The uses of difficult emotions


It’s going to take me some background to get to my point in this post, but bear with me, because I think the background is needed.

I have had three episodes of major depression in my life: the first midway through high school, the second toward the end of college, and the third in the first winter of my high school teaching career.

Depression is a frightening experience, when you think about it. Especially if you’re suicidal. In high school, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I knew that I hated myself and wanted to die. I knew that simple, everyday tasks like getting dressed, interacting with other humans, and making small decisions like what to eat became insanely fatiguing. All I wanted to do was crawl under the covers with the shades drawn, and close my eyes to sleep forever.

I knew that I had no energy or interest for things that once sparked excitement, but I didn’t know how to articulate this. I knew that the world had become hazy and my brain seemed to slow down, like I was trying to move through water. Sometimes my body ached.

The worst part was the perpetual, debilitating sadness. The narrative that began to run on a loop in my head said some of the cruelest, most hopeless things we could say to ourselves. You’re worthless. Nobody likes you. Why do you even get up in the morning? It functioned as a downward spiral, growing in intensity as I succumbed to the thoughts. They would get more negative, louder, and eventually always landed on suicide as the best escape.

I know the reasons for suicide are many and various. Some want to remove the burden of themselves from their loved ones. For others, including myself, it feels like a way to escape the immense pain. That degree of pain is too much for a person to carry around every day. It was crushing me under its weight. I thought it would be a relief to not feel anymore. Everything hurt. I wanted it to stop.

The way I first understood what was happening to me was that it was an “illness.” My brain was not functioning properly; normal amounts of certain neurotransmitters were not being released, which apparently I couldn’t control. I was referred to a counselor and prescribed Zoloft. With the right combination of therapy and medicine, we would cure this illness.

What I remember about that first round of Zoloft is that it made me feel less sad, but only because I really just felt nothing. What I remember about therapy is that we focused a lot on external triggers, like school and people. We were sort of dancing around the heart of the matter, but we never got there. I didn’t realize that at the time.

Eventually, I was “feeling better,” so I stopped the Zoloft, wrapped up the therapy, and went on with my life. In college, it was more of the same. This time, I thought, I was ready. I knew the signs. Back to the therapist, back on the meds. Perk up; stop therapy and meds. Rinse and repeat. I wondered if this cycle would be a constant in my life. Would I be able to advance in a career? Get married? Have kids?

What this model taught me was that I had no agency. It was just my malfunctioning brain chemistry. There was really nothing I could do but be vigilant and pounce at the first sign of slipping. I had a “depressive personality.” This seemed unfair, but I accepted it as part of my identity.

The winter of 2010-2011 was a dark one for me. I was a first-year high school teacher, and I was struggling. Sometimes I think what happened was a kind of “walking depression.” No energy, lots of negative self-talk, fantasies of ending it all, sleeping for hours and hours in the evening and through to my 5 am alarm clock. Yet I still went to work every day. I still stood at the front of a classroom for three 90-minute blocks five days a week, like I was on autopilot.

I didn’t deal with the depression that winter. My achievement-driven brain wouldn’t let me. I just needed to Get. Shit. Done. When the weather warmed up, and my class schedule changed, I felt better. That summer, however, I knew I needed to take action. I couldn’t face another winter like that. So I found a therapist and went back on Zoloft.

This therapist introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy. It was a revelation to me that my thoughts might be creating my moods. I always had that backward. I had been told that my depressed brain was creating my thoughts. Now I was learning that my thoughts created my depression, and since that was the case, I had some control. I could recognize my distorted thinking, and change it.

This was helpful, and I came out on the other side just fine. But I was still subscribing to a model of depression as an illness, something that broke down in my brain that I could “fix” with the correct combination of treatments. Then I would be “well” for a time until it came around again.

I haven’t faced depression that debilitating since that winter, but I did face a sort of ennui, a sense that my situation was off, that I was hitting a wall; something was wrong and I needed to make some serious changes. I wasn’t suicidal, but I knew the way I was moving through life wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t desirable.

And you know the rest, from previous entries here. This was last August, when I started slowing down, welcoming stillness and silence, taking care of myself, embracing small pleasures, learning self-compassion. That journey has helped me see my previous depressive episodes in a whole new light. I’ve begun to comprehend the full power of our thoughts, how we can detach them from circumstances, and just how much control our thoughts have over our emotions…but also just how much control we have over our thoughts. I just think of the wave of joy I feel when I write down things I’m grateful for, or things that make me happy. I create that.

That’s why I wanted to share an article I came across last week. It’s called “Psychologists Think They Found the Purpose of Depression.” I remember when I read that title, a light clicked on for me. Everything I’ve been reading and learning these past few months has pointed to purpose in all things, if only we take the care and responsibility to stop, listen, and hear that purpose. I didn’t understand that in my younger years. But of course my depression was trying to tell me something.

[Please know I don’t presume to speak for everyone who has experienced depression or anxiety. I only want to speak from my experience, and offer my viewpoint as one among many possibilities.]

The research presented suggests that depression “can serve a possibly positive purpose”–“in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Wait, my depression was trying to tell me something?

The loss of energy, the stepping away from everyday routines, the rumination, the memory consolidation that happens in REM sleep–all of this creates an “altered state,” or a space away from regular living that allows us, if we’re aware, to learn how to pay attention to what hurts us, what causes the spiral in the first place. It allows us to go on a “quest toward understanding,” to make meaning following a particular nadir. Our job in a depressive state is to “to figure out what’s gone awry, what emotional knots need to be untangled, what attachment patterns need to be identified and addressed.”

This conception may offend some. I know that before my new understanding of self, I may have seen this as some kind of taunt. I liked wallowing in my pain, damn it. I liked being able to say I was helpless and powerless against the chemistry of my brain. It took the responsibility for finding a happy life off my shoulders. I didn’t want that responsibility. I wanted someone else to do it for me. I wanted comfort, not happiness. And comfort, for me, was in my pain. I didn’t have to work for it. I just existed. If the world didn’t come together to give me everything I wanted, then that proved how much the world sucked.

But the immense power I have gained since coming to understand that I do have the agency to create my reality–and thus my happiness–will never let me return to that state of acceptance and helplessness. I think this is why I am so thrilled to understand my own depressive episodes in this new light of purpose and use.

If I could go back and talk to my 16, 21, 25-year-old selves, I would be able to pinpoint exactly what my quest was meant to be. I could now explain exactly what went awry, the knots that needed untangling, and the attachments I needed to let go of. Achievement, perfection, validation from others, certainty about the future, and following a path that wasn’t authentic–these are the things that led to the negative thoughts that led to the sadness that led to the depression.

Could you do this work with your own depression? Or anxiety? Or everyday bad moods?

I have come to understand “difficult” emotions in a whole new light. Each time I find myself in a funk now, I ask myself which one of my attachments/expectations led me there and how can I untangle myself from it? I don’t try to distance myself from the difficult emotion or bury it or numb it. That only creates a cycle of hurt. I understand now that my mood is an indicator of a new lesson I must learn about being in the world. And I welcome it.

I love the list in this article about dealing with these funks. I think these methods speak directly to the idea that any sort of “negative” feeling is an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and the way we interact with our circumstances and master our own brains.

  • By reframing “negative” as “difficult,” we have the opportunity to step back and observe our emotions from a place of nonjudgment. Now, when I feel anger, I don’t feel guilty and try to stifle it. I really let myself feel it, and I ruminate on why I feel that way. Is it ultimately because someone embarrassed me? Or am I taking something personally that really has more to do with someone else’s projections?
  • By seeking adventure, we learn to live a life that inevitably involves both great joy and great disappointment. If you take a risk and put yourself out there, you may be disappointed, but you may also find your greatest joy. You don’t really get to pick and choose.
  • By getting more granular, we learn how we connect our feelings to our circumstances, and then how to untangle them. Rather than accepting that I just feel bad, I seek to understand why. I rarely just feel “bad.” Sometimes I feel humiliation that I don’t want to admit to myself; sometimes I feel jealousy that I don’t want to admit to myself; and sometimes I feel a hopelessness about something that I need to address.
  • By putting it into words–writing it out, or talking with a loved one–we release the emotion’s strange power over us. It becomes “just words.” We are able to rationally understand something that seems like pure emotion.
  • By holding our thoughts with a looser grip, we learn not to believe everything we think. Most of the thoughts I had when I was depressed were not true at all. Ask yourself if a thought is true. If you can’t prove it, work to let it go. Be at peace.
  • By befriending ourselves, we  can literally become our own best friends. We offer ourselves warmth, compassion, and encouragement in hard times.

Ultimately, what I lacked in my three depressive episodes was self-awareness. I had always believed a narrative that super self-aware people feel more pain than others because they experience the world hyper-sensitively. But I know this was not true for me.

Being self-aware allows me to observe my thoughts without judgment. It allows me to see my bouts of sadness, anger, guilt, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and fear for what they are: reactions to circumstances, some appropriate and some not. When you can begin to parse through the difference, you will begin to understand the uses of your difficult emotions.

You can also begin to create your life. Author Mary Lou Cook says, “Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes and having fun.” Don’t let your difficult emotions prevent you from reveling in the whole spectrum of experiences that this life has to offer us.


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