Backflipping my way out of depression

Here’s a trick that may work for you too if you’re depressed, but which you should try even if you’re just moderately-to-seriously stuck.

It’s a trick I learned on vacation after an especially tumultuous period in my life, after I’d already changed a bunch of things I thought were actually responsible for my depression, when I realized that I still wasn’t getting much better. It’s merely a trick for when things should be moving but aren’t, and not a substitute for medication (if you need it) and therapy (which we all need).

I learned how to backflip. Backflips are weird! They’re a bit like that “how to draw an owl” picture that has two steps. The second step is “draw the rest of the fucking owl.”

The first step of a backflip is to dive into the water backwards off of a ledge a few feet off the ground. You lean back, push your feet off, and arc backwards until your hands meet the water and you slide into it with hardly a splash.

The second step is to do that, but to actually do the backflip too. There is no intermediate step (other than failing a bunch of times). At some point you just have to commit and do a full rotation and flip.

The second step isn’t something anyone can talk you through; it’s not something you can introspect. It’s also not something you would’ve even gotten to the point of unless you’d had the courage to go up and ask somebody how to backflip, and then taken that knowledge and applied it in practicing Step 1.

But Step 2 is a new, weird challenge. It could hurt you, it’s radically different from what you’ve done before, and nobody’s capable of doing it for you. It might change who you are and what you care about — shit, you might really like backflips. Until you do it, you don’t know.

You’re also probably feeling extremely far from the hypothetical person who would feel comfortable doing Step 2, and, having been so preoccupied with mere survival, you’ve likely put any thought of such extravagances aside. You kept your sanity and stability by avoiding novelty and strangeness.

You’ve done so, so good. You deserve credit. But you also deserve to feel alive — and you even deserve to feel happy.

This is not an essay about courage in the face of depression. Backflips simply made me realize that my world shrunk to fit my depression. Backflips helped me feel control over being able to feel alive again, and not merely praying at the altar of whatever experiences would come my way. And feeling alive again made me crave more things that’d make me feel alive, and now I’m on a bit of a roll.

I do not want you to dig deeper to find a way to feel alive. I just want you to notice what could make you feel alive, and be brave enough to try it if you’re already at Step 2. Frankly, if there are structural or biochemical reasons for your depression, I don’t think this would help at all. But maybe you just need an extra little push.

For me, the backflip was the beginning of releasing the lessons I’d internalized while I was depressed. Instead of asking what could make my life feel tolerable as I’d done for so many years, I began to ask what I could do to make my world feel bigger. Instead of asking what further resource I could draw down in my attempt to not let my world collapse further, I began to draw up plans for a life that’s much more expansive.

It’s the beginning of transformation. If you put yourself in the right situation, that backflip can be easy. It can be encouraging. And it can make the next step feel easier too. There’s a path you can walk on, as long as you’re ready to.

Find the things that scare the shit out of you and face them down. Find your backflip, when you’re ready to.