Out in the open

NY001

So last week I finally announced the blog someplace. No, I’m not talking about the NSA knowing my blog exists! In this case it was a stereo/audio forum I frequent (Hello to any AK’ers!). I wasn’t really thinking about what kind of response I would get, I just wanted to do the terrifying act of announcing the blog. I got some compliments and constructive criticism which was great. The criticism that made me think the most was the observation that I spend too much time thinking about how I feel. I wasn’t initially sure what to do with that observation. Was it a criticism of my approach to the blog or more about how I deal with my depression/melancholy? For a bit I was afraid I’d be too self conscious to write any more posts.

I thought about this for a few days and realized that the authors of the blogs dealing with personal development that I follow ( Penelope Trunk and James Altucher ) seem to have a lot of advice to share. I don’t always agree with their conclusions but still appreciate where their experiences(and ability to learn from them) had led them to. I on the other hand am still going through some sort of process (what that is exactly, I’m not sure), and don’t feel qualified to recommend anything. All I feel comfortable doing is sharing my process. As my wife would be the first to say, unfortunately most of the process takes place in my head. I tend to ruminate or worry or just free associate without really getting anywhere with my thoughts. I find that the act of writing down what I am feeling helps me somewhat in sorting through all those thoughts and emotions and gives me a hint of what triggered what. With the idea that this blog could help someone in a similar position as me, I can only hope that someone seeing my thoughts and process could gain some insight into their own situation.

Given all that, I still think I need to get more of the original idea for the blog back into action. Before announcing the blog I went back and re-read it from the beginning. In the very first post, I stated that I wanted to keep track of the positive things in my life and to see if that would help with my depression. So I think going forward I will put more emphasis on the positive events, but still allow myself to explore any feelings, positive or negative, that come up. Luckily for me, I had a great father’s day weekend, so I do have some positive events to focus on.

On Saturday, I attended an informal upholstery class that I am taking and was able to finish fixing up a foam cushion. My wife inherited some mid-century daybeds, along with some other fantastic furniture, from her grandparents. The daybeds used old-school latex foam for the seat cushions which sadly were beginning to get crusty and brittle near the edges. At the class, the teacher walked me through the process of trimming off the bad edges, sacrificing the smaller cushion to get the big one back up to size via gluing. It doesn’t sound like much, but I enjoyed learning something new and having something to show at the end of the morning. Since you can’t get latex foam easily I’ll have to use the modern stuff to replace the small cushion, but I’m not too worried. The eventual goal is to make new covers to replace the cracking vinyl ones but we have not been able to agree on a material with my wife. I’m looking forward to learning how to sew the covers once we get that settled.

That evening my mom watched the kids and my wife and I got to go out for dinner. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but when we get time alone it’s a reminder of how well we generally are together. The kids take so much energy and patience that at the end of the day it feels like we have little left to give each other. Despite the fact that we had some mostly disappointing Spanish food, we still had a good time and were able to appreciate each other and feel connected again.

Father’s day itself started with a morning surf session for my mom and me. Despite being in her early 60s she loves to go boogie boarding. When we go surfing together she usually stays close to shore for the smaller waves and white water and I paddle further out on a surfboard to the normal break. The conditions were a bit junky but we both managed to have a great time. Even though we were not in the same area of the beach, it still felt good to be doing one of my favorite activities with someone important to me and to share my joy of surfing. Later that day my dad and sister joined us for a BBQ at our place. Being with my parents and sister feels very comforting to me since I know I can be myself and I get a chance to relax and feel taken care of a bit. My wife and kids made me very sweet cards, and my wife even got me a vintage leather bag( a “manbag”) in celebration of my blog and the work she sees me doing on myself.

So despite my anxiety and disappointment in regards to the ever NSA revelations that had been with me all week(hence the picture up top), I was able to feel connected and positive because I was able to do some outdoor activities, learn something new and complete a project as well as getting to spend time with people I love and feel extremely comfortable with. The positivity carried over into the week and I even got some more work done on the stereo. I may finish her yet!

Melancholy what?

manbagcroppdI’ve been depressed to some degree for a long long time. The severity has varied over the years, from what I remember as a near constant melancholy during my childhood to really thinking my family would be better off if I were dead after I had my first kid. These days I am doing okay, I think the depression is most present when I try to figure out what the hell I am going to do for a career after my grant runs out, and when my kids or family life gets stressful. Despite all the visible success in my life, I still feel like a failure. I feel too lazy, too dumb, too moody. I feel like something is missing in my life, a sense of purpose, or energy or excitement about something.

I first heard the term “depressed” associated with my state in grad school. During my first year of brutal coursework, I had felt stressed but I managed to do well on the exams. I felt I was learning something. After that, I found that I really didn’t do so well with the unstructured time I was supposed to devote to research. I was in the lab, but looking back I wasn’t all that productive. It was much more attractive to me to take classes, learn to surf, play in the jazz band, spend time with my girlfriend, etc. I found that I would feel stuck in research, not sure how to move forward or find it hard to focus enough to get anything done in the lab. It was much easier to focus on everything else. This worked for a few years, but eventually that inability to focus and complete lack of motivation crept into the extracurricular activities I was doing. That scared me enough to go to the counseling center, commencing what has been something like 10 years of therapy with various therapists.

During the course of this all this therapy an important theme has seemed to resurface time and time again (remembering it has been hard). It seems that I don’t let myself feel happy for very long.  I think I learned long ago somehow that it isn’t safe to let myself feel really happy or excited about something. It feels unsafe to me. I know that the happiness I’m feeling won’t last and that I will be disappointed and feel like a fool. I’ll probably be judged by others and made to feel stupid for ever being excited. This has been around for awhile. I remember in college, a girlfriend telling me that a friend had described me as never getting too excited about anything nor getting too upset. At the time I thought that was a good thing, but no longer.

Also affected by this inability to let myself feel excited about things is my assertiveness and inner sass/creativity/wild side. I was kind of a smart ass in early grade school. I remember talking back to teachers, particularly in 2nd and 6th grade. In sixth grade I really stood up for myself when I felt I was being treated unfairly (more details in a later post).

Sadly, that 6th grade rebel and person that stood up against unfairness and wasn’t afraid to be heard was crushed along the way. There was a brief visit of that person in 8th grade with a certain teacher, but she was smart and took me under her wing, and the need to rebel subsided.  The part of me who could get really emotional and worked up is also hidden or repressed. I remember my parents forcing me into a cold shower if I really got worked up. My poor girlfriend once told me to calm down while I was telling her about someone who had really made me mad, and I refused to talk about feelings with her for a long time.

I’m rambling, but the point of all this is to make the point that I’ve learned to repress any positive and generally really strong feelings.  To those close to me I’ve been able to express my depression and despair at times, but even to them it doesn’t feel safe to express too much happiness or excitement.

So, I’m proposing an experiment. I’m not a new-agey type, although I do appreciate mindfulness and meditation. By training I’m a scientist. The goal of this blog and experiment is to see if tracking the positive occurrences in my life and really celebrating them, no matter how small, will lead to a less “Depressed” state, increase my vitality and enjoy my life more. Even though I was moody as a kid, I still had hope and was excited about the future. Maybe if I can recapture that young spirit I can recapture that young hope and optimism.

I’m not sure what to expect here. I’ve seen enough happiness columns to understand that celebrating the positive is a helpful step, but the cynic and internal-happiness crusher(okay, a little melodramatic there) thinks I’ll probably screw this up and self-sabotage or something. But I’m pressing on.

If anything I’ve described here feels like something you are going through I invite you to join me in this journey. Perhaps this blog will help you find your way to what you want.

As for the Melancholy Manbag? Not sure where the “Manbag” came from. I could make up a bunch of reasons like issues of masculinity or this weird nostalgia for the 70s, even though I was born in that decade. Basically, I just liked the sound of it!