This is not then. This is now.

I started reading about meditation and mindfulness when I was about 18. I had pervasive feelings of sadness, as well as anxiety, which had lasted most of my life, and I had an inkling that if I could just learn to dwell in the present moment, without ruminating on the past and future, it would help me to overcome my “difficulties”, and perhaps learn how to be happy, or at least, not miserable.

One of the first things I remember reading on the subject of mindfulness was Wherever You Go, There You Are by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. I was interested in learning to practice meditation, but I never quite caught on to Buddhist-style meditation. Simply sitting, trying to calm myself and pretend I’m a mountain or something does noooot work for me. My attention span just can’t handle it. Much more recently, I’ve learned to use mantra and have finally opened the door to a meditation practice that I can stick with.

However, I haven’t completely thrown mindfulness out the window. It just took me a really, really long time to get the hang of it. Jon Kabat-Zinn participated in the writing of another book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. I read this one when I was a little older. I distinctly remember, it was back when I started working for the TEA in 2007 and I was going through a bad episode, and I was desperately trying to learn how to concentrate on staying in the present moment as a way to alleviate depression. It simply would not click at the time. Honestly, I think I was too depressed. As Mindful points out, it is difficult to undertake the hard work of reworking your thought patterns when you are caught in the death spiral of depression: you are sad, you are exhausted, you stop taking pleasure in anything, you stop engaging in activities that keep you connected…and thoughts of worthlessness and cynicism take over.

From The Mindful Way Through Depression: “When depression starts to pull us down, we often react, for very understandable reasons, by trying to get rid of our feelings by suppressing them or by trying to think our way out of them. In the process we dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. In our heads, we try out this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling. We get lost in comparisons of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads. We become preoccupied. We lose touch with the world, with the people around us, even with those we most love and those who most love us. We deny ourselves the rich input of the full experience of living.”

This perfectly describes my experience. One example of a typical depressive thought pattern, for me: I get depressed when it is summer, or when it’s endlessly sunny. The only thing I can come up with as a reason for this is that I feel that I am supposed to be happy that it’s sunny, and everyone else is happy about it, and yet I feel as crappy as usual. I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. Often such thoughts will come to me when I’m driving, or some other time when I’m alone with my thoughts. When these thoughts strike, what I am feeling is not only the emotion of that moment, but the weight of all the previous moments when I had such awful feelings. Therefore, I am experiencing the misery of not just the present moment, but of all the miserable moments. I then start to feel bad about feeling bad. I try to think my way out of depression, and tell myself reasons why I should not be depressed.

I don’t know when, exactly, I came up with my own little personal mantra to get around this shitty spiral, but here it is: “This is not then. This is now.” When I have a moment of depression, and I feel the weight of the years trying to bear down on my brain, like I have allowed them to do for so long, I just say my little mantra to myself. It helps my brain to understand that I am not required to feel all the ugly feelings of sadness from childhood onward all at once. It also helps me understand that the feeling will not last forever. Even if the feeling you have in the present moment is not good, you can handle it…as long as you are not experiencing ALL of your bad moments, ever.

People who are not depressed must already know the trick of getting around this. I don’t know why some people are capable of learning this so much earlier on. Probably something to do with the personalities we are born with, the environments we grow up in, etc…I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now. The old thought patterns are there. You can’t change the past. But you can change your reaction to them. In the present moment. Let thoughts come up, don’t run from them. Avoidance is repression. But just remind yourself…this is not any other time. This is not then. This is now.

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The Instinct to Heal

The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk TherapyThe Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy by David Servan-Schreiber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Very interesting introduction to alternative therapies for depression, anxiety, and stress. It covers EMDR and acupuncture, and a topic new to me: heart coherence. Basically your heart beat becomes coherent when you experience warm fuzzy feelings of love and affection. It has been used, for example, to help people with a history of cardiac incident to lower their stress level and regulate heart rate.

There was also extremely interesting info on nutrition-something I have really neglected in past depression treatment. Exercise is covered, too, and also, there are some chapters on improving your communication with others to decrease stress.

This has done a lot to improve my understanding of ways to treat depression and anxiety. Next, I want to read “The Anatomy of an Epidemic”, which is about the epidemic of mental illness in the U.S., and the damage that psychotropics are doing to us. Completely fascinating.

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Such Dark Trails

Most of you know that I was quite seriously depressed for much of the last few years.  I struggled a lot to stay off medication, and then, once I decided to take it, served as my own guinea pig in the search for the right prescription.  I would equate that experience to being on a roller coaster car that you feel quite certain will fly off the track and catapult into space at any time.  The ups and downs took my breath away, they sped my heart rate up, made me very light-headed, and they made me feel batshit crazy.  Although I suffered from melancholy from a young age, I also scorned psychiatric medicine and talk therapy as crutches for the weak.  This was in the days before absolutely everyone began to talk  about mental illness.  Now, many people will share their issues with you, or perhaps even write articles or blogs about them, as I am doing here.  Certainly, these days, among my peers, there is no shame in talking to a counselor.  Use of psychotropic medication is far more accepted (this last is something I am more conflicted about).   Nevertheless, it was in law school, when stress and misery made it impossible for me to stop crying, that I first took an anti-depressant.  Since then, I have played the back-and-forth game, going on and off medication and therapy.

At one point, about a year ago, I believed I would never get better because nothing was working for me.  I accepted the idea of taking medication for the rest of my life because it seemed the only option.  Somehow I arrived at the conclusion that instead of trying to deny depression, I should accept it, and “own” it.

In the end, this only made things worse.  I was defining myself as a depressed person.  This horrible sickness became who I was.  And the truth is, I am so much more than that.  Depression is not me. It is not you.  Your beliefs about life create your life, essentially.  If you believe deeply in something, does it not make sense that your life would reflect this?

So, is depression something that can be cured?  If so, can it be done without medication?  I think the answer is very complex.  More than that, I think we each have our own answer.  It seems funny to talk about getting better without medication.  Trust me, when I was in the dark throes of it, it sounded like complete bullshit to hear people going on about how medication is bad and you shouldn’t need to depend on it.  Nevertheless, I hope that medication is not the final answer for-and let me emphasize this-ME.  Every case is unique.  Some people need it.  I needed it in the past, because I had no other real coping mechanism.  To some degree, I still need it.

I could go on for awhile about my views on depression, but that is not what I want to dwell on.  Not anymore.  In describing this history, I want only to share it with anyone who might want or need to hear it.  In the second part of this blog, I will talk about the much happier and lighter subject of getting better.  I also do not want to convey that I am completely “cured”.  I think it’s a struggle for all of us to keep up our spirits.  But, I have made strides toward happiness and contentment that I did not believe possible, and this gives me faith that it could be possible for anyone, given the right circumstances.

Praising Manners

I’ve decided to post poems that speak to me from time to time. Maybe I will eventually post one of my own, if i can get it into interwebz shape.

This poem is one I’ve loved for years. There is an obvious depression theme that captured my interest. Honestly, I used to think this poem was actually written by Robert Bly, rather than only translated by him. It is no surprise, though, to find that the actual poet was Rumi.

I particularly like the following line: “Inner gifts do not find their way to creatures without just respect.”

To me, this poem is about letting go of self-pity, which is something I have often had far too much of. When I was deep in depression, I simply did not have the wherewithal to praise. However, this poem, even in those dark times, was like a homing beacon, calling me to the present time, when the sun is so much more full of light.

-Kate

Praising Manners

“We should ask God
To help us towards manners. Inner Gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without just respect.

If a man or woman flails about, he not only
Smashes his house,
He burns the world down.

Your depression is connected to your insolence
And refusal to praise. If a man or woman is
On the path, and refuses to praise-that man or woman
Steals from others every day-in fact is a shoplifter!

The sun became full of light when it got hold of itself.
Angels began shining when they achieved discipline.

The sun goes out whenever the cloud of not-praising comes near.
The moment that foolish angel felt insolent, he heard the door close.”

-Rumi, as translated by poet Robert Bly