We've all known people with severe mood disturbances. Scattered throughout our friends and families, no matter who we are, whether we know it or not, are peppered with these deep, dark cases. We know about the substance abuse, the trips to rehab, the interventions, but only after such a death do we start to understand that all of that turmoil and chaos was the result of and underlying foundation of psychic pain.
We checked in with each other on Wednesday night. We asked about the level of desperation each of us has felt in the past. We talked about the ways we try and keep chronic sadness from wrecking us. We shared about the ideas we've we toyed with when the sour taste of life has seemed unbearable. And through this frank and serious discussion, we expressed our gratitude at being in this group, able to just be together in a room and feel heard.
No discussion of depression can be complete without exploring its opposite: Happiness. What is happiness? Is it an emotion? Is it a feeling? Is there a difference? Does it matter what we call it? Why does it come easily for some and not for others? Is it spontaneous or do we urge it to the surface? Those of us who are inclined toward depression know what happiness is. It's not elation or joy or rapture. Happiness is that peaceful feeling when our depression lifts. We don't always notice it, but when we do, we feel a special kind of relief. Of course, some of us immediately start to worry how long this respite will last. When will we fall into the dark trough of despair next? Our happiness can quickly transform into worry. And depression's twin arrives: Anxiety.
One member brought us an idea from his individual therapist. A trick for getting out of bed in the morning. A way to break a counterproductive cycle he'd gotten so used to. This stewing in bed for an hour or more had come to feel normal, something he thought he just did because he is who he is. But his therapist offered a suggestion to break this cycle; a way to interfere with a negative feedback loop he felt trapped in. The solution wasn't a magic trick, but its result was magical. It wasn't easy, but it was simple. This trick, this technique, this conscious disruption of a negative mood, plays on the circle we've discussed so often: Thoughts lead to Feelings lead to Behaviors which lead back to Thoughts. This unconsciously perpetuated cycle, this circular pattern of forwards and backwards circulating Thoughts ↔ Feelings ↔ Behaviors ↔ Thoughts, and so, can be disrupted by consciously changing any one of the components.
So, what did our group member do to get himself out of bed? Even though it wasn't time to go to work? Even though his habit was to lie there and worry about what his moods might have in store for him today? Even though his normal M.O. was to tell himself he would first get in a good mood, then get out of bed? (A strategy which never seemed to pan out.) Through force of will, he just did it. He got up. He put on his running clothes. He opened the door. And he ran. He did the thing that Nike has been telling us to do when we think something is too hard. "Just do it." And by just doing it, by breaking his normal cycle, he felt better. He actually had a good day. None of the anxiety he was feeling anxious about materialized. As if by magic.
But did he feel happy? We got the feeling he did.
Another group member talked about frustration at work. But his tolerance for frustration is very high, and his control over "the system" in his workplace is pretty low. "Just doing it" for him would involve overcoming his aversion to finding the social engagement necessary to find a new job. But that wasn't what our discussion was about in this case. In this case, it was about globalizing a feeling. His workplace is not being run very well, causing his day to be very long and his efforts to be ineffectual, so he feels discouraged about the career he has chosen. But globalizing is a cognitive distortion (see my 7/16/14 post) that we can overcome by challenging it. Is a career path wrong because we twist our ankle on a cracked stepping stone? Of course, not. We can rationally see that if we step back and shrink the problem down to its appropriate size. His career isn't the problem; it's just the current system: a system that he can get unstuck from (unless it changes through other forces).
By coming together, we help each other get past these temporary discouragements. We listen, we offer whatever words of support we can, we care for each other. We try and shoulder together the idea that life is all about impermanence. If we feel happy today, it's not going to last. If we feel down tomorrow, that too shall pass. We try and emphasize that we have more control over our feelings than we sometimes think we do.
But sometimes, a harmless distraction can bring much needed relief. We choose to just try and reset our automatic responses to the slings and arrows or our interior and exterior circumstances with some happy stimuli. We took some time at the end of our Wednesday get-together to share some funny videos with each other. Here are a few. I hope they make you happy.