Living with chronic, major depression isn’t a predictable existence at all. Please trust me on this one. For proof, I’ll provide the first-person witness account of my weekend:
Friday: The radio/alarm clock on my nightstand sounded at 6 o’clock this morning. I finally threw back the covers at 7:45. That’s right: It took me an hour and forty-five minutes to get out of bed. And it wasn’t an easy, restful 105 minutes. The rest of the day was an exhausting chore as I tried to break my time at work into one-hour chunks, then by the afternoon into 30-minute segments where I just prayed to get through the next half-hour. Making it to 5 o’clock was my major achievement.
Saturday: My alarm sounded again at 6 a.m., this time to rouse me for my weekly 6:30 gathering with a few cherished friends at a local restaurant. We talk about our lives, share some concerns and successes, laugh quite a bit, listen to and support each other, read some Scripture and pray together. I make it about two or three times a month, depending upon if I can get out of bed in time. This day, my depression did its best to talk me into staying beneath the blankets. I actually skirmished verbally with the Voice of the illness, then finally went to get a shower; I was at Panera Bread Company by 6:40.
As the day developed into a beautiful and surprising 75-degree oasis from winter, I might have had more energy than any time in years. From meeting with the guys, I went to Mass at my parish, then to a different restaurant to recite Morning Prayer while eating breakfast. After returning home for an hour to answer a bunch of email, I went to a local gym for an hour’s workout on the stationary bike, some weights and a walking track. (Believe me, that’s a telling activity, since such a workout is as foreign to me as trudging through the snow in Siberia.) Back at home, I changed clothes, dashed off to meet with my spiritual director for an hour, then went grocery shopping. Home once more, I played with grandson Lukas for a bit, put on a suit and tie, then with Donna attended the 80th-birthday party for a woman who has influenced my life enormously.
Whew! I’m exhausted just recalling all that.
Sunday: I had planned to attend 7:30 a.m. Mass, since I had several things that needed doing. I hit the snooze alarm at 6:30, then reset the clock for 8 a.m. so I could get to 9:30 Mass. Snooze alarm again, this time persistently every nine minutes as I battled that Voice of depression again. My monthly Secular Carmelites meeting was scheduled to start at 11:30, about a half-hour away. The Voice tried to talk me into not attending; my personal will, knowing how much I love that time with my brothers and sisters in Carmel, proved stronger. Knowing I could attend a Mass at 5 p.m. at another church, I finally got out of bed about 10 o’clock – 2½ hours after my original intent. Attracted to my usual “comfort food,” I had an early lunch at McDonald’s before going to the meeting. I enjoyed the gathering, then Mass, then dinner with three of my children, my two sons-in-law and two grandsons. I found great peace in all my time of prayer, but none of the social time felt comfortable.
So I will score the weekend as one victory, one defeat and one tie. That might not sound very good overall to most people, but in my record book, it was a huge success. Now, I have to put forth some mental and emotional effort to gain some long-term effects.
I have to cement Saturday in my mind. I have to savor it. It’s absolutely necessary to work at that – even though it can be hard work, a lot harder than recalling the mental debates of Friday and Sunday.
There is science behind this.
A law professor named Kenneth Chestek wrote about it in the Spring 2015 edition of the Nevada Law Journal, a piece called “Of Reptiles and Velcro: The Brain’s Negativity Bias and Persuasion.” Noting the importance in a legal proceeding and in political campaigns, Chestek cited several studies that revealed adult brains retain negative images and messages much more easily than positive ones, a psychological phenomenon called “negativity dominance.” One study showed that “in personal relationships, it takes at least five positive experiences to overcome the feelings generated by one negative one.”
Putting it into more accessible terms, psychologists have said negative thoughts, such as criticism or depressive experiences, are like Velcro: they stick more quickly and hold more firmly. Meanwhile, positive thoughts and joyful experiences are like Teflon: they slide away immediately on their own. So in order for my good day or events to hang on, possibly overpowering the bad day, I have to deliberately focus on it quite a bit longer.
Father Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and author, paraphrased psychologist Daniel O’Grady that a person has to consciously hold loving, good thoughts for at least 15 seconds before it becomes a genuine memory that has a lasting influence.
Considering how powerful that negative voices of Mr. Depression, Miss Anxiety and the other members of the mental illness family can hold onto our complete attention, it might take some of us 15 minutes instead of 15 seconds to let any good times make an impact. It likely will take some focused effort – which can be overwhelming for people who get worn out trying to get up in the morning.
But knowledge is power. The lesson for all of us should be to not take for granted any good thing or event that comes our way.
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)