Last month I (briefly) went to a dark place.

There wasn’t anything wrong, really. There were no awful life events or catastrophes. I wasn’t depressed. It’s just that my novel, which had been stuck, ended up taking me somewhere Not Fun.

My main character wasn’t coming out right, and in order to understand where she needed work, I had to do some research about long-term abuse and isolation. I read three books about the infamous Cleveland kidnapping case, where three women were kidnapped and held hostage for a decade. I really struggle with triggers around sexual violence, so those books took me to a place that was extremely not-fun (although it was very helpful for the purposes of research and character-building, so there’s that…).

When I go to a dark place, I feel hollow. Empty. And, I’m going to be honest here, in the past when I’ve felt it (and I felt it almost-constantly in my mid-twenties) I’ve used food to fill the emptiness. Brownies and ice cream in particular, but pretty much anything would do.

However, this spring I’ve been making a real effort to only eat when I’m actually hungry, so my usual go-to solution was off-limits. And that meant I had to get creative. I had to come up with new ideas.

First, I posted on Facebook explaining that I was in a dark place and asking people for fun/funny photos and GIFs. The response was overwhelming. By the next day, I had over 30 responses with the most amazing collection of cute/funny/dorky things. Not only that, 4 people checked in on me personally to make sure everything was OK. It filled me up more than a pan of brownies could have, and the feeling lasted far longer than the sugar rush would have.

Then I gave myself permission to step back. I’d been plugging away at that dark, horrible research for a while. I let myself take a couple of days and…not do that. I watched a truly epic Korean drama called He Is Psychometric (which is amazing). I watched a lot of K-pop music videos. I looked at Pinterest and developed an interest in truly awful K-pop-related memes. I let myself take a total break, guilt-free.

I also sweated. I started running on the (mostly unused) elliptical trainer in the bedroom and stretching. I danced. All that helped too.

After a couple of days, I felt much better. I wasn’t empty anymore, and what was more, I knew that I had a new collection of tools I could use the next time I went to my dark place. That pan of brownies wasn’t my only option. In fact, it was measurably less effective than the tactics I tried this time around.

So that’s my takeaway: sometimes your work (or life in general) will take you to dark places. That’s inevitable. When it does, it helps to have tools in your arsenal that aren’t just “eat all the things.” Reaching out, stepping back, having fun, and sweating worked for me. What works for you?

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