I am not my depression

This is the subtitle to my blog.

It’s also a concept I’m grappling with right now.

Years ago, toward the beginning of my therapy, when I was healing from the blackest, deepest place of my depression, my therapist taught me to consider depression as separate from me, like it is its own entity. Like something else in the room.

Not “my depression.” Not “I’m depressed.”

Instead, more like “me struggling with depression.” “I’m battling depression.”

This seems like just semantics, but words are very powerful – especially the words I use with myself and to myself.

The first set of phrases makes me the owner of the depression, or certainly the victim of it. The second group places depression apart from me, not on nor within me. I’m not a victim – I’m a warrior.

The second set of phrases is more empowering. Stronger. More hopeful.

I’ve noticed that in the past several weeks, I’ve gone back to referring to depression in the first person – those first phrases. And I’m not sure why.

It could be a subconscious reaction to the biographies I’ve read recently – folks who wrote about their personal battles with “the black dog” of depression. Some people call those biographies written by “depressives.” That wording is really self-defeating!

It could be the ongoing (4 weeks and counting) of back and leg pain that is plaguing me. The diagnosis is lumbar stenosis – a narrowing of the openings where the nerves of the spinal column come through the spine itself, causing pressure on those nerves and then the nerves responding with inflammation. So far, neither stretching nor ibuprofen nor massage nor chiropractic are helping. (Next steps: yoga and stronger meds.)

It could be because I’ve been thinking about my journey through depression a lot lately: in writing, in therapy, in my Fresh Hope workbook. It’s been on my mind.

Whatever the cause, today is the first day I really caught myself speaking of depression in first person – “my depression.” I need to change that. I need to change the words, change my thinking, put distance between me and the illness.

“…but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think…” Romans 12:2b, NLT

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“Tears are welcome here.”

These are words from my therapist today.

It was my seventh visit with her, but the first one where I cried. I guess it took me some time to be honest with myself and with her.

Again, her words: “It can be difficult to express your feelings in words, but your tears will help me know you are hurting.”

I’ve been hurting for a while. And I’ve written about it on this blog. Feeling lonely. Missing the daily-ness of my kids. Being unsettled here in Virginia. Searching for my purpose in this second half of my life.

I’ve had some down days over the past few weeks. Not depression, mind you. Just down days. Where I feel sad or out of sorts. Nothing that I can’t get through.

But somehow, I’m surprised each time it happens. As if, because my depression is in remission, all my days should be “up.” Of course, when I think of it logically, I know that’s not realistic. But admitting to down days feels like failure somehow.

So I’ve stuffed the tears. I haven’t let them flow.

We talked about it in my therapy session today. And I cried as I admitted that down days scare me a little. I know they don’t mean depression – not unless they’re two solid weeks of it, plus other symptoms. But still, I’m afraid to admit to the sadness. I don’t handle “negative” emotions very well (especially neither sadness nor anger).

My therapist challenged me to sit with the sadness a little bit. To not be afraid of it. I recall my old therapist making me sit in my sadness in his office. It is hard.

We also talked about building a ladder of self-care. What steps will I take on down days, or even worse, if I feel depression trying to visit? Not “for a cup of coffee, but for an overnight stay.” What will I do to keep depression at bay, or to get through those tough days when I feel sad?

First, I’ll try to sit with the sadness a little. To not avoid the tears, but let them flow. To not be afraid of them, but to let them cleanse me.

Then I’ll text my husband and a friend, and let them know I’m having a down day.  I need to warn them in advance, though, about this self-care process.  I don’t want them assuming it’s depression. But I think it’s important for me to tell someone that I’m having a tough day.

Things I want to do on a down day: take a nap; savor a cup of coffee/tea/mocha; listen – loudly! – to my playlists; journal; pray.

Things I can do on a down day: take a walk on the path behind my house – at least around the block; knit; watch a movie from my wish-list; read; dance.

The want list is not very active. And I know activity can help to keep depression at bay. So I’ll need to merge my can list into my want list, which includes a walk or dancing. Get my body moving.

And I’ll practice being with the tears, the sadness. It’s okay to cry.

Thinking about the Past Can Cause Anxiety

I met with my therapist last Thursday. Overall, it was a good appointment. We talked about some tasks I had tackled over the previous week – investigating book clubs, knitting clubs, volunteering at a local Adult Care Center. It felt good to be proactive, and it was nice to share that confidence I felt with her.

We discussed my previous experience in participating and then facilitating peer-led support groups for folks suffering with depression. I told her how I would love to do that again, and we brainstormed some ideas on who to talk to about such a group. I’m excited to be thinking about such an opportunity. It’s been such a long time (3+ years) and I’ve really missed it.

We also talked about my darkest times – including the first time I told Chris I was suicidal.  She asked what I remembered about that moment, and I recalled it vividly – could picture myself at the counter in my pajamas and robe. I had just turned around from making a cup of coffee as he was walking towards me. I told him to come closer and hug me. I began to cry, and told him that I was thinking of hurting myself. Chris pulled back from me, his hands still on my arms, and I watched his eyes fill with tears as he told me he couldn’t bear it if anything happened to me. I felt his arms go back around me as he hugged me and I told him I needed help. He whispered, “We’ll get through this.”

Funny, I don’t really remember what happened next. I know my first trip to the hospital emergency room was soon after that (same day? same week?), when I experienced a sudden weakness in my whole body. But I don’t remember the rest of that day’s detail.

I shared with her, too, about the other time I told my husband that I needed help. I recalled the ensuing trip to emergency, waiting in a small room with a couch and examination bed – just me and my husband and the nurse who came and went, turned on the tv, brought water, checked on me. I remember the social worker coming in and telling us there were no beds available in the psych wards in town, and we told her we couldn’t go 2 1/2 hours away to the nearest hospital. She came back in the room and helped me write “a safety plan.” I told my therapist about my doctor friend, Jim, who came on call as I was getting ready to leave the emergency room, and how he assured me that he would take care of us if we needed to come back.

Anyway, after I shared those two stories with my therapist, we went on to talk about how hard it is to say those three words, “I need help.” And our appointment continued from there.

I haven’t thought about those two scenarios in a long time, and as I walked to my car at the end of our session, I suddenly felt anxious. That deep in the gut hollowness of anxiety.

I know that thoughts of the past can be positive or negative, pleasant or difficult. I was just surprised by my physical response to thinking back. It took the rest of the day to shake off that nervousness in the pit of my stomach. But now I know – memory is a very powerful thing.

Feeling Good

A couple of years ago, I told my therapist, Ted, “It feels good to feel good.”

I met with my psych doc today, and told him that I think the new meds are working. Even after the wonderful Christmas break with the kids, and my concerns about sorting out the effect of the new meds vs. my family fun, I can say that the new cocktail is effective. Yay!

It’s sunny today, and I noticed! I feel lighter, more quick to smile. I actually asked after my doc, instead of making the appointment all about me. I’m signed up for a book club at the library. I’m looking forward to my week. I’m ready to try a new knitting project. I’ve inquired about a volunteer opportunity – I just need to pick up the application.

I really like my new therapist, Pam, at Valley Hope Counseling Center. At last week’s appointment, she challenged me to look at these different experiences, and try one. I came home and investigated all of them! Knitting groups, book clubs, volunteering at an adult care center. She pointed out that I’ve been talking about volunteering at the hospital for a year, but I haven’t done anything about it…why not? Good question, and I think it’s because I know it won’t result in on-going relationships, which is what I long for. But a couple of weeks ago, as I turned into the parking lot at the grocery store, I saw the Adult Care Center, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Volunteering there – talking to guests, playing games, building relationships, maybe making a difference in someone’s life. Now that’s appealing.

The point here is that I have energy again. I have enthusiasm. I want to do stuff. Anhedonia is gone.

God is good. He is patient with me as I struggle in and out of depression. He is waiting for me to come to Him so that He can pour His love into me. He puts people and medications in my life to heal me (at least for now). And I’ll take it!

5 a.m. Musings

I woke at 4 a.m., laid in bed for an hour. These were the things going through my head:

  • Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes song (just the words I know)
  • Does Starbucks have pumpkin bread or muffins? I have to take the car in this morning for a front end alignment; maybe I’ll stop first and treat myself to a mocha and pumpkin bread.
  • What should I take to S’s on Saturday? Brownies? Something pumpkin? (back to thinking about Starbucks)

Then I decided to focus my thoughts on times during depression when I felt relief:

  • Taking a nap at B’s house – I remember laying down on her couch, a throw pillow under my head, her blue chenille-weave blanket over me. I felt so safe and sleepy.  I must have made her whole family, including her two teenage boys, tiptoe around, because I didn’t wake for over an hour. I remember B doing dishes at the sink as I sat up. Her smile at me – just the best thing a weary friend could see. Do you remember that, B?
  • My husband’s arms wrapped around me. Standing in the kitchen with my back up against the counter, and he pulled me towards him. I tucked my arms next to my sides, so he was completely around me, and I put my head down on his chest, under his chin. I felt safe, supported, enclosed. I knew he was with me through this thing called depression – his hug, and holding me, proved I wasn’t alone. I still like that position of a hug, with me wrapped completely up in his strong arms. I feel so safe there.
  • Walking into Ted‘s office (my therapist) – the stillness of the room; the sensation of taking off the invisible heavy backpack with the weight and cares of the world, and laying it beside my purse; sinking into the cushions, usually clasping a throw pillow to my chest (part comfort, part protection of my vulnerabilities that I will be sharing). He sits across from me. He smiles and I can feel the tension of the world leave my shoulders. For a few times, I sat in the rocking chair with the cream-colored fluffy blanket – the rocking motion is still soothing to me. But I prefer the couch, where I can sink down into the cushions, put my head against the back, and slouch behind my pillow. Soft glow from the lamps. A candy dish on the table. Kleenex within reach. I look up to the windows at the top of the wall – stare out at the clouds and branches. The quiet is almost tangible, like the room is doubly insulated against the terrors and pressures of the outside world, where my depression has me in its grip. But this is a safe place, and I can talk about my fears and sadness here.
  • Later, walking into Elizabeth‘s office (my therapist when I moved to FL) – the beauty of the room, the cheerful patterns.  Though my need wasn’t as strong, she had throw pillows for me to clasp, to hide behind. Her gentle voice. Her soft words of encouragement and prayer.

Now, it’s almost 4:45 a.m., and I start thinking about my previous post on Scripture, particularly Philippians 4:6-7, NIV:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I think more on this verse, and how it has helped me, just not when I was in my deepest depression.  In my “lighter” versions of illness, I can quote these verses and feel some relief. But I’ve also come to realize that the second part of this – the promise of God’s peace – isn’t necessarily an immediate response to the first part – the praying and petitioning. The peace comes eventually, but not necessarily immediately. This in itself is comforting to me, since I felt like I was failing somehow, when I didn’t sense God’s peace after begging Him to help me not be anxious, even after thanking Him for depression and all it was teaching me. To realize that I didn’t immediately feel peace, the peace promised in verse 7, I felt like I was failing at trusting God for my relief and His peace. But now, to realize that the peace of God, which is beyond my understanding, will come and take its place in my heart eventually, is great relief.

Now it’s 5 a.m. I think I’ll get up and write this all down.