Coping with depression: grab the brass ring

I grew up in a beach town in southern New Jersey During the summer, the boardwalk was bustling with tourists and even some locals. I spent a fair amount of childhood time at the amusement park there, plinking at the western-saloon-themed shooting gallery, and riding the carousel. I think about the carousel a lot when I think about my depression, and one of the coping strategies I’ve developed.

The brass ring

One of the features of the carousel in my little home town was the brass ring. Have you seen this? As the carousel goes around, riders on the outer ring of horses can reach for a brass ring which is held by a dispenser installed just off the ride. If you want the ring, you need to act quickly before it passes. You need to get ready, reach for it, and stay on your horse. Some carousels offer a prize for redeeming the ring at the end of the ride.

This has been a powerful image for me. As I discussed in my last post, the activation energy needed to start a task can seem unattainable during a depressive episode. As a result, it’s too often the case that opportunities slip by because I can’t muster that energy.

Enter the concept of the brass ring. I’ve learned that when I get a strong tug to do something meaningful – enroll in an improv class, go straight to the gym after work, clean my apartment – I need to treat it like the brass ring, and reach for it now.

Granted, the metaphor breaks down a little if you think about the carousel too hard, since life opportunities may not be there next time around, unlike the ring. Although to really beat this into the ground, you can argue that since you don’t know when the carousel ride will end, you don’t know for sure you’ll get another shot.

The key is to be able to distinguish a random impulse from a strong tug to do something positive, and I’ll freely admit I’m not always successful at that, as my Amazon purchase history can attest. But if I can find that balance between carefully considering an idea long enough to be confident it’s not just a random impulse, and acting swiftly enough to reach for the ring, I can have a good chance at success.

The risks include throwing myself, my money, or my time at something that seemed like a brass ring, but turns out to be a lead one. I’ve done all that.

Some good grabs at the ring:

  • This blog (so far)
  • Joining a gym with my daughter for a summer of weightlifting (more later)
  • Taking my dogs to the park today
  • Entering a work-sponsored holiday weightloss contest

Some grabs that turned out less successfully:

  • Online piano lessons – working from my existing sheet music was a better idea
  • Registering for a half marathon to encourage myself to start running again
  • Bullet journaling – I spent way too much on washi tape before giving up
  • Buying yet another guitar pedal – more like retail therapy than grabbing a ring

It’s ok to miss the ring

One of the harder lessons from adopting this approach is to forgive myself if I either fail to reach for the ring, or if I mistake a lead ring for brass. I’m going to make mistakes in both directions. What’s key for me is to use the brass ring as a catalyst for reducing activation energy, it’s been a useful coping tactic for me.