My Survival Plan for Living in Hell

What Does Not Kill me Makes me Stronger

friedrich nietzsche

When I was going through my life-threatening depressive episode, I found that the best way to cope with such intense discomfort was to live my life one day at a time. Whenever I contemplated the prospect of dealing with my pain over the long term, I became overwhelmed. But if I could reduce my life to a single 24-hour segment of time-that was something I could handle. 

Working together, my therapist and I created what I called “my daily survival plan for living in hell.” The central idea was simple-to develop coping strategies that would get me through the day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Because I was fighting a war on two fronts, I had to devise and employ techniques that would deal with both the depression and the anxiety. I used my coping strategies to create four categories of support, which I have summarized below. These categories are:

  • physical support
  • mental/emotional support
  • spiritual support
  • and most importantly, people support

What follows is a brief outline of my daily survival plan. I have rewritten it in the second person so that you can adapt it to your individual needs. Remember, the goal is to identify coping strategies that will keep you safe and get you through each day until the pattern of the depression shifts.

People Support

Social support is a key ingredient in dealing with emotional pain. Find a way to structure your daily routine so that you will be around people much of the time. If there is a day treatment program in your area, some form of group therapy, or depression support groups at your local hospital, attend them. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for help from family members or friends. You are suffering from an illness, not a personal weakness or defect in character.

My own sense of connection with people gave me a reason not to harm myself. I did not want to afflict my friends and family with the anguish that would result from my self-imposed departure. A lifeguard at the pool where I swam, agreed with my thinking. “Other people are a good reason to stay alive,” she affirmed.

As author and depressive survivor Andrew Solomon wrote: “Recovery depends enormously on support. The depressives I’ve met who have done the best were cushioned with love. Nothing taught me more about the love of my father and my friends than my own depression.

Physical Support

The second aspect of my daily survival plan consisted of finding ways to nurture my physical body. Here are some suggestions that you can try.

Exercise: Exercise is one of the best ways to elevate and stabilize mood as well as improve overall physical health. Pick an activity that you might enjoy, even if it is as simple as walking around the block, and engage in it as often as you can (three to four times a week is ideal).

Diet and Nutrition: Eat a diet that is high in complex carbohydrates and protein, avoiding foods such as simple sugars that can cause emotional ups and downs. Try to stay away from foods that have chemical additives or preservatives that may create ups and downs for chemically sensitive individuals.

Sleep: Adopt a regular sleep schedule to get your body into a routine. If you have trouble getting to sleep or suffer from insomnia, there are behavioral techniques as well as medication that can help you to sleep. The book No More Sleepless Nights by Peter Hauri is a good resource.

Mental / Emotional Support

Every thought and feeling produces a neurochemical change in your brain. Although you may not always be able to control the painful symptoms of depression and anxiety, you can influence the way you think and feel about those symptoms.

Monitoring self-talk. Monitoring one’s self-talk is an integral strategy of cognitive-behavioral therapy, a talk therapy widely used in treating depression. You may wish to work with a therapist to replace thoughts of catastrophe and doom with encouraging affirmations. For example, I replaced the statement “My depression will never get better” with the affirmation “Nothing stays the same forever” or “This, too, will pass.” Switching from negative to positive self-talk is a process that you should try to practice on a daily basis.

Keep a mood diary. One of the survival techniques I used to stay alive in my hell was to keep track of my anxiety and depression on a day-to-day basis. To this end, I created a daily mood scale. Somehow, the simple act of observing and recording moods gave me a sense of control over them. I also used the mood diary to track my reactions to pharmaceutical drugs and to record daily thoughts and feelings. You can use a simple 1 to 10 scale with 1 meaning despair and hopelessness and 10 representing joy and well-being.

Be compassionate with yourself. As part of one’s emotional self-care, it is important to release the toxic feelings of blame, guilt or shame that are so often felt by a person who is depressed. Try to remember that depression is an illness, like diabetes or heart disease. It is not caused by a personal weakness or a defect in character. It is not your fault that you have this disorder.”

Once again you can turn to the affirmation process. Whenever you start to judge yourself for being depressed you can repeat, “It’s not my fault that I am unwell. I am a normal person who is battling an abnormal condition. I am taking good care of myself and will continue to do so until I get well.”

Focus on the little things. In the middle of my episode I asked my therapist, “If all I am doing is trying to survive from day to day, how do I find any quality to my life?”

“The quality is in the little things,” she replied.

How true! Shortly after her comment, Portland was unexpectedly blessed with a sunny day. As I beheld with awe and wonder the magnificent pinks and red hues of the sunset, I recalled the words of poet Robert Browning—“God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world!” The experience was made all the more poignant by its transitory nature; I knew that in a matter of hours my depression would return, and I would be cast back into outer darkness.

Whether it is a kind word from a friend, a sunny day, a beautiful sunset, or an unexpected break from the pain, see if you can take in and appreciate these small moments of grace. Having such moments is akin to making deposits into an “emotional bank account.” When the dark periods return, you can draw upon these stored memories and affirm that life can still be beautiful, if only for an instant.

Spiritual Connection

If you believe in God, a Higher Power, or any benevolent spiritual presence, now is the time to make use of your faith. Attending a form of worship with other people can bring both spiritual and social support. If you have a spiritual advisor (rabbi, priest, minister, etc.), talk with that person as often as possible. 

In addition, put your name on any prayer support list(s) you know of. Don’t be bashful about asking others to pray for you. I suggest that you reach out to an amazing prayer ministry called  Silent Unity, that has been helping people for over one hundred and thirty years. Call 1-826-969-2000. They will say a brief prayer for you and then put your name in their prayer chapter and pray over it for thirty days.

Above all, no matter how bad things seem, remember that nothing stays the same forever. Change is the only constant in the universe. One of the most powerful thoughts you can hold is the simple affirmation “This too, will pass.”

These, then, were the four main components of my “daily survival plan.” Like a soldier on the battlefield, my primary job was to keep myself alive until the end of each day. And so I stayed alive, one day at a time, until one morning I woke up and found that the black cloud of depression had lifted.