I got a new pair of glasses. Suddenly, the world is super clear. I keep looking around marveling at all I can see, the distinctness of colors and edges. Suddenly, there is focus. I didn’t realize until now how blurred my seeing used to be.
It’s kind of like depression.
Many women with whom I work struggle with depression. They often realize it after they emerge. When in a depression, the blurry fog tainting things feels like reality. Beliefs just under the surface color your experience. Beliefs like:
This is the way it is. It won’t ever change.
Why try? It won’t make a difference.
I should be better. If I just tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way.
Other people are functioning – and thriving – so if I’m not, it must be my fault.
There are all kinds of environmental stressors that can trigger depression: work stress, losing a job, moving, divorce or marital difficulties, seasonal changes (lack of light during the winter months), having baby. Here are two surprising ones: recovery from an eating disorder and planning for a wedding. Yep. Even “positive” changes in one’s life can trigger a mood shift and/or a full-blown mood disorder.
Change is scary. Even the “good” changes! And if you have a temperament that tends toward “turtle-ness” (risk-averse, anxious, cautious, slow to warm up) then depression can emerge to “help.” Depression can help slow you down when parts of you are afraid of moving quickly. Depression can help you feel “grounded” when you feel “out of control.” Depression can mute anger or make it feel less scary. Depression can provide a source of constancy or familiarity, when it felt as if everything else is changing.
But what are the “glasses” for depression?
Just in case you think I am advocating for depression, I’m not. I am aware that depression signals something (or many things) need attention, need tending. Let’s look at some of the tools, if you are struggling with depression, that may help.
Meditation is a simple (but not always easy) tool that can assist in bringing compassion and grounding to parts of you that are afraid, angry, or overwhelmed. It can help slow down the anxious thoughts. It can help “turtles” navigate change with more ease. It can provide a tiny bit of distance away from depressive thoughts of things always being like this or things that are uncomfortable or not ok being my fault. The compassionately objective voice that can emerge in meditation might say something like:
“Huh. Have things always been like this? I can see a bigger picture…”
I can feel your struggle right now and there is nothing wrong with you.
I can see a part of you that is hurt. It might help you to tend to, and speak up for, that part.
Instead of a cutting off or lifting away from the experience of depression, meditation can assist in being with it from a larger space. It can help you not get swallowed up by it. It can be the “new pair of glasses” that brings clarity to the blurry-ness. It can help you see a bigger picture, and personalize less. It can gently place you back in the experience of being human rather than the suffering of humanity being “my fault.”
I am not a Psychiatrist. I do not prescribe antidepressants. I do know that many of the women I see are hard-working, conscientious, sensitive beings that believe they “should” be able to “just get over” depression or anxiety without medication. Shame and stigma color their vision. They believe that they should just be able to function and thrive by “eating the right food” (that is a whole other blog, but let’s just say for the record, that you are not “bad,” “dirty,” “clean,” or “good” for eating or not eating any particular food), “doing the right spiritual practice,” and working super extra hard. They compare-and-despair what they are feeling on the inside, to sleek, put-together look of other people’s outsides. They think there is something inherently wrong with them. They think they “shouldn’t” need glasses. They “should” be able to just see!
I’m here to tell you that no matter how hard I worked at being good enough, or eating the “right” food, my eyesight did not get better without glasses.
Just in case you think I am pushing antidepressant medication, I am not. Medication, like meditation, is a tool in the recovery tool box. Some people choose to use this tool and some do not. I work with women who make many different choices in this area. I am erring on the side of offering medication as a tool to – hopefully – offer a stigma free zone for people who struggle with depression to make a choice. There is no right answer for everyone. There is the right answer for you, at the right time for you. If you are considering medication, you will need to explore that question with your doctor.
Important caveat: If you are considering medication for depression, and you also have an eating disorder or are a new mom, it is wise to see a psychiatrist who specializes in those areas. There are particular needs for women recovering from eating disorders (ex awareness around how medication can affect appetite and weight, risk of seizures with certain medications if you have a history of purging) and perinatal mood disorders (ex awareness around safety of different medications during pregnancy, postpartum, and breast-feeding) that your doctor needs to have in mind.
I offer you the possibility of clarity. As it says in A Course In Miracles, a miracle is a shift in perception. If you are struggling with depression, may you find, and put on, your new pair of glasses. May you see that hope is possible. May you put one foot in front of the other (or tuck them into seated meditation position) and keep looking for a compassionate space inside yourself. May you find exactly the right therapist and tribe of friends that treat you with compassion when you forget. May you feel that change is possible and you are enough. It is. You are.
For those of you who are old(er 🙂 ), you may remember a television show titled “Fantasy island.” In it, there was a fictional character Mr. Roarke who ran an island that visitors flew into to fulfill their personal wishes. A mentor of mine calls this place in your mind “the island.” In this magical place, all of your “If____, then___’s” are accomplished, and you feel relief from whatever your particular form of suffering is. Some common versions of “fantasy island” type wishes include:
“If I lose weight, then_____”
“If I am out of debt, then______”
“If I earn (fill in amount of money), then______
“If I am in the right job/career/livelihood, then________”
The Alcoholic version:
“If I find exactly the right way to stay relaxed and socially confidant without blacking out, getting a hangover, or having any other negative consequences, then______”
The New Mom version:
“If I find the right formula for getting my baby to sleep and eat exactly right, have lost all the baby weight, and am not comparing myself to any other mothers, then_____________”
The Eating Disorder version:
“If I don’t eat any ‘bad’ foods, my stomach looks this way, my arms looks this way, my thighs look this way, then____________”
The Romantic Relationship version
“If I am in a relationship (in a married relationship, could change my partner, am no longer in a relationship) then ___________”
Note the irony of the last one. See how the mind creates suffering? As Oscar Wilde famously said:
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
You can fill in your personal versions “Ifs” and “thens.” However, the “thens” are often harder to fill in, because they are usually more intangible, like “be happy” or “stop feeling anxious or not enough.” Apparently, even in the fantasy island tv series, Mr. Roarke attempted to teach the guests life lessons through assisting them in seeing errors in their thinking or living in their fantasies.
The Thin Ideal
Carolyn Costin, a leader in eating disorder treatment who recovered herself calls these illusions the thin ideal. The thin ideal goes something like this: of if I were thin, I would be (happy/accepted/worthy/not have uncomfortable feelings…) Many of my clients recovering from disordered eating or body image distress know, intellectually, these beliefs about body image to be not true. They know what they are really looking for is not in there. What they are seeking in the desire to be thin doesn’t provide what they are actually looking for. They know “being thin” is not really going to give them freedom from ever having feelings of anxiety or grief or anger. They know being thin is not really going to give them meaningful relationships. They know that being thin is not really going to give them confidence, contentment, or a sense of purpose in their life. However, this part of the mind gets attached to its beliefs and stories. And when one is challenged, it comes up with new scenarios of “if, then.”
When I was never-thin-enough in my eating disorder 17 years ago, I was unhappy. When I finished my Master’s degree, supposedly “accomplishing” worthiness, I felt disappointed. And when I finished my doctorate, mostly what I felt was tired! After having a baby, I did feel content (amidst the exhaustion). However, none of these experiences provided me with an ongoing and easily accessible “You have now arrived” stamp of approval, feeling of contentment, or belonging in life.
I joke with my mentor about this island not actually being an island, but a mountain. Once I have climbed the mountain, reached the top, I will have “arrived.” Another illusion. One of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron writes:
In the process of discovering our true nature,
the journey goes down, not up.
It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the
center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky.
Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures,
we move toward the turbulence and doubt.
We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it.
We move toward it however we can.
We explore the reality and unpredictability
of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.
If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes,
we will let it be as it is. At our own pace,
without speed or aggression,
we move down and down and down.
With us move millions of others,
our companions in awakening from fear.
At the bottom we discover water,
the healing water of compassion.
Right down there in the thick of things,
we discover the love that will not die.
It’s not about the island, it’s not about climbing anywhere, and it’s definitely not about going up a mountain. It’s about going down, right down into the thick of things, with your heart.
What provides the experience of “then” for me are:
Relationships with people who value the gifts I bring and with whom I value the gifts they bring
Being of Service helping others
Dancing or moving my body
Looking at things that scare me in a straightforward, nonavoidant way
I would love to say it IS about the product and there IS an endpoint! Here is where it is and here is how you get there! I have created a map! Just follow it and you will arrive at fantasy island! But the name kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This is not a fantasy. This is real in the trenches imperfect life, with all of its ups and downs every day throughout a nonlinear journey called your life. What provides the experience of “then” for you? I’d love to hear it!