By Michelleanne Bradley
The second of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances:
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
My habit nature, my shadow side, is to retreat into myself.
I have been struggling with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life. For me, depression has looked a lot like being caught in a freeze position. We talk about the fight or flight nature, but less about the freeze.
I have gotten much better about identifying in myself the beginning of the slide into depression. I have taken a variety of antidepressants over the years. At one point I went off the medication altogether, then started back on only during the winter months. I had mentioned in passing to a group of friends that it was about time to cycle off for a while; instantly there was an intervention. Five of my girlfriends very organically told me that they notice when I do not take the medication, and that for some of them, it had taken a very long time to accept that they would need to take these pills every day to balance out their chemistry, but that their lives were much better for the decision to continue. They encouraged me to do the same.
I had also experimented with drugs and alcohol for a few decades (hint: that does not really work either). I have now been clean and sober for seven years, three months and four days. The alcohol and drugs provided a shield for me to keep my anxiety at bay, especially in social situations or in crowds where I am consistently really uncomfortable.
I find that my journey with depression and anxiety is easier to discuss when I become more intimate with it. Enveloping in Buddhist practice has saved my life.
When I first started going to my home monastery, I would not speak with anyone. I would go up and sit in meditation (a practice that I equated with sitting on a fire ant hill) and stay for the dharma talks, and then leave. I craved the supportive silence of the sangha. This continued for about five years. I would be there frequently, and I always noticed when I had been away for too long.
I would read Buddhist teachers voraciously between visits. I was drawn to Pema Chodron, Dipa Ma, Sister Dang Nhiem and Sharon Salzberg. These writers all fed my practice. Thich Nhat Hanh, Dalai Lama, Jack Kornfield and Robert Thurman books were dog eared in piles next to my bed. The combination of meditation and medication (and therapy, so many hours, and hours, and hours of therapy) have really changed the perspective that I once had.
I learned new tools and built a support system within my very bones that enabled me to address my seemingly never ending fight with this feeling of being just on the other side of a precipice where I would easily get lost.
Mental health issues are becoming less stigmatized in our society as a whole, but growing up in the era where this was not discussed, and feeling incredibly isolated when the waves of despair would hit, made it harder to create what I thought were real connections. I was tentative about confiding in the people around me. I tried talking with family members at various points, and at first, I was told that it was just me. Later it came out that it was not just me (really not surprised by this at all) but that a lot of people in the family had been struggling. We lacked the words, the communication, the connection on that intimate level to discuss what was going on with us.
I learned to speak out more; even when my voice shook.
Even today, I still face situations that really knock me off balance. There is no perfect happy ending. There is no ideal solution—no magic pill. It is a lot more of digging in and sorting through the webs of experiences, and creating a better way of taking that self-care time. It also means reaching out to friends when I am in need, even (and especially) when I feel that desperate falling sensation.
Sometimes, practice looks like this: getting up again, taking that first step of the day, that first sit, that deep breath and recognizing the beauty in the darkness.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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