Having clinical depression has meant spending repeated stretches of my life in therapy, teaching me much, but also necessitating descents into the abyss, where I frequently would find myself reaching blindly for a handhold with which to gain purchase and pull myself up and out once again. Often, I simply didn’t have a clue, as I understood little about how to have a healthy emotional life. There was, however, the occasional epiphany, the gift of a key to open a door to additional control over my mood and level of wellbeing. It took decades to fill my keyring. Looking back, it is difficult to recognize this woman as the source of who I am today.
It was during a time when I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and not for lack of sleep. I was becoming more enveloped each day in a fog created by my recalcitrant brain chemicals. All I wanted was oblivion. But I had a daughter. And two jobs. And no partner. I had to function in order to do right by my girl. She deserved no less. For weeks, I barely managed to hold it together, struggling to behave as though there was no problem.
And then, on top of the depression, I began obsessing about how shitty my life was. I began feeling sorry for myself. Why did I have depression? When was someone going to help me? Why did I have to work two jobs and still not be able to pay the bills? Why did other people have spouses waiting with dinner for them after a long day, when we often had to eat scrambled eggs? It all seemed so unfair. I felt like crying but also felt that if I started, I might never stop.
And I had work to do, a child with needs, and daughter of a Scotsman that I am, I saw no choice but to push my needs further aside and soldier on. Stiff upper lip and all that. And I tried, but it didn’t get any better. And one day, weeks later, I vomited it all out during one of my counseling sessions, apologizing profoundly to my therapist while coming totally unglued.
She was not at all fazed by my meltdown, and I realized she had seen this many times before. I remember thinking to myself that, of course, I wasn’t unique. How ridiculous to think no one had ever experienced what I was going through. But mental illness was not discussed when I was younger. It was hidden, something to be ashamed of, so I had no way of knowing that there were tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of individuals experiencing exactly what was happening to me.
Anyway, my therapist reassured me of three things: 1) this was perfectly normal human behavior; 2) if I cried I would not cry forever, and probably wouldn’t make it 30 minutes; 3) my life did suck right now and it was okay to feel sorry for myself, but there was a more effective way to cope with it. Then she offered me a key. And here it is, in all its simplicity: stop trying to not feel sorry for yourself. She told me to cry whenever I felt like it, and if I found myself deep in the pitiful-me cycle I should stop what I was doing, find a comfortable place to sit and give myself 15 minutes to do nothing but feel sorry for Alexis. I know! Right? Prescribing self-pity. I thought it would lead me deeper into depression if I “gave in” to the feelings, as though it was a contest, so I was hesitant and not at all hopeful that the exercise would have any meaningful impact on my state of mind.
But I tried it the next time my self-pity began to overwhelm me. I went to the sofa in the living room, glanced at the clock and settled into my mental litany of all the ways in which the world treated me unfairly. I didn’t make it three minutes before all the hurt feelings began to weaken, dissipate like smoke from a campfire. It became laughable. Not just the exercise, but the sense that these feelings could somehow control me.
When you give yourself permission to feel something, it dilutes its power over you. I thought I was controlling my emotions, holding them at bay, pushing them down deeper inside myself until I couldn’t recognize them for what they were anymore. And the more I denied my feelings, the more I resented it. It became one more way in which the world was fucking me over.
Some of you who are wiser about emotions than I was at the time probably know what was really going on and what there was to learn from my prescription to feel sorry for myself. While I would verbalize half-jokingly that I wished someone would make me hot cocoa, tuck me in bed, tell me I was a good girl and that everything was going to be alright–something that had never happened to me as a child–what I actually wanted was for anyone to acknowledge me as deserving, to indicate that they cared, to help, even while I deemed myself worthless.
There were two more lessons I learned from sitting on that sofa for three minutes. The first is that if you need something from your family or friends, you must express that need. No one can read your mind, and if you are spending all your energy convincing the world that you don’t have a problem, don’t be surprised when they think you don’t have a problem The second lesson learned is the belief that you deserve support and caring from others begins and then grows as you learn to love yourself. But that is another story.