April 27, 2011

What’s Wrong With You? I Mean, Really?

That’s what I ask myself when I’m beating myself up. It is my simplistic way of encapsulating what Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is to me, how it makes me challenge negative thoughts and come back to the present.

It also reminds me of a Buddhist exercise that Michael Stone -whose latest book is entitled Awake In The World– invited us to try, a small dialogue to perform to ourselves. If my memory serves me well, it goes like this:

– Master, are you awake?

– Yes

– Really? Are you really awake?

You set your phone to beep at the same interval everyday and each time the alarm goes off you ask yourself the question and answer it, out loud, be it in your shower, at the office or on the bus. I later saw the video How Do I Enter My Life, where Michael Stone explains that entering your life is entering your body at this moment and fully engaging with the present emotions.

I’ve been reading a book lately, which is also about stepping into your life: Dare To Be You by clinical psychologist and journalist, Cecilia D’Felice. I have to admit that I’m always a bit resistant to read books that offer to help me lead a better life. My ego somehow interferes and challenges the author’s authority on the subject: ‘Who are you to tell me what to do? Do you really know what it is to suffer?’

I sometimes also find them slightly patronising. However, the tone in Dare To Be You is compassionate, sincere and poignant. In the introduction, the author shares her admiration for the bravery of patients who finally decide to seek psychological help. In a society that often seem to expect us to be flawless, it does take a lot of courage indeed, to admit to ourselves and to others that we’re not coping emotionally. Juxtaposing the idea of courage and mental illness can also seem counterintuitive. Aren’t depressed people or addicts, generally -but wrongly- perceived as the opposite of brave?

I once heard a psychologist in Spain say that the rate of suicide in men was higher than women because many times men find it harder to look for mental help. Common enemies in the battle against mental illness and addiction are fear, shame and guilt and many times what prevents us from taking action is the stigma. It’s such a paradox that the stigma persists strongly when 10% of the population has or will be affected by depression in their lifetime.

Those who have suffered several episodes of depression in their lives might have come to notice that even if they recognise the enemy and they’ve been feeling it looming for days, the reality is hard to face: ‘I’m depressed’ sounds like a failure on top of a failure. I’ve failed to conform, I’ve failed to look after myself properly, how so embarrassing.

How much of this stigma do we internalize? If you have suffered or are suffering some kind of mental illness, and even if let’s say, you’re comfortable with it, would it feel natural to discuss it at the dinner table with your in-laws, around the water cooler at work, with your teachers after a class or on a first date? Maybe not. You would dread the embarrassed look on people’s faces, which would in turn make you feel inadequate once again.

What about broadcasting it then? On the internet, on TV, in a book. This is the kind of bravery that fills my heart with gratitude. British actor Stephen Fry hosted a two-part documentary on bipolar disorder on the BBC, three years ago. Many actors and artists contributed and shared their experiences with roller-coaster moods: Carrie Fisher, Robbie Williams, Richard Dreyfus. Bestselling British writer Marian Keyes shared her ongoing struggles with depression with her fans last year in her webpage.

One of my favourite books is An Unquiet Mind, the famous memoir by psychiatrist Kay Jamison about her personal experience with manic depression. In this gripping narrative, she doesn’t romanticise either highs or lows, and describes soberly her suicide attempt. If mental illness is stigmatised, now, suicide is a real taboo. You may suspect I have a morbid fascination but I found myself captivated a couple of years ago by The Bridge, a documentary about ‘jumpers’, people who commit suicide by stepping off the Golden Gate bridge.

The testimonies of the loving families of the victims were moving but also unexpectedly grounded. One conclusion one could draw from the documentary is almost shockingly simple: it seems that some people just can’t survive themselves. The hopelessness of this thought could seem unbearable, because we would love to always believe that everyone can be saved. In some extreme cases, however, this will never happen, as tragic as it is. It was humbling to listen to the parents describe how they had seen their children suffer their whole life. They had seen mental illness prey on them one episode after the other, the hopelessness of it all, but in the end, after the fatal jump happened, they came to terms with the idea that death might just be their only relief from long-term suffering.

The documentary included a young man who had survived his jump and who in a fortunate twist of fate was saved by a seal. He came to the happy admission that his time was not up yet.

How many times in our lives do we get to survive? A critical illness, an addiction, a depression, a crippling disease, an accident? The author of Dare To Be You describes with unaffected honesty how she suffered post-natal depression, and a few years later haemorrhaged to her near death because of medical error, and later also survived a stroke. In her hospital bed before one of her numerous surgeries, when she thought she was going to die, she made a pact to change her life: ‘this is what you do when you know you are about to lose everything you love: you make a pact, even while knowing it’s a corny thing to do.’

She did change her life and in the process she became a therapist. In this book, she has chosen such an interesting approach, weaving the moving account of her experiences with an engaging how-to guide to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), full of tools for everyday life and recent scientific findings about brain and behaviour. This is what I really enjoyed about this book, advice that comes from real living, not simply based on second-hand accounts, research, statistics and theory. It seemed to tell me: “You can change. I’ve been there, and done it. Now come try and cross that bridge with me, there’s plenty of room on the other side and they’ll love you the way you are.”

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy shows us how to establish a more skilful and compassionate inner dialogue, and live in the present, even if as the author writes it is ‘not easy; it’s a skill that requires revisiting and refining’. It teaches us to make better use of our right brain. ‘It is our right brain that is activated during meditation with a concomitant quieting of the noisy, chattering left brain. To me, MBCT helps the connected, compassionate, ‘at oneness’ of the right brain make peace with the judging, critical, story-telling left brain.’

When I occasionally find myself in a full-on rumination about my shortcomings, I try to step out of my drama and sometimes I ask myself: What’s wrong with you? I mean, really? The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s taken me many years of low mood before finally being at peace with this statement, to stop being ashamed, and dare to love myself and to decide to give myself the best life I can.

So I completely relate to the author when she writes that once she had finally come to terms with her fears, she was able to ‘genuinely invest in living’. This also resonates with a wonderful quote by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre that comes earlier in the book: ‘ La vie humaine commence de l’autre cote du desespoir.’ (Human life begins on the other side of despair).

Often after surviving a painful experience some find themselves on the other side with a calling, with energy, skills, and knowledge that might prove very useful to others who still struggle. How much do we gain from loss? and how do we reinvest it in our or others’ life? One of the last 12 steps of the program, for example, is to help those still in the grip of addiction. As Cecilia D’Felice explains: ‘the more I helped others the more I developed the capacity to be more accepting of the help I also needed.’

I had a yoga teacher in Vancouver who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her early twenties and was told that she would lose the ability to walk. Yoga, fortunately, contradicted that medical prophecy. She is now a fantastically precise, knowledgeable and inspiring teacher and yoga therapist. There are many examples in the yoga community,  B.K.S. Iyengar would come to mind first, but I also think for example of Rolf Gates and his beautiful book Meditations From The Mat, which is such an inspiration in my everyday life.

We are our best teachers, but sometimes we might need help. We should not deny it to ourselves because of fear, shame or guilt. There’s so much help out there and it comes in many forms, be it inspiring teachers, therapists, books, documentaries. It’s good as well to reassure ourselves from time to time that there’s nothing wrong with us, and that whatever happens we’ll get to the other side in one piece.

Once we’re there, it can be time to ask ourselves this question by poet Mary Oliver: ‘So, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’

Photo credits:

Dare To Be You: http://www.orionbooks.co.uk

The Bridge: Easy There Tiger Productions

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