Yogi Assignment: Facing Depression
During one of the most productive periods of my life I woke up nearly every day with suicidal ideation. From the outside it looked like I had it all sorted out and that I was living the dream. I had written and published two books, traveled the world, ran a yoga center, went to the beach often, bought a house, shared a life with a wonderful man, and in many ways all the boxes of a happy life were checked. But, inside I was not well.
Everywhere I looked I only saw pain, whether I looked at my life, my actions, my past or my future. Truthfully, I can see now that I was not happy with the person that I was and I wanted to make up for it by living as fully and completely as I possibly could. It was like I wanted my life’s work to make up for the darkness that I felt inside. Or at the very least when I was running as fast as I possibly could I was busy enough to not have a spare moment to dive down into my own inner turmoil. Being perpetually busy was a kind of drug that I used to escape the deep sadness that was in my heart. This wasn’t the only time that I felt and ran from the depth of pain within myself.
From the time I was nine years old I’ve struggled with periods of depression and I have used so many means to escape, avoid, deny or generally run fro my pain until I was finally ready to face it, forgive it and make friends with it. While there have been different triggers for my periods of depression, one thing that has brought me great solace is to craft my life around a sense of purpose. In order to avoid the temptation of nihilism and despair I search for meaning in the big and small aspects of my life. Whether it is the decision to treat every single being with respect and kindness or to act with integrity and justice, the decision to carve out patches of intention in what can sometimes feel like a random and senseless world is extremely useful for me. It’s like applied mindfulness in action.
The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain bring a poignant awareness to the need to talk about the shadow side of the mind. Whereas sometimes it seems like there is a social pressure to say and do the right things and share only happy things, the reality of so many people’s lives is one that is overwhelmingly filled with sadness, depression and other dark emotions. Emotions in an of themselves are intelligent and provide valuable feedback. This is true whether the emotions are positive or negative. In fact, emotions themselves are simply signals that arise based on interaction with your environment. In a vacuum they are neither good nor bad. Emotions themselves if left alone have a limited shelf life. But emotions that are suppressed or stuck and held can last a very long time.
While I didn’t know either of these two public figures personally, I do know all too well the pain that leads someone to suicidal ideation. I am thankful that despite the many times I’ve planned my own death that I never acted on those plans. Had I succeeded in the past when suicidal thoughts dominated my thinking people would have said that there was no indication anything was ever wrong. Not only did it take me a long time to even realize that I suffered from depression, but it took my even longer to be willing to speak about it in public. I was (and am) successful by many outward standards. I practice and teacht yoga, a path dedicated to inner peace. It might seem strange or unfair that someone like me could me troubled inside. I have felt both shame and guilt for being depressed and not having it all figured out. But the more I talk about my depression, panic, anxiety and other “negative” states, the more I bring out my own shadows into the light.
Depression doesn’t play favorites. It doesn’t matter if you’re successful or not. It doesn’t matter if you have checked off every box of good personhood and dedicated your life to a charitable cause or simply pursued your own interests. It doesn’t matter if by outward standard you should have no reason to feel depressed because there are people who are suffering more than you are. Each human being is unique and depression is a disease of the mind. Your pain is real simply for the fact that you feel it. There is no comparison in depression. Just because someone else may have it worse by external standards doesn’t invalidate your pain. I am writing this to let you know that you are not alone. There may be people that do not understand why you are depressed or who belittle your pain. Do not take it personally. They simply do not understand and are not able to sit with you in the midst of your pain and that’s ok. Forgive them.
No matter how many times I wake up from the dream of darkness I always think I’ve conquered the demon forever. It surprises me each time that I fall back down into the pit of depression. Maybe the idea of “conquering” the demon is part of the problem. Instead of fighting I believe forgiveness is the really the first step in facing depression.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Facing Depression.
First, if you know someone who might be suffering, here are four things that I always wish I could tell people around me when I’m depressed.
1. Sit with me, but don’t try and solve my pain.
It takes so much strength to sit with someone else’s pain and just be present with them. You have to be willing to embrace you own darkness if you want to be able to sit with someone else in the midst of their depression. If you’re not able to, that’s ok. But it’s important that if you do reach out, it’s not simply to tell your friend to “get over it” or think “good vibes only”. Even if you feel you sit with an insight, opinion or advice that will help your depressed friend, don’t assume that they want to hear it or that they will be open to receiving it. In all likelihood what will happen is that your friend will internalize your insight as yet another dark thought that they hear on repeat in their mind. If you feel compelled to share, ask them if they’re able to take in constructive feedback. If they say no, respect their wishes.
2. Reach out, especially when you think they’re fine.
So often I wanted company or someone to reach out to me when I’ve been depressed but people thought I was fine or that I was strong enough. When people reached out to me they often did so with their own problems or to voice some concern or complaint about something in the world. Few people checked in with me to see how I was doing. At times when I’ve often needed a friend the most I’ve been the most alone in my life.
3. Do something, but don’t ask me what you should do.
A kind act can be so meaningful, but don’t ask someone who is depressed to tell you what to do. Asking the question, “what can I do?” places the burden of solving the problem on the person in need. If they knew what needed to be done, they’d do it. It doesn’t have be a knight in shining armor sort of thing, a simple act of kindness can be life changing. For example, instead of asking if your friend wants anything to brighten their mood you could just show up with some food or flowers.
4. Don’t take it personally.
It’s not about you and it’s likely that your suffering friend will say some things that may be triggering for you. Don’t expose yourself to anything that crosses a line and don’t subject yourself to abuse, but if you can shrug off some of what they say as their sickness speaking it may prevent you from having your own feelings hurt.
Second, if you’re suffering from depression, here are some tools that helped and continue to help me. I’m sharing them here in the hopes that they may help you too.
1. Meditation—Yoga, while being an awesome foundation, was not enough. I need to meditate for at least five minutes a day. Meditation is widely available for free and you don’t need anything other than a comfortable place to sit for five minutes. Training the mind in meditation is an important step in the self-care needed to heal from depression.
2. Faith in God— This is a big one for me because whereas I felt like a big failure and a giant mess and I had no sense of why things were happening, by building a deep and personal relationship with God I realized that I didn’t have to get it right to be worthy of love and that I wasn’t in charge of the universe. It’s all God’s plan and as long as I do my best the rest is actually on God.
3. DBT— Dialectic Behavior Therapy. I can best describe this method of therapy as applied mindfulness. It has helped me identify my triggers and given me simply tools to brig me out of the acute periods of my depression when I am a potential risk to myself. Working with a therapist helped
If you’re unable to afford regular therapy sessions, seek help from a friend, family member, a church or charity. If you’re struggling with addiction and depression consider a 12-step program. Below are two free resources that anyone can turn to in times of need.
Suicide Prevention Hotline
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
To Write Love on Her Arms is a nonprofit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery.
If you’re struggling, please know that help is available. You can find resources, including 24/7 helplines, here: https://twloha.com/find-help/local-resources/.
4. Nutrition and Supplements— I follow a plant based diet. Three supplements have helped my mind feel more balanced. Depression changes the chemistry of the brain and these three things have helped restore balance in my mind. While I’m not a neuroscientist I can say that my brain feels better when I take these three supplements on a daily basis and that I notice a big difference when I don’t. I never took psycho-pharmacuticals such as Prozac. I was recommended to take them by my therapist but I respectfully declined. I take medical grade tryptophan, EPA/DHA (vegan source) and CBD oil daily. There may be other supplements or diets that help you.