Thursday, March 27, 2014

Recovery (LOA)

Some time ago I posted a link to a TED talk on facebook that talked about depression, along with some words about my own experiences with the horrible condition. If you haven't had a chance to watch it, I still very highly recommend it: 

Though my last post here was rather optimistic when it came to defining a more concrete purpose for myself, it did not change the fact that I was still suffering greatly, and there have been many, many lows since then. A lot has changed on the outside as well since last summer; I returned to Ithaca (though I'm not yet re-enrolled at Cornell as a student), moved into a cozy one bedroom apartment with continued help of my parents, and got a new job as a personal trainer at the university fitness centers. Through all of these changes (and maybe partly due to them) the depression lingered and eventually intensified.

That said, I want to shift gears from that and talk about another recent turning point in my life, a much more significant one than before. 

About a month ago, my good friend Naomi invited me to a meditation session with a Tibetan Buddhist monk she was going to be meeting with.  Though I was pretty excited about a meeting with someone who dedicated his life to spiritual practice, I couldn't have guessed that the session would have such a profound impact on me.

Instead of a simple mindfulness meditation, we were instructed that day to focus our minds and meditate on compassion. A way in which he suggested we do this was to imagine showing the same compassion we already have for those closest to us, like family and close friends, to the greater human family, particularly those who we are normally neutral towards (strangers) and even those towards which we harbor negative emotions (enemies).

I quickly thought about how I would approach this mediation; I had no such enemies to practice compassion with, and I already considered myself to be a rather caring person to even people I don't really know. 

Then I realized that I did in fact have a powerful "enemy" I could focus on, someone I grew to hate more and more deeply and intensely ever since the downward spiral of depression really took hold... me.

And so we began the meditation, and I created an image of myself as someone distinct from me. I pretended that Jeremy was not me, but another person I knew. I visualized him in my mind, saw through his downtrodden exterior to an even deeper level of suffering. I knew about every tear he shed, all the shame he felt every time his sadness drove him to act less and less like himself, and the hopelessness that seemed to define him almost completely for so long. I also saw his strength, his kindness, his sincere desire to be happy and to make a positive impact in the lives of others. What I basically saw for the first time in myself was a capable, extremely well meaning fellow human, a friend, being beat down over and over again, and it broke my heart. I actually shed a tear.

I wanted to hug this person, to be there for him and to let him know that he has an ally in me. I directed the empathy and understanding toward him that I believe everyone deserves. 

I realized (and truly internalized) that I'd been holding a very peculiar double standard against myself. I treated myself in ways that I wouldn't wish on anyone, constantly beating myself up and criticizing myself instead of actually being compassionate. I began to see myself as a human being just like the rest.

Though the experience itself was rather dramatic, its effects began rather subtly. For example, that day, I reached for an apple instead of a cookie as a snack, turned down dessert at dinner (which Kelsey was very suspicious of), and even went to bed a little earlier on my own accord for the first time in recent memory. I didn't know why I did these things or why they were significant at first. But then I came to see that the excessive sweet tooth and knack for overeating (to name a few things) I acquired over the years didn't only come from (as I thought) a desire to relieve myself of suffering and salvage the list of quickly disappearing enjoyable things (as well as reasons for living). It came from a fundamental lack of consideration and respect for myself and my own health and well being. Basically, if I were a loving and caring parent, knowing what I know, I would not treat my child, or anyone who was counting on me for that matter, the way I was (not) taking care of myself.

These past few years have been hard, but I've been able to piece things together slowly, little by little. It began with finding ounces of hope here and there, however small and transient, that I wouldn't be miserable for the rest of my life, and that life may someday be something more than a cage I was trapped in with no (good) way out. Through my extended break I even came to find for myself once again a compelling purpose for my life. I eventually came to the point where I wasn't simply living because suicide would hurt too many people. Being able to genuinely feel respect and compassion for myself as a human being like the rest, however, has been the most dramatic catalyst for change.

In the past month or so I've been getting up earlier, exercising at least 5 days a week, feeding myself a lot better, and sleeping a lot more regularly. My curiosity has kept growing and my excitement for learning and seeing how I can contribute to the world while improving my own life has been reignited. I completely "renovated" my apartment, which had been largely neglected since I moved in in August (I like to use the word renovated playfully to capture the scope of the internal redesign, no walls were actually torn down or anything). I haven't lived in such a neat, clean, organized, and overall pleasant at-home environment since my impeccably well maintained freshman dorm. Kelsey has been amazed that I've actually been happy to take walks with her as opposed to putting up a fight every time she'd suggest going anywhere (except sushi. I never lost my love for that sushi). I've even started writing in a gratitude journal every night without fail before going to bed. Basically, it's been a dramatic shift in lifestyle from just getting by and figuring out how to avoid hating my life even more.

I don't know if treating myself more kindly has been the latest piece of the puzzle, or if it may have been what I needed from the start. Like most things, it's probably due to a combination of many things. What I do know is that I'm grateful for this amazing new vitality I've gained.

In a session with one of my previous therapists, I mentioned how all I wanted was to find happiness again. She told me that happiness is an emotion like any other, and that it comes and goes. I replied that I did not mean the emotion, I meant something deeper. 

What I meant, though I didn't find any words to describe it at the time, is that I want to be happy in the way that, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering there is in the moment or how many painful things happen in my life, I can look deep down into my core and know that I am still, in a sense, "happy", that I am grateful to be a conscious part of this universe and to have the opportunity to live in and even find some enjoyment in this strange, incomprehensible, imperfect existence we share. I had reached that stage of happiness once, and was afraid that it had escaped me for good.

I know I'm not necessarily "home free" yet, and that there are many challenges waiting for me up the road. But today for the first time in almost 3 years I realized that I can finally and honestly say that I am happy again. Truly so. And though there's no guarantee of how long that will last, for now that's much more than enough.