Mindfulness and a mirror.

Like a Chinese finger cuff, the more we try to escape or run away from something that brings unpleasantness, the tighter our grip becomes and we end up holding on to it. The finger cuff is made of bamboo strips woven together into a tube, with openings on either end that are big enough to fit the tip of a finger. It is held by inserting the tips of both pointer fingers in each end by a person who is then challenged with removing their fingers, but the more they try to pull their fingers apart, the tighter the finger cuff gets around both fingers. I like to use this metaphor to describe the human tendency to grasp onto what feels uncomfortable, be it feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. Of course, this grip we hold usually occurs on a subconscious level, which makes it difficult to stop and take the time to ‘loosen up’ and relax so that we can see and begin to work through the unpleasantness.

Much like intimacy or the human connection, the way to escape the finger cuff is to move the fingers inward and toward one another. This allows the finger cuff to ease and expand, allowing the wearer’s fingers to be free. In the same way, creating a human connection, which brings two people closer and allows one to tap into one’s inner world, frees one to identify and observe one’s feelings, emotions, or physical sensations. As writer Gregory Bateson (as cited in Epstein, 1998) pointed out, “It takes two to know one” (p. 102). I love the depth yet simplicity of this sentence. Gaining a mindfulness and appreciation of our inner experience requires the presence of another. Therapists serve as this presence for people. We remain present in people’s presence.

For a while now, I have been thinking of alternate words to describe therapy or counseling, as a way to explain the core purpose and benefit of therapy and alleviate the stigma around it. I have been wondering what other word or explanation to use to sidestep the common association people make between participating in therapy and there being something “wrong” with them. Perhaps this is a word? Presence. As therapists, we are present with our clients, and in a way that the modern world has driven us to forget. Per Epstein (2011), “mindfulness…requires the careful noting of everything that occurs in the mind-body spectrum as it unfolds” (p. 67). As therapists, we help people to “unfold”. As therapists, we assist people to be mindful during this unfolding process. We hold the space with clients in a way that allows them to hone in on their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they unfold. We allow people to be who they are. We reflect back who they are.

Modern society incessantly tries to tell us who we are, what we like, what we should or shouldn’t feel, who we should our shouldn’t associate with. The practice of mindfulness in Buddhism and the mindfulness practice inherent in psychotherapy help us to cut through the barrage of bullshit being shoved down our throats. In the documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” inmates in a maximum security prison in Alabama participate in a ten-day silent Vipassanna retreat held on prison grounds. One of the men who completed the retreat commented, “We’re not allowed to practice freedom,” when referring to cultural oppression. Societal and systemic oppression have a strong grip that fools and deludes us into unplugging from ourselves. Therapy and the therapeutic relationship counter this oppression and allows us to discover and be who we are.

XO, O.

I put a lot of thought into making the significant and intentional decision to expose a part of my life that I considered to be wrong and shameful for a long time.  Social stigma and cultural norms led me to believe that having depression is a weakness.  The lack of general understanding about this illness convinced me that depression is something you can shrug off if you can just “stay positive” and “focus on the good things.”  Oh, if it were that easy, we’d all be skipping through life.  (BTW, do not say these things to a depressed person.  It’s like telling a zebra to shed its stripes – not gonna happen.  Not gonna help.)

Shortly after I began blogging about my history and present experience with depression, I received an email from a concerned friend who had been rattled by my writing – understandably.  I wrote about suicide.  About my experience with suicidal thoughts.  I posted freshly written poems and journal entries and poems and journal entries I’ve written and hid over the course of 15+ years I have lived with depression.  To the reader who has not experienced clinical depression firsthand, hearing or reading the thoughts that circle in the mind of a depressed person can be worrying and frightening.  So, how can these worrying and frightening thoughts be shared with or understood by those who haven’t had these thoughts course through their minds day after dismal day?  I think about this often.

I appreciate that my friend reached out to me from a place of concern and care, but I am also thankful that she shared her thoughts about the broader issue of public conversation about suicide.  I’ve been wanting to share our correspondence with you, dear reader, for a long while.  I hope that it brings some clarity to the experience of mental illness, as a whole.  It is my hope that it will unearth how I, among many, have been and continue to experience life with depression.  It is my hope that more people will reach out, talk.  It is my hope that more people will listen.

***

Hi Odawni,

You’re scaring me with your posts… I probably didn’t share something with you, and though not a secret, is not something I generally talk about, but your dark posts have motivated me to let you know my take on a subject you seem to be giving much attention to – my father committed suicide when I was in my early teens. He was a manic depressive (bi-polar), had Seasonal Affective Disorder and one day made a permanent decision. I don’t pretend to understand what compels someone to take their own life. But I’ll tell you 2 things I know. First – People don’t talk about suicide in general terms for good reason – it’s contagious. That’s why it’s illegal. For whatever reason we have a lemming quality in us and talking about suicide, knowing people who have actually done it, increases your chances. I don’t think it’s entirely taboo, but talking about it in general terms, not for the sake of getting help or researching to help people is more dangerous than anything else. Why focus your attentions on taking your own life? It’s kind of like teen pregnancy, though on different ends of the life cycle. haha. Two – if you are thinking of it, writing about it, reflecting on it, wondering how you would do it – it’s very much an issue. Treatment for mental health issues have a long way since my dad, and I always wonder if he’d been able to hold on a bit longer, if he couldn’t have found a treatment that worked for him. I sincerely hope that you are as insanely proactive for your own depression as you are intelligent, inquisitive and personable. I really hope that the right combination of treatment, environment, nutrition, exercise, familial and friend support, climate, etc. will eventually make things better for you. Odawni – you’ve got to point your mind in a new direction, stop the dangerous path… Hope you don’t mind my message. I have fond memories of our times together and I remember laughing a lot. I hope you can maintain the laughter and screw everything else.

Concerned friend.

***

Friend,

Thanks you so much for your message. I really appreciate that you opened up to me and shared your personal experience with and thoughts about suicide. First, I am very sorry that your dad suffered from mental illness so much so that he decided to take his own life. I’m sure it must have been a very difficult thing to go through for you and your family.

As someone who knows the pain of losing a family member to suicide, as well as the first-hand struggle of a seemingly insurmountable condition, it’s important to me that the topic of suicide finds its way to society’s general realm of discussion. My intent on sharing my experience with it is to do just that. I in no way condone the act of killing oneself. I believe life to be worth living, and I believe that all people, at their core, feel the same; no matter their mental state. But the mind plays tricks on you when you are in such a dark and seemingly hopeless place that you truly feel you want to end it all and it seems to be the only option to end the pain.

I do agree with you that talking about suicide in generalities can be dangerous, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention. As I write about it, my purpose is merely to educate and expose its existence, so that we, as a society, pay attention to it. The first step of tackling a problem is talking about it, and if we can understand it better, we can provide more support. I realize this is tricky because, as you say, talking about suicide has the potential to trigger a ‘lemming’ reaction from someone who is thinking about suicide as an option. However, having this conversation, if worded and presented in a particular way, has the powerful potential to save the life of someone who is suicidal.

I’m sure you are already aware of everything I’ve written. I just want you to know that I am incredibly passionate about finding ways to help those who are in such a difficult place. I mean no disrespect by what I share and write, and I hope that you don’t feel I have disrespected you and your family. Suicide is a sensitive subject and I don’t want my references to it to seem insensitive.

I thank you so much that you’ve shared your thoughts with me because you’ve helped me realize that my writing could be misconstrued. More specifically, I appreciate that you’ve outlined the difference between referring to suicide in generalities vs. making clear statements about wanting to fight this epidemic. I’ve decided to edit all my posts about suicide to include a statement that it is my intent and goal to help in the fight of saving lives and will provide links to support resources. I volunteered at the Crisis Line for a year so I know how powerful those types of resources can be.

Learning more about and addressing suicide has always been something I’ve felt strongly about, and now that I have come to a place where I understand it enough that I feel I can help, I am that much more passionate about it. This is something I am dedicating my life to, but I want to go about this in a way that will help. As I write this, I am realizing how tremendously helpful your email has been in giving me a clearer path to how I can be most effective. I am still trying to figure out a way to write about my experience without causing concern to friends and family. That you have taken the time to reach out to me and share something very personal to you, means a lot to me.

I want to reassure you that, though I have been to the place of wanting to end my life many times, I have made the final decision to live. I have been lucky enough to be able to tease apart symptom from reality, but I proudly state that it has not all been luck. I have worked years and years to get to this place. I’ve tried many different therapies, medications, and methods to get to this place. It has been a very difficult and exhausting journey but worth every moment of pain. I don’t pretend to think that I have conquered depression to the point that I will never sit in darkness again, but I know that it is manageable, and I believe that every single person who has sat in the darkness can get out of it. I want to help.

I’d like to share text from an email I sent not long ago. I think it will help to explain where I’m at with depression and suicide, as well as the intent behind my writing. Actually, I should have included you on this email, as you have also helped me to get through the really difficult times. I pasted it below.

Thanks for offering to let me share your message. I’d really like to write about this on my blog….

XO,
O

Email I want to share with you:

For some of you, you’re hearing from me from out of the blue, and for others, this email may have elements of redundancy. Whichever angle you are reading this from, thanks in advance for taking the time in your busy lives to ‘listen’ to lil’ ol’ me. I’ll try to keep this brief.

As some of you know, I have clinical depression. It’s been a part of my life for over 15 years. At first I had no idea what it was. I thought that it was a part of who I was. I know now that that’s not true. I finally feel like I can embrace my depression enough to find a way to manage it. It’s a work in progress, as it always will be. Years of medication and therapy have helped me get to this point, but writing – writing is the constant that saved my life. I’ve been writing for as long as depression has been a part of my life; medication and therapy came in to play years after it began.

I now have a completely different relationship with mental illness. I don’t want to hide it, and I have accepted that it is a chronic disease, but I will not allow it to swallow me whole. I will not give it the satisfaction of snuffing out my aspirations. I am turning to writing again as a healing practice for myself, but I also want to share it to serve as a tool for others, be it for those with mental illness, relatives or friends of someone with depression, or for people who want to learn about and understand the experience of depression. I started a blog a year or so ago as a sort of blank canvas for creativity and have decided to also use this space to write about mental illness, creatively or otherwise. This is my small contribution to not only help others, but to also chip away at the stigma associated with mental illness. I invite you to participate in this endeavor with me via visiting my blog. Just so you know, if this is not for you or if you don’t enjoy my writing, I won’t take it personally.

Aside from sharing the above with you, I also wanted to thank you. Each of you has helped me through this whether you are aware of it or not. I am so grateful that you have played a part in lifting me up to this place. Friends and family are truly a key ingredient in getting through each day. I am so incredibly thankful for you, all of you – friends and family.

 

The weapons are words.

The text of my last post has been sitting in my drafts folder since February.  I suppose I wasn’t ready to expose my words to the blogosphere at the time they were strung together.  I was in the early stages of emergence from an intense depressive episode, which started last summer.  It’s been a long year.

There were many days that, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting to kill myself coursed through my head.  One morning, I forced myself into the shower and got dressed for work.  I remember I put on my bright blue pants.  Fresh and clean, I sat on the edge of my bed in a zombie stare.  My physical being was still, my mind was not.  Thoughts of wanting to die sparred with thoughts that I needed to get out the door if I wanted to get to class in time.  The rational part of my mind was telling me to get on with my day: go to class, go to work, and do this again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.  It will get better.   But minutes later I found myself in the kitchen, standing in front of an open drawer, staring at knives.

The mood rollercoaster associated with the course of depression still runs along the tracks these days, but the ride has slowed and the drops are more shallow.  I have days now when I can throw my arms up in the air and grin so hard my face hurts.  But I also have days when I have to push myself into the morning and pretend – smile and laugh.  I still have moments when I feel that I’m not meant for this world; that I’m not built for it.  I know this internal voice, this way of thinking, is a symptomatic trickster.  I know this.  And, at my core, I know the voice of depression and its deceit.  I want to be here in this world, and yet, there it is: the darkness.

The dissonance of experiencing depression and having an awareness and rational understanding of its symptoms is an exhausting, lonely, all-consuming, and scary place to be.  This internal dichotomous battle is so often misunderstood.  We need to talk about mental illness and appreciate its existence.  These conversations must be had.  Sharing my experience, on an individual and selfish level, is a part of my healing, but I also believe it to be altruistic.  I have enlisted to the growing army that is fighting the stigma so ubiquitously tied to mental illness.  The weapons are words.