Hon? Are you ok?” I looked up, my face covered in tears and snot. “I’m not sure”, I said.
I wasn’t sure. That was the hardest part.
More nights than not I found myself curled in a ball against the back wall of our walk in closet, my head on my knees. My husband would leave me, mostly, knowing that I needed the space. He’d check on me though, too. That time was hard on both of us.
Oddly, I remember looking up at my striped velvet jacket with the fake fur collar. So cool. So “I don’t care what anyone else thinks”. Sitting on the floor, I thought how I’d never wear it now.
Oh I might, but I wouldn’t mean it. That girl was lost.
It seems ridiculous to think we can lose ourselves, doesn’t it? But we do.
We lose who we think we are – and we have to start all over again. No one tells us this is going to happen. And we have no idea what to do when it does.
I didn’t know where to begin looking to find the old me. The one that could make friends easily, the one that was always up for a good time, the one that pulled herself up by her roots and moved countries. The one that wasn’t bearing a load of grey.
I wanted nothing more to ignore that load of grey – to just lift it off and get on with it. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t that simple.
There’s still stigma around depression when you’re the one who has it. Empathy for everyone else – but not me.
Suck it up. Get on with it. One foot in front of the other. Keep calm and carry on. Don’t be such a baby.
Are you familiar with these words too? The people that teach us these words are trying to protect us from a world that can be hard. They’re teaching us what they’ve been taught.
But these words don’t protect us. On the contrary, we end up hurting ourselves, and others, with them. We have to be careful with how they’re directed.
If we don’t know that though, and it’s the only way we know to be, it’s hard to figure out something different.
Have you ever had a wild bird fly into your house? We have floor to ceiling windows and glass doors that stay open most the spring and summer, so this happens occasionally.
Birds fly in. For some reason, they are drawn to one corner behind a sideboard. They can see the outside – it’s right there – but they can’t get to it. They knock themselves against the window, over and over, losing feathers, becoming more anxious. More frightened.
Finally, the bird gives up, either through exhaustion or futility. Maybe both. It lies there for a while, stunned. It reorients itself. And it finds the open door.
We have to do that too.
To stop struggling, we have to admit that we are struggling.
I had to admit it was time to stop looking for what was outside of me to bring me joy, and to start looking within. And then I had to learn to surrender to all possibilities.
We’re taught to win at all costs. We’re taught that surrender is a loss. So surrendering in order to win the fight is confusing.
That’s why depression was such a great teacher. The usual rules don’t apply, and there are no easy answers. I had to be humbled enough to start over, to un-learn a whole bunch of stuff and to find a new way.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t trust anyone that says they do. But here’s some of what I learned when I let go:
1. You are loved. You are supported. But here’s the crappy thing. Usually, before you get to access that to its fullest extent, you have to believe it.
This love and support looks different for everyone. I’m not sure what it looks like for you, but I am a firm believer that it should look exactly how you want it to, and however it works for you.
For me, it looks like lots of different things: nature, quiet, my fellow humans: someone letting me into traffic, or opening the door for me, my husband cooking me dinner, my kids hugging me spontaneously, or a friend surprising me with a thoughtful birthday gift four months late.
I couldn’t see any of this when I was depressed, as much as I wanted to. That’s one of the things that really sucks about it. But it’s also one of the things depression has to teach us. In order to feel held, we have to really, truly, wholeheartedly understand that we are worthy of being held.
2. It is okay to feel unhappy. It is okay to feel unhappy, angry, frustrated, dismal, sad and upset. Maybe all at the same time.
We live in a culture obsessed with happiness and “positive” emotion. With this paradigm in place there’s not much that can make a person feel worse than not feeling joyful all the time.
Our conditioning causes us to put pressure on ourselves to be persistently happy, and the external pressure from well-meaning family, friends, and society perpetuates it.
You’re not going to feel happy all the time. And that is okay.
Grief and pain can be some of our greatest teachers, if we allow them to be. You’re not always going to feel welcoming towards them – and that is okay too. We’re not used to them so if their presence becomes too much, seek help from a therapist and/ or doctor.
Much of the time, asking for help is a big (and really important) part of surrender.
3. If you can learn to acknowledge your feelings as they arise, they don’t bog you down.
It’s the judging we do of our feelings that causes us to become entangled in them.
We judge what we perceive as “negative” feelings and try to turn them into “positive” feelings. Unfortunately, this becomes wishful thinking that if we let enough light in we won’t have to face the dark. But we have to face the dark. If we ignore it, it will continue to find ways to get our attention.
With a meditation and mindfulness practice, you can learn to love whatever arises. This is a practice; life-long from what I can tell. I don’t always get it right. You probably won’t always get it right.
It doesn’t matter. Just keep practicing.
4. Resist the urge to beat yourself up if you’re not where you want to be. Do everything you can to heal, and recognize that it’s a process. It’s part of the journey.
Especially if control or perfectionism or achievement is one of your coping mechanisms, you’ll be tempted to make your recovery another goal.
Be gentle with yourself. The more you can let go of an outcome, the better your chances of reaching it.
Don’t let other people make you their project either. Have you ever had someone tell you when you’re feeling down to count your blessings? And have you ever noticed a corresponding urge to want to punch them in the face?
In my experience, no one that’s depressed, or anxious, or feels bad about themselves, feels better by being encouraged to think positively.
There’s a beautiful story by Parker Palmer about his experience with clinical depression. Every day, his friend Bill came to sit with him and massage his feet. He didn’t talk much – only occasionally to make an observation. He didn’t offer advice and he didn’t try to fix anything. He was fully present with what was. What an amazing gift.
I wonder if we can do more of that for ourselves, and for others.
5. Constructive thinking is better than positive thinking.
There’s a quote by Criss Jami: “It is ironic that constructive thinkers are often misunderstood as negative, as they differ from those longing for positivity: constructive thinkers have been conditioned to find positive in negative rather than suffering from the negative in negative.”
We don’t need to continually create paradox for ourselves. There is enough paradox in life to contend with already. Instead, we can learn to observe the “positive” and the “negative”. We work on labelling neither, and we get constructive.
Depression asks us to be constructive.
It requires our full attention, our full presence, our commitment to acknowledge how we got there in the first place. If I’d kept going the way I was living – with my attention on career and status and what other people thought of me – without depression knocking on my door – I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be humble enough to get help and to start looking for other ways to be
It requires us to leave what we knew as the status quo. It invites us to stop suppressing, denying, stuffing, running, shoving and projecting. It asks us to travel from the chaos we’re in to a new set of parameters and perspectives.
It asks us not for false optimism but for real enduring hope – a deep knowing that you deserve to feel joy again.
Sharon Salzberg said it well: “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” (this is often misattributed to the Buddha, but I’m pretty sure it was Sharon that paraphrased this particular quote).
That’s some of what depression taught me, in all its constructive wisdom. It asked me to start unwrapping and find what was enduring underneath. It asked me to leave what I’d seen as external happiness and find joy, which can only come from within.
These gifts never arrive in pretty paper – quite the opposite actually. Our humanity usually requires us to learn the hard way. But I hope (in the most real, enduring, hopeful kind of way) that should you decide to unwrap yours, intentionally, with the greatest of care, that you too find something beautiful inside.
This post also appeared on Positively Positive (January 2017).