Darkness is definitely familiar.
Depressive episodes usually have a trigger. They usually have a setup.
In my case, this recent one was brewing for the last two years.
Last month, my second mother, who was my constant, that one person who believed in me even though she knew everything about me, and who had seen me at my worst more than once and loved me through it every time, died before I could get there, after there'd been a strange distance between us for a little over a year... And I tumbled off the cliff I'd precariously walked myself out to, and plunged into a familiar well of despair.
There are a lot of metaphors, cartoons, and essays out there that describe accurately what it's like to feel depressed, or what it's like having to deal with chronic depression or anxiety, but not many about what it's like to be suicidal and in the middle of a major episode. People don't talk about these kinds of things very often. Like people don't talk about abortion, rape, STDs, or domestic abuse. But these things shouldn't be off limits. It hurts those affected so much more if silence is expected, if the only reaction allowed is stoicism and burying these experiences. It perpetuates a culture of fear and separation from one other, and worst, of judgment and blaming towards those who suffer the effects of these things, things all of us either have experienced personally or that someone very close to us who has, even if we aren't aware of it.
Since I've now made it through two major depressive episodes, with a smattering of minor ones interjected throughout the last 30-odd years, I felt it might be helpful to others to hear something of what it's like, at least for me. It is hard to go through it, but it's also terrible for anyone wanting to help.
I can see ways I contribute to these episodes, with stuck or unquestioned beliefs that are unhelpful, with choices that end up being painful lessons, blind spots I have that are not quite illuminated... but mostly it's a combination of brain chemistry I inherited, timing of life events, unconscious habits I haven't decoded yet, and combinations of others' choices that are unskillful that affect me (perhaps more than average) due to all of the above.
I know I'm not special in this, despite the self-absorption that comes with severe depression, and I know I'm very very lucky to still be alive and to have the privilege to ruminate and write about these experiences.
For those of you who don't have your own issues totally figured out (how many people do, really?) and might be scared and upset and hurt by someone saying they think you are better off without them, or by them not telling you what's going on, or telling you they're 'fine' while acting differently towards you... and of course for those of us whose dark thoughts overwhelm us sometimes, I'm writing this for all of us. Especially since I'm not totally out of the woods yet, I thought it might help to shine a little light.
On many days in my regular life, I have voices in my head. We all do. They are all 'my' voice, phrases and attitudes and snap judgments and emotionally tied thoughts I have had in the past, or things I heard as a child and internalized, repeated familiar and comfortable thoughts, dark ones and light ones and all the grey areas in between.
Some are ridiculous, justifying indulgent first-world things like eating too much or buying something on a whim. Some are introvert voices, convinced that staying in and reading is preferable to almost any other activity. Some are immediate knee-jerk reactions to events or people that are negative or positive or neutral, most not actually true. Some are positive and optimistic, saying everything will work out, that new activity will be fun to try, go ahead and apply for that new job, go to that party- great people will be there and it will be really enjoyable.
Many of these I have trained myself to slow down and evaluate before acting on or allowing to continue, after 20 years of meditation and philosophy study. Many of these respond well to compassionate treatment.
But some thoughts argue against trying a new activity because it's too late in life and there's no way to excel now and it's too dangerous for someone who is out of shape... stop eating that because it will put on weight... go ahead and eat that because it doesn't matter at this point... There's no reason to go out and try to be social, it's exhausting and will add to the list of failures...
It's the insidiousness of this last type of voices that keeps them going, because they're not completely wrong, they can argue in circles, and they're constant so I've become used to them. The small, "typical, idiot" when I am clumsy or say the wrong thing. The quiet, "just leave, no one wants you here" when an interaction with an acquaintance or friend is uncomfortable.
Even when things are going well, there are days where the angry and hurtful thoughts are louder and harder to ignore or replace. Add in hormones, poor food choices, or alcohol, and the most unpleasant kinds of thoughts become more ferocious and insistent.
And when those thoughts are at their loudest, like the past 6 weeks for me, it is like being in a black metal box, cold, dark, and full of echoes of only the worst things bouncing around my mind. I can't see out, and I can't hear well, except sometimes very simple messages and actions, like morse code for my sprained brain. Despite my meditation training, my counseling experience, my medical knowledge, my scientific and logical brain, I feel exactly like a panicked child, overwhelmed by the darkest emotions.
If someone walks away, or gets mad at me, or is offended by something negative I say, or listens to my horrible trains of thought and believes it, it reinforces the awful things I'm telling myself over and over.
If, in a lucid moment I ask for help, for reassurance, for time and patience, a day later I might be back in a spiral of despair and unable to hear anything except, maybe, 'I am still here and will be here when you come out of this.'
Those are the types of things few people are able to say truthfully. It is hard to stand next to me.
I was 4 when I heard the first thought that now I would never say to someone I cared about. I thought then, looking in our bathroom mirror, simply and forcefully, that the reason I was lonely and felt terrible was because I was ugly with my face covered in chicken pox, and no one could love me. It didn't occur to me that I was just sick, crabby because of my fever and itchy skin, upset that my mom was on a trip and not there to take care of me, and, most importantly, I didn't realize it was temporary. And there was no one there to tell me different. I catastrophized and repeated to myself a version of reality I had heard my mother say regarding herself when she didn't know I was listening. That particular brand of thought is still one of my most frequent and loudest.
Growing up, and even sometimes as an adult, events and unkind people reinforced and added to the negative script that for whatever reason I am prone to repeating and dwelling on.
Through several trials of medications, multiple types of therapy, multiple kinds of meditation, exercise, travel, holistic therapies, and of course the steadfastness of loving friends and chosen family, many tenacious little ideas have stayed stuck to their steep handholds or broken bridges and rebuilt their impressive overpasses again every time an earthquake of positivity or love knocked them back and quieted their insistence.
Over the years they have grown more drastic, louder, and the repetition makes them easier to believe when I'm at my lowest points, especially if I'm lacking external support at the time.
"No one can deal with me, I'm not worth it to anyone... No one should even have to be in the same room with me most of the time I'm so terrible and negative... My friends still love me because they are unusually wonderful kind generous people, not because I'm worth their time and energy... I should take myself out of everyone's lives forever because I have nothing to offer... I only take from people and ruin their days... After failing so many times there is no way to improve... I am incapable of working, of making a difference, of having a successful relationship... I can't trust my own perception, my intuition, my choices... I can off myself in a hotel bathtub when no one knows where I am, and put a note on the bathroom door so the housekeeper won't have to see me... I can just drive off into that ravine or that big tree or that metal post and it will be quick and I won't hurt anyone else..."
In my case, luckily, I usually let the thoughts continue forward a bit. So most of the worst thought trains end in, 'but you'll probably fail at that too,' 'but what if someone brought you back', 'but what if someone else found you and they had PTSD afterwards', 'but what if reincarnation is real and you are born into a worse scenario that is much much harder'... and I generally talk myself into inaction, which requires less energy, and most importantly for me, seems to be less hurtful to others than the alternative.
I grit my teeth, listening to these thoughts but not doing the drastic things I agree in the moment are best. I avoid talking to people, I let myself sit in the darkness. I secretly hope to be saved. I hold onto a tiny bit of hope it will pass and I will see light again.
This time, when things were at their worst, alone in a hotel room (without a bathtub), after my partner had left me officially via text, on my birthday, as I flew across the country to go to the funeral... I silently begged the universe or myself or any being listening, for help. I didn't expect it, I never do. If help comes, it often doesn't arrive in any time frame or way I can connect with the asking. But this time, I got a text within a few minutes, asking me to dinner, the night before the funeral. A few minutes later, another text and invitation. I declined both, but I did respond. Then I responded to an incoming birthday text. And another. And a birthday email. And I managed to tell a few friends I wasn't doing well and to accept and thank a few people for their sweet messages and positive energy. Then, my second mom's husband, who is of course distraught beyond anything I can possibly imagine, called and asked me to dinner. So I had to go. Even though it was a full house of people I wasn't sure I had the ability to interact with in the state I was in. I was gently brought back into conversations within the circle of family. The next day I had to go to the memorial. And I was warmly enveloped into family and friend life, despite everything, despite myself, despite that I'm not actually family and have no right to the comfort and love I'm shown, and despite the fact I'm not all that supportive in return at the moment.
But I want to be. And that, I think, is the point. Some people remember that even in the worst moments, I never want to hurt anyone, even if I am currently hurting them. Even in my worst moments I want to love and be loved, just like everyone does, even if I push people away out of fear. Even when I'm feeling weak for not having the energy to fight the thoughts that shred my heart. And it's a testament to those in my life that have enough love to share, that they do, even with a crabby, angry, crazy, prickly, scary, messy, porcupine of a woman. I suppose they can remember better than I can the times when I can be silly, enthusiastic, soft, consistent, loyal, and empathetic.
Not all of those of us who struggle with serious depression come out of these episodes. Not all of us have friends or family to remain steadfast and loving despite the swirling clouds of negativity that surround us and end up affecting everyone we interact with. Not all of us have one or even two friends who might be suffering at the same time to distract us, give us a purpose, and keep us going. Not all of us can ask for help. Not all of us have someone respond in time.
If you have a friend or partner or family member who seems to withdraw, who panics, or who acts irrationally, take a moment to imagine what they might be fighting through to simply stay alive. Regardless if their troubles make sense to you or not, if their issues seem logical or serious enough to evoke such drastic emotions or actions, take a moment to step back and give yourself some space. If you love them, if you believe they are intrinsically good, if you want to help, if you have the energy to attempt to help, take a breath. Look at your own capacity and see what you can do. Look for help for yourself so you can become more skilled at helping them. Of course, if it is too difficult and your own life has too many requirements on your energy, it is always necessary to take care of yourself first. There is no way to help someone else if you are struggling and barely on your feet. And pity or duty or obligation won't help as much as true caring and compassion- although there is something to be said for simply showing up, regardless of why.
But if you find you can really show up, strong and resilient when the person you love can't be, your own boundaries and self-compassion in place... Suggest that even if you aren't capable or qualified to be of help at the worst moments, you will assist them in finding more professional help, or if they refuse, that you will take care of yourself but will keep checking in at intervals. That they are important to you and what they do affects you. That you will listen, as much as you can, and will sit next to them while they feel filled with despair. Remind them you are there, that you believe they will make it out of this. Know they likely can't hear your positivity or advice and may take it as a judgment or reinforcement of their insufficiency. And when you see a bit more light in their eyes, when they seem to be able to hear you and resonate a bit more with love or joy or at least neutral emotions, keep up your strength and faith in them until they can fully stand on their own.
Understand that during the worst panic or anxiety or depression, there is no ability to have perspective, realistic self-awareness, or hope for the future.
The most helpful thing, at least in my experience when things are at their worst, is for you to simply show up, as far as you are able, just simply to be there, however you can.
Sometimes there are helpful aids, medication, religion, music, meditation, work, exercise, therapy... and even with those, sometimes for some of us the only way out is all the way down and through. Sometimes, people choose to go all the way down and away from life. I can't blame them, and I can't give them an argument against their decision, except that to say that things are never as they seem, and always change.
In my case, I wonder if somehow I actually want to get to the bottom of it, to understand suffering better, to understand human nature better, to somehow find a way to alleviate my own suffering... I know I have a hope or a belief that if I ever did find a way, that I would want to use that understanding to help alleviate the suffering of others.
Today, I hope that these feelings of being in pieces, of having no control, of failing at 'everything,' of not-knowing, can teach me. I hope the polarities I swing between, of zero possibilities and unlimited possibilities, of alone-ness and complete lack of separation from the suffering of the world, can be balanced and lead me to a middle way. I hope I can learn to live with myself as I am, and practice what work is necessary to improve my ability to participate well. I hope, I truly do hope today, that this isn't the end, that somehow energy will return, and that I will get to learn how to be more skillful at living this human experience. Curiously open, passionately involved, and, most of all, peacefully welcoming.
"You Want It Darker"
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
You used to complain about your weight, then eat ice cream before bed.
You wouldn’t open up when you were upset for days, then a trigger would send you at me suddenly, howling in terrifying rage that made no sense to me.
You didn’t trust your body since it seemed to betray you so often, and had no tolerance for pain, resisting it and distracting yourself instead of taking better care.
You were so afraid of me being hurt that any small thing would send you into a panic over me, instilling a deeply etched pattern I keep trying to shake off.
Your black and white thinking alienated so many people, and your certainty kept you closed off and ashamed of your own choices, your misplaced guilt a shark-filled moat around you.
You wanted to connect so badly that your intensity backfired, leaving you mostly alone.
Your own brother barely knew you…
Your father blamed himself for so much, not because he did treat you badly when you were young, but because of his choices in women…
Your mother lied to you about why she was so depressed and angry, and after she died you wished you could speak with her.
And I realize, all at once, that all these things, so directed at you, so angry at you, so judgmental of you, voices repeated by my mind over the years, can also be said at many points, completely, truly, about me.
Your sense of humor was excellent, and we would make each other laugh until we couldn’t breathe.
You tried hard to exercise, to eat healthier food, and enjoyed small adventures.
You loved philosophy, archaeology, old movies, music, science fiction, and poetry.
You thought you had a good answer for how to make the world a better place.
You loved to sing in other languages.
Music moved you, could make you cry, or motivate you to dance awkwardly around the living room.
You had a gift for seeing into me, understanding what really motivated me, who I was, solidly, reliably, predictably, underneath the roiling emotions that constantly disturb my surface, and your advice and love were deep.
Your relationship with grampa got much better over time.
You understood your mother so much better after she died, and although that was painful, it was helpful too.
All these things are also true for me.
No suffering is ever unconnected.
No connection is ever without effect.
Letting go of certainty and blame,
the innocence of interdependent arising
can begin to be seen to illuminate existence.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
it seems to you I do nothing
sitting, walking, reading, writing, thinking
and in a sense I agree
there are days when doing nothing
means I stay here-
it is a meditation,
incredible restraint, non-doing-
when the pressure to escape
is a fault line ready to slip
when each imagined new path
is met with screams of ‘impossible’
when memories of children and fathers
explain that I will always be irrelevant
when I have exhausted my grip
sleep is less adventurous than death...
and so, this evening,
when you ask what I did today,
I can extend my arms to you,
and say, ‘nothing’
Sunday, February 28, 2016
We are born into an hourglass, a structure of time
For a moment there is no sand around us
But the colorless sand transformed into our cage.
But the colorless sand transformed into our cage.
As we take our first breath
The universe is transparent, boundless.
We enter into our own time
The count starts, sand lands on our heads
Shocked, we cry, trapped, cold, alone.
The grains fall around us, they become familiar
We use them, become comfortable in them
As it falls we assume new sand will always fall
So we can keep building our sandcastles…
Some become aware of our imprisonment
Some attempt to escape early
Rushing Jumping Building Steps
Up towards the fall of sand
The movement looks to show only one way out
Choking, suicidal, some get stuck in the rush of time
But spirits cannot move from the stream until the grains have all fallen through…
For the rest, when the grains run out, for a moment there is peace
A clear path for spirit to leap into the empty chamber above
Leaving our bodies below.
Spirit can float free without time
Until inertia turns the hourglass over and we begin again
The dust from our old lives mixing with time
Pouring over us again, old patterns and habits
While our spirit remembers only love and wisdom
It begs to be heard through the noise from the fall
There is a spirit that remembers its nature is pure light
And for the joy of it
The joy alone
The spirit embraces its light nature
Floating free between turns of the glass
Illusion is banished
And light passes through glass
There comes a choice
To be light inside time
Or to be light outside time
To return to time as light?
Monday, January 11, 2016
I still remember how you used to look at me. Trying to look at my eyes, frustration, distraction, desire, struggling to care about my words. In the dream early this morning it was the same. Even as I woke up, the need to explain the story I was telling you, the need for you to understand, to sympathize, to be indignant for me, to laugh with me and make me feel better about the jerk who'd tried to use me to hurt my friend, all of those things felt real enough that I wanted to finish telling you the story even after I was fully awake. But as the dream faded and I thought about how real it seemed, I remembered why you couldn't listen, why you missed so much. In the dream I had only a pink tank top on, the one I have now that is too big that I sleep in sometimes, but it didn't matter. You always saw me and said I was so little, you saw my body, you saw under my clothes, you saw what you wanted to do 10 minutes from then. You had trouble being present, hearing my words, seeing the person who loved you, focusing long enough to get to know me all the way through. I mostly wanted a friend back then, I wanted you to be someone you weren't capable of being for me. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that I was so angry at you for so long after either. I probably could have made it easier on us, but I didn't know how at the time. I didn't see the person who loved me either. But love is not necessarily what you need it to be, since it comes from a person who is not necessarily what you need for your soul to feel at home. I hope you understand that now like I do. You were the only one there for me during the worst week of my life, and I can never transmit to you the extent of my gratitude, and how much I love you for that gesture, no matter the ulterior motive. A song on my way home tonight sang to me about getting over someone, but I will never get over anyone I've loved. Nor would I want to. Because for me love is forever, even if it changes form, because I use it as a verb, and I still love you. If I give away a piece of my heart, there isn't a loan or lease, it is yours. Crush it like you did, give it away like you did, forget it like I thought you did, it is still yours. The giving made my heart stronger somehow, letting more light out and in through the gaps.