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.

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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