Category Archives: Depression/Mood Disorders

AFOG — Another F*&%ing Opportunity for Growth

One day, a little over ten years ago when I was feeling suicidal, I was explaining to my sister and her husband my rationalization for it being perfectly okay for me to commit suicide. I was sharing how I had realized that if I killed myself, everyone would move on and be fine. People die every day, I said. People move past these things all the time, I explained. I was so deep in my own misery that I then went on to say one of the most cruel and hurtful things I ever remember speaking out loud. You see, my brother-in-law’s little brother had recently died in a car accident. He was a teenager or at the most in his early 20s when he died. In my utter narcissistic despair and obliviousness, I proceeded to point out to my brother-in-law that obviously he had moved on from the death of his brother, and that that was the proof of my undeniable logic. A deafening silence followed. My sister glanced at her husband. Then she locked her eyes on mine, and I’ll never forgot what she said to me: “Yes, people move on. But nothing is ever the same again. Their lives are changed forever.”

Those words and the energy behind them pierced through the veil of my despair to shake me awake. Needless to say, I didn’t commit suicide. But more than that, never again did I trivialize the depth and breadth of what we experience as human beings in this life, including the deepest grief, despair, and pain. The experience of loss, for instance, is not trivial simply because all of us must endure and move through it at some point in our lives. In fact, the experience can be utterly transformational in the most horrendous and most beautiful ways. Indeed, we will never be the same again.

Recently I ran across an article written by Mark Sandlin called, 10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying. Some of these clichés are said by more than just Christians and are generally used in an attempt to comfort ourselves or others going through a challenging experience:

Everything happens for a reason.

God (the Universe) never gives us any more than we can handle.

We could debate (endlessly) whether or not these statements are even true. But more important is how these statements are often used as a subtle way of trivializing our own or another’s experience. I cannot tell you how often people start to share with me the depth of their pain only to stop themselves with a “but” followed by a version of one of these statements. Another common sentence to follow the “but” is, “I’m seeing this as an opportunity for growth.”

It is fantastic to see that everything happens for a reason, or that we can handle whatever is in front of us, or that every situation is an opportunity for growth and evolution. But when we start to use these ideas as subtle ways of avoiding and trivializing our own pain, then we are bypassing the very path we must travel to grow, transform, and heal in the most profound ways.

What is needed for true transformation and healing is the capacity to hold and feel fully both sides of this coin — both the horrendousness and beauty, the pain and the transformative power, the grief and the love. A friend of mine once shared that she calls these situations AFOGs — another f*%&ing opportunity for growth. I love this because the f-bomb acknowledges the pain of the situation, and “opportunity for growth” speaks to the transformative potential. I find that all too often, we want to leave out the f-bomb. We want to avoid the pain at all costs. But when we do this, we are denying an aspect of life itself. As Vera de Chalambert says:

“We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact. We can’t cut off the stream of life and expect to heal.” ~From Kali Takes America: I’m with Her

The capacity to be fully present with both the pain and the inherent transformative power in these situations is often not easy. It takes an ability to differentiate and dis-identify from powerful energies which can be so overwhelming and all-consuming that we literally think they are us. For me, this is a journey. It is a continual discovery that pain and transformative power are often inseparable. It is a journey I embrace because, in that moment when my sister looked me in the eyes, I decided to live.
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Turning Towards

A healthy human being is characterized by a wider and wider capacity to experience [with presence] emotion and blends of emotion.” ~Dr. Keith Witt, Integral Psychologist

This assertion from Dr. Witt may sound simple, but I believe it to be extremely profound in its implications. In fact, I think it is key to understanding truly transformational healing and how it occurs. Dr. Witt and Jeff Salzman discuss this topic in Jeff’s Daily Evolver podcast episode entitled, “Transforming Trauma Into Power.” (I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety.)

What does it mean to have a wider and wider capacity to experience and be present with emotion? What is so challenging about it? And why is this capacity so essential for transformational healing?

Having the capacity to be present with our emotions means we have cultivated the ability to turn towards our unwanted feelings, pain, and other undesired material, as opposed to turning away through denial, distraction, or dissociation. One of the reasons this is so difficult is it goes against our most basic survival and instinctual drives, such as our ability to dissociate when experiencing a traumatic event. If we have used a response such as dissociation in the past and it worked to get us through a traumatic situation, our system will remember this success and use dissociation over and over again whenever it perceives danger (real or not). And this response will happen automatically and often unconsciously. That is, most of us are not even aware when we are dissociating.

Another reason it is difficult for us to turn towards our pain is we are often taught that certain emotions are bad and others are good. When we judge our emotions (and therefore ourselves) in this way, we tend to suppress those emotions which we have labeled as wrong. We do this in a variety of ways. We might dissociate (as already discussed above), go into denial, or use distraction (food, TV, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc.). We might also shame ourselves in an attempt to control our feelings.

Why is it important to build the capacity to turn towards our pain? When we suppress our emotions or are otherwise unable to be present with our painful experiences, symptoms will eventually arise such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, psychosis, physical & immune system ailments, and in cases of extreme trauma, PTSD symptoms. The way to truly heal is to turn toward our pain and be present with the associated emotions and sensations. If we are able to meet our pain with compassionate understanding and radical acceptance, the energy of the held trauma naturally begins to metabolize, integrate, and heal.

One way to be present with our painful experiences is through what is called resourcing. This is a way of holding a resourced or healthy, powerful feeling in the body simultaneously with a challenging feeling in the body. Holding the two together in this way allows for integration and healing. Dr. Witt describes a simple practice in the podcast (at around the 36-minute mark) which you can try today that utilizes this principle.

I love what Jeff Salzman said when he describes this process for himself: “Whenever I find myself in a depression or anxiety or an anger vortex, I say, ‘This is good news! Here I have this ball of energy, and I have the opportunity to actually turn towards it and move into it.'” It is that willingness and that capacity to “turn towards” that results in growth and healing. It’s not just that you metabolize the experience and now it’s no longer a “block” or no longer causing symptoms. It’s that you actually heal with a big “H,” meaning you grow and you evolve. And that, I believe, is an important part of what life is all about.

Blessings,
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The Gift Within Your Health Crisis

flashlightWhen you are in crisis, the very idea that a gift lies within the experience can seem absurd or even offensive. What is the gift in receiving a life-threatening or debilitating diagnosis? How can there be a gift within being suicidally depressed or the experience of uncontrollable panic attacks? When you are the one in crisis, I have personally found that to be the most difficult time to see the gift. Of course, it is much easier to see the gift as an outsider. In fact, you will no doubt have at least a few people trying to comfort you with age-old clichés such as, “Well, you’re learning something, aren’t you?” or “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or “Don’t forget, everything happens for a reason.” In the midst of a healing crisis, not only can these tired clichés utterly fail to comfort us, often they enrage us because we feel completely unseen in the immensity of our pain by those whose profess to love us.

When it comes to facing a health crisis, whether mental or physical, it is very easy to dwell in fear, despair, and desperation. When you come to the point where your quality of life is seriously affected, or your life itself is threatened, you are in crisis. You will be challenged on all levels. There is no denying the difficulty of this challenge nor the painful feelings and experiences that often arise within it. But I have found that within the crisis also lies a gift, if you but choose to see it and focus your attention on it. This gift has many facets, and many of those facets will be unique to you. Here I wish to highlight some of those aspects of the gift that seem to be common for many of us.

Ironically, one aspect of the gift that lies within the crisis is the opportunity it gives you to notice its existence. No one can turn your eyes toward the gift but you, and that is part of the gift itself. When you make the choice to open to the possibility of there being a gift within the crisis, you are shown and experience unequivocally your own courage and your own power. You realize that it is within your power, and yours alone, to see and embrace the gift which lies there for you. You also experience, without a doubt, the enormous eye abstractcourage it takes to wrench your attention away from the despair and pain in order to look toward the gift, even if for only a moment. Within this profound realization, your power is given back to you (or rather, you see that it was yours all along). You realize you can choose where you focus your energy and attention, and ultimately, this means you have the power to directly affect your experience as you move through and meet your health crisis.

But there is even more to this gift, as if that were not enough. Another aspect of this gift is your own healing. When I say healing, I am not speaking of recovery from disease or injury as we normally conceive of it (although that is always a possibility as well). Rather, the profound healing I am speaking of could better be described as evolution. I just heard an interview with Jean Houston today in which she shared that the new paradigm of healing is not about fixing or curing, but rather about becoming. The gift within the crisis gives you the opportunity to allow your own unfolding into the next stage of your evolution — your becoming. More precisely, the opportunity is not actually in whether or not you will evolve (for that is inevitable), but rather to what degree and to what level you accept, allow, and embrace the flow of the evolutionary process itself. This includes the degree to which you are able to accept and love yourself — all aspects of yourself — as you move through the crisis and your own unfolding.

What will the experience of this healing and transformation be like for you? It will be unique to you. No one’s gift is the same, for we all unfold uniquely, even if we may all be heading in the same direction. It will depend upon where you are in your evolutionary process when you come upon your health crisis. It will depend upon countless other factors which make up the whole of who you are and the particular process you must go through. It will even depend upon your perception of the evolutionary process itself as you move through it. To what degree are you perceiving the process (your health crisis) as a gift and to what degree are you resisting it? This will be a factor in determining your experience of it. How much are you able to let go of the tendency to compare your own healing journey with another’s journey? This will also affect your healing experience. There are countless other factors as well.

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In the end, whether or not you experience this gift within the crisis as a gift or as a curse is a matter of perspective and choice. I believe we evolve through these experiences regardless of if we see the gift in them or not, although how easily, quickly, and consciously we experience that healing is largely up to us. None of what I’ve said here is meant to minimize or deny the challenge and pain in these situations. In fact, part of loving all aspects of ourselves through these times is in acknowledging the enormity of the pain we feel and then choosing to meet those parts of ourselves that hurt with unconditional love (rather than turn away with denial, avoidance, or condemnation). When we come upon these times, we have a choice in where we focus our energy and attention. Ultimately, we get to choose whether or not we see the gift because it exists as a possibility within our own hearts. The gift exists as an opportunity to experience, consciously and openly, our own evolution and healing.

In love & light,
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Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me

In Part 1 of this series (Depression/Bipolar Part 1 – Why Traditional Western Therapies Weren’t Enough for Me), I explained why the traditional western therapeutic approach to treating mood disorders (in my case, depression and/or bipolar II, depending on which psychiatrist you ask) wasn’t enough for me.  With the traditional approach, I was merely surviving, but not thriving.  In this post, I’d like to share what is working for me.  But before I go into that, I’d like to make clear that I don’t mean to imply that I am now happy at all times with never a moment of depression.  Yes, it’s true I can now say that I finally understand what it means to truly live and that I have experienced and continue to experience true joy, creativity, passion, gratitude, and love to depths I had never dreamed of before.  Yet, I still have times when I will sink into the depths of depression.  Even now, my mind sometimes falls into those old habitual thought patterns that have been engrained over the course of 35+ years.  These times are much less common and don’t last nearly as long, but they still happen.  So maybe it would be more accurate to say that the approach I’m about to describe is simply a process that I suspect won’t end at some final destination where I am eternally blissful in every moment of every day.  Perhaps that state of being is possible, but I’m not holding my breath.  My sister, who is the CEO of a small business, recently shared an insight which illustrates this idea.  She has been noticing that many young people fresh out of college have the expectation that they should be able to find a job in which they will be happy all the time.  She pointed out that this is simply an unrealistic expectation, and that no matter how much you love your job, not every day will be perfect.  There will be days when you wonder why you didn’t just stay in bed.  (My sister is wise.  That’s why I call her Yoda.)  The same is true for me with my mood.  I’m a work in progress.  Still, the approach I’m using now has been so life-changing and so much more effective than the traditional approach that I feel it’s worth sharing in hopes that it might resonate with some of you struggling with similar issues.

Everything started to change for me during my training in the therapy I now practice called Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST).  This training wasn’t your typical class.  It was organized into ten, five-day modules spread out over almost two years, which means there were about two months between each module in which to integrate what we experienced/learned into our everyday lives.  I quickly learned that in order to be an effective practitioner of this therapy, I needed to live the teachings myself.  To be honest, this was the only way I could prove to myself that this therapy really works.  I wasn’t going to practice a therapy based on someone else’s stories or just accept without question the underlying theories.  I needed first-hand experience.  And so I decided to dive in head first, allow myself to embrace the experience, and see where it led me.  It was over the course of those two years — with support through my group training and from individual BCST therapists — that I began to transform.  I discovered that the therapy I was learning to give to others was the key to addressing my own issues, most prominently the debilitating depression I had been living with since I was a young child.  Below is an explanation of the three main components that have been vital for me in this process.

  • Listening to my body with a perspective of appreciation.  One of the most important steps I took was to simply feel and listen to my body with curiosity and appreciation.  This is easier said than done, believe me.  To do this, I first had to let go of all the analysis about why I was depressed.  My teachers called this “letting go of the story.”  After many years of therapy, self-help books, and personal growth seminars, I could easily name all of my underlying belief systems which I was sure were contributing to my depression.  I could list my childhood traumas or talk about my parents until I was blue in the face.  Unfortunately, that approach was largely ineffective for me.  I also had to let go of the idea that there was something wrong with me that I had to battle and eliminate.  The key for me was a change in perspective from one of judgment and pathologizing to one of appreciation.  I began to recognize the incredible intelligence behind how I manage my experiences.  I realized that I had made it this far for good reason, and that whatever I had been doing worked.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be around to debate it.  I’d be dead.  So with this perspective, I started to listen to my body in a way I never had before.  I let go of the story and started listening and looking for the intelligence in my system instead of the problems.   A whole new world opened up.  I was (and continue to be) amazed at the incredible intelligence at work behind my so-called detrimental “patterns” and “belief systems.”  Bit by bit, simply by listening to my body, I experienced more and more ah-ha moments where I realized certain patterns I had always hated in myself (e.g., shyness) are very intelligent responses to my particular life circumstances.  These reflexive patterns are how I managed and currently manage my experiences to survive and to fulfill specific vital needs — and they work.  This change of perspective was a huge key for me because my bind of self-hate was finally released.  Once I stopped fighting and hating myself, other possibilities I could not previously see began to open up.
  • Connecting to my underlying healing forces & who I really am.  One of the focuses of BCST is supporting the underlying intelligence/healing forces/healing ability of the body.  As a practitioner, I can actually feel these forces at work in the client’s body.  But in order to feel these forces in someone else, I needed to feel them in myself first.  And as I started listening to my own body with curiosity and appreciation, I started to palpably feel these forces at work within myself.  This connection to the underlying intelligence of my system led me to felt-sense connection to who I really am at a core level — the one underneath the depression — the one who could heal my own heart and mind.  I suppose some people might call this core level the “soul” or “spirit.”  Whatever you call it, this connection to that center of who I am somehow led me to the insight that I am the one with my own answers.  In fact, I am the only one with my own answers.  I have found that, for me, working with my depression is not about fighting it; rather, the work is about staying connected to my core or center.  For me, this is a tangible experience with incredible results.  The more I focus on staying connected with that core part myself rather than on fighting my depression, the more my state of being is one of joy, love, gratitude, beauty, creativity, and inspiration.
  • Surrounding myself with proper support.  The most critical part of this process for me has been having the right kind of support.  Basically, I need people around me who can recognize and reflect back to me who I really am at the core level.  In addition, these people all share the following crucial qualities:
  • They recognize that I am unique and complicated.  They know that what will work for me will be unique to me.  There are no cookie-cutter solutions.
  • They realize that I have my own answers.  They are not there to give me answers.  Instead, they support me in finding my own unique path to health.
  • They have a perspective of appreciation rather than pathologizing.  They are not interested in fixing me or making me better.
  • They trust and recognize the underlying intelligence at work in my system and know that they do not “know better” than that intelligence.
  • They trust my process and are neutral as to the outcome or results.
  • They can see who I really am at the core level.

Of course, many of these people were classmates in the BCST training, my teachers, or therapists who had done the training.  I have also found a few amazing friends who share these qualities.  Having these people in my life is vitally important because they can see through all of my crap to who I really am, even when I cannot.  Oftentimes, it is that reflection of my core self that helps bring me out of my states of despair and back to a connection with my center.  These people are rare, but they’re out there.

My hope is that some of you reading these posts might resonate with some of what I’ve shared of my own experiences.  If so, I’d encourage you to first find people to support you who have the qualities I listed above.  It’s easy to find all sorts of people who think they have your answers and want to fix you.  You might even feel like you need to be fixed!  But for me, the trick was to find those people who recognized that I have my own answers and know that the keys to my own healing are inside of me.  That is true empowerment.  That is how I learned to take real responsibility for my own health.

Aloha,

Penny

Depression/Bipolar Part 1 – Why Traditional Western Therapies Weren’t Enough for Me

You might think from the title that this post will be yet another rant from one of those woo-woo types who wants to rid the world of the evils of western medicine, particularly in regard to mood disorders such as depression or bipolar.  It’s true, my husband recently declared that I am officially now “one of those woo-woo people.”  Ah, well.  Even if I have crossed over into woo-woo land, I still like to think I can… well, think.  And the truth is that I have seen medications and good counseling save far too many lives to discount these treatments so easily.  I have one friend in particular who says that when she found the right medication to treat her mood disorder, she finally felt like she could be more of who she really is and at long last knew what it felt like to truly live.  Still, in my particular experience with depression (or bipolar II, as it was diagnosed by one psychiatrist), I found that medications and psychological talk therapy were not enough.  What does “not enough” mean?  Well, these treatments did help me to survive because they gave me enough of a boost to refrain from committing suicide (a real plus!).  But the truth is, I still felt directionless, hopeless, and without passion or vitality.  I could not see the beauty around me.  I did not feel gratitude for my life nor see a greater purpose.  I did not feel true joy, love, or inner peace.  I was surviving, but not thriving.  And so I knew I had to find another approach (in addition to all I was already doing) if I ever wanted my life to be about more than always struggling to keep my head just above the water so as not to drown.

Some of you might also be wondering why medications and talk therapy haven’t been enough for you.  Perhaps you might still have a glimmer of hope that there must be some way for you, too, to begin to thrive, not just survive.  In this post (Part 1 of 2), I’d like to share some of the reasons the typical western approach to treating mood disorders (diagnose, medicate, and support with psychological therapy) wasn’t the cure-all I’d hoped it would be for me.  In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll talk about what did work for me and why.

1.  Fight, Fight, Fight!!  Wait, who am I fighting again?  For me, a big component of my depression was self hate.  I suppose there are some people who are depressed and also love themselves unconditionally, but I would venture to say that would be a rare person.  Usually, there is some component of self loathing, even if it is just because we hate ourselves for not being able to just be happy already.  The way I was taught in therapy and support groups was to look at my depression as a disease, as something somehow separate from me which I had to battle and eliminate.  After all, if mood disorders are diseases like cancer, then we have to fight them!  That’s what we do to survive — fight and destroy!  But for me, seeing my depression as something to battle ended up backfiring.  This was because of that pesky self-hate component to my depression.  It turns out that “my depression” and “me” weren’t actually all that easy to separate.  In the end, all I succeeded in doing was beating myself into a bloody pulp (emotionally speaking).  You see, it turned out the battle I was fighting was with myself, not with some entity called “depression” lurking within me.  The truth is there was no such entity.  There was only me, a person experiencing depression.  All I was doing was heaping another dose of self hate on top of the large, steaming pile I’d already created.  This was one case where I had to stop fighting to win the battle.

2.  I’m complicated, thank you very much.  Seeing depression and other mood disorders as diseases also has another effect:  categorization.  The doctor needs to label your disease (give you a diagnosis) in order to prescribe the correct medications and provide the right kind of counseling to treat the disease.  I must say, I despised this process.  I did not want to be labeled.  Some part of me screamed inside that I am a unique individual, that what has gotten me to this point in my life is complicated and not so easily analyzable and medicated away.   I found the idea of being put into some sort of box called “depression” or “bipolar II” (as if that explains everything and can now be managed appropriately) to be wholly inadequate.  I am not a puzzle to be solved.  Where was the recognition of me, a real, live, complicated person?  This kind of recognition was missing in this whole process, and it turned out it was critical for my recovery.

3.  Medicate my troubles away. Not so much.  I want to emphasize again that medications are absolutely critical for some people.  Sometimes it comes down to life or death, literally.  My intent here is to share my experience, not convince anyone to take or not take medication.  With that said, I have found that for me, at least right now, medications just aren’t the answer.  Part of the issue, I admit, is that I have a real problem with the fact that we just don’t know much about what these things are doing to us.  As I said, we’re complicated.  These drugs do much more to us than help treat our mood disorders (as is evidenced by the numerous so-called side effects, which are actually just effects, of these medications).  But even more importantly, when I finally found the supposedly “right” drug combination according to my psychiatrist (after many horrendous wrong combinations), the effect was a numbing of my feelings.  I could not feel the lows anymore, but I also could not feel the joys.  To me, this wasn’t living.  I admit I could have tried more combinations.  But there came a point for me when I said to myself, “This isn’t worth it.  I need to do this another way.”  I knew deep inside this wasn’t the right path for me.

4.  Analyze, Analyze, Analyze!!  Wait, I’m dizzy.  Through approaches such as talk therapy, self-help & spiritual books, and personal growth seminars, I began to make all sorts of amazing discoveries about my underlying (and previously unconscious) belief systems.  I discovered what they were, where they came from, and why and how they contributed to my depression and every other aspect of my life.  This was transformative and really the beginning of finding my way back to the land of the living.  After all, awareness brings with it the opportunity for change.  But then I fell into what I lovingly refer to as the “self-help trap.”  (I must admit I still stumble into this trap more often than I’d like.)  Here’s how it goes:  1) I see a belief system in myself like “I’m not worthy” affecting my behavior and running my life.  2) I understand where it came from and that it “no longer serves me,” as all the self-help gurus so helpfully point out to me.  3) I nonetheless still behave/feel the same way, regardless of this awareness.  I don’t know why.  It’s stupid (I think).   4) I become disgusted with myself for behaving/feeling the same way yet again.  5) I beat myself into a bloody emotional pulp for doing the same damn thing over and over again.  6)  I feel depressed because I’ve just beat myself up AND I’m a self-help failure.  And down the rabbit hole I go.  This obviously doesn’t work for me.  I had to stop analyzing myself into a hole.

So where did all of this leave me?  Alive, but barely.  I certainly wouldn’t describe my state of being as truly living.  But hope springs eternal (at least on my good days)!  I thought there surely must be another approach that would work for me.  I couldn’t possibly be the only one thrashing about aimlessly in the self-help rabbit hole.  In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll delve into what actually did work for me.  Who knows?  Maybe it will work for you, too.  Stay tuned.

Aloha,

Penny