on an upswing

The past few months have been funky, to say the least. Not only for me but for nearly everyone in my worlds: The US is going through some sort of adolescent tantrum, wrought with resentment, bigotry, and disappointing indications that we haven’t been paying attention in class over the past few hundred years. Somaliland and Somalia are hurtling head-first into famine, and humanitarians of every shape and size are caught up in the inherent and maddening politics of international aid. Getting assistance from donor to beneficiary is not nearly as straightforward as it ought to be, and the pressure mounts as time passes, and drought’s victims pass away.

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Somewhere in there I lost myself, I tipped into the darkness that comes around every now and again, pays a visit without invitation, overstays its welcome. The darkness of old would shock me into submission, steamroll me to the point of immobility. And, looking for something to blame, I’d get lost in arguments with myself about the origins of my own depression – circumstance, coincidence, fate, dumb luck, or my own mistakes and missteps.

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This time around, things have gone a bit differently for me, though still, I can’t pinpoint why. Likely, it’s a confluence of factors: a healthy relationship; work that requires massive energy and attention even when I don’t think I can muster it, thus serving as a distraction; unrelenting sunshine here in Hargeisa; the cumulative gains of emotional growth.

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In addition, I’ve gathered a few tricks up my sleeve over time, that I’ve employed with a radical obstinacy. I was fortunate my black dog allowed me at least this – to cling to my tools; not every episode of depression is as generous. Those tools include things as basic and monumentally hard as acceptance. I had resisted the shadows in the corners with all my will for several weeks, thinking I could hold them back. Once I realized, in a teary mess, that I could not, I opened the doors and welcomed the visitor with acceptance. Let’s have a go, let’s make our way down the stairs, and sit for a while in the darkness at the bottom. This helped, not because of some practiced mastery or bravery, but because it made me feel more in control, and loosened the strain of resistance.

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I hauled out a battery of supplements I’d stockpiled earlier but hadn’t stuck with. Of course I can’t make recommendations for anyone else, but a multi-vitamin can’t hurt, and neither can fish oil. Probiotics are a personal standard, because my emotional mind has my digestive system wrapped around its figurative finger. St. John’s Wort is a heavy-hitter among herbal supplements, so research is required, but he can give you a gentle boost.

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For me, depression takes root in the mind and extends to the body, with all kinds of physical consequences: migraines, joint pain, muscle aches, and so forth. Logic would have it that a response should follow suit: get the mind in place and the body will revive itself. But research and personal experience tells me that it’s possible to work from the outside inwards: softening the body, loosening the muscles, lubricating the joints, and breathing deeply can render miracles. For me this takes the form of a daily yoga practice, and a stubborn insistence to meditate – for 10 minutes, for 5 minutes, for 60 seconds. Anything is better than the frigid tension of depression.

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Perhaps most comforting, and requiring the least effort, is reading passages and works by people I admire on how they’ve experienced, or live with, mental illness. A few writers whose thoughts or works on depression and mental illness have brought me comfort:

  • Luisa Weiss, of The Wednesday Chef as well as cookbooks and novels alike. She writes, Depression is exhausting and maddening, the way it niggles at everything good in your life and turns the rest into an unmanageable calamity. It worms its way inside you and takes up residence like some kind of tropical parasite, keeping you up at night while it seems that the rest of the world sleeps blissfully. Other people’s happiness is both a comfort and a finger in the ribs. Her humility is grounding, and she brings the added benefit of a recipe or two to accompany most of her writing.

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  • Beth Kirby, of Local Milk. Also a food writer, her style is absolutely bewitching, and seems to be an incarnation of an unruly personal history. She writes candidly on comorbidity, as in this passage as a guest writer on a separate blog. In my blind, amorphous faith I give up my need to know so much, and there’s so, so much acceptance to be had in that place. I morphed. But, as in the mathematical branch of topology, I don’t believe I’ll ever compromise the Euclidian space I occupy. Whether I’m a donut or a coffee cup, I’m still a thing with a hole in it…Mental illness most certainly doesn’t mean defeat. If you’re laboring under the misapprehension that it does, because it certainly can feel like it does, my advice to you is to know your weaknesses, carve out a space for them in your life, and then climb. And fall. And climb again without fear. And fall again. And never stop.

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  • My beloved Andrew Solomon, whose writing on mental illness manages to both embrace and burn away the chaos, rendering with clarity a wild and messy journey. He writes about horrible things with incomparable grace, and speaks about them similarly. As Andrew says, The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. Here’s his Ted Talk from 2013; it will change you.

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So I find myself on an upswing, working deliberately – not so much towards anything, but at things: at keeping my head above water, at chipping away at symptoms, at curiosity over fear. It could be that a cliff awaits me and I’ll fall into the crevasse; it could be that I’ve climbed out of this hole, and will enjoy a balanced respite.

You keep at it, I’ll keep at it, and we’ll make our way towards vitality.

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For expats and others without access or cash, here are the apps I use regularly:

Down Dog – Beginner levels 1 and 2 are free, and get the job done;

it’s a stunning app.

Lately I’ve been forcing my rear end onto the cushion for 10 minutes each morning,

and for that I use the no-frills Zazen Meditation Timer.

I also appreciate a mindfulness nudge during the day. Enter

The One-Moment Meditation, which I’ve set

to surprise me at different times with a prompt

for a quick 1-minute meditation.

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