The first Day’s Night had come—
And grateful that a thing
So terrible—had been endured—
I told my Soul to sing—
She said her Strings were snapt—
Her Bow—to Atoms blown—
And so to mend her—gave me work
Until another Morn--
--Emily Dickinson, 410
I’m done with just trying to endure my depression and get back to "normal." I'm setting my sights a little higher this time.
Yeah, I know. Trying to make something out of being depressed is about as easy as trying to tie your shoes with one hand tied behind your back. At least when you start with nothing, anything you do will be something. When you start with a big batch of negatives like the hopelessness, helplessness, fatigue, and mental fog that is depression, there’s really no reason to believe that whatever you can do will even get you out of the hole, much less get you moving along in a good direction. It's much easier to see those depressed thoughts and feelings as enemies to be defeated, rather than tools to use.
But maybe it only seems this way because we've forgotten our basic math. When you multiply two negatives together, you get a positive, right? I'm hoping that at least some of the negatives going on for me right now can be combined into something positive--and something beyond merely getting back to "normal."
When I first found out last week that, instead of getting a hoped-for “quick fix” with ECT, I had wrecked my ankle and was looking at 3-5 months during which I couldn’t even ride a bike or walk to the grocery store, my mood took a real nose dive. And considering how low to the ground I was already flying, this really wasn’t a good situation. They kept me in the hospital for an extra day and night just because I couldn’t convince them it was safe to let me go home alone in my current state of mind.
For the past several years, the single most important and most reliable thing that has helped me stay relatively sane and functional has been the time I spend outside every day riding my bike and/or hiking. I knew I could mentally survive a few days or even weeks without this activity, but I also was pretty sure that I couldn’t and wouldn’t survive 3 months of it. I wasn’t convinced I even wanted to try.
It’s hard to explain in words what this outdoor activity does for me, or why the prospect of not being able to do it is so threatening. But it’s definitely more than just “exercise” or an endorphin high--it’s more of a spiritual practice. And I know that making it through my current situation will take more than just trying to find some other physical activity I can handle.
I hate to overdo the whole Dylan thing, but his song “Shelter from the Storm” comes as close as anything I can think of to describing how I feel about my rides and hikes. I feel like I “belong” out there in nature in ways I don’t think I could ever feel like I belong in social groups. I can believe that the Beauty I see is meant for me as much as for anyone else, without feeling like I have to pretend to be something other than I am to deserve it. In social situations, I usually feel like I have to wear my "apparently normal" disguise, while hiding what's really going on inside.
And yet, with the threat of losing this important part of my life for at least a short time, here I am, talking about it as if it might actually turn out to be a good thing. I’m not actually sure it will, and sometimes it even seems just as likely that I’ll end up ignoring medical advice and doing some biking, at least, just to stay sane and alive, as soon as my ankle gets to the point where I can physically handle my bike.
But just thinking about all this has also reminded me how, when I was in graduate school a while back, I got many of the same emotional rewards I associate with actually being out in nature by reading and writing a lot about the relationship between nature and human emotional well-being (this was at a time when I still weighed about 400 pounds, and couldn’t possibly ride a bike long enough to even get close to the forest, the ocean, or the hills). Obviously, this human/nature connection seems to be an issue that resonates with me on several levels, for whatever reason. I'm not sure whether immersing myself in the philosophical side of it will be enough, after having a taste of the experiential reality, but we'll see.
Today I went rooting through all my old school papers and research notes, and realized I still have what could possibly, with a little work, be turned into a decent essay or even a set of articles about all this that helps me stay sane while my ankle is healing. Whether or not it turns into something worth sharing with others, at least it will keep me occupied, I hope. And maybe the prospect of sharing my thoughts publicly somehow will help keep this from becoming yet another exercise in introversion without a balancing move in the other direction as well.
So, my resolution for this week is to spend some time going through my earlier work and seeing if it still peaks my interest enough to fill the time I’d otherwise be spending outdoors with writing about this whole business. I know my depressed self well enough to know that my first reaction will be to think this won’t actually work, and isn’t worth the effort. So, before even starting I’m going to pin up this little quote from the Tao Te Ching above my desk where I can’t help but see it every morning:
Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your own two feet
on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
Tao Te Ching
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
What about you? Are there any things you've enjoyed in the past that your depression has taken away? Do you think that trying to include them in your life again now, even if you have to modify them somewhat, could help you transform your depression into something that helps you set your sights on more than getting back to "normal"?
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