Everybody Hurts

As I end my twelve month hiatus from writing blog, I reflect on my own journey. My path this past year has taken me through mud, sand, meadows, steep mountain trudges, ocean, rocky ledges, sun, and storms — all of this quite literally, and even more poignantly, metaphorically. This path has been one of loss, of grief, of gratitude, of struggle, of detachment, of depression, of comfort, of exhilaration, of fear, and of love. As I struggle to redefine my life’s purpose after big changes, I want solitude then company, famine then feast, old and then new. My depression has been so acute at times that the line between loneliness and hibernation is blurred; there is a real indentation on the couch where I have been so often planted these past months.

Through all of this, I have known that there is no person who can fix my world or drag me out of my depression. I have known that grief is a process and is not on a fixed time-table. I have known that I am fairly expert at hiding the severity of my feelings of confusion, sadness, and even hopelessness. Yet, somewhere in there I have also known that life is precious, and that someday I would be ready to run again, and that friends will be waiting, and oceans warmly welcoming. I have known that I am truly a courageous being, and that I am more than capable and have strength enough to face life’s big and small challenges. I have practiced gratitude and forgiveness, and have listened to music that stirs my heart and sometimes my tears; I have turned my face to the sun and have kept moving forward. And, it should be known that I have received regular good help and advice from a caring and insightful therapist, and from a weekly support group whose members know my pain as their own and have forged a similar path in their own lives.

And yet … though I have known what I needed to do to start feeling better, I have been in that place where that is all much easier said than done. You have a moment where you feel like you might be able to move forward, then by the next morning, you’re back in the cloud. Here’s one thing I did, and mind you, I know we all have our own journey to make, and it’s rarely the same for everyone: I reminded myself how helpful physical exercise can be in combating depression, then I waited for the day, the moment, when I felt like maybe I could do something, and in that moment, I forced myself to move quickly before it was gone. I went to the gym. I jumped in the pool. I swam laps for 30 minutes. It was difficult; it had been a long time for me. The water was quiet, soothing, and somehow challenging. I felt so good when I finished that I decided I would go back the next day, which I did. Same thing: I felt good, energized, and decided I would go back the next day, but something came up and I didn’t make it. By the time my schedule freed up again, I didn’t feel like doing anything anymore. I continued instead to become one with my couch and lost in Netflix. But you know what, a few months later, that moment happened again, and I was ready for  it. I knew what to do. I got myself to the gym. I listened to some fierce music (thank you Marshall Mathers). I ran, I swam. And I went home, printed out six months’ worth of calendar pages, and wrote monthly goals at the bottom of the page, and daily goals/action steps that I could check off. And I have done that. I will admit that this has worked for me because I did my thinking within a window of time that I knew would close, but because I pre-thought and pre-planned, I can detach and work at it robotically. The day is prescribed for me, and once I head like a robot to swim, to run, to lift, to sweat, then I get to the place every time where I feel better and always glad that I made it there. And my heart opens, and I like being with me, and I enjoy the challenge, and I enjoy the benefits of the physical activity, including the results that I can actually see. And I start to remember who I am, and that I matter, and that I am worth taking care of. And tomorrow, when I want to spend time with my Netflix lover, I will be compelled to instead move and work and glide through the water (still clumsily and with much effort, but always buoyant regardless) because it is written and so shall it be done. And I know that I’ll have to start again at some point. And that’s okay. 

My heart goes out to those who are suffering through depression, some who will move through it many times in their lives. I am not a doctor nor a therapist. I am just a girl. In the world. Writing a blog. Hoping that something I write will strike a chord of familiarity with someone and bring comfort or even inspiration. And here’s the thing: “When you think you’ve had enough of this life/Well, hang on.” There will be a window, a moment. Hang on. 

With love,

Cynthia

Pencil Full of Lead (Gratitude)

“I got legs on my chairs and a head full of hair
Pot and a pan
And some shoes on my feet;
I got a shelf full of books and most of my teeth
A few pairs of socks and a door with a lock
I got food in my belly and a license for my telly
And nothing’s going to bring me down.”
– from Pencil Full of Lead, by Paolo Nutini

If there is one thing that you could do to give your life the oomph it needs to take it up a notch on the happiness-o-meter, that one thing is practice gratitude. Gratitude makes everything better. EVERYTHING. No matter how tough it gets, gratitude makes things better. It may not fix everything, but it will make things better. For sure. And over time, it just MAY fix everything (this statement is my opinion, based on fact and experience).

Here’s why: your brain is made up of neurons (nerve cells). When you do something, or think something, or feel something, or experience something in some way, neurons connect to neurons and create a pathway. The more you think that same thing, or feel that same thing, or experience that same thing, the more used that pathway becomes, and before you know it, it is the go-to pathway in your brain. This is the physical reason that “practice makes perfect,” because as you do something over and over again, you are increasing the likelihood that the something will occur more readily or easily the next time. IF you become accustomed to perceiving the world in a negative way, THEN you are creating and strengthening a thought pathway that is negative in nature. IF you become accustomed to perceiving the world with gratitude, THEN you are creating and strengthening a thought pathway that is positive in nature. Positive = happy.

One really simple and easy way you can create and strengthen a gratitude attitude neural pathway in your brain is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of your day, write down a few things (the suggestion is usually three because it has been tested and works) that you are grateful for. That’s it. What happens is, you are controlling your thoughts and directing them in a positive direction each day. You reflect on the good things in your life for a moment or two — strengthen neural pathway. You write down a few good things in your life for a moment or two — strengthen neural pathway. You read over last week’s list — neural pathway becoming a superhighway up in there.

Expert Robert Emmons, Positive Psychology Prof at UC-Davis, says that a couple of ways to make your gratitude journal really rock your world is to not overdo — once a week writing seems to be better than every day — and to consciously think of each thing you write about as a “gift.” So, when I list a run in the mountains as something I’m grateful for, I should stop and think: “That trail run in the lovely late-afternoon sun was a true gift in my life.” That way, you are more deeply processing the gratitude, and better establishing the physical brain pathway that changes your perspective.

The subject of gratitude is not closed. We’ll visit it often.

In conclusion, name your blessings, change your brain, improve your life.

peace and love,

mom

References

Emmons RA, et al. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 2003): Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.

Sansone RA, et al. “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry (Nov. 2010): Vol. 7, No. 11, pp. 18–22.

Seligman MEP, et al. “Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist (July–Aug. 2005): Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 410–21.