The importance of small wins in the battle against depression

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

"When you are trying to get better, to get the glow back, congratulate yourself for every hurdle you jump across, no ...

"When you are trying to get better, to get the glow back, congratulate yourself for every hurdle you jump across, no matter how insignificant it may seem to the rest of the world." Photo: Stocksy

I've never been very good at fixing things. I changed a light bulb for the first time when I was 26. The string fell off my favourite backpack and I don't know how to put it back in, so I've relegated it to the back of my wardrobe where it's gathering dust. I've had boyfriends fix things for me before because I didn't know how. Broken things frighten me.

I was seven when it started - the horrible thoughts I couldn't control. I was scared and confused, and my parents even more so. What was happening to their sweet girl? I was wheeled in and out of psychiatrist offices before someone put a name to it - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - and gave me little pills that I swallowed, one a day for the next eight years. The thoughts consumed me, taking a darker turn over the years, and my OCD began bleeding in with bouts of severe depression as I got older.

Though I haven't been medicated for years, the hopelessness of depression remains a major part of my life, an unwanted visitor who's far outstayed their welcome. It's gotten worse since I lost my job. Everyday things can be hard - leaving the house, washing my clothes, brushing my teeth. My psychologist told me I'm experiencing what they call anhedonia - the inability to feel pleasure from previously enjoyable activities. My hobbies - writing, playing music, making zines - often feel like chores. I find it hard to commit to anything. Some days I wish my bed would suck me in like a vacuum.

The wonderful necklace, untangled.

The wonderful necklace, untangled. Photo: Supplied

But the other week, I discovered the power of the small victory.

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The day started like any other - the inability to move, the neglected job applications, the overwhelming feeling of dread. I was waiting for 7pm so I could go out to the noodle markets, just to leave the house and forget about everything else that was plaguing me. I'd recently purchased a beautiful new skirt - sparkly and pink, it was the brightness that I desperately wanted in my life. I had the perfect necklace to go with it, colourful wooden blocks on a pink string. Trouble was, I'd been keeping the necklace in a box for months and it had become tangled to the point of no return.

I pulled it out of the box, silver chains falling out with it, intertwined. Sitting on my bed, I fiddled briefly with it before I threw it down, defeated.

But then I remembered the skirt, and I remembered the markets, and I remembered that I wanted to feel good, if only just for a few short hours.

I sat down again, my curious cat now sitting beside me, watching. And I started looping. I thought about my ex-boyfriend who untangled it for me last time it happened, and I thought, "If he can do it, so can I." Half an hour passed and I was still looping away, and it became therapeutic. Like the puzzles I loved when I was a child, focused on solutions. Systematic and calculated. One silver chain came away, and then another, and I was left with just a few knots in the pink string. Looping, looping, looping.

And then finally, miraculously, the necklace was untangled.

I swore out loud to myself when it happened. I didn't think it was possible - my impatience is infamous. But there it was, blocks in a row on a straightened piece of string, laid out perfectly in front of me. And I wore it with my sparkly pink skirt as I walked through the gentle summer air, and I felt a lightness that I had forgotten I could.

Fixing physical things is difficult. Fixing yourself can feel completely impossible. But when you are depressed, sometimes it's the little victories that mean the most. Don't worry if you haven't gotten that dream job or written your first novel or recorded an album yet. Those things can wait. When you are trying to get better, to get the glow back, congratulate yourself for every hurdle you jump across, no matter how insignificant it may seem to the rest of the world.

For me, the simple act of untangling a necklace made me feel like I had the strength and perseverance to fight through another day. And though there are still battles ahead, recovering that lost faith - even if just for a moment - means everything.

For support or information, call: Lifeline 131 114 or BeyondBlue 1300 224 636