Early last year, I took a break from self-improvement for a while. I stopped trying to meditate. I stopped exercising.
I was just sick of it all.
Wellness practices are wonderful, when they’re wonderful. Other times they just feel like one more obligation. And then I got pregnant, and was sick for three months, and my only unnecessary activity was watching TV reruns. I took care of my family. I ate and slept. But I didn’t do a whole lot else.
Needless to say, this convergence of events brought on a depression relapse. Then November came. My first trimester sickness was over, and I was ready to take up my self-improvement efforts again. So I did something I’d never done before.
I started seeing a therapist.
When I called to make the appointment, the woman asked if I was suicidal. At first I didn’t answer; I just started crying. “No,” I told her. “I don’t want to kill myself. I just don’t really want to live.”
Apparently, that’s what three months without exercise or prayer will do to me.
My first appointment was in December, and I left it feeling quite hopeful. Julie told me that depression may be a temperament, a chemical imbalance, something that’s considered permanent. But many therapists believe that it’s not that simple, that there are other factors, too.
“So long-term relief is possible?” I asked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It is possible,” she said. “A better question, though, is: Is it possible for you?”
She couldn’t tell me for sure if she’d be able to help me feel significantly better for a significant amount of time. “What I can say is that the things we’ll talk about have helped a huge number of other people in your place.”
“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “In a nutshell, what’s the strategy? Do you have some techniques in mind?” Partly, I was curious. Partly, I needed hope. And partly, I was doing a mental calculation, a cost-benefit analysis. With two kids at home, even insurance-covered therapy is a luxury.
Julie laid it out: We’d delve deep into my emotions. We’d analyze incidents that brought up feelings I’d rather not have. In doing so, I’d learn how to face them rather than stuffing them down. I’d also learn to be vulnerable.
“Studies consistently show that the happiest people are those that don’t push down their emotions,” she told me. “Letting yourself feel is the first step.”
And immediately upon hearing this, I knew she was right.
Here’s the thing: Her plan wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Nothing new or revolutionary. But for some reason, until that day, I’d never followed the advice. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to feel bad. I just didn’t think it’d work. In the past, every time I’d decided to look at my pain, it just seemed to grow bigger.
So, I ignored them—at least as much as I possibly could. And then I tried to fix them, find a solution. But feelings, said Julie, don’t need to be fixed. They just needed to be felt.
A bell rang. A Buddhist bell. An Eckhart Tolle/New Age spirituality bell. All that “just notice the thoughts–don’t judge them” stuff kicked in, and I thought, Maybe the Universe is telling me something. So, soon after reading the books by Brene Brown that Julie recommended, I decided to delve into spiritual books again. I bought Matt Kahn’s Whatever Arises, Love That. And I read Pema Chodron for the first time. These books were all about accepting where you’re at–even when you’re in a bad-feeling place.
I was ready to be well again.
Over the next few months, I resumed my meditation practice, along with my exercise routine. I went to therapy a few more times, too, and that helped more than I thought it would. I can’t say for sure which of these activities was the most significant part of my recovery, though I suspect it was the walking. But the spiritual practice I started with during that sensitive time helped a lot, too, and I still do it now sometimes.
I called it my “I hate this” meditation, and I came up with it one day at the gym.
I’d come there to exercise, of course, as well as do some writing, but I was feeling exhausted and just … bad. So instead of doing either, I sat on a comfortable chair and decided to rest for a moment.
I know what I’ll do, I thought after criss-crossing my legs and taking a few deep breaths. I’ll practice this vulnerability thing. I will think about my emotions. Feel them fully. Stop fighting my negative inner dialogue, and judging it.
I will let my bad feelings run free.
And so, that’s what I did. And not half-heartedly. If I was gonna do this, I was gonna do it right. I started a mental checklist of everything—every little thing—that I was hating in that moment. Anything that came up, I put it on the list.
The list got very long, very quickly.
I hated the gym. I hated cleaning the bathroom. I hated getting my kids ready in the morning. I hated the weather, and the way my pregnant belly felt.
I even hated my own pants.
Then something happened. Something I didn’t expect. The depression began to lift. The thoughts lost a bit of their power, their ability to produce fear. You might even say that by letting them run free, they ran away.
After all, I was facing them, and they weren’t that bad. They were just thoughts, you know? Most of them were unreasonable, many untrue. Some of them were even sort of silly. Suddenly I understood what some people call “the space between”–there was space between myself and my thoughts, like a cushion.
Half an hour into this negativity meditation, I moved past the initial lift and into an actual high. Or, not a high exactly—the depression was still there. But alongside it, coexisting with it, was some peace.
For the next two months, I continued my “I hate this” meditation until I didn’t seem to need it anymore. Soon after that, I discovered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and that took me another step forward–but that’s another story.