It’s a hell of a month, and I’m not even halfway through it. During this month, I’m making a major career change after 25 years, entirely switching industries and professional focus, jumping into financial uncertainty, and ending many decades-long professional relationships.
It’s a lot. And I began the month feeling fully ready, welcoming it, embracing it, and all those things I said in my first blog post about it.
I’m still ready and welcoming it. I have no doubts or regrets.
But yesterday. Oh, yesterday.
I started the morning with an email to a new colleague, and she replied with harsh critiques of some work I’d done last week. This is becoming a theme. She’s increasingly displeased with my work, and starting next month we’ll be working together every day. Or is she actually increasingly displeased? Is that the truth? Is it just my feeling?
Then some out-of-town relatives popped in to whisk my husband away for a family reunion. I was still reeling from the email, and the relatives were full of chatty chatty chatty energy. I couldn’t meet their mood. They seemed unaware of mine. Or were they unaware? Could they tell I wanted to curl up in a ball? What did they notice?
I hugged and waved them all off, feeling both relieved to say goodbye to the chatty chatty energy and feeling freakishly abnormal. I could have joined them for lunch down the street before they left for the ruinion. I needed to eat, but there was no way I could have lunch in a noisy place and try to match the energy of their happy jabber. After lunch, they’d pile into the car and ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the happy jabber for a long drive that would end in Seattle rush-hour traffuck. I couldn’t do that. Or share hotel rooms and noisy restaurant meals through four days of relatives happily jabbering. I couldn’t. Not even. I’d run screaming.
I sometimes use my normal, happy in-laws like the macabre reflection in a harsh fun-house mirror. I gape at my exaggerated features, sometimes amused, sometimes repulsed and horrified. Guess which mood I adopted yesterday.
So, there I sat, all fun-house bumpy and disfigured, with loads of unfinished work piling in my head and around my laptop, and I stared at the walls.
After a few hours of that, I decided to try something healthier and I watched a sweet British gardening show on Netflix. The show has creativity, kindness, outdoorsness — all things I enjoy on a normal day, a day when I’m not working hard just to drag my limbs from room to room.
I got a few small things done, in the way one walks through knee-deep water, or maybe crawls through mud. I was barely functioning.
I tried to remember what mindfulness techniques might help me survive the day, might help me even want to survive the day.
“Well, hello, depression,” I said to my new state. “Long time no see. I’m surprised to see you popping up. You feel like an itchy wool blanket on a miserable hot day. You make my limbs feel heavy and my insides feel hollow. You tell my brain that nothing is worthwhile and the world is a giant, uncaring, cruel shit-show. I remember you. You used to live here.”
I felt better already. If this sounds unlikely, I understand. But naming and welcoming the feelings with gentle curiosity changed my mood. I wasn’t the freak in the wavy mirror anymore. I wasn’t an object of horror and derision. Instead, I was simply having an experience, a visitor, a weather system.
Before I go on, I want to stress that clinical depression is not mere weather or “a mood.” Depression is a serious illness. It can be progressive and fatal. At a few points yesterday, I reviewed in my mind the people and places where I could seek help, sort of like glancing at the map of emergency exits when you check into a hotel. Just in case. Safety first.
Don’t ever listen to the people who think you just need some running shoes and kale, or crystals in your pockets and magnets in your shoes, or prayer, or essential oils. And, in fact, don’t let mindfulness meditation get hijacked by that kind of magical thinking, either.
How would you treat cancer, or diabetes, or any of the other serious and progressive illnesses that some people get? You’d seek proper medical attention. You’d consider treatment options, review their effectiveness, do the full, intelligent fact-gathering piece, and then you’d choose a course of treatment. Having done that, you’d probably be wise to add some exercise and kale, prayer or meditation, some essential oils if they’re soothing or helpful. I won’t endorse the magnets and crystals, cuz that shit ain’t real, but even weird stuff is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anything and you find it helpful.
Many so-called “alternative” treatments are truly effective at managing serious illness. Science would fully endorse the kale thing — exercise and good nutrition are good for everything. And mindfulness gained mainstream acceptance after Jon Kabat-Zinn proved its success in a hospital setting with patients undergoing treatment for serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Mindfulness has shown to be as effective at treating depression as other conventional treatments.
But note that it’s being used as an adjunct treatment, under the care of people who have devoted their lives and careers to studying it — not well-meaning friends or relatives who read a magazine article or took a weekend workshop or signed up to be independent distributors of high-quality magnetic products infused with healing crystals and salt harvested from the joyful tears of Scandinavian forest gnomes.*
Aaaaand, anyway. Back to the Thursday From Hell. I stopped fighting it. I sat with it, painful as it is. And here’s the thing:
Depression is exhausting. Why waste precious, scarce energy trying to pretend you’re not depressed, or quietly scolding and judging yourself for being depressed? Or brooding over questions about whether that person really dislikes your work or you’re just imagining it, or whether those smiley-chatty relatives noticed my aching-hollow insides and the steaming blanket thrown over me?
Brooding is exhausting, and depression causes brooding. And brooding deepens depression. Vicious cycle.
So, break the cycle. It’s not a cure. That’s important here.
It’s a powerful coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms keep you reasonably sane and functional until this thing passes or you can get help, whichever comes first.
Here are the steps to managing depression with mindfulness:
Name it. Hello, depression, you private hell. You hot, itchy blanket.
Explore it. You make my limbs feel heavy. You make my insides feel hollow. You make my mind see the worst in everything.
Break the brooding. One reason the happy chatty makes me want to poke myself in my own eyeball? Because it is so incompatible with my quiet brooding. That’s not to say it would be more helpful to pile into a crowded car or a noisy restaurant with incessantly chatty companions. Find a place that’s safe and nurturing, if you can. Acknowledge that you’re brooding. Find a way to break the cycle.
Engage. I had to attend a racial justice meeting last night. I wanted to cancel. Once I got there, I spent the first hour eye-rolling through every minor irritation, every boring and too-long monologue. I watched the door. I knew it would be easy to just slip out. But then I listened to current community concerns about refugee families being separated, about refugees being detained at a nearby federal prison, about an interfaith gathering and protest outside the prison, the Sikh temple members who fed the entire crowd, and the detainees who waved out the windows of the prison to let the demonstrators know they felt the support. So what the hell was I so worried about this morning? My colleague didn’t like that Facebook video? “Not-ready-for-prime-time” she said? Yeah, that sucks. But I’m not on a prison cot. I’m not in a strange country where I don’t understand the language or the legal system.
Getting outside of ourselves if vital. It’s essential for our personal growth and for our perspective to engage in something larger than ourselves, to work for justice, to contribute in some way to making the world suck a little bit less. I noticed when I left the meeting that my limbs were a. bit easier to move. I felt like I could go home and do a little bit of something.
Create. Doing and creating are acts of hope. I saw that on Facebook one day and I copied it down. It’s true. There’s also that Zen thing about busy hands and quiet mind. Last night, I had to choose carefully. I have a list of unfinished projects (well, hello, depression) from partially-built matching side chairs to partially-built bathroom cabinets, to a stack of materials waiting to become a rag rug loom. I wasn’t up for anything ambitious or sweat-making. So I turned on the British gardening show again and I worked on a latch-hook rug I’m making from strips of old t-shirts. It’ll be soft and fluffy when it’s finished — perfect for going under my feet when I’m writing at my standing desk.
So, did I cure my depression? Oh, hell no. I coped pretty well, considering. I stayed sober and mindful and worked my way through a hellish day. I still have symptoms. I stayed up too late last night and listened to a podcast to lull myself to sleep. I had some trouble waking up this morning. I’m only slightly more productive today than yesterday. The weekend is coming up. I’m recuperating. I can’t even describe how much more functional I am than in past depressive episodes. Mindfulness hasn’t magically transformed me into a normal, happy person without depression. I’m still me. I still have the genetics and trauma that are our family crest.
I also went back to taking my full prescribed dose of anti-depressant. I almost always stretch out the doses, both for economy and to minimize side effects. That usually works, but it’s helpful to know when it isn’t working. So for now I’m on the full normal dose. This is a good month to have all the supports in place. Kale, running shoes, yoga mat. Anybody know where I can score a vial of gnome tears?
*I think I made up the part about the gnome tears. But there’s probably somebody somewhere doing something a little bit like that. You know I’m right.