Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Depression as an element of Happiness

I'm exploring the idea that the unpleasant and sometimes debilitating feelings of depression are an opportunity for experience and practice. On the one hand, I need to learn how to exercise control that can reduce their interference with what's important. On the other hand, I need to provide myself with some "safe place" and time to explore and experience sadness, futility, worry, confusion, resentment, anger, fear and all the other emotions clamoring for my attention. My theory is that if I just shove those feelings aside in my focus on the unattainable goal of consistent happiness, I am shutting out a richness of experience that can strengthen me.

Maybe the feeling in my chest that comes with the perfect storm of emotion I associate with depression is like the aching of childbirth, as though the feelings are helping to open my spirit to empathy and understanding. Maybe fighting and avoiding depression keeps me emotionally and spiritually underdeveloped, stunted.

When they come along, I've wasted time seeking the cause of depressive emotions, or trying to immediately neutralize or eliminate them. When they come unbidden at inopportune times, I bribe them with food so they'll go away for the time being. I work hard to hold them at bay with deliberate positivity so that I can be a good parent, a good employee, a good partner, a good friend in the moment. I think this is important practice and will continue to use positive thinking to keep those feelings from taking dominance in my daily life. But still, eventually, they always come back for more, filling my head and sucking my patience, threatening my ability to keep all the balls in the air.

Recently, I had an opportunity to put down my burden of responsibilities for a few days, and my body demanded I pay attention by getting sick. With the kids safely away and vacation freeing me from work, I thought I would feel happy. I was frustrated and angry to find myself in unexplainable depression. When I stopped fighting it and felt it, I recognized my own sense of grief for my life before parenting, futility in the face of the world's complex issues, guilt about my children's first experience of separation from me, loneliness and longing for more true connection, and a host of other elements. It's like dissecting the flavours in a meal. Not a very pleasant meal, but still.

As I greeted each emotion, I danced with it, grieved with it, hugged it close - I fully FELT it without calling it "bad," without demanding its immediate retreat, and most of all, releasing permission to feel it. I realized I feel guilty for even having these emotions. Feeling sadness implies failure or dissatisfaction with my life, and the truth is, I have a perfect life. So what right do I have to feel these things, and if I do, does that mean I'm not happy?

I came to a place where I realized it doesn't have to be either/or. I can be both happy, and sometimes depressed. I anticipate one key for me is learning what to do with the difficult emotions when they are inconvenient or I can't take the time to experience them, without resorting to food or drugs. That will be a lifetime of learning, I think, and maybe I need to wean off the crutches while strengthening through emotional "physio."

Another key may be to accept the emotions I've called "depression" as integral to myself and my growth. I want to pay attention so these feelings can help me strengthen my empathy and through it, my compassion. I want to experience these feelings as a foil that amplifies my gratitude and appreciation, while keeping me honest about whether I'm taking care of my own needs in this life.

My hope is that living and even loving my "depression" as part of me will help me settle deeper into my self and my strength. It's an experiment!

Maybe we've got depression all wrong

I've been playing with the idea that "depression" isn't what I think. My impression of depression has been that it's the opposite of happiness, a plague to be avoided, something only the weak succumb to, and when not overcome in a timely manner, must be treated with drugs.

What if the feelings we sum up as "depression" actually represent elements of happiness? What if, in fact, experiencing depression offers opportunities to learn more about gratitude and empathy while strengthening our brain's synopses around adapting through practice? What if our goal wasn't to eliminate depression, but to find ways to incorporate it more effectively into our lives?

More thinking on this...