Monday, January 5, 2015

Growing Strong Trees

The Problem:

We live in a culture that worships positivity, happiness and success. We use motivational quotes to push us forward through our doubts and weaknesses and offer each other platitudes to generate a feeling of inter-connectedness.  Our ultimate goal in life is die with a big shit eating grin on our face, filled to the brim with joy of a life well lived. 

We don't really want to know the honest answer to "how are you doing?". We don't really talk about our struggles or sadness unless we're in therapy or with one trusted friend. We frame any negativity we're experiencing in a way to reassure the other person that we're standing on our inner scaffolding to rebuild and remodel our way back to happiness - we don't admit that we might be standing on the brink of madness, that we are teetering on the edge of the Universe staring into the dark magnetic pull of the abyss with extreme curiosity and wondering what a beautiful thing it would be to just give ourselves back to it. We don't admit that we don't have a clue how to make our way back to happiness. We don't admit that we are completely lost. That is too much for people to hear.

We don't really hold space for people to experience that level of suffering around us. Despair is scary, uncomfortable, energetically draining and reminds us of our own fears, anxiety, worry and insecurities. We aren't taught how to be so emotionally naked with someone else, so we try to make their pain light, placate them, or offer them some pithy motivational speech. "Chin up! It'll get better! Pick yourself up and kick some ass! It's just been a bad day/week/month/year for everyone!"

The Experience:

As a depressed person experiencing a level of negative emotions that are downright frightening, when people attempt to placate me or downplay my feelings as temporary or minimizing, it only adds to the heaping pile of shame I might be feeling because I can't just pick myself up and find any joy. It adds to the feeling that I am broken, that there is something truly wrong with me. You might as well be asking me to take a vacation to the moon on my supersonic space motorcycle. I don't have the resources you think I do. They simply don't exist in my world.

Depression is isolating. You don't want to get any of your negative energy on anyone else for one; you also don't want to have to explain why you look a little "off" through your forced smile. You don't want to be a downer, an emotional vampire, or maybe you don't want to be reminded of how sad you are by hanging out with people who are vibrating in joy and love and happiness.

In that isolation there is a lot of time for thinking. There is a lot of time for numbing. There is a lot of opportunity to sink deeper and deeper into your own misery.

Having an arsenal of tools that you know will help you feel better is a good idea, but if those tools come in the form of alcohol, drugs, self-sabotage, cutting, might just feel like you have no idea how to start feeling healthy again. Numbing activities might feel great in the moment, but anything that ultimately perpetuates a state of brokenness will only work against you. Even if your tools are healthy, that doesn't mean they're magical. No amount of walking in the woods, positive affirmations, cat videos, yoga poses, meditation, therapy or gym visits are satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. Sometimes they work immediately, sometimes you have to push on and on and on and on and on until you feel like you might vomit rainbows. Sometimes....just need to be sad for a while. Years maybe.

The Advice on Helping Someone who is Depressed:

I think if we can somehow reach a point in our culture where we leave room for depression and sadness to be an acceptable and normal part of life, we will learn how to help our loved ones navigate through the scary stages feeling supported and respected.

Before you do anything, check yourself. Inquire about your motivations for stepping in to help someone. Unless the answer is: TO BE THERE TO SUPPORT THEIR WELLBEING, do not step in. Do not help someone for accolades or some sort of journey of self importance or to feed your ego. This isn't about you. You will likely get nothing more than the satisfaction of helping someone in a time of need out of this experience.

Check in with yourself to see what your own energy looks like. Do you have it to give to someone?
Check in with yourself to find your boundaries. Protect yourself and your energy. Know how to restore and nurture yourself after investing in someone who is deeply sad.


1. Do not expect them to ask for anything. They probably won't. If you care about them and you really want to help, find ways to step into a supportive role. If they resist or require solitude, you can still bring over some food and leave it on the doorstep, text them with "I'm thinking about you and wanted you to know I love you", find ways to still reach out without being intrusive. However, if you know that you're being pushed away for a specific reason (maybe they don't want to feel like they are a burden), be assertive in communicating that you really want to help and get involved.

2. Open a line of communication without judgement.  Likely, they are having some pretty intense and judgmental feelings about their current reality. They might need you to hold space for them to talk, babble, yell, cry, tell stories and confess things without interruption, distractions and judgement. Check your values at the door and practice active listening. Listen to hear them, not to form a response (try not to respond at all other than simple affirmations) or tell them a relevant anecdote or assign a value to their experience. Make eye contact with them when they talk. If there's a pause, just wait. If they are open to physical contact (just ask), this is a good time to hold their hand, or lay down to hold them in your arms as they get it out. Rub their feet, play with their hair, hug them lots, just connect. Turn your phone off, take your watch off, turn yourself away from windows where people are walking by. All of your attention should be channeled into listening and being present with your loved one. Your interaction with them should be compassionate and understanding, not condescending, trivializing or placating. Your job here isn't to heal them, be in a power position over them or have all the answers. Your job is listen and add comfort. Try these out:

"I hear you."
"That sounds really painful."
"Do you know why you feel that way?" sometimes breaking down the events that led to the feelings can help us figure out the root of our unhappiness.
"I'm here to just listen."
"Can you tell me all of the emotions you're feeling right now?"
"Would you like to tell me more about that feeling?"
"This is a safe space to tell me this"
"Would you like me to do something specific to support you?"
"How can I best support you?"

3. Suggest things. Depressed people aren't really into making lots of decisions. Their brains are jumbled with a thousand thoughts and feelings. It is absolute chaos. If you're going to spend time with them, ask them for their favorite activities/food/movie genres/music/etc is, but be prepared to take charge and make an executive decision.

4.  Remind them they aren't alone. Text them during the day and let them know you're thinking about them. Show up at their work with a cup of coffee and a muffin.  Call them. Send them a special letter or card in the mail. Actual snail mail. It only takes a couple of days and it's such a lift. Make time for them. Don't just make space for them, create opportunities to spend time with them, and plan it out. Give them the chance to say no, but do not offer them empty suggestions if you have no intention of following through.

5.  Offer your services.  Babysit, cook them dinner, clean their house, take their car to fill it up with gas and clean it, grocery shop, give them a massage, make them a bath, etc. It is so empowering to have someone step in when you feel so overwhelmed and lacking in self nurturing. Sometimes even just taking a shower when you feel depressed feels like a chore to think about but a sweet escape in the moment.

6.  Come with resources. Investigate free/affordable, close and convenient mental health resources that your love one can tap into. You might even suggest giving them a ride or accompanying them if it's a support group or they don't have transportation. We know we need help, but it can be exhausting to do all of the leg work and find something that fits. You can cut out some of that time for them by bringing a list of options for them to check into.

7. Bring your humor. Sometimes humor is the best medicine. Find ways to get them to play or laugh. A comedy club, a funny or goofy movie, roller skating, an amusement park, a funny song to play in the car, no pressure karaoke, watching cute cat videos, etc. are all creative ways to take their mind off of their stickiness and help them feel light and free for a few minutes.

8. Get moving with them.  Take them for hikes, bowling, working out (boxing is amazing for getting out aggression), biking, running, swimming, rock wall climbing, shopping, beach combing, hula hooping, dancing etc. Exercise is therapy for the body and the mind. 

9.  Change the scenery. Gas tank getaway. Spend the day in a different city or town, beach or mountain or metropolis. Or just start off with no destination. Let it be an adventure. Plan a beach bonfire with a group of trusted friends. Plan some kind of cathartic experience. Scream at the top of a waterfall. Light Chinese lanterns at midnight and send away the monsters. Find a field of dandelions and make a million wishes. Make a burn pile with painful memories written on pieces of paper and light them up.

10. Limit alcohol.  Alcohol is a depressant, and well, we don't need more of that. A glass of wine is one thing, a bottle to numb the feelings is different. Stay present with your loved one to make sure you aren't contributing to their demise. Be honest, too. If you're there to be a help, then be one. If you feel like they might be using alcohol or drugs or self harming, please inquire about that with them.  Let it come from a place of love, again, and not judgement.

The Advice on Helping Yourself 

1. Be open to receiving help.

2. Ask for help when you can.

3. Seize every moment of happiness and joy and acceptance and love that you can, even if it's just for a moment. It will feed your soul. Don't beat yourself if it doesn't last for more than a moment. The fact that you could feel it all can give you hope that you're aren't dead yet.

4. Write, 
Create something.

5.  We are all suffering on some level, and as alone as you think you are, you're not. Seek to see the validation in your feelings and the connection it gives you to others rather than the shame and isolation in them.

6. Listen to your inner voice. Write down what it's saying. Choose to focus on beliefs that make you feel strong, courageous and authentic. Decipher what is lies and what is your truth. Keep paying attention and present in your mind. Recognize the bullshit and recognize the truth. You'll figure it out eventually.

7. Sit in the sadness, let it take you on the journey that it needs to. Realize that you cannot feel happiness and joy and love without sorrow and loss and heartbreak. You can't have the yin without the yang. You are normal. This is normal. Don't resist it or feel shame about your state of mind. Life is hard.

8.  If your depression uncovers something deeper, take care of it. If you don't deal with past trauma, this sadness will become a routine cycle in your life. Learn how to deal with trauma triggers so that you don't have to go into a full on depressive spiral each time. Talk to a therapist.

9.  Make a list of people you love and whom love you. Describe why you love them, and how they make you feel. Dwell on that love and allow yourself to reach out to connect to them when you need to.

10. Put the shovel down. You are already deep enough in the hole without digging yourself in deeper by self sabotage behaviors. Find something in your world to cling to moderation for. Don't allow yourself to go off the rails completely. Do it for a child, a relative, your future self, a cat. A future cat. Yeah, your future cats need you to make reasonable decisions with your life right now. Monitor your numbing activities and allow yourself to FEEL the FEELS. For your future cats.  No way around it, gotta go right through it, baby. 

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