We’re only a few hours away from ringing in 2018 and I’m sitting here with a cold, feeling the rawness of the end of my nose that’s a result of expelling the gunk from my head, the puffiness around my eyes, and the pressure between the two in my sinuses. There’s a tickle in my throat and a dull ache in my shoulders.
But the truth is, I feel great
It’s been a long time since I last took to the blog to share with you how things are going. I’ve been reading quite a bit of various summations of the year in politics, culture, sports, culture, etc., and there’s a common thread that this year has been pretty shitty. Our culture is divided, our politics are more splintered than ever, there seems to be a rise in tribalism and we cannot even agree on a basic set of facts about our world. I don’t disagree. And yet… I feel pretty good.
Not because I’m not affected by it all. I get angry about Trump, I worry about the growing divide between wealth and poverty in the world, I see the injustice in the world.
And yet… I’ve had a pretty good year.
Why? Because I’m in a place mentally, physically (present cold notwithstanding), and even spiritually that’s a sharp improvement over the past few years. Each of these areas is connected to the others in a way that’s difficult to parse, but I want to give it a try.
Ever since I started therapy in 2014 I’ve been working on my mental health. You can go back through these blog entries and see some of the steps I’ve taken- from the talk therapy that’s ranged from weekly sessions to monthly, where I have an opportunity to share my anxieties and fears with another person in a safe and protected environment where I won’t be judged. Exposing myself in this way and unburdening what for years I kept bottled up is like opening a can of soda, allowing the gas to escape, to relieve the pressure that built up in me
I also began taking medication to adjust my brain chemistry, to change the signals going off inside my head. It’s helpful (for me) to think of depression as a broken pipe. There are times in our lives where experiencing things like grief and sadness are natural, and a way that allows us to reflect on the circumstances around us from another perspective. When it’s appropriate the faucet of emotion turns on, and then eventually turns off. For me the faucet doesn’t turn off… Feelings of grief and isolation are constantly dripping from the broken pipe. They pool and eventually overwhelm the system. Medication is like fixing the pipe. The leaks can be plugged. The water eventually goes down. It was a process of finding the right medication at the right dosage, but eventually my therapist and I found what works.
I also discovered the practice of mindfulness through therapy. From Jon Kabat-Zinn and the idea of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and eventually Buddhist practitioners like Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg, I learned to meditate. I found that I can notice thoughts as they arise, and by observing them, I can see that sometimes they are simply thoughts, without a basis in reality that I need to react to. You don’t need to allow thoughts to carry you away. From the introduction to mindfulness I pursued my own course of study and practice. I found times and places that worked for me to meditate. By paying attention to the moment and to thoughts that arise, I was surprised to see that I’m (slowly) becoming able to respond to difficult situations in my life not based on gut reactions and immediate impulses, but on the facts of the situation. My practice, which began as a way to address anxiety and depression, has become something larger, something more spiritual in nature.
Earlier this year a friend asked if I had any interest in joining him to walk the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northeastern Spain. We would be walking the Portuguese route, which included traversing fields, mountains, forests, and, a number of villages and cities. We’d be backpacking, carrying everything we’d need for two weeks on our backs, walking between twelve and twenty miles a day. I thought I was ready mentally for the journey- my anxiety and depression were manageable, I’ve found ways to avoid alcohol, and there was a great desire to see a part of the world I’ve never been to.
Physically I knew I couldn’t do the walk cold. I was out of shape and had some pretty bad eating habits. A few years ago I went to Alaska with two of my brothers and my sister-in-law, and before that trip I spent a few weeks trying to get in shape, but when I got back from that great trip I slid back into bad habits. I knew I’d need to get moving and start disciplining myself when it came to my food choices. So with a few weeks before the trip, I started walking. At first just three miles around town, eventually working my way up to walking with a loaded pack for seven to nine miles between my house and my sisters the next town over. I changed my eating habits- I went from big oily Italian subs and chips at lunch to salads, replacing soda with club soda, etc. I did the walk, and though there were days when I could feel myself hitting a wall. More than once I needed to signal to my friend that I needed a break, even as others passed us on the trail. But I did it. When we finally made it to Santiago I was in a bit of a daze, until I called my folks back home to let them know we had finished our journey. My dad told me how proud he was of my efforts to get in shape to be able to make it. I cried. It sunk in that I had set a goal, and that I had really worked hard to achieve it. It was a great cry
That trip became the point where the mental, spiritual, and physical parts of my life came together, and where I saw how much one relies upon the other. There’s a mental strength that one needs in order to complete a difficult task, discipline to be able to roll with the punches of what the Camino put in your way. Whether it was the day in the driving rain or the day in the relentless unyielding sun with no shade for miles, you have to have the capability to not allow the circumstances to weigh you down and stop you. The trip was also an extraordinary spiritual journey – it is after all a pilgrimage. At night I was reading my friend’s copy of “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” and I incorporated walking meditation into our daily hike. I wasn’t tethered to work, to email, to Facebook in the way I was at home, and I felt, more than I ever did at home, like I was able to experience moments as they happened. When we attended the Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral there were moments where, despite the crowds, the cameras, the gift shops outside, I felt incredibly lucky to be a very small part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years and that I have something that is both uniquely my own experience but shared by so many other pilgrims.
Since I returned from the Camino I wanted to keep up these mental, spiritual, and physical practices. I continue to meditate, to listen to Dharma talks online, and to explore the wisdom of Buddhism from both religious and secular practitioners. I’ve been keeping up with my walks, and have been going to a gym, and in the last month, working with a personal trainer to work on losing weight and getting into better shape so that I can say yes to more opportunities to travel, to explore, but also to experience the benefits of a healthier lifestyle everyday. As for my mental health, in my most recent session with my therapist we discussed discharging me from the program I’m in because my recovery has reached a point where I’m “in remission” from my depression. It’s not that I’m cured of it, and I’ll continue to take medication to help with the management, but that I’ve successfully completed the program by demonstrating that I have the tools and the capability to manage my depression and anxiety. It’s a big step, and we’re meeting in January to discuss what discharge and next steps look like.
So while the world may be falling apart around us… I’ve found stability and personal contentedness that I can’t imagine thinking I’d find if you had asked me about it on December 31, 2016.