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Monthly Archives: May 2016

Being Present

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Every year the student group that I advise, Active Minds, hosts a mental health panel in which students with a mental illness share their stories. A few years ago, during the Q and A portion of the program, I asked the students to say what other people can do to be helpful to someone who is in pain.

I have written often about how, in our attempts to be helpful, we say unhelpful things. We give unwanted advice. Tell people to push through. To look on the bright side. To count their blessings. Or perhaps we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. Pretend that we don’t see their suffering.

Occasionally students will make an appointment to ask for advice on how to help someone in pain. And the advice that I usually give is to ask the person what they can do to be helpful. But often we don’t know what will be helpful because we are so unaccustomed to caring for ourselves, to practicing self-compassion. So I was genuinely curious about what the students on the panel had to say about what they found most helpful.

All of the students essentially gave the same answer: the thing that they found the most helpful was to have someone be fully present. To listen. To let them be sad, anxious, angry, or whatever else they were feeling. So seemingly simple, yet difficult to do.

I teach clients how to practice mindfulness and self-compassion because we can’t control whether other people will be fully present, but we can always choose to be present with ourselves. And until we are able to sit with our own feelings, we cannot bear witness to other people’s pain.

Although it was not my conscious intent to use my blog for this purpose, often my posts are my attempts to practice being present with my pain. I keep a journal where I do the same thing. I read books on mindfulness and compassion. I meditate regularly. Nevertheless, when I wake up to another day of feeling anxious or depressed, or whatever crappy feeling I’m experiencing, I just want it to go away, just like everybody else.

I have started reading Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, and today’s chapter was on mindful presence. Tara Brach suggested that, whenever we are feeling something painful, we whisper to ourselves, “I consent.”

I have to admit, my first response when I read this was, what the? I consent? That’s a little more inviting than what I was going for in trying to be fully present. But it’s true that there’s this resistance that I feel in my mind and body when I don’t want to face something painful. This instinctive response to brace myself against it. And today while I was meditating I caught myself doing it and remembered to allow myself to feel the pain, and it did help.

So I’m going to try to give this strategy a shot. No matter what I’m feeling, I’m going to consent to it. Allow it to be heard and felt. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pain and Suffering

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It was 7 years ago that I had my most severe depressive episode. It began because I decided to try to wean myself off my meds. It was a reasonable thing to try; I had been stable for a while. I got off them very gradually. By the time I was completely off them in January, I could feel the difference immediately. I was a little more easily irritated without them. Things were a little more painful. But I was willing to live with the pain if it meant that I didn’t have to be on meds.

But then things got worse. I remember being on vacation in February and screaming at my husband over fairly insignificant things. I don’t even know how he put up with it. And the last straw was some tennis drama thing in March that would not seem serious enough to make my mind unravel, but that’s how depression is; sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.

It took a long time to get back to “normal,” and I often berated myself for this costly mistake. For sacrificing my mental health so that I didn’t have to take that little pill every day. Now I have to take a bunch of them every day, twice a day, but I do so religiously, because I will do whatever it takes not to feel that way again.

Lately, since I’ve been practicing self-compassion, it strikes me how the road to recovery is complicated by our unwillingness to give up our suffering. Who knows why. Because we don’t believe we are really suffering. Don’t believe we deserve to be free of our suffering. Think we should be able to free ourselves on our own, without help, without drugs.

So taking each of those steps is a long and arduous process. I was depressed in high school but didn’t go to my first therapist until I was 25. The first time I went on antidepressants I was 30. I went back on them when I was 35 and went off them again when I was 39. By the time I was 40, a good 25 years after I first experienced depression, I accepted that I needed to be on meds for good.

Before this last depressive episode, I used to present a more neutral position on medication to my clients. But now I encourage them to give it a shot. I tell them that everyone is willing to tolerate a certain amount of pain in order to be able to say that they are not on meds, but I encourage them to ask themselves at what point this is no longer a good tradeoff.

Had someone phrased the question to me in that way, perhaps I would have taken them sooner. But I did not know how to practice self-compassion back then. I did not understand the concept of being kind to myself because I was in pain. I was not motivated to alleviate whatever suffering was under my control. Because so much of anxiety and depression are not in your control. But asking for help, going to therapy, taking your meds, and learning how to care for yourself are in your control.

I’m not going to lie–depression and anxiety still cause me quite a bit of suffering. Anxiety, in particular, has been kicking my ass today. And being diligent about all of the things that I have to do to strike that delicate balance of mental stability is effortful and time-consuming. But in a cost-benefit analysis, it’s still worth it.