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Tag Archives: Depression

Darkness and Light, Part 3

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Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.

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.

Defending Hope

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Guess what the best predictor of suicide is? Here are some possibilities, in multiple choice form, since I used to be a psychology professor.

  1. a diagnosis of depression
  2. a diagnosis of anxiety
  3. feelings of helplessness
  4. feelings of hopelessness
  5. all of the above
  6. none of the above

I just threw in those last 2 options because students hated those. They are a bit sadistic, I have to admit.

The correct answer is…#4. Hopelessness.

I have only recently become aware of Hope. Among the cast of characters in my mind, like the Inner Critic and the Drill Sergeant, you’d think discovering Hope would have been a pleasant surprise. But I was actually annoyed with her. I had been calling her by a different name: Delusions of Grandeur.

In a previous post on optimism, I defended its merits even when it believes in something that is statistically unlikely to happen, like winning that lottery. Or that you’re going to win when you’re down 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 in a tennis match. I don’t feel like I risk too much by being optimistic, because when I lose, it’s really not that devastating. I wasn’t expected to win.

I don’t feel the same way about hope. Hope wants me to believe in things when the stakes are high. She wants me to put my dreams out there, knowing that they may get dashed. To open my heart up, knowing it might get broken. To believe in something, knowing that I might become disillusioned.

I blame a lot of my failed relationships on Hope. I yell at her whenever I think about the pain I’ve endured. How foolish she was. What the hell were you thinking? That was a terrible idea! Why did you not heed the warning signs? Why didn’t you protect me?

That’s why sometimes I am not so kind to her. Especially after I’ve been hurt. Hope must die! I must kill her off! So she hides from me. Slips between the cushions of the couch and throws pillows over herself so I won’t find her. Because I’m really not that thorough in my vacuuming.

Sometimes she tries to placate me. Pretends she agrees with me when I say things like, what’s the point of trying to get a book published? No one will probably read it, anyway. But then she tricks me into writing another blog post. Like tonight. Maybe it will make you feel better, she says. That’s the goal, after all. Not fame and fortune. It’s meant to be for you. Except she still secretly believes I will become a famous writer someday.

The truth is, I need Hope. I mean, she thinks I’m great. How can I kill off a part of myself that thinks I’m great? And she inspires me to do great things. It is because of Hope that I became a therapist. Without her, I would never have been able to help anyone.

And even when she breaks my heart and leaves me disillusioned, she convinces me that things will get better. That is the thing that keeps people alive, even in the midst of depression, after all. The hope that things will get better. So Hope has actually saved my life many times.

So I guess I’ll try to be nicer to her.

 

On the Road to Enlightenment, Part 2

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So I finished reading “Lovingkindness,” and I’ve concluded that people who dedicate their lives to meditation must not have mental illnesses. This is not to say that I did not get anything out of the book. I loved the book, and I have recommended it to several clients. It’s just that I think you have to have a certain level of mental stability to become enlightened.

When I went to this conference on trauma, Ron Siegel, another mindfulness guru, practically said the same thing. He said that you need to be fairly mentally stable to go on a silent retreat because you realize how much your mood is affected much more by random thoughts than anything that is going on in the external world. When you’re depressed and anxious, those random thoughts can be fairly persecutory, so to be left alone with them without anyone to tell you that they’re not real could be a major mental health hazard.

I’ve been feeling depressed this past week. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because this is what happens at the end of every term. I should be used to it by now. But how do you get used to the pain? To your brain telling you all of these things that aren’t true? Every time feels like the first time. Maybe that’s why it takes so long for me to admit it’s depression. I keep thinking it’s something else. Something real. Something that might go away if only this thing happens. Or this thing. Why are these things not helping? Oh. It’s because I’m depressed and nothing helps. Nothing stops the pain.

I played tennis today and even that didn’t help. However, it was an unusually frustrating experience because it was so windy. You think you can go out there and do your thing like you always do, but no. The wind has other ideas. The wind is like, you think you have a good serve? See if you can get the ball over the net if I’m in you’re face. You’re not strong enough. I bet you thought that ball was going to be 2 feet out, didn’t you? WRONG! You lose the point. So we ended up stopping early.

I told my friend I needed to write a blog post and she said I should write one about the wind. How it can be a metaphor for something. And the wind actually is a pretty good metaphor for depression. It makes you feel like you suck. Like you don’t know how to play tennis at all. All of your strengths are stripped away from you, and no matter how hard you try to overcome it, you cannot play your game. And during that 2 hours while I was playing in the wind, that’s exactly how I felt about being depressed. I was trying to be in moment, out in the sun, spending time with my friends. I was trying to enjoy myself, be thankful, focus on nothing but the ball. All things that come natural to me when I’m not depressed. But my demons, like the wind, just kept telling me how much I sucked.

There really is so little you can do to stop the pain in the moment when you’re feeling depressed, so I tried to practice self-compassion. To be kind to myself. I ate lunch. I read old journal entries, because I find them hilarious and prophetic. I wrote in my journal. Tried to watch tennis. And then finally I took half an Ativan and took a nap. And now I’m writing a blog post. And I do feel a little better.

I guess if practicing lovingkindness and self-compassion can at least help me battle my demons, that in itself makes it worth the effort.

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

I Must Be Feeling Better

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About 2 months ago I wrote a post about feeling depressed again. I knew I was at risk of it because it was winter, and we were at our busiest time of the semester at work, and I had spent an extended period of time with my family over Thanksgiving. But often when I am in the midst of something difficult, I try so hard to be positive that I do not fully process how miserable I am in the moment–like when I hurt my back.

But that day in December I could no longer deny it–I was officially depressed. Evidenced by the fact that I was not looking forward to our cookie exchange party. Because I really like sweets. If I had been my “normal” self, I would have been singing the Cookie Monster song. You know the one. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me! Oh, cookie cookie cookie starts with C! 

In fact, not singing out loud in public is also a sign that I’m probably depressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I still went to the party and I still ate a bunch of cookies. And I brought home a bunch of cookies and ate those, too. But I was much less joyful about it than I ordinarily would be.

The good news is, I’m better now. Because last night my friends and I went out to dinner at O’Charley’s after our tennis match, and our waitress told us that it was free pie Wednesday.

Initially, we were in a state of disbelief. It’s what? We get a free pie? Are you serious? That is awesome! Is this a limited time offer? So you mean every Wednesday we can get free pie? How long have you worked here? You’re sure it’s not going to end? If we stay here all day do we get more than one piece?

And then throughout the night I would spontaneously yell out “free pie Wednesdays!” I told my brother when he called me last night. And this morning I texted my friends who were there to remind them about free pie Wednesdays. Although I’m pretty sure they remembered.

This is what my normal state is like. Celebration of sweets to an annoying degree. But come on! Free pie! That’s the best promotion I’ve ever heard of. Still, had it been a couple of months ago, I would have been much less exuberant. I mean, I still would have gotten it and eaten my pie, but I might not have kept yelling “free pie Wednesdays!” every few minutes.

And then a couple of weeks ago I ordered some new tennis shoes and did not realize that they glow in the dark until we turned out the lights at the indoor tennis facility where we play–the one that is closing at the end of the month–and they were glowing in the dark. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, these are the most awesome tennis shoes ever!

Since then, I’ve been thinking about starting glow tennis. All of the lines and the net and the balls would glow in the dark. Plus, in addition to shoes, we could have glow-in-the-dark clothing, hats, wrist and head bands, overgrips, and strings. This would be a great way to get kids interested in tennis. And it would save electricity. There may be a slightly increased risk of injury from running around in the dark, but we could get everyone to sign a waiver and tell them to play at their own risk. No one listens to those warnings, anyway. Like running at the pool. Or diving in the shallow end.

And I could make a bunch of money if it were successful. Heck, I wouldn’t even need to win the lottery anymore. And I would get to wear my new shoes. And then after playing glow tennis I can go to O’Charley’s and eat free pie.

The only problem is, this semester may be busier than last semester, so I may be headed for a mental breakdown again in a few weeks. Knowing this in advance does not always make it possible for me to prevent it because, despite all of the work that I put into maintaining my mental state, some things are not in my control.

But in this moment, I am happy, so I’m just going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And wear my new shoes. And eat free pie on Wednesdays.

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Is Optimism Always a Good Thing?

 

You know how when you ask people how their holiday was and they say it was good? Well, I didn’t. I wasn’t trying to complain or anything. I just like to be honest.

My back was hurting for 3 weeks, which means I did very little over the break. The worst part was that I couldn’t play tennis. It may sound extreme to some people, but my mental health was severely compromised. I tried to practice gratitude, patience, self-compassion, and all that, but the truth is, without tennis, life hardly seems worth living.

That’s why I spent 2 and 1/2 weeks in denial about how bad my back was hurting. Which means I tried to play 3 times. The tennis sucked and I wasn’t able to move at all. I couldn’t even swing. The last 2 times actually made my back worse.

Why would I continue to try to play, knowing that I couldn’t move? Knowing that it might slow my recovery down? Because I was so determined to get better that I was completely out of touch with reality. I was almost delusional.

Sometimes I beat myself up over this. Many of my relationships have failed because of this same delusional optimism. I’ve relapsed into depression because I was unrealistic about how much I could take on. I’ve wasted countless hours trying to fix some mistake in my knitting rather than cutting my losses and ripping the thing out. (Unless you knit, you probably don’t appreciate how obsessive this is, but it is a serious waste of time.)

But at the same time, my optimism is what allows me to enjoy tennis, even when I lose badly. It’s why listening to people’s problems all day doesn’t get me down. It’s why I’ve been able to knit dresses.

Plus, even if it’s unrealistic, unbridled optimism can give us something to look forward to. Like, even if the chance of winning the jackpot is 1 in a billion, isn’t it fun to imagine what you would do with the money? To debate whether you would take the payout and calculate how much you’d have after taxes or whether you’d spread the payments out over 20 years?

I’ve actually been thinking about buying lottery tickets because the indoor facility where we play in the winter has closed, and without tennis I really do get depressed. So I fantasize about winning the lottery and building a facility, where I would build it, how many courts it would have, whether I would also have outdoor courts. Maybe I’ll even include a pro shop. Then I could buy cute tennis outfits wholesale and save some money. Not that I would need to save money since I would have won the lottery.

Do you see how much more enjoyable this obsession is rather than thinking about how I am going to be depressed and out of shape without tennis? Even if I don’t get to play, either way. And really, what’s a couple of dollars every week if it keeps hope alive?

Plus, someone has to win the lottery. So someone’s optimism paid off. Why can’t it be me?