When you’re depressed, you can feel like there's no point to doing anything. You want to spend the day in bed to avoid the world and every unpleasant thing in it. I've been there.
When I was diagnosed with PTSD and panic disorder and had to retire my police-officer's gun and badge, I lost my sense of purpose along with my job. My days were unstructured and unproductive. Though I did some recipe development gigs from my apartment kitchen—a dream job for an agoraphobic chef with unrelenting panic attacks—I avoided life by waking up late, napping until it was time to make dinner, and watching TV until it was an acceptable time to go back to sleep again. That might be appealing for a weekend refresh, but it's no way to live a full life.
When my therapist told me, "Do more of the things that make you happy," I wanted to laugh because the idea that I could be happy again sounded so ridiculous. What did I want to do that my symptoms were stopping me from doing? Nothing. All I wanted to do was sleep. I had completely forgotten how to make myself happy. When everything feels like a chore, you can’t imagine things being different. What I didn't know then was that you can't wait until you feel like doing the things that might make you feel better. You have act on them before you want to, and let the results propel you forward.
Get Back to Basics
If you can't think of anything you're interested in now, try to recall something you used to enjoy before this dark cloud eclipsed your life. In the movie Goodfellas, Henry Hill says, "As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." I never wanted to be a gangster, but I always wanted to write stories about them. Or I did, before I stopped wanting to do anything at all.
I signed up for a beginner's writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop. Now I had somewhere to be once a week, assignments to focus on, and another human being who actually gave a crap about my progress—my teacher Scott Cheshire. His debut novel was about to drop, and his enthusiasm for writing was as contagious as E. coli on a cruise ship. He introduced me to new writers that I might not have discovered on my own. Suddenly I was a bookworm. Why would I sleep the day away when I could be reading stories? Soon I was having fiction ideas of my own. Cheshire's genuine engagement and excitement reminded me that people can and do find pleasure in putting in the effort. That was the point.
I finished a few short stories and got some good feedback in my writing workshop, but the benefits went beyond that. Six years later, I'm still in a writers’ group with some of the classmates I met in that class. More than a dozen of my short stories have been published, and nothing gives me more joy than having a new one accepted by a journal. None of that would have happened if I hadn't looked past my apathy to rediscover a hidden childhood dream.
Do Something Tangible
When you're feeling your most useless, it’s hard to feel like you matter. The best way to prove yourself wrong is to do something—anything—tangible. All you're aiming for is being able to point to something at the end of the day and say, "I did that." That’s actual physical proof that you impact the world and knowing that feels good. It doesn't have to be much. I started by making dinner. My wife appreciated the a healthy, home-cooked meals and that made me feel good, too.
Over time, these tiny little pings of positivity make all the difference. I continued to make vegetarian dinners, reminding myself "I did that" by posting the best recipes on a blog. I started corresponding with readers about my recipes. One day, out of the blue, an editor from St. Martin's Press emailed me about a rice dish he had made and enjoyed. The next thing I know, I’m in New York City's Flatiron Building, looking at an incredible view of the Empire State Building, and discussing my cookbook. Toss Your Own Salad: The Meatless Cookbook came out in June 2017. Now there’s a book on my actual shelf that I can point to and say, "I did that."
Do Unto Others
Writing is cool, but you wind up spending a lot of time inside your own head. I needed a place to go that gave me a sense of purpose and a reason to get dressed. The thing I missed most about being a police officer (besides laughs with my colleagues) was helping people. I broke up fights, assisted on medical calls, and helped locate lost grandmothers at the airport. Out of uniform and in my anxious, panic-stricken condition, how could I help anybody else?
As it turns out, I could rescue people from a different sort of emergency situation—I could give them a meal. I knew how to cook, and I wasn't afraid to get my hands dirty, so I contacted the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in NYC about volunteering twice a week. They run a massive operation, serving 1,000 to 1,500 lunches in a two-hour window each day. On my first day, I was terrified. I had to leave my comfort zone (my apartment) for an unfamiliar place (a crowded soup kitchen) to perform a job doing something as important as feeding the hungry. What if I panicked so hard that I had to go home? What if I let everyone down?
The soup kitchen's staff and volunteers welcomed me—sweaty, shaky me—into their world with kindness and a smile. I pushed through my initial fear and anxiety and focused on running molten hot trays of food from the kitchen to the servers. It was hard, hands-on work, but it was meaningful, and I felt like I was making a positive impact. I know I helped people find a free, nutritious meal during their most difficult times. Doing so helped me during my most difficult times, too. When I was home, depressed and in bed, I couldn't remember the last time I smiled. For the two years I volunteered, I enjoyed lots of laughs with guests and fellow volunteers.
When things look darkest, it's important to seek out the things that bring you happiness, even for just a moment or two. For me, writing and cooking brought a spark—however small—back into my life. Those tiny flickers of light were the key to getting the momentum going to break out of isolation, which led to some pretty amazing things. (I became a published fiction writer and wrote a vegetarian cookbook!) That wasn't my initial goal, of course. I just wanted an end to my misery. What I didn't know yet was that at every end is the start of a new beginning.