Life, bittersweet

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself lying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”

There are times when I experience an intense empathetic state. I have a simultaneous awareness of both connectedness and suffering in the world. Yet, I don’t simply feel others’ pain. I feel a deep sense of guilt and responsibility for their pain. All at once, I fully grasp my indirect complicity by just living in this modern world, within our affluent country.

Every choice and action has millions of tiny threads attached. They pull at my skin, creating thousands of invisible wounds. I ache, uncertain of the source. If I settle here, in this reality, I become frozen. Even taking no action is painful because it creates its own consequences. 

I have always interpreted this “experience” as the true reality. I accepted that if I faced it, there would be anxiety and depression. When the practicalities of life pushed me forward and I was able to blunt some of the intensity, I saw it as hiding from the truth, even if I did feel better. What most would term “coping” felt like acquiescing to a cruel, unfair world. I became another mindless human, trampling others in my efforts to create a comfortable bubble for myself.

However, I was pondering the butterfly story recently. Is my perception of reality accurate? 

Our time on earth is a journey toward remembering our wholeness. A butterfly has no sense of individuality and implicitly knows this truth. I have viewed the world as the dreaming butterfly, experiencing a human reality where a sense of separateness creates pain, and believing it is true.

If I switch perspectives, I become a lucid dreamer. A human who can access this primal memory of being a butterfly, unencumbered by the burden of individual suffering. I can see that this pain is temporary and serves a purpose. My role in both feeling and causing pain is part of the process.

I am caught within this dream, yet aware. I can now act.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

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Standing Up

 

When my internal critic’s voice reaches a shrieking pitch and I can’t bear another judgment, sometimes I imagine myself in a fetal position, making my body as small as possible, willing my cells to disappear. As if the silent prayer “sorry sorry sorry” will be enough to make the words stop. They die down, but the pain reverberates through a sudden migraine or wrenching stomach ache. My mind has no defense and so my body must take the beating.

My natural response is to shrink away from the painful words, cowering and apologetic. Just like when I feel the hot sharp pain in my eyes from a migraine. I retreat to a dark bedroom and try to sleep, to feel the heaviness of the drug and let it take me to oblivion.

I think recent efforts to assert myself have intensified the self-criticism. It feels like my internal voice is realizing that I am evolving — and wants to snap me back into the familiar as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is to cripple me with insecurity and depression. Therefore, the words are cutting deeper. They are getting at wounds that hurt most.

I am admittedly very tired. Lately I want to give in, step back and let the hurtful words take over. Writing all this in the drawing above was an effort to get it out of my head, where it has less power. Even though I keep hearing “shut up!” here I am, sharing this, speaking my truth. I might be bruised and wobbly, but I’m standing up.

 

Letting Go of the Magical Answer

Imagine you believe that a fountain of youth actually exists. Wouldn’t you be tempted to forgo taking care of yourself physically in favor of searching for that fountain? All the obsessive time and effort would be worth it — if you find it. If not, with each passing day, your ability to age gracefully slips away. You’ll look back with regret at all the time wasted in your brief life.

For a long time, I believed in a similar fountain — one that was equally tempting and destructive. I believed that my depression was caused by certain problems in my life and that if I solved them, depression would never return.

But what I haven’t realized (up until now) is that it’s often the other way around. My depression skews my perspective and makes formerly manageable challenges seem impossible. The problem hasn’t changed, just my brain’s perception. It seems so obvious now.

So what does it look like if I give up the idea of  “the fountain?” The next time I feel depressed, instead of trying to immediately solve the problem (whatever I think it is), I will try some simple mindfulness exercises. Hopefully, these will create just enough of a shift to tilt my brain back to balance so I can see clearly. Then if there really is a problem, I can address it without depression clouding my judgment. It’s the millions of small decisions that ultimately make the difference — just like making healthy choices every day is better than searching for a fountain of youth.

I want to bring myself back to the present and create a sense of connection — to my body, others and the environment. This will take me out of my head, where thoughts about the past and future conspire to overwhelm me. Since it’s difficult to get motivated when I’m in the midst of depression, I will do easy things like stepping outside to the balcony, listening to a guided meditation, calling someone, taking a shower, walking in the park or playing with my cats.

I am consciously choosing to be mindful of my illness — not constantly chasing the dream of a life without depression. There is no magical answer that will solve all of my problems and cure my depression. I need to do the hard work every single day of staying aware and catching myself before I fall too far.

Redefining Strength in Each Moment

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” — Mary Anne Radmacher

I have chronic depression. There, I said it. I’m not just going through a difficult time, transition, stressful month, or whatever I’ve told myself. Of course, all these things are true at various times. But not for the last twenty years straight.

My denial story went something like this: If I get a meaningful job, pay off all my debt, get settled into a permanent place to live, lose weight, exercise and create the perfect relationship, I won’t have these episodes of depression. I can get off this medication, stop seeing a therapist and have a healthy routine to maintain my changes. It’s just a matter of taking action. Fantastic. I am GREAT at that. Let’s try to do all these things at the same time so I can get there as soon as possible. I’ve got a plan. I feel better already.

You can probably see where this is going.

A week later, I wake up feeling…different. Suddenly, everything is inexplicably more difficult. I feel foggy and tired. I don’t feel like working, cooking or seeing anyone. If I could stay in bed — that would be perfect. My plans dissolve slowly.

This has occurred over and over — sometimes the cycles are short, sometimes long. But it’s always the same. I begin with enthusiasm and optimism, with a sense of control. Yet that same belief in control is what fuels the harsh criticism when I fail. I realize with horror that there were no external factors that derailed my plan — just my state of mind. But wait, Cara can push through anything with enough effort, right? That’s what she does — everyone knows that.

This has always been my definition of strength — willpower in the face of anything, never veering from the plan. When depression blocked my path, I viewed myself as weak.

Last week, I finally took enough steps back to see my pattern in its totality — instead of coming up with the next great plan. I needed a metaphor to guide me to a solution that transcended the problem. Fortunately, I am in the midst of a wonderful set of meditation classes. I began to see a connection to my struggle.

I am not meditating with the expectation that if I practice consistently enough, I will reach a point where I have complete control over my thoughts.
I am not planning my life with the expectation that if I try hard enough, I will reach a point where I have complete control over my depression.

Meditation is not about the final outcome, it is about the act itself — the millions of internal nudges to redirect your focus back to the breath.
Mental health is not about the cure, it is about coping — looking at where you are and making the best decisions you can at that moment.

Meditation is best practiced in a quiet, comfortable environment.
Depression is best managed by surrounding myself with positive, supportive family and friends.

It is the aim of meditation to view thoughts without judgment and not get swept away.
It is the aim of mental health to view depression without judgment and not let shame and anger pull you further down.

Any amount or form of meditation has value. There is no shame in a shorter sitting or modifying your pose because of a physical issue. 
Any amount of positive action has value. There is no shame in doing less than planned or modifying your plan because your state of mind has changed.

This last point was especially hard to accept. I need to change my internal story. But damn it, I liked that one. It had a happy ending and I was the heroine. It will take time to let go.

I will continue to meditate and keep these parallels in mind. If depression gets in the way of meditation, I will do the best I can in the moment — that is my new definition of strength.

Turning Into The Skid

When it comes, my depression is colorless and oppressive.

Sometimes it feels like a fog. It slowly rolls in until a white wall of nothingness blinds me.

Other times, it appears in an instant. A blizzard kicks up — enormous snowflakes blot out all visibility.

In both cases, I am lost and alone, disconnected from everything. I want to curl up, wrapping my arms around my knees for reassurance. I am still here and the world still exists. I just can’t see it right now. The fog will dissipate; the snow will stop. I have to remember that. The clouds will roll back and I will regain my sight. I need to continue living despite the fact that the future has disappeared.

In fog and snow, the roads are slick and deceptive. I am a nervous driver. In bad weather, I tend to drive too closely to the person in front of me. Being able to see something ahead gives me comfort, but if they stop suddenly I am in trouble. And I’ve broken the cardinal rule a few times — when I find myself sliding into the wrong side of the road or toward a guard rail, my instincts tell me to hit the brakes and turn the other direction. Of course, this will make things worse. When the wheels lock, they lose the ability to grip the road. The classic advice is to turn into the skid and slowly accelerate.

I must do the same for my depression.  Turn into it. I need to face these emotions. Running the opposite way causes paralysis. I freeze, re-living the same depression time and time again, sliding into it with no control over how it will affect me. To regain control, I must turn toward the pain, acknowledging its existence and purpose.

Although I’m changing metaphors mid-way, another way of viewing it comes to mind. I can’t outrun the rain — it will hit me no matter how fast I am. Can I stop and look up at the sky? Can I let each drop hit me deliberately rather than slipping into a desperate sprint with a broken umbrella? I may get drenched. I may feel cold and miserable, but I will finally cleanse myself of these dark emotions.

It is frightening to contemplate, but these clouds will come again. I have to make a decision — which way will I turn? I hope that with experience and practice, I can navigate even the most blinding stretches of road.

Into the White by the Pixies

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

Guarding Your Own Life

If you saw a loved one in danger of drowning, your immediate reaction would probably be to jump in and pull them to safety. Unfortunately, it is actually the most dangerous action to take. A panicked person has unusual strength and will actually push the rescuer under the water in an instinctive attempt to reach the surface. It is better to keep a safe distance and extend something toward them to retain leverage.

I am certainly not a lifeguard. A friend shared this tidbit of safety knowledge with me today as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone managing depression. The idea sparked a few insights that I wanted to explore:

The Water
Individuals with mental illness were born in deeper waters than most; the depths beneath them are always there. The danger of “drowning” (falling into a deep depression) is inherent within their make-up as a human being, particularly when life circumstances or chemical changes in the brain cause rough, choppy waters.

The Drowning Person
The instinctive self-preservation of the drowning person – pushing the rescuer down in an effort to reach air – made me think about how depression changes a person’s personality and motivations at times. Mental illness is real; there are chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions. Actions that appear selfish or illogical are often manifestations of this illness in the brain. That’s not to say that choice does not exist, but these physical components of the illness tangle together, making motivations unclear. Thinking of it like this softens the pain of misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Rescuer
The advice not to jump into the water feels counterintuitive. My tendency is to dive right into the dangerous waters, thinking I can solve any problem, fix any situation. In reality, I can’t even swim and I’m not particularly strong. The panicked strength of a drowning person could quickly overpower me. Despite my enthusiasm, all I would accomplish is my own drowning, in addition to the loved one I sought to rescue. At times, I am in the water already, struggling with my own depression. How can I save someone else, when I am barely treading water?

Distance
In my own situation, I realized that because we both suffer from depression of varying degrees, I need more distance to keep myself from falling deeper into the water. It gives me more leverage which enhances my overall strength. We can’t be together, but I can offer more loving support from a safe distance than I ever could from beside him in the water.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson