Friday, August 20, 2010

In Praise of Depression

This post is inspired by a post by George Amoss about genes, depression, and spirituality found here
I was going to write it all in the comment section but it just got too darn big.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident!" she shouted, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, squeezing her brain. Then she realized Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT

"'But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.'

"For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Dear George,

First I must tell you how really important this post is to me and how very much it not only resonates but inspires, as Poirot would say, "the little gray cells." And speaking of gray cells, I that anyone who is familiar with my own blog knows that I have struggled with depression and anxiety most all of my life. "Struggled", however, is not always the word with the right connotation. I have also noted in my dealings with many Buddhists, and Pagans, and Christians, and even with atheists that my sadness is often counted as a spiritual failing or at least as a barrier to my ability to be joyful/rational/successful. It makes people very uncomfortable to see my sadness. It makes them more uncomfortable, I think, that I am not very interested in ridding myself of it. Alleviate it? Retreat from it? Take a break from it? Sure. But rid myself of it? No way. To quote from Star Trek's boldest captain, "I need my pain!" It is the sensing device I use to recognize my call to service in a battered world. It does me no good to bend to the will of those who want me to medicate myself into complacency. My brain is different. It is not defective. Again from Star Trek (this time Dr. Crusher) "If there is nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with the universe."

There are those who counsel me that my tendency to melancholy and even to occasional bouts of despair is a disease to be treated, a spiritual barrier to be overcome, a darkness upon which light must be shed. But, I don't see it that way. I have seen my own depression and doubt not as a barrier between myself and "God", but my strongest connection. Every moment of profound spiritual revelation has come to me through this darkness. The world and everything in it comes to me in a very raw, heavy, painful way sometimes. But the flip side of that is empathy and compassion. I try to understand the world through my intellect, but the world comes to me through my emotions. Every decision I make is a result of the fact that I know that I cannot shut myself off from the world's pain. As a Pagan, I know the Sacred resides in the body of the Earth, in my body and in the body of my fellow creatures- all interconnected. What harm we do to another we also do to ourselves. I believe that, but also I feel it and so I am very motivated to confront it.

Lastly, I want to mention a few who have inspired me to believe that the brains we have, neurotypical or not, are the brains best suited to answering our spiritual calling: Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Emily Dickinson, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Margaret Fuller, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy...the list goes on. Surely their value in the world was not in spite of the pain they carried, but also because of it.

Thanks, George, for writing as you do, for thinking as you do...Thank you for holding up darkness and difference for healthy examination and for challenging our cheerful brethren to remember that black sheep happen too. Ain't nothing wrong with your brain.

With love,

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

That Fear May Be Transformed...

Let me tell you my woes. I was one of those "sensitive children" prone to worry and shyness. As an adolescent, I became depressed and flirted with eating disorder. As an adult, I continued with bouts of depression and debilitating anxiety even as I forged ahead with marriage, college, and graduate school. As a young mother, I had post-partum depression. I have an obsessive compulsive personality and multiple phobias. I have a license but haven't driven anywhere in years. I shake at the thought of having to call people on the phone and become panic-stricken at the thought of having to be near medical doctors. I am particularly nervous around male doctors and men I don't know well. I can't shop on my own and when I do shop or eat out, I avoid male salesclerks and waiters like the plague. I won't ask for directions and become agitated when anyone who is with me does. I live with general anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Most uncomfortably, I'm a hypochondriac which means that for me, every physical symptom, real or imagined, signifies my imminent death- and worse, my separation from my beloved family. In the past two days, I've been weepy as I calculate that if I survive for five years, my youngest child will not be quite 11 years old and may not remember me. Maybe it would be better for him if he didn't.

A bad spell of hypochondria puts me in crisis mode. My entire existence settles around the fear and the process of alleviating that fear. This might involve cruising the internet for evidence that I'm not actually dying (this generally backfires as the internet is full of horribly sensationally-phrased and worrisome "medical" advice that boils down to "whatever bump, tingle, discoloration, ache, or fatigue you have is cancer. Contact your doctor immediately, but it is probably already too late."

During an episode, I can't sleep well. For hours or even days at a time, my throat feels constricted, my stomach unsettled. I shake and cry. I am distracted and unsettled in my routines.

During these times, I drink calming teas and practice Qi Gong and meditation. I exercise and take extra supplements. When I am not too distracted to eat, I try to become even more mindful than I already normally am of my diet to avoid foods that trigger or exacerbate anxiety. Thankfully, over time, I have learned multiple ways to address the stress of "my condition" as we sometimes call it, but everyone in the family knows what is meant by the polite phrase, "She isn't feeling well."

In between these bouts which have been occurring more and more frequently this year, I turn my thoughts to mortality in general. Increasingly, the focus of my spirituality is in trying to reconcile myself to the overwhelming fear of losing my loved ones and myself to the inevitable obliterating process of catastrophe, disease, and death.

It is important for me to also share that there are moments of joy and laughter too for me even in the midst of anxiety attacks. I am still here. Contrary to the wretched commercials for anti-depressants one sees on television, I do not live in a world of muted grays barely aware of life around me. I still can laugh at life and at myself. I can still think thoughts that transcend my fear. I am still capable of loving, and hoping, and dreaming and all the good stuff. I am still productive, motherly, curious, and even happy. There is so much stigma and well-meaning misunderstanding about psychological difference that one fears disclosing one's "mental illness" (how I detest that term)for fear of losing the respect of friends and colleagues who may begin to see a disease rather than a person. Like living with a physical limitation or chronic pain, one who lives with chronic psychological limitations and pain also lives a full life. It may be quite different from others' lives, but I do love it and I am thankful for it. It has given me insights that would have otherwise remained hidden. I have become more attuned to others' suffering, and I often sense others' secret pain before they tell me. My dark thoughts are very dark indeed, but the joy of my life is far more brilliant as a consequence. I weep with joy at least as often as I weep with fear and sadness. Little things- light on a blade of grass, the silver underside of a leaf, a stranger's smile, are exquisitely beautiful to me. In my sometimes unsettled mind, I am almost always dying or overjoyed at being alive. For me, life is very raw, very miraculous, very tenuous. I take fewer things for granted.

But I do apologize that I am so needy and fearful and melodramatic. It is tiresome, I know, to those who love me and look after me. I am a "high maintenance" human being. Even though I know myself to be a reliable and competent worker long-used to navigating responsibility in the midst of fear, I have hidden my weaknesses as well as I can from most people (who would want to give responsibility for teaching and writing to a nutcase like me?) But I've chosen not to hide it from my readers. Spiritual writing that is not honest is also not effective. So I write this despite my discomfort. This is neither the first nor the last blog entry I will share here that exposes my inadequacies, weaknesses, and absurdities (although I will try to make it funnier next time).

Here is where I am radically honest. Here I expose the truths of my life. I have no patience for a spirituality that glorifies the Light of the Ineffable but ignores that S/He exists also in shadows. I still have great hope that my fear will be transformed into a deeper Love and Peace. So I offer my fear and lay it bare, ashamed as I am, with faith that this too can be transformed.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...