Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Making It Through Winter

In June 2012 I went into meltdown and collapsed inward on myself. For a week I was so depressed that I couldn't walk and talk at the same time - I'd have to stop still just to answer 'yes' or 'no' when Mac asked me a question. Months of visits to doctors and a clinical psychologist, and working through John Kerwin's website helped me to gradually re-emerge from the bleak, black hole.  I didn't take drugs other than herbal St Johns Wort, though I did set myself a time limit for feeling better, and would have taken them if there had been no improvement. Once out of the hole, I knew I had to change things if I was to stay out of the chasm. It's been over two years and I still have to consciously work on my mental state on a daily basis - and I think I will have to do this for the rest of my life.

Last year I avoided the 'inevitable' worsening of my depression in winter by running away to Alaska for the month of June: the anticipation kept me bright before hand, while the memories and that month of 23 hour a day sunlight kept me going through the dark days of July and August.

I approached this winter with a mixture of terror, hopefulness, and determination. I had learned a lot of new skills - maybe I could get through this winter without falling over the edge. So, here are some of the things I have learned to do that help minimise depression and maximise happiness and contentment:
  • exercise - I need to do a lot more, but, still, I am doing more than I used to and I definitely feel better for it;
  • eat healthier - and not give in to binging on sugar and chocolate when I start seeing the blackness creeping towards me, out of the corner of my eye. By really being aware of what food I eat and how my body reacts, I have noticed an improvement in mood;
  • plan something nice every week - 'smaller' things like lunch with a son, a visit with a friend, and 'bigger' things like a week at the Mount with several friends, and our suit / tie / posh frock party.  The planning is the key - the benefit of the anticipation does me even more good that the activity itself;
  • creating lists of work goals for each day so I can feel a sense of accomplishment when I tick things off the list - as a stay-at-home yeoman farmer / 'housewife' it's easy not to notice the housework, gardening, beekeeping, poultry keeping work I do, especially when I'm tending toward a down period;

  • indulging my creativity by taking time to do craft work and write (though that's one area in which I've fallen down this winter.)

  • listening to music, both live and recorded;
  • reading useful books, magazines and websites - and severely limiting fiction. I have come to acknowledge that it is very easy for me to escape into fiction, becoming much more introspective and isolated from reality, which tends to drive me lower;
  • being aware of negative thoughts about myself, others, and well, just about anything, and questioning myself about the feeling - I can often trace the thoughts way back to something which is really irrelevant to my life today;
  •  actively looking out at the world every day, several times a day, seeking beauty: the greens, blues, browns, yellows, the reds of the world, a buttercup smiling up through the grass; the shapes of the bare, winter trees; the crazy clouds that scuttle across the sky; the amazing windmills on the hills; the sound of the stream cavorting through our bush; the soft, sweet smelling fur of our grey tabby cat. There is so much beauty as long as I keep my vision wide and aware - but I have to concentrate, because my tendency is for the darkness to narrow my vision, for the darkness to close in around me so that I can't see the beauty.
Simple, easy things for many people who don't even have to think about them, but for me so hard to remember, so unfamiliar, so tiring to keep doing on a daily basis. This is not a familiar pattern - I was raised in a culture of criticism 'for your own good': nothing was ever good enough; everything was examined for how I could do better; there was always someone else who had done better that could be held up as an example, and I learned to criticise myself and others, to evaluate everyone and everything for their lack of perfection.

It's working. This winter I have been happier, more contented than any winter I can remember. In the past it seemed that I was a 'grey okay' most of the time, interspersed by substantial periods of blackness, and rare times of what Abraham Maslow called 'peak experiences'.

Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences. ..................Abraham Maslow
I knew that Maslow believed it was possible to increase the frequency of peak experiences but back when I was a university student, I learned only one way to induce one (to go to the ocean on my own and sit with the sea.) It never occured to me to even try raising my general level of happiness. I assumed that would take outside intervention, or even a miracle.

What I have finally learned is that miracles are not big things, but rather are found in the smallest parts of our lives. The beauty and engineering of the spider's web outside my back door. A smile. A tui singing in the pohutukawa tree.

The cultivation of appreciation of the smallest things, and of (though I hesitate to use such a trendy term) mindfulness, has brought so much joy into my life. I am learning to look for the good, the beautiful, the wonder in everything and to largely dismiss that negative inner voice. And I practice the art of peak experiences almost daily now. My life is becoming a life mainly of contentment, interspersed with joy and occasional sadness and tiredness. Although I sense the black dog stalking me, trying to use the tiredness and sadness to bring me down, I am constantly alert and I now have the skills to chase him off.

I have made it through winter and have come through happy, joyous even. If you see me looking down, please remind me to look for the small miracle - a hug or a smile will generally suffice.

P.S. I can't believe I forgot to mention the supplements I take, especially Vit D, and my 'happy lamp', both of which also contributed to my improved sense of well being.