There is only one thing I dread and that is to not be equal to my own sufferings.
A few years ago, I suffered through three brutal winters. I lived on the side of a forlorn but scenic little mountain in wild Appalachia. I had one neighbor across the road whose house was hidden up in the trees. Other than that I was alone in a forest, in a house I could barely afford to heat, a newly single-mom who’d moved across the country, leaving a 10 year marriage and everything that wouldn’t fit into her car behind.
Back to back blizzards stomped the east coast, immobilizing my community for days, even weeks. Huge blocks of ice stayed on the ground for two months at a time. Two years in a row, I spent Christmas alone, after sending my daughter off to her dad’s only to get snowed in.
I remember shoveling my quarter-mile driveway to a decrepit road that wasn’t state maintained and looking at snow so cold it turned blue on my shovel.
A killing blue.
I remember looking up and truly seeing that wild country for what it was: a place so rugged that it killed people. I thought of all the generations that had lived or traveled right through that spot before me, and how many of them didn’t make it out. I sincerely wondered if I would make it out. Maybe I wouldn’t die from exposure or starvation . . . but I might die from depression or grief.
The Whys of Depression
Last week, we got our first snow here in the southeast US and it was particularly sweet and beautiful. The Internet was chock full of “gratitude” posts and if I thought about it (if I really thought about it) there wouldn’t be enough time in the day for me to list all the things I am grateful for. That said, I still get depressed. In fact, I’ve struggled with depression since I was about 9 years old. And this is the time of year – winter and holidays – when so many of us struggle silently with seasonal affective disorder and depression.
Even though my life is awesome right now.
I still have depression. And because I’ve had it for so long,often despite any circumstantial causes, I consider it a disease.
Oh, I know you might think people’s choices cause depression. I would even agree with that somewhat. Our choices do cause it sometimes. I also know I can affect my thoughts and feelings. In fact, I know I can usually manage my depression with the right set of behaviors. This set of behaviors is like “self-therapy.” I know if I lapse, the depression will come back. Because it never goes away. Never. No matter how I feel. It can go into a state I call “remission” but it never goes away.
That’s why my depression is a disease.
This infographic shows that in 2012, one in ten Americans are affected by depression: a statistic that’s remained fairly stable over the past few years. And in general, women are twice as likely to experience depression as men.
This Huffington Post article claims that suicide now takes more lives in America than any other injury. Suicide is not always motivated by depression – but it commonly is. It overtook car accidents in 2009.
There are so many approaches one can take when trying to answer the “why” of depression.
There’s the positive advice approach which might argue that depression is what happens when you and your potential fractures. There are seasonal, geographic, and genetic approaches. There are major life changes. There are the losses we incur by living. There is culture. And there is family background, which can predispose or traumatize us.
I like the way Maggie Nelson puts it when she examines the child psychologist, Winnecot’s, language:
Should the baby’s holding environment not be good enough, he or she will suffer the primitive agonies: falling forever, all kinds of disintegration, things that disunite body and psyche . . .
He goes on. And the further fruits of privation: going to pieces, falling forever, dying and dying and dying, losing all vestige of hope of contact.
Dying and dying and dying. This is what depression feels like.
But if this is so, then we come to a possibility. We can invert it. We can live and live and live.
Many of us do both.
The Curious Links Between Depression and Creativity: Who Cares?
There’s also a well-known link between depression, mental illness and creativity. But scientists are divided on this account and so are anecdotal sources. In short, we still don’t know enough about the human brain to say anything conclusive about depression.
This 40 year study found that there was no link between psychopathology and creatives. However, it did find that people with some diagnoses like schizophrenia were over-represented in creative fields. Huh?
This means that a creative person is no more likely to be diagnosed with a psychopathology than someone in the general population. Rather, it means that those who have a psychopathology are more likely to go into creative fields.
When I Googled “creativity and depression” the arguments were all over the place. Apparently, the depression-creativity link is a myth, and it blocks creativity. It also aids creativity. Creatives are more depressed while nope! creatives are happier than the general population.
I can ask: why have I been depressed since the age of nine? The answer is a horizon I will never reach. The reasons are layered and spreading, more complex than I can fathom.
Here’s what I do know: I have it. When I finally acknowledged that fact at the age of 35, things got a lot better for me. I was able to ask myself: how can I put this deadly disease into remission? How can I live and live and live?
Things That Help Me Live and Live and Live
Food Is Medicine. This was brought powerfully home to me when I went on a cleanse in 2010. My mood synced with my food and it was clear how critical nutrition was for my wellness. Kris Carr’s work absolutely changed my life in making the link between disease treatment, health, and depression. I also really enjoy Lissa Rankin’s important work on the importance of the stress response and how to manage it.
Get Regular Sleep. Getting up and going to sleep at the same time each day is key. This is what I’m worst at. I try to get up at 7 each day and be in bed by 11 each night. Research also backs these times up.
Move. Move your body through dance or exercise regularly. I like yoga and dance. And I credit belly dance, not antidepressants, for giving me the strength to move off that lonely mountain and go for a better life. People say any type of movement will work but I feel dance un-sticks emotional energy in a way nothing else does. I suspect there’s extra value in moving in unexpected, pleasurable ways, whether it’s trapeze, pole dance, or skipping down the street.
Get Your Subconscious In On The Game. The subconscious most often motivates the expansive terrain of behavior and mood. This is why it’s so important to bring it inline. There are so many ways to do this but my favorite is visual. I put visual cues up to remind me of how I’d like to feel, or a wellness habit, or even who I am. For example, I got a tattoo on the insides of both of my forearms. It’s meant to remind me of my 3+ years alone on that mountain, how I wanted to die. It’s meant to remind me of those lessons.
Educate Yourself. Our brains are fascinating, complex organs that scientists aren’t even close to understanding. But they do know a little bit about something called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” that you can use now. This is basically the idea that you can use intentional experiences to rewire your brain. I recommend Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. And there are other good books, like this one and this one. There are also groups out there doing tremendous work around depression. For example, there are amazing tools and resources at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, including access to local groups.
Go Beyond Talk Therapy. I’ve been through years of “talk” therapy and all it really ever did for me was give me a space to vent. That’s a praise and a complaint. I needed a safe space to vent but that wasn’t exactly healing. It wasn’t transformative. There are some truly talented therapists out there. My best friend is one of them. Make sure yours is gifted and is actually giving you what you need. I found transformation outside of talk therapy.
Embodied Healing Can Include Sexuality. Remember how depression is gendered, how women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression? Well, it’s fairly safe to conclude that in general, men are also having more orgasms. Coincidence? Orgasms, no matter what your gender identity is, bathe the brain in happy chemicals, which can set the stage for healing. Connecting to an honest, life-affirming, safe, consensual sexuality is connecting to life force. You have an option to integrate sexual play and exploration into healing. These folks are good friends of mine. And they’re so good at what they do. Explore The Shame-Free Guide To Buying A Sex Toy.
You’re Not Alone. Marketers have done research that shows that the three most clickable words on the internet are “You’re Not Alone.” There’s a reason for that. In our tribal heart of hearts, all we want to know is that we’re safe, held and understood. So, share your story and ask questions in a safe way, whether with a friend, a good therapist or a support group. Remember, 1 in 10 people feel JUST. LIKE. YOU. I know you might feel ashamed about how you feel — I often feel that way too, and my first reaction is to hide it. Trust me, love, it’s so much better when you don’t have to hide it. Will there be people who judge you? Yes. But they’ll be there anyway so you might as well be yourself. Accept your emotions instead of drowning in them or shaming yourself for having them. Accept your limitations throughs self-love and let yourself off the hook. The writer Mark Matousek does real, raw, heart-opening work on healing.
If You Have A Fragile Nervous System, Just Admit It. I know it’s counter-intuitive to slow down when an over-caffeinated, capitalist culture teaches us to push, suffer and work harder than everyone else. But here is my thinking. Once you accept you have a different nervous system, you can build a life that supports it – not assaults it. And, once you do that, you just might accomplish something you never dreamt of. In short, honoring your limitations might free your energy, instead of draining it. I have a fragile nervous system. I just can’t cope with many of the stimuli and situations that many other people seem to be able to. In fact, this was one of the first personal things I shared with my partner when we started dating. It was important that he understood this fundamental thing about me. Telling him gave him the option of saying “no, thanks.” It also saved me a lot of explaining later. Having a fragile nervous system means my energy levels and moods are unpredictable; I’m sometimes emotionally unstable; I’m highly creative; and yes, I struggle with depression. It’s who I am and it’s OK. It really is. Especially when I take responsibility for it.
Meditate. Or, Medicate. Or, Both. A bipolar teenager who refuses to try medication because herbs are better and besides, medication will deaden her feelings and turn her into a zombie. A mother who convinces her son he doesn’t need medication because he’s really not schizophrenic. A depressive who goes on and off medications because she believes she’ll somehow be a better person without them. Some people want to struggle with their condition and win. They want to somehow feel worthy, stronger than it, overcome it. This is ego. Others believe they deserve to suffer because they are weak or bad. This is shame, tipped to self-hatred. Others believe they’re “normal” and that a medication will disrupt that. This is illusion. Many of these resistances come from a desire to stay in control, a refusal to admit that we can’t control everything about our brains, our lives, our universe. Honestly explore your beliefs and choices. Make sure to allow yourself every tool and option available. Depression is REAL. Your solutions need to be REAL. Make a choice that helps you live and live and live.
Say Hello To Grief. I have a situation going on right now that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It takes me into all my old wounds, depression, bad choices, whatever. I’ve decided to deal with it or it will deal with me. For example, one of the things I do is bake. Just the way I used to when she was little. And then I give the food away. It’s like this grief knocks on the door, I open it and say hello. Then, I bake. Then I give it away and wait for the next time it comes knocking.
Pursue Your Dreams, Regardless Of Result. Sweetheart, nothing and no one can take your effort and hope away from you – not even depression. Stay busy making your dreams come true. Stay with the process. Be humble. And be grateful for the chance.