Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lessons learned about “managing” depression.


Writing is an action that, when it does its job, expresses the unique vision or experience of the writer.  How gratifying that in sharing this closely held experience of “melancholia,” I’m once again reminded that it is not unique to me.       

The subject of depression resonates with people around the world.  I have received many comments in the last few days that humble me with the depth of people’s stories and their expressions of goodwill.  I invite you to read these if you ever feel alone in your own melancholia—or want to understand someone else’s.  

Many of us have questioned the words “depression” and “disorder” because melancholia of some degree is a universal human reality.  I do not think of myself as a Person With Depression.  After many years of wrestling with the definitions, finally I think of myself as a human being with individual needs.   At the same time, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend clinical diagnosis, and medication, to anyone who wants it—and in particular to anyone thinking of taking irreversible action.  This kind of melancholia is not to be taken lightly. 

And so.  Today and tomorrow I hope to finish what I started, by offering you a list of lessons that support me.  Writing this is challenging and draining—but rewarding, because this is a way I can put some meaning into my history. If even one person can glean hope or practical usefulness from this, the writing will have been worth it.    


Lesson Number One.  Learn the truth about suffering.  In our western cultures, we somehow get the idea that if we aren’t gleefully happy, there’s something wrong.  We’re “disordered.”  Words like “depression” and “disorder” require a standard against which to measure moods.  What might that “normal” standard be, and who gets to decide?     

Philosophical and spiritual teachers throughout history—as well as literature, the arts, and probably even science—tell us that suffering, not glee, is fundamental to the human condition. 

At my daughter’s public school, “grade inflation” means that kids expect an “A”, or top mark, for average performance.  They don’t realize that for most people, “C”, or average, is the norm.   I feel a kind of similar “mood expectation inflation” has permeated our culture.  As one of my readers said, “…we always feel the pressure to smile, showing all our teeth and screaming and shouting, proving we're all having ‘fun’ all the time.” 

For me, the message that I “should” be happy itself generates despair by encouraging self-judgment even in the face of garden-variety sadness.  I have fought my depression way too much—and what has fighting ever gotten anyone? 

Along with several readers and other bloggers, I walue the writings of the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.  Pema has this to say about suffering:

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.  What a relief.  Finally somebody told the truth.  Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move.”

[Pema Chodron,When Things Fall Apart, p. 40]

The Christian scriptures are full of references of suffering, which, if written today, might be classified as “depression.” 

Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil…” (Ps. 23). 

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). 

As long as I run from suffering, I run from the truth—and that’s as good a definition of mental illness as any I know.  For me, running from suffering causes much more suffering.  That includes running from depression.  It feeds compulsion and addiction.  Holding out for an impossible sense of joy and happiness is a setup for disappointment of the highest magnitude. 

Does this mean I don’t run any more?  Not at all.  I still run away every day.  But slowly, gradually, I learn that I have choices. 

When I turn around and look at the black dog of my suffering, the dog quiets down.  Sometimes he lies down with me.  Sometimes I cry tears of genuine sadness on his flank.  In the process, I gradually heal.  This, for me, is not a disorder.  This is real life. 


Lesson Number Two.  Make a commitment to living.   I have had two episodes of what the doctors call “major depression.” The first happened in the wake of the birth of my daughter, and the second two years later.  During these times I was unable to do much more than sleep, eat, and feel.  I was beset with anxiety and sleeplessness and had to let others care for me and take over my responsibilities.  Thanks to family members, I never went to a hospital. 

Both episodes had advance warning.  They followed major life stressors.  Each of them lasted a few weeks, and had a rather long healing period during which I suffered from a lot of self-judgment.    

Leading up to these episodes, I came face to face with why people take their own lives.  Probably, guilt over hurting my mother, and fear of leaving my child motherless, kept me from that brink. 

Instead, I lived on a fence right near the brink—ever aware of the brink; ever believing it offered an “option.”  It was the ultimate “shit or get off the pot” situation.  Unable to live life, yet unable to leave it—this was the place of deepest suffering for me.  It was my “valley of the shadow of death.” 

It was at a time like this, over nine years ago, that I received a life-changing message.  A trusted counselor who was helping me through my second episode told me some appalling news.  He said:   

You have to make a real commitment to living.” 

At first I couldn’t believe it.  Up until this time he’d been guiding me in day-to-day actions I needed to take.  This was the first word  about the long-term requirements for my recovery.  I thought something along the lines of “What?  You mean it’s all up to me?”   

That is what he meant.  But now I understand that what he really meant was that no human being, no medication, no prayer could give me a life if I wasn’t on board.  It’s only by a choice of mine that I could back away from that abyss, or from the purgatory of choicelessness.  Although it seemed cruel, I now know I desperately needed to hear those words.   

It bothered me for days.  I am a person who, left to my own devices, shuns commitment.  Still, I comprehended that he wouldn’t say this if he didn’t believe I could do it.  I asked him if he believed I could do it.  He said yes.  I asked my husband.  He said yes.  I asked myself.  I said no.  But I owed it to my daughter and others who love me to try it.  I had nothing whatsoever to lose.      


That was nine years ago, and I haven’t had another episode.  I may, of course, have one.  Today I’ve learned how to see when I’m starting to get too tired or worn out and leading into such a place, and to take measures to correct it.  I’m learning many things, every day.  Tomorrow—if I’m up to it—I’ll post one more time about some of those lessons. 

All text is copyrighted by the Blue Kimono, 2009.


Zuzana said...

Very intriguing post; I would say that you have a unique way of understanding these problems and offering solutions; have you ever consider becoming a counselor?

Once, as a young girl, I wrote this down and it has helped me over the years:
"To live a satisfying life we must learn to accept, that just like happiness and joy, death and sadness exist and we must embrace the dark fully and completely in order to live in light."

Bronwyn said...

I just discovered your blog and have been reading your posts on depression with great interest. It is so good to read something that makes so much sense. For me right now, the issue is not commitment to living, but trying to commit to live life more fully and to engage more with the world. Reading what you have written is incredibly helpful to me on my journey, thank you so much for writing and sharing this.

Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP said...

Very interesting thoughts - and what just struck me is that for someone who shuns commitment, you chose to marry (a big commitment, but one you can get out of) and have kids (an even bigger commitment which you can never reneg on.

Saz said...

How gratifying for you that ONE post has caused this ripple effect through blogland...

The positive? side of depression, is possibly this outcome..

Suecae Sounds said...

I wonder if it is ok if I quote you on my blog, as I am thinking about writing a short article on depression / melancholia myself?

Ingrid Mida said...

These posts are incredibly powerful and you might want to reconsider writing only one more post on the subject.
Too many people live in a state of hopelessness and despair because they feel utterly alone. You have probably touched far more people than you realize. Some people do not want to leave an imprint of their thoughts on the internet and so they may chose not to comment.
You wanted to find your voice as a writer. Perhaps this is one direction that you might consider.

sallymandy said...

Thank you, Protege. You were a wise young girl to have had this insight so young. Not the case with me. I always appreciate your comments so much.

Yes, I did consider studying to be a counselor--but that was 20-some years ago when I really had too much of my own emotional baggage to be of any help to anyone. Now I've gone on a more "safe" career track having to do with history. I'm feeling led to do these posts and it's been a remarkable week for me personally as I do so. ♥

Sarah: Thanks so much for your visit and comment. Really it means the world to me for this to help others, because it's not that easy to write about. I just feel that we need to open up with such matters.

Imogen: You're right, I've had that thought about commitment. I do appreciate the rewards of commitment--just need to learn to keep my fears at bay. Thank you, kind friend.

FFF: You're right. It's a bit overwhelming actually, feeling kind of tender and raw today. That's okay, though.

Suecae: please, go right ahead.

Ingrid: wow, I needed to read your comment today. You are giving me some comfort I need as I'm having one of those backlashes about "what the hell did I just write and put out there in the world?" Thank you, thank you, I will mull over what you said today and I so appreciate you giving me this feedback. xoxo

Lucy said...

Sallymandy, this is too important to stop here. If I may, I'd like to suggest that you continue this writing- you've got such an important message here. I'm printing your page out right now for someone that needs it. Thankyou.

Rosaria Williams said...

You are doing a great service by writing about a condition we all experience in one form or another.

Duchesse said...

He asked you to make a commitment, which is another way of saying, to take responsibility for our own life, and you said yes: you have won.

While you say you are sometimes low, you have chosen. I hope you and your family can express (even if within yourselves, quietly) the gratitude and power of that choice.

sallymandy said...

Ms Lucy: your support and encouragement today and the other day mean a lot to me. Thank you so much. I'm not sure how much I'll keep writing--today, doing battle with some demons about "who do you think you are, writing about such a depressing topic as depression??" Hmm. Interesting. I'm certainly taking your comment and Ingrid's to heart though. I'm VERY glad someone can use some of it. Love, SM

Thanks, Lakeviewer. Your encouragement is much appreciated.

Duchesse: Yours, too. I never thought of myself as having won, but I suppose I see what you mean. Thank you for holding up that mirror. I'm getting teary thinking of the family you know whose mother made a different choice. So very touched by that, and sad. Hugs to you.

ceecee said...

Thank you, Sallymandy. I've learned many of these lessons too but could never have written such an eloquent post.
Just as you said, in your last paragraph, I now see clearly when I'm most in need to take time and slow down. Sometimes I have to disappear and just be.
Looking forward to more of your lessons learned.
Catherine xx

The Clever Pup said...

Thanks for being so candid, SM.

Thanks to for pointing out that the C-Average is the norm. That will help me understand my husband's moods a little better.

You're such a good writer.

xo mwaah


Woman in a Window said...

Funny, I just wrote both about the vapors and melancholy and then about recognizing value in life but failing to pay heed to that all the time. Timely, no?

And too, my son, he gets so upset when he is not happy. He is seven. I asked him the other day why on earth he thought his days should be measured by happiness. He thought I was nuts! Of course, that's the goal, right? Hum, I answered, not necessarily. Maybe we should just be. (Don't think he got it, but perhaps if I live it he might.)

drollgirl said...

this is such a good post. it was very helpful for me to read. life is tough, and i think the most we can strive for is to be content and to cope with the ups and downs as best we can. that sounds simple and easy, but it sure isn't. but onward and upward. gotta keep on trying.

Suecae Sounds said...

Yet again you write with such profound clarity. I will read anything more penned by you on this subject with great interest.


Kayleigh said...

You write with such clarity and poignancy about this that I am touched by just those virtues alone. Add to that my own former dance with depression (once had a 10 year debilitating stint)...and my present situation, and I am left even more deeply moved.

I have to say that although I have had moments of profound sorrow over my breast cancer, I have not felt a sense of looming chronic depression. Perhaps that will be a strange gift to carry forward? Forever banishing the "black dog" in lieu of deeper understandings.

Anyway, your take on all this and how you expressed it is beautiful, telling, and very inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing :)

Sparkling Red said...

I love Pema Chodron!

The Total Commitment to Living: I get it. It's hard to maintain sometimes, but I make a concerted effort to return to it when I get off track. It gets a little easier every time.

Jinksy said...

Interesting post that shows how much you have learned from ealier sufferering...the Buddhists certainly have had the right attitude for centuries.

angela recada said...

There is so much wisdom in this post. Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing all of this with us, dear Sallymandy.


Innerspace Yoga said...

Sallymandy, I saw your funny little icon elsewhere and clicked over. Anyone who puts a frog hood on her kitty and photographs it is alright with me! So I read a few of your posts (enjoyed the floral pics, too), and wondered if you've ever tried the combination of yoga and meditation together to mitigate your symptoms. Works for me! Dysthimically Yours, kel. PS from one mother & writer to another, keep on keeping on!

sallymandy said...

thank you, thank you, everyone. these words from you mean the world to me. ♥