of the damn night.) It pulls me into the grey muck of my own head where I have the hardest time climbing out again because no one’s around to yell truth into my darkness.

It’s the reason why (after reading a study on veterans who were given dogs to take care of so they’d feel less alone) I got a dog in college, and it’s the reason I named him Nox (Latin for “night.”)

It’s the reason I fell asleep watching Futurama every night for years before I got married, and sometimes it’s the reason why I still fall asleep listening to podcasts.

It’s the reason I pack my schedule full and try to avoid having too much time to myself.

Because when I’m still, and alone, and without distractions, I get uncomfortable. I get lonely. I get sad.

And I don’t get sad in a normal, something-bummed-me-out way. I get sad in an I-can’t-breathe-and-my-body-feels-heavy-and-it’s-all-I-can-do-to-not-sink-into-myself kind of way.

And if you don’t understand that last sentence at all, I’m truly and honestly glad for you.

And if you do understand it, I’m deeply and desperately sorry.

I’m sorry there are times when it feels like it won’t stop raining no matter what, and there are times where you’re so desperate you would do anything but have no idea what that anything could even be, and I’m sorry you and I share this bond. This thing that feels like it’s a living breathing thing, but is really just a lie, a pack of lies, that fills your head and seeps downwards until every inch of you feels contaminated and terrible and worthless. I’m sorry. Words cannot express how sorry I am. I know you know that because I know you feel the same way back.

But I want to tell you to hold on.

Because as much as I hate the night, as much as the darkness weighs on me and maybe on you, as much as I rail against the quiet and the still and the loneliness, this remains fact:

The sun does rise.

The sun does rise tomorrow and the world sings with alarm clocks and morning news and cities burst to life and I am still here. Even when I haven’t wanted to be, I have managed to still be here, and that is no small feat. If that is you, if you feel like all you’ve managed today is to still be here through a night when you wanted otherwise, please know there is no small victory in that. There is large, loud, celebration-style victory.

You are alive and you are breathing and you are a miracle for the heart that beats in your chest.

So please stay. Please hold on. When it feels dark and quiet and lonely and you’re trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in your own skin but just can’t seem to get there, please stay anyway.

Because the sun does rise, in so many ways. I’ll hold off on clichés involving darkest nights and dawns, but I promise the sun does rise.

Please be here for it.

And in the meantime, know the things that make you heavy and the things that make you light.

Get sleep, eat good foods, read a book or spend a night watching your favorite movie. Talk to the people around you. Hug your dog even though he doesn’t like it (guilty).

There is no shame in doing what you need to be healthy, no disgrace in needing to keep yourself above water. You avoid foods that make you ill, this is no different.

Fight to stay healthy.
Fight to stay whole.
Fight to stay.

I’ll keep fighting if you will.

Follow this journey on Robert Vore’s site

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 2, 2016
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