I haven’t read Daphne Merkin’s book “This Close to Happy” yet, but she makes the point in her introductory article that men tend to write about depression as if it’s an external entity that moves in and out of their lives, but women experience their depression as an inner lack. Additionally, she says writings about depression describe episodes as these exotic events that are so abnormal to the authors’ “otherwise hyper-functioning existence.” Ms. Merkin doesn’t go into why these are problems, but I expect she explores them in her book. She ends with saying she likes to refer to her depression as a “dark season” that ends and returns with the cyclical nature of life. I look forward to reading her book and writing more about these topics.
But at the moment, I’d like to talk about what’s come up for me.
- Depression can certainly feel like an external entity, completely alien to your “real” self. I think it’s helpful to visualize our unhelpful moods and thoughts as intruders, as I shared previously with my character “Zinger” who I attribute my scary thoughts to. This is actually an ancient mindfulness technique that you see in meditation a lot. The idea is to create mental distance between you and your thoughts. Give yourself space to see thoughts for what they are, and take control by choosing to act how you want. That could mean you like the thought and decide to take action on it, or you can simply put it to the side and do nothing with it. This returns power to us at a time when depression has us feeling utterly powerless.
- I don’t know that women in general tend to take depression more personally than men, but it has been my personal experience. I spent decades of my life trying to fix myself, because my depression just had to be my fault somehow. It had to mean something deep inside of me was missing something. If only I could find it! Boy did I search and search and search. I drove myself bonkers. And then I found mindfulness. Now I see my depression as a state that comes and goes and really doesn’t mean much of anything. Yes, it sucks and I wish I didn’t have it, but lots of people have lots of medical conditions they wish they didn’t have either. I’m just glad I have my mindfulness techniques to help me shift my focus elsewhere so I’m not paying as much attention to the suck.
- I understand the desire to chalk up depression to something that just happened once or twice. It’s a horrifying state of mind and if you’re lucky enough to experience it only once be grateful. That’s not my experience. Surviving depression means just that – surviving. I must survive it over and over again. It’s a daily experience, but one I no longer call a struggle. Mindfulness is responsible for changing that.
So what is this mindfulness? Simply said it’s the practice of living in the moment. It’s choosing to focus on your present, physical experience rather than living up in your head. This is very hard to do. We are thinking beings — we worry about the future, we dwell on the past. Our thoughts are filled with the past and future, never the present. Even those times we think we’re in the moment, we’re not. In conversation we only half listen while we rehearse what we’re going to say next. We drive to work and realize we have no memory of driving there because we were planning out our day.
When we’re depressed, this habit of thinking all the time turns against us. They sink their hooks into us and we can’t get away from them. We get more and more depressed.
Mindfulness trains us to shift our focus to our breath, our senses, our bodies. With practice we get better at shifting from these awful thoughts so we experience them less and less. The thoughts don’t really go away, but we’re not immersed in them anymore.
I created a journal that helps you get started with mindfulness in simple, easy to do exercises. Maybe it’s time to try it out.