In my last year of college, 1968-9, the improvisational theatre group I was part of rehearsed on a stage in a coffee house. Not only our group rehearsed and performed there, but singers and other performers, sometimes famous ones. That was where I heard Odetta, Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. At a vigil for peace in Vietnam, Joan Baez was seated behind me and, at one point, started singing “The Dove Is A Pretty Bird.” Can you imagine suddenly and unexpectedly, from right behind you, hearing her voice burst out in song? It was shockingly beautiful.
One night, Joni Mitchell performed there. It was winter and she had just broken up with a boyfriend. Every song she sang, even the upbeat ones, was a song about sadness.
At that time, I was dealing with a form of depression, but didn’t have the insight to name it that. There were days I felt I was being attacked from within. I would have a good time, talking with friends, dancing, and suddenly felt like I had no right to have a good time. I had to do something great first ⎼ change the world and prove my self-worth, or at least get a good paying job.
That night, I was totally absorbed in Joni Mitchell’s singing. But after her last set ended, any pleasure I had taken in the music turned into pain. I left the coffeehouse on my own without saying goodbye to my friends, got on my motorcycle, and took off. I drove into a storm of my own making, to freeze the pain so it could no longer touch me.
Depression is not just a lowered mood. The word means to press down, weaken, and reduce, as in to reduce the information you take in, or to feel the weight of the world press down on you. You might fear a situation is reducing, stealing your life from you and you are not strong enough to stop it.
Depression makes the world look so dark you can’t see much of it, certainly not see anything that might lighten it up. Sometimes, you don’t even see who or what stands in front of you. And your ideas about life and reality can be as rigid as the metal bars of a jail cell. Finding the key to let yourself out can be difficult.
Or maybe it’s wrong to say that depression dims the light. It is more accurate to say that when the light is dimmed by your neurochemistry or your response to a situation and you feel locked in a jail cell of your mind and can’t find the key ⎼ then you are depressed.
I have a vague memory, which I’m not sure is accurate, of my father telling me that if I tried to make a living as a writer, I’d end up as a bum on the Bowery. Or maybe I subconsciously stole that image from somewhere, like a Henry Miller novel, and imposed it on my Dad ⎼ or on myself. I feared that if I worked at something creative, like writing or acting, or some profession I really liked, I’d wind up a Bowery Bum. Maybe my writing and acting was a way to rebel against that fear. Such a disturbing image can lock up your mind.
It took a few years before these bouts with depression disappeared, and every time I remember what I once felt I rejoice that I no longer feel that way. Learning to meditate, be mindful, and better understand my own mind taught me, slowly, that I was not powerless in the face of my own emotions. I could take action, even if it was just consciously breathing in and out three or four times⎼ and could let go of sadness and feel something else.
Mindfulness taught me to notice the incipient signs of depression before they could take charge of me ⎼ to notice the listlessness, fatigue, heaviness of shoulders, the ache in my chest. When I realized I felt sad, had lost focus, or had made a mistake, instead of judging myself, getting sadder and losing focus even further, I simply noticed what was going on inside. By openly studying the physical sensations when I took a breath, for example, fear was replaced with curiosity, weakness with a sense of strength.
One day, I was listening to the Dalai Lama speak, and he said something like in America, you have to be courageous to be happy. This was a revelation for me. I wasn’t alone. Other people in this country had trouble with simple happiness. It helped me question the thoughts, images and judgments that entered my mind, and revealed how my way of thinking could hurt and limit me.
Getting a teaching job and learning that I was good at it, that I could be creative and earn money by helping others, changed everything. I felt valued. And meeting and falling in love with the woman who became my wife ⎼ that sealed the deal. Love can do that. Having someone to talk to, share your life with, can do that.
It is one thing to try to change the world because you feel worthless if you don’t ⎼ and another to help people because you recognize how you and this other person are not so different, or you feel a sort of love when you do so. The sense that I could be happy helped me enjoy seeing other people happy. My sense of who I was expanded.
And this history and expanded sense of self is so beneficial to me today, when we fear infection and are in isolation to protect ourselves and others. Giving ourselves permission to experience moments of happiness, to love and see the world mindfully, clearly, can be revolutionary. It can help us through these frightening times.
**If we feel depressed, anxious, overwhelmed or powerless, we are not alone. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation health study, almost half of all adults in the U. S. report a negative impact on their mental health due to the stress and worry over the pandemic. Governor Cuomo talked about this at his news conference on May Day and mentioned state hotlines available for people to call for help.
So here are a few suggestions based on what I found helpful:
*Talk with a friend or a therapist: Acknowledging what we feel and taking action to alleviate it can be a first step in feeling better. Even small actions ⎼ pausing to take a slower, deeper breath or questioning a thought ⎼ can help us regain a sense of strength.
*Self-compassion: taking a moment to imagine a time you observed, felt, or could act with kindness and compassion can not only relieve the stress we put on ourselves but help us feel less isolated.
Take a moment to close your eyes, take a breath, and say to yourself:
May I be safe, healthy, happy, and at ease.
And we can picture specific others in our minds, starting with those close to us, and think:
May ________ be safe, healthy, happy and at ease.
* Join a “neighbors helping neighbors” virtual group or find your own way to help others, write letters or make phone calls to pressure Congress to protect essential workers, or the USPS or the vote, etc.
*Exercise, hike, visit a stream or waterfall or a beautiful building: physical activity as well as feeling the beauty in a natural scene or a human-made one can break the hold of an emotion, relieve tension and cabin fever.
*Practice mindfulness: if you want to practice, here is a link to a wonderful resource, a book by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
*Another resource is this interview with psychologist Dr. Robert Heavner, on skills that could help you cope with the isolation required by the pandemic.