Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Depression and the Beginner's Mind

As I was hiking up the M trail in Bozeman last night, I was thinking about depression. A lot of people in my life suffer from it, and we have all felt the effects of it at one time or another in our lives.

I think one of the most insidious aspects to depression, or depressed behavior, is that a part of you wishes you could just stop feeling bad, so you could stop procrastinating, and get on with your life. But because you feel it is silly, or stupid to even be having trouble, you get down on yourself.

We all procrastinate when the task in front of us looks monumental. We all hide from the thing we should be doing, and do the thing we want to be doing first. Sometimes, we can't do ANYTHING, because we are actually in the grips of a depressive episode.

Here is an example: You are laying in bed, feeling terrible. This kind of depression was described to me once as a series of heavy, wet, cold, wool blankets that are wrapped and piled on top of you. You know the world is out there, you know you should be participating in it, but the blankets are so heavy, stifling and overwhelming that you can't move, let alone participate in your life.

I have been fortunate enough to have had several friends in my life trust me to be with them while they are struggling through this kind of crippling pain. To a person, they all hated themselves for their inability to just turn it off and get on with their lives. They all had an amazing ability to be critical of themselves, and judge themselves harshly in the moment. ("I am so lame. I should just get up. Other people are out there going to the grocery store, how come I can't even get my ass off the bed?? I suck. I am lazy.")

Let's put this in perspective for just a moment. If you had a student in skiing who was talking like that, what would your hopes for their ability to master the basic skills be? Pretty low, right? Because they are unwilling to see that they might have the potential to make a different choice, to be open to change, to be willing to be proud of themselves as they struggle through these challenging situations.

Laying in bed and judging yourself harshly for not being able to do what you can normally do when you are not depressed is NOT helpful! It does not move you toward the goal of moving out of the depressive episode. On the contrary, it underlines and gives power to all the "magic thoughts" that are keeping you in bed.

Last year, I really really wanted to ski bumps and powder (and especially powdery bumps!), and ski them well, and fast. But while I was getting much better at skiing in general, I lacked the skill set to effortlessly play in the minefield that is bump skiing. It was an enormous, hugely concentrated effort to get down that line without hurting or killing myself, and I was exhausted just standing at the top and looking at what I had to tackle.

It was unrealistic to be upset with myself while I was attempting this, because I am new at doing this. I don't have an ingraned skill set that can bridge the gap from the begining of the situation to exiting at the end.

Depression is the same. When you are in the grips of a depressive episode, you lack the skill set to enter life effortlessly. It is UNREALISTIC when you are a BEGINNER at caring for yourself through your depression, or depressed day, to think that you should be able to just tell yourself to hop out of bed, get dressed, go into town, talk to people, run errands, and get some exercise. And why wouldn't it be? Those are BIG BUMPS!

Now, there is the argument that because you have that skill set MOST of the time, it should be no different when you are feeling badly. That you are just not following through with what you know you should do. But if you are normally able to get out of bed and get on with your life, and today, you aren't... it's obviously not the same situation. If you are feeling like you are going to have a panic attack if you take a shower, obviously, we are operating in a different psychological space than on a day when you are feeling healthy.

I propose a different tack. I believe that across the spectrum, from "having a crappy day" to feeling suicidal to being in the midst of a Bi-Polar Panic attack, the solution for re-entering your life in a way that makes you feel sane and human lies here:

Your job is to build a skill set that can carry you across the bridge from non-functioning to functioning. To do this, you must set aside judgement and criticsm. You must begin to act with care. You must take your wins, for things you would not normally celebrate in your every day life. Because in this situation, getting out of bed and making a cup of tea is a HUGE accomplishment. And you should thank yourself for taking that risk, for making a caring, nurturing gesture towards yourself, and that thank you, the power of a non-judgemental moment in which you care for yourself will gather impetus.

First, remove judgement, realizing that in this stage, you are a beginner, building a skill set. In that mindset, you must be hopeful that you will master a simple skill before you can move on effortlessly to more advanced maneuvers.

Second, act with compassion and love towards yourself: Make a cup of tea, put on some music, take a shower. Then, maybe you can make some food. Read a magazine. Then, maybe, you can walk outside and feel the sunshine on your skin. Breathe in the air, feel the warmth, listen for the birds and the wind in the leaves. Say thank you for these things you are doing for yourself. They are bridges towards sanity and normalcy in your day!

Third, be patient: The path to success is littered with failures! You are going to fall down on the way. Now its time to learn some trust. Find a friend who loves you anyway, even when you aren't feeling good.

Realize that these steps are NOT "Just stop being depressed" and that I am not suggesting that you just feel better. I am suggesting that the hyper-negative funnel that are depressive thoughts can be balanced a bit by a small amount of compassion and patience. You must nurture yourself through this pain, until you emerge in a place where the pain exists, but doesn't rule you.

The more often you do this, the stronger your skill set becomes to build that bridge. In this way, you build a platform in which you are willing to do the hard work. Now, if your depressive episodes happen often, and interrupt your life, its time to expand your support system and get some professional help from a great Psychologist.

Oh, boy. That's asking a lot, especially if you've been to one before and "it didn't work". But remember, a psychologist can help you do the work. They can't cure you on their own. They will help you build the skill set that you will apply. If you've been before, and it "didn't work", maybe you weren't in a place where you were ready to do the work, or face the triggers, or familial behavior that got you here in the first place.

Everyone faces days like this. Some of us get throttled by the throat by it. Some don't. Be kind to yourself as you work through it, ask yourself for a small favor, and say thank you. In this way, you can be loved into health.


SingletrackM1nd said...

Thanks. That's basically every day for me.

a said...

Thanks for reading! If this is every day for you, you definitely need a support group that understands depression so that you can make some progress toward freedom. Do you have a great therapist? Take care of yourself and be kind... thinking of you.

Liat said...

I can relate to those "magic thoughts" you were talking about. They happen to me when I am way down in the dumps, and they certainly help keep me there. I found that the very first step in doing what you say- nurturing yourself while acknowledging the space you are in- is being able to recognize (without judgment) that that is the space you are in! Which takes practice, of course.

a said...

this comment was sent via email: "I forgot to mention that I really liked your blog post on depression. It is something I have struggled with for awhile and I have finally began to learn how to deal with it better in the last few."

a said...

I have gotten a bunch of comments and emails from this post, and I just want to say thank you to everyone for being open and reading this.

Its amazing to me how many people are silently struggling with this, who think its their fault, who feel like there is no hope for change.

Know that you are not alone, that there is hope, you can recover, and your life will have beauty in it again!

I will post shortly on suicidal thoughts, as several people have mentioned them, and I have some thoughts on that matter as well.

Much love to you, and be kind to yourselves!