I have found a lovely resource, a book about depression that is unlike other books about depression. It is called Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and What Medication Can’t Give You. Doesn’t that title grab you? The author is Richard O’Connor, who is a therapist but more importantly, is a person who has depression.
So what’s so lovely about this book? Well, first off, he discussed the skills of depression…the particular abilities that being depressed seems to hone in people. For example, depressed people are good at isolating, or separating feeling from experience, so that we have experiences but we don’t have the emotion you might expect to go with it. Depressed people are skillful at procrastination: it keeps us from, as the author says, “ever having to put your best self on the line,” because we always run out of time. (Oh, boy, can I ever relate to that! Waiting until the last minute meant I never really knew if I would actually get through graduate school). Depressed people are skillful at negative self-talk, at pessimism, at setting impossible goals or having no goals and lots of guilt. Depressed people are good at setting themselves up to make sure that a negative view of the world is supported: that is, undermining ourselves…perhaps before we can be undermined by others. There are more skills but you probably get the picture.
The great thing about this approach is that skills are something that are learned. They are not innate characteristics; they are not who we are. They are coping methods that we developed to manage our depression. So we had a traumatic childhood, or we were bullied in the workplace, or a parent died or left the family. Or we have family members with depression, and we both inherited their predispositions and watched and learned from depressed behaviour. Whatever the story that generated our depression, we have used these methods to cope. But they are skills….learned and therefore un-learnable. If we learned these skills, we can learn other skills.
Aha! so my tendency to procrastinate and put my job at risk, and isolate myself and put my relationships at risk, and to engage in pessimistic and negative thinking and put my own safety at risk…those are skills I have learned to cope with depression. They are not character flaws. They are not immutable parts of my self. They are SKILLS.
Somehow, that is a tremendously hopeful message.
One of the keys to undoing, according to O`Connor (and a lot of other people, including researchers) is to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is practically a buzzword these days; everyone is being mindful of something, somehow. But the mindfulness that seems to be particularly useful in retraining people who are skilled in depression is of a particular type. Mindfulness is “spending time paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn. According to O`Connor, it is about “deliberately trying to attain a new attitude toward your own thoughts, feelings, and everyday experience, a viewing of oneself with compassionate curiosity.” This practice is embodied by meditation, the content of which is one’s own experience in the moment.
The ability to see oneself, to experience one`s moment by moment being, complete with thoughts, emotions, images, and body sensations, is to free oneself from the anchors of the past and the anxieties of the future. For a few minutes every day, you can be as free as possible from all of those things that otherwise feel like constraints. During mindfulness practice, we can learn to defuse from our thinking, those beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world that limit us. We can be just as we are and see what that is like.
This kind of practice enables a freedom in the world, as well as on the meditation cushion. I am thinking that perhaps that`s part of O’Connor’s message. When I create some space away from the skills of depression, I am aware of being able to make choices in how I will be, how I will respond, how I will live in the world. And that is a place from which skills for the full experience of living can develop.