The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

The Amazing Weapon of Attention

How to Punch Holes in a Depression

I've been fighting a depression for a couple of weeks now – not a major suicidal bout, but a constant, grinding battle with existential despair.  Routine usually helps, so in spite of my lethargy I forced myself to roll out of bed, get dressed, and drive to my weekly writing class, stopping at Starbucks first to fortify myself.  I was walking out, feeling so glum I didn't even bother to taste my latte, when thunk! a squirrel fell out of the tree right in front of me.  It landed on its back, and with a few contortions managed to get onto its feet.  It stared at me.  I stared at it.  Then it shook its head, as if to clear it, or maybe as if to say, "You know, it's just one of those days."  Then it scampered up a different tree.

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Once I knew that the squirrel was okay, I found the whole thing hilarious.  I wanted to laugh, but laughter is verboten in my depressions.  It's as if I've taken some kind of sacred vow then not to betray the dark and the dismal.  If I dare to laugh, no one will take my pain seriously, and suffering is a very serious matter.  But squirrels don't just fall out of the sky every day, so I gave in to the urge.  I hadn't laughed out loud in such a long time that all that came out of me was a throaty croak.  But that croak cheered me up for a good five minutes, before I remembered how awful I felt.

 

My mind on my problems, I drove on auto pilot.  A big trash truck impeded my progress, stopping at every house to empty the bins.  I cursed it, I gave it the evil eye, but there was no way around it.  I was stuck.  I glanced at myself in the rear view mirror, scowled, and looked away.  But in that split-second shift of my attention, I saw something remarkable:  a tree, still clad in summer green, but with a vibrant patch of crimson at its peak.  In the mood I was in, it was easy to think blight or fungus or disease.  But something inside me protested:  it was too pretty. 

 

It had to be a harbinger of autumn, my favorite season.  Everything always goes well for me in the fall, when the air resumes its snap.  For a minute, maybe more, I allowed myself to get excited.  Maybe change was possible.  Maybe I wouldn't feel this way forever.  Maybe, just maybe, life would go back to being an adventure again.

 

A few minutes of relief is an eternity in depression.  It's also a precarious thing.  I used to think that any amount of denial was dangerous, even for a blink of an eye.  What happens to the bad thought that doesn't get its due?  Will it just come back bigger and stronger to haunt me, once I return to reality?

 

But the squirrel and the tree were vivid proof that there are all sorts of realities co-existing at once.  There's my depression, and all the doom and gloom that comes with that.  But there are also flying squirrels, and prophetic trees, and the magic and wonder of a universe not drenched in desolation.  The trick is, where do I choose to place my attention?

 

So for the next few minutes, I chose to think of the resilient squirrel, and this time it wasn't so hard to laugh.  And get this:  nothing bad happened to me.  My depression reasserted itself by the time I reached my class, but it was pockmarked by my laughter now, slightly thinner around the edges.

 

Attention is a powerful tool.  You might even call it a weapon.  I still believe that depression must be honored, but I don't intend to worship at its altar twenty-four hours a day.  I'm going to force myself to notice what else is out there, even if it's only for a few seconds at a time.  Who knows what astonishing things might be waiting to cross my path?  I'm going to open my eyes wider.

 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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