In the third season of Deadwood, Joanie Stubbs, a kind-hearted character with a tragic past, finds herself slammed by a vicious depression. She tells her friend Charlie Utter, “If I could, I’d tear my skin off. If I could, I’d rip out my eyes.”
That’s one example of how depression recruits us into a savage strike force against ourselves. It induces us to assail our own well-being, to scorn mercy and cultivate the harshest self-judgment. Like poor Joanie Stubbs, you might find you’re plagued with a near-constant impulse to hurt yourself.
Some people, particularly adolescents, use cutting to seek temporary relief from depression’s torments. The sting and steely drama of razoring your forearm can be addictive because for a few moments at least, it tugs your mind out of the all-pervading gloom. But cutting is not a healthy or helpful way to deal with depression and anxiety. Such bloody measures court serious injury now while pipelining trouble to your future. When you’re older you won’t want to sweat out August dog days in long sleeves, or be grilled about your hash-marked arms.
Some people take self-harm to grotesque extremes. Poor bedeviled Vincent Van Gogh even sliced off his own ear.
But for most of us, the masochistic wetwork depression spurs doesn’t get physical. We just grab a dagger of the mind and start hacking up our healthy appetites and our will to live. It’s one of the maddeningly ironic features of this disease that when we’re really hurting and need self-sympathy more than we ever have, we go the other way. We demonize the poor soul in the mirror and, like Joanie Stubbs, double down on the self-injury fantasies.
But Joanie’s fortunate that she confides in Charlie Utter, because the sawed-off frontiersman knows how to help. He asks if she liked his gunned-down friend Wild Bill Hickok, and she replies that she thought Wild Bill was a gentleman, and that he had a good soul. Charlie seconds this, then reveals that Bill, who they “both liked so well—and most everyone did that knew him—Bill thought as ill of his own self as you seem to do about you.”
That such a stand-up dude as Wild Bill would tear himself down this way mystifies Charlie. “So go on,” he muses, “and try explaining people to me.”
But he offers sage counsel to Joanie: “And same as hearing me say what Bill thought of his self I don’t expect brings you to think any less of him…maybe you, Miss Stubbs, oughtn’t to stand judge and jury and every other job in court on your own personal case. Maybe, coming to verdict, credit others’ opinions of you like you do what you think of Bill.”
This is apt advice for all of us who haul ourselves into that ruthless star chamber court of the depressed mind. You know what it’s like—you’re not only the accused, you’re also the secret police and the hanging judge. You persecute yourself the way the brutal, opaque authorities do poor Josef K., convicted of a nameless crime and sentenced to death with the barest mocking pretense of a rule of law.
But you don’t have to collude with the blue devils this way. They don’t have to be the boss of you. You’ll weather the depression better and get through it faster if you can learn to be a friend to yourself instead.
A little analysis paves the way. Try to break it down, see exactly what you do when the bummage gets heavy.
Often it’s a physical sensation that registers first. Your energy drops. Oh, hell, you think, here it comes again. Your curiosity and hope and faith flap away like geese startled by a gunshot. The air thickens. Shadows sidle closer. Panic wriggles in your chest.
You don’t want to be depressed, so natch, you resist it. Now there are smart methods of resisting depression, but the illness, like a brilliant parasite, protects itself by impelling you to choose the dumb-ass gambits instead.
One of the main ways we humans push back the things we’re averse to is by looking for someone to blame, a patsy to punish. We want to blast the culprit with industrial-strength deterrent so we won’t have to experience the adversity again. The problem is, the one you take down to the woodshed for being depressed is yourself, and the punishment only socks you deeper in the sawdust.
There’s a better way. Really. A way that can actually decrease your suffering.
First, ditch your resistance to your feelings.
Now if you’re really invested in bucking adverse emotions, this might seem counterintuitive. You might think that dropping your resistance to painful feelings means you’re submitting to always and forever being depressed.
But it doesn’t work that way. Just try this process as an experiment:
Accept that right now, you’re sad, you’re enervated. Or maybe you can’t even feel ordinary emotions like sadness. Maybe you’re just numb, anhedonic, apathetic. Okay, then accept those conditions.
Accepting that your heart and mind are dishrags right now does not mean you draw any conclusions about your future—even what will happen tonight or next Friday. The acceptance is just a first step toward understanding what happens when depression locks you down. And understanding this process gives you the skeleton key to unlock, from the inside, a thousand and one mental boxcars.
Don’t assume you already know everything about how your depressed emotions work—you may have been so busy fighting or denying the feelings that you failed to notice some pivotal details.
Acceptance means, for one thing, that there’s no one to accuse or lash out at. That hangdog pilgrim in the mirror is not to blame, and only needs your understanding right now.
The Rig Veda describes two birds, close friends, sitting in a tree. One bird eats the fruit, the other merely observes his buddy chowing down. All the pieces of fruit look the same, but some are bitter and some sweet. The fruit-scarfing bird seesaws between delighting in the sweet fruit and being sickened by the bitter. The other bird watches with compassion and equanimity as his companion gets yanked around by desires, by satiety and disappointment.
Depression is like being that fruit-eating bird and hankering after the sweet nectarine, but having to wolf down long strings of crabapple and wormwood instead. After a while you convince yourself that there’s no more sweet fruit on that tree, no more in the orchard, no more in the entire jack-fucked cosmos. Or that there’s something in you that makes even the sweet fruit taste ashy and bitter.
But you’re wrong about that. There’s still plenty of sweet fruit out there. You can regain your taste for it. And you can get to the point where the bitter fruit doesn’t bother you as much.
Eating that unpredictable fruit is part of living in this world, and some of that bitterness is unavoidable. But you can start to feel better about this mixed-bag universe when you identify more with the observing bird. Go on and make a little effort to fledge that way. It’s not that hard if you practice.
You can cultivate a part of yourself—call it a sub-personality—who just sits and watches. This observing bird neither eats the fruit nor wings away. She’s got the pluck and stamina of a fighting hen, but she doesn’t flap and peck against the storms of psychic pain. She just perches on the limb lending companionable support to her down-and-out compadre.
The more you shift your consciousness to such stoic observation, the more you can be be a steadfast benefactor to the part of yourself that’s depressed. This support will bolster your resilience. You won’t plunge quite as deep into the abyss, and you won’t take quite as long to scrabble up from the depths.
Best way to begin? This alert, placid observation doesn’t come naturally to most of us, so a little training is needed.
So, find a quiet place to park your butt. Close your eyes. Keep your back straight.
Keep sitting up straight as you consciously relax every part of your body, one by one, starting with your scalp, moving down your neck, and so on, all the way to your toes. Allow all the muscle tension you feel to ebb away.
Then start focusing on your breath. Whether you’re depressed or not, your thoughts will be trying to wrest your attention away from what your lungs and nose and mouth are doing. That’s okay, nothing to worry about. Each time a thought tugs your focus outward, gently bring your awareness back to the breath.
You’ll notice a tendency to chase each thought out into flurries of spooked speculation—that’s the hungry bird going after the fruit.
The part of you just sitting there, chill and willing to watch—that’s the observer, the well-wisher. Her stalwart acceptance can steel you against any adversity, from shit blizzards to bitter apples, from unrequited love to double amputation.
Even five minutes a day of this watching can help you cultivate a measured detachment from your hairiest apprehensions. It anchors your mind. It tempers the wild pendulum swings of your moods. It reveals that you’re equal to your experience, even if you don’t think that’s true right now.
The more you identify with that dispassionate, observing bird, the more control you’ll gain over your responses to adverse phenomena, both internal (thoughts) and external (people and events).
And when, like Joanie Stubbs, you’re tempted to button up those black robes and play hectoring gavel jockey, lowering heavy-thumbed judgments on your poor beleaguered self, you’ll stop. You’ll bring your attention back to your breath. You’ll dismiss all those trumped-up charges. You’ll shelve the book instead of slinging it at yourself. You’ll doff the dark robes and retire from the bench.
Instead of a hanging judge, you’ll have a hangout bud. When you’ve got a mind to tear into yourself like Joanie Stubbs, this built-in, self-supporting friend, your internal Charlie Utter, will step up, a voice of compassionate reason. In this way you’ll add yourself to the stable of allies whose affirmative opinions contrast cosmically with your downer self-disparagements.
Cultivating this amity takes some practice, and the healing effects will come and go. But keep it up and your ease and peace will keep circling back to you. Each time the reprieve will be delicious, a big fat spiritual Bastille bust-out.