The Two Faces of Depression

It’s the day before Christmas, which means the end of the year, which means I’m starting to think of all I haven’t accomplished in the past year. Again. There are two times I do this in a concentrated way, one is my birthday, and one is at the end of the year. Both are grim times, and even though they’ve gotten better over the years, some years they hit harder than others. This, apparently, is one of those times. It’s sad, too, because I really wasn’t expecting it. I used to hate and dread Christmas, but this year? I was cruising along, not giving a damn. Then, about a week ago, I started noticing that I was becoming testier and that my thoughts were turning darker. I say testier and darker because I’m always testy and my thoughts are usually dark, but there was a marked downward turn. If you’ve never experienced depression, it can be difficult to understand. “Hey, Minna, if you notice that you’re starting to feel depressed, why not just do something to prevent it from happening?”

Believe me, if I could, I would. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing that I’m slipping in a depression and feeling helpless to stop it. Correction–it was worse when I’d start feeling depressed, but didn’t realize that I was tumbling into the abyss. The world would turn gray, and all the colors drained from my life*. I’d start thinking about everything I hate about myself, and before I knew it, I’d be inert on the couch. Back then, I had voices in my head all the time, one in particular. I called him The Dictator because he was so rigid and unyielding. He was absolutely ruthless in crushing any whit of self-esteem that I had. There were lesser voices in my head as well that I thought of as his minions, and they did his bidding 24/7. The Dictator was so real to me that I could almost see him. He fed me a steady stream of negativity until it was all I could think. “You’re worthless.” “You’re fat.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re gross.” “You should die.” “Nobody loves you.” “Nobody should love you.” The worst part was that he knew my weaknesses so well, he would sprinkle enough truth in his statements to make me believe him. “You’re so needy and clingy” would preface “no one will ever love you”, and because the former is true, it was hard for me to deny the latter.

I know it’s weird for me to talk about him as if he’s an entity outside of myself, but it’s how I felt at the time. I had this intruder in my brain, and he ruled my brain with an iron fist. I believed everything he said and allowed him free reign of my mind until my last therapist finally got me to talk about him. I’m making it seem cut-and-dried, but it was anything but. I didn’t know this person lived in my brain, much less that he had absolute control over my thinking until after many years of working with my last** therapist. With patience, she was able to tease out that I had this complex system of shoulds and shouldn’t, what I had to do and what I couldn’t. There were stupid things such as if I looked at a clock and it was on the quarter hour, I had to count to twenty-five. When my therapist heard about that one, she asked what would happen if I didn’t. I started to answer, but i couldn’t because I had never thought of refusing. I just automatically did it. I don’t know how it even started, but it soon became a hard and fast rule that I had to do it. After my therapist asked me that question, I consciously stopped myself from counting in that situation. At first, it was uncomfortable and I counted more often than not, but I was able to break the habit. Now, I only start counting if I’m really stressed, and I rarely finish.

That’s a small, stupid example, but it’s indicative of how irrational the rules were and how absolute. One of the more major rules was that I wasn’t allowed to say no to anyone, no matter how ludicrous the request. I was brought up with no respects for my boundaries–indeed, I wasn’t really allowed to have any. So, I grew up thinking that what I wanted or needed didn’t matter, and that codified into a dogma that I still have a hard time not following to this day. I tend to give to the point of breaking, and then when I break, I snap. It’s not something of which I’m proud, but I have to acknowledge that I’m shitty at setting boundaries. I’m getting better, but it’s an agonizingly slow process. I’m learning that if I don’t set boundaries, I get resentful. When I get resentful, I start seething. If I seethe for too long, I explode. If I explode, I do way more damage than if I had just said no in the first damn place.

It’s hard, though, because I still have that voice in the back of my head that’s constantly whispering, “No one will like you if you say no.” It doesn’t help that I tend to date people who reinforce that belief. It’s Psych 101 that you’re attracted to people who remind you of your parents, but it’s true because what you learn in your childhood is what you consider normal. You don’t know any better because your house is your whole life for several years. You have no frame of reference. Mommy drinks from ten in the morning until ten at night and then passes out. Daddy doesn’t come home for days on end.When he does, he smells like perfume that Mommy doesn’t wear. That’s just the way it is–isn’t that how everyone lives? Even if you’re aware at some point that your friends don’t have to make dinner for themselves and their younger siblings every night because neither parent is around, (mentally or physically), it’s become your norm. You’re the caretaker, and you’ll probably be that as an adult as well.

I learned at a very young age that I wasn’t worth anything except for what I could give to others–physically and emotionally. People comment on how empathetic I can be and what I good listener, but I had to be that in order to survive my childhood. As a child, you innately know that your existence depends entirely upon your parents, and you do what you have to in order to ensure they’ll continue to take care of you. The thing is, the defense mechanisms that work as a child are not necessarily healthy, but it can be difficult to change them as an adult. “Hey, they worked for me as a child, so why not now?” is what your brain thinks. “Because you had to adapt to fucked up situations and ideally, you want not to get into them in the first place” is the response. It feels so counter-intuitive, though. The very things that helped you reach adulthood are the same things that may hurt you as an adult.

It’s hard to give up coping mechanisms. I know. I’ve been working on it for almost twenty years. There’s another Psych 101 saying–don’t take away someone’s defense mechanisms if you have nothing to replace them with. It can be more dangerous to have no defenses than to have faulty ones, but at some point, you want to replace the faulty ones with good ones. I felt with some of my earlier therapists, they were too eager to rip away the bad ones, leaving me bereft. My reaction was to double down and to keep doing what I had been doing, only more of it. I wasn’t equipped at the time to change my behavior, and it was only when I started getting a better sense of my self that I was able to slowly give up some of my defense mechanisms.

I don’t know when I stopped identifying the Dictator as a separate entity in my mind. I haven’t thought of him for several years, so it was while I was working with my last therapist. Many of the edicts he decreed as law remain with me, however, and it’s only with conscious effort that I’m able to work on them at all. I’m sure it’s better that I’ve integrated that part of me back into my larger self, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. That’s not exactly true. It’s easier to deal with because it no longer seems completely out of my control, but it’s harder to deal with because I feel if I’m cognizant about the issues, why the hell can’t I just change them already? It’s one of my frustrations with my taiji practice as well. I know many of the flaws in my form, and yet, I still do them. When I’m consciously working on them, I can correct them to a certain extent, but they’re so ingrained in me, they’re my default when I’m not thinking or when I’m tired or just having an off practice. In addition, doing the form with the flaws feels like the right thing to do because I’ve been doing it that way for years. Doing it the right way feels unnatural, which means I have to sit with being uncomfortable while I’m refining my form. It’s part of life that after giving up something old and trying to do something new, you’ll initially feel worse than you did when you were doing things the old way because you’re stuck in the in-between. You know that the old way is not good for you, but you’re not yet comfortable with the new way and have to trust that one day, the new way will be your new norm.

I mentioned earlier that it’s better to know why I’m depressed (time of year) than it was not knowing, and while it’s true, it’s cold comfort when I’m deep in the throes of the depression itself. When the negative voices start flooding my head, it’s difficult not to succumb. Even when I tell myself that the voices aren’t real and counter each negative point with a positive one, I can feel my spirits sinking. I am not a big fan of positive affirmations in general,*** but I’ve managed to come up with a few that sometimes help keep the demons at bay. When that doesn’t work, I just pull my head in my shell and turtle for a while. A few years ago, I went dark online for the month of December, which was good in some ways, but not in others. As much as I bitch about social media (which is a lot), being connected with others, even tangentially, can alleviate a portion of the depression. At that point, though, I was spiraling so hard, I couldn’t stop myself from falling.

This year isn’t that bad. In the past week, I’ve been more irritable than depressed, but this week, the depression has smacked me in the face, saying, “Hey, Minna. I’m still here!” Don’t misunderstand. The depression never fully goes away, but it’s been pretty low for the most part this year. I’ve been able to manage it for the most part, but this week is testing my strength. One reason I don’t make resolutions is because I don’t want to have to ponder how I’ve failed them all at the end of the year. It’s folly, really, because here I am again, contemplating all the things I haven’t done this year. The worst part is that this is my norm. Regretting all the things I haven’t done. I once said to my therapist that I was said with having wasted fifteen years of my life. Her reply was that unless I do the hard work necessary to change myself, in fifteen years, I’d be telling her (or someone else) how much I regretted wasting thirty years of my life. It felt harsh at the time, but she was right. The more year I waste, the more I regret the wasted years, and it’s a vicious cycle.

I’m a better person now than I was five years ago, but the changes aren’t tangible ones. They’re not ones I can point to and say, “Hey, this has changed my life in a meaningful way.” That’s partly because while I’ve made the changes, I still have so far to go. Again, a taiji comparison. I’ve bitched about the refinements that I’m working on and how they make me feel as if my form is shitty. This is true, but the only reason I can even focus on the refinements is because I know the form itself pretty well and don’t have to think about how to do each individual posture any longer or which posture is coming up next. When I was first learning the form, it was enough just to focus on the postures and the sequence. If my teacher had tried to give me refinements about where my hands should be, for instance, I would have been overwhelmed or simply wouldn’t have listened. The fact that I’m working on refinements at all is progress. And yet, I have so much further to go. I’m working on three major refinements as well as a half dozen smaller ones, and I feel as if my form is at its shittiest because of it. There’s some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss.

It’s the same with my emotional work. I’ve done quite a bit of it, but there’s so much more I have to do. I’m feeling overwhelmed because it seems as if a lifetime is not long enough to undo all the damage my childhood has done to me. Yes, I’m beginning to set boundaries with people, but they’re such small ones, they don’t feel as if they matter. It’s hard to remember that there was a time when it was unfathomable to me that I was allowed to set boundaries, so my attempts now just feel pathetic. When I first started taiji, my teacher had me do the whole form, urging me just to follow her as best I could. I stumbled along, feeling like a complete idiot as I mangled one posture after another. There was no way I was going to learn the whole form, I thought. 108 postures? Oh, hell, no!

Now, seven years later, I can do the whole form with ease. I know the Sword Form, two-thirds of the Saber Form, and the first section of the Two-Person Form. I’m thinking of which weapon I want to learn next as well. When I look back to the me that was stumbling through the first few postures of the Solo Form, I am amazed at how far I’ve come, especially given that I’m such a lazy student. I never practiced outside of classes and used to only take classes once a week. Now, I take them three-four times a week and do a few stretches every day. I’ve recently added daily form work as well, but we’ll see how long that lasts. When I look back on my emotional work, I see that I’ve made similar progress, though it doesn’t feel like it right now. It’s been in fits and starts, and there has been backsliding as well, but I’m still further now than I was when I started nearly twenty years ago.

Right now, the immediate goal is to make it through Christmas without throat-punching anyone, including myself. Then, it’s to get through New Year’s without sliding into a complete depression. After that? We’ll see. I’m just taking it day by day for now.


*This also happens when I get a migraine, but in a more literal sense.

**Last and best out of at least half a dozen.

***I find that many of them are hollow or just hot air.

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