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On Mindfulness and Depression (or, a Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had)


So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m off my meds, and have been for several weeks now. I didn’t go off lightly, and I didn’t go off without a plan, but from the moment I started taking meds I planned to go off them. And though I accept that I may, in fact, need the brain pills for the rest of my life, I don’t want to need them, and want to give myself a chance at being normal without them. Which is to say that going off them is a thing I view as an experiment, more than a man-I’m-glad-that’s-over step into a new chapter.

Several weeks in, though, I’ve met my first challenge: last night, for whatever reason, I felt the chasm yawning open beneath my feet, felt the old familiar monster beckoning me into the dark. True to form, I couldn’t point to what was causing it; I was fine one moment and overcome the next, the way a shadow slips, without notice, into existence when the clouds part and the sun shines down. Maybe it was the novel work I’d failed to get done over the last few days (even though my days of late have been extremely productive). Maybe it was the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale we’ve been watching, poisoning my thoughts and my outlook. (Good TV, but man is it bleak.) Who knows.

Point is, the anxiety / depression / spiritual dread was there, unmistakably so, and I felt its pull. Walked right up to the edge, peered down into the dark, saw it there. Not terrifying, not menacing, just dark and vast and empty, like the ocean at night. And the messed up thing? I wanted to dive in.

Here’s where I need a detour.

One of my fascinations (I know, I know, add it to the list) of the last couple of years has been mindfulness. And it’s one of those fascinations where, like, I admire it at a distance, the way you admired your first crush from across the lunchroom but never actually had any plan for approaching them, let alone speaking to them. I haven’t done any real reading on mindfulness specifically, in other words, only brushed up against it in passing, thought “wow, that looks awesome, I should learn more about it,” and moved on knowing just enough to get me into trouble (as I do with so many other things in this life).

What I know about it is this: mindfulness is a superpower. And I say that not to exaggerate and overstate but to communicate how powerful it actually seems to be.

To fully explain THAT, I need another detour.

A fact of this life is: we’re ruled by our emotions. Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked details this a lot better than I can, but essentially we have two brains: the rational brain and the emotional brain. We like to think that the rational brain drives the bus, but it doesn’t. Our emotional side drives, and it sometimes allows itself to be influenced by the rational side.

Think about the last time you were angry, and said or did something offhanded or rude to somebody you care about. Was that you doing or saying the awful thing? Well, yes, but it certainly wasn’t a rational, clearly thinking you. The rational, clearly thinking part of you knows that the things you do have consequences, and it will keep you from doing those things that have unfortunate consequences. Like shouting at your loved one. You wouldn’t do that normally, but you were angry, and it just came out. The Pixar film Inside Out represents this pretty clearly, come to think of it. The little girl’s emotions take turns behind the steering wheel, and when Anger or Sadness is driving, well, she acts accordingly. (For that matter, Intellect and Rationality are characters not appearing in Inside Out. Pixar is cleverer than we even realized.)

Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling in Inside Out (2015)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that these characters are property of Pixar, not of me.

Detour within detour over, let’s circle back to mindfulness-as-superpower. Mindfulness, as I understand it (and let me fully disclaim once again that I’m not an expert and don’t fully understand it), is simply the ongoing practice of examining what’s in your own head. Not trying to “fix” what’s in there, just noticing it. Moment to moment, turn a magnifying glass inward, see what’s in there.

Consider: A Jerk cuts you off in traffic, your blood pressure rises, maybe you pound the steering wheel or wave your hands at said jerk in socially unacceptable gestures, probably a few words come out of your mouth that wouldn’t come out in front of, say, your grandmother. Mindfulness says, pause, examine. That’s anger, your thinking brain will tell you. Anger is currently driving your bus.

Or: You’re at work, plugging away at a project you’re behind on, and a friend pops in, invites you to lunch. “I don’t have time,” you snap, probably more forcefully than you should, and the friend skulks away, and maybe you feel worse. If you can force yourself to be mindful in this moment, you do the pause and examine thing. That’s frustration, you realize. You’re snapping at your friend because you’re frustrated about work. Frustration is driving your bus.

Needless to say, the practice is difficult, especially when you need it most. But here’s why it’s worth practicing it (and why I am practicing it — in fits and starts and with various levels of success, but still, that’s why they call it “practice”): because emotions are no more material than fog, than a shadow, than the stinky aroma of last night’s leftovers that you forgot to put in the refrigerator. (Let’s just stick with the shadow metaphor.) The moment you turn a light on a shadow, it disappears. It simply evaporates; it cannot exist where there is light. Emotions do the same thing when faced with the harsh light of rationality.

What that means — and what I’ve experienced — is that the realization that emotion is in the driver’s seat kicks emotion out of the driver’s seat. The moment you can notice, when the jerk cuts you off in traffic, this is anger, you’re angry and that’s why you’re shouting and swearing, it suddenly feels very silly to continue shouting and swearing. Turn the floodlamp of mindfulness on the shadow of anger (or frustration, or disappointment, or whatever), and the shadow boils away. It may not fix the injustice — you still got cut off, after all — but it puts control back in your hands.

This is the superpower. If you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions in a world where everybody is ruled by their emotions, then you can act with a clarity that is denied to most people most of the time. You can literally change the way you feel just by noticing you’re feeling a way that you really rather wouldn’t.

For a bit more reference, Sam Harris also has a lot to say about this topic, though I couldn’t point you to any one particular clip or passage in particular. But this one looks good:

And here’s where we close the loop and I bring us all the way back (finally!) to myself, last night, standing on the edge of that cliff, feeling the pull of those depressive impulses, or if you like, feeling myself sliding down a crumbling dirt hillside toward the crevasse. Not thinking about the fact that I’m off my meds and that may be playing a role, not analyzing why I felt so crummy, just feeling bad and, perversely, thinking it was probably going to get worse, so why fight it?

Then: mindfulness.

This is depression, said the voice of rationality. For whatever reason, you’re feeling like sh*t. Depression is driving the bus right now. And, poof. I didn’t magically feel better, but the spiral stopped. I stepped back from the edge, I stopped sliding down the hillside. And I went to sleep thinking that was weird, I wonder what brought that on instead of thinking I feel sh*tty and everything is sh*tty and tomorrow’s probably gonna feel sh*tty too.

And I feel good this morning. Not great. I can still feel last night’s funk around the edges, but depression is not driving my bus. Restlessness is, a little bit, because I’d love to get out and do something but it’s too flipping hot. But so is contentedness, because I didn’t let myself fall into the abyss, and instead I’m writing (always a good thing) and my kids are on the sofa watching a movie together and being adorable, and I’m happy to let that feeling drive the bus for a while.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all. For depression especially, when you’re in the abyss, thinking isn’t gonna save you. But for the day-to-day struggles, when you feel yourself sliding? Mindfulness really is a superpower.

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Just One More Page


I keep falling asleep reading.

More and more over the past year, but especially in the past few weeks, my day ends to the lethargic turning of pages, a heavy-lidded struggle to finish just one more chapter that becomes just a few more paragraphs then maybe I can actually finish this sentence before finally devolving to part of my brain knows I’ve read this word five times already yet I have no memory of it.

Image result for i have no memory of this place

And then, at some point, I wake up. The light is still on and the book has tumbled clumsily onto my chest and my wife is snoozing beside me and I’m overcome by sadness, because first of all I can’t remember what I read and second of all I’m going to have to read it again and third of all I’m awake late at night which does not bode well for the following morning. Sometimes I manage to bookmark my progress and put the book on the bedside table before I lose consciousness for good; sometimes the book ends up in the floor and I’ve doomed myself to rereading passages if not entire pages again the next night.

Could I learn from this? I could. Logic dictates that I should know when I lie down for the night whether I’m alert enough to pick up a book and grind through a few pages. But logic doesn’t know a damn thing about my life. I’m trying desperately to not be one of those jerks who goes to work, comes home, ignores his kids, and disappears into a black hole of bad TV and beer before he succumbs to unconsciousness, only to repeat the process ad infinitum until his life is as meaningless as the jokes inside a Bazooka Joe wrapper. I’m trying — perhaps not with Herculean effort, but trying nonetheless (damn you Yoda) — to improve.

Image result for there is no try

That means waking up earlier than I have to to put some miles on my sneakers. It means working on my novel or reading during my lunch break. It means playing some video games with the kids when I get home, or chasing them around the yard a little bit. And it means carving out time to read every night before I finally shut my eyes, even when my pillow’s siren song is at its most irresistible.

And maybe it’s because my reading fare of late is a bit, I dunno, drier than what I’ve read in the past. (This week’s tome: A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking.) Fascinating stuff, to be sure, but still — not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and the old man needs his sleepies.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Finally Truly Back From Injury (I Hope)


My first year of running saw me rack up about 500 miles in just over 8 months.  My second year saw me come this close to 1000.  I enjoyed a meteoric rise in my ability to cover distance and run at speed and naturally it left me feeling like I could accomplish just about anything.

So when I suffered a pair of crippling injuries at the beginning of this year, it was humbling.  I went from running 25 miles a week or so to being sidelined for three and four weeks at a time.  I went from a long weekend run of 10 or 12 miles on average to barely finishing a 5k.  For a guy like me who thought he was bulletproof, the injuries and my inability to bounce back from them were a blow to both my health and my ego.

I’ve tried not to think too hard about it, not to dwell and fixate and obsess over how much speed I’ve lost, how much my fitness has declined and how frustrated I’ve been.  If you’re a habitual runner like me, I need say no more — you know the pain of not running.  If you’re not, I’d liken it to having the flu for weeks on end.  You feel weary, you feel caged in, like you’re just a drain on yourself and the people around you, like you’re asleep on your feet.

But then, a few weeks ago, a turn.

I’d been intentionally taking it easy; easier than easy, really, being careful not to push too hard and set myself back; for over a month, not running more than 5 miles outside of one 10k race (which did set me back).  Then I had one run of six miles with a friend from high school and suffered no ill effects.  Then the next week I ran five to be safe, and this past weekend I ran six again for good measure.

Well, what can I say?  My feet feel healthier than they have since before my injuries.  I’m not sure what the turnaround was, but I spent a few months after my podiatrist visit in a purgatory of not having serious pain but not feeling 100% healthy either.  Last few weeks, the injured foot feels about 95% most of the time.  It’s been a long road back, and I’ve been totally scattered: one moment I’m overly optimistic, lying to myself about my recovery to make it seem like it’s been better.  Next, I’m beating myself up for pushing too hard too fast and I’m skipping a run or cutting one short because I’m scared of injury.  Now, though, I can finally say that I’m getting back to normal.

Sidenote.

For some reason I’m feeling more keenly than ever how tedious it must feel to a non-runner to read a runner’s writing about running.  I mean, I hear the words flowing out of my fingertips (more or less) and all the athlo-babble about distance and biomechanics and injuries and pacing and negative splits and I almost want to punch myself in a mouth.  Damn.  How to approach this differently?

What’s a long run?  I guess a long run is a distance that’s significantly longer than your standard run.  Say 40% or more beyond your weekly runs.  It’s the equivalent of locking the doors and unplugging the phone and turning off the computer and cranking up your music or your white noise machine or your internal monologue.  If daily runs are your morning cup of joe, the long run is a series of espresso shots, dropping one just after the high of the first fades.  The long run is the me-time that you chase but can never catch during the week.  It’s the cherry on your sundae, the finish on your cigarette, the long dark tea-time of the soul.  And I’ve been without it for MONTHS.

Well, I’m getting it back and it’s glorious.  I feel more confident about my running than I’ve felt since the year ticked over.  I feel like I’ve been pretending about getting myself back in shape all this time and now I can embrace it for real.  I feel like I’ve got something to work toward vis-a-vis pushing my distance up again, rather than spinning my wheels in a weather-delayed holding pattern as I’ve done for months.

I picked out a route that I haven’t run since December because it’s just been too far and I couldn’t trust my feet.  I didn’t just run it; I attacked it, setting a pace I’ve not set in half a year and finished, sweating and breathing hard and lurching in exhaustion up the hill to the house (living at the top of a hill SUCKS at the end of every run).  I stretched and took stock and realized that I felt physically better than I have in months.  I waited for a few hours and re-evaluated that impression: I’ve been so mental over the injury that I can’t trust myself.  I think I feel better when I don’t.  I want to feel better but I can’t.  I feel like I can’t run that much but I can.  Hours later, the evaluation held up.  A switch has been flipped, and it feels like I’m back.

I’m burning to go for 7 this weekend but I’m going to do the “smart” thing and not jump too far too fast.  I’ll play it conservative and do 6 one more week and then I’ll go for 7.  I’ve no idea what pace I’m going to aim for or what’s even within reach, but I think the distance will be there.  I think I can finally count on my body to hold up over long distance again.  

It’d be time to start thinking about my next half marathon if we weren’t so broke.


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