Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Finding My Zen

One day, when I was about twenty, I found myself in a field with no memory of how I had come to be there. I was about thirty miles from town and thirty miles from the last place I remembered being. It was an unpleasant experience, filled with unpleasant realizations, to say the least.

For the record, there were no drugs or alcohol involved in this story. I had experienced what is sometimes called a fugue state, a temporary loss of identity and memory that usually involves going somewhere, or, more accurately, going away from something. (Disclaimer: aside from a medical diagnosis of depression – more on that to follow – I have had almost no interaction with medical professionals concerning any of this. As such, I will try to avoid using official medical terms, though that will not always be possible or practical.) In colloquial terms, I had experienced a nervous breakdown, and my life took a very distinct left turn.

I was found by friends, taken to a doctor, and diagnosed with depression. That last part was not a surprise to anyone, since I had struggled with issues of severe depression for as long as I could remember, but this was the first time that it was formally diagnosed, and it was the first time that medication was prescribed. I have never been a fan of medication, and this did not change that perspective. In fact, I am probably even more hesitant to use medications today as a direct result of my experience twenty-odd years ago.

If you are surprised by the late diagnosis, do please keep in mind that I grew up in a small town in rural south Texas, a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Things were different, and one of those differences was that most people never spoke about depression. It was not an issue or condition, it was a weakness, and you didn’t admit to weakness, especially if you were male. That was just The Rules, and you broke The Rules at great personal peril. Never mind the fact that you followed The Rules at great personal peril. It took us a while to figure that part out. We are getting there, and things are much better today (though there will probably always be room for improvement) but, at that time and in that place, if it were discovered that you were receiving treatment for depression … Well, you would probably end up with more reasons to be depressed.

So there I was, twenty years old, freshly diagnosed with depression and taking pills that had a terrifyingly long list of possible side effects and warnings. That list was so long that it seemed the only people who might be safe taking this pill were people who couldn’t possibly have any use for it. There was a potential reaction to almost every condition you cared to name, and some of them were so counterintuitive, it didn’t seem possible. This medicine could cause depressive episodes and could potentially trigger suicidal ideations in the suicidal, and this was an antidepressant, being prescribed for depression! I have since learned that this is the nature of mental/emotional conditions, due largely to the fact that we still understand so little of what causes these problems, and that most of these warnings were for potential reactions that were so rare as to be almost impossible, as long as things were taken appropriately and with proper care. At the time, though, it was terrifying.

No, that is not entirely correct. It seemed like it should be terrifying. On an intellectual level, that list of warnings did make me question whether or not it was worth the risk, and I knew – again, on an intellectual level – that this should frighten me. On an emotional level, however, I had nothing. No alarm, no fear, no real gut-level awareness of anything at all. I was living in a cocoon of thick spongey cotton that blocked direct contact with almost everything. None of the more alarming side effects seemed to present in my case, but there was one that was never explicitly spelled out in any of the documentation: This medication might transform you into a glassy-eyed zombie. That one I got, in abundance.

My life had changed and, while it was supposed to be a helpful change, it did not take long for me to begin to wonder whether or not it was worth the cost. I spent some time trying to adjust, but the question occurred to me, did I want to adjust? Did I want to learn to live my life through a filter?

It took me some time to reach an answer through the cocoon, but that answer was ultimately obvious. I am a very This Is Me kind of person, and changing that through artificial means will never be an idea that sits well with me. For good or ill, it is very important to me to face reality without a mediator. Living in a haze was not a long term solution. That bottle of pills went into the trash, and I began the search for what I would recognize as a better way.

I don’t necessarily recommend this course of action. I am not a doctor, and cannot give advice on quitting medication, but they tell me that going cold turkey is usually a bad idea. It worked for me, but a sample of one is almost worse than useless. Do your own research, consult with a trusted physician, and make your own decision.

My decision did work for me, though. That much I can say. Here I am, more than twenty years later, fairly well adjusted without medication, and living a life that I really wouldn’t trade. I would tweak it here and there, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure we could all find little improvements that we would like to make, but that is actually one of the tricks, and one of the ways I know that I am now better adjusted. I can look at something that bothers me, and see it as something to improve, rather than as something overwhelming.

You can’t cure depression. If you suffer from depressive episodes then you probably already know that. If you suffer and haven’t learned that yet, I’m sorry. There is no cure. Maybe there will be, some day, but that will involve medical science that is not even currently on the horizon. There is no cure for depression. Have I beat that horse enough yet? It’s pretty important to this entire project.

You can’t cure depression, but you can learn to live with it. Remembering to keep things in perspective – in fact, remembering to actively look for the perspective – is one of the techniques that I used to learn how to live with it. There were many more. It was a long process that I eventually came to think of as Finding My Zen. As anyone who knows anything about the subject will tell you, Zen is not a destination. It’s a journey, and that journey can sometimes be rocky. Learning to live with depression is a continual process, and a continual reaffirmation of the process. Sometimes, even after decades on the road, you may feel like you have to begin again. You can, though, because the steps will be familiar, even if the terrain has changed.

I’ve reached a point where I feel like a reaffirmation is necessary. I’m 43-years-old, and feeling my years. I’ve encountered a number of changes recently that have rocked my equilibrium, and regaining my balance is taking a bit longer with each upset these days. I do regain my balance - and my confidence in that fact is, itself, a testimony to how far I’ve come - but I’ve had more episodes in the past six months than I’ve had in the past six years. That is concerning, but not alarming. I know the cause, and that gives me a place to start.

This time I thought I would try something different. This time I thought I would invite you to come along with me. It is a somewhat scary thought, because it does involve opening up and sharing some things I’ve never shared with more than one or two people, face to face, but I also think it would be helpful. I am a writer by nature, but I have not, lately, been a writer by habit. I have not been writing. Part of that is the depression. It gets in the way and makes finding the words more difficult than it should be. I start a project, get frustrated because my brain won’t click correctly, and end up abandoning the project. This, of course, just leads to more frustration because a writer who doesn’t write isn’t really a writer, and we who see ourselves as writers tend to wrap a very large portion of our identity around that label. A writer who isn’t a writer quickly begins to question his value in other areas as well. We can’t have that, so we address that part of the problem at the source. We write.

In this series I will be writing about my own experiences with depression as well as my own experiences with overcoming depression. It will often be very personal, but I hope that it will also be in terms that can have a more broad application. Knowing what has worked for me may or may not help you, but it almost certainly will not hurt you, and it might at least give you some beneficial ideas. That is another one of the tricks, by the way. When you suffer from depression, helping others can sometimes be an amazing way to help yourself, as long as you also maintain perspective. That means that I will be helping myself in three ways: I will be writing, I will be reaffirming my processes for coping with depression, and I will – hopefully, at least – be helping someone else who may find themselves at a rough spot on the road.

Finding my Zen has been a long road that I don’t expect to end any time soon. I won’t lie. It does involve a great deal of work, but it’s been loads of fun as well. I’m nervous about it, but I look forward to sharing this experience. I hope we have fun together, and maybe we can lean on each other, from time to time, when that becomes useful as well. The first step is the hardest, and that one is now behind us. Let’s see where this road may lead.

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