Chuck Murphree -Author & Blogger
When Monsters Come To Play
This past week alone, I have heard about several people having depression and some having suicidal ideation. I have also had a few people reach out to me about my novel and thank me for speaking up about mental illness because we are in a critical time where depression and anxiety are dramatically on the rise. No need to thank me, I simply know the darkness that depression can cause and if I can help even one person by sharing my story, then I gladly will. People are suffering and they need to know they are not alone.
I recently had someone approach me, out of good intentions and with sincerity, and say, “You seem to have a good life. You are happily married, love your students, seem to smile a lot, and your book is doing well. What do you have to be depressed about?” That’s the problem with depression, it does not discriminate. It wants to ruin you and take your smile away. It wants to deflate and crush you, and tell you everything will not be okay, leaving you hopeless. It’s an illness, and deadly, not unlike any other deadly illness. It’s just invisible, well, for the most part, it’s an illness we cannot see. I’ll challenge that briefly. When one has depression or when you are close to someone who has it, you can see it in their eyes and mannerisms. You can hear it in their voice. Yes, it’s mostly invisible but there have been many times that I have approached someone because I see, and often feel, their darkness. Sure enough, after I talk with them I discover they are suffering, not from wounds that bleed, but from something that is much harder to heal. A wound that goes deep. My wife can take one look at me and say, “You have eyes.” It’s her way of saying, I know you are in pain.
One of the worst parts of having depression is the dreaded numbness that comes with it. It’s when you stop feeling anything at all and often your thoughts drift toward killing yourself. You may not actually want to kill yourself, but dying is all you can think about. It’s because you are desperate for the pain to go away and you believe producing your own death is the only way out. This is a frightening place to be in your mind. It feels like you are trapped and hopeless like you will always feel this way. You won’t. It’s impermanent and I will discuss that more in a moment. Hang on!
When depressed, your thoughts are often intrusive. It’s as if you have no control over them and they continue to come at you, overwhelming every sense that you have, and taking away your light. The intrusive thoughts can make you feel like you are losing it, as if you are stuck, without a clear path to move forward. Those that believe depressives should just be able to “stop thinking bad thoughts,” which I have heard more than once, have never had depression. It’s more than just being sad, it’s being a prisoner in your own mind, and you are both the inmate and warden. A cruel match of wills. One wanting to escape confinement and one wanting to hold you captive behind the bars in your mind.
Another difficult thing to admit with depression is that when you are feeling better when you are able to find some relief, you realize the pain is a thought away. If you haven’t been in the dark dungeons of your mind for a while, you know it’s there and even the anticipation of it returning can often hinder your happiness, or contentment, with life. I was diagnosed years ago with dysthymic disorder. Basically, an ongoing depression of more than two years. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and trauma, mostly from childhood and other events as an adult. I have come to accept that I have had depression for most of my life, and will have it for the remainder of my life. Knowing this brings a strange sense of relief. I like to know what I’m dealing with and what’s in store for me, and with depression being a lifelong companion, I have sometimes referred to it as my “dark little friend.” Except this friend rides my back often trying to put me in a chokehold, suffocating me, and taking away all hope. Friends can be tricky.
Depression can often feel like having two selves, a lifelong, continuous play if you will, on a creaky stage with poor lighting and two characters dueling it out. Except, the actors are both of you. One the protagonist and one the antagonist. It’s an epic battle that exhausts both actors, and in the end, the curtain falls and you still don’t know who won. For your loved ones, the audience, it leaves them feeling helpless, wondering what the next act may bring.
Depression is also mysterious. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend or understand the storm that is happening in your own mind. I have found that people I speak to about their depression struggle to articulate it. When the pain is so deep within, and you are in agony, it is hard to find words for it. It’s also exhausting to even explain to others how you are feeling. The agony is not unlike grieving for someone that has died, except with depression, you are grieving for the loss of yourself, and you eagerly want yourself back. For the witnesses of depression, the loved ones who stand by waiting for you to return, this can be most difficult because they desperately want to understand what’s causing the depression. As if knowing the cause they can help “fix” it. I feel for them. Over the years my wife has stood in front of me, holding me and asking, “What can I do?” In the midst of the storm, it is hard to say what she can do. However, simply asking, holding me, being non-judgmental, accepting, and loving me for all that I am is enough.
For those of you that suffer from depression, I offer you these things that I have written about and speak of often. I hope they help you find peace. It’s part of my “map” to survive this illness. A gathering of tools that I have gathered for my life’s journey, pulling them out when I need them. Some I use daily and some when the darkest times arrive:
- Mindfulness: Check out Thich Nhat Hahn or anyone else that can teach you the way to live in the moment. Being in the present moment helps because I like to say, thinking about the past causes depression, and thinking about the future can cause anxiety. It doesn’t mean we do not reflect on where we came from or think about where we’re heading, but the focus changes as does understanding.
- Therapy: I have had the same therapist for over twenty years. I’m fortunate that I found him as he has helped me gain the skills to cope and understand my thoughts, schemas, and cognitive distortions. He has helped me accept my trauma and try like hell to move forward. If you don’t find the right one, keep searching. Your healer, your guide is out there somewhere.
- Exercise: There is nothing like a good hike, bike, or trail run to calm the storm.
- Yoga: Because it’s so much more than simply stretching. It’s moving in unison with your mind, body, and breath and focusing to calm yourself. The benefits of yoga can be hard to explain, especially to men. Perhaps they think it’s not masculine enough. However, try holding your body weight up for an hour while maintaining your balance and focusing your mind all at once. There’s really nothing like it.
- Get out into nature as much as possible.
- Journal and write, even if it’s random thoughts that you will never share. Just get it all out on paper and tell your truth. Never judge your thoughts.
- Read. Read everything because words are healing.
- Meditate. Yes, this is similar to mindfulness and is often practiced in yoga. It’s all connected. However, practicing sitting or walking meditation, where you focus on your breath work can bring you back to your true self. Mediating can be extremely difficult and frustrating. That’s because we humans have a monkey mind. Keep trying, it gets better. Breathe slowly with a four-count in through your nose, hold, and then a four-count out through your nose, hold, and repeat. Warning! Meditation can bring a plethora of emotions as it releases energy and feelings that are often carried deep down. Let every emotion happen naturally, don’t fight it, and accept it. Calmness typically follows.
- Acceptance and Impermanence. These two concepts can heal your mind. Once I started to accept my depression and anxiety for what it is, healing began. The more I fought it, the more I struggled. The idea of impermanence allowed me to be mindful that when I am in a dark place, I once felt good. I know that my darkness will eventually subside and I’ll return.
- Nutrition. our body and mind are one. Okay, when I talk like this, I’ve been called a “hippie” or Earthy crunchy” or “leftist” or a “tree hugger.” However, those comments are usually by lost souls, trying to hang on to bruised egos. I am a firm believer that with exercise, one must eat healthy foods, mostly plant-based. Eat those veggies, especially the greens, and fruit. When depressed, it’s quite easy to drown yourself in sugar and alcohol to escape the pain. However, the shitstorm returns once the temporary high is over. Why not feed your body and mind the things that will make it feel good.
- Build a Routine. My best days are when I get up at 4:30am, write and read, followed by yoga. Before my work day even starts, I have already accomplished so much, and it releases thoughts and endorphins, along with gaining knowledge. Then, after work, I exercise again and possibly write and read some more. Of course, this is just part of my daily structure, but it is crucial to building a routine into your day that starts positive and healthy.
- Talk to someone. Reach out to that person you trust and don’t worry about the stigmas that surround mental illness. Those stigmas are not helpful and damaging. You are not weak. For you men out there, your strength is not defined by what society tries to tell you. True strength is knowing yourself and having the courage enough to live life on your own terms.
*By the way, our military’s special operations and special forces use many of these same strategies, as did Samurai Warriors, in order to have a stronger mind and body. Weak? I think not!
- Medication is often needed and can help. For me, I do not look for a pill to “fix” me. It is why I created my map of coping strategies. Medication is a tool in my toolbox.
Build your own coping strategies and find what works for you. I have found that I need to have many to choose from because one day my mind might not allow me to write but it will allow me to practice yoga or walk in nature. I might be in the middle of the storm and reading a book is a monumental task but breathing mindfully is welcomed.
I’ll end by saying, I sit here today, sipping coffee, Nick Drake on my playlist, thinking about the several current and former students that I have heard from recently, trying to describe their depression and anxiety. I think about parents of students that I once had, desperate to help their now adult children, not unlike when I had their kids with me within the schoolhouse walls or on a run. I think about my former classmates and colleagues, along with current ones, who have reached out, opening up about their own anguish. I hear them all and feel their suffering, and try to offer some of myself in order to help them, possibly guide them through the tidal wave in their mind or the storm they are witnessing in those they love. I do not have the answers and I don’t claim to. All I can offer is my experiences and what has helped me survive, hoping that something I have to say gives others a chance to fight their own demons. You are not alone!
Read that again and repeat. You are not alone and you will be okay. Never give up. Always keep moving forward, and when the monsters come out to play tell them, “I’m ready. Bring it!”
Copyright – Chuck Murphree