Sunday, June 04, 2006

Can You Stop Disability As Easily As You Stop Biting Your Nails?

Update 2016: This article was featured in my book "Saying NO to Suicide", with added commentary.

I'd like to change the tone this week and answer a question one of my readers asked about a process I take for granted. This process is such a fundamental part of my life now, and I've written about it so much here, that I sometimes forget that not everybody has read my earlier columns. The process is called "closing the gap" and it involves shortening the moment between recognizing you are in the heat of an undesirable behavior and the moment before you begin that undesirable behavior.

Everyone who learns to manage a disability or shortcoming in their life gathers a bag of tricks that helps them along the way. Learning to "close the gap" is one of the many tricks I have discovered that helps me regulate depression and AD/HD. I can't say I'm perfect at it. After all, I spent a great deal of time reading news again this morning instead of writing this blog. However I don't spend months anymore lost in a cloud of confusion or black mood. With effort, for example, I've learned how to close the gap between the moment I realized I was depressed and the moment I began to feel depressed. As for AD/HD, the greatest boon to helping my AD/HD was my PDA, but I used the "closing the gap" technique to work wonders there as well. Now I can "deftly" balance my fulltime Dad duties while pursuing my dreams, something that is still difficult but was definitely impossible before.

Unfortunately, unlike the reader who sincerely wanted to know how I closed the gap, some of the people who come across this column are skeptical that this process can be done with common problems like depression or AD/HD. Others find this technique inaccessible. The very mental condition they hope to control impedes their best efforts to improve so telling them to "just go do it" isn't very helpful. As with any project, however, the secret to success is knowing how to break the project into smaller steps.

"Closing the gap" is actually a very simple process but the steps can be large ones to take depending on the problem you are trying to conquer. Everyone has to utilize this technique to break bad habits like biting nails or cussing. What you may not realize is that this same technique can be used to deal with neurological issues. For some reason, however, our society teaches us that either we shouldn't be having mental troubles in the first place or that they require special treatment. This can make the process needlessly complicated. To keep things simple the goal I make is to reduce the behavior, not eliminate it. In fact, I don't believe that I'll eradicate depression or AD/HD at all; I simply want to reduce their impact on my life. Here's how this process can be applied to tackling depression:

First, learn to recognize when you are depressed. This may sound dopey, but often we are so busy dealing with our overwhelming feelings that we fail to see that what we are feeling isn't the only reality. Recognizing depression does you no good, however, if you decide to stay down in the dumps. Teach yourself how to push away its debilitating effects. Find the activities unique to you that elevate your mood.

Second, improve your ability to recognize when you are depressed, or in other words shorten the time between the onset of the mood and the end of it. This will take time and practice, but the end result will be rewarding.

Third, recognize when you are slipping into depression. Work with your friends, family, or therapist to make this step happen. You can take the bite out of depression if you actively uplift your mood before depression drags you down.

Fourth, recognize the signs before you slip into depression. This was actually the most challenging step for me, but it's worth fighting for even if it takes you years to accomplish. Heading the mood off at the pass is how I keep the most debilitating aspects of depression from entering my life.

When using this process to reduce AD/HD behavior I have found I need to target specific AD/HD problems and not AD/HD as a whole. For example, although I still read RSS feeds like a crack hungry junkie, I don't forget to get my kids at school, double spend my money, or make expensive impulse purchases. I do make it to work on time and finish projects I begin. I tackle one problem at a time. Unlike nail biting, I can't eliminate all AD/HD absentmindedness using this technique, but I can train myself to close the gap between accident and impulse and improve my life drastically.

Remember, if you ever had to kick a bad habit before you know you must want to stop the bad habit more than you want to continue doing it. The desire to improve empowers you. Disabilities aren't bad habits, but the same process can improve our lives. Currently, I am at the second stage of conquering my news addiction. I am closing that gap between firing up the browser and noticing I got distracted again. I have faith I'll close that gap to the point I can catch myself before going into a reading frenzy. This process works for me. Maybe it will work for you as well.