There is a hard, dark, very murky lump, that aches a bit in the middle of my chest. It is gray, but not the warm, gray of tree trunks or chick-a-dees. It is a foreboding and sinister gray, one that has the capacity to sap my life energy and spiral me down into the pits of despair. This is a warning-a warning that if I don’t notice it, and slowly excise it, it will grow until it encompasses all of my being, sending me for weeks, maybe months into the depths of discouragement and despair-a condition that has no redeeming features and leaves me feeling empty and alone.
Through years of recurring severe depressions, I have come to know what that lump means. I know I have to hurry to get rid of it, before it claims any more of my being-before the energy it takes to erase it is gone.
I begin working, a little bit at a time. It grows smaller as I connect with my daughter and other close friends for some ranting and raving time. Time when they listen as I vent my feelings and frustrations at being a passenger on this planet. And when I finish and collapse into slumber or go for a walk, it gets even smaller.
I greet the day, still dark outside, with my close friend of four years, my light box. Reading the paper-skipping the bad parts-in this warm glow continues to lift my spirits. Through the day, I take time-outs to relax, breathe deeply and listen to some good music. A time when I let the past and the future drift away and exist in the present. Being really good to myself, I relax in a tub of warm water filled with the scent of sweet birch or lavender or rose.
That book I have been meaning to read. A couple of hours with it and a cup of herb tea curled up in my soft recliner and the lump continues to decrease in size and intensity.
For a change of pace a bracing walk with the dog. Together we walk and run a bit, exploring the woods and meadows as if we have never been there before. The lump is just barely noticeable now.
I check out my diet of the last few days and usually discover that I have not been paying close attention to nourishing myself. So I head for the farm or the co-op and buy myself a supply of good, healthy easy to prepare food in the guise of preparing for the worst, a pending episode of depression which no longer comes. So I enjoy eating all the good food-especially the black olives roasted in garlic.
In addition there is a very important technique which has become a mainstay of my protocol for reducing that lump. It’s called “focusing”. I had never heard of it until after my first book, The Depression Workbook, was published. Friends from England called and said, “Mary Ellen, we really like your book, but you didn’t mention “focusing”. In England we use it all the time to reduce symptoms.” I admitted, rather sheepishly that I had never heard of “focusing”. They directed me to several resources and I was on my way to becoming a “focuser”.
This simple little technique doesn’t cost anything. It’s easy to learn. It can’ t be done wrong. It’s best done in a quiet space, but I have done it on airliners, in crowded offices and even during boring lectures. It’s like meditation, but instead of totally quieting myself, I give an ear to what the feelings in my body are trying to tell me (I often don’t bother to take the time to listen). I can do it with a focusing partner as a guide, or by myself. I usually do it alone because when I feel the need there is often no one else around.
So OK, what is it. I begin by making myself comfortable and taking a few deep breaths. Then I scan my inner landscape, moving from place to place and noticing how I feel. Lighter here, heavier here, a bit jumpy here, placid here, euphoric there. It’s an interesting process of listening to myself and what my body is trying to say, instructive in itself, even if I don’t go any further with the focusing exercise-and sometimes I don’t.
Then I ask myself the question, “What’s between me and feeling fine right now?” I don’t answer with my brain. I let the answers come from my heart, my soul. As the answers come, I don’t give them any attention. I just make a mental list of them. One of my recent lists included feeling overwhelmed by having too much to do and not enough time to do it, concerns about an elderly, ailing parent, that funny place in my breast that I’m supposed to wait and see about, a hurtful comment from a good friend, a delicate relationship with an adult child.
I ask myself again, “Is there anything else that should be on that list?” And if my soul speaks, I add the comments to the list. Ah, yes, that awful television news piece about atrocities in a distant part of the globe.
Once I have my list in order and it seems complete, I ask myself “Which of these items stands out-which is the most important?” Again, I shut my brain off and let my soul answer. I am usually surprised. What I thought would be number one was not number one! It’s that relationship with my adult child that really stands out. Ah hah! I am learning.
Then I ask myself, “Is it OK to spend a little time with this issue?” If my soul responds with a yes, I proceed. If I get a no, I can return to the list and get something else that stands out as needing attention.
I focus my attention not on various aspects of this issue as if to solve a problem, but rather on the feeling this issue creates in my body. I let my soul come up with a word, phrase or image that matches this feeling in my body. I get the image of a big ceramic vase, red and blue, but very brittle, showing signs of cracking. I go back and forth between the word, phrase or image and the feeling, testing to see if they are really a match. If they are not, I let that image go and choose another until I am really comfortable with the match. This time the brittle vase seems to fit. I spend a few moments, whatever feels right, going back and forth between the word, phrase or image and the feeling in my body. In that process I notice a change in the way my body feels-a shift. I linger with this new feeling for a few moments. It feels better, like a release.
Then I ask myself if I need to go further, or if this is a good place to stop. This time I continue, asking myself some simple question like:
- “What is it about the problem that makes me feel so ____ (word or image)?”
- “What is the worst of this feeling?”
- “What’s really so bad about this?”
- “What does it need?”
- “What should happen?”
- “What would it feel like if it was all OK?”
- “What is in the way of feeling that?”
I relax and let the answers come to me, just being with the answers that come from my soul, always remembering to leave my analytical and critical brain out of it. Then I spend some time with the answers that came, particularly noticing the changes in my feelings. Bit by bit I unravel the pieces of my life that may be causing of worsening this feeling of depression.
If it feels right, I may do another round of focusing, or resume my hectic life with a new sense of well-being, that lump in my chest perhaps gone, or almost gone. If it’s still there I repeat all of the above until it is gone for good-keeping my bag of tricks ready for the next time.
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, developed Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) with a group of people with lived experience who were attending a mental health recovery workshop in 1997. She is the original author of the WRAP Red Book, as well as dozens of other WRAP books and materials. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to learning from people who have mental health issues; discovering the simple, safe, non-invasive ways they get well, stay well, and move forward in their lives; and then sharing what she has learned with others through keynote addresses, trainings, and the development of books, curriculums, and other resources. Now that she is retired, and that, as she intended, others are continuing to share what she has learned, she continues to learn from those who have mental health issues and those who support them. She is a frequent contributor to this site.