Monthly Archives: December 2014

December 21: Winter Solstice

YuleLogIn the Unitarian-Universalist church I attended as a child, the big December tradition was the making of Yule logs. Church members donated logs and various sprigs, cones, and berries for weeks. When the big day came, parent volunteers fervently beat melted paraffin wax and gave you a little dollop to use for sticking natural elements to your log. Then they sprayed it with fake snow, the only snow we’d see that Christmas in our Southern California town.

When your log was done, you were given a small, photocopied sheet explaining the significance of the Yule log in certain Pagan cultures. You were supposed to tack the sheet to the end of your log and write your name on it.

From what I recall, the sheet explained that Pagans would burn a big log around the time of the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year. The log was supposed to encourage the sun to return, and, lo and behold, it slowly did. (For a slightly more detailed explanation of the Pagan Yule custom, see this Wikipedia entry.)

Like our Pagan ancestors, we’ve noticed in recent weeks that the world is a darker place. And the darkness hits its low point today, the Winter Solstice. It’s referred to as the shortest day of the year. And it is short, daylight-wise, but sometimes it can feel like a pretty long day, emotionally.

Where I find hope in the Winter Solstice, though, is that the days can only get brighter from here. I will use data from my own home region, Chicago, to illustrate this point about brighter days. According to timeanddate.com, today, on the shortest day of the year, we will have 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 43 seconds of daylight.

Tomorrow, we will have 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 45 seconds of daylight. A big whopping 2 seconds more of daylight than we had the day before. It doesn’t feel like much of a victory.

Except, the day after that, we get 5 more seconds of daylight. Then the next day we get 10 more seconds, and the day after that 14 more seconds. By New Year’s Eve, a mere ten days from now,  we’ll have 3 minutes and 13 seconds more daylight than we’ll have today. A month from now, on January 21, we’ll have 9 hours, 39 minutes, and 27 seconds of daylight. That’s a whole 31 minutes and 40 seconds more daylight than we have today.

Now, I know what you’re saying. Big fucking deal. Half an hour of daylight gained in a month. It’s still too dark. And you’re right. I’m pining for summer evenings at the pool until 8 p.m. as much as you are.

But what you have to realize is that each day it gets a little brighter. Not only that, the interval by which each successive day gets brighter increases: 2 more seconds of daylight, 5 more seconds, 10 more … all the way until Daylight Saving Time in March, when we’re gaining almost 3 minutes of daylight from one day to the next.

To me, this pattern of increase in daylight is the perfect metaphor for recovery from depression. Like the change in daylight, the progression from emotional darkness to light happens in tiny intervals. One day you realize you can do a chore you couldn’t bring yourself to do the day before. Or maybe you see that your crying has gone from hopeless, guttural sobbing to quiet, gentle weeping.

It’s still dark, it’s just a little less dark.

And like the daily intervals of increase in daylight, you find that your depression begins to improve in greater intervals as well. The spark of light you found when you could fold that growing pile of laundry gives you the hope to take a short walk around the block the next day. And maybe by a week later, you’ve brought yourself back to the gym. Soon you go from thinking life is the worst thing in the world to thinking maybe life is tolerable, and then to thinking you can definitely cope with this life thing, and then someday to actually enjoying life.

A little bit of light gives way to a little bit more, and a little bit more after that. It just takes time.

It would be nice to think all the light would come back at once. But it takes six months for the earth to go from Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice. You have to give yourself some time, too.

December 19: O Wisdom

220px-SapientiaIn Catholic and Lutheran churches (and some Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches) there’s a tradition of singing the “O Antiphons” for the week of December 17 through 23 as the last way of preparing for the birth of Christ. The O Antiphons are a series of short verses, originally in Latin but sung in English in the US, that each start with addressing Jesus by a different name and each referring back to different prophesies about Jesus. (And they all start with the word “O,” hence the name O Antiphons.)

Wikipedia gives a really good summary and listing of them, and clickthroughs to hear them sung if you want to listen.

Today’s addresses Jesus as “O Root of Jesse” and asks that he deliver us. But the one I really return to more than the others is the one for December 17:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

I love the idea of addressing Jesus as “O Wisdom” and asking him to fix things “mightily and sweetly” and to teach us “the way of prudence.”

It feels like the worst part of living sometimes is the not knowing. The not knowing what’s going to happen. Are we tossing all our efforts and love into an abyss? What if it really doesn’t actually work out?

And I think that’s one difference between those of us with depression and normal people: we’ve looked into the abyss and we know that it truly might never work out.

That hurts. A lot. it would be so much easier to just think that if it’s not ok it’s not the end. But at the same time there’s such a gift in seeing clearly that there is no guarantee, no knowing, no clarity.

I’ve been thinking about lines from the poem What Are Years? by Marianne Moore:

He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm,

“Sees deep and is glad.” That’s me. I am glad to know, even if it hurts. Even when I accede to mortality and understand my imprisonment. I am glad to be understanding the ordering of things, and am looking for the ways of prudence. This x-ray vision of depression makes me glad.

O Wisdom, coming from the mouth of the Most High.

 

December 17: Grinch out

The_GrinchShannon wrote about how she fights, about how it’s a battle for her. I’m going to write about how it is for me, and the form my fighting takes.

Everyone imagines their depression in a different way: the black dog, a cloud over you. My dad says his feels like a monster grabbing him from behind. Another friend says it’s an anchor in his chest. For me it’s a pit. I’m in the pit, and I’m still me, I’m just in there and I can hear everyone else up at ground level but I’m down below by myself. When I’m in remission I’m just walking along calmly up in the world, but I know that I could place my foot wrong and slide over the edge into the pit at any time. And if I’m in the pit I’m going to have to climb out.

To me, that’s what it is–clawing my way out of the pit by my fingernails. I have done it enough times that I know I can do it again. It’s just that sometimes I don’t realize I’m in the pit until I’m so far down that it’s hard to get that first handful of the dirt on the wall, and everyone’s voice is very faint down to me. But once I start the climb, I feel my fingernails being shredded and my fingers getting tired and my forearms aching and I get halfway up, until it’s too scary to keep going up and too scary to let myself fall to the bottom again.

That’s when someone shows up to help. Every damn time. Sometimes it’s one specific friend of mine who knows who she is. Sometimes it’s a stranger. I think sometimes it’s the same angel that saved my life when I was 4 showing up to save my sorry ass again. I think that God is with me in the pit and God is with my during the climb and God is with me when I hoist myself over the edge at the top.

This image of God in everything, even things that don’t look holy, is something that clings to me, even when I’ve tried to reject it. So I’ve learned to grab on to whatever shows up, even when it doesn’t make sense on the surface. There are a couple of things that I always do to help the climb, that don’t look special but are like magic for me. One is to do this exercise, five times a day, until I’m out of the pit. It looks silly, but there’s something about it that gives me a hormonal boost enough to be able to open my eyes as I climb.

The other thing is listening to this song, which is silly, because it’s totally just a dance song from the ’90s and it shouldn’t be anything more (although my friend Patrick did once say it’s “the hypest joint ever” and I can’t disagree. Plus that saxophone hook.). But being in the pit makes me feel like I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. Nothing that anyone else would care about. So clearing my throat so my voice will be clear again feels a little epic, from the bottom of the pit.

This month, I’ve been hearing a lot of Christmas music (obvs) in the car with my seventh grader, and his commentary has been priceless. He seems to be especially bothered by “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and what he perceives as ridiculous and discriminatory slander of the Grinch. He’s upset that the song makes fun of the Grinch for being cranky. “What’s wrong with not being into all the lights and the consumerism, Mom?” BINGO.

I’m starting to think the Grinch is one of those people (sort of) that shows up to help me.

What if being a crank is actually ok?

What if there’s nothing inherently morally wrong with those of us with depression? What if we just have a physical illness that we manage to varying degrees of success? What if there’s nothing to be embarrassed about? What if it’s totally ok to have garlic in our souls? GARLIC IS DELICIOUS.

I’m going to start embracing my Grinch. And looking for other Grinches, and encouraging them to clear their throats and tell me something quiet and non-sugared and true.

(We are ok.)

December 16: Advice From Other People

I talked yesterday about being a warrior in the battle against depression. The reality is, our only choices are to fight back or be chronically miserable. You don’t get Secret Option #3: Trade your current mind and body for one that isn’t prone to depression.

So you’re probably going to choose to fight. You will do some combination of the following: take medication, see a therapist, exercise, eat right, spend time outdoors, stare at a special lamp, take vitamins, and confide in loved ones.

You will cry and punch a pillow and scream WHY?! at the universe.

But one tool you may not have considered in the fight against depression is acceptance. 

Now, acceptance is a very tricky concept. There are some parts of depression you should not accept. If you can’t get out of bed, can’t take care of yourself, or God forbid are considering harming yourself, you should definitely not accept your situation. You should get help, and NOW. Even if it’s not that dire but you know you can’t fight alone anymore, you should get help. You deserve help.

On the flip side, if you feel like you can motivate yourself to exercise or do something fun, don’t say, Nope, I’d rather accept my depression. That isn’t what I mean when I talk about acceptance.

What I mean is that you need to accept your feelings as valid. If you try to fight your own feelings or dismiss them as invalid, you will feel worse. If you start to overthink those feelings or formulate some explanation for them, you will end up digging yourself deeper into despair. An example:

It’s a cold, dark Monday morning in December. Your alarm has gone off. Your very first emotion of the day is one of sadness. Immediately your mind launches into some crazy spiral that goes something like: Why on earth am I so sad? What’s wrong with me? I’m lucky I have a job and a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. I should be more grateful. Oh my gosh, is this another episode of depression? WHY? Are my meds failing me? What if I have to go to the doctor and get new meds, but then I have to taper off the old ones, and that’s hard, and what if the new ones don’t work or have horrible side effects? How am I going to function? Why can’t I just be happy? 

Feel better?

No, you feel a whole lot worse. And you’ve been up for less than 30 seconds and already you’re hyperventilating.

A better option: I feel sad. A lot of people feel sad. It’s okay to feel this way. And then get out of bed.

Many of you might recognize these ideas as being part of the practice of mindfulness, a really useful but often overlooked way to manage your mental health. If you’re interested in mindfulness as a tool for treating depression, I highly recommend this book.

So, sometimes you have to accept that you’re going to feel sad. Sometimes you’re going to have to accept the place you’re at on your mental health journey.

Which means you need some daily coping strategies for when you are depressed. And so I give you the following links:

Link 1: 21 Tips to Keep Your Shit Together When You’re Depressed

Link 2: Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide

Wishing you love, peace, and acceptance this cold December night. 

December 15: Forward, March!

The formula for antidepressant commercials is always the same:

Bad Life > Drug > Good Life.

If only it were that simple. 

It’s not just the issue of the side effects that are quickly enumerated by the voiceover as we watch somebody frolic through a field. Nor is it just the issue that life is too complex to really be fixed by some magic bullet pharmaceutical product.

It’s also that, even warmyhen depression gets better, it sometimes comes back. 

That part’s not in the commercials, but it’s a reality of a lot of our lives.

Like many people reading this, I have battled depression more times than I can count. Each time feels like the worst time ever. Each time Depression lies and says it won’t get better this time.

A disproportionate number of these episodes have happened in December. And, yes, it’s December, and I’m in the middle of what feels like the worst episode ever.

It’s hard when you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard when you’re slogging through the alleged season of joy and cheer. And it’s frustrating when you’re doing everything you’re told to do to fight depression—medication, therapy, exercise, and so on—and it’s still not getting better.

It’s also a really tough time of year to employ some of those little depression fixes. Take time out for myself? When? I’m stuck going to everybody and their brother’s awkward holiday gathering. Retail therapy? Who has the money when you have to buy gifts for everybody else? Spend time out in the sun? What sun? 

The frustration over all of the above eventually culminated in a little pity party of one today, when I happened to come across this blog post by blogger/YouTube personality Connor Manning, entitled “What Having Depression is Like.”

Now, I know you already know what having depression is like. But I urge you to read the post for its many insightful gems.

And I’ll tell you the one that stuck with me the most. After listing the all-too-familiar stages of depression, Connor talks about the last stage:

At this point, I have a choice to make. I can continue as I am, or I can start fighting. This time around, I know exactly what is going on inside my head. It’s like I’m a soldier having been in basic training (therapy for 2 years) and I’m about to be deployed. I will not let this consume me. I have no other choice but to get through. There is no other option. 2 years ago, on the brink of self destruction, I told myself, “Connor, you’re gonna choose to love this life in all its shitty, imperfect, yet beautiful glory.” So that’s what this is.

Somehow it took somebody else spelling it out for me to realize a very obvious truth: I’m in a situation I hate, feeling sorry for myself, and it never occurred to me that I could fight my way out of it.

Now, let me be very clear here: This is not the classic “snap out of it” mantra frequently espoused by people who completely lack any understanding of depression. By its very definition, depression isn’t a mood you can snap out of. And while I believe we all have the power to fight depression, I believe that most of the time your arsenal needs to include outside help—medication, therapy, and a good support system.

What I am saying is that my personal arsenal includes all of these, and they’ve helped me become ready to fight a little harder. You have to be at a certain stage in a depressive episode to even be willing to fight, and if you’re not in that stage, keep seeking outside help for your personal arsenal. And you will get to a point where you’re ready to fight. I promise you will.

But here I am, ready to fight. Private Shannon Ford is reporting for duty. You know what—forget that, I’ve fought and won enough battles in the depression trenches to be promoted a few ranks.

Sergeant Shannon Ford is reporting for duty.

Truth is, like most soldiers, even the seasoned veterans, I’m scared and uncertain. If I felt 100% strong and confident, I probably wouldn’t be depressed. It feels like an uphill battle.

But I have a Battle Plan. It includes spending a little less time wallowing in self-pity and a little more time completing tasks that will give me a sense of accomplishment. Sounds easy enough, but I’m still wired to want to wallow. It will take a little extra effort to force myself to complete those tasks.

I’ve also made a list of quick, easy, cheap activities I can enjoy doing this time of year, things like crossword puzzles and bubble baths.

And I’ve accepted that the battle isn’t always going to be brutal, violent, and loud. Sometimes it’s the peaceful acceptance of my feelings and the place I’m in now. Sometimes it’s just breathing deeply or taking a nap.

Now, I’ve fought enough times to know that the battle won’t be won easily or quickly. But I won’t surrender.

Who’s ready to join my ranks?

 

 

December 14: The friend glue

GlueWhen you feel like you’re flying apart, sometimes a friend can be the glue that holds you together. A friend who knows who you really are. Who knows what you’re worth. Who knows that the depression is lying to you (because depression always lies) about how unnecessary you are. About how you are not going to feel any better.

Think about a friend who thinks you’re worth something. And then text or message or email or call that person and tell them you’re thinking of them.

If one of your friends has reached out to you yesterday or today, reach back. And thank them for thinking of you, and tell them you’re thinking of them.

And tell them the truth when they ask you how you are.

It’s scary. But your friend can handle your truth. Your friend can handle you.

December 12: We Wait

My grandma used to send me an advent calendar every year. It was the old-fashioned paper kind—in those days the kind with waxy chocolate or the little drawers weren’t readily available. Each day I’d open up the little perforated paper window and find a picture inside.

If you had asked me what adAdvent Calendarvent meant back then, I would have told you it was a little paper calendar with pictures of Santas and stockings. My family didn’t go to Christian church, and I had no idea that advent actually had a meaning based in religious tradition.

It is my personal hope that the Advent Calendar for Depressed People will speak to people of all faiths, so I’ve mostly kept my posts of the more secular “something new every day” tradition like my little paper calendars. I want to reach as many people as possible, not put somebody off just because their particular holiday tradition isn’t based on waiting for the birth of Jesus.

But when my friend Catherine, blogger at Everyday Epiphanies, posted a series of daily devotionals from her church’s blog, I knew they were perfect for the Advent Calendar for Depressed People. I think that even though these devotionals are based in Christian faith, people of all faiths can find hope and inspiration in them.

The theme of the posts is the idea of waiting—an appropriate one for advent—but more specifically waiting for something better. Here are the posts with my favorite excerpts from each:

  • In The Darkest Days, We Wait For Light“In this wintertime season the world is covered in darkness and lifelessness. No one needs to be convinced that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, and our communities. We know how dark darkness can be. There is pain and suffering; we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn.  The light we are straining to see during this Advent season is found in a newborn baby—but it is neither weak nor helpless. This Good News, this light that has come into darkness, has the strength of God grafting us into his family, of sending neither a sign nor a prophet but coming Himself, as one of us.” … “What darkness are you facing today? Are you sinking into the cold reality of pain, suffering, depression, or loss? Lift your face to the sun and know that He is coming—and He is here. Our Light, and our Salvation—He is sure. The darkness has already lost. The light of the world has overcome.”
  • In The Coldest Season, We Wait for Comfort: “When times are easy, there is no need for comfort. No one wants to be interrupted at a victory celebration with a bowl of chicken soup and a long hug. It was not the wealthy and well-to-do who took comfort in Mary’s song (Luke 1). There is a reason why we announce comfort in the midst of the cold, dead season: it is in our discomfort that the Good News is needed. And that is exactly where it appears.”
  • In A World of Suffering, We Wait For Joy“Think of the moments in life when you were at your very worst. Think of the day that was the most stressful, the most horrible, the most full of conflict or dread or darkness. The incarnation means that God is with us here, in this place. We don’t need to put our fanciest clothes on, our best foot forward, or don our happiest mask. We don’t need to be on our best behavior. He came to real life and he came with a blessing, not a curse. He came and experienced all the ups and downs; we cannot shock him; we need not feel shame in his presence.”  … “It can be hard to enter into the holiday season when we are suffering, grieving a loss, fighting illness, or sinking into depression and anxiety. During this Advent, remember that our seasons of discomfort are exactly when and where He meets us, making things new. Into your life of pain—and into this world of pain—the Prince of Peace has come with earth-shaking joy.”
  • In A Time Of Despair, We Wait With Hope“Are you waiting this Advent season? Are you balanced on the precipice of hope and despair, vulnerable to the future, uncertain which way you will land? My prayer is that your sufferings—no matter how small or severe they may be—will be for you the birthplace of peace; that in your struggle will be born perseverance. That perseverance will give birth to character, and character to hope. And that this hope will be made sure by the love of God, poured into your heart, through the Holy Spirit.”