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Facing Depression, Finding Maitri


"Do you want to know what it feels like? It feels like a twisting, spinning black hole that sits in the space between your heart and your stomach. It is not darkness, it is more than that. Darkness is absence; this is matter. Dark matter that has weight, density, momentum. It is a sickening lurch inside that feels like it is both alien and native to who you are."

Written expression has always been a way that I process my experience; it helps me to make sense of things, and to take ownership of my story, rather than letting my story own me. I wrote these words almost a year ago when I was struggling with an episode of depression (we all have wounds that we carry, and counselors are no exception). One of the reasons I specialize in working with people who experience depression is because I too, wrestle with it from time to time. I find that having done that work with myself, I can easily empathize with the experiences of other people in similar situations; and having come out the other side of it, I am able to believe with hope in the potential of good therapeutic work.

"I feel it inside me, and my heart lurches with it; swelling tides that carry along such aches and longings. Sometimes, there is a scream that I hear ricocheting off my ribs, pushing into my throat, like a steam engine through my head. I have coated that scream with chocolate and eaten it. I have cranked up that scream and sung it with false cheer. I have worked out that scream, picking it up, pushing it down, measuring reps and increasing weight. I have all but let it out, but for fear of what it might do, I've kept it caged. Transmuted it. Denied it. There is a day when it will crest to the surface and not be contained. It must be dealt with before then."

Depression is an incredibly common experience in American society. A recent statistic describes 16.2 million individuals (6.7% of all U.S. adults) across the nation identifying as having at least one major depressive episode; that's the number of people who own up to it, mind you (NIMH, 2017). There are many not identifying or sharing their experience. Of that group, the individuals with the highest rates of depression fell into the "18-25" age demographic (10.9%). Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense. Young adults find themselves dealing with opportunities, expectations, a rapidly expanding technological world, and an ever-changing social milieu. Aside from that, young adults are also working towards launching from families of origin, becoming financially independent, and forming (hopefully) lasting bonds with friends, partners, and coworkers. It's not hard to imagine how all of those factors could add up to an overwhelming experience of life that results in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, or emptiness. As a "late stage" millennial, I can definitely relate at times. But here's the other thing: depression affects people from all age demographics, walks of life, cultures, religions, socioeconomic status, etc. etc. etc. Statistics for diagnosable depression in teens is even higher than in the adult population: 12.8% of individuals age 12-17, and highest (17.4%) for 16 year olds (NIMH, 2017). Bear in mind one other important caveat in this information; these statistics are in reference to a major depressive episode - just one depression related experience out of many (such as persistent depressive disorder, adjustment disorder, depression that's caused by medical conditions, or that is regularly triggered by the onset of menses).

"The tears come more easily each day. The heaviness that weighs me down fills me up and pushes them out. They leak out in the car, in the basement, in the bathroom. During television shows and songs. The energy in the room is contaminated with it. There is a heaviness in the air that I cannot dissipate. I can only hope that those I love most cannot notice it, or are better inclined toward my moments of levity, of normalcy. I hope."

The prevalence of depression makes for an insidious experience. Because so many people struggle with depression, it can be tempting to feel as though it's a "normal" part of life, and we have to "just deal with it." I can be honest with you, it has definitely been a part of my experience. The other danger in this experience is in what depression prompts us to do. One of the key features of depression is to withdraw, withdraw, withdraw. Withdraw from our relationships, from pleasurable activities, from our fulfilling challenges... to withdraw from ourselves and from life. Combine that withdrawal with a sense of societal normalcy, and you have a perfect emotional concoction for hell on earth.

"I am not a mistake. I am not broken. I am not a wrong thing. I know this. I know I am valuable, and significant, and that this ugliness inside me has a purpose. I am trying."

One of the steps to overcoming and living well with depression is in its injunction to withdraw. Because depression prompts isolation and disconnection, a key health ingredient is connection. Not just spending time with friends, or going to the club; we're talking deep, vulnerable connection, with people we feel safe with. This is connection that allows us to be seen, and heard, and understood. Connection also involves connecting with a sense of purpose and fulfillment - finding meaning in the struggle, and value in how it brings us closer to who we want to be in life. There are additional, more directly practical approaches to working with depression, including addressing unhealthy thought processes, engaging in specific, healing behaviors, and medical support. Each person is going to have a unique constellation of variables that will be useful to her- or himself.

For me, all of the therapeutic influences for my personal and professional work stem from maitri. Put simply, maitri is "lovingkindness towards ourself and others (Chödrön, 2009)." More personally, and to sum up an explanation I really liked, maitri involves having an unconditional friendship with ourselves. It is simultaneously a goal, an experience, and a practice. When I am practicing maitri, I am gentle with myself in my low mood, and extend love and understanding towards my circumstances. When I want to withdraw from other people, or from myself, maitri practice helps me to remember just how healing connection is. When I am practicing maitri, I am able to hold my negative thoughts in suspect, and can take courage from my own self compassion. I am able to think about what I need in this moment, what is healing, and give myself a break from my more damaging expectations. And, when I am truly a friend to myself, I am able to compassionately connect with and be a friend to others. It sounds nice, right? It is; but it takes a lot of work, and support, and patience.

For many people, depression can feel like a curse. But in the vein of finding meaning in the struggle, depression is an opportunity to develop maitri. Experiencing depression leaves us in a place where we are somewhat compelled to evaluate ourselves and our experience of the world. Within that process of evaluation is the opportunity to develop a perspective of love, compassion, and friendship towards ourself, bringing us into greater alignment with our values and a more fulfilling life.

How can you practice being kind and a friend to yourself today?

"Maybe the journey isn't so much about becoming anything. Maybe it's about un-becoming everything that isn't really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place."

-Paolo Coelho

References:

Chödrön, P. (2009 September 1). How Meditation Helps in Difficult Times. Retrieved from https://www.lionsroar.com/meditation-for-difficult-times/

NIMH (2017 November). Major Depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml