Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

Depression: Bodily Illness

This is the final post built on Facebook comments when I came Out of the Closet to admit that I have lived through debilitating episodes of mental illness.

Sara wrote: “We speak as though mental illness is one thing, not many; not even depression is a single entity – and the same treatment certainly doesn’t work equally for even those with very similar symptoms.

“Also, mental illness is a full-body phenomenon and experience.  We know this, but we don’t really think or talk about it this way.”

The Age of Enlightenment left us believing our intellect to be in some sense separate from our body.  We have only recently had tools to examine how our brains work and we have barely begun to question our belief that the brain operates in isolation from other parts of our bodily system.

Liz pointed to an excellent article about how Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut.  Another friend who recommended The Emperor’s New Drugs convinced me that the antidepressant medication I credit with removing my symptoms did not do so in the way we imagine.

How could it not be true that our brains and guts are part of an overall system that governs our physical/mental health?  We just don’t yet know much yet about how it works.

Susan wrote: “I experienced severe depression after/as a result of cancer and its treatment 5 years ago.

“Anti-depressants for 9 months and encouragement from my insurer (!) to see a therapist, talking with him over the following three years, have helped enormously.  

“Every day is still a challenge, but I am also so very grateful for every day.”

We need to know more than that cancer makes us miserable.  We need to understand the mechanism.  Diagnosing and treating mental illness is still quite haphazard, especially because, as Sara points out, depression is not a single entity.

And even the existence of mental illness is often unrecognized.

Kelly wrote:  “Depression is very common among people with chronic illnesses, and often goes untreated.  I’ve always just assumed it was part of being ill, and tried to deal with it on my own.  

“Thank you for this post, Martin.  Along with the many comments, it has inspired me to talk to my doctor about treatment.”

Physical pain is almost certainly not the only thing someone with chronic or long-lasting illness is suffering.  They are most likely also depressed.  And the tragedy is, even if they recognize their depression, they will probably not seek treatment.

When we’re in a depressive episode we do not seek treatment because we feel it is the appropriate response to our situation.

When we get a respite from the physical pain, we don’t recognize that we should seek treatment for next time because we’re so relieved to be feeling better.

My depressive episodes were triggered by other situations, not physical pain, but the same dynamic applied.  I know from the same fundamental experience how unlikely it is that Kelly will in fact talk with her doctor about treatment for depression.

There are many stories of Buddhist masters who are impervious to pain.  One of my teachers whose serenity is truly amazing suffered an extremely painful illness last year.  “I thought I should be able to ignore the pain” he said, “but I soon discovered it was impossible, so I accepted the doctor’s recommendation and took the pain medicine.”

Pain is a call to action.  We must not ignore that call.

Both the source of pain and pain itself can be treated.  We don’t have to work on only one aspect of our illness.  It may take experimentation to find an effective treatment, and the same one may not continue to be effective.  We don’t consider that a reason not to seek treatment for physical illness.

So, if you know someone with chronic or long-lasting pain, please help them overcome their reluctance to seek treatment for every part of their suffering.

Depression: Suicide

I mentioned my own close approach to it in Out of the Closet, and how I reacted to my friend’s suicide in this comment.

Eric shared more details of his heart-wrenching story.  

I too was severely depressed and was saved from killing myself by Beethoven.

“I had decided to do it and stayed out very late thinking about ways.  I got home and decided to listen to The Emperor concerto for the last time.  I lay on the floor with my ear to the speaker with the volume very low so as not to wake my mother.  

“When the second movement started, the notes were so lovely that I could feel the combination of Beethoven’s depression combined with great hope and that hope spread through me and changed my mind.  

“Life became even more difficult and I dropped out of high school and took up lots of very dangerous behavior.  But I was a fighter at that point, and just kept on digging myself out.  

“I am still undergoing that process today.”

I’ve pointed out before what courage it takes to reveal such a story, especially when the battle still has to be fought every day.  Now I have something to add.

Eric and I were lucky.  I was weakened by pacing back and forth along the river bank, unable at last to decide if I had the courage to drown myself.  Eric’s strength was restored by Beethoven.  We were saved by something unintentional.

We had hidden our decision from those who loved us most.  Only something unintended could have stopped us.

Our parents would have been devastated if we had not been stopped.  They would have felt such guilt because they had not noticed our suffering, or had under-reacted.

We fear for our loved ones, our children most of all, and we rightly try hard to keep those fears to ourselves.  But while banishing fears of imaginary harm, we must remain alert to what can be very subtle signs of another’s pain.

We must learn how to ask, gently and with enough insistence when we sense a loved one’s pain so that we will get the chance, if they are lost in misery, to try to help while help is still possible.

Depression: Addiction

Many who have felt the utter desolation of depressive episodes are compelled to help their fellow-sufferers.  Mike and Michael’s stories in Depression: The Willpower Delusion and other stories in previous posts illustrate the compassion that arises from what they learned.

Those who have experienced depression know that willpower alone is not a cure, and they know what makes treatment even more elusive.

As Katie wrote in Depression: Help for Young People:  “Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves … something we should feel ashamed of.”

By stigmatizing it, our culture amplifies the pain that comes directly from depression.  And there’s something even darker.

A friend who lost a family member to drug addiction, which stems from and is a form of mental illness, points out that addiction is far worse stigmatized.

I said little in Out of the Closet about my self-medication with alcohol, not because I want to keep it secret any more but because I did not become addicted.  Enormous numbers of us are not so lucky.

Overcoming addiction takes both enormous courage and the right kind of support.

My friend wrote: “Drug addiction is condemned by our society and abused by the insurance industry.  This person was sent home after 5 days of detox to an outpatient program that met three times a week for 3 hours.  The insurer said they would pay for an inpatient program if the person failed the outpatient treatment.

“He failed.  The insurer did not have to pay.”

That’s heart-rending…

Systems that result from our culture can be bewilderingly cruel.   We don’t usually reflect much on culture.  When we examine its results, it can be startling sometimes to see how very far things have gotten from being OK.

We don’t choose to become depressed, or become addicted, or get cancer.  We might act in ways that put us at higher risk, or it might just happen.  What is best for society in either case is that we get cured.

But recovery, or at least mitigation of the symptoms, is something we must choose.  That can be an agonizing truth when a loved one is addicted.

Addiction can only be overcome by someone who has arrived where every other alternative, even suicide, feels worse.  We may be able to help them arrive, but feeling cannot be commanded.

And there is a second agonizing truth.  They may reach that feeling but be unable to get treatment.

We must end addiction’s stigma.  That will make it less difficult to seek treatment, and it will make it no longer “acceptable” for insurers to deny coverage.

Depression: The Willpower Delusion

Nancy’s story in Depression: Parents and Children shows how she came to accept joy in what at first she did not want, and tells about her work to help suffering children.

Many of those who suffer depressive episodes help fellow-sufferers.  It is a natural response and we know better than anyone that willpower alone is not a cure.

Mike wrote: I see so many struggling as I do, but support is not available.  We are often left to cope on our own or get support for a very limited period.  Suicide rates are increasing in young men in the UK.  

“Society still doesn’t understand and I often find that people just don’t know how to respond when you are open.  I once stood up in a meeting at work and explained why I was doing reduced hours because I was struggling with my mental health.  Everyone looked very uncomfortable.  

“Afterwards the only responses I got were from members of staff who were suffering from depression.  They turned to me for support because I had been open about it.  

“What happens then is I support them and ignore myself, until it all gets too much and I crumble.  

“It is seen as a weakness, but we are all so strong because we battle through this every day.”  

Mike’s story illustrates how ignorance about mental illness prevents us from helping and even increases suffering, and that imagining depression to be weakness is utterly incorrect.

Mike also shows us the very sad truth that his form of depression is like some physical illnesses–the symptoms can be mitigated but there is no cure.

And we see another very sad truth.  Because he is a exceptionally kind as well as courageous, Mike tries, despite the additional suffering he knows it will cause himself, to help others who cannot get society’s help.

Michael is less unfortunate because he is often in remission.  He  helps fellow-sufferers via an established channel.  He wrote:  I have struggled myself on several occasions.  Now I provide CBT-based therapy through the UK National Health Service to those who suffer anxiety and depression.  

“Once a week I facilitate a workshop to approximately 25 people.  One of the best aspects of this is that the clients can see that depression is very common and does not discriminate.  

“I am keen on public health initiatives that help to ‘normalize’ depression, while acknowledging the debilitating effects that it can have on those who suffer.  In the UK one in every five visits to a doctor is for anxiety or depression.

I replied:  We are trained by society to imagine we can overcome depression with will power. The implication is, if we can’t do that we are weak.  Will power is essential just to keep going but battling depression is exhausting.  It can become impossible to carry on.  

“We must eradicate that delusion.  We don’t expect anyone to overcome diabetes with will power.  We understand for so many other maladies the need for treatment.”

Michael responded:  “If people could ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ they would have done so. Depression is exhausting and it can take massive will power to just get out of bed. This is a characteristic of depression, not evidence of weakness or laziness – though unfortunately those who are depressed are often all too quick to flog themselves with such thoughts.”

Doug added:  More generally, no mental illness of whatever type is amenable to a willpower cure.   It can lie undisturbed under the surface for arbitrarily long periods and then emerge to endanger any or all aspects of one’s life.   I’m a board member of NAMI New Hampshire which lobbies for treatment options, produces training materials, and provides support for family members.   Along with other readers of Martin’s piece, we do not believe in the miraculous self-help model.”

So, fellow-sufferers from depressive episodes, when opportunities arise and you have the strength, please help others recognize that depression is illness, nothing more and nothing less, and that even those with chronic illness can suffer less and be more productive with treatment.

And everyone, perhaps you can help change society in a systematic way as Doug and others do.

We must eliminate the idea that willpower is a cure for illness.

Depression: Parents and Children

In Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing Connie tells how she tried and failed and at last found a successful treatment for her panic attacks.

Now Nancy’s story points to two great truths–when we can accept what we have been given we can find the joy in what we did not want, and we must change what in our society creates suffering.

Nancy wrote: Like many parents of special needs children, I experienced debilitating depression for several years.

“I tried all sorts of natural treatments, including two years of no alcohol.  Ultimately, only meds helped, and as I started to deal with recovery in more positive ways, i.e. changing to a special education career, I gradually began to accept and appreciate the cards I was dealt, and no longer needed the meds.  

“Our son brings Chris and me so much joy (and laughter) that today we cannot imagine a life without him.”

The practical short term truth this illustrates is that depression, like other illnesses, may require medication.  The longer term truth lies in what Nancy says about the result of treatment, that she became able to accept what she was given and in that acceptance find joy.

First treatment, then recovery into joy.

Then Nancy wrote:  I now am working with a local mental health hospital, overseeing education services for their adolescent program.

“This experience has been enlightening in many ways, from first hand exposure to the trauma and suicide ideation/attempts these patients exhibit to the horrific insurance hassles parents face.  

“Our special education system, though broken, is at least mandated for all.  Our mental health system discriminates against people of little or moderate means.

“The only way patients who are not wealthy can participate in this program is through scholarships, which are few and far between. Insurance companies masterfully block coverage in ways that seem unbelievable, though true from my experience. 

“This segment from 60 Minutes is an excellent treatise on the problems parents face.”

It had never occurred to me!  How odd it is that our society provides education for every child, including those with special needs, but does not provide treatment for illness to every child.

That’s startling enough but early one morning a few years ago I was staggered by these words of fundamental truth: “If you really want to end suffering, it’s very simple.  Just stop creating it.”

We can end suffering created by our society’s systems and beliefs–we can change them.  We can end our own suffering by accepting what we’ve been given–which may first require treatment.

 

Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing

Depression: Help for Young People is a story about a treatment that worked.  Here is another courageous story that I hope will help those who suffer.

Connie courageously revealed what she experienced and pointed to the healing path she discovered.

“I had debilitating panic attacks since age six and depression as certain situations would make my personality disappear in a self-protection beyond my control.

“I had saved for years to take Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy when they opened a center in NYC but it didn’t reach the problem.

“One day at age 27, I decided I had enough and took the body sense that was so strong and presented possible scenarios and the second day, a cameo of a hateful face of my mother presented itself to me that connected to the body sense.  It was a pre-verbal memory.  When they connected, it released about 90% of the panic attacks.

“I was curious about what occurred and one day read in the NY Times book section a description of Eugene Gendlin’s book “Focusing”.  It turned out that was the process I had stumbled on.

“Years later, I learned Focusing and became certified to teach it.  It is a powerful bodily awareness to consciousness technique that can be used by itself or with other modalities.  So powerful, I have even had body healings from some of the connections – one being a now normal back after 14 years of debilitating back pain.

“Focusing can be done by ones self or more easily with a partner, who “holds” the space as you go within, and can be done via partnering on the phone – it does not need to be done with your partner in person.  It is a little known process, sadly.

“There is a Focusing community.  Gene Gendlin was a contemporary of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago.  He discovered Focusing by listening to successful sessions of therapists to try to understand what they were doing in their session, but discovered instead it was a process the patient was doing!

“Focusing saved my life.  I, too, did not see myself continuing my life if I had to go on with those panic attacks and depression from the inability to “be” in the presence of others.

“One can learn how to do Focusing from a certified trainer over the phone as one option.”

Focusing looks valuable for everyone, even those who have no depressive episodes at all!

The www.focusing.org website says: “Focusing shows how to … create a space for new possibilities … your body picks up more about another person than you consciously know.  With a little training, you can get a bodily feel for the ‘more’ …  From that bodily feel come small steps that lead toward resolution.”

Thank you so much, Connie, for your bravery and recommendation.

Depression: Help for Young People

I was inspired by Professor Railton’s courage to join him in coming Out of the Closet” to admit that I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.  

Railton says: “We must call [depression] mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind.”

The Facebook link to my “confession” prompted an outpouring of moving stories, mutual support and help that I hope to make more accessible with this and other posts.  

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to depression and are among the least well equipped to get help.  Liz wrote:  “The black dog” of depression and other mental illnesses are part of our common human experience.  We need to be able to openly discuss our mental health, just like we do our physical health: there should be no shame in being in pain.  I was recently gratified to read an article my high-school age daughter wrote for our local paper on this subject; I didn’t know she was that brave!  Maybe it means things are actually changing? 

Liz’ daughter, Katie, is indeed brave and her article “Teen Talk: YouTube can be a valuable resource” offers very practical help.

Katie begins by telling us: “Studies show that the number of teenagers who report feeling regularly anxious and/or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years or so, that children today have anxiety levels similar to those of the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.”

When Katie experienced “a perfect storm of stress and unhappiness” she, like every teenager, needed more help than her parents could provide:  “I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who could sympathize with what I was experiencing, but sometimes sympathy wasn’t enough.  I wanted to feel understood; I wanted a sense of camaraderie with other people my age who were going through similar things.”

What she found is: “on YouTube of all places … a handful of younger people — younger women especially — who made videos on their experiences with anxiety, depression, body image and mental illnesses in general, to spread awareness and encourage recovery …  People … offered authentic and beneficial suggestions on how to manage living with anxiety or depression on a day-to-day basis.”

This is so important because:  “Teenagers who don’t feel comfortable telling anyone that they are dealing with mental illness now have somewhere they are able to get information.”

“That’s not to say,” Katie writes, “that informational YouTube videos are a replacement for cognitive behavioral therapy or any other form of treatment, but they are certainly a step in the right direction — a step that many people would not normally be able to take.”

I hope we can change what Katie points out:  “There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves, something that is too personal to share or discuss, something we should feel ashamed of.”

But people need help now.  So, everyone who knows a teenager, here’s a way they or a friend can get help when they feel alone, too vulnerable to talk.

Thank you so much, Liz and Katie!

 

Out of the Closet

I was never a good follower.  But sometimes there’s no choice.  Today, I must follow Professor Peter Railton who studies ethics and the philosophy of science.

I highly recommend the transcript of his entire Dewey Lecture but it is 16 pages long so I will be much more brief.  Asked to weave his own life story and developments in neuroscience into a call for action, he spoke of three times of transformation in his life.  I will mention only one, and here is the only bit of neuroscience:  “Memory turns out to be tightly linked to our capacity to imagine alternatives to the ways things are and to meet new challenges—to face the future, where it is still possible to make a difference.  For these purposes, it is better to have a living memory system capable of recombining, relating, correcting, and enriching stored information.”

Railton recreated in his speech “a series of moments from my remembered life,” each of them “a moment of making a transition.”  His hope was “if I can make the experience of these moments real enough to you, even briefly, they might speak to you in ways that go beyond the little stories.”

He followed those three seminal memories with what he hoped would be a new one right there in the lecture hall.  He introduced it this way:  “The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about [because] enough gay individuals courageously … came out publicly.  Within two decades the rest of the population had learned … that among their friends, neighbors, coworkers, children, parents, teachers, students, and favorite movie stars were many gay individuals.  Were these people to be denied the rights of life and love the rest of us enjoy?”

What those courageous gay individuals did was “insisted that privacy should be a choice … made visible … so that heterosexuals could see their gay brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what their incomprehension and apprehensions had made of them.”

Being gay is not a choice.  What must be a choice for everyone who is gay is whether or not to keep it private.

We are still living in another “don’t ask, don’t tell” world, Railton continues So there’s nothing for it.  Those who have dwelt in the depths of depression need to come out as well.”

Our society sees depression as an inner weakness.  We must learn to call it what it is, Railton tells us “We must call it mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind, not shame and withdrawal.”

So I, too, must come out because I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.

The first, when I was 16, is very luckily the only one where I wanted to kill myself.  I walked along the river bank for so long, afraid to continue living, equally afraid of drowning.  Finally I was tired out and continued to live by default.  I went to the doctor the next day and explained my symptoms.  “You’ll just have to get used to it,” he told me.  “Learn to hide it as best you can.”

So I did.  Alcohol was a mixed blessing in some especially severe episodes but I was luckier than my very close High School friend who killed himself.  My experience manifested most often in second-guessing that slowed me down but left me enough strength to keep forcing myself onward.

Shortly before I retired from business, where I accomplished a lot but could have done more, Felicity got me to a doctor again.  There are now plenty of antidepressants and although their effect is poorly understood and/or misunderstood, I have been symptom-free since that time.

If I had been open about my depressive episodes, the business challenges I enjoyed would not have been open to me.  But if more of us reveal our mental illness along with what we accomplished despite it, I hope others will have the choice of openness that Professor Railton, I and so many others did not.  And I hope they will promptly get treatment!

Surprised by Jingoism

In 1971, the year Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal was born, my neighbor introduced me to a man he thought I would like to meet because “Gustaf was a U-boat captain.”

I experienced instant visceral dislike, which Gustaf seemed to share.

My parents did not hate Germans.  They lived very much in their own world and neither of them hated anyone.  But most English people did hate Germans when I was growing up.  Propaganda instilled hatred in WW1 and WW2 then blaming continued because so much was destroyed.

But my life in 1971 was terrific.  I was so lucky!  I’d moved to America, always my dream, and I was being well paid to develop a precursor to the Internet for an exciting young business that offered what we now call cloud computing.  I never imagined there was jingoism in my mind.

Jingoism, ”the feelings and beliefs of people who think that their country is always right and who are in favor of aggressive acts against other countries.”

Centuries of propaganda about the glories of the British Empire had made jingoism a building block in the worldview of many Brits, but surely not mine!  I was well educated and so very intelligent.

It turned out I was wrong.  I’ve always been grateful to my neighbor, Rusty, who unintentionally made me aware of that dark force lurking in my mind.

Why tell you this?  Because, as this Opinion Piece says, our media “on both left and right … present politics as a battle between the children of light and the children of darkness. Opponents become enemies. Democratic deliberation becomes difficult or impossible.”  And many politicians join in.

Bobby Jindal, the focus of the article, is especially troubling.  In a recent broadcast reported here he warns of “people that want to come and conquer us …  change our fundamental culture and our values … set up their own culture and values … if we’re not serious about this we’re going to see more lone wolf actors … just like you’ve seen in other countries — the horrific shootings in Paris.”

That’s raw meat for the media.  This piece on a Center for Immigration Studies report linked to from that article is headlined “Approximately 2.5 million immigrants from “predominantly Muslim countries” reside inside the U.S. right now.” The report’s numbers actually show a very different reality.

Why would Jindal say such things?  A cynical appeal to those who believe all immigrants with dark skin are a threat and who fear ever-growing terrorist menace?  Or does he also believe what he says?

Jindal is very smart, graduating when he was 20 with honors in biology and public policy, then going to New College, Oxford, England as a Rhodes Scholar.  But, just as programming overrode my intellect when I met Gustaf the U-boat captain, Jindal is likely programmed, too.

Jindal’s Hindu parents came to the US 24 years after the British left India, the same amount of time as since our First Gulf War.  Fourteen and a half million Indians were uprooted in 1947, Muslims fleeing to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India.  Anywhere from two hundred thousand to a million Indians, Hindu and Muslim, were slaughtered.

1909 India Hindus1909 India Muslims

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The terrifying experience when India was partitioned must have been present in Jindal’s Hindu household.  It must have lodged in his mind in the same way Hitler’s war entered mine.

All of us are vulnerable to such ancient hatreds that we may not even suspect are in our mind.  I wish we would all look for them.  They cause such great harm.