Picking up the Pieces

One of the most difficult things about a depressive crash, other than the experience of the crash itself, is the recovery process of putting back together all the shattered remnants of your life. At least this is true in my experience, and really can be true of any fall that results in a state resembling rock-bottom, depressive or otherwise. Everywhere there are reminders of the dark places you’ve been, the mistakes that you’ve made, and the people that you’ve hurt. It can fuel the desire to run away, to isolate, or to fall back into old patterns that led to the crash in the first place. If not handled well, it can lead to a vicious cycle that proves incredibly difficult to break.

My old pattern was to change everything about my life after a depressive crash, from my job to my close relations to my living location. I told myself this was all in an effort to have a fresh start, to allow myself to heal and recover. But what it really did was to fuel my denial. If I run away every time I crash, I never have to face the magnitude of my problem. I can tell myself that my depression was only due to my external circumstances, not an internal problem that needs to be addressed. And yet I have continually found myself in many different circumstances, but still wrestling with my demon of depression. The problem lies with me.

There is a movement within the mental health field to adopt a recovery-based approach in addressing mental illness. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I think the 12-step process used by many to recover in addiction can also be used to recover in depression. My first step in learning to better manage my depression was this: “I admitted that I was powerless over my depression and anxiety, that my life had become unmanageable”. I have recognized that I cannot do this on my own. My depression is not a character flaw that I can just work on by myself and make it go away. It is a part of me, and it has to be managed so that I can continue to live a rich and meaningful life. But I cannot manage it by myself, I need help…from friends and a strong support network, from regular therapy, from tools such as exercise and mindfulness, and from medication. I have given up my sense of control over my depression, I am allowing it to exist, and I am learning to manage it as a chronic condition.

For quite some time, I have not managed my depression well. In fact, I have avoided even admitting that it exists. This has led to a massive blindspot in my existence…as I spend time helping others to manage their emotions and mental health more effectively, I have failed to apply those lessons to my own life and have lived in a sort of juvenile emotional state. When I am depressed, I avoid my friends by not returning their calls or coming up with excuses when invited to spend time with them, I become irritable and explosive with my wife and am emotionally unavailable, I stop doing things around the house like cleaning and cooking, and I neglect responsibilities like work and paying bills on time. All of these things have consequences, and while I recognize they are a symptom of my illness, I also recognize that it is my responsibility to manage my depression so that it does not so significantly interfere with my life. I must own up to this, and I must work to repair relationships that have been damaged and attend to responsibilities that have been neglected. This is a scary process, but one that more often than not bears surprisingly positive results.

When a problem is avoided, it can only become larger. When it is dealt with, it may be painful, but it can no longer grow to the behemoth it often becomes in the mind.

I’m working on owning up to my responsibility in managing my mental health, first by admitting that I actually have a problem, and then by seeking help from powers outside of myself and working to repair the damage caused by my past negligence. I’m finding, thus far, that the people in my life have been incredibly supportive and understanding. Most of the problems that I thought existed were only the creation of my own mind.

It’s not easy to take an honest look in the mirror, take responsibility for our circumstances, and do the hard work to create the lives that we desire. It’s much easier to find fault with our circumstances and with other people in our lives. But anything short of rigorous honesty is living in denial, pure and simple.

Practicing Life

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast hosting Aaron Rodgers (one of my man-crushes by the way). He was discussing the way in which he used the lack of recognition he got in high school and early college as a motivation to practice harder and put in more time crafting his sport until he finally got the recognition he deserved. Now, he is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game of football. I’ve also been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts about Grit, this concept of perseverance and passion to continue practicing a skill or sticking with a project, even when it gets tough. I often expect that one day I will simply wake up and have a great idea for the next best-selling book that will land me interviews on all the late-night shows and launch a successful career in writing. But I let many days go by without actually practicing my craft of writing, refining my skill in spite of the absence of “grand ideas”.  At a more basic level, I often hope that one day I will wake up simply feeling happy to be alive and looking forward to the day. Instead of having to work so hard at finding hope and engaging in life, I want hope and a desire to fully engage in life to just manifest themselves out of thin air.

But this hasn’t happened yet. What I’m finding is that engaging in life, just like any other skill, takes practice, which requires grit and determination. When I was younger, I played the trumpet and took weekly lessons from a guy who lived out in the country and had an amazingly beautiful house with a grand piano in the music room where I took my lessons. When I was practicing every day and refining my skill, I looked forward to attending these lessons, excited to show my teacher the progress I had made and continue refining my craft. When I was not practicing regularly, I had no desire to attend my lessons and found all sorts of other things I would rather do. I can’t help but think this is much the same with life. When I am practicing my ability to engage with life and be fully in the present moment, it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning: I look forward to the day and find more reasons to hope.  When I am not practicing…well, we know where that leads.

So, what does it mean to practice engaging in life? One of the tools I’ve found helpful is this notion of “opposite action”, coined by Marsha Linehan. The idea is that every emotion is associated with a behavior, and every behavior with an emotion. When I feel shame, I tend to engage in the behavior of isolation, which leads to more shame. When I feel depressed, I feel complacent and hopeless and the world seems scary, and I often don’t get out of bed because that’s where I feel safe. Staying in bed and isolating myself makes me feel more depressed and ashamed, which leads to more complacency and isolation, and round and round we go. The idea of opposite action is to engage in an a behavior that is associated with a different emotion than what is currently being felt. When I am feeling depressed and ashamed, I can reach out and call someone or engage in a pleasurable activity, which helps to break the cycle of hopelessness. This doesn’t come naturally, it takes determination and practice, but I’m finding that it gets easier over time and I’m able to turn around mood swings that before would last for days on end.

I think this practice of engaging in life can take a lot of different forms, and it takes time and some trial and error to figure out what works. Whether it’s meditation or prayer to ground and center yourself in the present moment, taking a walk outside to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in spite of all the pain and suffering, calling a friend or writing a letter that expresses how much someone means to you, making a gratitude list, or spending time at the end of each day reflecting on three things that went well. The more I practice engaging in life, the more hopeful I feel, and the more space opens up in my awareness to begin practicing other skills that I care about, such as writing.

The world is not short on pain and suffering. Just a few weeks ago, a local boy of 14 years of age hung himself in a tree outside of his house. I’ve met people who made their first suicide attempt at 7 years old. When children that young feel such a sense of hopelessness that death seems like a better option than life, there has to be a better way. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a rich and meaningful life can be cultivated from the most dire of circumstances, but it takes practice.

Some people may feel a natural inclination toward life and have no trouble with hopelessness and disengagement. But for those of us who face a different path, let us not give up hope. Let us show grit and determination in creating a rich and meaningful life for ourselves, even when it is hard and does not seem fun. Let us show life that we will not be beaten down, and we will not give up.

Let us live in daily practice, knowing that some days we will fail miserably and that failure will make us want to give up. But other days we will find success, and that will provide us with rays of hope and energy that make the continual practice just a little bit easier. We won’t always feel like engaging in life, but that’s why they call it practice. And I have to believe that life is worth it.