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.

Mosh It Out

I watched a great movie over the weekend called “Manic”, about an adolescent male (played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who nearly bludgeons a kid to death at a baseball game and is subsequently admitted to an inpatient unit.  Throughout the film we see other adolescents with a myriad of issues from being molested by a stepfather to being raped by a friend to being completely ignored and emotionally abused by parental figures.

As I watched the film, I was struck by how much pain there is in the world and it honestly moved me to tears.  Why should a 13 year old boy have to live with the trauma of being molested and raped multiple times by a stepfather?  Why should a 16 year old have to deal with not only the early death of his father but also the fact that memories of his father involve bouts of drinking and abuse?  I happened to watch this movie on a day that I was feeling particularly sorry for myself because of a few struggles that paled in comparison to what I was watching on the screen.  The world has enough pain on its own without me adding more to the mix.

There is one scene in particular in the movie that really struck me and I wanted to share it here.  Through group therapy, individual sessions, and time spent simply talking and playing games in the common area, these youth have begun to process some of the intense emotions that have been locked in for so long and found their expression in ways that are a danger to self and others.  There are intense interpersonal conflicts and alliances that form through this process, but there is one moment in the film in which they all come together in a Gestalt-like release of emotion while moshing to a Deftones song.  Even Zooey Deschanel’s character, though she watches from the sidelines, seems to gain insight from watching this all unfold around her.

My favorite part about this scene is delivered by Don Cheadle, playing the staff psychologist, who sees the scene and seems to understand the importance of what lies beneath.  While most adults would view this as a group of rowdy teens disturbing the peace and causing destruction, he sees something else.  He sees a group of kids who have been forced to grow up far too quickly in a world that is far too painful.  He sees that while it is important to teach kids respect and healthy ways of expression, perhaps the power of this shared emotional experience outweighs the potential damage done by allowing it to continue.

After all, the emotion has to come out somehow and there are much more destructive ways of expressing it.  

Finding My Silence

IMG_0052We all know how important it is to find silence in our lives, time and space to step back for a moment and put things in perspective.  It keeps us from rash emotional responses and helps to make better decisions.  It seems that discussions of the need for silence take the forefront at this time of year, during the season of Lent as we await (depending on your faith tradition) Easter, the spring season, and new life taking root after a cold winter.

I always had trouble with finding silence and have often struggled to grasp what this concept really means.  I tend to live continually in my head.  My wife gives me a hard time because of my selective memory.  I remember some things crystal clear while others bring no recollection for me at all.  The truth is, I am usually hearing so much noise in my head that at times there is simply no room to process anything else.  I have always had a difficult time living in the moment.  I am usually functioning in the moment but living in the regret of the past or the fear of the future.

People have found many ways to be in the moment; some healthy, like meditation or exercise; others not so healthy, like excessive use of drugs and alcohol.  Either of these paths could lead to trouble in excess, I suppose.  If working out begins to interfere with your daily life functioning, perhaps you have a problem.  The point is that we have a basic drive to find ways to silence all the noise in our head so that we can live and thrive in the present moment, not worrying about tomorrow as it will have enough worries of its own.  And not living under they oppression of past mistakes but rather allowing them to teach their lessons and then move on.

This all sounds remarkably similar to teachings I grew up with but didn’t make much sense to me.  Didn’t Jesus talk about this?  Also Buddha, I’m pretty sure.  Maybe Muhammad as well?

I was on a hike with my dog Oliver yesterday in Gunpowder Falls State Park and I experienced what it feels like to be fully present in the moment.  It was incredibly refreshing.  As I stood on the bank of the river, slightly off the beaten path, I was fully consumed by listening to the sound of the river flowing over rocks, smelling the brisk winter air and feeling it invade my nostrils and brush harshly against my skin, admiring the way in which the water move so effortlessly over rocks and around turns.  Nothing else mattered in that moment.

I found my silence.


My parents recently moved out of state and gave me their 1999 Chevrolet Prism as a parting gift.  Two years ago I would not have even considered accepting such a gift and thereby making my wife and I a two-car family; but things change.  So, when they made the offer, I took them up on it and hitched a ride with my brother to pick it up.  As I drove home along a Pennsylvania state highway with my dog in the backseat, I felt like I did after getting my first car in high school.   I felt free.

There is a concept in family therapy called differentiation, first touted by a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen who was one of the first in the field to study and treat entire families as opposed to simply the individual who was suffering from some type of disorder or disturbance.  The notion is that the ideal developmental context will allow a child/individual to develop a strong sense of identity within the context of the family unit.  There is a tenuous balance that must be walked between exaggerated emotional reactivity on one end and emotional fusion on the other.  Too far in one direction leads to an overdeveloped sense of independence and little emotional connectivity in relationships.  Too far in the other direction leads to an underdeveloped sense of self and an over-dependence on relationships for emotional validation.  It seems clear that this is a balance we continue to walk throughout our lives, not simply a deterministic chain of events that happens in our childhood.

Many people talk of “losing themselves” after being in a marriage or committed relationship for a number of years.  When my wife and I hit a rocky patch 7 years in, I realized that I never really had an strong sense of myself to begin with.  In fact, I always thought that having a sense of your own identity was a bad thing; my identity was supposed to be found in Jesus alone.  Only problem was, I never really knew what that meant.  So instead of having a strong sense of identity as part of a cause or movement or church community, I simply looked to those with whom I was in close relationship to give me direction in who I should be and what I should do.  Wrong answer.

What happens when all of those relationships are stripped away?  Even for a short period of time?  Then you’re left with nothing.  Except for hurt, which is a strangely comforting but miserable companion.

Over the last couple years, I have often felt imprisoned by my own psychosis, cut off from relationships for reasons yet unexplained to me.  At some point I began to see that the true prison was the dependence that I felt on validation from my closest relationships.  When I began to understand that being alone with myself was not the miserable prison that I often thought it was, I felt more free to enjoy relationships with those closest to me because I no longer felt I needed their approval in order to stay alive.

I’ve realized how important it is to have a well established sense of identity and some confidence on which to stand.  And it feels good.  But it is a daily struggle.  And it helps to have things to call your own, spaces that are sacred.  Like your own set of wheels.

Call it my own little sanctuary.

How do you walk this balance?  Where do you find your freedom?  Where do you find your sanctuary?  Would love to hear your thoughts!