My intention with this essay is not to shame or laud over anyone. I have struggled with depression, I know how insidious it can be. Each time I can rise above my default setting of being hard on myself (the foreplay of depression) is a great day. Even a tiny bit! It’s when my idealized version of who I shouldbe glares unforgivingly at my actual current self, that I’m prone to the demon of depression.
I travel for my work, partly because it’s the nature of being a musician and workshop leader, but also to compensate for not really ever finding home in the land where my husband lives. If I want to see him, I must return here sometimes. And that here is Oslo. Hugely grateful on many counts for this green and rather sane county (the details won’t be covered in this essay) still, I’ve been very lonely here and prefer to be anywhere else.
Then the Coronavirus hit the rails, the end of everyone’s plans. Never had John Lennon’s words felt more potent. Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. On March 14, I had to return to Oslo, where I am a resident, have healthcare and a permanent home with my husband. At first, he was happy to see me, that we’d be together during this very unique lockdown time.
If ever I had justification to feel blue, it was now. Never was it part of any plan for me to get stuck in the country where I hardly know anyone. Yet from March 14 – I was stuck. Day one, even day two, I did really well. Stayed positive, thought of all kinds of activities to keep me busy. My job of teaching Alexander Technique, the creative arts and breathing, all using my hands, came to a sudden halt. No paid work, no reason to even get up in the morning. My husband panicked. His mood grew dark and sourly.
“What’s going on?” I ask. My husband is from the north of the Netherlands. He’s a good man but not overtly expressive or communicative. It took some time to prod out an answer.
“I’m worried,” he said, “that you’re going to fall into a dark depression. You won’t be able to leave, as you usually do and might be stuck here for months.”
“But I haven’t fallen into that dark place,” I said, defensively.
“Not yet,” he said. “But I’m afraid you will, and that I won’t be able to manage it.”
I took his concern seriously, and later when we went on a long walk in the forest – an activity we’ve been able to continue during the lockdown – I thought about what usually triggered me, and I realised it was my expectations. The idea of what my life was supposedto be like would take over. When not on the trajectory of what I thinkmy life is meant to be, when I fear lagging behind, I get very blue and miserable.
What is depression? Simply said, it’s anger turned inward. Most of us, including myself, won’t feelthis anger, or even if we do, we can’t stop it. For me, it’s as if all the judgment and disappointment from my parents, teachers, etc. over the years comes together and starts simmering on a hot flame and cooks me through with negativity. Maybe there’s some odd pleasure in it that at least I’m in control of this beating, but it’s a dangerous, destructive habit. And it is a habit. Brain patterns set so long ago too easily follow the same familiar paths, like rain drops down a window. We can’t help it, so it seems, so it feels.
I tell you this, so you don’t beat yourself even more because of how hard it is to avoid these pitfalls. So, I understood my husband’s fears. He knew me; he knew how I get whenever I stay too long in Oslo.
I got stubborn with myself, and I asked him to help me if I slipped up. Any of you out there who might read this blog who are living alone during this time and recognise this pattern – contact someone, a friend who may be going through this as well, or contact me. Make a plan with each other to be kind and compassionate first and foremost.
Here’s my plan:
- TO NOT BEAT on myself it I’m not completely be free of negative thoughts.
- TO MOVE: and even more so when the dark juices start flowing – those dark juices that feel like ropes that tie me to the bed – I still have to move. ESPECIALLY if I don’t want to. Jumping in place, flailing my arms and legs, not caring what I look like, going for walks in the forest, doing online yoga, gaga classes, 5-rhythms, grieving rituals. Bark like a dog if necessary. ANYTHING. The science of brain chemistry is that once oxygen flows more to the brain, the mood will improve.
- TO PUSH MYSELF A TINY BIT and do one thing I resist, and then give myself some nice reward later. For example: vacuuming; writing a blog (like this one) despite my steady stream of critic inside telling me how bad a writer I am; to practice my singing (even if I get angry that I still sing out of tune); to do an online meet-up even if my teeth are old and yellow and my neck looks like a turkey (I sometimes use a scarf). Later, as a present, I can watch some
- TO GIVE PERMISSION THAT I CAN BE BAD AT SOMETHING and still do it. There’s many things I love to do, like my writing and music, but have punished myself over the years for not being good enough at it. I’ve gotten better at this – have discovered that the best way to get better at anything is to practice it and challenge ourselves with classes and teachers to improve. The idea that I have to be genius at something or not do it, is just not true. It is possible to enjoy doing something without being perfect at it.
- TO GIVE MYSELF A LOVING kick to get started. It’s the hardest with any activity, even the things we like, to get started. The dark voice of depression wants us to stay a blob, is most comfortable doing nothing but beating ourselves. Because then there’s no chance of getting it wrong. We think we can’t mobilize the energy to do anything, but that’s because we’re using the most of our energy (unconsciously) to beat ourselves. It’s a hard pattern to break, but not impossible.
The less we move, the less the breath moves, the more compressed we get, thus creating the perfect setting for depression. The opposite of that – moving, doing some activity with no expectation – is what depression hates.