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Fear of Sadness

Most people find it difficult to tolerate negative feelings like sadness.  This task is even more difficult when you suffer from depression, because any time your sadness feels too intense or lasts too long, you worry that the depression is coming back.  And if you’ve ever been depressed, you know how terrifying the prospect is of going back to that dark place.

Your loved ones also become hypersensitive to your sadness, which just exacerbates your fears.  If you’re feeling down, they ask you if you’re taking your meds, or if maybe your meds need to be adjusted.  Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for meds.  I’ve tried to go off them several times, and each time I got depressed again.  But it’s unfortunate that once you’ve been depressed, every feeling has to be scrutinized for potential pathology.

There’s also this added sense of failure associated with relapse.  Like you should have been able to prevent it this time, since you’ve been there before.  And even though you recovered before, you fear that if it happens again, you won’t be so lucky the next time.

And even if you do recover, you fear that the wait will be agony.  I fear depression much more than anxiety because when I’m anxious I can take an Ativan and I feel better immediately.  But antidepressants don’t work that way, so there’s not much I can do to feel better right away when I’m depressed.

Whenever I am afraid I’m becoming depressed, I journal about my fears, my sense of failure, and my pain.  And when I look back at these entries, I realize how strong I am.  There are a lot of things that suck about depression, but I have no doubt that it has made me a stronger person, even while it tries to convince me that I’m weak.

But how do I know when I’m sad versus depressed?  To be honest, I don’t always know.  Sometimes I feel depressed for a day.  Sometimes I feel sad for what feels like an eternity.  The line is not as clear-cut as we’d like to think.  But regardless of whether it’s sadness or depression, the best I can do is to control what I can control.  This includes therapy, meds, stress management, and self-care.

And most importantly, for me, it means practicing self-acceptance–of my sadness, my depression, and everything else that makes me who I am, for better or worse.

Depression vs. Sadness

Motivation 2

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

In a Perfect World

I think I would really enjoy living in paradise.

Although I do wonder sometimes if it would get boring after a while. I know some people who live at the beach say they hardly ever go, even though they moved there because they love the beach. It is no longer the place they fantasize about escaping to; it just becomes the place they live.

I know I said in my last post that perhaps things can only be extraordinary when you compare them to something ordinary. Maybe that doesn’t just apply to paradise. Maybe that applies to everything. A beautiful day. An exciting win. A perfect date. Maybe things can only be wonderful if sometimes things are terrible. At least that’s what I tell my clients as a way to help them appreciate sadness, anger, fear, and heartbreak.

Still, I’d like to give it a shot, just to make sure.

For me, in a perfect world…

I would have a place in Hawaii and Switzerland. And it wouldn’t take an entire day to get there.

It would be easy to find someone to date. And he would never drive me crazy.

Federer would always win.

The weather would always be perfect for tennis. And when it rained, it would do so after midnight.

I would have enough money to get awesome seats at any sporting event.

UVA would win the national championship in football and basketball in the same year.

My family and friends would always be healthy, happy, and safe. And so would I.

Every morning I would wake up feeling like something exciting was going to happen.

No one would make me feel ashamed that I woke up at noon.

Every book I read would be the kind that I never want to end.

And when it did, there would be a sequel that’s just as good as the first one. Maybe a whole series, even.

And then the author would write another series and that one would be just as good.

My blog would be widely read.

Some big-time publisher would approach me and tell me they want to turn my blog into a book.

I would be packing right now instead of procrastinating. And I would have put away my laundry last night instead of sleeping with all my folded clothes next to me in the bed.

I would be excited before a trip instead of stressed out about all of the things that I have to do before I leave.

I would not be depressed after the trip was over because there would be something new and exciting waiting for me when I got home.

Today I woke up at 6 am, which is crazy for me. I was all excited and couldn’t fall back asleep. There’s lots of good tennis on at Wimbledon today. My mixed doubles team plays tonight, and we have a good chance of winning. And all I have to do today is pack for my trip tomorrow, where I will get to play more tennis and spend time with my niece.

Maybe it’s not a perfect world, but we can still have moments of perfection. And this is one of them, because Federer’s match is about to start.

Faking Good

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Did you know that some personality tests are sophisticated enough to detect when a person might be faking bad or faking good? When I took one in grad school, the computer report said that I could either be faking bad, or that I’m just really hard on myself. Talk about sophistication! My Inner Critic was detected right away.

In general, I think people are more likely to fake good than fake bad. I am no exception. Most people can’t tell when I’m upset. Even when I tell people I’m upset, they don’t believe me because I’ll be smiling–like when I bought my mattress. So even when I’m trying to be honest, my face is still faking good.

Facebook is the perfect example of millions of people faking good every hour of every day. Even though I know from experience that things are often not what they seem, I still feel like my life pales in comparison to my friends with their happy spouses who declare their undying love for each other on their anniversary. Or their children who are winning sports competitions and getting good grades and saying funny things. Or their vacations to exotic places while I’m stuck at home because of the snow.

But then again, sometimes I’ll scroll through my pictures and wonder if people feel the same way about me. All of the happy pictures with my family. Pictures at sporting events, tennis tournaments, and karaoke parties with my friends. Pictures of my latest knitting project or the jewelry I just made.

Even if we want to be more honest on social media, it’s hard to do because it’s so visually oriented. Like, it never occurred to me to take a picture when I was getting my divorce papers notarized. Or to take a selfie of me lying on the couch, too depressed to do anything. I guess I could have taken a picture of that time I shattered my microwave door and had to sweep up hundreds of shards of glass, but I was too busy being pissed off.

The most honest posts I’ve seen are the ones where people say how they still miss a loved one on their birthday. I have not yet lost someone close to me, and the thought of doing so fills me with fear. And now I know that the sadness stays with you for the rest of your life. It exists right alongside of those happy family posts. But at least it makes the picture of their life seem more realistic, and therefore more relatable.

If you scroll through my wall, amidst the posts of family and friends, sports and crafts, you’ll see my blog posts. Verbal snapshots of my obsessiveness in action. Guilt and shame over failed relationships. Evidence of how difficult it is for me to be kind to myself. To believe that I deserve to be loved. That I’m worthwhile. This is my attempt to be honest through social media. My tribute to the complexities of real life.

But not everyone has a blog. So if you have ideas for how to stop faking good on social media, I’d love to hear them. It could be the beginning of a campaign. Like the one to stop bullying. We can work on the catchy phrase later.

Do Something that Scares You

Decisions

Sometimes anxiety is a good thing.

The other night I gave a presentation on anxiety to Active Minds, the student organization whose mission is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness. I began the presentation by reminding everyone that anxiety is not always something we want to get rid of. It motivates us to act. It socializes us. And it warns us when we are about to do something scary.

But sometimes it’s good to do something scary.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me to use an avatar, because the point was to get people to know me so that they would buy my book someday. Plus, anonymously blogging about vulnerability seemed hypocritical. But I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing, telling people all my deep, dark secrets, and I wish there were a way I could take it all back.

Some posts are scarier than others. The post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Undeserving, was one of the scarier ones, because what therapist admits to having the exact same fears that her clients have? Publishing it felt a bit like standing in front of people naked and saying, go ahead; judge my body.

Which nobody did, thank goodness. Not to my face, at least. Although the most vulnerable posts are always the most popular, knowing this won’t make it less scary to bare my soul the next time. Because anxiety has no memory. It does not distinguish between past, present, and future. It does not know the difference between reality and fantasy. In the moment, there is only fear.

Actually, I am growing accustomed to baring my soul before friends, family, and strangers. But the thought of standing naked before students and clients still terrifies me. Therapists are supposed to be blank screens. At minimum, they use self-disclosure with caution. They certainly don’t let clients know that they struggle with anxiety and depression and that they don’t think they deserve to be loved.

Last night a student from the school newspaper emailed me some questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder because she’s writing an article about depression. I realized this was an opportunity to publicize my blog, since my last post was on this very topic. But the thought of doing so gave me an anxiety attack, so I decided to sleep on it.

Plus it was midnight, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start working on stuff after midnight so that I don’t screw up my sleep cycle. Even though I ended up staying up until 1:30 a.m., anyway, doing pointless stuff like playing Sudoku and Minesweeper. What is wrong with me?!

But I digress.

This morning I answered the student’s questions and told her about my blog. Part of me hopes that it will lead to a thousand new followers, and a part of me hopes that she ignores the reference to my blog altogether. In any case, I did it; I pushed myself to do the thing I fear the most, as far as blogging is concerned.

And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Almost Whole

“Things that are broken can be made whole.” That’s my favorite line in Little Princes.

Conor Grennan did not volunteer at the orphanage in Nepal for religious purposes. When he decided to start a non-profit organization for the sole purpose of rescuing 7 of the orphans he met from drug traffickers, he still did not think he was doing God’s will. But there were so many miraculous incidents that allowed him to succeed in his mission of finding these orphans, and their parents, and reuniting their families, that he decided to buy a Bible so that he could rediscover God.

This line was actually spoken by Conor’s friend, Liz, who would eventually become his wife. She confessed to him that she was married and divorced by her mid-twenties. She felt so broken and ashamed at the time that she stopped going to church. She tells Conor that “God used that time of great sadness to reclaim me, to redeem me. Things that are broken can be made whole.”

Isn’t therapy, too, about making people whole? Isn’t that what I’m trying to do with my blog? I have never thought of it in those terms.

I have always feared that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Like I was born with some kind of crack in my foundation that becomes apparent whenever I make another mistake. My therapist said that perhaps these cracks are there to allow me to breathe. I didn’t believe her when she said this, and I was annoyed that she was trying to turn my fundamental flaw into something positive. Those darn therapists! Always trying to see the positive side of things.

I signed and notarized the divorce papers a few days ago. Usually every step forward makes me cry, but this one did not. Not yet, at least. Maybe it was because I had it notarized by my tennis partner after our match and went to lunch with my team afterwards, which did not leave me any time for self-reflection. Or maybe I’m finally beginning to accept that this is the right thing for both of us.

In any case, I did not beat myself up for leaving or for failing to make things work, as I usually do. I did not let my inner critic tell me that this is what I deserve. I can’t say that I am at peace with the whole thing, but I am further along than I was when I wrote the first post on divorce.

In this moment, I am focusing more on my blessings than my losses. Perhaps this means I am on my way to becoming whole.

Winter

Today the temperature is supposed to be in the 50’s, and many people are happy about this.  A lot of people don’t like winter–particularly this winter, since it’s been unseasonably cold.  But I don’t mind it.
 
I’m not that good at small talk, so it’s nice to have something to say if I’m forced to talk to someone I don’t know that well.  I know this is true for a lot of those winter haters, too, even if they don’t admit it.  And I’ve worn all the sweaters that I bought while I lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, so I’ve had more wardrobe options.
 
Winter is usually a time when people feel more depressed because of the cold and lack of sunlight.  Even though I was depressed in December, I’ve been surprisingly cheerful since the beginning of the year.  I really like living alone.  I like sleeping alone.  So much so that I wonder if I will ever invite someone over again.  I like knitting, making jewelry, watching sports, or writing a blog post without distractions.
 
Adapting to changes in the weather is a good example of how we can get used to just about anything.  Before the first cold spell, I thought I was going to freeze to death when the temperature dropped to 24 degrees.  Now it takes single digits before I think it’s unbearably cold.  The other day one of my friends commented on how last week, when we had a day in the 40’s, it felt so warm she could have played tennis outside.
 
The same is true about living alone.  When you live with someone, they may annoy you, but it seems like it would be worse if you had to come home to an empty house every day.  That’s what I said not too long ago in my post on solitude.  And when you’re used to living alone, you think it would be unbearable to have to deal with all the annoying things about another person, which is how I feel now.  But I’m sure if I started dating again, I’d get used to having someone in my space and it would seem worth it.  Hopefully.
 
In therapy, I often use the weather as a metaphor for feelings.  I tell them to observe what they’re feeling at any particular moment, like Weather on the 8’s.  Sadness with a chance of happiness later in the late afternoon.  Fifty percent chance of an anger outburst tomorrow.   Maybe we don’t like the weather when it’s 7 degrees outside, but it will change eventually.  Maybe even later that day.
 
Ordinarily this is not the way we think about feelings.  We dread when the other shoe will drop and our good mood will be ripped away from us unceremoniously.  But when we’re in a bad mood, we fear that we will be stuck in depression or anxiety for the rest of our lives.  The reality is, you can count on your mood changing, positive or negative, just like the weather.
 
We can also look at the weather in a more impersonal manner.  We don’t blame ourselves if the weather is cold; we didn’t do anything wrong.  And we don’t really have to understand the reason why it is unseasonably cold.  I don’t particularly care about understanding the polar vortex.  But if we feel sad for no reason and we can’t make it go away, we must be weak.  Irrational.  Crazy.
 
The other message I give to clients is that even when we feel sad or anxious, there is still something positive about that moment.  And I don’t mean this in a think happy thoughts kind of way.  When I feel depressed and can’t motivate myself to do anything, I have more compassion when a client says they spent the whole weekend in bed, feeling crappy about themselves.  I have a better understanding of how much pain they are in.  And it helps me to be a better therapist.
 
There is beauty in everything, even in the things we don’t like, but sometimes we have to look for it.
 
 
Photo Courtesy of Allison Szuba

 

Gratitude

Over the past few weeks I have been praying for a way to take in what I love about Christmas. Singing Christmas songs.  The lights and decorations.  The food.  Having my entire family together. And reflecting on the significance of having our Savior born in the most humble beginnings.

I looked at the news headlines about the homily Pope Francis gave last night, and true to my prediction, it was a message of acceptance and forgiveness.  The quote that stood out to me was the reminder that Jesus was all-powerful but he made himself vulnerable for us.  There is great strength in vulnerability; it is His vulnerability that redeems us.

In this blog I have made myself vulnerable by sharing all of the thoughts and feelings that I usually keep to myself.  After writing my post on forgiveness and reading people’s responses, that was the most vulnerable I have felt thus far.

People who have never been depressed do not realize what a dark place it is to be in.  For example, “normal” people can make themselves happier by practicing gratitude, by reflecting on people who are less fortunate than themselves, by counting their blessings.  The assumption is that sadness and gratitude are mutually exclusive.

When you are depressed, your demons turn this well-meaning advice into further evidence that you are a bad person for being depressed because you are not able to snap out of it, despite all the things you have to be thankful for.  So it is especially difficult to practice gratitude when you are depressed because it often makes you feel worse.

However, my spiritual guru is the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, and one of the most helpful things that he emphasizes is that spirituality is not either/or, as we tend to think in Western religions. It is not good or bad, right or wrong.  Spirituality is both/and.  So I can practice gratitude and still be depressed.  They can both be true, and that’s OK.

Today I am already thankful for many things.  I am thankful that the party wasn’t as overwhelming as I feared it would be.  That the homily last night had a message that was meaningful to me.  That I’ve had meaningful conversations with two of my brothers, and in a few hours my other brother and his family will be here.  I am thankful for the friends who have already sent me texts to wish me Merry Christmas.

And I am thankful for this blog.  I think God gave me this blog because He knew that these next few months would be difficult.  So He gave me a way to share my pain, to reach out to others, and to ask for help.  It really is true that making ourselves vulnerable may be the most powerful thing we can do to experience love and connect with other people.  I think that this is what Jesus would want us to experience most of all on His birthday.

So I am thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog on Christmas Day.  And I thank my friend Sharon for giving me the cartoon below.

 

Solitude

I am about to share with you my most shameful flaw so please don’t judge me.  And this post isn’t that funny.  (Although I always think I’m kind of funny, even when I’m being serious).  But it’s the truth, so I have to say it.

I have been in a relationship non-stop since I was 14.  That’s 30 years of relationships, and not just to one person.  So no pearls for me. ( That’s the 30 year anniversary gift, in case you didn’t know.  I just looked it up.)  And sometimes the relationships were slightly overlapping towards the end.  And often they were not very good relationships.  And I knew this at the time, but I stayed in them, anyway.

In my defense, the marriages were both relationships with two very good guys, but that doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will work, as I indicated in my previous blog.  But most of the other relationships were not very good.   I stayed in them because 1) I’m drawn to guys who need psychological help and 2) I am terrified of being alone and am in need of psychological help myself.  My attitude was that something was better than nothing.  I didn’t have any empirical evidence to support this, but that’s how fear is:  it feels true, even when it’s not.

So in addition to channeling all of my energy into my long-standing dream of becoming a writer, I have also decided to be alone for the first time. 

A lot of my married friends say, oh I would love to be alone.  I look forward to the times when my husband and kids are not in the house.  I, too, appreciated my alone time when I was in a relationship.  But it’s different when you go home and no one will be there, and you don’t know if or when someone will ever be there.

It’s different when you could fall and hurt your back and not be able to reach your phone and call for help and people might not notice that you haven’t been around until you stop showing up to work for a few days.  Then they would have to send someone down to find you because you’re not answering your phone.  That’s not the same thing as having a break from your husband and kids at all.

Last night I tried to change one of the flood lights in my bedroom, but I couldn’t reach it.  I tried to use that thingy that allows you to reach light bulbs that are really high up but the floodlight was too big.  I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the thingy to work, anyway.  I considered getting out the ladder but that would definitely result in bodily injury and/or death.  I don’t want to call one of my guy friends and ask them to come over and change one light bulb, so I’ll probably have to wait until several bulbs burn out and exist in semi-darkness in the meantime.

Don’t get me wrong–I know that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a very lucky person.  I have a loving family and a great group of friends, I can support myself and I love my job, I have a nice place, and I am hopeful that at some point another relationship opportunity will present itself.  Still, there’s no amount of self-talk that can change the fact that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

I’m a big proponent of learning how to sit with negative feelings.  This is what I tell my clients all the time.  I’m often amazed that they start doing it because I tell them to.  Sometimes they’re better at it than I am.  I’m amazed that I can give them the courage to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, even though they were terrified of doing so.  At those times I think, why is it that I can help them do it but not myself?  It doesn’t work to be your own therapist, apparently.

But now I’m ready.  I’m going to face sadness and loneliness and fear if it kills me.  I am going to find out whether or not it’s true that it’s better to be in a bad relationship than none at all.  Obviously it’s not true, but like I said, fear is not always logical. 

And it’s going OK so far.  Sometimes it does suck, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.  Because when I was in a bad relationship, I still felt sad and lonely and afraid, but I also beat myself up for staying in a relationship just because I was afraid of being alone.  It’s much better without that last part.

The thing I miss the most is having someone to talk to–someone to share how my day went, to talk about the book I’m reading, or to share any deep and meaningful revelations I’ve had.  But now that I have this blog, I have all of you to listen to me.  And that helps a lot. 

And you know what else?  My neighbor called me this morning to check on me because she hadn’t seen me in awhile and wanted to make sure I was OK.  I was afraid she was going to tell me she hit my car or accidentally opened my mail again or try to get me to come to church with her, because those are reasons she has called in the past.  But no.  She was checking on me.

I take that as a sign that God is looking out for me.

I read this blog that said that if you want to get people to read your blog you should have photos to keep it interesting and not to use other people’s work.  I’m not sure how you take a picture of solitude, so I thought I would post one of my doodles from last night.  Please don’t judge my drawing, either.