Mindfulness and depression, part 1

So I have apparently come back up out of a mild depressive episode. Having suffered recurrent bouts of depression most of my life – how did this one sneak up on me and disguise itself?

I think the key word here is ‘mild’. I did not plummet to the depths of despair and suicidal thoughts as I usually do, and so it was quite unfamiliar to me. I didn’t feel terrible, like the slime at the bottom of the bog that will never have hope of seeing sunlight.

Instead, I felt oddly blank. I felt I was spinning my wheels. I had some searching for meaning, like asking “What is the point”? I was overeating. I stopped exercising and felt more body pain. I hyperfocused on tasks to make each day speed by. I had terrible migraines – the kind where you have to check that your skull had not yet actually split open because this level of pain without any physical signs should not be possible.

I started hating my new therapist, feeling annoyed by her futile attempts to help me, and had grandiose thoughts that she was using textbook techniques to help someone that has never been in any textbook. I like to be ‘special’ when depressed because it means I have a reason to feel hopeless – no one understands me – I’ve been hurt too badly – none of these books will help – I am wasting my time

New therapist recommended a book to me, “The Mindful Way Through Depression, Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness” by Willams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn.

My initial reaction? How dare she!! How can she be so thick as to think I am depressed? How could she think this simple book could have any value for me? Doesn’t she understand my complex PTSD, my chronic pain, my disability, so many years of abuse, emotional torture, that I’m special? I was angry with her. Like my children when I suggest they wear a sweater. I recognized my reaction came from my emotional inner child, not a 38 yr old. And I thought hmmm, but didn’t go any further than that for 2 whole weeks. I was feeling stubborn and not going to let her win. Even though I recognized that was irrational, I wasn’t ready to let go yet. My foot was down and my arms were crossed. I may have even stuck out my tongue, that will show her.

She copied a chapter of the book and gave me homework to read it. Well, even though my inner child is dreadfully stubborn, she is also a perfectionist in need of praise and would never slough off on homework, and so I read it – begrudgingly – with my arms crossed and lips pouting. Seriously. Yes I did that. And I hated every word. I poked fun at the examples, at how simple they were, and found a trigger word ‘dwelling’ in there and had to stop reading. I have this reaction often when reading something meant for anyone to read, it feels watered down to me when compared to medical journals. And then I chided myself for being so snobby, just because I understand scientific journals doesn’t mean this is stupid and poorly written. Surely the PhD touting authors were not idiots. Could it be my current state of mind? Aren’t I always telling everyone to be open-minded? My inner child hates to admit when I’m right.

Oh great, here we go. My inner parent showed up to scold my inner child. “You might like the brussel sprouts if you just give it a fair chance . . .”, “It is really good for you if you can learn to like it . . .”

Fine! I’ll read it but you can’t make me like it.

I read it again a few days later, and it didn’t seem stupid. It seemed like experience I have had with my own inner doubts, fears, and spiral into darkness. Hmmm

Here it is a full 5 weeks after my therapist made the recommendation, and I finally went to the library to get the entire book. I read it all yesterday instead of having a Netflix marathon. Actually I did both simultaneously, because well, my inner child does not give up that easily and would only do it if the TV was on.

Most of this book was not news to me, rather it was an affirmation of coping skills I have been using for many years now. Actually I think I may be the most ‘mindful’ girl on the planet for a variety of reasons I’ll get into later. But some things did stand out to me – loud and clear.

First off – being mindful is really being bodyful. Aware of physical sensations that accompany a mood. You are not being mindful if you have a goal for your mood. Examples – you begin a yoga session with the goal of relaxation. You go to a movie with the goal of laughing. You go out to perform on stage with the goal of feeling joy. Emotions can’t be a part of the goal – they need to just happen. Oh dear.

I have been an emotion junkie. I have felt joy, ecstasy, jubilance, loved, only recently in the past few years, and I have been seeking to recreate those feelings and avoid the negative ones. Understandable I guess, after so many years of only negatives, but this is not the balance I thought I was establishing. I can’t command my emotions, I need to experience them as they come and go.

This hit me hard. My dance performances were not as fun this year because I was expecting it to recreate the level of joy I felt the first time –  instead of appreciating the feelings I had at the moment no matter what they were. I had fun – but it did not seem like ‘enough fun’ this time. I blamed myself and I blamed my friends for doing something differently this time – maybe they were tired or not so into it, so the atmosphere had been changed? My emotions were also flattened due to this depressive episode, and the cycle had started. I expected too much, tried to control it and craft my emotions, and found them disappointing or lacking, started wondering what is wrong with me, assigning blame, asking what is the point, and all kinds of other useless monologues in my head.

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or
less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have
problems with our friends or family, we blame the other
person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will
grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive
effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason
and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no
reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you
understand, and you show that you understand, you can
love, and the situation will change”
Thích Nhất Hạnh

I’m still controlling my emotions. But here’s the thing. When so many of them are irrational, or born of triggers and flashbacks that I’m SUPPOSED to control, how do I let go and experience the true ones? I have all these checks in place now to analyze the self-talk, check for cognitive distortions, and revise my feelings to prevent panic attacks or depression being borne of the flashbacks. I’m afraid that these stop-checks are preventing me from fully experiencing the good times – I am always on guard and asking “Is this how I SHOULD feel”, Is this real, am I truly annoyed or am I recalling a time when I felt annoyed in the past, am I truly sad or does this remind me of . . .

So I feel like me again, fairly rational (as rational as emotional humans can be anyway) and no longer stuck in between pouty inner child and scolding inner parent. But I must admit I’m feeling a bit lost and unsure of how to proceed. If the very coping skills I have been taught to stop the panic and depression are preventing any extremes of emotion, then I have to rethink this. How do I let my body run the show, and accept each emotion as it temporarily resides as a guest in my being? No guest wants to be smothered with attention, so no wonder the joy has been hiding from me, fearful it will be tackled and shackled. In fact all of the emotions ran away, refusing to be controlled.

Emotions need to be honored guests, valued, appreciated and allowed to be kept wild and free. Forcing happiness to stick around is like plucking a wildflower – it will soon wilt and wither.

Part 2 I will explain the body component of what I learned from this book, or if not learned, what I am churning about in my confused and exhausted noodle.


7 thoughts on “Mindfulness and depression, part 1

  1. Lots of information here, and my brain is too tired to appropriately respond to much of what you’ve shared, but I could SO relate to that inner child adamantly refusing to participate, even while your logical and thinking brain knows that there are answers to be found, if only you can get past your own stubbornness. I remember a therapist asking me once why I was so afraid to feel bad. I preferred numb and nothing to feeling bad, and had become an expert at going blank and zoning out. Anything to avoid more pain. My response was that I had already experienced enough pain in this life, and that I refused to allow more pain – so I would rather feel nothing.

    She kind of surprised me when she stated the obvious. She asked me if my plan was working. Was being numb and zoning out keeping me from feeling bad? Uhm, no. I still felt bad. But instead of just feeling the bad feelings, I spent all my energy trying NOT to feel them.

    It took us a long time to finally get to the place where I had to accept that there are no “bad” feelings. I had grown up associating any sort of emotional pain as bad, but sometimes, grief or sorrow or sadness can actually be a good thing. So we worked at recognizing that assigning “good” or “bad” to feelings isn’t helpful, if our goal is to open ourselves to allowing all sorts of feelings to exist within us. Obviously, it’s something I still work at today, but I never forgot the knee-jerk response of associating sad feelings as “bad”, and the necessity to redefine for myself that all feelings have their place in our lives.

  2. Love love this: No guest wants to be smothered with attention, so no wonder the joy has been hiding from me, fearful it will be tackled and shackled. In fact all of the emotions ran away, refusing to be controlled.

    Emotions need to be honored guests, valued, appreciated and allowed to be kept wild and free. Forcing happiness to stick around is like plucking a wildflower – it will soon wilt and wither.

  3. Pingback: Perspective on depression… | The Project: Me by Judy

  4. Okay, so I read part 2 last night and part 1 today…mmmm….always a little back to front! I seem to remember us having a ‘conversation’ about mindfulness when I was doing a course approx. 1 yr ago.

    I also read ‘A Mindful Way Through Depression’. Incidentally, at the time, I didn’t think too much about it. However, I would tend to agree that, if we suffer from any kind of mental health issue, chances are we will live inside our mind and be oblivious to the body sensations.

    Due to lower disc problems, nerve pain and nerve damage, I also live with pain on a daily basis and walk everywhere with a walking stick. I find, coming from a traumatic childhood, I’m quite good at tuning out of certain things and zoning in on others.

    At the course, we were practising some meditation techniques, all geared toward dragging us from inside our heads into the present moment. There are a number of techniques, not all to do with being aware of body sensations. Anyway, one of the techniques was ‘The Body Scan’ and that included Mindful walking. For me it was torture.

    The mindfulness teacher was excellent. She wisely explained that these sensation techniques were not always right for everyone, definitely not for those living with pain. Being aware of our body sensations as we do the bone-crushing mindful walk is not going to achieve anything. I adapted the walk to include sight, sound, and smell. As I walk the dog ultra-slowly through the park, I drag myself from inside my head by becoming aware of those three senses.

    Sorry, this has become a rather long comment.

    PS I’m a huge fan of Cesar Milan. One of his books is what first introduced me to living in the moment, just as our beloved pets do. I trained my little Jack with some of his techniques, although I don’t appreciate all of them

    • Thanks for sharing that, I’m so glad you understand, but sorry to hear you know what bone crushing pain is like. We have to focus on certain senses and adapt the mindfulness just as we adapt everything else to fit us. The idea of living in the moment also hit home to me when watching Cesar. Seeing how he gets dogs past phobias they’ve had for 10 years made me hopeful. Especially how he never pulls the dog on the leash, he builds up trust and has the dog get there in tiny steps, but eventually gets there on his own power. We’re doing the same thing, just have to lead and trust ourselves. I love the sound of the leaves blowing in the trees and will tune into that while walking, along with our breath sounds. I think about my feet connecting with the ground, but I ignore the lightning bolts of nerve pain.

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