Fear. Who among us hasn’t experienced it at some point in our lives? Fear is universal, and even the animal kingdom confronts it. For many of us, it is a feeling that is experienced on a regular basis. For the fortunate few, it is a momentary annoyance. Whether it is a common occurrence or a rarity, the crucial factor is how we respond to it. Do we shrink from it and allow it to guide our actions, and our lives, or do we take a deep breath, brace ourselves and look it in the eye, much like the underdog facing the reining champion? It all comes down to a question of control and courage. Do we allow it to control us or do we have the courage to refuse to cede control to the powerful emotion?
The question comes to mind as I confront a bout of depression. It is not a ‘dark night of the soul’ by any means. It is more like a physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that persists, in spite of what I do. I know that, as is always the case, it will pass, but I find it difficult to wait patiently for that to happen.
Many years ago, I was reading one of my many yoga magazines and I stumbled across a review about a book written by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Until that point, I hadn’t heard of her. I don’t even remember the name of the book being reviewed, but I was taken by the book’s summary and the positive review that it received. At first, I was reluctant to read the book, because having been raised as a Christian (Catholic), I was taught to view other religions with a huge degree of skepticism and disbelief. (Among other things, Buddhism differs from Christianity in that it eschews a belief in the existence of a god.) When I was younger, it was “us” versus “them.” Fortunately, with age came a curiosity about other faiths, their beliefs and practices, as well as faith in my unshakable beliefs.
Anyway, that first book became the first of many books and CD’s that I devoured by Chödrön. She teaches in an authentic, honest,. compassionate, and loving way, but she doesn’t shy away from the truth. The current book that I am re-reading is “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times,” which uses Buddhist wisdom and techniques, often mediation and mindfulness, to successfully deal with life’s difficulties. Regarding fear, she is direct and tells the following tale:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ”
~ Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times“
Whether true or fictional, the tale is instructive. As I mentioned earlier, the question of courage enters the equation. All too often, we allow our emotions to control our behavior, because we can’t muster the courage to overcome them. Thus, we act according to the emotion, be it guilt, shame or fear. In that respect, we allow the emotion to exert power over us. By acknowledging the fear, but overcoming the very powerful urge to act in accordance with it, we free ourselves of its hold over us. I do not claim that this is an easy feat. If I believed so, I would not have chosen “courage” as my word for 2014, as this earlier post indicates.
In my case, I’ve discovered that control is tied to the act of being vulnerable, which itself raises the specter of fear. As I wrote, there are times when I felt that:
[b]eing vulnerable meant admitting that I wasn’t perfect, that I don’t have it all together, that sometimes I feel lost, and that sometimes I need, among other things, love, help, support, a shoulder to cry on, to vent, that sometimes, I just don’t know, and need help finding the answers. I realize that I need the courage to be imperfect, thus, the courage to be vulnerable.
Granted, acknowledging my fears, opens myself to being viewed as weak, something that is frowned upon in our society. Nevertheless, failing to do so, brings with it a denial of my true self, and for me, sharing my journey of discovery demands openness and honesty, no matter how uncomfortable or vulnerable that may be. With that said, my goal is to face fear, and have the courage to triumph over it. As this year has passed, I’ve had many successes, but a few missteps. Yet, acknowledging my fears has become far easier, and I know that though I may fall, I will continue to pick myself up, and “begin again.”
What about you? How do you deal with fear? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As you may recall, “courage” is one of my words for 2014. Courage requires the courage to be vulnerable, and I vowed that in 2014, I’d make every effort to do so. With that in mind, there is something that I’ve wanted to talk about for quite some time, but recurring thoughts of fear and shame always prevented me from doing so. The fear of admitting the truth to myself and especially others. What would they think of me? How would they react if they knew that I wasn’t as strong, as invincible, as I see myself, as they see me? Would they turn their backs on me, or view me with pity? Yet, the truth is what it is, and the truth is that I suffer from depression; it is a part of my life.
As a child, I was the anxious sort (My mother deemed me “nervous.”), so much so that my Mom actually brought me to a doctor who after examining me, prescribed what my mother referred to as “nerve” pills. (To this day, I have no idea what they were, but I remember that they were little orange pills.) I was 8-10 years old then, and I didn’t know what to make of the pills, so I took them for a short time and then stopped. The memorable thing about it all is that no one thought to ask me why I felt the way I did. In those days, it simply didn’t matter. These days, likely, I’d be referred to as a little girl who was acutely sensitive to the world about her.
My first bout with clinical depression came decades later after the death of my baby brother. At the young age of 23, my brother was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. After about two years and a very rigorous course of chemotherapy and radiation, his doctors declared him cancer-free. Unfortunately, the cancer treatment irrevocably damaged his heart and as a result, he had a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. As a result, his death at a young age was inevitable, but its suddenness left the family totally unprepared.
As the oldest sibling, it was clear that I would undertake the task of bringing him home to New Orleans. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree In Communications at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, and I lived in Central Texas. Ironically, my husband and I moved him to Norman, and as fate would have it, I would move him out, and bring him home.
Throughout the ordeal, I remained detached and stoic. I journeyed through it in a hazy, sleepwalker mode. I went to Norman, began the arrangements to have his body cremated, cleaned out his apartment, and handled all the things required under the circumstances. To this day, I have only a fuzzy recollection of my actions and interactions because it was so surreal that I tried to shut out the pain by pretending it wasn’t happening. I did and ultimately, picked up my brother’s ashes, placed them into a carry-on bag, booked a flight to New Orleans, and began the trek to bring him home to our mother.
At that time, I travelled–a lot. This time was profoundly different. Although certain facts still elude me, I distinctly remember being on the plane, and being told by an insistent flight attendant, to stow my carry-on bag under the seat, and after a futile effort to hold on to it, I reluctantly did so. Afterwards, I recall taking in all the happy and laughing people surrounding me, who were oblivious to my circumstances and that they were in the hallowed presence of my brother’s ashes. I envied them their ignorance. I somehow made it to New Orleans, picked up a rental car and mindlessly drove the familiar streets to my childhood home where my mother was waiting. (To this day, I only remember walking seemingly long terminal from my gate, but I have no recollection of renting the car or driving the 30 or so minutes to New Orleans to the house that my brother and I grew up in.). The most heartbreaking moment of the entire event was taking the ashes out of the bag and placing it ever so gently into my mother’s open arms.
Afterward, my actions are a total blur. I know that I helped my mother make the necessary arrangements for burying him, which required trips to the cemetery and funeral home. My sister and I created a program for my brother’s mass.I did everything that I felt compelled to and afterward, well, that is when the impact of the preceding week hit me. I crashed and burned.
Having no experience with depression and all its gory details, I could not comprehend what was happening to me. I returned to my job as a lawyer for the State of Texas. Each morning I went to work and attempted to return to life as usual — that just wouldn’t happen. The harder I tried to return to life as usual, the more difficult it became. As a supervisor, I would call meetings and in the midst of them, break down in tears. It became a challenge to get through the day without breaking down. People would ask how I was doing and I found it easier to say “I’m fine, thank you,” and run to my office, close the door, and cry. I couldn’t tell them how I really felt — like I, too, was dying.
Depression is insidious. It eats away at the very essence of who you are. At its worst, you forget that pre-depression picture of yourself. I know that I did. The things that I used to do, no longer interested me. Except for work, I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything. Depression sucked the joy out of all the people and activities in my life. My children were teens, and although Christmas was and still is, my favorite holiday of the year, I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate it as it was my brother’s favorite as well. For this reason, they largely had to forego the first Christmas after my brother’s death.
Even then, I kept denying the truth of the matter. My increasingly concerned husband kept taking me to my doctor, to whom I continued to proclaim, in tears mind you, that nothing was wrong with me. Over and over, I refused his attempts to give me a prescription for antidepressants. As depressed as I was, I was adamant against taking prescriptions for depression, and branded crazy and unstable. I, like many others, viewed them as for the weak and pitiable creatures, and I thought that all it required was strength of will and determination. I also feared that should anyone learn that I had a diagnosis of depression, it would affect my job. I wanted nothing to do with it. Finally, after one too many visits to my doctor, and relentless sobbing, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and gave me a script for an anti-depressant, which my husband filled. I was really too apathetic to care.
Naturally, I resisted taking the medication. At that time, I had no interest in vulnerability and subject to my friend’s pity or their ridicule. After much denial and pleading from my husband and others, I relented and began taking the antidepressants. It took weeks to show any effects, but slowly the medicine began chipping away at the seemingly impenetrable wall of depression. As time went by, every once in a while, I caught myself smiling, I began to venture out from my self-erected prison and started the slow process of re-engaging with those around me, and ever so slowly, I returned to the things that brought me joy in the past, especially my family and friends. It was if I’d arisen from the dead or at least a long, deep sleep.
As I came back to life, I realized how deep-seated my depression had been. In my case, while in the grips of depression, I could not recall my life pre-depression. The joys, the passions, the loves — none of it seemed real. The only reality was the depression and how effectively it burrowed and insinuated itself into every area of my existence. It seeped into every facet of my life and made depression seem the norm. I think that is what makes fighting against it most frightening; you lose the will to fight it. Depression lulls you into a false sense of inevitability. Although I lost my will to fight, I remained determined to hold on and not allow it to completely overtake me. I took the antidepressants for at least 1 1/2 years and I think that they saved my life.
I came away from the experience more informed, enlightened and able to recognize the signs of a subsequent depression. I also learned that, like millions of other people, my notions and ideas about depression were harmful and antiquated. Depression is no less an illness than cancer, diabetes or other diseases that are readily tested for, verified, and accepted. It has nothing to do with a person’s strength, will power, or fortitude. It has no regard for race, class, education or wealth. In the past, the presence of mental illness has sunk a potential Presidency, and many a career. It was swept under the rug, relegated to the shadows and whispered about behind closed doors. Although much has changed, there is more to be done in order to encourage those who need help to step forward and seek it without fear of losing respect, their jobs, marriages, friends, or lives. For this reason, I’ve found the courage to stand up to say that, “I am Lydia and I suffer from depression.” If my story helps one person, than I have served my purpose.
All Will Be Well, ~ Julian of Norwich