Beyond Blue

In December, I thought I feature a few other voices on Mindful Monday because 1) I don’t want you to get sick of me, and 2) I’m learning so much from other mental health bloggers these days. I want to share their wisdom with you. This is my Advent activity–a way in which I can share the truth in other people’s lives and celebrate the holiness of this season.

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Today’s guest blogger is Judith D. Schwartz, a Vermont-based journalist and author. You can find out more about her on The following essay is excerpted from her terrific and very un-politically correct (which is why I loved it) book, “The Therapist’s New Clothes.”

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Before medication my life’s project was to understand my pain. I was ill and in my illness made the mistake of treating my symptoms as metaphors. I tried to ascribe meaning to them. And I understand the impulse behind that quest. Pain that is part of a coherent story is tolerable. Pain without meaning is unbearable.

But this proved a dangerous exercise. The pain had no meaning beyond the brute fact of it.

Sure there is a story to each of our lives. But it’s not necessarily for our therapeutic perusal and re-perusal. For the psychotherapy patient is the ultimate unreliable narrator–a literary term to describe instances when the person relaying the story cannot wholly be trusted, as he is speaking through his or her limited perspective. A person’s story is not stable; it alters with the telling and with the audience. When in therapy I described my childhood, it was cloaked in a Gothic pall. When I look at old photographs, I see me and my brother giggling conspiratorially and pushing bubbles at each other in the bath, closer to a G-rated family comedy. As with most of us, the reality is probably some mixture of the two.

Can a therapist tease out memories of emotional states from current emotional states? In attempting to do so in therapy are we uncovering truth or making fiction? I don’t know. But one thing I do know: now that I am blessed with the capacity to do so I want to be in the story, not merely dissect it. I want a life that’s more than the sum of therapy hours.

Of course, I have low days. I get as disturbed as anyone about world events and worry about the mess my son’s generation stands to inherit. I get bored, frustrated, and extremely anxious about our bank account. It has taken time for Tony and me to find our way back to each other. Beyond that, I get colds and lots of stomachaches (an unpleasant effect of medication has been a pretty messed-up gastrointestinal tract.) And as the winters drag on (and on …), well, every Vermonter will recognize that mud season of the mind.

If a bad mood persists I am frightened to realize that my thoughts still run downhill. My medication gives me options, not direction. There are those who say antidepressants create of floor of mood that they never dip beneath. That is not the case with me. My emotional state is like a floating ball that comfortably hovers a bit higher than it used to.

I have learned to befriend my brain. I read its responses, trying to tune in to what it’s telling me (that perhaps I’m tired, over stimulated, need to check in with myself.) I made feeling good a priority so as to keep that floating ball aloft. If I start wallowing I’ve got to get myself out of it. In her book “A Life of One’s Own,” British psychoanalyst Marion Milner (writing as Joanna Field) observed her own thoughts and feelings over a period of time and wrote about what she learned about emotional life. In a chapter entitled, “The Coming and Going of Delight,” she described how, when pensive or bored, she could moderate her moods by small shifts in self-awareness. She called these perceptual modulations “internal gestures of the mind.” That’s about as good a description as I can find for what I do. I believe that I have a responsibility to feel okay. Only when I feel okay can I access the energy, optimism, outrage, or wherewithal to do what I need to do. Only when I feel okay can I greet the world as it is.

Fiction writers talk about the importance of “earning the ending.” Basically, what this means is that the events in a given work are plausible. Does the novel’s denouement make sense or does it seem contrived? If the protagonist falls in love, will the reader believe he is capable of falling in love? Maybe I didn’t “earn” the ending I got, and I didn’t get the ending I worked toward. So what? Literature isn’t life. And there’s nothing so bracing as an O’Henry twist in the plot.

Besides, this isn’t even the ending.

So this is where I depart from Freud, the neo-Freudians, post-neo-Freudians, etc. But wait – old Sigmund did have plenty of worthwhile stuff to tell us. One bit of wisdom was that psychoanalysis could not promise freedom from sadness and care, rather that one went from neurotic misery to “ordinary unhappiness.” Glad I got that misery out of the way. And for what’s left – dealing with life as it is — I’m not sure that I would use the term “unhappiness.” And after where I’ve been, I would call it extraordinary.

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