How I’m Beating Depression and Anxiety
I began seeing a therapist when I was a teenager. I had a lot to feel sad about, what teenager doesn’t? My parents were divorcing, my older brother was bullying me, and my girlfriend broke up with me. I was unhappy, and I couldn’t figure out how to be happy. On the outside, I was the storybook kid. I was captain of my high school basketball team, senior class vice president, well-known and well-liked by teachers and classmates. Yet I was miserable.
Not only was I unable to feel happiness, but the more I tried to be happy, the more unhappy I became. I spent the entire summer between my junior and senior years of high school in bed. Depressed and anxious to the point that I couldn’t move.
In all, I’ve seen more than a dozen psychiatrists and psychologists. Some seemed to care a lot, others were counting the minutes I was with them. One fell asleep frequently, with his orange Ferrari parked outside the window. One wore a different Armani suit each time I saw him, seemingly annoyed that I kept coming back. One never showed up on time, always asking the same questions as if I was meeting her for the first time.
I worked extremely hard at my depression and my anxiety. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let depression stop me from living. I imagined myself on my death bed, giving God the finger as I reflected on a good life despite this burden. I went to college, made lots of friends, worked hard at my profession, joined the Army to serve my country, but always stayed focused on figuring out why I was so unhappy. I took almost every anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication the pharmacy stocked. Yet my illness did not improve. I would go for months at a time depressed and anxious.
I didn’t start getting better until my mother answered a question I asked her one day in my 40s. I didn’t get magically better that day, though it provided an avenue for me to heal my brain. My mother’s response pointed me in a new direction for the treatment of my depression and anxiety, a direction that turned out to be a very old way of looking at life.
I stopped trying to solve my depression and anxiety.
The beginning of my healing came when I asked my mother how she seemed to be so happy, even though she didn’t have a “great” life. She had a distant, angry husband she eventually sent packing; six pain in the neck kids (myself included) that she raised largely on her own; and a dead end job in San Francisco that necessitated her climbing aboard mass transit five days a week for over 25 years.
My mother told me something so simple, yet so profound. “When I’m unhappy, I know I’ll be doing something fun eventually, and when I start doing that, I’ll be happy again”. My mother didn’t see her periods of unhappiness as some sort of deep seated, psychological riddle that needed to be worked out. Simply a natural, temporary state of being.
Life is hard. There is nothing wrong with you. That’s just the way it is. If you expect to be happy every day, you are going to be very disappointed.
My girlfriend, Eileen, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. We met in sophomore Spanish class. I was the basketball player, she was the cheerleader. We were 15 years old and in love for the first time. She went away the summer between our sophomore and junior years in high school on a family vacation. I knew she was gone for the entire summer, but everyday I would ride my bike by her house, hoping she had come home early. I was ecstatic and so happy. Life seemed magical. The day she got back, she broke up with me. I was devastated.
When Eileen ended our relationship, I didn’t focus my energy on getting her back. I focused my energy on trying to convince myself that it wasn’t such a big deal. “There are other fish in the sea. I have so many things in life to be thankful for,” I told myself. I was hurting and I wanted the hurting to stop, so I spent all my mental energy trying to prove to myself that I didn’t need her. I could focus on nothing else. I was in pain, and I was going to fix this pain inside me so I could be happy again.
Most “problems” in life are not solvable, so don’t try and solve them.
If you tell your mind something is important, over and over again, your mind will believe it is important. And, strangely enough, I’ve found that if you tell your mind something is not important, over and over again, your mind thinks it is important. Instead of your mind listening to you tell yourself something isn’t a big deal, your mind reasons, “This guy is spending a lot of time trying to convince me this isn’t a big deal, so it must be a really big deal.”
In high school, I should have found new friends that didn’t include my ex-girlfriend. I should have poured my heart into my studies and basketball, and let the pain of my disappointment fade away. Failing that, I should have transferred to a new school where I would not have to see Eileen on a daily basis.
My strategy of trying to figure out my pain ended up not making me happier, it made me more miserable. I believed that introspection and insightful analysis would be the way to relieve my pain and suffering. To spend time figuring out the cause of suffering would one day provide me a life free of suffering. I could not have been more wrong.
Focusing on a problem that cannot be solved makes the problem grow, not weaken.
Today, I don’t focus on what bothers me. I don’t try and solve life’s disappointments. I focus on today, and more importantly, I focus on right now. If a distressing thought comes to me during the day, I accept the thought, then refocus myself on what I am currently involved in. Instead of the thought growing secondary to my analysis and problem solving, I let it dissipate. I choose not to think about it.
Obviously, there are thoughts that need to be addressed. But the vast majority of our distressing thoughts need to be ignored. They only have a bearing on our happiness if we continue to think about them. Its important to learn which thoughts need to be addressed, and which need to be ignored.
Life’s difficulties largely can’t be solved. If you want them to go away, you have to allow them to die a slow, neglectful death.
Happiness involves not “letting go” or “coming to peace” with the pains in life. Most of the pains simply need to be ignored so that they fade away, or at least become small annoyances that are easily pushed aside while you live happily.
Its been about 10 years since my mother gave me the solution, and I am growing happier and happier every month. This was no epiphany, miracle, or instantaneous cure. I have spent decades misguidedly trying to fix myself, the result being many situations that produce extreme anxiety and depression. I will have to slowly heal all those situations with patience and perseverance, one by one, not trying to solve them, just by accepting them and showing myself that I can be happy, simply by having fun and not over thinking painful thoughts.
Like I said, I’m still healing, still growing. I’m happy today, and I know as I continue to practice “not solving”, my happiness will continue to grow. I am very excited about that prospect. I’ll never be pain free in life. No one is. I’ve accepted that. But the levels of happiness I’ve just begun to experience more than offsets the pains that life brings.
Mindfulness is the tool I use to deal with most of life’s disappointments.
Eileen ended up meeting a great guy and getting married in her early 20s. He is a terrific businessman, allowing the both of them to retire at a young age and enjoy their lives with their two sons. I see Eileen, talk on the phone with her, or exchange an email with her every few years. My heart still skips a beat when I make contact. The old hurt comes back each time, as if it was yesterday that she left me heart broken. I let myself feel that disappointment for a moment, then I make myself a sandwich and get on with my day.