Zen and the Art of Mental Maintenance
I have a terrible memory. I often can only remember the bare bones of something, without the details that surround it. Case in point – I remember an analogy (to anger or addiction or depression… I can’t remember now). But basically it said that this “x” factor will always be next to you, you just can’t let it drive. You’re on this journey together. It will always be there in the passenger seat. And when it reaches for the wheel, you have to swat it away. YOU are in control of where the car goes, even if your anger/addiction/depression is also along for the ride.
It’s a good way to view mental illness. Especially if you have to drive it to work with you every day. For clinical illness (i.e. reliant on brain chemistry and/or genetics) we have to recognize that this is our lot in life. That being said, it doesn’t have to control us.
If it’s not controlling us, we have to control it. But how? How do we control something so big and nebulous and amorphous and incorporeal as depression or anxiety?
The more I think about it, the more I realize that our minds and our bodies are really all we can control. So if we can exercise a fair amount of control over our minds and our bodies, we can curb that icky sticky hand of depression as it reaches out to grab the steering wheel.
I’m not here to cure you. But the whole reason I started this weird blog thing was to share the information I have building up like Jenga blocks in my head. So here are a few things I do to control my mind and my body and keep my mental illness in check.
Meditation and/or Mindfulness
For those of you who sort of balk at the idea of Eastern medicine or practices… first of all, get over it, they’ve been figuring shit out on this planet long before us. And second of all, I kind of get it. Western society has built up this whole idea of mysticism and Mister Miyagis that can be hard to buy into. But a lot of it works for a lot of people.
Just this morning, I was having a hard time getting into my groove. I overslept, my Internet kept cutting in and out, and I fucked up my Chemex brew (bitter coffee is a horrible way to start a morning). I was beginning to feel the itchy-under-the-skin feeling I get when I start to lose control and the anxiety takes over. My fingers started to curl and shake, I was having a hard time typing, and my head felt like it was filled with TV static.
I stopped. I put my hands in my lap. I sat back in my chair. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and focused on the air entering and leaving my body.
I imagined that my entire body was pitch black. I was just a velvety, dark outline of a person. With each breath, I illuminated a part of my body with purple light. First the top of my head, then down my face, down my neck, over my shoulders and so on until I could imagine my entire body just being this pure, glowing, purple light.
Afterwards, my body was still and calm. And I immediately found the focus to start writing this blog post.
If you want more than anecdotal evidence that meditation and forcing yourself to be aware of your body works, a simple Google search will tell you A) it works for most people and B) it’s most effective for anxiety and focus. But it’s not medicine – it won’t work if you don’t believe that it will.
It took me a long time to get into journaling. It requires a degree of commitment and follow-through that I just don’t really have. My boyfriend always insisted that I journal, especially when I was having a depressive or manic episode. However, when you’re face is being sucked off by a Dementor, you don’t really feel like opening up an app and typing out: “This sucks.” It just doesn’t feel helpful.
But I’ve realized that journaling can have a bit of a preventative effect.
- It forces you to confront your feelings. Have you ever been worried about something that was just eating you up inside, but when you said it out loud to someone, it didn’t seem so bad?
- It forces you to record your thoughts (obviously) but in a way that you can go back and revisit to find patterns or triggers.
- It forces you to establish a pattern. While I’m not a psychologist, most will tell you that setting habits for yourself daily helps to establish both physical and mental order in your life. Starting each day or ending each day with a short journal entry helps you maintain clarity.
This blog is actually a form of journaling for me. I also journal in a cute little Mac App called Dairly every morning where I briefly jot down the things I’m feeling apprehensive or scared about, the things I’m looking forward to, and anything I can do that day to help me eliminate my fears.
Be Kind To Yourself
I took a philosophy class in high school called Theory of Knowledge, which tried to answer the question, “How do we know the things that we think we know?” It was a trippy class; we watched and analyzed movies like The Matrix and Being John Malkovich. We read Kant and Descartes. We talked in circles and questioned our religions and overall had a grand time.
I took a lot from that course. But the one thing I will always, always remember is when our teacher told us, “You are the only person you have to spend the rest of your life with. You parents won’t always be around. When you get married, your spouse won’t always be there. From beginning to end, every single day of your life, you will be only person to whom you owe it all.”
It’s a scary thought. And I think about it all the time. Depression isn’t just feeling sad – it’s when your inner voice gives up on you. It’s when there is no hope or joy in anything and with that comes anger; knowing, logically, that there is joy in the world, but feeling so far apart from it.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be able to afford drugs that silence this voice or therapy to combat it, the biggest thing you can do is to be kind to yourself. Speak kind words to yourself, even if you don’t believe them. Smother harsh thoughts with warm compliments, even if you don’t think they’re true. Hype yourself up in the mirror like you would your best friend, even if you hate what you see.
Changing your mindset is not always a suitable substitute for professional help. In fact, it’s usually not. But unfortunately professional help is a luxury. Changing your mindset is often the next best thing.