Mind Mending: 4 Foundational Tools to Combat Depression

I’ve majorly stalled in getting this ‘series’ going. Sorry ’bout that. It is for good reason – to be outlined in my up and coming post, entitled, Crazy Life Tsunamis.

I happened to have created a juicy list of tactics to tackle depression, complete with anecdotes, but it’s been pummelled up amongst the debris of the Crazy Life Tsunami (CLT), along with a bunch of other nice plans. This has bothered me, but I have decided that this is something I can do something about, so I will.

I must admit I have felt some reservation around not wanting to just dish out a set of trite formulas for ‘fixing’ depression. Let me highlight, there is no one formula. There are a general set of human experiences that we categorise under depression – causes, symptoms and severity differ for us all. Your experience falls within a unique part of the spectrum. Similarly, the combination of tools to release you from this place are also individual.

I hope to provide my fuller list at another time, when it bobs to the surface of my hard drive or my mind.

So, if you are weathering a version of low life-ebb, I humbly offer some of my foundational mind mending strategies.

1. Acknowledgement is power

I know this is Captain Obvious, but it’s so very important to start with. I have found that the sooner I acknowledge that things are out of balance and shift my life around to accommodate some introspection and find some remedies, the better chance I have of addressing these imbalances without a major life-halt. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It actually robs you of getting in touch with your authentic self and living life to its fullest.

So if you can tick off a number of these symptoms or get a high score on this test, chances are you are not doing so well and need to take some action.

2. Surrender, Fight and The Prayer of Serenity (or Sanity)

serenity-prayer

In amongst the debris of our Crazy Life Tsunamis, I have been floating on a small but practical raft: the serenity prayer. This eloquent little prayer is so very powerful. As our own whiskey bottle has taken a little bit of a beating – I can see that there is a reason that this prayer is the creed of Alcoholics Anonymous. In our CLT situation, there are things which we need to fight for, there are things that we need to make happen and there are things that we need to surrender. It’s taken us a while to figure out which is what, but with this plea at the heart of our decisions, we have got somewhere and remained remarkably sane as a result. Thus far it has helped us avoid a depressive wipe-out.

The serenity prayer is not THE answer, but it is definitely a kind of map to getting through darker days.

Many times we get in slumps because of our expectations not matching up with our reality.  There are many ‘un-changeables’ in life and it would seem in my experience that identifying, accepting and surrendering these will set me on my way to inner peace. Recently I discovered an un-changeable and it has been excruciatingly painful. Someone very unhealthy has a lot more power over the life of my family than I would have ever chosen to give them. For the time being, I have to surrender this to this harsh reality and I am needing supernatural doses of serenity to do so. Whiskey will never fully cut it.  It is encouraging to me that even with the un-changeables, we can do something – we can become serene… What can I say, Ghandi is my hero at the moment.

Recently I was reminded of this jewel of a quote from Gregory David Roberts’, Shantaram,

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

There are many things that we can and need to change. It’s not always easy to do so, as it probably also means letting go of something, perhaps a fear or a comfort or a belief or all of the above. It means accepting change or fighting for it. That wrestle is often a part of the cognitive dissonance that comes with depression.

We can’t change the past. We can’t change the un-changables. We can accept these. We can change our focus. We can change our future.

Yes we can. (Thanks Obama)

We can’t change somebody else’s misery, their choices or their actions which may continue to make our life hard, but we can always work on our own needs and responses. If we feel miserable about stacking on weight or disappearing in our marriage or feeling purposeless or having had someone leave us, we can do something – lots of things about those things.  We can stare them in the face cold and we can grow beyond them.

For these reasons, this very simple prayer is a phenomenally awesome philosophy to hold close in combating depression.

3. The More Decisions I Make, The More I Become

Once you have decided to recognise that you are in Struggle Town and you have put yourself in a place of surrender, half the battle is won. You then need to make another decision to do something about it. Something. Anything. Everything. But, just start with one thing. It might be saying the sanity prayer. It might be talking honestly to someone you trust. It might be booking an appointment with your GP. It might be stopping and sitting by a moving body of water to think about what is really going on and what you might need. Be really proud of yourself once you have done that. Then, make another decision. Then make another. Then another, then another. Keep being proactive. Before you know it you will be moving through the paralysis, one decision at a time. Be brave. Keep gently moving forward. On that note you may need to…

4. Slow the Frack Down

The first time I found myself in a depressive slump, I was 17.5 years old. Did I even recognise what was going on? No. No I did not. I ate  my feelings, started drinking coffee, kept really super busy by putting all of my effort into achievements and cried my way all the way through every fantastic accolade of my final year at high school. During the following year, I ramped it up and kept myself extraordinarily busy with university, 4-5 different jobs, a trip to Nepal and Thailand and voluntary youth work at my local church.

Naturally, I got sick (with glandular fever) and burnt out. I kept ploughing on and soon after, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.

If you don’t know this already, burn-out leads to the dark side. If the burn-out doesn’t stop you, the depression that follows will absolutely force you to a grinding halt. I was completely stopped in my tracks for months on end. This was my first lesson in maintaining mental health: if you’re not so okay, steady your horses and be gentle with yourself. Even if you are okay, steady horses and be gentle with yourself. You are a human-being, not a human-doing. You need maintenance and servicing and tender loving care to thrive and when you don’t get this, just like your car, you will break down.

So these are my long awaited, all natural foundational tips for combating depression.

Acknowledge. Surrender. Accept. Make space to take stock. Get proactive.

Have the courage to face your dis-ease and make the changes you need.

M.I.O. x

 

 

 

Mind Mending: going from grey to technicolor, naturally

I’m back.

I have managed to get my mind out of it’s flannelette shirt and into a bright summer frock of expectancy.

Albeit, it was a brief brush with the Black Dog. He’s now curled up harmlessly on the floor, peacefully sleeping. This recent soul-venture has made me realise that as a result of all of those intermittent dances with despair, I really do have quite the carpet bag of tricks to help me shake off the space. I was also reminded by the lovely Viv McWaters that tomorrow is National Are You Okay? Day in Australia. In light of this notion of creating connection and as an advocate of hope and healing, I want to share some of the tools I have found useful in rediscovering my joie de vivre .

A Word on Anti-Depressants 

None of my methods involve medication. I’ve been prescribed anti-depressants a number of times; I have never used them. Partly because I’m a bit of a nature-loving-earth-child and prefer to do things as naturally as possible (yes, I did use crystal deodorant for a while and no, it did not work). Also, because I’ve known that, for me, facing off the pain has been a rich source of personal growth if I allow myself to go to it’s depths, understand it and move through it (sometimes I do this more effectively than others). For me, the arrival of the black k9 is telling me something is out of balance – be it within my mind, body, spirit, direction, relationships, environment or a cloudy cocktail of them all. In saying this, I am rapt to hear when people find anti-depressants positively life altering as the paralysis inflicted on their mind is ceases to be. Release is wonderful! A fellow Melbournian, Mark Pacitti has exuberantly and articulately documented his brave break-throughs with the aide of anti-depressants in his blog and generated excellent awareness around the dis-ease.

As you may know, when experiencing a bout of depression, among other things, the colour drains out of everything. I liken the difference between taking medication for depression and not to the difference between the old and new processes of colourising black and white movies. The old process is tedious – you have to work on the movie (your life) frame by frame, adding the colours one at a time to each part of each individual frame. It is initially slower and a lot of work – but you can really gain great awareness and shift major life-blockages quite effectively with the motivation of your limited colour palette gradually being remedied. Sometimes you miss a frame and you have to go back, but boy do you get to know yourself inside-out. ;0)

The new process of colourisation (medication) uses technology to speed things up. You scan your film (life) into a computer (a balanced chemical filter), it shows each frame clearly on the screen, you direct the outline for each area that needs colour and the computer fills it in. The essential thing is that you still take an active role in outlining what the medication is remedying. Obviously the later method is more efficient, especially if you have a lot of footage to cover, the weight of responsibility and you don’t have the luxury of time to process things completely manually. Someone once described anti-depressants to me as being like a crutch for your mind while it mends – just like when you break your leg; the ultimate goal being that you gradually ditch the crutch and work through the residual pain until you have full usage again. This may not be possible for some of us, as Rob Delaney highlights with his experience of clinical depression, but it is the ideal result for many of your garden variety depressions.

Either mending or using a limb or a mind that has been ‘damaged’ requires extra care; strategies to make and keep them vital. Over the next two weeks, I will be posting a series on some of my personal tried and tested natural remedies for dealing with depression and creating balance.

So if you’re not feeling so ‘okay’, come and ride it out with me.

**Please, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, contact your GP and/or a mental health professional for a clinical diagnosis. If it’s urgent, please google for a hotline in your area and chat it through with someone who cares.

A Letter to The Black Dog

Image

Dear Black Dog,

We used to hang out a lot. Remember? Yeah, that’s right, back in my early twenties when I was wearing my poo-goggles on a bit of a full-time basis. In the beginning, we’d sit paralysed on the couch at my parents place together for hours. Me staring into space, with a mind that was simultaneously racing and empty. You would sit on my lap. Or was it my entire being?

One thing is for sure, you were a crushing son of a bitch.

Image

I’m trying to remember how it was that you came to arrive in my life. There are a number of events and triggers; like a bad heart break or two. Like being misled by mentors and having my wide-eyed youthful trust bruised blue. There was the burn-out from studying, working and volunteering as a youth leader. A disconnection with my passion for performance and writing. Oh, and the tsunami of cognitive dissonance with my faith, followed by the alarming rate at which my friendships dropped away when I expressed anything about it.

Really, when I think about it, your presence was a formative part of my early adulthood.

I’m also trying to remember how it was I got you to leave my life. You were around for a while. Years actually. Sometimes it seemed like you had disappeared, but then, when I wasn’t really looking, something would happen, and you would appear. I tried a lot of things to get you to leave. You weren’t exactly welcome. I read books about you and therapy helped some. I wasn’t interested in anti-black dog drugs. I wanted to work you out. I sat with you. I looked deep into the pit of your hopeless tar eyes and attempted to make friends with you. What was it you were trying to tell me? Was I on the wrong path? What was the right path?

Image

When the answers came in the form of your black fog breath, I began to make a series of drastic decisions to move you out. I quit university, left church leadership and took up a full-time job – but you stuck around. I decided to test my faith by taking it to an extreme; I found a crazy missionary lady, travelled to Burma with her and smuggled Bibles – turns out I was smuggling Black Dog in my bags as well. Trying a new tact, I quit church, started studying Social Work, moved out of home and found some open minded friends. Still, you were there – to the point where I couldn’t even write an essay. You had set up camp in my mind.

Image

So, I had to quit that course. Hoping to ‘experience’ a course worth of essays, instead of writing them, I picked up a job working in a Detoxification Unit with drug addicts and criminals; the homeless and the helpless. Exposing myself on a daily basis to a number of your larger relatives, you seemed like a puppy. Having had you around made me more compassionate and gave me a depth, a humility and an understanding I may not otherwise have had. This job provided perspective of sorts. It made me feel important. At the tender age of 21, it seemed like a solution; to bury my black dog with other people’s bigger meaner black dogs. Yes. Finally. A way forward.

Seeing as this strategy was working so well, I stepped it up by dating a co-worker. He had a beast of a Black Dog, and, being that he blocked it out with marijuana and alcohol, I made it my mission to focus all of my attention upon dealing with it, ignoring that you were right there feeding off of the angst.

Image

And so began my lessons on the pitfalls of playing the ‘Rescuer’ and ‘Wounded Healer’. Four and a half tumultuous years and an unplanned pregnancy later, I sat in a field on the first birthday of my first child, alone, watched a sunset and realised I could never be responsible for someone else’s black dog. And, I realised I still had one of my own. You had grown, but so had I.

This was a pivotal moment.

Today I heard someone talk about choices as being like steering a ship. I like to think of the Spirit of Tasmania, as I can hear it honk every night from my house. If you steer that ship just one degree differently, nothing much will change in the next two days, but over the course of 2-5 years, you will be on a completely different trajectory. You will not end up in Launceston, you will potentially wind up somewhere much more perilous, like Antarctica… or possibly somewhere much milder, like, oh, I don’t know, Vanuatu. This shift in perception did exactly that for my life.

Armed with sobering fragments of truth, I made some more drastic decisions. Some of those choices meant I had to painfully learn the same lessons again. Such is the nature of one rehabilitating from any pattern of escape from their demon… I mean dog. However, mostly, they were good decisions. The decisions to go on alone as a parent and to complete a double degree in Education and the Arts were foundational.  Five years and what felt like several hundred thousand hurdles later, I graduated from that marathon chapter of my life. I met and married a wonderful man, got a job and fell in an exhausted heap.

Here’s the thing though, last night, my husband plucked a short black hair off of my tear stained pyjama sleeve and, despite the fact that I have a beautiful family, great work and I’m not living in a caravan in some God-for-saken suburb in the Boganisphere of Melbourne (as I may well have if I didn’t shift that degree), I realised you’ve caught up with me.

Image

I stopped running, you see. I removed all the distractions and now I can see we’re still rather attached.

Image

So I know you’re here, buddy. But, guess what? I’m bigger than you and I have faith in something even bigger than me. That’s the order of things. With our eyes wide open, we are going to figure out why it was you came in the first place. We are going to stop trying to bury you in tasks and achievements. We are going to find that passion and sense of purpose I lost a long way back, together.

Image

Acknowledging pats from,

M.I.O.

P.s. I am going to share this letter, because it has helped so much for me to write it. Hopefully it comforts someone else out there. Let’s face it, most of the time we only provide the highlights reel.

*** Many thanks to the very talented illustrator, Matthew Johnstone and the following sources for providing the poignant imagery in this post: Black Dog InstituteJourneys with the Black Dog: Inspirational Stories of Bringing the Black Dog to HeelI Had a Black Dog and Living with a Black Dog.