A decade ago I voluntarily sought out counseling for emotional and mental difficulties, after an upheaval unlike any other I’d experienced; an upheaval seemingly impossible to overcome. I remember my counselor, a very gentle woman with grey, careworn curls and a soft voice, giving me a questionnaire on my life experiences. I answered as honestly as I could. She reviewed my answers on paper and informed me I qualified for “mild to moderate depression”, before lightly setting the paper aside to interview me further.
Upon her pronouncement – well, honestly, I felt as if I’d passed a test. On one hand I was mildly discouraged to discover something unwholesome had taken me over despite my best efforts. On the other, it felt a bit validating to know I had a reason to seek out this kind of help. I wasn’t just making it up, for fun. (for fun!)
This latest episode of depression has differed quite a bit from my experiences in the past. Unlike ten years ago, I am more consciously aware of my innermost difficulties. Perhaps a good analogy is that of receiving dental work with, or without, anesthesia. The same procedure, the same pain, the same violation of the body occurs in both cases. But with an analgesic the mind is in a sense less aware of what it is going through. Many consider painkillers to be a mercy – even a necessity for all of life’s discomforts. There is some doubt about the wisdom of such an approach, as medical and spiritual traditions continue to inform us.
As I cope with this latest bout of depression – without the use of intoxicants or medications, or my previous habits of smoking, over-spending, over-activity, and over-eating – I am acutely aware of my discomfort. Without the anesthesizing effects of Valium or alcohol, without looking to my partner to “make me feel better”, I confess I go through some very scary spells indeed. Today I felt a paralyzing coldness creeping over me, dragging me to the depths, a more powerful experience than I’d ever had. It felt like drowning, but in a muffled darkness, not a liquid element. My husband, asking after my pneumonia, says, “Does your chest hurt? Is it your head?” Depression like this is a bodily experience, a bloom like influenza, down to my bones.
I am sad my partner and children do not live with a woman who is entirely well. I think I could somewhat cheerfully step through my own pain, but my sense of responsibility to them is a tripping-stone on the path, an obstacle I struggle with. A hangnail I worry at, not allowing patience, and healing. I know I am not seeing clearly, because to require I do not suffer illness for their sake is to spit their unconditional love back in their faces.
I know I owe them not perfection or Wellness precisely – but honesty, gratitude, self-love and self-care, humor, gentleness, and my presence. And for me – because I practice while things are good – I know it is entirely possible to be present while in so much pain. It really is one breath at a time, an exercise in mindfulness, breathing, awareness, lovingkindness, and acceptance. It is no different than when things are easier, and perhaps that is the biggest mystery of all, one I find a great deal of joy in discovering, over and over again.
Tonight while my children attend a community hockey practice I wash my son’s coverlet; I light candles, file papers, and dress for yoga. A headstand will help! Time with friends, sweating on a mat, enjoying my body – will help. My gratitude practice – through wellness and illness – will help.
I am glad for you who read here, and who can accompany me in some way on my path. The rocks are sharp underfoot; a foreboding stoniness of the cliffs loom around me, and a bitter wind slaps through my jacket. But the thought of you keeps me alight, the little flame in my chest, that shan’t be extinguished as long as I draw breath. I make my way to your campfire with a gladness in my heart that may not be happiness, but it is joy.