So, you have taken a tumble into depression. Perhaps it felt like you were desperately trying to balance on a tightrope, and fell. As I have discovered from years of dealing with depression, there is a safety net that can stop you from hitting the hard rock bottom where flashbacks of negative thoughts and experiences can play over and over in your mind like the movie scenes that repeat on a DVD menu.
If you were traumatised or abused as a child – especially by family members – you probably had no soothing adult voice to alleviate your emotional pain and fear. Amplified in angry silences, in guilt, and in adults’ displeasure with each other and life, that pain and fear could now be hard-wired into your brain. New traumas and quarrels and other people’s indifference to your pain can amplify and entrench it further. Then when the horror movies of past trauma or abuse start playing inside your head, it is often difficult to find a switch to turn them off.
Like me as a child, you may have been forbidden to talk about what happened to you, or to express the pain and grief of what you experienced by crying or becoming angry. And probably like me as well, you were a child who could be seen, but not heard. Perhaps you were not even seen, and spent hours shut in your bedroom with only thoughts to keep you company about how bad and wrong you were – so bad in fact that you didn’t deserve your parents’ love.
Even now in my sixties, the traumas and unhappiness I experienced as a child still invade my dreams like an intruder to wake me at night with a pounding heart. I have chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by many experiences that terrorized my childhood. It has permanently altered the flight/fight buttons inside my brain and they flick on at the slightest reminder of past trauma and abuse. When they won’t turn off, not only does it lock me into a prison of anxiety that robs joy from my waking hours, it can also send me tumbling towards the black hole of depression. It took me years to learn how to catch myself with a safety net before I hit the bottom.
This safety net is called appreciation.
Whenever negative thoughts send me spiralling down, I ask myself, “What can I appreciate about this moment or day in my life?” Is it the little fantail that chirped cheerily to me from a tree just off the deck? Or was it the unexpected melody from a thrush I hadn’t heard before? Is it the rain that has allowed me time to write and reflect without feeling guilty about holing up inside? Or was it the short break I had where I picked up my guitar and played a song I hadn’t sung in years, making me feel grateful that I could still play it?
That guitar was the friend I took on my travels halfway around the world. Sometimes I played it on a beach at sunset, enjoying a quiet time alone. Occasionally people joined me for a sing-along filled with joyful camaraderie. Then one day a young man brought pizza to share at a deserted summer camp while I was editing some writing by a lake. He told me how his life had fallen apart when he had been on drugs, the money he had gone through, the excuses he made for his behaviour, a baby the mother wouldn’t let him see.
We watched the sun spread glitter over the lake in the late afternoon light and I played my guitar and sang Let it Be. It bought tears to his eyes. Later we made marbled patterns on paper with chalk sprinkled over water. I watched the delight and surprise on his face as we lifted each sheet of paper from the water to reveal its unique pattern. Before he left he told me that making art together had given him a higher high than drugs. “I didn’t know you could get so high on happiness,” he said.
I am smiling as I type this. You see how this little exercise in appreciation took me on a pleasant trip though happy memories. This is what breaks the pattern of freefall into the darkness of negativity, despair, and depression. Just as one negative thought will seek out other negative thoughts and compound them, focusing on appreciation seeks out the happy memories that are also stored inside our brains – those ones that can light up our face with a smile. Therefore the choice is ours about who we will invite into our minds as ‘guests’.
Whenever dark clouds start rolling over my horizon I now remind myself to focus on appreciating one thing in the moment, in the day, in the year, in my life and let the happy memories take me on a joy ride. My heart stops pounding. My hunched up shoulders relax. And I begin to breathe life deeply into my gut. The sun peeks through the clouds. I watch the wind play with the curtains and listen to the cicadas sing their raspy songs in the afternoon heat. Peace knocks at the door and enters. I heave a sigh of relief at the appearance of this most welcome guest. And to keep this welcome guest here with me, this year I began a ‘gratitude’ journal and write one sentence a day about something I could appreciate or be grateful for. At the end of each day it takes my mind into a positive memory or thought that I can take to bed with a smile.
By changing my perspective like this, I can see that alongside the painful and sad experiences of my life are many happy and joyful events for which I can learn to be grateful. By appreciating the gifts each new day brings, life is no longer a whirlwind of trauma and unhappy memories that suck me into despair. Each special moment brings lightness and joy to my soul and I weave them all firmly into my safety net to catch me when I fall again.
As I type, a blackbird is pecking up breadcrumbs I sprinkled in the garden this morning. I peep through the window from my desk and watch unseen. It reminds me of a beautiful garden I weeded several years ago where I was accompanied by a female blackbird following a few feet away to get the worms from the newly turned soil. Whenever I found a worm I would leave it on top of the soil for her. After many weeks of developing her trust, I held out my hand with a large worm to see if she would take it. She looked at me, and then at the worm, and then at me again. Finally she quickly dashed to my hand and snatched the worm out of it. The delight I felt at the simple pleasure of establishing such trust left me feeling elated for days. It got me thinking that if I could create more of these happy experiences to outweigh the bad, then maybe one day, depression will set me free.
I have to add here that weeding is wonderful therapy, for as I pulled out each weed I sometimes saw it as pulling out a negative thought or bad experience from my mind so that my internal garden could thrive. Doing random acts of kindness, sharing something you value, or giving something anonymously to brighten someone’s day is also good therapy and leaves behind an inner glow.
After many years I am getting better at creating happy experiences, and have managed to stop the freefall of depression from hitting rock bottom. Even though I feel more in control of my world and my moods, there are still times I feel a little shaky as I work to integrate past traumas. When this happens, I take myself out for a walk with my camera in hand and look for the beauty within nature I can capture to take home with me. Uploading my images, I can clearly see that there is much to appreciate and be grateful for in this amazing world, and that things aren’t always as dark as they seem.
Working at making happiness a permanent and constant part of our lives is perhaps one of life’s greatest challenges. Many people seek happiness through the acquisition of money or fame or power or the ‘perfect’ relationship. But for me, happiness has come through the courage and commitment to rise above the negativity of fear by appreciating the many gifts that special moments bring.
What special moments and memories do you have to weave into your safety net?