You Can’t Let Go of What You Don’t Remember

(Fourth in a Series on Overcoming Depression. For the third post, press here.)

When I read or hear instructions to ‘let go of the past’, I get irritated. As if the past is like some heavy bag of groceries that you can just set on the table. Like you’re making some sort of conscious choice to carry it around to make yourself miserable.

This post is fourth in a series on depression, and gives some suggestions for how to deal with the past in healthy ways.

There’s a whole lot to unpack in that phrase, ‘Let go of the past.” There are some reasons why we don’t want to be in too much hurry to dismiss the past as irrelevant to now.

The Problem with Memory Gaps

Here’s the thing – our brains are wired for meaning and for wholeness. When bad things happen to us, we might forget them as a way to cope, but part of us will keep looking for the missing piece till we find it. Our mind needs to discover what happened in any memory gaps, to make sense of our own story. In that sense, we can’t let go of our pasts till we’ve got a finished picture.

A good current example of this takes place in the Neflix limited series, Maid.All through earlier episodes, we see the lead character, Alex, having a cold and fearful reaction to one of the other characters, who seems to be a fairly nice person. Not until a cleaning job in a creepy house triggers a very early suppressed memory do we find out what happened to plant that fear in Alex’s mind. Once she remembers, she has energy for a confrontation that brings her more peace. She’s released from having the emotions of a terrified victim without knowing why.

Getting to the Truth

Another reason we need to take a second look at our pasts through adult eyes is because bad experiences can warp our thinking. There’s no way out of that but coming to understand how we’ve been damaged, what lies we believe from those experiences, and what truth we want to replace the lies with. (See what I wrote in the first post about how we talk to ourselves.)

For instance, when a parent leaves a child, the child tends to blame himself for that. A child might think, “Dad left because I wasn’t nice enough.” He makes a vow to become the nicest person in the world. He may not even be conscious of the vow, but it becomes like a vice, holding him to niceness even when it keeps him from defending himself.

That’s a hard way to live. Not until the adult realizes how his compulsive niceness was shaped will he see that it’s been a trap based on a lie. At that point, he’s free to change his belief to something true, like, “I’m nice, but I can also be tough when I need to be.”

Making Choices That Heal

Another other benefit of looking back at the past and reprocessing it is that you can choose some new experiences for yourself that will help you heal and grow stronger. Take the super nice person above – maybe he’ll decide to enroll in a martial arts class to rewire his brain to be able to fight when he needs to.

Maybe he’ll decide that he’s got a friend who’s taking advantage of his kindness, and he’ll work with his therapist to set some new boundaries. Maybe he’ll start praying for wisdom to know when his compulsive niceness is serving him more than anyone else. Once we’re clear on what the problem is, we can address it.

It’s not self indulgent to take some time to look back and see how we may still be reacting to past trauma that we’re not fully aware of. It’s only after we’ve done that that we’re truly free to let go of our pasts and be ready for what’s next.

Isolation Doesn’t Work

(Third in a series on steps away from depression. For the last post, press here.)

Sometimes isolating feels like all we can do.

Sometimes everything else is too hard, so we hole up in a safe, comfy place and shut the world out. Our best friends become chocolate, or cats, or beer, or some memory of someone who’s gone.

We’re not alone in feeling alone. A Cigna survey found that forty per cent of the 20,000 adults they interviewed feel isolated. Some isolation has been forced by the pandemic, but this article focuses on our choice to isolate because life out there is too overwhelming and we can’t face it.

Isolating can be helpful for a few hours, or maybe even a few days in a crisis, but too much isolation makes us sadder and crazier. Here’s why:

We Need People, Even if We Don’t Like Them

It may seem easier at first, but isolation leads to loneliness, which has been found to be as damaging to physical and mental health as smoking, drinking or obesity. Chronic loneliness is associated with highter rates of depression, anxiety and many physical health problems. So it’s a vicious cycle: depression driving us to isolate, isolation leading to loneliness, loneliness making us more ill and depressed. It’s a stuck place that we have to find a way to bust out of.

People Give Us Structure

We need a schedule that connects us to the world, especially if we’re introverted. Many have observed during covid that a whole day in the house alone results in an empty feeling by evening. Since the pandemic started, alcohol and other drug use rates have gone through the roof.

Making sure to plan at least one outing to connect with people, even if it’s just to go to the store and ask the checkout person how they’re doing, is really important. If going out is hard right now, make it a short trip and promise yourself a reward when you get home. (Not a noon cocktail though.)

Everyone has their own ideal balance for time out with people and time alone. I could do most of my work from home, but have been much happier since scheduling two days a week in the office of the church where I work. It lifts my spirits to get out of sweat pants, hit the road and have people to talk with on and off throughout the day.

It’s Not All About Us

Going to church, playing a sport or going to the gym, joining others for hobbies or volunteer work – all these things are key to reminding us that the world out there is big and full of possibilities. If we can’t go out for ourselves, let’s do it for the others we go to be with. It’s not all about us. Helping someone else almost instantly lifts our mood.

I often don’t feel like getting up on Sunday, donning a mask and going to church. But the music, the encouraging words, the connections with friends, being part of a community that serves people – all of that results in a sense of well-being that makes the coming week easier to face.

Homework: Look back over your last week. How much of your time was with people, and how much alone? Are you happy with the balance? Someone home all day with kids may crave alone time. Others, especially people who live alone, need to be intentional about inviting friends over and getting out into the world. What are three things you can do next week to keep the balance right for you?

Anything helpful to add? Comment below

10 Steps Away from Depression

(I call this series “10 Steps Away from Depression” because no step is a fix in itself. There is no quick fix for depression, but we can take steps, whenever we have the strength, and enough of those steps put together add up to a good journey – joyful even.)

Years ago, decades maybe, I saw this Al Franken movie about a guy who used affirmations to help him recover from all the trauma and developmental snags that came from growing up in an alcoholic family.

He’d been on Saturday Night Live, a child-like, nerdy character reciting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” as he addressed his image in a mirror.

The sketches were so ridiculous I assumed the movie he starred in would be the same.

But the film actually worked on two levels – as comedy, but also as an authentic account of someone trying to salvage their sanity and work a recovery program that would break them out of crippling generational patterns. I even found it inspiring.

I’ve given all those sappy affirmations on coffee mugs and driftwood a little more respect ever since. As someone who’s had a lifelong struggle with depression, I now consider affirming myself to be a survival tactic.

I even do the talking-into-the-mirror thing. Apparently the chemicals in our brains can’t dintinguish cool from uncool behavior, because I always feel a little better after I do it. I say things like:

“You don’t have to be model thin; you look nice.”

“Congratulations, you finished the article ahead of deadline.”

“You helped four people today. Good job.”

When I’m too cynical to take it seriously, I repeat, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

On days I feel pretty useless, I can at least say, “God loves you and won’t give up on you.”

Affirming good things about ourselves can become the lifeline that draws us out of our stuck places. We gain the energy to do fun things that help us feel happier, and challenging things that help us succeed and build confidence.

One of life’s most wicked truths is that you can’t love anyone else better than you love yourself. If we dislike and neglect ourselves, our motives will always be tainted with subconscious need, and we’ll live on the edge of burn-out.

So, one path away from of that yucky emotional weight inside us called depression is to start saying nice things to ourselves. And to stop ourselves, just as we would a little kid, when we find ourselves insulting ourselves.

Homework: write down 5 compliments to yourself, then (check that you’re alone!) say one of them to yourself out loud as you look at yourself in a mirror. Then smile. You don’t have to feel better right away for this to be helpful. Just keep doing it once a day. We’re working on becoming more aware of the messages we give ourselves.

Anything helpful to add? Comment below.