(Im)Possible

I’m not sure who said it. Probably my acupuncture physician, but my memory is a bit vague; for all I know, my friends have been saying the same thing for months or years, and I’ve only now capable of hearing them. But this is what I heard: “I don’t think you’ve believed that things can actually change.”

Substitute “things can actually change” for “you can lose weight” or “you can regain your health” or “you can create a different sort of life for yourself” or “you can become unstuck,” and you’ll have a picture of the loop I’ve been in for a very long time. Actually, though, I have believed things can change: they can always change for the worse. And I’ve believed that things can change for the better, but not because I had anything to do with it—I am that which fouls up plans, or ruins a good thing, or starts off hopefully and resolutely only to fail once again.

I’ve written about my struggles with depression. I was a moody kid, certainly, but the deep, dark, despairing kind of depression didn’t hit until college. I think that’s the time most people who have schizophrenia start becoming ill; I’m guessing it has something to do with changing brain chemistry. Mine started in my freshman year, and seemed to cycle almost with the moon. Since then I’ve learned that many people suffer greater depression around the new moon, just as many people experience insomnia around the full moon.

In my junior year I had some kind of depressive break. I spent my days curled in a fetal position on my bed, chewing on the chenille balls of the bedspread, weeping uncontrollably. I would venture out only after dark, and walk the mile or so into town to find something to eat, because I certainly wasn’t going to go to the dining hall to reveal my condition to my friends.

This lasted two or three months. Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and a couple of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, notably “Carrion Comfort,” over and over, aloud, almost chanting them, making them into a mantra or a magic spell, were the tools that helped me regain a modicum of sanity. When I finally approached my best friend in college and summoned the courage to tell her what I had been through, she chastised me sternly for being self-indulgent, and told me she never wanted to see me in that sorry state ever again.

About ten years later I learned that she had just come through a year of depression, and that her husband was bipolar. I desperately wanted to be compassionate, to think that perhaps her extreme reaction was because the idea of my depression triggered a profound fear in her, but all I could think was: Ah. Now you know what it feels like. Now you understand.

The depression came and went over the years; after that major college episode, it was no longer on a tidy calendrical schedule. When it came, it was bleaker and more profound, and when it went, I was at least able to cope with daily life, though it was never true happiness. I never quite got up to that level again.

Toward the end of my two years in Vermont I slipped into a depression. When I realized I was actually planning my suicide, trying to decide who should take care of my dog and how to minimize the horror and clean-up when my body was found, I decided I needed to seek professional help. My doctor prescribed Wellbutrin. After four weeks it finally kicked in, and I woke one morning feeling balanced and happy and at peace. Three hours later I broke out in hives all over my body: I was allergic to the medication. Then we tried Prozac. It gave me seizures of the jaw that made me bite my tongue badly during my sleep. My doctor decided that SSRIs didn’t work with my brain chemistry, and hoped that herbs and diet would solve the problem. They helped, and moving back to Florida a couple of months later to take care of my mother (not to mention all that good sunlight) helped even more.

Then I started receiving acupuncture—not expressly for the depression, though that was certainly one of the concerns. Within a month I felt much, much better; within three months I could no longer  access that level of despair even when I tried. And no more depressive episodes of the kind that had so bedeviled me for three decades. It’s been a remarkable transformation.

But this year, after Mom’s death, I’ve come to see that I still have the behavior patterns of a depressed person, if not the feelings. And now I realize that I also have a depressive belief system: the bedrock certainty that no matter what I do or how hard I try, nothing will ever truly change for me. That I am Sisyphus.

I’m reporting all this because I think that old belief system may be changing. Slowly, by increments perhaps. But I’m starting to believe that change is possible, that bodies and mindsets and circumstances are maleable, that I have more power over my life than I think I do. It is not, alas, a straight-line improvement. There are days when I think everything is possible and others when I still think nothing is. But the overall direction, I believe, is one of opening up, of seeing light, of thinking Yes, maybe. Maybe there’s hope.

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Categories: Brain, Depression, Healing | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “(Im)Possible

  1. indigobunting

    Yes, yes, I hope that there’s hope and that there’s change.

    I didn’t quite realize that your college episode lasted that long. Did you go to class? How did you not get kicked out of school, ultimately? Could you function at least basically academically?

    I remember how much weight you lost—beginning right before Vermont? I can’t remember—and how positive you were before things turned. Depression is an evil thing.

    I’m so happy acupuncture is helping.

    Weight issues are a Sisyphus thing. Having been a chubby kid, I can’t recall ever not being aware of my weight. Happily, thanks to some changes finally made after college, I’ve gone from obsessive dieter trying to lose weight to simply being obsessed about not gaining weight. Still, an awareness, an obsession of sorts. And a fight I know I’m going to have to readjust to after menopause. It ain’t likely to be pretty, my attitude about that-which-I-cannot-change.

    Now I’m blathering and have to get back to work.

    Sometimes I have insomnia around the full moon.

  2. My college “nervous breakdown” (I called it that because it sounded so silly) occurred during a two-month winter term, in which we took one huge course for twice the normal credits. Many people skipped classes because the professors were easy and lackadaisical. I caught maybe one class a week. And yes, I failed it, the only class I ever got below a B+ in (I had a 4.15 in high school, a 4.0 with extra credit), so my You Are A Miserable, Dreary Failure At Everything You Attempt mindset was nicely reinforced by my failure at this course.

    I was allowed to “graduate” with my class and go through the ceremony but actually received an empty diploma folder and had to make up the credits in a summer independent study. Even that was late, and I finished it only upon threat of expulsion. My professor wrote on the final paper, “In many ways this is a brilliant and subtle piece of work. Shame it had to be extracted from you by such violent means.”

    I lost weight before Vermont, over 100 pounds, and gained it all back and more when my world turned upside down.

    This whole belief system thing makes sense, too. If you try your darndest to make changes, but you secretly tell your soul that change is impossible, all your efforts will be for naught. But it’s so hard to believe something new when it directly contradicts what you see before your eyes. . . .

  3. Who kept telling you that? I wonder?

    I can tell you, from experience, that some depressed people carry on normal lives, doing, succeeding, but still being depressed. outside they are the picture of productivity. Inside they are composed of despair.

    I am your hand up when you need one. This, you know.

  4. Most of my friends have been shocked to learn the depth and breadth of my depression. “You always seem so normal,” they said. This tells me I am a superb liar.

    During the last great depressive episode, I decided that the law of diminishing returns had to play a role in all this. It came to a point where the struggle to maintain, to be productive, simply wasn’t worth it when I was in such pain. But not that I would stop being productive; no, I’d simply stop being.

    Still, I now know that belief comes before action. Belief may not determine action, but belief certainly determines results. So if I want different results, I need to change my beliefs. THIS is the hand up I’ll need from time to time.

  5. I absolutely, positively believe that our thoughts become our reality, a thoughtform. I also believe this is the root of magic (in the Pagan sense as described by Crowley) or more mainstream-oriented pop psychology as presented by Norman Vincent Peale. Our thoughts form loops that repeat ad infinitum in our minds. It’s probably no surprise that one of my favorite childhood books was The Little Engine That Could!

  6. My gay male hairdresser and I call ourselves “high-functioning depressives.” (A psych professional term, of course.) And then we laugh. I’ve toyed with the idea of antidepressants for years, always on the line between being sure that I need them and refusing to become officially depressed. In the past year+ my depression has become confused with grief, as has yours, I’m sure. The only difference between depression and grief, technically, is that grief has an easily identified cause. Maybe with some more tears.

    But I’m trying really hard to believe that things can change. As you know, I, like you, am moving towards something that could make me financially comfortable, independent, and stimulated for the rest of my life. I’m newly 60. Seems kind of late for me to finally blossom, but most of the time I believe I can do it. I finished the book while Rich underwent intensive cancer treatment. I kept telling myself that if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it. And I believe that. So I just keep moving, slowly, slowly, slowly, towards my goal, because if I stop for any length of time, my despair would overtake me. Then I would have to live with the knowledge that life will be like this until I die. I’m not willing to accept that, so depression and all, I move the beach a teaspoon of sand at a time.

    And you know that I’m here for you, too. If anyone is comfortable with listening to painful shit, it’s me. Love you.

  7. A couple of my friends have indicated that today’s post sounds like I’m currently depressed, and I want to clarify that I’m not feeling down, I’m not sad, I’m not despairing. I am, however, trying to address the underlying belief system—the mental and psychological recordings that keep whispering to me and reinforcing patterns that no longer serve me, if indeed they ever did—that are perpetuating my so-called depressive behaviors, all those “stuck” behaviors that I’ve complained about for so long. I’m trying to look at them as being the natural expression of beliefs and thought patterns that need to be changed.

    So my real focus for this next period of my life needs to be, “What do I really believe is the truth about the universe, about GOD or whatever you want to call the unifying mystery, about my place in that mystery? How is that different from the beliefs my early faith imparted, or the beliefs my parents instilled, or the beliefs society and consensus reality keep foisting upon us? What do I believe, now, at this stage in my spiritual life, at this period in my life? What is MY truth? And how does that truth want to express itself through my actions?”

    I wish the answers were readily apparent, but they probably wouldn’t be my core beliefs if they were so quickly accessible.

  8. “Belief may not determine action, but belief certainly determines results. So if I want different results, I need to change my beliefs.”

    I like that. I have tried telling people that. About health. About diet. About relationships and success therein. But people want to blame the external. No, you cannot stop the rain. But you can change how you respond to it and how it affects you and that determines outcome.

    The surprise at finding my old pictures and seeing I was thin, knowing I was convinced I was anything but. Knowing now I am not but also knowing I am not nearly as not thin as I think I am. This keeps me from participating in things that, ironically, would help me be thinner.

    The same with my concept, mistaken, I know, that any social milieu, be it party or dance or what-have-you, will end in my rejection. I KNOW it’s not true. And sometimes I go anyway. The outcome? People treat me wonderfully. Spectacularly. Do i remember that next time? No. Why? My belief is that of the former and I see each success as a fluke.

    Yet, from experience, i know, what I expect will happen. What I know to be so will be so. What my intent is, what my energy is, will be created. All the energies toward the one thing. No split energy. Or, as Dean Kamen put it, “You get what you celebrate.” That’s the magic. Intent and energy make the thing. But it has to be sure and clear. Doubts and back-up plans do not create what you want. You must know it with the surety of asking “Pass the salt” and knowing, of course, someone will pass it to you. It’s just so. But we don’t. We create the realities we say we want tentatively, with unsure words and doubtful stories while we create what we don’t want with energy, surety and directness.

    So, that hand up. How do we do that? How do I help someone change beliefs? First, let’s uncover the ones that are there. Exposing them is a good place to start and it takes a bit of time and a bit of work.

    We’ll start over coffee. Tomorrow. In the process I can dig out my own.

  9. Mali

    I thought this post was one of real hope, of realisation that you have been through rough times, but that these don’t have to recur, that you can change. I wanted to leap up and down and say “bravo!” I also wanted to commend you on your complete honesty. Facing up to painful feelings is hard. Telling others about them is harder. I think that’s why so many of us put on a brave face to the world. But that stops us getting help, keeps us in denial, keeps us pushing away those feelings of hope, that internal belief that, to borrow a phrase, “yes we can.” I only wish I could be as honest.

  10. I agree with Mali—that was a courageous, hopeful post, and very touching.

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