Journeying with Depression: And moving beyond the pain story

It’s the beginning of 2021, after the pandemic, and already I’m going through another break-up. My heart feels both a sharp and dull pain. So, 2021 is kicking off with a cracked heart, this time I feel quite mindful.

I can see the stages of grief passing through my mind, from denial, negotiation, sadness, to anger, resentment, and — no not quite acceptance yet, but at least acceptance of the grief. There’s something romantic about a cracked heart, it’s a chance to reflect, to expand, and to rebuild. Next time, I feel strongly that I’ll be able to rebuild, to love more deeply, to have even more patience with myself and others. This will be good, and this mixture of hope and grief balances me out.

After a couple days of moping, the sadness churns to anger, and I force my unmotivated body to do a 10K run in order to start producing my own serotonin again. I find myself in a Rocky Balboa montage, of pull-ups, and a more voracious amount of shadow boxing. I clean my apartment, and as I do I find an old binder. I open it, and it says 2012 Year End Report.

From 2012–2017 or so, I used to write these extensive year end reviews, as if my individuality was a business. This is before I even began freelancing. It was a way for me to recap the year. This was before self-help was as popular as it is today. I remember my friends thought it was somewhat weird and cool, but definitely weird.

I opened it and read that in 2012, I was struggling with depression, but in the binder I wrote that I thought I had done a better job of working with it. I had hopes of making a living as some sort of graphic artist, which I would accomplish a couple years later. But what struck me was, first, how amazing it was to have a time capsule like this on record, and how it would be nice to continue to do this. Though secondly, how every year I have walked with depression, and now 33 years of age, I can say I’m the best I’ve ever been at bouncing back.

And this is what I want to share about: my journey with depression, and the goal setting “steps” that brought me to where I am today, as facilitator of a men’s group, and a production manager/producer in a documentary company.

Dark Rainy Days

To trace back my storied journey with depression, I’d have to go back to the place of my birth, a northern city in British Columbia. The very mention of its name used to bring back feelings of resentment and memories of isolation, but for the past while, somehow transformed to empowerment and grace. It’s North America’s rainiest city, and so my biggest goal after graduating highschool was to get the hell outta dodge.

I moved down to Vancouver for school, and once at UBC, I found myself in one of the lowest lows I had ever felt. Depression is like a cold-wet safety blanket. Perhaps it was seasonal affective disorder, perhaps it was from the sense memory of growing up in North America’s rainiest city – isolated. Or maybe it’s been going on my whole life as far as I can remember – passed down through generational trauma, the trauma of carrying the genetic memory of American bombs being dropped on my mom in Vietnam. I don’t really know, I’m not a scientist; but I do know the heaviness and struggle of getting out of bed, or waking up and wishing I didn’t exist.

I had my first major heart-break in university. And looking back, it took me years to recover from that one, it’s probably a story I’ll save for another time. But I broke up with her, thinking my lows might be due to her. And having a GPA so poor that I could be kicked out of school, I went to a counselor to seek help for the first time.

I sat in the room, and told the counselor about how I’ve felt stuck in a state of dread for a very long time — perhaps I felt the burden of racism in the small town I was from, or maybe I just thought I was strange. Probably more the latter. I broke down and cried one of those epic soul shaking cries. The counselor had tissues for me ready at hand, as good counselors do. In my snotty state, she asked me whether I’d be willing to join an experimental support group they were just launching. This would be my first experience with support groups.

“Changing Ways”

The program was called “Changing Ways” and it consisted of a bunch of depressed and academically compromised students at UBC, a counselling grad student as the helper and the counselor from before. It did actually change my life. We learned simple goal setting structures, like “do one fun and kind or gentle thing for yourself a day” – but if you can’t do that, do 3 times a week, or just once a week. Go for a walk. Eat a donut. Also, “do one thing for study a day,” even if it’s just reading for ten minutes.

I think the program lasted for about half a year, but it became the one place I looked forward to being the most in my week. Sometimes, I would come to the group and admit I didn’t track or do any of the good habits, perhaps I had skipped classes and didn’t get out of my dorm all day. But in that space, I wasn’t judged, and I learned to not to be so hard on myself — or judgmental. It was a very slow journey, and by no means have I perfected patience even now.

But that’s what we learned. The group grew a sense of camaraderie, and we were sad when the program ended, but the room had become lighter. By the end of the program there was a light in all our eyes, a sparkle that had previously been void.

True Self vs. False Self

Carl Jung, the famous psychotherapist and protege of Sigmund Freud, had a notion that mental illness often stems from a rejection and suppression of our True Self. All sorts of mental and physical distress arises when an individual confuses the True Self with the false self, or persona — a term popularized by Jung. Although personas are important and necessary for different situations, like a certain way of presenting oneself in a job versus at a bar — neurosis and stress arises when the individual confuses the persona with who they truly are — their sense of True Self.

Infants, it’s often been said, are our best teachers of the True Self, since they don’t develop an ability to lie or mask their feelings until around four or five. Inevitably we learn through pain, that our True Self is not exactly safe to express itself in the world. We learn how to please people, how to stay quiet when beneficial, and when to bend the truth. And at the risk of oversimplification, when the false self is confused with the True self, in a tormented state, the false self seeks to destroy itself — hence suicide — in order to get back to a state of true self. This is what I learned through years of therapy.

In 2020, due to the pandemic, I decided to invest in my health. I’m not certain, but I may have caught that first wave of COVID in early March. All I know is, I’ve been sickly for the longest time, since I was a child, and I was sick of being sick. So, I went to a naturopath and we did a full scale diagnosis of my gut health. I was fascinated by what we found out. He described the body as an organism that accepts or rejects “healthy” or “unhealthy” microbes as part of the Self, which made me think and relate the idea of Jung’s true self, false self.

It seemed to me the way my naturopath described the body and the healthy/unhealthy microbes our bodies accept could be analogized to many aspects of life.

How many of our thoughts bring us harmony and health, and how many of these thoughts we’ve accepted as our “Self” bring us disharmony and discontent? Furthermore, how many people have we accepted into our lives, bring us harmony and health versus the ones that we’ve accepted into our lives that bring us discontent?

Philosophically speaking, if one’s false self, a version of the self who has accepted damaging thoughts and people, can be confused with the True Self — so too, the body can confuse unhealthy and damaging microbes as part of itself.

My naturopath said, “Yes, to put it simply, that’s about right. Of course, there are a lot of complicated dynamics going on. It’s not as straightforward or cut and dry as that, but that’s a decent basic approximation. And it’s super cool you know about Carl Jung.”

“Thanks, Dr. John! This is like real life Magic School Bus!” I was genuinely pleased at the compliment.

We both laughed. It was a nice shared moment. They say there’s no such thing as perfection, but I would argue there are such things as perfectly pleasant moments.

“So the goal is to find out how to get your gut health to a state where it doesn’t accept some of these less harmonious fungi that we’ve found.”

This Healing Journey

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you killed yourself,” One of the men said to me when I first joined a men’s group. It was honest feedback. Boy, was it ever honest. No one had ever said anything like that to me directly. We had gotten to become friends, so it wasn’t a malicious remark. It was truthful, and the truth has a way of sticking.

It was 2015 or so, and it was my first year of joining a men’s group. I thought it was sort of amalgamation of a support group meets toastmasters meets accountability group. I was working as an animator during that time, and I had no social circle. I was struggling with extreme self-absorption, and depression from the extreme self-absorption. So my therapist thought it was a good idea to work on relating to others in a safe space when I first mentioned the group. (You can read about how I first joined men’s work in my first blog post).

I had no idea how transformative taking this small step would be. When I first joined, I was really full of cynicism about other people — especially men. In my mind, studying sociology and history back then, there didn’t seem to be anything good that ever came out of groups of men getting together.

But I also knew my heroes, the lone wolves, the Charles Bukowski’s, the vagabond and isolated, Van Gogh’s, lived lives, tragic lives, that I didn’t necessarily want to replicate for my own story.

I think I made quite an impression when I first joined. If nothing else, I was always very honest, with my cynicism, with my dark thoughts, and judgments. I didn’t make too many friends, but I didn’t care so much. At least that’s what I told myself. Though as time went on, I did begin to really learn how to listen.

I first began to listen, because I wanted to figure out how men who could hold court did it. It was jealous of these seemingly natural extroverts. So, I went into improv classes, stand-up comedy, acting classes too. I wanted to learn how to express myself better, in different ways. In 2017, I got so heavily into acting, I quit my job as an animator and did commercial acting for a couple of years while I freelanced.

The more I found myself extending, the better I would feel. It was never a linear straight path though, it wasn’t as easy as writing about it is. The growth was very much like the stock markets, and it still is — ups and downs, wins and losses.

In 2017 or so, around the time I began freelancing, I became Captain of Crow Squad with my good friend Brady Kirk. Oh, I should mention I started to make friends. Guys who heard my ‘dark’ thoughts, and saw beyond them. Brady Kirk was one of those guys. He taught me through an excellent example, how to hold space, be solid and in integrity – and he was exceedingly patient with me, always very patient. And he’s been one of my best friends throughout the journey.

Since the time of becoming captain, a lot of changes have happened in my personal life. There have been some major relationships that have come and gone. But as corny as this is, my relationship with myself has never been better.

The men’s group became like a training space in sincerity. Even though the man had told me he thought I was prone to suicidation. It didn’t feel bad, per se. It was actually a relief to be seen and acknowledged in my pain story.

I owe a great deal of who I am to the “Work” that was done in the safe space of support groups like Samurai. When I say the “Work” I don’t mean work, but the stuff we need to do in order to get ourselves ready for the day, the morning routines, exercise, development of communication skills, listening skills, empathy, compassion, and patience. These components allow the creativity to flow. Those are the elements I’ve learned, and consciously implemented from being a member, to lieutenant, to captain of the men’s groups.

Kaizen

I suppose what I discovered from over a decade of self-help, self-development and growth work is that most often things occur not in big leaps and bounds, but in baby steps.

It is like climbing up a mountain, your footing has to be secure, and you have to be vigilant. I know I’m not perfect or special, and that I could always slip up, but it’s better to journey with people who are also going through the same challenges.

The Japanese have a concept called Kaizen, which I quite enjoy.

If you want to set a goal to write a book, start by writing one sentence. Or writing an outline, or just setting up your pen and paper.

If you have a goal to be happier, start by giving yourself a compliment, or find one small thing to be grateful for, even if it’s a simple statement like, “It is pleasant to lay in bed.”

If you have a goal to exercise for an hour every day, make a goal to do five minutes everyday.

In my experience, this concept has been so effective because not only do you set yourself up for success, but you also ward off burn-out. That is not to say that there is never a time to go hard. But in general, consistent effort without burnout will outlast extreme effort that results in burnout or guilt for not accomplishing your goals.

As the old Taoist proverb goes, “The gentle will outlast the strong.”

Patience is a muscle that is important to build with consistent effort, along with self compassion.

Beyond the pain story

I guess I was aware enough to realize the more I became self-absorbed, the more depressed I became.

At a certain point in my life, I needed to get over myself, and into myself, to be myself. I had to ask myself, “Who am I beyond my pain story?”

How do I really want to be and show up in the world? Do I really want to be this cynical, judgmental guy with a chip on my shoulder?

The Buddha said, “Holding onto anger and resentment is like holding onto a hot coal with the intention to throw it…”

When I first heard this quote in university, I rolled my eyes. I had a lot of anger and resentment, and the first three or so years of being in the men’s group saw that come out. But not only did the negative emotions come out, a lot of my virtuous traits were highlighted too. Friends like Brady helped me and encouraged me along the way. I learned to be patient from people who have been patient with me. I learned to let go or transform and work with a lot of my more negative emotions, while highlighting the traits that were good.

I had to tire of telling the pain story to myself. But first, I had to tell it. And I continued to tell it for years. “I am the way I am, because of this,” I’d tell myself. But then I got to a point where I was sick of that story. And I’m tired of being depressed. And if you’re reading this, and you are suffering with and through depression, I don’t want to diminish what you’re going through. I know it’s not easy. When you’re underwater, and it feels like there’s no air, even air and light seem like illusions — positive people seem insincere, phony, and the future seems grey.

But I want you to know that there is hope. Keep going. The suffering inevitably leads to grace.

My heart is full of gratitude for everyone who believed in me before I believed in myself, for the patience I’ve been shown, for second and third chances – for everyone who saw something in me before I saw it in myself. My soul sings, reflecting on the grace I’ve been given.

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