Tomorrow is the fabled ‘Blue Monday’ where, if the media is to be believed, we are all in it together. The whole nation is allowed to bandy around the term ‘depression’ as if a temporary trough in our finances and thus access denied to our Gadarene consumer stampede equates to an illness that sucks every bit of joy out of our lives.
For those of us with depressive illness, we’d gladly trade a month of Blue Mondays just for a respite from the fog, the black dog, the dragons or whatever flavour our illness takes. Because, trust me, I’m not for one second arrogant enough to imagine that every single page of Night Shift will resonate with everyone’s experience of depression. And for sure, not everyone will go running to save their lives ; that’s my route, I don’t expect it to be yours. And I use the word ‘run’ in its loosest sense. I plod, bouncily.
I’d be the first to agree that January weather can contribute to our feeling a bit miserable, low light levels don’t help, the after-holiday sluggishness is hard to shake off, not to mention the possible weight gain from too much slothery ( I may have made that word up) and that unhelpful feeling of ‘surely there’s more to life than this?‘
So we hear people saying – I hate January, the weather’s crap, I’ve maxed out my credit card , the boiler’s on the fritz, my rent’s going up, I’ve put on four kilos over Christmas, oh aaaargh, I’m so depressed.
Like Jon Snow, they know nothing.
This isn’t even remotely like depression. Sorry, but it doesn’t come close. Perhaps the media’s uptake of the Blue Monday schtick is contributing to the misapprehension that all we need to do is pull ourselves together, dial back on the overspending, get our finances in shape, join a gym, get some exercise and stop whining. Certain media commentators certainly seem to think so. There are small things we can do to try and make ourselves feel better, but in the throes of a full-blown depressive period, the main thing you have to do is hang on.
Hang on, even though there’s little left to hang on to. Hang on and trust that this will NOT last for ever, no matter what lies your own depression is telling you. Three years ago was the last time my personal fog rolled in, and all I could find to hold onto was my own breath. In the middle of the night, when I woke up, I’d roll onto my back,rest my hands flat against the top of my breasts and breathe.
I’d been given a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is every breath’ subtitled ‘A practice for our busy lives’. I’m not a Buddhist, but I was so very grateful for that slim little volume and return to its easily understood text whenever the need arises. I am so glad that there are teachers like TNH is our world. Anyhoo -within the book I’d found and liked two very short gathas (little verses that are designed to return our minds to a state of quiet contemplation) The first one was what I clung to, breathing in the oppressive darkness, trying to quell my panic in the middle of the night.
Following the Breath
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment.
I know this is a wonderful moment.
Trying to drag that smile onto my face was almost impossible. At times, I’m sure it was little more than a rictus, but somewhere I’d read that engaging your facial muscles in a smile caused other muscles to relax, so… And for sure, I knew the night terrors were not ‘a wonderful moment’ but I also knew that if I persevered, I might turn them round. Breath becoming the alchemist’s crucible. Some nights I had to repeat this ‘Following the Breath’ gatha many times before I slipped back into sleep.But it worked every single time.
The other gatha was
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Several challenges there. First of all, the smile. ( See above). Then the contemplation of twenty-four hours stretching out ahead. Especially when you’re down there in the abyss. But the hours are brand new. They are all yours. Yours to interpret, yours to live, yours to breathe in. Living fully in each moment means opening yourself out like a flower, even if it’s agony. I could only manage small attempts at full engagement before I sank back into a dull and numb nothingness, but the more I tried, the longer I could feel alive. Difficult as this was, it was nothing like as hard as the last bit ; looking at all beings with eyes of compassion? That means everyone. Pols and mouthy hate-crimers and people-smugglers and world leaders? Yikes.
However, the hardest bit is looking at yourself with eyes of compassion. You. You are worthy of love. At which point my brain would explode.
And back I’d go to the first gatha. Breathe.
Today’s little thing to help : Let’s help each other? First of all, if you’re out among people today, try smiling at a stranger, even if you’ve never felt less like doing so. With your eyes as well as your mouth. We can never know what goes on in another human heart and the people who look least like they’ve ever gone through a depressive period might just be in the throes of one right now. The people who don’t smile back might be having the worst time ever. Sometimes we have no idea if our little signals of human kindness are picked up, but I’m sure nothing good is ever wasted.
And secondly – help me out here – what little things do you do to lift your mood? All suggestions welcome.