Beyond Blue

It’s rare that I find my inspiration in a Hannah Montana song, but I have to say that this little rock star nailed the experience of living with chronic illness in her refrain to the song, “The Climb”:


There’s always going to be another mountain

I’m always going to want to make it move

Always going to be an uphill battle, 

Sometimes I’m gonna to have to lose, 

Ain’t about how fast I get there, 

Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side 

It’s the climb

I’m on day seven of waking up without anxiety, without the dreaded feeling of “How am I going to make it through the day?” Like the frog who boils to death when the temperature of the water gradually increases, I didn’t realize how depressed and anxious I was for five weeks in August and September until I filled out the standard form at Dr. Smith’s office, where you circle a number between 0 (indicating “never”) and 4 (indicating “always”) to describe if you are feeling guilty (4), hopeless (4), exhausted (4), distracted (4), indecisive (hmmm …. 4), and so forth down the list.

She wasn’t happy to see all my 4s, but she was even more concerned by the fact that I hadn’t called her and was instead immersing myself in books about mindful meditation and ways to correct my thoughts that wouldn’t take a medication adjustment or medical supervision. My efforts in this capacity–watching each and every one of my thoughts as if it were a scene in a movie, trying to detach and concentrate on the present moment–were helping to some degree, especially with my anxiety. But, when I’m in a depressive state, the more I read about meditation and mindfulness–and try, try, try, to get my noggin to cooperate–the more I feel like a failure when I can’t let go of my thoughts (“I wish I were 80 so that I only had a few years left to live”) or get them turned around in the right direction.

“We’ve been here before,” Dr. Smith reminded me, when I pulled out my stack of self-help books. And then I recalled that morning, shortly after my hospitalization at Johns Hopkins, when she advised me to put away the meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy books until I felt better. Instead of ordering me to master the art of letting go of my thoughts or untwisting cognitive distortions, she gave me a form to go get some blood work.

Ironically I left her office feeling better than I had all summer. And it had nothing to do with harnessing or transforming my thoughts.

Why the relief?

I guess, for a second in her office, I didn’t feel like I was to blame for this slight relapse … that I didn’t caused it by failing at mindfulness. I mean, I know that mindfulness and meditation literature teach a person NOT to judge … but when you come away from endless attempts at it still wanting to die … well … you feel like you’ve failed. 

And Dr. Smith gave me hope, too, that once again I would get to a place where I wanted to be alive–or at least to be my age, rather than a senior citizen with less life ahead.

The morning after my appointment with her I woke up without the horrible anxiety. I didn’t have to tell myself as many as five times a minute: “one step at a time … baby steps … just get through this one minute,” exactly as I did when I went into labor with David. And every day after, I have been filled with a kind of joy–like I had better enjoy and savor each minute of this anxiety-free life because I don’t know when it might return.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., writes in her book “Kitchen Table Wisdom” that “the part in us that feels suffering is the same part that feels joy.” She says that she’s learned from people with cancer how to enjoy “the minute particulars in life once again, the grace of hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake of soap or an hour without pain.”

That’s certainly true with my depression and anxiety. On my good days I grab from life as much as I can because I know that I may be fighting the usual war again tomorrow.

I’ve felt more alive in the last seven days–in which I’ve been freed from that agonizing sadness and anxiety–than I have been in a very long time. I am filled with gratitude for a moment without pain. And the fact that I got here again–just like I did three and a half years ago after my big breakdown–gives me hope that the next time I fall into the pit I won’t stay there forever either.

Ultimately, Hannah is right.

It’s about the climb.

And enjoying those precious moments that you don’t have to try so hard.

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