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Living With It

Bob

I am excited to start the year with a guest post from a friend I have known for 29 years. We met during our second year of college in a philosophy course and, though we probably didn’t know it at the time, connected in part because of our struggles with depression. It’s a rare gift to be able to see what the journey to self-acceptance looks like over the life span. For me, reading it was a reminder that wisdom is born out of suffering and self-compassion.

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I remember wandering around my neighborhood with tears streaming down my face. It was a sunny day in Austin, Texas, but to me everything was hopeless, sadness was all around, and the future promised only pain. My Dad picked me up in his car, clearly worried, and not long afterwards I was hospitalized with depression.

That hospitalization when I was fifteen was a long time coming. When I was seven years old and my parents were getting divorced, I pulled so much of my hair out that I had to wear a hat to cover up the bald spot. When I was eleven, I starved myself for months and had to be hospitalized and treated for anorexia.

I’m nearly fifty years old now, and for most of my life I’ve lived with depression and anxiety. It comes and goes. I’ve contemplated suicide too many times to count. I’ve spent days, weeks and months wishing I were not alive, crying when I thought no one would notice, and feeling like I was crazy.  

I’ve tried various strategies – ignore it, fight it, drink or smoke it away. I’ve taken all kinds of pills, and I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors.

I’ve read books about depression, spirituality, self-help, mindfulness and positive psychology. I’ve quit some jobs, taken other jobs, and moved several times, at least partly influenced by depressive feelings.

Through all of this suffering, I like to believe I’ve learned a few things worth sharing. Here are my “Top 3” insights regarding living with depression – because everyone loves lists right?   

  1. Depression makes you believe a lot of things that aren’t true. A psychiatrist told me this, after I complained to him that I was a lazy, worthless bastard, and a burden to everyone I knew. He was right and I was wrong. Don’t believe the things depression tells you about yourself. No matter what you may have done or what you think your faults are, you deserve love from both yourself and others..
  2. Don’t give up. Even if the future seems bleak and promises nothing but pain, hang in there because things will get better. Even if you don’t think it will help, see that new doc or try that new technique, whether it’s yoga, exercise, diet, meditation or medication. Your depression may not completely go away, but finding a way to manage it is essential. And it’s a lifelong process. You never know where that breakthrough might come from – and sometimes a smile from a stranger is enough to get through the day.
  3. You’re not alone. The hardest part of depression for me has always been the loneliness. I feel like no one loves me or cares about me, and connection with other people is impossible. Now I know that is the depression talking, because it’s an illness that robs us of joy and love. We are never alone, no matter how lonely we may feel. Chances are at least one person in your life truly loves you, and even in the rare case where you are truly isolated, please know that many of us have been where you are, and have felt what you feel.  

None of these 3 insights are especially original, but that’s okay. I actually find it comforting that what I’ve learned from my experience of depression reflects what others have learned as well.

Maybe this is a fourth insight, or a corollary to #3 above, but it’s love that’s gotten me through. Love from family and friends who cared enough to help me when I’ve been down. Sometimes I’ve needed a lot of love, patience and support, when I wasn’t in a position to provide anything in return.

Your depressed mind may tell you that you don’t deserve love or help, that people don’t want to be bothered, and you’re not worth it. That’s not true. Reach out, ask for help. Tell someone how you feel.  

Your closest and most trusted friends are the ones who will hold you when you’re a basket case, tell you they love you, and never judge you. Those friends are keepers. Not everyone is equipped to provide this kind of support, but you might be surprised what other people have gone through, and how willing they are to help.

Sometimes I still feel like that teenager wandering around in the middle of the day and crying his eyes out. I feel fear and dread and sadness, without any apparent reason.  

But I know now this pain is universal, a drop in the enormous bucket of pain that the universe dishes up every day. It’s the pain that we have in common, and seeing that is what can unite us, and make love and joy possible.

Charles G. lives in the Upper Midwest with his family. He works in marketing, likes to travel, and gets by with a little help from his friends.

Accepting Love

accepting love

I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

Hanging in the Balance

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You know what it’s like having a mental illness? It’s like being Homer Simpson in that episode where he ate that Fugu puffer fish prepared by a rookie chef. That’s the fish that, if not prepared correctly, can kill you. He had to wait 24 hours to find out. Great episode, if you haven’t seen it.

Or it’s like hydroplaning on the highway, trying to figure out which way you need to turn the wheel so you don’t crash. That actually happened to me. I don’t think I turned the wheel the right way. I ended up going backwards in the median, wondering what was going to happen to me when the car finally stopped. Thankfully, miraculously, nothing happened. Except to my car. Which I got rid of.

I found out in the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”–which is a fantastic book, if you’re looking for something to read–that when you’re hydroplaning, you actually need to accelerate to engage the wheels. It’s a fictional account, but that makes sense to me. So now I drive really slowly in the rain so that I can speed up if I start to skid.

But I digress. The reason why having a mental illness is like the Fugu puffer fish and racing in the rain is that there are so many things you have to do to maintain your balance, and it takes so little to throw it off.

Take sleep, for example. I am a night owl, but I’m not supposed to stay up late, because reversing my sleep cycle triggers a depressive episode. But when I try to go to bed earlier, I can’t fall asleep because my obsessive brain is wide awake, chatting up a storm. I am also supposed to wake up early, but I’m usually too freaking tired. And because I need more sleep than the average person, I still have to take a 3 hour nap.

I have similar difficulties regarding eating that is equally complicated because of my inability to wake up early, restrictions in what and when to eat because of my GERD, my tennis schedule, my inability to tell whether or not I’m hungry, and that I hate planning meals, grocery shopping, and cooking.

I also have to manage my anxiety by avoiding almost everything, lately–Facebook, the news, conversations about Trump, certain family members, relationships, looking at my schedule for the week so that I don’t get overwhelmed (which has gotten me into trouble with my colleagues).

Despite all of this effort I put into maintaining my mental health, I frequently wake up feeling anxious or depressed or both. Because it’s impossible to keep all of this stuff in balance. Which really frustrates me. Sometimes I’m mad at God. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it, all this work to be mentally stable given that I am inherently unstable. Sometimes I feel alone in it, because despite having my brother and friends to talk to, in those moments when you’re lying in bed trying to find a reason to face the day, there’s no one who can really be there for you.

Thankfully, those moments usually pass, often some time later that day. Or at least they fluctuate throughout the day. Or I’ll go play tennis.

On a moment to moment basis, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion are the most helpful tools to make the pain bearable, but it still hurts like hell. I remind myself that it’s OK to be in pain. That this moment will pass. That although my thinking may be irrational but convincing right now, at some point I will be able to see things more clearly. That it’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. And then I try to think of things I can do to make myself feel better. Like watching “Trolls.” Really cute movie, if you haven’t seen it.

The other thing that has helped is reading Richard Rohr’s books. The one I’m reading currently, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, is a much tougher read, but he says some thought-provoking things. Like, he says that the best healers are people who have suffered greatly themselves. I know for sure that my own experiences have made me better able to sit with and relate to other people’s pain, and I know how much better it feels to talk to someone who really gets it because they, too, have suffered greatly.

We all have roles that we have to take on that will involve pain and suffering–being a parent, a firefighter, a soldier, Wonder Woman (I loved that movie, too), just to name a few. Any role entails pain and suffering, really. I guess the difference is whether you’re going to rail against it or accept it–choose it, even–because there’s something that you care about that makes it worthwhile. And because not choosing it just magnifies your suffering.

I know for sure that I was meant to be a healer. Sometimes I wish I could say no thank you, God, but I appreciate your confidence in me. But I can’t, because I really don’t know what else I would do. So if trying to find that balance moment to moment, day after day, helps me to be a better therapist, then so be it. I will choose it.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

not perfect

You know what’s hard about having depression and anxiety? Having to go about your day, looking like you feel fine when you’re not. I know everyone feels this way at times, but it’s something that I have to focus on a lot. Like, perhaps people have to prepare for the possibility of a thunderstorm every now and then, but it is a daily threat for me. So I always have to carry an umbrella and think about what shoes I want to wear. Whether my outfit is appropriate. Whether or not I’m at risk of getting struck by lightning.

But then again, perhaps I underestimate how bad the weather is for everyone. Because when I listen to my clients and read my friends’ Facebook status updates, I am reminded that there are all kinds of people walking around in pain, looking normal on the outside. We all feel broken in one way or another. It’s so convincing, though, when people look like they have it all, isn’t it? So easy to believe that you are alone in your pain.

When people tell me they read my blog, they always say something about how vulnerable I am in it. They mean it as a compliment, but even though I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, it always makes me feel self-conscious. Have I said too much? Did they read something that makes me look bad? Do they think less of me as a person? As a psychologist?

Still, it has been worth the risk, both because of how much I have helped other people and because of how freeing it has been. Of all of the things that I have done to battle my demons, blogging has been one of my most powerful weapons. And if there are clients who choose not to see me after reading my blog, I am learning to accept that I can’t be all things to all people.

I realized recently that choosing vulnerability is like choosing love: it’s risky, and you’re bound to get hurt, but it’s better than spending a lifetime trying to play it safe. It’s still hard to put myself out there and risk judgment and criticism, but most of the time it results in a meaningful connection with someone–perhaps even a complete stranger. Because now they know they are not alone. And I am reminded that I’m not alone, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were willing to take the risk of being vulnerable? If instead of seeming like we had it all together, we could be honest about our pain? I know it would be unrealistic to go around telling everyone about the holes in our hearts all the time. Sometimes when someone asks how you are, you just have to say fine or you won’t have time to get a coffee before your first client. But if you want to know the truth about how I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. And if you read my blog, you will definitely find out.

Eye on the Ball

eye-on-the-ball

When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.

A Compassionate Take on Why Misery Loves Company

miserylovescompany

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to the the President of Washington and Lee University speak to the parents of the freshman class that year, appraising them of some of the things they could expect to encounter in their child’s first year of college. A frantic call in the middle of the night about something. The transition to being a little fish in a big pond. The Turkey Drop–which happens over this very break, when some poor girlfriend or boyfriend is informed that this long-distance relationship thing just isn’t working out. Hope we can still be friends.

Students in counseling often talk about “losing the breakup.” I like that term, because it so accurately captures that feeling of being left behind with your heart broken, stalking your ex on social media as they post pictures with their new significant other. If I have to suffer, they should have to suffer, gosh darn it! I hope they get what’s coming to them.

It’s true; misery loves company. And sometimes it’s because people who are miserable want other people to be miserable so that we can all feel sucky together. But sometimes it’s not because people are mean and hateful. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be left alone in our pain and suffering.

In self-compassion speak, this is called common humanity. It’s one of the things that comforts us in the midst of our pain in suffering. To know that getting your heart broken is an inevitable part of experiencing love. It sucks for everyone. It did not happen to you because you are uniquely unlovable. And it’s not your fault that it hurts so much that your friends are tired of listening to you talk about your ex.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s that time of year when my inner demon of depression rears its ugly head. It’s better this year. I’ve made it to work every day so far. I have not fallen into a pit of despair. But it’s still painful.

One of the best and most unexpected benefits of having a mental health blog is that, in the midst of my lows, some reader will reach out to me and thank me for sharing my pain because they have known that pain, too, and it’s comforting to know that they are not alone. It is as therapeutic to me as it is to them to know that there are people in the darkness with me, reaching out to me so that I know that they’re there.

Last week, as I was describing to one of my clients the types of obsessive thoughts that often go through people’s heads, she asked me if I knew what this inner dialogue was like because I studied it or from first-hand experience. I was a little taken aback. I’d never had a client ask me directly if I had an anxiety disorder. But I told her the truth. It’s both. I know her pain because I studied it, and I feel her pain because I, too, struggle with it.

I know what it’s like to suffer alone. So I became a therapist. Because misery loves company.

If Only…

waiting-for-happiness

It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

shoes

Do you think I bought too many shoes?