This week I’m feeling depressed and anxious. These are familiar feelings for me.
I don’t think this is “postpartum” depression/anxiety even though it starts up 8-10 months after my kids are born. Pregnancy and birth don’t cause my depression and anxiety. If anything, they alleviate it and give me a little break. During pregnancy, even with all of the discomforts and exhaustion, I am practically serene. After birth, I cry for the first three days, but I don’t feel down. I feel full. So I cry. And it’s actually very, very good. Then day four and after I settle into the oxytocin high again and am set for a few months more.
I think the intensive breastfeeding-and-cosleeping regimen of the first 6 months keeps my hormones closer to pregnancy levels, which means I remain happy and serene, for the most part.
Then solid foods and longer stretches of sleep hit and things start to change again. The depression and anxiety return, followed a few months later by the cystic acne, which just adds insult to injury.
This is where Don’t Jump to Solutions comes in for me. If I were to be only solutions-minded, I might say, well, let’s get pregnant again. In fact, let’s stay pregnant as much of the time as we can, just keep having babies to keep my bad times at bay. Eventually, however, this will have to come to an end. And I can only imagine that the downward shift back into depression and anxiety would be even more difficult to manage with eight kids to take care of than it is with two.
If I were only solutions-minded, I might take meds and then call it a day. Except for the fact that the meds don’t address the underlying issues and that they involve side effects that bother me enough that medication is not a great long-term solution for me.
If I were only solutions-minded, I might act on my fantasies of escape rather than just indulge myself in novels and imagining a solitary existence somewhere not here.
A few years back, I read a book called The Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin. In it is the idea that part of what creates suffering in depression is fighting against it. Martin suggests that our meditation be not on being happier or even on being “not depressed.” Rather, he suggests that we just sit with our depression, aware of it and not attempting to change it.
When I first read this, I thought this was a really stupid idea. How am I supposed to pull myself out of depression if I just sit there in it?
But I’ve come to see that when I’m feeling down, I’m like a mastodon in a tar pit. The more I struggle against sinking, the faster I sink. Struggling is not the way out.
Neither is reasoning. Depression and anxiety don’t come from my brain. Trying to use my brain to reason my way out of them just makes them worse. It heightens my anxiety, doesn’t address the underlying cause, and leaves me feeling ineffectual because I can’t make things better. And when I’m in the throes of depression and anxiety, I’m not in a position to figure out the underlying cause anyway.
I recognize that the only way to alleviate them is to simply accept their existence and work with them. If I’m lying in bed awake, anxious thoughts spinning faster and faster through my mind, it only makes me more anxious to try and talk myself out of those thoughts. The answer, for me, is to let go. I make myself take a deep breath, do a mental scan of my body, and just take note of how I’m feeling. “I’m feeling anxious. My hands are feeling tingly. My stomach is feeling nauseated. My heart is beating quickly.” Another breath, another scan, more awareness.
My mind doesn’t like this plan. It rebels against it and tries to go back to its usual plan of action. There’s a perverse comfort in going around and around in the same groove over and over again. At the same time, I need to respect my mind. It’s trying to help. Over time, I’ve discovered that fiercely reasoning through a problem can get me solutions quickly. I’ve come to pride myself on my intellect and rely on it to solve all problems. It does work. Except when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work, I need to try something else.
So here I am. I’m feeling anxious this week. There are lots of reasons this could be. Tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, no-fly zone in Libya, staying up too late making a quilt, Daylight Saving Time, joining Twitter, too much Grey’s Anatomy. Some of these I can change. Most of them I can’t. What I can do is go back to basics. Mindfulness, nonjudgment, self care. These alone won’t “cure” me. But sleep and chicken soup don’t cure a cold, they just create conditions better suited for the body to cure itself.