My neighbor has a home in Morehead City, NC. A fun little beach cottage she and her husband just finished remodeling and it sits right in the path of Hurricane Florence. We chatted at the mailbox last night about holding things loosely and doing the next right thing. Often when faced with some sort of adversity we may freak out, which doesn’t really help us at all. Other times we may try not being bothered in the least, which isn’t actually real. Either option is an extreme and extremes don’t tend to be beneficial.
So what does balanced look like? It’s when we are aware of the emotional impact of whatever is happening but we don’t allow the situation to own us. In my neighbor’s case, she feels the sadness of what might happen but recognizes she doesn’t actually know yet so she is holding some hope that perhaps things will be fine and if not she will then deal with it. Her words, “I’m taking the next right step.”
Closer to home, Anna (my daughter) is going through chronic rejection of her transplanted lungs. I’m focusing on what we know now: she’s fine, she’s humming along living her life even though she is well aware her lungs are failing. This is a slow progression for the time being so no action is necessary at this time. Anna understands this balance of living in reality but not letting her emotions take control. From her blog post in July:
“…yet as with all my fears they turn out to be not so bad and the things that suck are things I never really saw coming. Trust me I know from experience God really meant it when he said “DO NOT BE AFRAID”. There really is no point, it does nothing but get us all worked up, steal our present moments and lock us in a box of fear. Everything I have ever been afraid of happening that has happened was actually okay, there was no reason to get all worked up. And yet God also knew what he was doing when he said it over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over …. okay you get the point. Not being afraid is something I have to constantly remind myself. My latest mantra is the little bit of the song “don’t worry, about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be alright” and it is true!”
“Every little thing is gonna be alright” doesn’t mean everything will turn out as we want it to, but whatever it is, we can grow through it step by step.
I think the worst parts of depression consist of apathy and listlessness. They suck you into a downward spiral so powerful it seems like there is no way out. It wouldn’t matter if there was a way out because you have no energy to get out. It’s such a vicious cycle because you are simultaneously miserable and don’t want to feel that way one more second.
I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who live under a cloud of depression day after day after day for months, even years. I only experienced weeks of intense depression and just a few hours of not-going-to-live-anymore depression. Those hours were the worst of my life. I called out to God in the deepest part of my depression. My depression didn’t go away in that moment, just the desire to act on my thoughts of ending my life. I was still in a heap of tears and misery but I began the hard work to get out of it. My depression was situational but my situation didn’t change over night.
Once I was out from under the worst part of my depression, I made a decision to do something different. To stop swirling. It took a few months before I was completely free of the spiral. I found the steps that helped me or maybe they found me. Here’s what I did:
- I listened only to Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Solutions CD’s. Filled with information about how to take control of my mind and my life.
- I saw a mental health professional weekly.
- I shared my pain with trusted people.
- I got out of bed and walked every day (or close to it). Sometimes I walked a few times a day.
- I soaked up God’s love messages to me through the Bible. If you take that book’s overall message cover to cover, it is really about relentless, non-judgmental love and freedom.
- Every time I felt a wave of depression I would describe it to myself, usually aloud. Kind of like this, “I feel that familiar surge of black, life sucking poison trying to take me down like the black spider-man suit. It’s really sadness. I feel the hot tears pouring out of my eyes, they get cooler as they roll down my cheeks. I feel a heaviness in my chest. I’ll let this be here for now.” Then after a few minutes I would take a deep breath and think about good things in my life, “I have good in my life. I have a few friends who really care about me. I have a roof over my head, food to eat and gas in my car. The sky is a beautiful blue.” I would then go outside, look at the sky, feel the air on my face, take a few more deep, relaxing breaths and then ask myself what I needed to be doing. Tasks that needed my attention. Then I got busy. Some days I would go for a walk, even while crying and talking to myself like I just described a few sentences ago. I did this over and over again for weeks. The sadness began to lessen. I didn’t feel it as strongly or for as long in the ensuing grief sessions.
Unless your depression is clinical depression caused only by a physiological issue, there is usually at least one experience that needs to be grieved lurking underneath the depression. It’s like a wound. Sometimes wounds get infected so intensely you might need antibiotics or the infection will rapidly multiply and can even take your life. The infection is the depression (unprocessed grief). The wound is from a painful experience: death of a loved one, loss of a job, end of a relationship, a disaster, witnessing violence, and abuse are a few depression causing experiences.
The best gift you can give yourself is that of processing your grief. If you are experiencing depression, it would be worth it to work with a mental health professional to find out what might be going on beneath the depression. Sometimes we don’t think painful aspects of our past can be involved in our current depression. Just because something happened a long time ago and you thought you were “over it”, doesn’t mean it can’t be affecting you today. Grief has an interesting way of lurking quietly below the surface for years and then barging its way back into your life in a most insidious way.
If you’re looking for a mental health professional, try PsychologyToday.com or Theravive.com to find one near you. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide and need someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Hotline 800-273-8255. They also have an online chat option. If you intend to take your life, call 911 or get to an emergency room immediately.
I frequently talk about Viktor Frankl with my clients. He survived Nazi concentration camps from 1942-1945. His freedom came when his camp was liberated at the end of World War II. A Psychiatrist, he was intrigued by the motivations and actions of himself, fellow prisoners and guards in this unplanned and unwanted research experiment. After the war, he turned his discovery of the power human beings possess to survive horrific experiences into a therapeutic method: Logotherapy.
In the most unlikely of places, Dr. Frankl made a decision to be the best prisoner he could be. He didn’t execute this perfectly as he admits in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning but his intention gave him purpose and the will to survive. He reasoned if he was able to do this in a concentration camp, then anyone can. As human beings, we have the ability to choose our thoughts, words, actions and attitudes.
My circumstances are not even remotely as challenging as Dr. Frankl’s. Still, I recognize I have the same choices. In simple trivial situations like driving behind a slow vehicle I can get upset about it or relax, recognizing I have no power over the driver. I only have power over myself. I know that unhealthy, illegal and unwise decisions will have a negative impact on me and potentially others so I choose to breathe, be calm, and recognize that my impatience is likely my own responsibility for not leaving enough time for the inevitable slow driver, accident or heavy traffic.
The same goes for the more painful situations in my life. It’s important to note, this doesn’t mean I pretend to be fine. Oh, no! We must be real about the emotions we have in all situations whether trivial or intense. Acknowledge your emotions, understand why you feel what you do, validate your emotions then have a conversation with yourself about what to do. I go into this process in greater length here and here.
Remember, you have the power to decide what you think, feel, say and do in all situations. No one decides that for you.
I’m realizing more and more the hardships I face are always used to comfort another. Last week my 20 year old my son had an extremely bizarre experience which sent him to the ER. Since he goes to school just 20 minutes from home, his step-mother and I also found ourselves at the ER. One event led to a series of events all filled with questions and concerns. While the even itself is over, the aftermath is not.
As I shared my experience, my fears, my sadness with others I found comfort. The most comforting came from a mother whose son has walked a similar road as mine. As I thanked her for her sweet salve, I realized I felt a conflict about her situation. I was sad for her but thankful she knew what I might be going through. Then it struck me: when we walk hard roads we are equipped to walk with another who is on the same road. If I skip happily down the road of pain because I don’t have pain, I have no business being on that road.
While I don’t really want more pain in my life, I am learning to embrace each experience as a connection to others. I am more effective in my work with clients, I am more compassionate with friends. It’s a fascinating twist to the human experience; the more I experience the challenges, pain, sadness and disappointments of life, the more qualified I am to sit in the muck with others. If my life goes easily and always as planned, I am ill-equipped to say anything to anyone who is actually facing hardship. With that, I tentatively say, “Bring it on!”
Just a friendly reminder to find beauty in your daily life. Let that be part of your focus each day. When we are looking for beauty, it helps us deal with the parts of life that don’t seem beautiful at all.
For those of you wondering about Anna, she is back at school and doing well 🙂