Two years ago, amidst my depression, I wrote in my journal “I wonder if Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf could have been saved by mindfulness”.
The assumptions were many – firstly, my skepticism surrounding mindfulness, which my psychologist at the time insisted on every week; secondly, the belief that good artistic work is made out of pain; lastly, the thought that there was no effective cure for the kind of pain I was in. Looking back, this doesn’t make sense, since depression is a well-known disease and, if you dare to be vulnerable, you might find out that two or three friends have gone – or are going – through the same situation.
My depression was about hopelessness but mostly boredom. I wrote in my journal: “When I was in Scouts, I used to think “Well, today is Sunday, 7 a.m., and at 10 p.m. my parents will come… This is fifteen hours, which seems a lot, but now in the morning, I’ll be busy dissembling the wooden tables and chairs, packing my bag, taking the tent’s stakes of the floor, and getting breakfast… They told us after lunch we would be ready to walk our way back… And then the train, and another one, and from the station to the headquarters, and then I’ll be home. So, I’ll be busy and time will fly”. The thing is that nowadays, I can’t really do this. At least not in the long run – I can’t keep breaking down and counting the time that’s left for the next one, five, ten, twenty, or forty years…”.
Back then, it was hard for me to process my own feelings, so most of my journal entries are about time and the anguish that I felt when, day after day, tomorrow became today. But after some good months, I came to the realization that unless I wanted to end up in the same way as the aforementioned writers did, I had to ask for help to survive “the sum of days”. At the time, I picked a nice psychologist who was very pragmatic and made me shift my attention from my feelings to practical behaviors.
I’M A SIMS CHARACTER
One of the main things I learned in therapy is that the quality of my routines matter. What have I been eating? How many hours have I slept? What about exercise? All of these correlate with my mood and, after some resistance, I’ve been able to build a healthy routine that now prevents me from extreme bad moments. I imagine myself like a SIMS character with that vertical bar of basic needs – such as feeding, sleeping, cleaning, even fun – that I have to look out for, always aiming to make them green and full.
Perhaps this might not be the most exciting life for a young person – like Sylvia Plath writes at the beginning of the Bell Jar “I was supposed to be having the best time of my life”. I’m sure many young people like me can resonate with this desire. But whilst that option isn’t available for me at the moment, I’m finding comfort in taking care of myself. From cooking to washing the dishes, taking care of my body and my surroundings have become acts of self-care.
GIVE IT A NAME
Another lesson I learned came from mindfulness and this idea of “non-identification” – “I’m not my depression”. In other words, non-identification means that I can become more critical of my own thoughts and feelings instead of being defined by them. They’re just happening, so let them happen. Instead of going over the same bad thoughts again and again, I should try to distance myself from these low states, visualize them like something outside of me, and give a name to this phenomenon (this is where meditation and all those mindfulness apps come in help, but I’m still trying to master that).
I’ve also realized that practicing non-identification can be quite intuitive for some people, as depression can feel like something outside of us. I understood this the other day when a friend of mine was explaining to me that she had a name for her low moments, so she could communicate that to her boyfriend without having to list all her symptoms and thoughts. I went for something similar during high-school too – I used to call them “a bike with roller skates”, which was a nonsensical term, like the bad days I had at the time.
ALL THE BRILLIANT THINGS
There’s this play called “All the brilliant things”, written by Duncan Macmillan, that tells the story of a kid that starts a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world for his mum who has tried to commit suicide. I went to see a great interpretation of this play in Portugal, which made me start my own list of brilliant things:
But this idea of making a list had crossed my mind before, after a conversation with a colleague that introduced me to the “gratitude list” concept. At the time, I thought gratitude lists were “a distorted way to deal with the emptiness and meaningless of life, a pat on the back”. But then my colleague explained to me that it was about recognizing and appreciating not only the big things in life – like a promotion or a trip – but also the small things – a conversation, a meal, a sunny day. I thought it could be helpful to find beauty in a life I wasn’t excited about at the time. On that day I wrote:
I didn’t continue writing three things I was grateful for in my journal, but I did say them out loud to whoever was with me at that time (and now I actually write them down every day).
This brings me to my next point: document it. I’ve kept several diaries throughout the last seven years, so it was easy for me to follow my psychologist’s advice of writing about my days and thoughts. To what is commonly known as “journaling” nowadays, the idea behind it was less about making sense of my thoughts but instead learning how to diminish their importance. Having a journal allowed me to read things that I wrote months and years ago (now from a better a place), which turned my journal into physical proof that things do get better (and also became a great source of writing material).
IF IT WAS A FRIEND SAYING ALL THOSE MEAN THINGS
Lastly, the big push for me to overcome depression and find the motivation to take care of myself came from a sentence I heard during therapy: “If a friend told you the same mean things you repeat inside your head, what would you do?”. “I would stop talking to her – who the hell does she think she is?”. Ah ah! – if I wouldn’t allow anyone to say mean things to me, considering it an act of disrespect and lack of friendship, why was I making an exception for myself?
I also learned that depression led me to unnecessary thoughts that kept feeding the depressed state I was in. In my case, I thought a lot about my all-time dream of becoming a journalist, a dream that I nurtured since I was twelve, which vanished during my depression. “I’m not becoming a journalist”, I repeated, until the day my psychologist made it clear that, unless I had a crystal ball, I couldn’t really hold onto this negative idea – again, the advice was to be more critical of my own thoughts.
I recently went back to this idea after listening to Madeleine’s Dore interview with Clare Bowditch on her podcast in which Clare explains that when she was going through a hard time as a youngster, she made a promise to herself of writing a book once she turned forty:
“It helped me, that night, to just leapfrog ahead like that, to imagine myself at that age, at forty. To imagine, just for a second, that things had worked out. That I had lived. That maybe I even had a family, and a house, and a dog”.
So, during my treatment, I held on to the picture of a 30-year-old Mariana, that god knows how had accomplished her dreams.
Like Andrew Solomon put it: “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a grey veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly”.
All these “tools” helped me click with a different kind of truth and, eventually, supported me in tackling the reasons for my depression, which I’ve overcome. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to mental health. Perhaps mindfulness would have worked for Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, or perhaps they might have needed other treatments – but I do like to think that they would have found something.
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