Assorted thoughts on mindfulness and depression

This might seem an odd lead-in for a post of mine, but I have my reasons. So let’s start with this clip of Louis C.K. on Conan:

For those of you who can’t or don’t want to watch the video, the key bit we’ll be discussing is this:

And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’

And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.

And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.

The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.

(Text courtesy of the Gawker post where I came across this bit, emphasis mine)

When I heard this bit, on some level I really GOT it, really empathized with it. What Louie is talking about here is the ability to just sit with yourself and your emotions, to allow yourself to fully experience them rather than pushing them away out of fear of pain. Being fully present in your experiences, including during strong emotions, is central to teachings about mindfulness, and is key to how those teachings are used as part of treatment/coping strategies for mental illness. The anticipation of pain strengthens it, allows your fear of it to control you, where as by truly feeling it, you can move through it.

So there is definitely some wisdom here, but something about it was nagging at me in a way I was having trouble expressing. And then I scrolled down into the comments on the Gawker post, and stumbled across this:

KristenfromMA

This is really great, but this:

Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness.

That reaction is probably based (at least partly) on having the correct brain chemistry. As someone with chronic clinical depression, let me tell you, sometimes that happiness doesn’t come. The drugs help (fuck off, Tom Cruise) but it’s really tough sometimes. Today 11:17am

And that comment crystallized things for me.

It isn’t that Louie or the concept of “you should be able to sit with your emotions” are WRONG for people with depression. Learning to sit with discomfort rather than immediately acting to change it in some way is a valuable skill for everyone. But this certainly does say something rather key about what depression is and what it does to you, and why it’s so fucking scary.

Normally, when you get sad and then let yourself fully experience that… maybe by having a good cry or expressing it some other way, maybe just sitting there and feeling it without trying to push it away… eventually the intensity of it ebbs. Depending on what made you sad, you may or may not feel totally better, but some relief comes. You hit the depths of pain that this particular bit of sadness is going to bring you to, and then you rebound a bit; you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you don’t get out of the dark right away.

But depressed sadness is bottomless. If you are seriously depressed and able to be somewhat functional despite that, it is because you have learned to hold the sadness at bay. Because if you let it come, that bounce-back never happens. You just keep falling. Letting yourself feel the sadness of a fight with your partner or negative feedback at work could lead to endless tears, curling in a ball under the covers, wanting to die. So you fight not to feel.  After awhile, you can’t feel much of anything at all, good or bad, and that numbness is its own kind of hell.

And so depression trains you to believe that your feelings are dangerous and not to be trusted. They can overwhelm you at any time, swallow you whole, if you don’t keep them in check, and worse, they LIE.

In the short term, while you are depressed, these lessons help you survive from day-to-day. In fact, holding tight to the knowledge that DEPRESSION LIES is essential to continuing to drag yourself forward and fight your way back to yourself, trudging through the dark in search of light that you aren’t even sure exists anymore.

But in the long term, learning to distrust and distance yourself from your emotions leaves you feeling disconnected and hollow, even after the depression lifts.  All the lovely and awful sensations your mind can produce cease to be things to be experienced and instead become things to be managed.

I think all of this gets to the heart of why mindfulness-based practices are so valuable for me, yet also so difficult. I need practice in being present just as most busy, multi-tasking, over-stimulated modern humans do, simply to be able to fully experience my life, wring all the joy possible from every moment. But perhaps more than those with less dysfunctional brain chemistry, I need the frequent reminders to reconnect with and find joy in all of the things I can feel, because they aren’t just things to be managed. At the same time, this is difficult because it requires me to go against the survival instinct that tells me I must always be suspicious of the way I feel.

As Louie’s bit makes quite clear, this instinct to shy away from intense or uncomfortable emotion isn’t by any means unique to those who have been depressed–it’s really just deeply human.  And not necessarily all bad either–sometimes a degree of dissociation is necessary to continue functioning during a crisis. But certain experiences, including depression, can strengthen this instinct until it risks robbing us of all opportunity for joy.

I’m not really sure what I mean for you to take away from all this rambling.  Um, feeling your feelings is important? But sometimes sucks/is really hard to do? Because Reasons?  Yea, I don’t have a neat bow to wrap this one in, but I’m going to resist the urge to trash the post altogether, if only so I have a reason to share the Louie clip with you all. If anyone has a neater summation/conclusion than I’ve managed here, do share in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Assorted thoughts on mindfulness and depression

  1. Bingo. My only real courage was my willingness to plunge into my emotions and trust that I’d come out all right. The way an athlete knows what their body can do, I knew what my mind and heart could do. And then I began to encounter bottomless pits. But my deeper instinct is still to dive and search for a bottom.

    And in fact my deeper fear is still the emotionless state where all places are alike to me. The state where there’s no reason to move in any direction because the energy surface is a featureless plain. I’ve only rarely visited it, but I hate it more than pain.

    1. Yup, know that situation all right. One of the worst things I found was that when I was feeling sad for no reason, I’d start looking for reasons why and then my jerkbrain would take over and start telling me all the things I might possibly have done or said wrong, or would blow someone else’s comments or (in)actions all out of proportion to the point that it was a massive disaster, which was *clearly* all my fault. Which, you know, made me feel so much better. .

      Also, the place where you know something ought to make you smile or is funny *theoretically*, and you’ve just got nothing, not a smidge of feeling in response. A smile may flit across your face but the tide of sadness comes washing back i and yet no-one notices. Yeah.

  2. Awesome blog, thank you.

    For me, one of the most difficult parts of having a depression-prone jerkbrain is the sense of “don’t go there” about negative feelings. It’s so confusing to spend much of my time reminding myself that “OK, the bad feeling has no basis in reality, it’s just jerkbrain jerking me around again,” and then be confronted with a genuine reason to have a negative feeling (phone call from friend: “It’s lung cancer, yep.”) and think, “Is there any way to experience/validate this feeling without falling down the rabbit hole?”

    And so I get the reputation for being someone who intellectualizes everything and who EXPRESSES empathy freely, but doesn’t actually feel your pain, yanno?

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