Okay. I get all of it. The scientific evidence that we can, in fact, change our brain with our thoughts.
But this very study almost killed me last year.
I tried for months and months and more months to stop thinking about death and how to get there–to turn my thoughts instead to the pink rosebush outside my front door, to my son’s dimples, to my daughter’s chunky legs. I tried to laugh at Eric’s jokes and smile at his sarcastic (hilarious) gestures instead of mentally matching him up with a suitable partner and mother for my kids (for once I was gone).
“You won’t need medication as soon as you learn how to master your thoughts and control your emotions,” my friend Eileen told me over lunch in the midst of my battle with the demons of darkness. “If you train your thinking, you will achieve mental health on your own, without all those toxic drugs.”
“Neuroscientists have documented the fact that the brain can design new patterns, new combinations of nerve cells and neurotransmitters in response to new input. In fact, our brains are malleable, ever changing, reconfiguring their wiring according to new thoughts and experiences…. By mobilizing our thoughts and practicing new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the ways our brains work.”
But why wasn’t it working with me? Why, after an hour of stretching in yoga–releasing my toxic energy and peering out to the world with my “third eye”–was I as anxious as before class? Why didn’t praying with scripture and practicing Tibetan meditation calm me as it was supposed to?
The research on mindful meditation, Eileen’s comment, and all my attempts to rewire my brain worsened my depression.
Because not only had I failed as a mother (who couldn’t get a spoonful of Cheerios into her own mouth let alone feed the two little ones), and a wife (who couldn’t accompany her husband to an office dinner without breaking down in front of his co-workers), and a writer (who couldn’t concentrate long enough to compose a sentence).
Now I had failed as a person. Because I couldn’t think myself to health, I felt like the earth’s most pathetic creature, a moronic weakling.
Thankfully my doctor salvaged the last crumb of my self-esteem with this compassionate statement: “Mindful meditation, yoga, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are extremely helpful for people with mild to moderate depression. But, Therese, they don’t work for people such as yourself who are suicidal or severely depressed.”
And then she asked me this: if I had been in a terrible automobile accident would I be so hard on myself?
“If you were in a wheelchair with casts on each of your limbs,” she said, “would you beat yourself up for not healing yourself with your thoughts? For not thinking yourself into perfect condition?”
Of course not.
When I injured my knee while training for a marathon, I didn’t expect myself to visualize my tendonitis away so that I could run. I dropped out of the race to rest my joints and muscles so I wouldn’t further damage them.
Yet I expected myself to think away my mood disorder, which involved a disease in my brain, an organ just like my heart, lungs, and kidneys.
I know people like Eileen who have healed themselves with mindful meditation will never understand this, but severe depression is like wearing four casts on your limbs. It’s that disabling.
It’s possible to rewire our brains, yes. But it takes a little more to heal a broken leg, or an organic disease like major depression and bipolar disorder.