Gary Gulman knows from bad days. He also knows about putting life on hold. The comedian, 49, detailed his debilitating bouts with depression and anxiety in the 2019 HBO comedy special The Great Depresh, executive produced by Judd Apatow.
After hospitalization and two years of being “retired from life,” Gulman, with the help of therapy and anti-depressant drugs, began to slowly recover and emerge from his shell, eventually returning to the stand-up stage. As with anyone who suffers from depression, maintaining that baseline of emotional and mental health is a daily struggle.
Now, with the imposed isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, that struggle is proving harder than ever for millions around the world. The Hollywood Reporter contacted Gulman in the suburbs of Atlanta, where he’s currently riding out the storm with his wife, children and in-laws. He had some very practical advice on how to approach the coming weeks and months.
1. Get organized — and get out of your head.
When it first became clear that this wasn’t something that’s going to be over in a week or so, I actually wrote out all the things that I had done over the past few years in my recovery from depression that I talked about in the special. Like one thing I used to do was listen to audio books, first thing when I woke up when I was walking my dog. It helped me get myself out of my own head. Usually it was something that was informative or historical fiction and that was really helpful to get myself from being so anxious in the morning — because my anxiety was very heightened in the morning.
2. Contact your mental health providers — and don’t be afraid to temporarily increase your medication.
Because of the depths of my illness, I knew that I couldn’t backslide at all and so I keep in touch with my therapist. I’ve had two phone appointments this week, which were really helpful. This pandemic is a heavy stressor. What I’ve been recommending everyone do is to adjust your medications to combat some of the feelings that you get from being under major stress and major anxiety. A couple years ago, my dog passed away and I found myself feeling very guilty and very sad and it wasn’t just normal feelings of grief. I reached out to my psychiatrist and he increased my dosages of my anti-depressant and in four or five days, I felt right. I still felt very sad about losing my dog, but I wasn’t blaming myself and I wasn’t sleeping all day to try to get out of my pain. So it’s very helpful to stay in touch with your person who’s prescribing your medicine. Anti-anxiety pills are also very helpful. I haven’t taken any in months and then I took one or two this past week as I found my anxiety rising. I stress that to people all the time — that you should definitely manage anxiety because not addressing it does more damage to your system. Cortisol, the chemical that’s secreted when you’re under stress, is very harmful to your well being.
3. Explore alternative treatments — and work up a sweat!
I also got into Transcendental Meditation over the past year and that’s been very helpful. I thought it was something that would be beyond me because I have so much trouble getting out of my head — but TM is perfect for people who have trouble getting out of their heads. It doesn’t make you clear your mind, it just makes you kind of aware of your breathing and aware of your thoughts and it’s very relaxing. I’ve yet to have a session of TM that I didn’t come out feeling at little bit better.
I feel the same way with exercise. Even five or 10 minutes is really helpful. If you have stairs in your house, you can walk up and down your stairs; you can jump rope, or there are a number of different things to get your heart racing. I’ve been jogging for two to three miles and then I’ve been — there’s a basketball court nearby that I’m the only person at, so I’ve been playing basketball by myself for about a half hour.
4. Reach out and lend a hand.
Dealing with my depression over the years, I isolated more, and that made me more depressed. I knew that my recovery was very dependent on making contact with friends. The sad thing with this pandemic is that you can’t really be in the company of others in a safe way. But I have found even just talking on the phone or FaceTiming with people has been really helpful in maintaining my sanity and my spirit. Just telling a friend how you feel and that you understand and you’re going through something similar is very therapeutic. I tell people that if they have my phone number, please reach out and if they need medication or to make rent, I’ll do my best to try and help.
5. Avoid alcohol — but learn from recovery.
I’ll have a champagne toast but I do not allow myself to drink any substantial amount of alcohol because I know that it doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t make me feel better and the next day I feel worse. Some people it does provide a temporary respite from their brain and their feelings — but ultimately it is just exacerbating the problem. It’s a chemical depressant. It depresses your brain and it depresses your system physically. And the other side of it is it’s not very good for your immune system.
But 12-Step programs — the advice and the mantras that a lot of people use, even the Serenity Prayer — is so helpful, even if you’re not addicted. Just the reasoning and the small things. One of the things that I know people in recovery do is to make their bed first thing when they wake up. It’s such a small thing, but it’s really helpful and it gives a sense of accomplishment right away, which is so hard to find when you’re not feeling great.