Spring: Lessons in Faith

As storm after storm blanketed us with foot after foot of snow,

As I dumped epsom salts into a hot bath to soothe shovel-sore muscles,

As I ordered slightly irregular wool tights off the internet,

As tracked-in slush and salt and sand discolored the floor tiles,

As water drip-drip-dripped from the crack in my kitchen ceiling,

it was difficult to imagine that spring would one day arrive.

CIMG7229Yet today I sat in my driveway as the breeze carried maple flowers into my open book and my children laughed together and hid from dragons in shrubbery castles. The crocuses’ short tenure is over, but the daffodils are open, and we still have tulips to look forward to, if the deer don’t eat them all. Hopeful tom turkeys are displaying for hens in suburban backyards, and I’ve been finding blue eggshells on the sidewalk, proof that there are baby robins overhead.

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Is it Depressing to Read About Depression? Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words

Songs Without WordsSongs Without Words by Ann Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So many reviewers point to how “depressing” and “boring” this book is. Although I didn’t find it so, I can see the “depressing” point. I actually found it a rather hopeful story, exploring how someone can be buried in profound despair and still find a way back up to the surface.

And boring? It’s certainly character-driven and most of the action is internal, but I was never bored while reading it. I was sometimes annoyed when a character made a choice or came to a conclusion contrary to what I wanted for them, but I wasn’t bored. The writing was so skillful and the characters so real, I can’t imagine being bored by this book.

I see the book as mainly about the reactions of three women to life. Liz is emotionally healthy and used to acting as the support and the voice of reason to those struggling around her. When faced with a crisis, she’s forced to reevaluate her life, but she does so in a sane and healthy manner. Sarabeth had an unstable childhood due to her mother’s mental illness and perceives even small events in her life as crises. She’s not necessarily the owner of the depression she feels, but she’s learned it from her mother and doesn’t know quite how to stop it. Lauren is deeply and biologically depressed. The depression originates in her despite a loving and stable home environment.

Packer’s description of Liz’s “knocked off her feet but picking herself up and dusting herself off” reaction to her daughter’s suicide attempt and Sarabeth’s “can’t get out of bed” reaction to, well, life, was an interesting juxtaposition. Sarabeth’s relationship with her mother left her with this kind of learned helplessness that I suppose is somewhat pathetic. She believes that she can’t possibly do anything to change or improve her situation, so she doesn’t try. She relies on well-adjusted Liz to pull her out of each funk, and when Liz isn’t there, it sends her into a tailspin, but it also forces her to choose whether she’s like her mother or whether she can make a different choice. That’s a hopeful element in the novel, although I am a little skeptical about just how fully recovered Sarabeth seems to be at the end. Can someone really make that big a shift in their lifelong thinking that quickly?

Being inside Lauren’s head was just riveting to me. I felt frustrated that she couldn’t just stop thinking her negative thoughts, but at the same time it was written in a way that made sense (and felt familiar): How could she possibly not think that way? How could she think those things about herself, believe them, then let them go? The answer is pretty mundane (therapy, medication), but the internal journey is what I find interesting. And I like that even when she’s feeling better, there’s the recognition that she’s not done. She’s going to be confronting these thoughts throughout her life, probably. Her task isn’t to vanquish them once and for all but to develop skills to cope with them as they come up.

What was strange to me about this book is that I wasn’t bothered that much by Packer’s mention of the names of businesses and streets in the story. Usually this kind of name-dropping drives me nuts. I admit, I think the mention of Berkeley Bowl and Andronico’s didn’t further the story, but the street names I think actually enhanced the story. Maybe it’s just because I lived in the Bay Area recently and the street names helped me place the characters in the world and see better where they were. Or maybe it’s just that excitement of, “Hey! I know where that is! And it’s in a book! I must be important!”

Perhaps it’s just because I’m a boring, depressing person who gets a kick out of reading about places she’s lived, but I liked this book, and I look forward to reading The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.

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The Real Week 33 Review: On Not Fighting Depression

View of Antelope Island from the causeway

Image via Wikipedia

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.

More Thoughts on Gratitude

A few weeks ago, I posted about a study that Ariel Gore wrote about in her book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. For those few of you who have not committed my posts to memory, the study found that people who kept a gratitude journal for six weeks reported an increase in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms. They experienced some improvement in as little as three weeks. Since reading this, I’ve been mulling over the idea of incorporating a gratitude practice into my Happiness Project, but I’ve yet to decide what form this practice will take.

In Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, I found another twist on the idea. Weiner writes about a study at Kobe College in Japan. Psychologists divided college students into two groups. One was the control and didn’t do anything different for a week. The other group counted the number of kind acts they performed during the week. They weren’t asked to do any kind acts, just to count them when they did them. (This reminds me of Roger Rabbit when he said (paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…”) At the end of the week, the group that counted their kind acts had a significant increase in their happiness levels compared to the first group. The researchers concluded, “Simply by counting the acts of kindness for one week, people became happier and more grateful.”

This may well have had a different result in a more individualistic country than it did in a more collectivist culture like Japan’s, but I still found this study compelling. The idea that I could feel happier simply by dwelling on the kind things I do every day is an interesting one to me. Knowing that memories are formed by laying down neural pathways, and neural pathways are reinforced by repeated use, it makes sense that traveling mentally back to the scene of a kind act could hardwire it in more firmly and make it easier to call up later on. If one has a clear sense of herself as someone who performs kind acts and is a helpful member of her community, I can see how that could lead her to feel more joy in her life.

So, which might work better for me, recording things for which I’m grateful, or counting the nice things I do? Or should I just cover all of my bases and do both? (Actually, in one of the links below, Randy Taran suggests they’re actually two different things, so it might make more sense to do them both. But would that be adding too much at once?)

Or I could just vacillate a little longer.

Icelandic Happiness

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue through red represent most to least happy respectively; grey areas have no reliable data available (Image via Wikipedia)

In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels around the world in search of the secrets of happiness. Everywhere he goes, he asks the people he meets if they are happy. When he asked this question in Iceland, one person’s reply was, “Yes, but I cherish my melancholia.”

Another Icelander agreed. “You nurture your little melancholia, and it’s like a buzz that makes you feel alive. You snap yourself a little bit, and you feel this relief of how fragile life is and how tremendously fragile you are.”

Weiner asked, “So you can have this melancholia and still be happy?”

“Absolutely!” was the reply.

Weiner continues:

Modern social science confirms what the [second Icelander] says. The psychologist Norman Bradburn, in his book The Structure of Psychological Well Being, describes how happiness and unhappiness are not opposites, as we often think. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are different coins. It is possible, in other words, for a happy person to also suffer from bouts of unhappiness, and for unhappy people to experience great moments of joy. And here in Iceland, it seems, it is even possible to be happy and sad at the same time.

This is a partial answer to a question I’ve been asking these past two months: What does it mean to be a happy person? This piece of the puzzle suggests that one can be a happy person and still feel sad sometimes, and that one can be an unhappy person and still feel happy sometimes. I wonder, which am I? Happy with bouts of sadness, or unhappy with bouts of joy?

Another piece of the puzzle, also from Weiner’s book:

Martin Seligman, founder of the positive-psychology movement, discovered that happy people remember more good events in their lives than actually occurred. Depressed people remembered the past accurately.

I have a suspicion I’m one of the people who remembers her life accurately. But I’m not certain that “depressed” is the opposite of “happy”. Gretchen Rubin certainly doesn’t think so, and says so explicitly in The Happiness Project. “I came to another important conclusion about defining happiness: that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression, a grave condition that deserves urgent attention, occupies its own category apart from happiness and unhappiness.”

Is Seligman using a different definition of “depressed”, or is it Weiner’s word, and I can substitute “unhappy” and the basic claim is still the same? I suppose to some degree it’s irrelevant. My aim is to feel happier, so doing things that happy people do is working towards that aim, regardless of what all of those unhappy or depressed people do.

I’m not sure if I prefer to delude myself about my life in the interest of feeling happier, but I could certainly try to place more emphasis on the happy things and less on the unhappy things. Yet another argument for a gratitude practice of some sort. And also an argument for reframing my experience of unhappy events. I’m getting ready to read Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl talks about logotherapy, which involves changing one’s attitudes about one’s life experiences. Maybe I can get some more ideas from Frankl about how to embrace my melancholia as they do in Iceland.

What’s my Goal Again?

Cropped screenshot of Donna Reed from the trai...

Image via Wikipedia

The past couple of days, I’ve been in a really pissy mood. So has my daughter. I wonder if those are related somehow.

At any rate, I realize that when I’m feeling irritable, I mentally tag that as Something To Change. If I weren’t doing something wrong, I wouldn’t feel irritable, right? And then I go about dissecting every part of my life—diet, interpersonal interactions, time spent on the computer, books I’m reading, activity level, etc—to try and figure out the Something to Change so I’m no longer irritable. Despite the fact that this never works to improve my mood.

I’ve been reading Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. I’m only about a third through it, so perhaps it veers off in some unforeseen direction, but so far it seems to be about how there’s a cultural expectation in the US for everyone to be happy (or at least to act happy), and the responsibility for this happiness largely falls on the shoulders of women. “A pretty girl is a girl with a smile on her face,” Gore’s grandfather told her. “A smile always makes everyone feel at ease.” Whether a woman is happy or not, Gore asserts, our culture encourages her to smile so that those around her feel better. Suppressing our true emotions and showing only happiness is a recipe for depression, which is part of why women have higher rates of depression than men (along with doctors’ expectation that women should be smiling more than men, which leads doctors to diagnose women with depression more often than men with the same symptoms). People from other countries, especially Europeans, aren’t as cheerful as Americans, says Gore, and Americans haven’t always been as cheerful as we are today.

I’m not sure if I agree with all of her conclusions, but Gore has got me thinking about happiness and about what it is I should be striving for. Is it realistic that my goal should be to never feel irritable? Or, more to the point since the thing that really disappoints me is when I snap at my loved ones, is it realistic to aim for never expressing my irritability? Is a “happy person” never irritable? What percentage of the time is a happy person happy? If it’s less than 100%, what are they feeling the rest of the time? Would I be fine with my current level of happiness if I were in another culture? Could I be just fine being my regular old tacitrun self if I moved to Europe? Do Europeans do Happiness Projects?

In addition, I wonder how a Happiness Project fits in with my ideas of feminism. I realize reading Gore’s book that I hold in high esteem the image of the uncomplaining wife and mother. She’s a woman who keeps a neat house, feeds her family nutritious foods, and gently but firmly molds her children into responsible adults, all while exuding elegance and ease. Where does this image come from? And why do I still want so badly to live up to it even as my conscious mind rails against it? Perhaps it’s just because I don’t have a clear and appealing alternative to Donna Reed or June Cleaver.

I seem to recall feeling out of sorts and full of questions and doubt the first week or two of practicing mindfulness. Perhaps this is just the disequilibrium that necessarily follows the implementation of changes in my routine and precedes increased understanding. If only I were better at observing my reactions with detachment. I have the feeling that would decrease the odds of my having a big old whiny freakout while I’m waiting for whatever insights are coming.