Depression: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Torn pieces of paper with the word "Depression". Concept Image. Black and White. Close-up.

I am prone to depression as I wrote about some time ago.

It’s not the kind of curl-up-in-the-fetal-position, paralytic, soul-crushing kind of depression that I know a lot of people suffer from.  It’s more the garden variety, somedays-I-just-get-the-blues kind of sadness.  It feels like a dark, silently negative squatter invades my heart, mind, and spirit and decides to take up residence.  It’s hard to get rid of him.  He came to town about a month ago, and and just this past week, I managed to evict him–for the time being.

Given the fact that I’ve got a pretty good life, I feel like I don’t deserve to be depressed.  I marvel as I see people who have so much less than I have, so much more to complain about, making their way through the world happily and wonder, what am I doing wrong?

When I sink into this state, I can’t seem to enjoy anything.  I’m sensitive to every slight, every perceived criticism. Every negative perception that I have about myself bubbles to the surface just to make me feel more miserable.  I feel like the people I love the most have withdrawn from me when often I am the one pushing them away at the moment that I absolutely need them the most.  My sense of isolation is palpable.

During this past bout I could actually identify some of the triggers that had opened the door to this sadness.  One was having to watch this horrible election cycle play out where instead of being able to root for an inspirational, dynamic, progressive candidate like Barack Obama, I had to entertain he thought that a buffoon like Donald Trump might conceivably take his place.  Only by unplugging myself from the intense day-to-day  coverage could I begin to feel some peace.

Dealing with chronic pain can wear down my spirits.  My depression coincided with a flare-up of some symptoms that have made my lower back and legs feel as though they are on fire at times, all the way down to my feet.  Since exercise and activity are my best weapons against depression, the pain makes it doubly hard to fight back.

When I start to feel some of my most important relationships begin to shift and drift, I worry that I am beginning to lose something that has been a pillar for everything that means anything to me.  I know our bonds are strong, but fear creeps in and doubts create uncertainty and sometimes resentment in my heart.  What did I do?  What should I do?  Those questions become part of the cycle that squashes my spirit.

So, how did I manage to start feeling better?  It was a web of things, but it started in the midst of my daily practice of yoga.  I’m a firm believer in the mind-body-spirit connection, but at the same time, I think of yoga as a form of low-impact exercise that I enjoy and during which I rarely get injured, not as a spiritual exercise.  However, in the midst of a yoga routine the words “gratitude” and “forgiveness” simply floated into my mind.  I could actually see the words in my mind’s eye.

Afterwards, I thought that by consciously practicing gratitude for all that I have, constantly making myself aware of the goodness in my life, I’d be less prone to the self-pity that goes hand in hand with my depressive periods.  I saw that the practice of forgiveness was something that I have long neglected, knowing that I tend to hold on to past grievances long after their code date has expired, doing nothing but poisoning my own mind and spirit.

Armed with this new insight, I felt I was ready for the breakthrough, but having an intellectual realization didn’t mean I was ready to put it to its best use.  I literally have to practice these values daily. I post the words around the house so I have constant reminders that both my thinking and my behavior must change. It’s going to take time.

I lucked out though, and had a lovely week where I managed to reconnect with family members and important friends, sometimes in just casual and informal ways, just enough to stave off that sense of isolation and feel once again connected to the people who nourish my spirit. I felt, once again, how lucky I really am (practicing some gratitude here!).  It could not have come at a better time.

I didn’t really want to write this piece.  Now that things are going better, I didn’t want to go back, but I know how many of us struggle in this same way.  It seemed that sharing one good moment was the least I could do.

I’m Doing The Best That I Can

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Even though I am an early riser, I’m not one of those people that jumps out of bed and is out the door to hit the gym, or take a walk, or do much of anything physically active. I’m more a cup of coffee and newspaper kind of guy. Lately, I’ve had to be a little careful of what I choose to read about in the paper, or I will sink into a depression that sends me right back to bed.

The grief over the Orlando shooting seems almost exhausted, and then I hear about a Sacramento pastor who has already delivered a sermon declaring that the Orlando victims “got what they deserved” and that the only sad thing is that more of them weren’t killed. Really? A pastor?

I’m starting to skip most of the presidential election coverage and really wish the election could be next week instead of having to watch five long and painful months of moves and countermoves, accusations and lies. I try not to read the articles, but it is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to take your eyes off of a slowly evolving but inevitable train wreck that no one can stop.

So when I see something in the paper that really inspires me, I sometimes will clip it out as I did last March when an obituary, of all things, caught my eye.

It was written in tribute to Bob Ebeling (1926-2016) and was entitled Predicted Challenger Disaster.  A booster rocket engineer, Ebeling and other members of his team had begun to worry that the cold temperatures might harm the O-ring seals of the booster joints allowing burning rocket fuel to leak out—the exact problem that led to the Challenger explosion.

Ebeling becamed convinced that the mission and the astronauts were in grave danger. He gathered data that illustrated the risks and spent hours arguing with his bosses to delay the launch. In the end, his concerns were dismissed, and sadly, his predictions were proven to be accurate.

The part of the obituary that got to me though was that he was wracked by guilt over what had happened. He became convinced that he should have done more to stop the launch. He felt personally responsible for something completely outside of his control. After a twenty-year career with NASA, he retired a few months after the disaster.

After he left NASA, he and his wife immersed themselves in conservation work, spending hundreds of hours restoring a bird refuge near his home. “It was his way of trying to make things right,” his daughter was quoted as saying.

But apparently he was gripped by the guilt until just a few months before his death at age 89, when he was featured as a part of an NPR story on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and Ebeling was inundated by hundreds of supportive phone calls and letters. His daughter revealed that “It was like the world gave him permission, they said ‘OK you did everything you could possibly do, you’re a good person.’” So this good man, this honorable man finally found peace in the last three months of his life.

It made me think a lot about self-forgiveness, something with which I struggle. It may be time to put a post-it over my desk that reads, “I’m doing the best that I can” and then try letting go.

Note:  As hard as I tried to keep this all in my own words I may have used a phrase of two directly from the AP account of his death. My apologies to the obit authors of the Associated Press.