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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Battling Depression Mindfully

NOTE: This blog first appeared in August of 2014, after Robin Williams' suicide. I've reposted it below.

I wrote this specific blog months ago and have been wrestling about whether to publish it or not for weeks and weeks.  Then Robin Williams died yesterday. According to news reports, he took his own life after a long struggle with depression.

[Deep breath...]

Suffering from depression happens too often in silence. Please keep in mind that, from what I can gather, each story of depression is unique -- this is my journey.

[Another deep breath...]

Depression is a silent storm raging deep inside millions. I've kept silent for decades, from the fear that if others knew my problem they'd think less of me or think I was weak. It's simply embarrassing and, I hate to say it, depressing to admit you're depressed, let alone a long-time sufferer.

But I've discussed a number of personal things on this blog, from my beard to my dyslexia. This one's the biggie. Much more epic than any beard could possibly be.

And so I type.

What do I mean by depression?

For me, once depression sets in, it triggers terrible thoughts and emotions - like marbles spilled from a box on a table, scattering into uncontrollable areas, falling off into corners, hiding under furniture, while others sit spinning in the light. Some you never find again, some you scoop up easily, others sit hidden and, years later, make their presence known by a barefoot walk through a darkened room.

But I bet that might seem an unlikely, perhaps too quicksilver a metaphor, for depression; especially for many who might be lucky enough to not have suffered regular bouts. Often I read accounts of depression that make it seem like it's a slow motion event. Maybe it is for others or for scientists studying it. For me, though, it happens in the blink of an eye; an exceptionally fast setting-in period (this latest state felt like it happened over lunch), and that's a scary thing still to this day. It's much different than my anxiety - which rears its ugly head with noticeable warning bells. Anxiety leaves me just as quickly as my depression seems to arrive but it arrives a bit more slowly, unlike my depression. Once my anxiety decides to leave, though, it races away (after burying me alive in fear and shivering sweat.) Just writing about anxiety gets me jittery... 

Back to my old friend depression. 

My latest struggle arrived during lunch, right after I'd ordered some Indian curry at the food court in the underground mall in downtown Montreal. Unbeknownst to me as I looked around at the others sitting and eating, I went from normal to sad. Thoughts flickered into my mind like gnats around my head walking through a park in the summer months. And there I was, sitting alone in a court full of hundreds of people wondering if anybody else felt as awful as I did. Walking away, without finishing my curry, I meandered back to my studio and sat, unable to work or think because what was present in my mind was a clenching fist squeezing hope out of my soul. Finally, recognition: this was a deeper than normal depression.

Depression scatters my mind. It's as if my mind is getting cut up into pieces by some hooded character lurking in the shadows leaving me unable to think clearly. In a day or so, my mind is no longer recognizable to me, which leaves my heart really, really empty and folded in a dark, dark gravity sinkhole in the middle of nowhere. 

I can sometimes see it coming, though. Just like in some horror picture, the sound track of my mind changes, the lighting shifts angles, my voice quivers, coloring itself with trepidation, the temperature of my body drops, and there is a filter that creeps over my lens when looking out into the world, especially looking into the mirror of other people's faces as they gaze my way. I look at others wondering: Do they know?

Knowing that my depression eventually leaves keeps me steady, keeps me going. I've had years getting to understand this state.  But I've not really embraced it until recently.  Depression is completely unlike anxiety. The panic, the shakes, the racing mind that knows it's the end come for sure. Anxiety washing through you is like facing an uncaged tiger, hungry from the hunt, smelling the fear, seeing the darting eyes. It knows I'm here - naked and defenceless. Then it attacks and I hope I'm somewhere private, so that no one sees me in hell.

Hell. Depression can sometimes feel like a slow walk into hell. It's a road I've been on and explored for many years. One that I have walked, to my undying gratitude, with my wife who takes my hand and loves me and smiles and shines a light back on Earth for me to head towards. How terrible it must be to live with depression without someone standing with you, being your lighthouse. I know I am a lucky man, but it is a hard thing to acknowledge weakness with your partner in life. Luckily I'm strong in many other ways and during other times. I know that we are there for each other, no matter what. Knowing that, in the deepest way possible, is an extremely comforting thing.

But I am alone during the first few moments when depression settles in, before it's recognized. It has become less scary for me in the last five years or so. I know the pattern: massive levels of activity, 24/7 events scheduled in the ical, unending to-do lists that grow even while being dealt with systematically and successfully. All culminating into yet another big weekend of performances (I'm in opera, so these weekends are literally operatic in proportion.) There's always a "let down" afterward. That's normal, right? Everybody feels those, for sure... right?

My letdown comes and goes pretty quickly though. It is almost always replaced by the Full Monty Depressive State. Sometimes it's even entertaining at first -- it can certainly hit as a strong feeling; the opposite of numbness, at least for awhile. The numbness comes later when the life and vitality get sucked out of you. There's the tightness that arises in my chest and throat as I hold back, day after day, the internal sobs that sit just underneath each breath. Some days the clouds settle in and rain softly, some times all light disappears, other nights my mind is so numb it can't even sleep to get rest. The fatigue can feel monumental.

A few years ago, I realized I'd been like this since my childhood. I wrote a poem about my depression in high school that I remember to this day over 30 years later. (One wonders why my teacher didn't take me aside and ask if I was alright.) Instead, I got an "A+" and was praised in class as it was read, to my horror, out loud. Here's an excerpt:

I am alone. 
The clover in the fields within me I have not found.
Droplets of dew are my moonlit worlds
Swirling through mists of my own creation.
Frightened of evaporation, I hide my soul;
The sun knows my mind 
But can not pierce the fog.

Sad, eh?

Yet, all is not lost this time! I have found that clover (after years of looking, I might add.) I've walked those fields mindfully for almost two years now, breathing in and breathing out; experiencing the present moment as vividly as possible. 

How? I've been meditating in the mindful (Vipassana) tradition since a desperate, anxious moment a few years ago led me to try it out. Luckily, I found a weekly sitting group with an amazingly patient and earthy teacher (Daryl Lynn Ross of True North Insight), and knew within a few weeks that I had struck gold. At least, I knew there was a possibility that I could learn something about myself by sitting with myself without judgement.

I have even moved toward understanding my latent Buddhist beliefs that I believe have sat in my heart and mind ever since writing an 8th grade term paper on Siddhartha's life (I don't know why I chose that topic, but it took more than 30 years for me to return to studying Buddha's teachings.)

Sitting and breathing, allowing my mind to become calm and quiet down, has allowed me to see clearly the rising and falling away of my crazed, scattered, reactive, and depressed mind. I've also gotten to breathe through and investigate the emotions connected to many of those thoughts and the feelings connected to them. 

And so when the old pattern of depression shows itself, I have begun to recognize it even before it has begun to really manifest itself. And even though it resides in me (now, as I type these words), I know that it will - always - fall away. Impermanent just as the feet of snow that sat on my front lawn in Montreal during the first week of April; one week later and flowers burst forth from the soil, just waiting to join the world.  The sun will rise, it will shine down, and it will melt the snow, evaporate the fog, and warm my face as I lift it upwards to take in yet another Spring. The clover in the fields within me can smile remembering previous sunny Spring days and look forward to ones that will come soon. As they always do and always will, since everything flows from one state to the next. I can be content and happy, then I can be sad, and then smiling again. I know this now because of meditation.

For even though I may sometimes, all alone, beweep my outcast, depressed state, mindfulness meditation practice allows me to know that I don't need to change my state with kings. (I'm paraphrasing/quoting a Shakespeare sonnet here, bear with me!) Kings and I have no commonality except our humanity. I have no need to change my state, at all. It changes moment to moment without me.

Our state changes constantly, with every breath. Though my body may occasionally betray me with panic, though my mind fogs in and all I want to do is lay in bed unthinking my way through the day, I have a way through. A path lies open for me to trod. A path is there for all to walk upon, actually. 

A path that opens with each breath.

For even though meditation can't "cure" me, even though meditation isn't going to prevent these storms from hitting my mind and heart, meditation practice has illuminated for me a number of insights into my experience thus far:

1) Thoughts and Emotions can be like storms. All storms pass. Some are big ones, some are brief, some are just wind, others are wonderful and needed. But they pass. Daryl taught me this, and the more I read about Buddha's teachings, the more I understand this.

2) I can see the storms on the horizon now, almost smell them. And knowing they're coming I can breathe and calm my mind, which calms my body, and then I can continue to enjoy the present moment. Some storms do dissipate before arriving, this I know as well.

3) The breath is always there. It never leaves.

4) I have courage, a deep deep courage. I've always had this strength. Courage lies in all of us.

5) Being depressed isn't who I am. Being brilliant isn't who I am. Being talented isn't who I am.  Missing notes isn't who I am. Disappointing others isn't my purpose. Inspiring others isn't my purpose. My purpose is a mystery to me, but I'm happy to continue to investigate what it might be.

And I am just me - and that's okay.

If any of you reading this also suffer from depression, I urge you to talk about it - with loved ones, with friends, or with medical professionals. 

I'd also suggest trying meditation. Meditation is simple, there are so many online resources about it, so many guided talks. I like to browse a website on dharmaseed: they have hundreds of talks, and offer many links and resources. There are apps for your phone. Even the U.S. military is teaching mindfulness meditation - and it's really helping soldiers both on and off the field of battle.

I have never medicated myself for my depression, but have considered it. I hope that those out there suffering with more severe mental health problems than me get the help they might need. 

It is suffering in silence, thinking you're the only one like this, that really can get to you. It takes courage to seek help, to admit it's time to talk to someone. Courage is in us all. Please trust in that and know that you are not alone.

- Patrick