Facing the dragons

“…if you have brain cancer, and you decide that standing on your head and gargling for half an hour every day makes you feel better, it may make you feel better, but the likelihood is that you still have brain cancer, and you’re still going to die from it; but if you have depression and you say that standing on your head and gargling for half an hour makes you feel better, then you are actually cured, because depression is an illness of how you feel. And if you feel really great after then you’re not depressed anymore.”

–Andrew Solomon, Notes on an Exorcism (an excerpt from The Moth)

How easy it is to lose oneself.

The battle starts out small.

You lack the ability to commit to the things you once loved. Books pile up unfinished on your night stand. Your yoga mat gathers dust in the corner. Sunny days are spent curled up in your bed–“What’s the point in going out?” You ask yourself. “There’s nothing to do and no one to see.” You pile on the excuses. Your dog needs you. You’re tired. You’ve got homework to do, but as the hours tick by you find that you’ve accomplished nothing. The day has been wasted. Your excuses were purely excuses, but you ignore that realization. The show you binge watched was just too good! Anyone would have done the same thing, right?

In desperate attempts to feel a connection you make a few reckless decisions with men. At least in those moments you feel wanted, you say. You feel needed and that’s all that matters, right? It’s not. They leave you feeling a bit emptier inside. You tell yourself that you’re just exploring your sexuality, but deep down you know this isn’t you.  You convince yourself that this nice guy you’ve connected with is exactly what you are looking for–when in reality you would never make such a quick judgment. You project your loneliness onto him and amplify your connection. The resulting silence leaves you even emptier than before. And so the spiral continues.

At some point you’ll notice it. There will be a moment of clarity. The clouds will shift, and alight will shine on that pile of books, the unused yoga mat. You make an effort to fix things. You lose yourself in the New England forests, and you find all of the beautiful things that make you exactly who you are. You remember that you are deeply loved, and that there are people in your life who care about you. And that will truly help for awhile.

These dragons are real. They lurk in the insecure caverns of your mind and they are ready to attack at any moment. You can be stronger than them. You can fight them and win. You have done it before and you will do it again. If you feed them, however, they will grow. If you are not careful they may grow to be completely unmanageable. But take heart, dear one. You are not alone in this battle. You have never been alone, but no one can know that you need help in the fight if you do not speak up.

With many of the big things in life we do not always realize they are happening until we are in the midst. I was sitting on the T reading a book that a friend had loaned to me and the above passage stopped me in my tracks. My heart seemed to freeze for just a moment, and I stared blindly ahead. Thinking. How often we think that the moment we feel happy our dragons have been defeated. It’s really not that simple. It’s an ongoing battle with wonderful victories and potentially heartbreaking losses. There have been so many casualties, and the reality is that we cannot and should not fight this journey alone.

In his short story in The Moth, Andrew Solomon describes a ritual called ndeup, which is used to treat depression, that he experiences in a Senegal village. It is a beautiful story–I highly recommend that you read the book or listen to the podcast because there is something quite therapeutic about listening to the stories people tell. The ritual is long and seems quite intense, but afterwards Solomon admits that he “felt so up!” It was an exhilarating experience. Years later in a conversation with someone in Rwanda he learns that they use a relatively similar practice, but had encountered something quite different when the Westerners came to help.

He said, “You know, we had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide, and we had to ask some of them to leave.”

I said, “What was the problem?”

And he said, “Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like you’re describing, which is , after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.

“Instead, they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to get them to leave the country.”

–Andrew Solomon, Notes on an Exorcism (an excerpt from The Moth)

Depression can seem like a lonely road, but it really does not have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. There is something absolutely beautiful in the bonding together of a community to help a single individual fight their personal dragons.

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