Monday, October 20, 2014

Pulling My Head Out of My Navel

Both the artist and the model of this drawing are dead. They both committed suicide after suffering more sorrow than they could bear. Sorry to bum you out, but it's true.

"Sorrow" by Vincent van Gogh, 1882
pencil, pen, and ink on paper

And yet, I've always been drawn to this drawing as if it were life-affirming. I think it's beautiful. Not just masterfully rendered, but a beautiful reflection of human emotion. It's like looking into a mirror. Who here has not felt sorrow? This life is not easy. And yet, most of us don't kill ourselves. Many of us live good, long lives. We help each other get through it. We lift others up when they are down, until it's our turn. Up and down, up and down, like a teeter totter.

Anyone under the age of 30 will need to google "teeter totter" to know what it is. They've been removed from playgrounds, along with metal slides that burn the back of your thighs in the middle of summer, because they are too "dangerous".

Just don't be an asshole to other kids and learn how to hold your legs up so they don't burn. Is it really that hard?

We've become a society that has lost trust in each other. Because some kids are assholes, all kids get treated like assholes. Because some kids like to hold the teeter totter in the down position for a long time, terrifying the kid at the other end of the teeter totter, the one up in the air, and then--BAM!--push off the ground with both feet so the kid stuck in the air falls to the ground hard and fast, because there are a few kids who have been assholes, the nice kids, the ones who would never do that to anyone, the ones who just want to go up and down, up and down, wheee!, they don't get to experience the joy that can be a teeter totter.

Caring for someone who has depression is no day at the park, but in its own way, it helps to help others. It lifts our spirits when we lift other people up. To turn our attention outward, to stretch out of our navel-gazer yoga pose and focus not just on our own well-being but the well-being of others, this is what makes life livable.

I can say all this motivational joy, or plain ole horseshit, however you see it, because I am not currently experiencing a depressive episode. I am a person who has clinic depression, sure. But I'm in an emotionally balanced place in my life now, like a kid who figured out how to hold her legs up just right so she doesn't get burned on the way down the metal slide.

I don't doubt I'll experience another depressive episode in my life. I tend to get a big doozy every couple of years or so. The longest stretch I went without feeling the effects of major depression was five years when I was diligently taking my meds.

Many things help me live well with clinical depression. My meds. Going to sleep when I'm tired and waking up without an alarm clock. The social-emotional support of my amazing husband and our daughter. Eating a lot of plant-based foods for alertness and energy. Walking. Around the neighborhood. During breaks at work. With the kid. With the dogs. Whenever I get a chance, little spurts here and there throughout the day, with hiking at the dog park bookends.

I didn't realize until I watched this episode of the ironically addictive YouTube series Crash Course Psychology that another thing that's improved my mood lately is pulling my head out of my navel.

From Hank Green's Crash Course Psychology, Episode 30: Depressive and Bipolar Disorders:

"People with depression often view bad events through an internal lens or mindset that influences how they're interpreted. And how you explain events to yourself in a negative or positive way can really affect how you recover from them, or don't. Say you were humiliated in the lunchroom when someone tripped you and your chicken soup flew all over the place and you sat down on a brownie and, it was just a bad day. A depressive mind might immediately start thinking that the humiliation will last forever and that no one will ever let you live it down, that it's somehow your own fault, and you can't ever do anything right. That negative thinking, learned helplessness, self-blame and overthinking can feed off itself and basically smother the joy out of a brain, eventually creating a vicious self-fulfilling cycle of negative thinking.

"The good news is that the cycle can be broken by getting help from a professional, turning your attention outward, doing more fun things, maybe even moving to a different environment. But again, that social-cognitive perspective is just part of a much bigger puzzle. Positive thinking is important, but it's often inadequate on its own when up against genetic or neurological factors."

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for introspection. I think if people in our society engaged in more self-reflection we'd have less abuse and violence and struggles with each other. But overthinking is a thing. I've been guilty of it most of my life. It's actually very hard for me to not-think, which sounds cool. It's not. It's about as cool as if someone found it very hard to not-run. Eventually your body will become exhausted. That's how my mind feels when I can't let go of my thoughts.

One way to let go of my thoughts is to surround myself with other people. It's hard to find peace and quiet enough to overthink things when there are a bunch of people around you. When I'm super depressed, I don't want to get out of bed. Then I know it's time to change something. Adjust my meds, or what have you. But when I'm feeling better, a great way I've found to balance my moods is to take care of other people. My husband, our kid, our pets at home. Customers at work. The kids in my Sunday School class. These people think I'm helping them when I show up and get to work taking care of them. I hope they know they're helping me by getting my mind off my own troubles.

When I'm feeling mentally balanced, It doesn't bother me to look at other people's pain and confusion. Sometimes I lack the emotional wherewithal to take care of my own needs, and I appreciate the help of my loved ones during those times, but I'm quite courageous around other people's sorrow, just as van Gogh was around his model Sien's. Don't feel like you must hide your sorrow from me. I've been there. I know how to get out, if you trust me.