Depression: When the Black Dog paid me a visit

This article has been long due for various reasons – procrastination, a sense of lack of urgency and utility. As I saw the news of the untimely death of designer Kate Spade to suicide this morning, I knew that it was time to finally write this piece.

A lot has been said and discussed about the dreaded D word – Depression. Some talk of their own battles, some wonder how an illness of this kind is even possible and some others opine that depressed people simply don’t try enough etc.

While this relentless exchange of thoughts continues (which it shall for decades at least), let me share with you my own experience with the illness.

I was a new mother, just having delivered my baby boy two weeks ago. Euphoria was what I felt each time I saw the tiny face, hands and legs and heard him cry for my attention. It was as if my longing for attention had just been fulfilled by no one else but my own flesh and blood, by someone who depended on me not only for his physical hygiene but emotional well-being too.

The late-riser that I had always been, I now began to wake up early, as if by a natural reflex to make sure that everything for OK for my baby, or if he needed anything.

It was just another early morning as my motherly instinct woke me up. I checked for signs of hunger or discomfort on my baby’s face and to find everything OK, heaved a sigh of relief. I tried to go back to sleep till my baby woke up, but something felt different this time.

Not realising when I had fallen asleep, I was startled by a faint sound of the baby turning in sleep. To my surprise, my heart skipped a beat. Somewhere I felt scared of him waking up and me, incapable of tending to him. At any cost, I did not want him to wake up at that moment.

“What kind of a mother are you Akanksha?” I said to myself. “You don’t want your baby to wake up?”

“No, it’s not that” came another voice, a guilty, submissive one.

“But that’s what you just thought!” came the angry, roaring voice again.

All I remember about this torturous mental conversation is that it continued in my head for days after that morning. A conversation between a rational and perfect woman with her own ideas of parenting and motherhood, and a guilty, subdued voice of a helpless woman who did not know what was suddenly happening to her. Which of these I was, I still do not know.

I cried and cried, till the point I wanted to pluck my hair. Anxiety only increased as each day passed and nights were no better. There was no sleep – how could there be in the presence of that ongoing conversation that only increased my hatred for myself.

Bad dreams made me jump in panic and usual things that we so often take for granted seemed to make no sense. Everything seemed so disconnected as if with each day, life was throwing me harder in whichever direction it liked.

A faint muffle from my child made me jump – what if I must feed him again? What if he is hungry or his diaper needs changing? These simple chores which sound like no-brainers when we think of them suddenly felt so herculean, as if I needed to be a rocket-scientist to be able to even give the child a shower.

I refused to eat or drink and drew myself in my own shell, still trying to manage or at least figure out the battle in my head. I was surely a fool, I told myself, for only fools were capable of such carelessness to their own children. How hopelessness could I be to ignore my new-born, my husband and my house? There really had to be a problem with my mental abilities. It must have been pure luck that I could have a career path of the kind I had – after all, I was good-for-nothing.

Eventually, someone pointed out to my family that I could be suffering from post-partum depression or the baby-blues. Reluctantly, I sought medical help and honestly, it had more to do for the baby’s welfare than mine own, for I was beyond doubt convinced that I really had a defect that no one could do anything about. No treatment or medication or therapy could help – the only cure was to wipe oneself off from the face of the earth and this, not only to ease the suffering, but also because I had managed to convince myself that this world, including my family and new-born would be so better off without me.

Luckily, with the help of family support and medication, the clouds finally lifted and once again, life seemed full of colours. The enthusiasm to perform daily tasks and preferred activities was back. As I share my experience with you, I would like to point out some things that I learnt about this illness during this very difficult phase of my life:

  1. Please do not consider mental illness as a sign of personal weakness or shortcoming. It can happen to anyone at any point of time, except that few people may be more pre-disposed to it. It is believed that 1 out of 10 people globally suffer from mental illness of some kind, at some point in their lives.
  2. Mental illnesses are as real as physical ones. The only difference is that the victim suffers both physically and mentally. During a depressed phase, getting out of bed itself may seem like climbing a mountain.
  3. Please seek help if you think you are feeling blue or sad without a reason. It’s not your fault.
  4. Please do not believe the things you tell yourself when depressed. This most lethal aspect of this illness is the ability of the victim to convince himself and others around him of defects he does not have. Wait for the sun to shine again – it surely will.
  5. Have a close circle of friends or family members who you can reach out to, without shame, when depressed. Talking to someone is always a good thing at such times.

And for all the others who have been blessed enough to never have experienced the misery of this illness, please stand up for friends and family members who may be battling such excruciating guilt and worthlessness.

Given the tendency of depressed individuals to think in terms of ending their lives, all of us can, in our own little way, keep in touch with people battling depression. Even if we have saved one life, our bit is done!

Image taken from Google images


Control your thoughts: Feel them first

Absurd as this may seem, this thought definitely has some merit. Thinking and feeling are often two areas which we inadvertently believe to exist in two different boxes, independent and water-tight. Anyone would commonly think that it’s the brain that thinks and the heart that feels. Right? But the reality is the two functions are performed by the same organ in our body – the brain and it is therefore, no surprise that in this mess of thinking and feeling almost simultaneously, we end up losing our sanity and worse, control over our own lives.

Let’s think of the brain in this way – the brain is a black box, system complete with its own set of complex and sequential processes to make decisions. Our thoughts, both good and bad, are the input, that enter the black box and with whatever machinery exists in that box in the brain, some output is generated. This output after the brain has successfully completed its thinking process is a definitive action.

For instance, if I have been thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, this thought keeps lingering in my head for as long as I have made up my mind about what exactly to cook or what ‘to not’ cook. This means that all thoughts much definitely end up getting converted into action. Remember that to choose to ‘not do something’ is also a decision and an action in that sense.

After the decision is made, action or inaction is undertaken. In my example above, let’s say I choose to cook rice for dinner. This is my action. After the action has been completed, feelings are generated. For instance, after cooking and eating the rice, I feel bloated and suddenly comes this overpowering guilt about having eaten rice even when I know that my sugar levels are usually very high.

Now there is a new input in the black box of my brain, a new thought – guilt. Note that the output of the previous process has now become a new input. This guilt now occupies some more space in my brain’s black box, and lingers on and on, probably even when I am talking to a friend or washing dishes. Even when I may not realise what exactly it is that I am thinking, the guilt continues to be processed in the brain, resulting this time in another action.

This action could be for example, having a strong cup of coffee after the rice meal, only to deal with this massive guilt eating into my body like a parasite. This time this action of having this not-so-required cup of coffee introduces yet another feeling in my brain – anxiety.

This feeling must be dealt with again, with some other action. This process continues for all of us, all the time, whether we know it or not. Simply speaking, thoughts generate decisions, decisions generate actions and finally our own actions, generate feelings.  The feeling from the previous thought become the input for the second cycle.

Do you now realise why some days are just so draining for us with an unexplained negativity in our heads? The whole world seems to be on the lookout for making us feel more miserable – the traffic conditions, the weather, the gazes of people – everything seems so depressing even when the same things may make us happy on other days.

One thought leads to the next and keeps adding to the negative thought pool, giving the brain more negative information to process. We must only multiply this by probably a few million, which is the count of the thoughts that our brain processes at any given point of time.

Another useful way to look at this phenomenon is this – whatever we are feeling at any given point of time is the accumulated impact of all our previous actions. Had I not done that, I would not have felt this way or that way.

Does this sound similar? Probably that’s what they call karma is the scriptures, with all its jargon and heavy language.

But here’s the deal – what if we could predict how a future action will eventually make us feel? What if we could choose to take another action or make a different decision with the knowledge of how we are feeling now, at the time of thinking the thought?

While this may sound a little crazy, it is almost logical. Even when the brain is processing a thought in its black box, engaged in the process of making a decision that will eventually convert into an action, we can, by paying close enough attention to our own feelings at the time of processing the thought itself, get a sense of how it will feel after the corresponding action has been carried out.

In my example, if at the time of thinking through the thought about dinner, I spare just a couple of seconds to pay close attention to how I am feeling at that point of time about rice, I can avoid making a decision that will make me feel guilty in the future. If I know that I am diabetic and I am thinking in the direction of cooking rice, some part of my will is resenting, that part of my brain that really thinks long-term. It’s a small voice, a feeble one that doesn’t sound in my ears, but certainly makes me uncomfortable, significant enough to be detected.

If I am feeling miserable already, before choosing that particular course of action, there is absolutely no chance that I will feel good about myself after making that choice. Trust me, we don’t want to add to the existing pile of nonsense and negativity in the head. If I was to tap into this feeling and understand before making the ‘long-term’ wrong choice, I can choose differently and when I do that, I may feel bad for my body (that it did not get to eat rice) but my mind is happy. It feels victorious, happy and more powerful.

In fact, this feeling that the ‘long-term’ correct decision generates is so overpowering that it can really help us delete some of the negative stuff that is already under process in the brain.

Another more positive example of the same phenomenon could be when we take a detour and go out of our way to extend help to someone who may be in need. It may be a difficult choice – after all we may need to turn the car around or walk a different route to buy someone a drug for an ill family-member. But the long-term sense of satisfaction it generates can be compared to nothing else. Again, a new positive input, to wipe out a little more negativity from the head.

So start thinking about your own black box – it’s different from your friends’, your spouse’s or even your child’s. It is uniquely yours, which is of course the result of your past conditioning, family situation, past experiences and of course, your original mental fabric.

Think about it – if we don’t understand how we think, how can someone else? How can we then expect our friends and family to ‘understand’ our feelings when we ourselves cannot.

So, let’s try to not only look before we leap, but also ‘feel’ before we take that leap.

Image taken from Google images.