Leaning In to Winter Blues

Ah, February, the month of international depression. The time when winter gets real, when seasonal adjustment disorder (SAD) becomes more than just a funny acronym, and when New Year’s resolutions get thrown out the window. It seems to be a good month for a slump.

And sometimes, a slump is just the thing. Depression can seem like a looming spectre – something to be afraid of, to dread. But honestly, it can be a gift. I know it sounds crazy, but we all have phases of ups and downs in life, and the downs don’t have to be so miserable.

Maybe you’ve been pushing yourself really hard all month, taking on new responsibilities or relationships and getting exhausted – you feel yourself draining, emotionally and physically, heading for a collapse or an explosion. Notice that. You can keep your eyes open, stay aware of where you’re heading. It doesn’t have to be scary, doesn’t have to have power over you. It might feel like you’re falling, but you can catch yourself.

I’m always telling myself to “stay woke” – my words for staying aware, maintaining mindfulness, not sleeping on myself, on my emotions or moods, not forgetting that I need tending to. Because it’s when you forget, when you ignore yourself, that depression or anger or sadness will blindside you like a tsunami and sweep you along with it. But if you’re watching – if you’re staying woke – you don’t have to drown. You can just ride the wave.

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I’ve learned to take depression as my body or mind telling me to take a break. I have a natural tendency to be really hard on myself, to push myself and maximize the use of all my minutes, so when I start to feel dull, I listen. I step back, watch a black and white movie, take a bath, and allow myself to enjoy the dullness instead of getting swept up in a pity party of malevolent coping mechanisms and lies.

You don’t have to listen to depression. It might tell you terrible things about yourself and the world and the people around you, but they are not true. Make lists of truths about yourself – you are capable, you are worthy, you are strong, you are beautiful, you are exactly where you need to be. One phrase I really like – the universe is for me, and so is everything else. I got it from my favorite Youtube yoga instructor, Adriene – it might seem a bit abstract or even unbelievable, but repeat it to yourself along with some deep breaths. Say it out loud. Speak it into existence. Write these truths down and hang them on your wall, say them to yourself in the mirror. Carry them in your pocket. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you are worth any less.

Depression is hard, but, if you’ve experienced it before, you know that even when it seems like it will last forever, it does end. You’ve seen the clouds break and felt the sunshine beam down on you, you’ve climbed out of the pit and stood on solid ground. You’ve done it once, so have faith – you can do it again.

Trust yourself to navigate the caverns wisely, take solace in the existence of light. Even if you can’t see it right now, it’s still there, and you’ll make it out alive. Maybe even better for the experience. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and before you know it, depression isn’t quite a friend, but at least a frenemy that you don’t mind seeing now and again because you are prepared for it – you know how to treat it, and you know how to make sure it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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So welcome, February. Bring on the depression. We can handle it.

Love, calm, & care –

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Processing Grief [For Katie]

Three years ago, one of my closest friends died in a car accident. Needless to say, I was unprepared. What 19-year-old know how to deal with loss? Really, what human knows how to deal with loss until they’re in the throes of it? I learned by living through it, by grieving, and I started by falling flat on my face. I let myself get lost in grief, in depression. Because I didn’t know how. Because two weeks after she died, my other friends were asking why I was still wearing black and listening to so much Linkin Park and John Mayer. What could I say? They didn’t know any better, of course, but I became embarrassed, ashamed, even, of these emotions that seemed so impermissible. So, naturally, I repressed and avoided and acted out and dealt as well as I knew how, which mostly, apart from a lot of boxing and bike riding, meant not dealing at all.

Grief is nothing to be ashamed of. It takes time to process – three years later and I’m finding new bits of the experience all the time. If you’re grieving, if you lose someone, know that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to be sad, angry, confused. It’s okay for that to last a while. It’s also okay if it doesn’t. Feel what you feel. Don’t try to mold it into anyone’s expectations or tidy it up in five easy steps. It’s a messy, unpredictable beast, and that’s okay. Allow yourself the experience of grief. Let it be what it is.

It will pass. Not completely – but the shroud of darkness with thin out into wispy clouds that come and go. The person you lost is gone – that won’t change. As time goes on you realize that you lost more than the person you knew – you lost the person you would have known. I lost the friend I would have called the first time I fell in love, the one whose 21st birthday would have been a wild weekend getaway, the one I would have known and grown with for years, blossoming the way that only our friendship could have. And there are continually new bits of that loss to discover and accept and feel.

And three years later, I see that the mourning process forms a narrative unto itself. Memories of my grief nearly equal the memories I have left of her. The place she holds in my heart will never shrink – it will always glow and remain, sweetly untouched. But it can’t grow. I can’t make new memories with her. But I can’t stop myself from making new memories altogether, from living, from growing and changing into a woman she never even met and wondering about who she would have become. I remember her as I live, and as new memories expand my heart, filling it with more joys and more sorrows, gradually dwarfing that bright, constant space that she holds.

The text along the inside of my arm is 9/3/2013 in lower case, cursive Roman numerals - the day Katie died.

The text along the inside of my arm is 9/3/2013 in lower case, cursive Roman numerals – the day Katie died.

She’s the story behind one of my tattoos, the bridge that unites me with my friend who lost her mom, the reason it’s still difficult for me to really listen to country music, the reason I smile anytime I see a girl in cowboy boots and jean shorts, the person I sometimes imagine conversations with, the reason I can’t help but cry on September 3rd and December 22nd, and that still, bright light in my heart that will never go out. And so much more.

So grief is really a continual process of acceptance. One of allowing yourself to feel all the things you don’t want to feel because sometimes you really don’t want to believe that the person you lost is gone. But just because they can’t live any longer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Thinking of my friend motivates me to live more fully than ever, to do the things she never could, to treasure the time that I’ve been given. Because not everyone gets as much as you and I have. And really, even though all this is so damn hard sometimes, I’m lucky I got to know her at all, just as you’re lucky to have known someone you lost. I’m lucky that I’m one of the people who holds her light in my heart. And we’re lucky that we get to carry their lights with us, and that we get to keep living.

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Turning Trauma into Beauty

Have you ever looked in the mirror and been displeased? Do you say mean things to yourself? Apologize for taking up space? Constantly berate yourself for the slightest faux pas? These are signs of self-loathing, and maybe that sounds extreme, but the prevalence of these symptoms leads me to ask – why do we hate ourselves?

In writing about the journey of self-love, I’ve been thinking about what the root causes of self-hatred are. Personally, it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of traumatic events and words that all shaped themselves into an ugly mass of depression. As I speak with other people about this, the same rings true. The culprit: trauma.

What is trauma? Trauma is something beyond your control that happens to you. Be it rape, an abusive relationship, or the death of a loved one, it creates a victim – you. This can be hard to accept, and it can also be easy to get stuck in. While recognizing your own victimization is a necessary part of healing, living in the victim mentality is not healthy. That mentality has no movement, no growth – it keeps you stuck, stuck in the mindset that things happen to you, that you are powerless.

And we hate ourselves because we become consumed with this thing that happened to us – the ugliness of it – and we take it on. Internalizing that hideous thing occurs when you allow it to define you, and, naturally, you hate the trauma, so you start to hate yourself. But you are not your trauma. Maybe someone raped you, but you are so much more than the girl or guy who got raped. Maybe someone verbally abused you, constantly looking over your shoulder, criticizing every move, but you and I are so much more than the girls and guys who were in abusive relationships. We are survivors – strong women [or men – humans]. And our lives are not defined by the bad things that have happened to us.

Yes, those things happened, and we’ll always carry the things that happened with us. But what will you do with it? Will you let it be a burden, weighing you down with every step, every look, constantly defining your perspective and yourself? Or will you turn it into an asset? Because that is possible. Turn that weakness into strength. Journal, talk to a therapist, explore the roots of your trauma, dig up all the dirt and clean it out.

We reflect what we see in the world and in ourselves. If, when you look at yourself, all you see is the trauma – the ugly thing that happened to you that you have no control over – you will believe that you are ugly. But this is not true. What about your ambition, your strength, your wit, your cute fingers, your bright eyes, your thick hair? Look in the mirror. Smile. Look outside, look at other people, look at yourself and find the beauty in these things. Think of it as a treasure hunt at first, and then, as you practice, the colors of the world get brighter and you’re like Alice in Wonderland, constantly looking around in awe and even checking yourself out in the mirror. Because we live in a beautiful world, and there is beauty in every single one of us. You just have to find it.

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Moods, Foods, & Recovery

How do you feel after sitting on the couch all evening with potato chips and soda? Lethargic, maybe? When I’ve been most depressed, it’s been me, a bed, Grey’s Anatomy and Oreos all night long. I don’t feel great. It’s a cycle actually – eating junk food makes me depressed. And I don’t mean the occasional cookie, I mean six at once or chips and queso for lunch every day, processed crackers always on hand, and no fruits or vegetables in sight. Now that I’ve done the work to clean out my system, a piece of cake can deflate my mood. And I’m not alone in this – I’m just especially sensitive. And aware.

It doesn’t take a nutritionist to see that processed foods filled with sugar don’t make you feel great. Without fiber along with it [as in fruit], your body freaks out, stumbles blindly through digestion, and sends the sugar straight into fat supply. Sugar is a drug – it’s like the new cocaine. Except kids are addicted. And the conundrum of it all is that, if you’re feeling down, sad, etc, what do you reach for? Comfort food. And anyone who’s ever had a meal in the south can tell you what that’s made of. Dairy and sugar. Regardless of the dish, it’s dairy and sugar. Even drinks – soda, sweet tea – you’ve heard it all before. It’s everywhere. And eating it – just like any other drug – seems to be an endless cycle.

Ours is a time of disordered eating. Maybe we don’t like to talk about it, but there it is. Food as comfort was passed down to me as a coping skill, along with a biologically slow digestive system and adolescent body image issues. I was bulimic for four years. If you don’t know, that’s the one where you can’t handle feelings so you stuff food over them in excess. As the sugars settle, self-loathing rolls in, followed by a purge – typically self-induced vomiting. It’s very cathartic if you don’t know how to actually feel your feelings. And I certainly didn’t.

It still takes conscious practice, but now I drink tea when I get the blues. And I like the way it makes me feel.

Any addiction is a learned behavior of escapism, whether it’s sugar, alcohol, or meth. It’s your go-to – it’s what’s comfortable, familiar, safe. As much as you hate it, you come to love it, even cherish it. When you become uncomfortable, you know how to fix that. As time goes on, though, you start to realize your habits aren’t sustainable – that this one comfort in your life still makes you miserable. Its secrecy isolates you and, with food especially, it’s very easy to keep problems a secret. You can eat in the bathroom, outside, in your car, in your home. You buy a binge amount at the grocery store and excuse it with a charming smile, saying, “My boyfriend was just dying for oreos.” Whether you purge or not, that’s easy to hide, too. Any time you go to the bathroom, all you need is your own finger, maybe a pen. No one knows if you’ve had three dinners or zero and most people are too involved with their own problems to catch warning signs in a friend or family member’s behavior. Even if you do notice – what are you supposed to say?

To stop negative, self-sabotaging behavior, you first have to decide that you want to stop. Reasons vary – but it’ll usually come with realizing your own worth, deciding that you don’t deserve to be sabotaged. Most personal work begins with self-love, but getting there can be an arduous journey. If you see signs in a loved one, simply beginning a conversation will help. Just be there. Get personal. Ask the hard questions – it’s always worth it. Here are some helpful ones: How do you feel about yourself? What do you think about? How’s your heart? Even a simple, How are you? with a meaningful look. Talk about anything personal – the mere fact of your intentional presence makes a difference. Because, just as the junkie might talk to his heroin, food becomes a friend. And if no one’s noticing your unhealthy behaviors, try being your own friend and turn these questions on yourself – at least start thinking about it.

Addictions are like abusive relationships in this way – you love them, and they hurt you. But you just keep going back. To get out – be mindful. Subconsciously you’re upset, and you’re taking it out on your body. Now you’ve decided you don’t want to go to food or cigarettes every time you’re bothered, but it’s engrained behavior. Luckily humans are adaptable, and rewiring the brain is possible. A craving sets in, and your body instinctually busies itself with finding a fix. When this happens, stop. Look. Listen.

Stop. Pause in the moment. Freeze. Still your body so you can listen to your emotions. Observe and describe what’s happening. “I just got in my car at 11 pm to go find candy/chips/whatever.” Investigate. “Why do I want candy right now?” Even with quitting smoking – which I’ve also done – noticing that you actually have a craving is the first step. Chances are there’s a reason, and it’s probably something you encountered – bad news, being ditched by a friend, didn’t like what you saw in the mirror, even boredom. Okay, you’ve frozen the moment, paused yourself – now what? That’s up to you.

Choose. You get to decide whether you go on your errand or not. No one’s pointing a gun at you, no one made you get into your car. What do you want – really? Try to see past what you want in this moment to what’s actually going to help you in the long run. If you want to beat an addiction, don’t forget that you want to beat it. Keep reasons on hand if you need to, and reference them in this moment. Remind yourself of how much you start to hate yourself after you eat an entire tub of ice cream. Is it worth it? Now of course you’ll relapse, but don’t beat yourself up for making the “wrong” choice. You still made it, the least you can do is take responsibility for your actions and accept that. It takes baby steps.

In recovering from bulimia, I struggled with binging long after I stopped vomiting. But I promised myself – whatever happened – I wouldn’t purge. I would have grace with myself, forgive a binge and move forward. The fog began to clear as I slowly cleaned up my diet, seeing food as fuel instead of an event or a comfort. It was certainly gradual, but here we are two years later and, while I am necessarily aware of food, I am healthy. I practice kind habits. And they’ve become so much easier with time. And I work for that. Anyone can. You can. Without a doubt – it is worth it.

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Conquering Depression

I remember seeing those commercials that said, “Depression hurts. Symbalta can help.” It’s true that depression hurts, and it seems like more and more people are dealing with it as our culture encourages internet connection over human connection. I don’t know if Symbalta helps, but I do know that Abilify and an assortment of other pharmaceuticals did not help me. What did help was group therapy, connecting with other people and learning the skills of mindfulness and meditation. I hope this list will help you.

  1. Look. Listen. Take a moment to realize that you’re depressed. This sounds elementary, but there have been times when I’ve eaten a few too many cookies mindlessly, only to feel worse at the end and be forced to acknowledge what I was trying to avoid all along – that I feel like shit. So stay one step ahead of the game, and call yourself out. See how it feels.
  1. Remember the truth about yourself. Depression has a nasty way of clearing out everything good from your brain, lying to you and insisting that you’re not important and a slew of other negative ideas. Look in the mirror and say, “You are a worthwhile person. You matter. You are intelligent, kind, strong, etc.” Don’t say et cetera, or do and then recognize yourself as hilarious. Just keep speaking the truth to yourself. Because you are.
  1. Do something. Meditate for ten minutes. Dance around your room. Write in your journal. Draw a picture. Box. Play a song. Go outside. Breathe deeply. Remember that you’re alive, and choose to live.

There you go, three easy steps and you’ll never be depressed again! Obviously I’m joking, that’s impossible. And implementing this is not easy. But, with practice, it does get easier, and maybe you’re able to recognize depression in a day instead of in a month. Neuroplasticity is a real thing – your brain can be rewired. And it remembers good decisions, as long as you keep making them.

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A message from myself to myself – I wrote it and got it done in the summer of 2014.

Warning: you will slip up. I sure do. Why do you think I’m writing this? But have grace. Be kind. I have a tattoo on my wrist that says “be kind to yourself.” It’s literally tattooed onto my body and I still forget! Eventually I always remember, and it doesn’t take nearly as long as it used to. It can be difficult, but kindness is what we all deserve.

Mind that this list is by no means conclusive. I do plenty of things that I didn’t write here, and it’s imperative to find what works for you – everyone is different! But this is a strong start. Now meditate your way out of those end-of-winter blues. Spring is here.

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