Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing to stay alive

"I love my life. I regret my life. The lines eventually blur." ~ Patrick Stewart, in the film Match.

"I never want to get out of bed again." ~ Me, this morning.

Some thoughts are alarms, and that first thought catapulted me to vertical today. Three days ago, my waking thought was, "Best to die in my bed while I still have a bed."

Thoughts like these are what writer Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue, calls "death thoughts." Somehow, in major depression, our thoughts compel us to die.

I am considering thoughts, now, as symptoms. Symptoms of something gone desperately awry in the human brain. Thoughts as end results, sometimes as emergencies. Death thoughts are not natural. Every organism is driven to live, to exist. Depression drives us to die. We humans are animals who think, and it may be that this unique capacity -- to think as we do -- is what triggers the despair that compels us to believe we must die.

Other animals, I am sure, despair as well ... Think of a fox with its leg snapped in the jaws of a hunting trap. Think of Harry Harlow's infant rhesus monkeys who were forced to be alone in metal cages with only metal "mothers" to cling to.

Humans are the animals who can articulate despair.

After I threw off the blankets this morning and jumped to my feet -- I did jump in reaction to that first thought -- I began to wonder. I know that curiosity is a saving grace; it leads us to questions, to the larger world beyond our own thoughts, to engagement. I knew I could stay alive by wondering. I also knew that I had to feed my cats. I've vowed to them that I will stay alive. They are the ones I live with, the ones who depend on me for their own survival. They need me to stay.

Today is International Suicide Survivors Day -- we honour the memory of people who have lost their lives to despair. Perhaps we could also call today "Stay Day." For those of us who grapple with the despair that wants to take us ... Perhaps "Stay" could be our prayer, our chant, our mantra, our call to Life.

Speaking of Life ... I noticed, as I threw myself out of bed, an underlying rage to be. This imperative we share with every other creature on Earth. A rage that arises from the force that fires and fuels us. A rage not of anger, but of ... love. Cherishment.

Cherishment ... makes me think of mother-love. Perhaps we need a new mother tongue, a new language, one resurrected from the old. A new mother tongue to lap us (as a beloved dog or cat will lap our face) out of despair. A language of love, of bonding, of beloved relation. Andrew Solomon has said that "Depression is the flaw in love ... a disease of loneliness." I think of it also as a grave injury to our capacity to love, to our capacity to be in relation, to reach out, to attach. Our culture's treatment of major depression errs on the side of cognition -- on how we think. While our habitual thoughts express as a sure "barometric reading" of our emotional state, they are only outward evidence of how the deeper structures and strata of our brain are functioning. As Thomas Lewis and his coauthors write in the magnificent A General Theory of Love, "... the neural systems responsible for emotion and intellect are separate, creating the chasm between them in human minds and lives." Neuroscience has begun to map the mysteries of brain function and opened new avenues for understanding and healing brain disease and injury in exciting ways ... but often at the expense of our existence as a whole. In a sense, the mind is what the brain does ... and we need to consider and treat the whole person, not just the neurochemicals.

It may be that we need a more "mothering" approach in how we treat depression and other conditions that shatter our ability to bond -- PTSD being one. Somatic approaches to psychotherapy, like Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing, employ strategies that first address a person's need for relative safety and a sense of presence in the world. In short: a return of embodiment ... and of feeling, of the sense of being alive.

Deeper than all thought runs the current of feeling ... the fuel that drives us to bond and to love. Feeling is what drove me up from and out of my bed this morning ... Feeling is what drives me to write, to communicate, to blend my voice with others.

Feeling extends our desire -- our intrinsic need -- to reach out to others and to receive them; feeling is what saves us. Feeling drove two of my cherished friends to reach out to me today after I reached out to them; they arrived at my home with the fixings for a big pot of chicken-veggie soup. Feeling drove me to ask one of those friends if I could lie on my couch with my head in her lap; feeling brought her hand to my head, which she stroked again and again. Feeling impelled me to sob with the relief of being touched, cradled, tended to. Feeling activated my appetite, and allowed me to eat ... and allows me to write with nascent courage, to extend my own experience to yours, dear reader.

How will you mother yourself today? How will you stay?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Out, out, out of the closet...with thanks

Every once in a while, brain farts -- those embarrassing gaps in memory that open up and stay open -- conjure up happy surprises! Such was the case this morning when I clicked on an article about depression that was posted in an online forum I participate in. Authored by Margarita Tartakovaky, who writes for PsychCentral, "What I Wish You Understood About My Depression" is helping to take our cultural dialogue about this condition to a much deeper level, to a place where we are finally beginning to understand that the world's #2 cause (after heart disease) of disease-related disability is worthy of respect and urgent attention.

Sweet relief! Over the many years that I've lived with major depression, I've heard everything from "Depression is a neurological disease" (I agree) to "Join a glee club!"  to "You're just lazy and irresponsible!" from people I've dared to speak with about it.  Our collective judgments are beginning to evolve into curiosity, a hunger for facts and experiential expertise, and compassion. We've been jolted into wiser enquiry through the shock of Robin Williams' death by suicide -- How could one of the funniest, richest, most humane and generous people in the world have taken his own life? The articles I'm linking to give us some clues. I feel honoured to have my thoughts included amongst those of leading-edge writers, professors, and clinicians ... and will continue to raise the bar of my own thinking to match their excellence and understanding.

One of my dearest friends recently told me, "In your vulnerability is your mission." I've taken her words to heart, to the keyboard, and now out to the larger world. Every voice, every story shared, is a glimmer of light and truth ... Someone will be reached; an eye will open; a mind will latch to a voice that understands ... and lives will be saved and salved.

If you're reading this, no matter what you're going through -- depression or otherwise -- You are not alone. Somewhere in the world, amongst the 6+ billion souls we share this planet with, other voices resonate with yours. If there's a treasure to be found in life, it's the nodding of one soul toward another: a Yes that will enfold you and your experience into its understanding, that will lead you to arms willing to link with yours, to walk beside you as you open yourself to learning, speaking, writing, sharing ...

I've dared myself to share ... and my voice is joining others. My eyes are blinking open into a vast light and into gazes of empathy. Yours can, too. Speak out, dear reader. Find one person you can trust with your story ... and begin there. Someone will hear you ... I promise.

Margarita Tartakovsky and Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue and The Pocket Therapist,  heard me ... and they've graciously invited me to contribute my thoughts to some of their published work. Here are the other three articles that include my words:

"8 Lessons People with Depression Learned from Their Illness", by Therese Borchard

"How to Support & Help Someone with Depression" , by Margarita Tartakovsky, and

"Personal Experiences of Depression", by Margarita Tartakovsky.

As I type, my eyes are drawn to the sky outside my window. Two flocks of Canada geese soar through the huge beyond ... and I'm reminded of how they support each other in their "V" formations, riding a collective slipstream, leading and following as energy and vitality allow. Leaders lead until they need to draw back and borrow fuel from their fellows; followers, having rested a little in flight, surge to the fore, guiding the flock until the next rotation of full strength is ready to aim for home.

That's how it's done ... and we're doing it. To every dear soul who has been helping me back into the slipstream of viability and resurging vitality after so many fallow years ... I bow to you with tears of gratitude slipping down my cheeks, onto the page, and into new form as proof of what's possible.

Come out, come out, whoever you are. Blend your stories with ours. You are surrounded by kindred souls!

Photo: Jeanette Allen, via

Monday, November 17, 2014

Musings on mercy

Art: Lisa Ballard, "Mercy and Me"

I keep arriving here: at the warm, open palm of mercy. A wise man once gave me a directive that I've not heard before or since ... one that got under my skin and into the center of my brain: "To thine own self be merciful."

What a potent hit to the head of the existential nail! Is anything we can do more imperative? If we can't live in our own skin in a state of truce (at the very least), how can we live with one another?

No wonder mercy can be such a visceral challenge. As a principle, mercy is often overlaid with religious overtones -- seen as a saintly state that few of us can attain for more than an instant at a time, if at all. But an instant is enough ... and it flares like a sun, warming us to and from our core. We are saints in that instant, in that choice. We are grains of pure goodness when we reach out or in with unabashed kindness.

Is our capacity for mercy intrinsic to our makeup? Are we wired to salve, rather than to savage ourselves and other beings? (Are we wired to do both? We can fire up into fight or flight in an instant ... and then there is a state called flow ... We do flow when we reach out in gentleness ... )

Mercy makes me sweat. To thine own self be merciful ... I dare you. I hear this invitation, this challenge to look long and deep into every being I encounter -- and into a mirror ... Mercy calls us to look beneath apparent appearances, into the depth of a life ...

Sometimes I think that mercy is the opposite of madness. Mercy is lucid ... like the noon sun without the burn. Sees all; denies nothing. Sees into, within, and through. Eyes the soul, and the pupils soften and expand. Bestows warmth; suffuses with light.

I wonder about mercy in relation wtih kindness, compassion, altruism ... and I hone in on what makes mercy mercy.

It's the quietude ... that warm, open palm. Whenever I imagine and recall my own experiences of mercy, I know touch. Skin meeting skin with loving intent ... and we soften. The entire body sighs ... We are safe; we surrender.

A warm, open palm ... a belly, a cheek, a shoulder ... a hug, a spoon, a palm spooning a face ... a nuzzle, a snuffle; breath warming the skin. A laying on, a gentling ... and rest.

Mercy reaches and receives the core ... and warms us there.

Mercy says, Been there, done that, lived it -- without cynicism. And then, with tendresse, I dare you to be kind ... to yourself. Like this. 

Art: Lisa Ballard, "Whisperer"
Thank you, Lisa, for the beauty you create ...