Depression: Understanding and Supporting Change with IPNB and Empathy – November 2013
After my mother’s death in early July, I cancelled all my empathy exchanges. And stopped talking to my friends. I couldn’t figure out what to say any more. I lived in a peculiar depression. My profound relief at the easing of my mother’s suffering, and at the ceasing of my tension about how to be her daughter, and the strange territory of my own grief, which seemed hollowly unlike any other grief I’d ever read about or experienced – all were wordless and muddy. I embraced my relationship with chocolate as a replacement for the messy world of people, which meant I dropped all my empathy exchanges. Instead, I ate my favorite sweet for self-regulation; its dark, complex taste somehow gave me a resonant sense of my own existence, of mattering, of being worth something special. Throughout my life chocolate has been my secret antidote to not being enough, a magic bullet against a depression that feels like a cellular sadness, a lassitude that starts in the relationship between the minute organisms that comprise me, that have never been seen and have never seen each other.
Sometimes it seems as if depression is the brain’s own inertia, as if the brain has given up on us ever getting our needs met. It’s like everything has gone into a painful, draining stillness that has suffering as its core, without enough energy available anywhere to do anything but keep breathing, and that only because it is involuntary. So once I start eating chocolate as an antidote to depression, it has its own momentum as my most effective addiction strategy, and it becomes my go-to friend for self-regulation. Trouble with my children? I know what to do. Angry at my husband? Here’s the solution. Taken deep into the pain of my own implicit by what’s happening for a friend? Munch munch. It becomes the answer for everything. The deep structures of my brain have experienced relief before by getting chocolate into my mouth and down my throat, so let’s get that relief again. (And again.)
Unfortunately the regulation that comes from the rich flavors and sensations of the evil bean (its fat mixed with sugar and salt, for the endogenous opioids trifecta) is only momentary. If I instead allow myself the experience of empathy with another, then the cravings dissipate, and my relationship to the situation shifts, making more space for me to matter and exist without the reassurance of chocolate. I can know this intellectually. But viscerally, I am unwilling to reach out.
In July, after my mother’s death, unable to find any willingness in myself to give up chocolate, gaining weight, and experiencing increasingly poor health, I couldn’t mention my struggle to anyone. But then I remembered a beautiful question that Bonnie Badenoch asks when self-care is blocked: which of the 7 streams of nourishment might we be willing to give ourselves: air, water, food, movement, touch, rest or contemplation? Bonnie’s invitation to gentleness with ourselves, to finding creative approaches to self-connection, was extremely supportive for the voice in me that was fighting my depression and self-contempt.
I was not willing to make any change around food, so I started small. I started with a daily self-compassionate breathing meditation. After a couple of weeks, I was able to start a daily yoga practice, bringing movement to my breathing. As that sank in, I started to become aware that I was trying to function almost entirely without rest, working insane numbers of hours in a panic. I put rest periods into my calendar, and surprisingly, they opened the door to music lessons. My depression started to lift. All of this came together to let me re-open the door to connection, empathy and relationship, and I found myself reinstating my empathy exchanges. Night before last I dreamed that my favorite sweet was just dark bars of wax. I feel some wind under my sails these days -there is a bit more room between me and my old friend chocolate – we may not be one after all.