Borchard is a mental health writer and activist who primarily focuses on depression, nutrition and holistic health. She founded an online community for people who struggle with depression and regularly contributes to Everyday Health, among many other publications.
In less than 24 hours, I embark to walk Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James, a 500-mile trek across Spain associated with healing. When I made the plans, I questioned whether or not I would have the courage to go through it. I bought fully-refundable tickets to give myself options to bow out. During my last doctor’s visit, I was half hoping she would say that I wasn’t healthy enough to walk it.
I have also been tempted to make the pilgrimage a work trip. First I spent hours on a book proposal, outlining in detail what I would learn along the way. Then I pitched a series of columns on my adventure. Finally, I dreamed up a documentary about the pursuit of hope and healing. I hurried to Best Buy to buy the Osmo Mobile 2 to hold my phone so I could capture every minute. As I stared at it, I realized it was just another way of opting out of the hard work that needs to be done – facing my demons and feeling uncomfortable as I meet my naked self, without distractions.
As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, this year has been one of transformation and change, of letting go and rebirth. I feel as though I have done the work of 30 years of psychotherapy in the last nine months. I’m not sure I have ever cried so hard or wrestled as intensely with such a range of different emotions. I’ve uncovered the source of patterns of behavior and thought that lead to pain, and I’ve touched my own power and heard my own truth for the first time in my life.
One of the most powerful exercises has been to draft a contract that I signed at birth – a way of being and operating in the world that has led to suffering. Mine began:
I, Theresa Lynn Johnson, promise to meet the needs of those around me to the best of my ability, even when doing so means sacrificing my own needs. I vow to put others before me every day, silencing my own wants in order to satisfy theirs and to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I shall abide by this contract in sickness and in health, even if it results in chronic depression and anxiety. I shall muster through the angst and distress to meet my obligations, looking to the next life as the only way to achieve the freedom I desire.
The work of Camino, my intention with every step I take on the path, is to draft a new contract. I started today:
I, Therese Borchard, agree to adhere to my own truth in word and in action to the best of my ability every day. I vow to live according to my own wisdom even if it doesn’t align with the philosophies and belief of influential people in my life, to risk their rejection in order to be true to myself. I surrender the urge to please others in order to keep order in my life. I agree to tolerate chaos and discomfort if it leads to peace, to trudge the uneven and winding path to serenity, even if it provokes temporary discord. I promise to pay attention to the sources of joy in my life and to chase that joy and aliveness with the same determination and drive that I pursue my work ambitions. I promise to be good myself, to treat myself like the royalty that I am.
Anais Nin once wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”
That day has arrived for me. And I can only hope that the blossoming will continue with each step on the sacred path of Camino.
I won’t be posting here for six weeks because I’m serious about unplugging and soaking up the experience in its fullest. However, I will be praying for all of you – and especially those readers who have reached out to me in pain. I will pray for peace and joy for you, too.
Someone once said that without change there would be no butterflies. Herman Hesse said much of the same when he said, “Some think that holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it’s letting go.”
Don’t look backwards
If there was one lesson I learned this year, it’s that clinging to the past only creates more pain. Over and over again, I was forced to loosen my grip on the helm of life and simply let go, as Dory says to Marlin right before the whale spits them out to the Sydney Harbour in the 2003 Disney flick “Finding Nemo.”
Having made several career changes on top of each other, too much of my energy the last three months has been consumed by the past, obsessing over my mistakes — wishing I had been wiser, lamenting my bad boundaries, craving a redo, fixating on the joy I once felt sitting at my old cubicle. At times the ruminations were debilitating, as I believed that returning to the past was the only way out of my distress. I felt as if I were blindfolded in a large, empty auditorium — stretching my arms out, hoping to touch a wall and get my bearings.
A wise man recently told me that the way out isn’t the way in, and that the answer seldom lies where we’re looking. Our brains naturally look backward when we are in pain because that is what is familiar. Our gray matter latches on to happy memories, trying to salvage the joy we once felt. By trying to recreate the memories we inevitably arrive at more pain.
Moving forward is the only way we heal. Its uneven path is the one route to peace and sanity.
Recently I posted a photo on Facebook and labeled it “two things that have really helped me lately.” One was a box of Milk Duds. That needs no explanation. The other was a “Moving Forward” binder, where I list all the things I do in a day that propel me forward. On some days I scribble basic tasks like “took a shower” or “picked up my daughter from school.” On other days I am more ambitious and record things like “pitched a new column” or “talked to my literary agent about a new book.”
The power of creating something new
Creating something new can often pluck us out of regret and fantasies of the past and plant on the path to healing, shifting our energy from yesterday to today and tomorrow. Activities such as planting a flower or composing a piece on the piano promote the formation of new synapses in our brain. When we experiment with something we’ve never done before, our neurons feel their way to other neurons and form connections that result in more emotional resilience.
In the last six weeks, starting my own consulting company, Therese Borchard, LLC, has proven to be a powerful intervention of hope. It wasn’t a strategic enterprise I had been formulating for years. It happened organically, growing out of my work with different websites and companies throughout my career as a mental health advocate. I believe that sometimes God or the universe intervenes in your life, handing you a set of directions that you weren’t anticipating. When that happens, I have learned it’s best to say a prayer, take a deep breath, and follow the instructions.
If you build it, they will come
In the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” Iowa farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield saying “If you build it, he will come,” referring to his baseball hero “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. That’s essentially what happened to me. The seed was planted one afternoon as I volunteered with an academic center. My contact there encouraged me to get my LLC status, which was easier than I thought. Suddenly I received requests from a few different organizations needing help with content development and consumer engagement.
I am doing much of what I have always done the last 13 years of my career – writing and speaking about mental health. But I have widened my vision to help healthcare companies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations better understand and connect with persons with depression and other mood disorders. Having lived with depression my entire life and having experimented with practically every kind of treatment available, I feel qualified to share insights from the trenches that they can use to build impactful campaigns, initiatives, and programs.
Designing a logo, business cards, and a website have all been healing activities, recorded in my “Moving Forward” binder. So has moving into my own office where framed inspirational quotes line the wall, reminding me to look forward, not backward. Each effort helps me shift my perspective from grief to potential.
One small step at a time
Our brains are programmed to think in reverse because they can file memories more easily than forecast new experiences. Discipline and perseverance are required to concentrate on today and tomorrow. However, if we pay attention to (and possibly record) all the simple tasks we do in a day to move forward, like taking a shower, we create a momentum pushing us ahead. We send a powerful message to our limbic systems (emotional center) that we are choosing promise and hope over grief and regret. And when that gets difficult, I highly recommend Milk Duds.
Virginia Woolf believed that if a woman was to write fiction that she must have money and a room of her own. I would say the same for a mental health blogger or anyone in a creative field. Money can be hard to come by. But a creative soul should at least have a fort or office somewhere in her home or in the neighboring vicinity that is hers alone, where she can hang up a “Do Not Disturb” sign. A space to spread out notes and books and journals for days or months on end until the project is finished is, in my opinion, critical to the creative process … and also to your mood.
Toenails, Laundry, and My Bedroom Office
When I left my full-time job at the start of the year, I was back to my desk in my bedroom. The white fold-up table is so close to the bathroom that it prevents the door from opening all the way. On the other side is the dirty laundry baskets. With my son clipping his toenails three feet from me and my husband whisking his dirty t-shirt over my head into the basket, you can imagine how hard it was to form a cogent sentence or to synthesize a study from the Archives of General Medicine. Spotify and earplugs only went so far to a create virtual reality.
One day, in tears, I informed my husband it would be best for our marriage and family life for me to have my own working space, a quiet room somewhere for my brain to wander off and get lost, four borders to protect me from the distraction of toe-nail clipping and dirty laundry. After exploring different options, I set up shop in the building next to his office, which was temporarily vacant.
Four Walls of Quiet and Creativity
Moving into my own office was transformative. I always knew that your environment affects your cognitive process and mood, but I hadn’t realized to what extent your surroundings can either breed or thwart creativity. My own four walls promoted better concentration and fostered imagination. The physical isolation seemed to generate synapses in my brain that helped me to conceive original analogies and be more deliberate in my prose.
Looking back, I’ve always needed space to create. Claiming it hasn’t always been easy. Toward the end of my junior year in college, I went against the wishes of three of my friends who wanted to go in a quad dorm room for our senior year. We could have scored a spacious, plush room on campus. However, I opted instead for a single. As a theology major studying the spiritual writings of the Christian mystics, I need a quiet space to absorb their wisdom, not Bob Dylan blaring in the background or someone chit chatting with her boyfriend on the couch.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
The Benefits of Silence
Surely, writers and creative folks require more space and quiet than the average person, but science shows that all humans benefit from a reprieve of noise. Our brains run like the Energizer Bunny. Even when we’re not engaged in a conscious activity, our neurons are synthesizing data and filing memories and making sense of stimuli. According to a roundup of studies by David Gross, silence bears neurological blessings, spurring new cell development in mice.
Imke Kirste, a biologist at Duke University subjected three groups of adult mice to three types of music: music, white noise, and infant mouse calls. A fourth group listened to two hours of silence per day. While the first three groups experienced some positive results, the fourth group developed new brain cells in the hippocampus regions of the brain, responsible for concentration, memory, and mood.
Another study published in Heart journal tested how the human brain reacts to different types of music, again using silence as the control between different music clips. Results showed that when compared to relaxing music, two-minute silent pauses between the music proved more relaxing on than the music. The effect of silence seems to be heightened by contrasting it with noise.
Graduating into Adulthood
There’s also a sense of independence to be gained by having a room of one’s own. The day I carried my initial load over to my office, I felt as if I were graduating into adulthood, or becoming my own person. This sense of autonomy builds confidence and boosts your mood. It’s why mental health professionals encourage people with depression and other mood disorders to learn skills like balancing a checkbook. Just as new brain cells are born to mice in silence, they are generated in humans pursuing activities that make them feel more independent.
It involves an act of empowerment that combats the sense of learned helplessness, a theory conceptualized by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in the 1970s — defining the way people feel when they believe they have no control over what happens to them. Every time I heard the clip of a toenail or caught sight of the mound of dirty laundry, I felt like a prisoner to my environment and sulked. The first strategy Seligman and colleagues provide to overcome learned helplessness is to “Change the likelihood of the outcome. Alter the environment by increasing the likelihood of desired events and decreasing of negative events.” In other words, remove yourself from the toenails and the laundry.
Virginia Woolf was wise beyond her years. Creative souls could certainly use some cash because their efforts usually won’t get them rich. But more importantly, they need a place of their own. In fact, we all do — as well as the silence that comes with it.
Although American poet T. S. Eliot didn’t have an advanced psychology degree, I think he nailed the reasons why so many people get depressed and anxious in the spring in his classic poem, “The Waste Land.” He writes, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
I just spent the afternoon on discussion boards of several health websites reading about all the different reasons people are suddenly, surprisingly, knocked to their knees with anxiety and depression come the first weeks of spring. As one guy said, he made it through one of the most brutal Chicago winters he had ever endured with no symptoms of depression, only to find himself an anxious mess once the snow melted.
Why can good weather bring on bad moods?1. Change
For starters, it’s change. While some human beings thrive on unsteady ground, most of us fear movement of any kind. All change — even the good and healthy change we need and pursue — brings with it an element of anxiety. That’s especially the case for highly sensitive folks among us who are easily prone to anxiety and depression. “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” requires an element of adjustment, and adjustment isn’t always easy.
Just as the lack of sunlight may alter brain levels of certain mood-controlling chemicals — such as the hormone melatonin — in November, the same moody chemicals and their messengers get confused when the light comes out in the spring. In fact, ten percent of people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) experience symptoms in reverse: Once the weather turns warm, they grow melancholy. Any shift in our circadian rhythm — a 24-hour cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, eat, work, and take a phone call from our parents — can produce feelings of anxiety.
“Mixing memory and desire,” as Eliot writes, can be a hazardous activity. I think we do that in April because the spring months hold so many milestones, like graduations and weddings. We look back with nostalgia or regret or with unfulfilled dreams and desires. This season of rebirth prods us to keep moving … maybe too quickly. Perhaps we’re not ready yet.
4. Allergies and toxins
Eliot’s April would have been even crueler if he had to confront all the environmental toxins and allergies we have going on today. I used to think that I didn’t suffer from spring allergies because my symptoms don’t involve sniffles and purple eyes. However, now I know what different kinds of allergies can do to your mood. If you are sensitive to environmental toxins — and the majority of us are — you may very well have a harder time in the spring because the blowing winds and warmer temperatures can kick up a ton of irritants that, in turn, can cause inflammation in different biological systems and bad moods.
If you have experienced a spike in anxiety or depression, know that you are not alone and that several reasons could factor into your dip in mood. Enjoy the warmer weather if you can, but don’t get down on yourself if you don’t experience the spring high that other people do. Self-compassion is key.
There is no question that faith can help pull us out of darkness and provide the hope and inspiration that is needed to persevere through despair. Several studies over the last decade have cited the positive role of spirituality and religion in recovery from depression. For starters, they assign meaning to suffering. Stories of redemption prompt us to look at the bigger picture and find consolation in the wider perspective of our hardships. They also place our pain in the context of other faith heroes, which makes us feel less alone in our dark night.
When Faith Isn’t Enough
But what about when we spend hours on our knees and feel no respite or consolation at all? What about when our faith fails to heal us? Just as religion and spirituality can lift us out of despair, a simplistic approach to faith can often worsen symptoms of depression and interfere with treatment and recovery. When some believers don’t get better, they feel as though they have failed at one more thing – that they aren’t the disciples that Jesus called them to be. Unfortunately, this kind of stigma is reinforced in many congregations. Consider the following statistics (which I edited for clarity) from several LifeWay research studies:
A third of Americans say mental illness could be overcome with Bible study and prayer alone.
Almost half of pastors say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness.
Less than 5 percent of churchgoers who lost a loved one to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.
When I was a sophomore in college, I attended a Mass in the chapel of one of the dorms. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts at the time and had just agreed to start taking an antidepressant after fighting about it for a year and a half with my therapist.
“Psychologists’ offices are starting to replace confessionals,” the priest said. “We need to bring sin and spiritual warfare back to church, where they belong.”
I stood up and walked out. With those two irresponsible sentences, he discounted the 18-month struggle I endured to arrive at a place where I was finally okay seeking treatment. That was the beginning of a recovery that last 15 years, the start of a new life for me. Had I listened to him, I may not be here today. I continue to hear variations of his words in homilies. Each time, I walk out.
You Will Be Found: One Woman’s Inspiring Response
Nineteen-year-old Laura Pimpo found herself in a similar situation. However, rather than walking out of church, she took action. With the help of a friend, she has organized an event, You Will Be Found, that takes place on Saturday, April 6, from 10 – 12 p.m. at Downtown Hope church in Annapolis, Maryland. Inspired by her vision and her ambition to educate and bring awareness to the problem of stigma within the church, I recently had coffee with her. In her words:
When I was at my darkest and most depressed point going to church was something that I dreaded doing because it was making me feel worse when I so desperately needed it to bring me some sort of hope. Our church did not do this intentionally it was because I was interpreting what was said through a lense of depression however it still happened. So I decided, with the help of my friend, to organize an event in hopes that we can start this mental health conversation in our church. So as to assess the mental health needs we may have in our church as well as hopefully preventing the next person down the road from being hurt in the way I was.
You Will Be Found is a day where we will come together to hear from three qualified panelists about how we discuss mental illnesses in our church. We will be discussing mental and spiritual health, how we should use our language to try to build up and encourage those struggling with mental illnesses rather than potentially harm or shame them, and basic concrete ways to come alongside people around you.
A High-Maintenance God
With efforts by people like Laura, I believe the church will recognize that mental health isn’t separate to our faith, that believing in God means pursuing the tools for intervention that he proves: medication, psychotherapy, and support networks. I believe more people will realize that Jesus doesn’t want us to wait around for him to relieve our symptoms, that God is a tad more high-maintenance than that, demanding that we do the footwork of seeking the right mental health professionals and coordinating a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses mind, body, and spirit. With inspiring young women like Laura, I believe there will be less sermons I walk out of and more programs that speak to how our faith can bolster our recovery, not detract from it.
When a marriage dissolves, there is legal process that involves steps of grieving the end of the relationship. Signing papers, although painful, acknowledges the end of years together and also signifies freedom to move on to a new life. Broken friendships, however, have no process in place. Oftentimes the ending is muddled, with confusion over what went wrong and whether or not there is any chance of reconciliation.
The broken bond can be just as traumatic as a divorce, especially if you have years invested into the relationship. It can be difficult to work through the blurry blend of emotions including regret, sadness, and anger.
Over the years I’ve grieved a handful of very meaningful friendships. Some of the fallouts were devastating and took significant time to heal. Here are some perspectives and actions that helped me through the process.
1. Don’t take it personally. Because it’s not about you.
Easier said than done, of course. But if a person abruptly ends a relationship, it has more to do with their own limitations than anything you said or did. You may perceive a friend’s lack of communication as rejection, but they are simply acting in accordance to what they are capable of. There’s no need to obsess endlessly over the things that you should have done differently because no “right” behavior of yours can change their limitations or their humanness, now or later. You are who you are — a wonderful human being! — including the words and actions you may regret. A failed relationship is the product of two sets of limitations running up against each other, rather than one person making an egregious mistake.
Instead of labeling your friend as wrong or ill-intentioned, try to have compassion for them, knowing that they simply couldn’t give you what you were asking of them.
2. Create some kind of closure.
Closure is an important step to healing the end of any relationship and moving forward. However, because most friendship fallouts are muddled, you have to be creative in how you get your closure. Here are a few ideas:
Write a letter that you may or may not send, telling your friend how much they meant to you. Express your hurt in a way that keeps the focus on you. If you need to, ask the question, “What happened?” If you decide to send the letter, do an inventory of your expectations. Make sure you are prepared for no response or for one that may be hurtful.
Journal about the friendship, describing your mix of emotions — the anger, the confusion, the sense of betrayal. Just getting your thoughts down on paper will help your brain file the memories and process your loss.
Create a scrapbook of your favorite memories with photos and tickets stubs.
Visit the places that you went together and spend a moment there to grieve the relationship.
Design a ritual or symbolic gesture of letting go of the friendship, such as doing something meaningful with a gift that your friend gave you. For example, if she gave you a charm, take it to your favorite creek. While saying a prayer of gratitude for the friendship, toss it into the water and ask for strength to let go.
3. Keep on loving.
The worst thing you can do is to become bitter and close off your heart to future friendships. It’s tempting to protect yourself from any potential hurt, but that only keeps your pain front and center. The way to move past the hurt is by loving the people in your life fiercely, by continuing to be vulnerable to the risk of rejection.
“The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper,” explained the late theologian Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love. “When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you.”
It may feel like a dead-end. But even when people stop loving you, that doesn’t mean you have to stop loving them. More promising still: the love that you once showed them allows you to love the other people in your life more deeply and authentically.
4. Concentrate on something new.
Whenever I am immersed in grief over anything — a job, a relationship, a dream — I have found it helpful to turn my attention to something new. That might be a project, such as sorting through my closet or cleaning out my bookshelves. It could be getting back to playing the piano. Or it can be devoting myself to a cause, like getting more involved in mental health advocacy and investing time into the online depression communities that I started four years ago. Directing my energy toward the service of others is especially healing, because my hurt can ultimately be of use to someone.
5. Allow yourself time to grieve.
Don’t belittle what you’re going through. Fractured friendships are incredibly painful and traumatic. Be kind with yourself and give yourself the self-compassion that you would to a friend in your situation. Allow yourself to cry and ruminate and be angry.
Hold on to what was good and right in the relationship and try to gently let go of the limitations that got in the way. Trust that time is the ultimate healer and that one day you won’t hurt so badly. You will eventually see that the relationship opened your heart to love others even more, and that its beauty lives on inside you.
I am reposting part of my commencement speech to Saint Mary’s College in 2011 because, as I mentioned in my last post, looking back on moments of joy and accomplishment propels me through darker moments. Although I wrote this for graduating seniors, I hope the message of light, sincerity, and love speak to you, as well.
I am incredibly grateful to be here today.
I grew up on this campus …
I arrived in August of 1989, a very insecure teenager who had just quit drinking. Within the walls of the Counseling and Career Development Center, I began my path to healing and recovery. I was engaged to be married at the gazebo that used to overlook the St. Joseph River, which I promise to rebuild if I ever get rich. And my husband, Eric, and I were married at The Church of Our Lady of Loretto.
This school is part of my soul because it was here that I found the courage to be myself and to believe in myself, despite the rude commentary inside my head. My friends, professors, and counselors taught me how to focus on the rays of light in whatever darkness I encountered and to let that light guide me and inspire those around me.
I’d like to share with you lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem,” that remind me of what I learned at Saint Mary’s, appropriate for you, Saint Mary’s Belles:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember that: Ring the cracked bells, even when you’re scared and unsure and convinced that nothing you say or do will ever be significant or noble. Be you even when being you feels uncomfortable. Risk rejection in order to share your talents with the world. And always, always let the light in so it might illuminate the darkness for others.
* * *
Three years ago J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, urged the graduating seniors of Harvard University to embrace failure, to celebrate it, even. Because, she said, failure strips away the inessential.
“Had I really succeeded at anything else,” she told the class of 2008, “I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area I believed I truly belonged.” She was referring to the state of poverty she endured seven years out of school, with a child to raise nonetheless.
Ironic, really. That crashing head-on into her biggest fear—impoverishment—ultimately freed her to use her gifts in a way that amassed her great wealth and enabled her to touch the lives of millions around the world.
My greatest fear growing up wasn’t economic turmoil. I had read way too many saints books to think that poverty was a bad thing. No, my fear was that I would go crazy. Batty. Nutso.
My aunt and godmother had spent most of her adult life hospitalized and to this day I can picture her blank stare and those of the listless patients in her psych unit. When I was 16 years old my Aunt Mary Lou took her own life.
So you can imagine the panic I felt as a young girl when I started counting the cracks in the sidewalk and felt compelled to skip over them, or when I couldn’t make the ugly and scary thoughts go away. I pictured Mary Lou and the blank stares and I begged God to deliver me from Looneyville.
But He didn’t.
After giving birth to two beautiful miracles–which rearranged most of the biological systems inside my body–there I was … in a psych ward with a guy pounding his head against the wall while screaming profanities. I had officially gone crazy. I knew that the afternoon I painted a birdhouse in occupational therapy, or “recess” in a psych unit.
Just like J. K. Rowling, I had no choice but to walk through my greatest fear and pick up the pieces. To face the world as I am—cracked and fragile and wacky. And yet in that moment, I was free … free to ring my damaged but precious bell. And to let the light in and out. Just as I was taught at Saint Mary’s.
I’m sure many of you have already experienced times of hopelessness and dejection after an academic setback or personal blow. But here you are. On this beautiful day. With a bright future ahead. You persevered with the help of others and the grace of God. And you will do so in the future if you continue to focus on the stream of light filtering through the cracks of life, and be guided by that light.
* * *
Failure is really not so bad.
“We would never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world,” wrote Helen Keller.
She began her career about 40 miles from my home as an anchorwoman for the Baltimore news. She was demoted because she became too emotional when interviewing people. She would cry on camera. So the station gave Oprah her own talk show. To get rid of her. And she did pretty well with it!
I relish these kinds of false-start success stories … Albert Einstein failed his college entrance exam. Walt Disney was fired from his first media job. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team. Dr. Seuss was rejected 43 times before his first story was published. But, oh, the places he went.
These tales inspire me because nothing has ever come easily to me … or maybe to you.
I didn’t receive many early endorsements to write. In fact, my eighth-grade English teacher read aloud my paper to the class as an example of how not to write. My name is in print today because Saint Mary’s taught me the basics of good writing, as well as analytical thinking.
When I read the first 50 rejection letters, I noticed they were all signed by an acquisitions editor, the person responsible for throwing a manuscript into the slush pile, which I call the flush pile, or placing it on the desk of a managing editor with contact information of the lucky author. So, theoretically, if I were to become an acquisitions editor that meant I could vote yes on my own books. Which is exactly what I did. And I published six children’s books the next year from a small publisher.
* * *
According to a popular legend, dishonest sculptors in 16th-century Rome and Greece would use wax to fill in the cracks and crevices of marble to make the surface appear solid. The wax would disintegrate, of course, right after the sculpture was made. This happened so often that stonecutters began to stamp blocks of authentic marble with the Latin words, Sine Cere, or “without wax.” That’s where the word sincere found its origins.
To be sincere, then, doesn’t mean that we don’t have cracks and fractures, but that we don’t attempt to fill in those imperfections with things that don’t stand the test of time.
I believe that God lives in the space between the cracks and fractures of our souls. It is God that grounds and shelters our being and gives us the sense of safety and security that is needed to make ourselves vulnerable before each other, and then to go beyond ourselves to spread love to the rejected and hope to the hopeless.
Amid all the counseling, medications, and therapies I’ve tried over the years, it is ultimately my faith in a loving God that has held me together during the darkest of times. When nothing else could convince me to stick around, I became a scared child in the arms of God—and reminded myself that I didn’t have to do anything or write anything or be anyone for God to love me and use me as an instrument of his great love.
* * *
Just one more story before you go on to receive your diplomas.
In April of 2006, I sat on my daughter’s bed one night reading a somewhat cheesy bedtime story entitled Incredible You! 10 Ways to Let Your Greatness Shine Through by Wayne Dyer. The book was more therapy for me than entertainment for her, because I had just been released from my second hospital stay and was still struggling with the basics: taking a shower, eating a bowl of Cheerios, tying my shoes. I got to number eight and read it aloud to Katherine: “Pretend you are what you’d like to be. Make a picture in your mind so you can see … that what you want can come true. If you believe in your heart, it will come to you.”
I paused for a second, and I asked my little girl what she wanted to be.
“A scientist!” she said. “Because I could do fun things like mix body lotion with flour and Kool-Aid.”
Then I closed my eyes and came to a very clear picture of who I wanted to be.
She was a confident woman who could shower, eat cereal, and tie her shoes without a hiccup. In fact, having moved through the raw pain of clinical depression, she was able to bring hope and support to others disabled by mood disorders. The woman I envisioned was standing at this podium, delivering a commencement address at Saint Mary’s College.
* * *
So, my dear Saint Mary’s sisters, I hope and pray that you will embrace your failures, be brave and bold enough to be sincere … with others, with yourself, and with God. And I recommend that you carry with you always the wisdom of Leonard Cohen. His words have guided me and they might guide you too.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
About once a week I hear the same question from a reader, “What keeps you going?” The short answer is lots of things. I use a variety of tools to persevere through my struggle with depression because what works on one day doesn’t the next. I have to break some hours into 15-minute intervals and simply put one foot in front of another, doing the thing that is right in front of me and nothing else.
I write this post for the person who is experiencing debilitating symptoms of depression. The following are some things that help me fight for sanity and keep me going, when the gravity of my mood disorder threatens to stop all forward movement.
1. Find a good doctor and therapist.
I have tried to beat my depression without the help of mental health professionals and discovered just how life-threatening the illness can be. Not only do you need to get help, you need to get the RIGHT help.
A reporter once referred to me as the Goldilocks of Depression because I have tried so many psychiatrists. Call me picky, but I am glad I didn’t stop my search after the third or fourth or fifth physician because I did not get better until I found the right one at Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center. If you have a severe, complicated mood disorder, it is worth going to a teaching hospital to get a consultation.
Be just as choosy with your therapist. I have sat on many therapy couches on and off for 30 years, and while the cognitive behavioral exercises were helpful, there have only been two therapists that have facilitated real progress.
2. Rely on your faith — or some higher power.
When everything else has failed, my faith sustains me. In my hours of desperation, I will read from the Book of Psalms, listen to inspirational music, or simply yell at God. I look to the saints for courage and resolve since many of them have experienced dark nights of the soul — Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It is of great consolation to know that God knows each hair on my head and loves me unconditionally despite my imperfections, that He is with me in my anguish and confusion.
A substantial amount of research points to the benefits of faith to mitigate symptoms of depression. In a 2013 study, for example, researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, found that belief in God was associated with better treatment outcomes.
3. Be kind and gentle with yourself.
The stigma attached to depression is still, unfortunately, very thick. Maybe you have one or two people in your life who can offer you the kind of compassion that you deserve. However, until the general public offers persons with mood disorders the same compassion that is conferred on people with breast cancer or any other socially acceptable illness, it is your job to be kind and gentle with yourself. Instead of pushing yourself harder and telling yourself it’s all in your head, you need to speak to yourself as a sensitive, fragile child with a painful wound that is invisible to the world. You need to put your arms around her and love her. Most importantly, you need to believe her suffering and give it validation. In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., documents some of the research that demonstrates that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being.
4. Reduce your stress.
You don’t want to give into your depression, I get that. You want to do everything on your to-do list and part of tomorrow’s. But pushing yourself is going to worsen your condition. Saying no to responsibilities because your symptoms are flaring up isn’t a defeat. It is act of empowerment.
Stress mucks up all your biological systems, from your thyroid to your digestive tract, making you more vulnerable to mood swings. Rat studies show that stress reduces the brain’s ability to keep itself healthy. In particular, the hippocampus shrinks, impacting short-term memory and learning abilities. Try your best to minimize stress with deep-breathing exercises, muscle-relaxation meditations, and simply saying no to anything you don’t absolutely have to do.
5. Get regular sleep.
Businessman and author E. Joseph Cossman once said, “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” It is one of the most critical pieces to emotional resiliency. Practicing good sleep hygiene — going to bed at the same time at night and waking up at a regular hour — can be challenging for persons with depression because, according to J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr., M.D., co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, that’s when people often feel better. They want to stay up and write or listen to music or work. Do that too many nights, and your lack of sleep becomes the Brussels sprout on the floor of the produce aisle that you trip over. Before you know it, you’re on your back, incapable of doing much of anything.
Although pleasing our circadian rhythm — our body’s internal clock — can feel really boring, remember that consistent, regular sleep is one of the strongest allies in the fight against depression.
6. Serve others.
Five years ago, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and was profoundly moved by his message that suffering has meaning, especially when we can turn our pain into service of others.
Frankl’s “logotherapy” is based on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. If we devote our time and energy toward finding and pursuing the ultimate meaning of our life, we are able to transcend some of our suffering. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. However, the meaning holds our hurt in a context that gives us peace. His chapters expound on Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.” I have found this to be true in my life. When I turn my gaze outward, I see that suffering is universal, and that relieves some of the sting. The seeds of hope and healing are found in the shared experience of pain.
7. Look backwards.
Our perspective is, without doubt, skewed during a depressive episode. We view the world from a dark basement of human emotions, interpreting events through the lens of that experience. We are certain that we have always been depressed and are convinced that our future will be chock full of more misery. By looking backwards, I am reminded that my track record for getting through depressive episodes is 100 percent. Sometimes the symptoms didn’t wane for 18 months or more, but I did eventually make my way into the light. I call to mind all those times I persevered through difficulty and emerged to the other side. Sometimes I’ll take out old photos as proof that I wasn’t always sad and panicked.
Take a moment to recall the moments that you are most proud of, where you triumphed over obstacles. Because you will do it again. And then again.
8. Plan something fun.
Filling my calendar with meaningful events forces me to move forward when I’m stuck in a negative groove. It can be as simple as having coffee with a friend or calling my sister. Maybe it’s signing up for a pottery or cooking class.
If you’re feeling ambitious, plan an adventure that takes you out of your comfort zone. In May, I’m walking Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James, a famous pilgrimage that stretches 778 kilometers from St. Jean Port de Pied in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The anticipation of the trip has fueled me with energy and excitement during a hard stretch of my life.
You need not backpack through Europe, of course, to keep moving forward. Organizing a day trip to a museum or some local art exhibit could serve the same purpose. Just be sure to have something on your calendar other than therapy and work meetings.
9. Be in nature.
According to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., in her bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person, approximately 15 to 20 percent of the population is easily overwhelmed by loud noises, crowds, smells, bright lights, and other stimulation. These types have rich interior lives, but tend to feel things very deeply and absorb people’s emotions. Many people who struggle with chronic depression are highly sensitive. They need a pacifier. Nature serves that purpose.
The water and woods are mine. When I get overstimulated by this Chuck E. Cheese world of ours, I retreat to either the creek down the street or the hiking trail a few miles away. Among the gentle waves of the water or the strong oak trees in the woods, I touch ground and access a stillness that is needed to navigate difficult emotions. Even a few minutes a day provide a sense of calm that helps me to harness panic and depression when they arise.
10. Connect with other warriors.
Rarely can a person battle chronic depression on her own. She needs a tribe of fellow warriors on the frontline of sanity, remembering her that she is not alone and equipping her with insights with which to persevere.
Five years ago, I felt very discouraged by the lack of understanding and compassion associated with depression so I created two forums: Group Beyond Blue on Facebook and Project Hope & Beyond. I have been humbled by the level of intimacy formed between members of the group. There is power in shared experience. There is hope and healing in knowing we are in this together.
You may think there’s nothing funny about your depression or wanting to die. After all, this is a serious, life-threatening condition. However, if you can manage to add a dose of levity to your situation, you’ll find that humor is one of the most powerful tools to fight off hopelessness. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” That’s what laughter does. It lightens the burden of suffering. That’s why nurses use comedy skits in small group sessions in inpatient psychiatric units as part of their healing efforts. Humor forces some much-needed space between you and your pain, providing you a truer perspective of your struggle.
12. Dance in the rain.
Vivian Greene once said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
When I was first diagnosed with depression, I was sure that the right medication or supplement or acupuncture session would cure my condition. A few years ago, when nothing seemed to work, I shifted to a philosophy of managing my symptoms versus curing them. Although nothing substantial changed in my recovery, this new attitude made all the difference in the world. I was no longer stuck in the waiting room of my life. I was living to the fullest, as best I could. I was dancing in the rain.
Rosmarin, D.H., Bigda-Peyton, J.S., Kertz, S.J., Smith, N., Rauch, S.L., & Björgvinsson, T. (2013). A test of faith in God and treatment: The relationship of belief in God to psychiatric treatment outcomes. Journal of Affective Disorders, 146(3): 441-446. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016503271200599X
Hildebrandt, S. (2012, February 6). How stress can cause depression [blog post]. Retrieved from http://sciencenordic.com/how-stress-can-cause-depression
I’m breaking the rules and celebrating 30 years of sobriety on Sunday. No, it’s not consecutive time, and some people might accuse me of cheating, but if I add up all my sober moments, it’s 30 years, and that’s what counts.
Minus those two times
There was a stupid night my junior year in college when I drove to the Michigan border because Indiana was dry and chugged down a six pack in the car, trying to see whether or not I was an alcoholic. I was prompted to do so by some old timer at a 12-step meeting who said if I couldn’t master the first step perfectly, then I should go out and get drunk.
So I did.
And then there was my five-day experiment two years ago. Sober 25 years, I once again, analyzed the first step to death (admitting I was powerless over alcohol), ruminating about whether or not I were truly an alcoholic.
One July evening after everyone had gone to bed, I stared at the Heinekens in the fridge. Maybe I am normal, I thought to myself. Maybe I can have the occasional cocktail and join the fun. So with shaking hands, I pulled one out of the fridge, opened the bottle, and reacquainted with my long lost friend.
Nothing terrible happened. I stopped at one. So the next night I tried it again. For the first 48 hours of my experiment it seemed as if I had joined the ranks of the social drinkers. Hallelujah! However, by day three, I began to obsess about my next drink. On day four, I smuggled a six-pack of Coors Light into a park to drink alone. On day five, I considered stopping by the liquor store to buy a bottle of vodka to keep in the trunk … you know, in case I needed a fix.
The next day, by coincidence or divine intervention, a friend who is a recovery alcoholic stopped by the house during his run. He has never done this before or since. I confessed to him the details of what I was up to and he told that he was picking me up for a meeting the next day.
A bathroom break, not a start over
“Is there anyone here with 24 hours of sobriety?” the meeting chair asked at the end. I wasn’t sure whether or not to raise my hand. As the folks in the room saw it, I had about 26 hours of sobriety. However, by my standards, I had been sober 25 years and one day. Actually, 28 years and one day, if you don’t count my slip in college. I went with their math and waltzed sheepishly to the front of the room to claim my chip.
That day was an important milestone for me. I haven’t drank since. However, I wasn’t celebrating a day of sobriety. I was commemorating all the wisdom and perseverance and courage that had kept me sober for over a quarter of a century. All the sweat and hard work of the 28 years of sobriety that preceded my 24-hour chip were on display in that moment. Nothing was lost.
I don’t believe a person starts over if they pick up a drink. I view it more like a bathroom break, where you look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What the hell am I doing?” and then resume your place in line to get a table.
Progress is uneven
Perhaps some people have linear recoveries. They drink. They stop. They find happiness and peace. But I have yet to meet such a person. The recovery patterns for most of us entail a dance of up-and-down movements, right-to-left adjustments, a pirouette and a plié – with the hope that we are moving forward. Much like a walking labyrinth that guides you out before in, recovery is typically more spiral or circular than it is square. Just when we think we’ve encroaching on home base, we are thrown out to left field.
“Progress, not perfection” rings true with all of my addictive behavior. I don’t have to get it down the first time, the second time, or even the 52nd time. Gradual baby steps towards the goal of serenity and peace are enough. On those days when I engage in codependent behavior or reach for something to relieve my pain, I remind myself that it’s not the fall but the rebound that counts. Healing consists of catching myself and trying over and over and over again, sometimes as many as 50 times a day. It’s the journey and effort that matter in recovery, not a perfect score card.
Lessons of a relapse
Relapses teach us invaluable lessons if we are open to learning. For example, before my experiment, I regarded my decision to stop drinking much like I did eliminating gluten and sugar from my diet. My relapse demonstrated the seriousness of addiction, that sobriety is a life-saving action, not a healthy choice. Abstaining from a cocktail isn’t in the same category as foregoing a brownie or piece of bread. For addicts, alcohol hijacks your brain, whispering false promises in your ears. If you’re not careful, the self-destruction can erode all aspects of your life.
My relapse also taught me that abstinence isn’t about willpower and discipline. It has nothing to do with personal character or emotional resilience. Recovery is about humility, about admitting powerlessness and relying on other people and a higher power for strength and guidance. The healing power is found in the shared experience of others, in tapping into a community of support.
The pain underneath the addiction
I dare say that my relapse was life-transforming in that it forced me to discover what was driving the addiction. I began intensive psychotherapyand probed more deeply into every aspect of my life, asking the question, What’s going on here? My soul-searching efforts resulted in a stronger sense of self. As a result I can better identify the pain that makes me susceptible to addictive behavior.
I’m certainly not saying relapse is all good. Some people can’t get clean again after they start drinking or reengage in an addiction. It is a risk, for sure. However, if you are able to end your addiction and return to recovery, relapse can open the door to a better understanding of your addiction and, therefore, to a stronger recovery. I don’t believe you start over if you pick up a drink. I believe you pause and begin again with a new perspective.
I’m celebrating 30 years on Sunday, relapses included.